My First Night In Rome
A Short Story
Back in the spring of 1965 for high school graduation I went to Italy with a relative. It was the first time I had left the United States and it was to be a great adventure. The way things worked out as we traveled around I had evenings mostly to myself. One of our first days was in Rome and we had checked into the hotel early in the evening and shortly after that I headed out walking to see what I could find.
The hotel was the Pensione Texas only a few blocks from the termini, the Piazza della Republica and a block off of Via Nazionale. Recently I was back in Rome and found that the small hotel is still there and gets reasonably good reviews (after 50 plus years it would seem they are doing something right).
Without a map, not having any idea where anything was and a whole evening to myself I started walking. To keep from getting lost I decided to stick to a main street and to make as few turns as possible. I walked out the block to the Via Nazionale, turned right and headed down hill (here’s a tip; when in a new city just walking around always head down hill. The good stuff is always around the river and to get there it is always down hill). Via Nazionale was a major shopping street with a lot of shops still open and heavy traffic.
Imagine, two days out of America and I was walking the streets of Rome by myself. As I continued down Via Nazionale after less than a mile I came across a wide alley to my left going down a flight of stairs. It was just too tempting to not explore and besides at the bottom was an illuminated column. Once at the bottom I found a park spread out before me rimmed in by historic ruins. Noting the name of the street I had walked down to get here I set off exploring the ruins.
Soon I found myself standing in the Roman Forum and I was so overwhelmed I almost cried. At that time Hollywood was in its Roman Empire period with hit movies like Ben Hur and Cleopatra and I was a big fan. Ancient Rome fascinated me and I read everything I could on the subject. In high school I had built a pretty good model of the Forum to pass Latin. This was such an emotional experience for me that it has stuck with me till today. The forum was all lit up and there were crowds of people all headed in one direction so I followed along. In the middle of the Forum was a roped off area with seats arranged for a concert. While I was figuring out what to do a group of about a dozen people were passing by and a man in the group turned and said “Hey kid, it’s a symphony, come and join us” (Still to this very day I have no idea why people look at me and just immediately decide I’m an American?). Well why not join them? Soon we were seated and an orchestra came out.
I think it was the Rome Symphony Orchestra and the one thing I still remember was during the concert they played The William Tell Overture – after all, even young, unsophisticated Americans who know nothing about classical music know The William Tell Overture, it was the television theme song for The Lone Ranger. As we were leaving after the concert we were making small talk like how long I had been in Rome and I realized that there was something very familiar about this man. Back in the early sixties he was a big star. Over the preceding few years Victor Mature had starred in big hits like The Robe and The Big Circus.
The group was headed to a restaurant up the hill with a patio overlooking the Forum and I went with them for coffee. The weather was beautiful, and the view unforgettable. I’ve tried recently to locate that restaurant and that view again but without success. The nearest I can come is Ristorante Aroma with beautiful views of The Coliseum at night.
Later I said my goodbyes and within a few minutes I found myself looking at a huge circle with a non-stop rush of Roman traffic racing around it (I don’t recall any traffic signals). In the middle of this circle stood a colossus of an illuminated structure that was the iconic image for Rome, The Coliseum. I eventually made it across and in those days it was not fenced in and there wasn’t anything to keep you from just walking inside – but that’s a story for another time…
From that evening on I have been in love with Italy and addicted to travel. I have returned to Rome numerous times and aside from sharing this city recently with family, the overwhelming experience of that first Roman night will always be mine.