Europe diary, day 14: Testaccio and the Baths of Caracalla

Friday 17 November

This morning we slept in, with no need to be up and no alarm set. After a leisurely breakfast we set out for the day. The only prior plan we had was a dinner booking at Felice a Testaccio, which I’d booked online before we left home because I’d found sites claiming it had the best cacio e pepe pasta in Rome. We decided to make a day of it in the area around this southern neighbourhood.

Leaving our apartment, we walked to Spagna, the nearest metro station, and caught a train to Termini, then changed to Metro Line B for a train to Piramide. Here we alighted. The station is named Piramide because it’s right near the Pyramid of Cestius, a 37 metre high pyramid built as a tomb for Gaius Cestius around 12 BC. It’s quite impressive and bigger than I thought it would be. From here we walked over to the heart of Testaccio, where our first target was the Mercato di Testaccio.

This is a covered market in a modern-styled building with about 100 stalls. When we entered and walked down the first aisle, all the stalls we saw seemed to be clothing and homewares. But this changed as we covered parallel aisles until it was all a mix of fresh produce, meat and fish, cheeses, other pantry items, and food ready to eat. Out the back of the covered section was an open-air laneway lined on both sides with sweets of various types: torrone nougat, chocolates, truffles, cakes, pastries, and other goodies. A couple of the stallholders encouraged us to try some of their wares, which we did, but we didn’t buy anything as we’ve been having too much sweet stuff throughout this trip.

Instead we found one of the stalls selling pizza slices and grabbed a piece each: M. had one with zucchini and I had one with mushroom, Italian sausage, and fennel seeds, which was really good. I was ordering in Italian and the guy was speaking back to me in English, and at one point he asked (in a good-natured way), “Why are you speaking Italian when I’m speaking English?” I replied, “Sto imparando italiano,” and he gave a smile and a chuckle. At another stall a man was making ravioli by hand, visible through a window in the stall, and I asked (in Italian) if I could take a photo, and he nodded yes, so I got the photo of him crimping the edges of the pasta. I also bought an apple to eat and M. got a napoli-like biscuit which she said tasted like it had liqueur in it.

After this lunch, we left the market and walked over to the Terme di Caracalla, or the Baths of Caracalla, which was a few blocks on the other side of the Pyramid of Cestius. The Baths are an enormous archaeological site, with huge ruins that tower above the ground and sprawl over a large area. There was no queue at the ticket office and we paid our entry fee and walked in, just two of about maybe 30 or 40 people who were visiting the complex at the time. Obviously it was a good time to go, avoiding the high season tourist crowds.

The baths complex includes a large garden, which we explored first, although mostly it was just walkways between grassy areas that gave different viewpoints to the ruins of the enclosing walls and the bath complex building itself. After doing a tour of the garden area we entered the main part – the baths building.

The original building was enormous, with an immensely high ceiling and an upper floor. The upper floor has all collapsed, but part of its mosaic floor survives in large fragments that are arrayed on display around the site. The upper floor mosaics were whit marble and black basalt. The ground floor on the other hand had mosaics in four colours: white marble, yellow Numidian marble, red porphyry, and green porphyry. The floor plan was divided into two large gymnasia, one each on the east and west end of the building. In between, at the front, was the natatio (swimming pool), a large rectangular pool which would have been filled to about belly height with water. At either end of this were large changing rooms. Behind the natatio was the frigidarium (cold water baths), a huge central hall with four large niches containing cold water pools. Being this was the tepidarium, with warm water baths, and behind that the caldarium with hot water baths. And to the sides to the caldarium were multiple saunas. Although partly ruined, the building was still very impressive and awe-inspiring, with the sheer size of the walls with their arched vaults indicating how high the ceiling was.

We left the Baths close to 16:00, when they had stopped letting people in, and a staff member at the gate had to open it to let us out. We walked back towards Testaccio via a different route that took us past the Circo Massimo. Along the way we stopped at a coffee bar for a sit down and a pre-dinner drink. M. had a coffee while I had an Aperol spritz, as one does in Italy. We sat for a good while, resting and relaxing, and making use of the WiFi there.

Eventually we continued walking into the heart of Testaccio, where we did circuits of many of the blocks, looking at the shops and restaurants and parks and other sights, passing the time until our 17:00 dinner booking. We arrived at Felice a Testaccio a few minutes early, and there was a queue of people waiting at the door for it to open. A minute or so after the hour the door unlocked and out stepped a group of waiters. One brandished a tablet and asked people for the reservations and pointed them at tables set out on patio erected along the street, with a tented roof. Other waiters bustled to deliver menus. Within a few minutes they had twenty or so tables of people seated and ordering food. It was a precision dance of activity. It almost seemed that everyone who had arrived at this time was a tourist, although there were a couple of tables sitting near us who seemed to be speaking Italian among themselves.

Waiters took orders efficiently and food started arriving quickly. We began with involtini di melanzane, or what I thought was going to be slices of eggplant rolled up with cheese and tomato sauce. But what arrived was just slices laid flat on the plates. Never mind, it was delicious. And for the main course we of course had to have the tonnarelli cacio e pepe. This was brought to the table with the pasta on the dish topped by grated cheese. The waiter placed it on the table, picked up our fork and spoon, and proceeded to mix the cheese into the pasta, tossing it for about 30 seconds. The result was amazing, really delicious and cheesy with a strong hit of black pepper. I liked it much better than the cacio e pepe that M. had had at da Robertino in Monti before we left for Finland.

We were full after that and left to have a leisurely passeggiata back to our apartment for the night. We walked north through Testaccio, across the Ponte Sublicio bridge to Porta Portese in Trastevere, then wended our way through the streets of that neighbourhood the Ponte Sisto, and back across the Tiber to the Centro Storico. I grabbed some gelato at a place called Elisa in Trastevere, getting mango and choc-mint flavours. A “brave” combination as M. pointed out, but I felt like those flavours.

Eventually we made it back and turned in for the night.

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