26 November 2020

Aromas of Rome: scent and memory, from perfume shop to stadium

Earlier in this year of lockdowns I opened a new bar of Nesti Dante soap named 'Roma'. With an image of the Colosseum on the wrapping, it was designed to evoke the Eternal City, its scents oleander, zibbibo grapevines and fig. It started me thinking about the scents that say 'Rome' to me, the smells I remember from living in the city and the perfumes that can transport me back to Rome when I'm far away.

One particular aroma came back into my mind a while ago. In a secretive, elegant French perfume shop in London I tried some scents from the Roman perfume brand Profumum Roma. Several of the scents had gorgeous sweet gourmand notes that took me back suddenly and vividly to a particular spot in Rome: the pavement outside a little bakery on one of my favourite corners of Rome, on Via della Scrofa opposite a stumpy tower with stories from the past. I've no idea why that spot stuck in my head or why I was so familiar with it - perhaps it was a meeting place? I can't remember if I've even eaten their pastries.

Back in present-day London I took my perfume samples home from Piccadilly wrapped in a black velvet bag and whenever I took them out I would inhale that heady sweetness of the lightest, sugariest pastries on a Sunday morning, mingling with the richer chocolatey decadence of heavier, cocoa-stuffed biscuity treats. When I looked up the address of Profumum Roma, it seemed very fitting that a shop was just up the road from the bakery. Coincidence, or not?

When I was in Rome in January I paid a visit - to the perfumier, not the bakery. I sampled a small number of their perfumes (always best to stick to five or fewer), sniffing the coffee beans provided to clear my nose in between scents. Then I headed off to a romantic statue-filled tea room near the Spanish steps to drink a hot chocolate and make my choice between the scents, lifting the perfumed card samples to my nose one by one to pick a favourite. Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the two I subsequently selected had glorious chocolatey notes and now reminds me not just of Rome in general, but of that particular day in Rome, the tea room, the sculptures, the perfume chat, and the hot chocolate I drank with its little accompanying sugary pasticcini. And also of my favourite Roman chocolate shops, one in Trastevere and one in Rione Monti, and the overwhelmingly rich aroma as you step inside.

Another perfume which transported me from London to Rome was Maison Margiela Replica By the Fireplace. In the dispiriting surroundings of the Westfield Centre, this triggered instant vivid memories of the braziers on the street corners of Rome where old men from the countryside (now replaced by younger immigrants) would roast and sell chestnuts, the smell filling the crisp bright air of winter Rome. In my memory, this is one of the most characteristic smells of the city in winter and when I wear the perfume I only need to sniff my wrist to be back on the Appia Nuova or strolling through the shopping streets of the Tridente.

One of the strangest smells to me when I first arrived in Rome was the smell of lightning; not a phenomenon I'd ever noticed back home. The autumn storms in Rome were like nothing I'd experienced in England: great flashes and cracks of lightning directly overhead, rain beating down in torrents, in sheets, and deafening thunder like giants rolling boulders over our heads. This would be accompanied by a sharp smell: metallic, like phosphorous, ozone, the scent of lightning itself filling our office, like living in an ancient myth.

The smell of coffee and cigarettes was of course ubiquitous, though no more characteristic of Rome than other Italian cities. A cloud of cigarette smoke puffed out by bank staff as they worked, when I went into a Parioli branch to exchange my meagre wage slip for cash. The coffee and pastry aroma filling the air outside Rome's favourite cafe, Sant'Eustachio.

I remember the smells of football matches, of the Stadio Olimpico: the pipe smoke in my face from the older man whose season ticket placed him in the row in front of me at every match; more annoying than cigarettes as it lasted so much longer. The unmistakeable odour of lacrimogeni, tear gas. As soon as you got a whiff of it, you knew there was trouble somewhere nearby to avoid. On one occasion, at a match with children and families present, we were teargassed inside the stadium, yellowish-grey clouds seeping in the entrances and over the terrace, as we held scarves pressed over our faces, trying to protect our eyes, the Curva yelling angrily at the police.

On a contrastingly floral note, walls of scented jasmine aren't so common in the heart of Rome but flourish in the residential streets near my cousin's home, and the heady white perfume reminds me of the time she showed her young daughters - and me - how to pick a tiny bloom and drink the nectar from it.

And the scent of roses: in late spring, making a Roman pilgrimage to the Aventine along with half the city, a tour of the Roseto meant bending to test the perfumes of all the beautiful roses cultivated there, across the Circo Massimo from the vast ruins of the Palatine hill.

The smells I remember aren't all beautiful or nostalgic. As well as the cigarettes and the teargas, I remember very strongly the stench of unwashed human. I had never really been acquainted with this odour before; the tube trains of London never smelled half as bad. That ripe, gritty, meaty stink of a man who hasn't washed all week became an unwelcome daily ordeal on my commute on the underground Metro.

There were other unsavoury smells, too: of the big municipal bins where we tipped our rubbish sacks. The grubby street corners where elderly ladies left plastic plates of stinky food for cats. The smell of cigarettes everywhere.  Of joss sticks and cannabis on the streets of Trastevere, where young drop-outs from wealthy countries would sit begging from the poorer Romans. 

But of course there was also the food: pizzas reeking of delicious truffle, or porcini mushrooms, steaming plates of pasta with cacio e pepe, artichoke, fiori di zucca, tomato sauce, the fresh-bread smell of bakeries, the doorway of a cheese shop, a glass of red wine in winter, the bouquet of wine from the Castelli Romani, the fresh mint smell of the Mojito cocktail popular with my cousin's friends, the sharp fresh citrus of a refreshing spremuta di arancia in the summer. I remember one orange juice in particular, on a very hot day, in the garden of Villa Giulia, the Etruscan Museum, that tasted like the most perfect and welcome refreshment in the world.

When I was a child I had no sense of smell that I was aware of. A forward-thinking GP prescribed nasal drops and a temporary dairy-free diet and suddenly I had a whole new sense. There are times when I've thought it might be convenient to be free of olfactory stimuli. But looking back and realising how big a part smell can play in our memories and in our appreciation of the world around us, I'm inclined to accept the unpleasant odours in return for the benefits. At a time like this, when most of us are exiled from our favourite places and experiences, scent can prove to be a comforting or inspiring window to past experiences and other worlds.

What Roman scents have I forgotten? The beer my local friends drank as they drove recklessly through the night (I tried to avoid lifts). Churches filled with incense and guilt. The heavy clouds of overpowering chypre as older Roman women walked past (spray it on your feet, your wrists, your elbows, you hair, in order to waft it through the air as much as possible, women were taught). The throat-tickling scent of vin brulĂ© at the Christmas market in Piazza Navona. 

As well as forgotten aromas, there are others I must have been so used to they hardly registered. And perfumes which I can't bring to mind though I must have inhaled them often. The smell of exhaust fumes and car tyres. Of melting tarmac in the summer heat. Of a crowded pizzeria in winter.

Are there smells I've missed that represent Rome to you, or remind you of times in the city? Or aromas that evoke other places in Italy? I think of the South, or Venice, or Florence, and a whole new set of scents comes to life...

The Nesti Dante soap which started this trip down memory lane was this one: Dolce Vivere Roma. Although pleasant, it didn't compare with my favourite the glorious and more highly scented: Il Frutteto Fig and Almond (Amazon UK affiliate links to support the Italy Heaven website). My chosen scents from Profumum Roma were Battito d'Ali - light, high-pitched, creamy, sugary, orange-flower sweetness 'inspired by the beating of an angel's wings', and Sorriso, a darker scent, its sweetness overlaid with dark chocolate and a little bitter orange. In the UK you can buy the perfumes from Jovoy Paris.

28 September 2020

Thinking of Italy? Where to go now

 At the time I'm writing this most British citizens are free to travel to Italy with no restrictions or travel warnings and many have recently travelled (like me), have booked travel or are considering it (readers in lockdown areas should check local guidance). Travel to Italy is also straightforward for residents of many other countries, although sadly some of my readers will be limited to planning for next year. During the pandemic different countries' rules and liberties have changed and will change again; travel between continents and some types of travel may be difficult or impossible. 

As always I can't take the responsibility of actively advising anyone to travel. There are a number of potential complications and risks to consider, and many people would rather wait until next year. It's very important to check your travel insurance, the rules of both the country you are leaving and your destination, the procedures of airports and airlines in between and to think through implications of rule changes, quarantine impositions, and health risks.

But right now Italy is probably the one of the best places you could travel to from the UK. After a terrible experience in the early stages of the pandemic and a tough lockdown, Italy has currently got much lower infection rates than many other European countries, has managed to keep its figures stable for several weeks now and is being praised as an example of successful infection controls. Of course this could change, but at present there is no automatic quarantine expected of travellers at either end of a UK-Italy journey, Italy is considerably safer than Britain - and if the UK rules are arduous, you could export your extended family for an Italian break where you will be allowed to be together, maybe even plan a family Christmas in the sunshine. There are also some very good travel bargains - my brother has flown to Venice today for £144 per person for three nights in a central hotel, flights included.

In the case of origin countries/areas with a very high infection rate (much higher than the UK), Italy has instituted testing on arrival rather than imposing quarantine - an encouraging move for incoming travellers. Currently passengers flying into Rome report getting fast and efficient Covid-19 tests, with the results in half an hour. Rome Fiumicino Airport has won a 5-star rating for its pandemic protocols. Note that there is testing on departure from Rome too, with positive results meaning a passenger can't travel.

Apart from the universal problem of partying youngsters breaking rules, Italy has seen a generally community-spirited response to legislated precautions. Masks are worn on public transport and indoors, with hardly any exceptions, and should also be worn in crowded outdoor areas after 6pm. When I was in Venice the worst offenders at non-mask-wearing were foreign tourists.

Italy's latest pandemic protection measures are explained helpfully here in English: 

> http://www.salute.gov.it/portale/nuovocoronavirus/dettaglioFaqNuovoCoronavirus.jsp?lingua=english&id=230

If you're not happy to comply with these, or to accept the possibility of quarantine in case of a positive test or symptoms, then don't travel to Italy. Italy is keen to welcome foreign visitors - tourism represented 13% of GDP last year, and Italians are hospitable by nature - and is doing its best to offer a welcoming experience - it would be heart-breaking if this endangers its population.

Some hotels and tourist businesses are still closed but the majority are open. In Venice restaurants were doing very good business when I was there. Most museums and tourist attractions are open, though you should check ahead for opening times, which may be reduced, and make any necessary online bookings. Airports are much quieter than normal.

I travel to Italy in autumn and winter not just to see friends, family and familiar places, but also to enjoy quieter cities, atmospheric scenery, a bigger chance of sunshine and warmth than the UK, and because frankly some destinations are too hot in summer months. Thick rich Italian hot chocolate is another big attraction. Here's a hot chocolate I enjoyed in wintry Turin:

This year, independently of the pandemic, there is another significant reason for UK citizens to visit Italy soon. After the New Year, due to Brexit, there are no guarantees as to the ease of travel or whether British citizens will be eligible for health care (a pretty big consideration given that many travel insurers are now excluding pandemic-related issues from their cover). Maybe everything will be fine, but if you only have a UK passport and want to travel with the rights and entitlements of EU citizens, you only have three months left.

Where to go

It's a changeable situation and unlike any normal autumn and winter. This year, as well as the climate, visitors will be prepared for potentially changing situations with regard to restrictions, tourist numbers and opening times/dates. Where to go will of course be affected by when you are planning to travel - a last dose of summer, or a winter city break?

This week the temperature in Sicily is forecast to reach 29 degrees centigrade, Rome is set for 24 degrees, and the north of Italy 21 or 22 degrees. Over the next few weeks there's still time for some late sunshine and warmth and maybe a few hours on the beach.  (I managed this in northerly-but-mild Liguria last October). While not quite as ideal as spring, autumn can be a good time for a walking holiday - a good chance of sunshine but not too hot for physical activity. Later in the year the north can get cold, though a wrapped-up city break in Venice or Turin with hot-chocolate breaks has its own appeal. 

Airlines have reduced the number of flights between Italy and the UK, but also reduced prices and there are some very good deals available, so budget-conscious travellers can opt to choose their destination based on prices. On British Airway's website there are tools helping customers to find the cheapest return flights.

In choosing a destination it's also worth considering the unique advantages of this particular year. Disaster has struck, but there are bright spots that can give comfort, however sad their underlying causes My experience of Venice last month was transformed by the absence of tour groups and cruise ships (cruising has restarted now, but in a very limited way). There are very few visitors in Italy from outside Europe, whereas in recent years cities have been filled with big Chinese tour parties even through winter months. Most travellers are now in couples or family groups, exploring widely and very engaged with their surroundings, making sightseeing a much easier and more pleasant experience all round, with no crowds to fight through. 

Sicily is popular with independent travellers at the moment, visiting Taormina in particular, which is often swamped by cruise ship visitors in normal years. This might be a good time to visit destinations which similarly are usually popular with tour parties, and cruise ships. Local day-trippers and travellers from mainland Europe are still flocking to the most accessible honeypots, especially on public holidays, but not everywhere is conveniently placed for this, and the impact is much less than the normal crowds. Venice, Sorrento, the Amalfi Coast, Capri, Portofino and the Cinque Terre are among the places which are worth considering. (Note that I have only visited Venice during the pandemic and not the others, and I haven't checked local openings and availability). The narrow lanes and art museums of Florence might be another good possibility for making the most of a quieter season. The unique historic cave town of Matera has been getting busier with tourists every year, and is featured in the new James Bond film - so this could be a good time to visit while you can. So thinking of places which might normally be impacted by crowds is a good starting point, along with climate, attractions, and maybe the local coronavirus situation.


The south of Italy wasn't much affected by the first wave of coronavirus, which was focussed mostly in Lombardy and neighbouring regions. Visiting the town of Bergamo, which suffered among the worst, might be a good way of showing solidarity and helping to rebuild tourism. The infection numbers for different Italian regions can be downloaded here - this might be helpful if considering safety but also the risk of a UK travel corridor closure - though at the moment, with much higher rates than Italy, it would be extremely hypocritical of the UK Foreign Office to quarantine arrivals. There is big variation in numbers of infections between Italian regions - the Valle d'Aosta region, for example, has only 66 positive cases as of September 27th, and several regions only have new daily infections (incremento casi totali) in single or double figures (zero for Aosta). The UK policy of separating 'islands with airports' from mainland regions could affect the Italian islands of Sicily and Sardinia - they could potentially be given either travel corridors or warnings separately to mainland Italy. Sardinia's resorts and nightclubs were Covid hotspots in the summer, and I'd suggest checking their figures before booking a trip there. 

My own personal preference for a trip in the next few weeks, after checking infection rates and local news, would be to aim for southern sunshine - Sicily, Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria, the Amalfi Coast, Sorrento, for example. I'd combine walking and exploring with time enjoying warmth and maybe time by the sea. Liguria also offers a good variety of options - last October I explored the city, took a boat trip, and went walking on the Portofino headland, eating picnics in olive groves about the sea, then spending a warm half-hour on a sunny beach. Venice and Rome are good destinations at any time. From mid-October onwards I'd be thinking more of city breaks, or exploring small towns - a tour of Tuscany, maybe.

For all the difficulties of planning travel now, there could be big rewards too. Keep monitoring the news for updated restrictions and travel warnings, have contingency plans and do your best to have valid insurance if it's available. Consider booking at short-notice to minimise the risk of shifts in rules and changing situations. 

For the latest 7-day coronavirus figures and the standing of Italy with regard to UK quarantine restrictions, follow https://twitter.com/PPaulCharles on Twitter.

Italy and the whole travel industry are in a very difficult situation and travellers are very important to all of us. If you can't or don't wish to travel now, Italy will still have wonders to offer and be a welcoming destination in the future too.

A request for help

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Some more photos from my trip to Genoa last October (with excursions to Nervi and Portofino)