Cautiously padding around, we startled the birds who had taken to nesting in the grass gone wild and flowering weeds. Even though I felt like I had crashed their party I was so happy to be out there again. It was beautiful.
Two years ago today we were allowed to move around Rome more freely as Phase 2 of the transition into the “riapertura”, or reopening as it was called back then, was kickstarted with the easing of some restrictions. I’ve gone back to see what I wrote in my Diary of a Lockdown on this day and even though it’s uncomfortable to read through it I am so glad that I kept a record of those days. On May 4 we were permitted to leave our immediate neighborhoods for walks and bars were allowed to sell coffee to go. It was a joyous day! It was a day to indulge in simple pleasures previously taken for granted.
Of particular importance to me, select city parks were re-opened that day. I enjoy being in nature and it’s what I most missed during the Lockdown. I pined for even the tiniest sliver of yard to step into during those days. Lacking a garden, everyday I fussed over the few potted herbs on my balcony and talked to the Pine Tree that lived in the parking lot. So to celebrate our hard fought freedom, my husband and I went to the Villa Borghese, the park nearest to us that was re-opened. With wings spread, the stone dragon perched atop the gate ushered us in and for once the Borghese family emblem didn’t intimidate me. I was worried about going beyond our immediate neighborhood, wondering if it was really worth it, if it was risky, if it was responsible. As much as I love strolling through Villa Borghese’s orderly and beautiful avenues, the neat hedges, kiosks for refreshments, delicate benches on which to read a book or people watch, statuary to admire – I always wish I had a lace parasol to twirl around like in a Renoir painting – I missed my local parks. The parks closest to home, sadly, wouldn’t unlock their gates for several more weeks.
We were lucky to have two parks just a short walk away and, under normal circumstances, to be able to walk through landscaped grounds, sit under the shade of a tree, and find a moment of quiet in nature was restorative. Green spaces in cities are a refuge from the daily hustle and bustle. Rome does such a lovely job of maintaining parks for the people and is considered to be the greenest city in Europe. The Tiber is lined in Sycamore trees, Umbrella Pines soar from street medians, and fig trees sprout out of the city walls if you let them.
Villa Chigi was closest, a modest park now but formerly part of Cardinal Chigi’s gardens which were designed in 1776 as an Italian garden. Today it is popular with dogs on play dates and running off-leash, but benches still line the original promenade with a fountain in the center and a few original Holm Oaks still offer shade. I affectionately refer to it as my Olive Grove because the grounds also boasts 47 olive trees grouped together at one end, probably once the source of the Villa’s olive oil. Walking through “my grove” I often wondered if the Chigi family ever participated in the olive harvests in the fall. Did they join in on the olive picking, pricking their fingers with dry twigs, climbing into the trees, shaking rakes at the silver-leafed branches? Likely not, the work was surely left to the expert gardeners who perhaps were paid with a bottle of the season’s oil.
Villa Ada, formerly owned by the royal House of Savoy, is the second largest park in Rome after Villa Doria Pamphilij, and was just a brisk 12 minute walk away from our place. The 160 hectares have everything a park needs, from ample grassy areas for playing team sports and hosting musical concerts, bike paths, horse-back riding, climbing structures for kids, a café, a large pond, several original buildings and an elegant villa. It’s a more rugged version of the beautiful and manicured Villa Borghese with pathways that slope up into a wild wood of Oaks, Pines, and Chestnut at the top of the park. The way darkens under thick tree canopy, the earth softens underfoot, and bright green moss clinging to walls from an ancient Roman settlement flicker, and you are enveloped in a story book landscape. Sometimes I’m afraid of being up there on my own, of getting lost in the forest with no breadcrumbs in my pocket. Of course when Villa Ada finally opened up again it completely filled up with people anxious to be outdoors. Some days it wasn’t possible to maintain the required social distancing on the walking paths and so I finally gave up going, afraid of catching the virus at the park.
Instead I tried jogging in the neighborhood. That was also stressful. I had to run around with all sorts of things that weighed me down: phone, self-certification form, ID, proof of legal status in the country, hand-gel, extra mask, water. I spent most of my time messing with my mask. It would slip down my nose (remember these were the early days of the virus before masks were perfectly designed to fit your face and even match your outfit) I’d take it off if I didn’t see people, stick it back on when I saw people ahead. My eye was always peeled for the city police who would set up on corners here and there checking the forms, verifying that one was out for legitimate reasons, not too far from one’s territory. That was when we were still not allowed to leave our little neighborhoods, except for medical reasons. Could they tell I was a fake jogger? I always felt like I was on the run, furtively moving through the streets, on a Special Mission, message risking interception. It was not worth the stress so I gave up jogging pretty quickly. Looking back now of course it all seems so ridiculous, to have been so afraid, afraid of getting near another person, to have been outdoors at all. But it was different back then, wasn’t it.
On May 4, 2020 when we were released to roam, to roam Rome somewhat more freely and I chose to go to Villa Borghese. After such confinement all I wanted was to be in nature. I wanted to walk freely for miles and miles, and maybe, even get lost.