Monday, 17 March 2008

What Does S.P.Q.R. Mean?

SPQR is an acronym for the Latin phrase " Senatus Populusque Romanus", which means 'The Senate and the Roman People'. SPQR was symbolic of the city of Rome 's identity as a civilized, democratic state belonging to the people and the Senate. The acronym has been used continually for 23-24 centuries and is the oldest acronym in current use.

Although there are other versions and interpretations of the SPQR acronym, the above version is widely accepted today. It came into use in the early stage of the Roman republic and continued to be used during the Roman empire. For this reason, the acronym or the full phrase can be found on many famous monuments and documents. For example, the words "Senatus Populusque Romanus" appear on the Arch of Titus in Rome, built in 81 AD to honour Titus and his father, the Emperor Vespasian.

The letters SPQR are still important in the modern city of Rome. Mussolini ordered SPQR written on manhole covers and civic buildings, using the ancient symbol as propaganda for his regime. By order of the mayor of Rome, the acronym now appears on public buildings and other sites throughout the city to symbolize Rome 's historic importance as an empire, as well as its present status as a city of the people. SPQR also appears in the modern coat of arms of the city of Rome, and can be found on tourism brochures, menus and taxis.

Rome City Marathon 2008

It is estimated that 75,000 people lined the streets of Rome on March 16th to cheer on the athletes running the 14th edition of the Rome City Marathon. Over 11,100 athletes from 76 nations participated, among which 10,511 runners crossed the finish line.

Running the Rome City Marathon is a great way to see the city on foot. The 42,195 km course starts and ends at the Colosseum, passing by the Roman Forum, Piazza Venezia, Campidoglio, Circus Maximus, Piazza Navona, the San Paolo Basilica, Via del Corso, Piazza del Popolo and the Spanish Steps. It passes through several Roman neighbourhoods, giving runners and spectators the opportunity to see much of the city and areas they might not otherwise see while visiting Rome.

Having run the Rome City Marathon twice, I can attest to the fact that it is not an easy course, but it is a great experience nonetheless. Cobblestones, hills and quick turns make it difficult to maintain a solid rhythm and place added strain on your muscles. This is not the course to establish your personal best time. That said, if you are a marathoner or aspire to be one, I highly recommend putting Rome on your marathon wish list.

This year’s marathon was ideal weather-wise. The weather in Rome in March is normally quiet pleasant, not too hot with a fresh breeze coming in off the cool sea, although it can sometimes feel hot when you are a running a marathon on a sunny day. Fortunately, this year, the sky was partially cloudy, giving the runners relief from rays of the hot Roman sun.

The first place athlete, Jonathan Yego Kiptoo from Kenya (photo on the right), finished in 2:09:57, while the first female, Galina Bogomolova from Russia, finished the race in 2:22:53, establishing a new course record in the female category. Bogomolova was awarded a bonus of €75,000 for beating the previous Italian female record of 2:23:47.

The first Italian, a Roman taxi driver named Giorgio Calcaterra (photo on the left), finished the marathon in 2:18:40. Calcaterra has run over 100 marathons and is somewhat of a legend in Italy because of his extreme passion for the sport of running. Runners from my team tell me that he once ran back to back marathons, one on Saturday and one the next day, both in less than 2 hours and thirty minutes. He is the current Italian champion of the 100 km.

This year’s marathon was a great success. I look forward to participating next year in the 15th edition of the Rome City Marathon, to be held on March 22nd.

For further information on the Rome City Marathon, including results, registration details and photos, visit

Sunday, 2 March 2008

The Mystery of the Cappuccino

Tourists in Italy are easily recognizable in caf├ęs and restaurants when they order a cappuccino after 11:00 a.m. or after a meal. Italians consider the cappuccino as a morning beverage. They gulp them down quickly while standing at the bar and then rush off to wherever it is they have to be so urgently. As a tourist or foreigner, there's no shame in taking your time to enjoy your warm, frothy cappuccino.

I have often wondered why it is so difficult to find a good cappuccino outside of Italy. I mean, it's espresso and milk. It should be easy to make. I have also noticed that the best cappuccini (plural for cappuccino in Italian) are in Rome. It seems that as you travel further northward or southward from Rome, the quality of the cappuccini changes. Of course, it's all relative: in my view, even a bad cappuccino is good. I rarely encounter a cappuccino that I consider undrinkable.
Outside of Italy, cappuccini may be made with different milk and coffee. But this doesn't explain the discrepancy within Italy. The coffee and milk are the same all over Italy. So perhaps it is the water used to make the espresso. Or could technique have something to do with it?

When in Italy, I like to go to a bar called "Il Pappagallo" in Rome. Mario makes an exceptional cappuccino. His cappuccini are the smoothest and creamiest I have ever tasted. When I asked him what his secret is, he explained that there are a number of factors in creating a good cappuccino. A cappuccino is made by putting ground coffee into a small filter, pressing it down and putting it into the machine. The water filters through and drips out into the cup below as espresso. Milk is then frothed up using a steamer and poured into the espresso. Sounds simple enough. But it seems that there is more to it than that.

Mario says that you can spot an inexperienced barman by how much coffee he puts into the filter and how firmly he presses it down. Apparently, you should fill the filter with the ground coffee just to the top, not in a heaping mound, and press it down gently. If you use too much coffee, you have press it down harder and the water will not filter through fluidly, the end result being that it will taste too strong. The taste of the coffee will also be influenced by the temperature of the water. If the water is too hot, the ground coffee will also become too hot, thereby giving the espresso a burnt flavour. Finally, it takes a skilled and experienced barman to pour the foamy milk into the espresso. The foamier milk rises to the top after it is steamed, so the milk should be skilfully poured to add equal parts steamed milk from the bottom and frothy milk from the top. This third part can be tricky, but the Italians seem to have mastered this fine art.

Armed with this knowledge, I started to observe the techniques of cappuccino in my travels throughout Italy. There is definitely some truth in Mario's philosophy. I have noticed that (generally speaking of course) the farther north and south you get from Rome, the hotter they serve their cappuccino. They seem to prefer a stronger, slightly burnt tasting coffee. To each their own, right?