Alex Billington dodges the Vespas – but enjoys the romance and espresso hits during a Roman winter.

For me, despite its more obvious historical past and culture, Rome has always been synonymous with film; Antonioni, Fellini, Pasolini, Betolucci, Rossellini… Over the years I’ve spent visiting the city, I’ve often wandered around the narrow cobbled streets, lost in the overactive vaults of my overactive inner world, visualising coming back here one day with no other agenda than to write.

Life is wonderful (or maybe terrifying) in that when we want something enough we will get it; and I got my opportunity when – between selling and buying homes – I had several months of no other agenda than to meet two screenplay deadlines. Synchronicity struck when a friend from Sydney got in touch and suggested we meet in Rome for New Year’s Eve then spend a month there. Within days we’d organised an old apartment to rent (www.romanreference.com) in the historical centre and December 30th, suitcase and laptop packed, I was flying into an icily sunny Rome.

There’s something strangely intimate about time spent losing oneself in a European city off season; life is quieter and feels more ‘real’ – as if the shallow but enticing layers of bright glitter, crowds, chatter and noise have been stripped away to reveal something more real, weighty and lasting. A young Italian filmmaker I met compared Rome’s contrasting seasons to the difference between falling unexpectedly in love with a serious contender as opposed to a light-hearted fun, summer fling. A metaphor only an Italian (or French) man could come up with.

Then there’s the intoxicating atmosphere of winter weather; darker, stormier skies casting a slate-hued light over the ancient skyline and filtering down quiet cobbled streets. In this atmosphere the imagination can easily conjure images of the past; and almost every nook and cranny of Rome echoes its history.

On New Year’s Eve in Rome; my friend, Leonie, and I stepped out without a plan at 11.45pm in suitably chic heels, hats and cloaks, into the noise and craziness of a city full of excitable, expressive Italians poised to let loose Italian-style at midnight. We somehow found ourselves on the Ponte Sisto as midnight struck; then mayhem and pandemonium was unleashed; kissing, hugging, screams, car horns honking insanely, bells ringing… we were caught up in the madness of it all and high as kites on the energy. Clichés are usually clichés for a reason but Italians certainly know how to celebrate something.

If you’re a single female in Rome, you’ll rarely be short of male attention – wanted or unwanted. Although Italian men are famously big on romance, they are notoriously short on consistency… However even the most predictable and sensible females are usually tempted, dazed and dazzled by grand romantic gestures – and though Italian men are laughably ridiculous at times, they are very capable of sweeping us away with their sense of drama. When they say they will die if we don’t want them, somewhere inside we want to believe that’s true – until the spell dies when we see them uttering the same words to fresh meat at the 101 Flavours Gelato Bar.

So what do you do for a whole month in a city like Rome off season? Nothing. No sightseeing, no obligatory trip to the crowded Vatican where people stand so close they can sniff you, no tacky bus tours…… As we lurched from moment to moment we immersed ourselves into the Roman way of life. Living like the locals, shopping at the markets, overdosing on espresso hits at numerous café bars, ordering wine with lunch (which somehow always ended up being artichokes – a Roman speciality), fending off Lotharios, dodging annoying teens on Vespas, taking languorous siestas, walking, reading books, writing, meeting Romans as friends and equals rather than tourists….. and drinking way too much Campari and vodka (Leonie’s special concoction – thanks for that gem my darlin’).

I had the opportunity to spend time with some talented filmmakers and actors too; many of whom had worked with the likes of Scorsese, Fellini, Storaro, De Niro, Antonioni – each name resonating the weight of Italian cinema (or its heritage) and each encounter a million miles away from the British and American celebrity obsession of name-dropping.

For me, a veteran traveller to Italy, this was Rome at her very best….

Finally, to add a little magic to our Roman experience, my friend and partner in crime was in the midst of unexpectedly falling in love with her own serious contender. He was an Australian photographer and (surely) poet who, at the time, was stuck somewhere in the middle of a wild African wilderness. Despite this he still managed to send my friend profoundly moving text messages that seem to mirror our own experiences in Rome – and remind us that it’s not only Italians (or French men) who can make romantic gestures!

I left Rome on a cold late January morning…. An emotional goodbye to both my friend and the city after an intense month together….. and now, several months later, I’m thinking about returning to Rome again this coming winter.

I think the Italian filmmaker was right about Rome’s status as a serious contender. And I’ve just put the phone down to Leonie who is planning her own return to Rome off season – with her texting photographer. Serious contenders rock!