Italy has always topped my ever-expanding list of countries to visit. It’s the Mecca for devout food lovers like myself, and Carbs are a serious weakness for me. It doesn’t hurt that the men are handsome and well dressed or that it’s a good deal sunnier than London. So Rome seemed like a good choice for Easter break.
After a Friday morning flight with a layover in Milan that felt like the whole day, I touched down on Italian soil. I could actually see the sun! I met up with my friends, who are currently studying in Madrid, and we ate a late lunch of pizza at a nearby restaurant. The prices were very cheap in comparison to London (although everything is). They’d had a string of very bad luck during their previous week and a half in Italy thus far, so I let them rest while I explored a bit.
Rome is delightfully walkable. There’s no need to worry about spending half the day riding public transportation. With two guidebooks, a map, and my Nikon in hand, I dove into into the warm day. Our hostel, which was more like a hotel, sat a little outside the city center, so it was a solid walk to the sites I had in mind. I stopped for sustenance in the form of chocolate and tiramisu gelato at a guidebook-approved pastry shop. I could tell communication was going to be difficult. I always arm myself with a few basic phrases in the language of the country I’m traveling to, but Italian is just similar enough to Spanish that I had to keep myself from falling into Castellano. I soaked up the late afternoon sun and ambled through an outdoor shop selling old, broken stone statues and a large circle of buildings called the Piazza della Republica. Once I made it to the Spanish Steps, I paced the edge of a Spanish tour group and eavesdropped on the guide. I had a great view of the streets below filled with the masses of tourists like me. Next to the Spanish steps is the building where my English professor told me the poet John Keats spent his last agonizing months before succumbing to tuberculosis at age 25. (Thank goodness “bleeding” is no longer a popular medical treatment.)
These days, there are few historical sites that actually take my breath away (and while we’re at it, let’s be honest, the Mona Lisa was a tad underwhelming). It’s a symptom of my cathedral/palace/ruin overload this past year. Trevi Fountain, however, exceeded every expectation. The whole structure just screams “Rome!” I elbowed through for photos then made my way through the deeply confusing streets with my map practically glued to my face. Rejoined with my travelling comrades, dinner was more pizza before heading out on the town for the evening.
Saturday morning found us devouring a cheap breakfast before exploring. We wandered to the Trastevere neighborhood bordered by the Tiber River. This quickly became my favorite part of the city. A midday lull fell over the narrow cobblestone streets. Burnt orange- and salmon-colored buildings floated in curtains of ivy and wisteria. It seemed almost like Valencia, and all at once I sifted through September memories of warm, golden Spain. I watched a cantankerous orange cat hunched on a car yawn and young Italians flirt in the piazzas. To avoid any tourist traps, I insisted we go to a guidebook-recommended restaurant. So we ate Neapolitan-style pizza at Dar Poeta, in a room that seemed to be designated for American tourists. It was so, so delicious though. I ordered tomato bruschetta then a “Superbufala” pizza topped with artichoke hearts, soft milk cheese, and bufala mozzarella. We savored every bite slowly, knowing we wouldn’t eat pizza this good for some time. Full and content, we ambled to Campo de Fiori, which was hosting a weekend market. Crowded stalls displayed packages of pastel-colored pasta, buckets of bright flowers, fine olive oil, and glass trinkets. I sampled a bit of “strong chardonnay grappa” from one vendor, and tried to keep from wincing as it went down. Oh, the fun surprises of a market.
Up next was Piazza Navona: huge, open, and home to fountains of writhing herculean men and animals. We drank rosé, listened to street performers, and people watched. In my humble opinion, the best people watching takes place in plazas (something I miss about Spain) where you can pretend you’re looking at the monuments or just throw on a pair of sunglasses. We took the city at a leisurely, Italian pace. My friend Kate, Saturday’s “Map Girl,” would say, “Hey guys, this is an important building.” We’d stand there, give it the up-and-down, nod our heads, and move on. In Rome, there are simply too many historical buildings and ruins to keep track of them all.
Suddenly, we came upon the Pantheon and the accompanying horde of tourists. It was grand and hallowed; the only (non-electric) source of light is the circular, open skylight at the top of the dome, which was meant to bring worshipers closer to the gods. We continued walking through the old streets and stopped to stare at a gleaming white building crowned with chariot statues and flags – the Monumento a Vittorio Emanuele I. But we were on a mission to find what my guidebook deemed “the best gelato in Rome” at Il Gelato di San Crispino. Caramel and dark chocolate in hand, the gelato and pizza adventure didn’t end there. I bet you can guess what we ate for dinner.
On Sunday we bypassed the Colosseum’s two-hour wait and strolled through a market near the Tiber River. It reminded me strongly of El Rastro in Madrid: bags, clothing, jewelry, and plenty of cheap, random odds and ends. After what felt like hours of browsing and walking in the sun, we melted into patio seats at a bustling, inexpensive restaurant. All I wanted was spaghetti and white wine, and isn’t it wonderful when you can satisfy a craving? We made it back to the Roman Forum, a large complex of gardens and ruins of ancient government buildings next to the Colosseum. A combined ticket bought us entry to both. We walked right in and checked out the huddles of broken stone sprouting flowers, beheaded statues of military heroes, and names upon Ancient Roman names we’d never remember. The Forum was one of the greatest meeting places in the world and served as a place to gather, hold elections and speeches, and various other commercial affairs. For me, it was nice to just be outside, with friends, doing touristy things. By 4:30 there was no line outside the Colosseum. Triumphant that our plan worked, we did the circular loop of the ruins while reading about the hellish violence that took place inside the pit. Inside, it’s rather smaller than you expect it to be. (I suppose now I need to finally watch Gladiator.) Dinner was tasty gnocchi in a savory tomato sauce at a nearby restaurant. My friends and I had a tough time communicating with the waiter and an even tougher time avoiding Spanish.
Monday was a bit lazy. We’d misjudged our individual flight times, but by the time we looked them up it was too late to hit the Vatican. I was not pleased about missing out on the Sistine Chapel, but I see it as an excuse to pop into Rome the next time I’m in Italy, which may be soon. We spent a long time on the terrace of our hostel, steeping in hot sunshine. All I wanted was a little color so I wouldn’t look so ghostly pale. Instead I received a few more freckles and a sunburn. After my friends left for their (earlier) flight, I walked to a big park brimming with skateboarders and couples lying entwined on the grass. Inside was the Giardini Piazza Vittorio, ruins of an old estate. Further along were the Colle Opio and Domus Aurea, green areas with more ruins near the Colosseum. I stumbled upon the Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli, a beautiful church and home to an Art History 112 find – Michelangelo’s statue of Moses, which forms part of the tomb of Pope Julius II.
As I left, I realized I was running late for the express train to Fiumicino airport, so I took a packed metro to my hostel, grabbed my bag, and booked it to the station. After a long wait in customs at Heathrow, three Tubes, and a cab, I sunk into bed at 1 am. Italy, I’ll see you again soon.