Alone in magnificent Rome and not so fancy free
December, 2009click here to view a slideshow of images from Rome
I heard it over and over again: Beware of child pickpockets at the train station in Rome.
I took the train from Florence to Rome. Paranoid, I clutched my bags as I walked through the train station and the few blocks to my hostel. The area around the train station was not the nicest. The sun was disappearing, and what was soon to be one of the worst migraines of my life had begun.
I woke up in a room, with 14 other young visitors, in the largest and most populated city in Italy and realized that throughout my Italian adventure I had never felt so alone. I started to regret having left my travel friends in Florence and wondered why I had ever thought exploring Rome solo would be fun.
I had to snap out of it. I was in Rome! Italy’s capital! This bustling metropolis, rich in art, culture, history, fashion, cuisine and religion was waiting for me.
I got to my feet and ventured out, straight to the colosseum – Rome’s most defining landmark. I took the subway, again clutching my bag. The Colosseum was colossal, and easily spotted from far away. Opened in 80 AD, this travertine theatre once held 50,000 spectators. The closer I got to the Colosseum, the more street vendors I saw trying to sell cheap bracelets to unsuspecting tourists. There are many costumed “characters” at the entrance. They charge tourists $20 for a picture. I joined a tour group and waited in line to get in. While climbing the steps inside I looked down into the labyrinth of walls on the floor that once had elevators that transported the animals from the cages to the arena level. I couldn’t help but feel the pain of the thousands of people and wild animals that perished for the amusement of the Roman crowd.
Rome is crowded with ancient ruins – and with tourists. I tagged along with some of the tour groups to hear the stories and learn some history. I walked around in awe of the massiveness of the city. The buildings were titanic; the Renaissance and Baroque architecture is glorious, breathtaking and dramatic. I was overwhelmed, and in an attempt to find the Jewish Ghetto and the synagogue – which I never did – I got lost. I felt bad about that because my mother had told me they were definitely worth a visit. I turned a corner and found myself in front of one of the most spectacular water fountains in the world: the Trevi Fountain. The largest Baroque fountain in Rome, it stands 25.9 metres high and 19.8 metres wide. Legend has it that the traveller who throws a coin into the fountain will soon return to Rome; two coins and you will fall in love in Rome.
Next to the fountain is the Baroque Chiesa dei Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio. Built in 1630, the crypt preserves the hearts and lungs of popes from 1590 to 1903. Many tourists are likely unaware of the decaying organs behind them as they snap pictures and marvel in the beauty of the fountain.
I walked along streets lined with chic cafés and boutiques and stumbled onto another glorious landmark: Scalinata di Spagna, or the Spanish Steps.
The Scalinata is the longest and widest staircase in Europe, with 138 steps. Built from 1723 to 1725, it begins at the Piazza di Spagna and leads up to Piazza Trinita dei Monte with the church of the same name. Next to the staircase is a pink house where in 1821 John Keats, one of the most famous romantic poets of all time, passed away when he was a mere 25 years old.
As the sun started to set, I made my way back to my hostel. It was not easy. As a young woman walking around solo in Rome I felt like a lamb in the forest. An endless number of Italian men approached me, followed me, and went on and on trying to seduce me in Italian. I made it back to the hostel safe, with purse intact.
The next morning I joined a tour of The Vatican City, the walled enclave within Rome. Home to the Pope and the Catholic Church, it is the smallest country in the world by both population (about 900) and area (0.44 square kilometres). Postage stamps, tourist mementos, and fees for admission to museums support the entire economy. It issues its own coins and even has its own bank, Vatican Bank, containing the only ATM in the world with instructions in Latin. Within Vatican City are Saint Peter’s Basilica, the Apostolic Palace and the Sistine Chapel. The Swiss Guards roam the streets and guard entrances. These personal bodyguards to the Pope look like charming Disney characters in their colourful uniforms.
The immenseness of Saint Peter’s Basilica is indescribable. As one of the holiest sites in Christianity it spans 5.7 acres and holds 60,000 people. Constructed from 1506 to 1626 it is the burial site of Saint Peter, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus and of great importance in the founding of the Christian Church.
The Sistine Chapel is the chapel in the Apostolic Palace, the official residence of the Pope.
The frescos in the Sistine Chapel are among the most famous in the world with works by Michelangelo, Raphael, Bernini, and Botticelli. Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment covers the entire wall behind the altar. I spent most of my time there with my eyes on the ceiling in awe of Michelangelo’s works depicting stories in Genesis.
I went to the post office and sent a Vatican postcard with a Vatican stamp on it back home to my mother in Montreal and wondered if she’d appreciate its value.
Rome is a spectacular city, and despite all its beauty and history, the stress of all that a big city entails wore me out. I was ready to leave and return to the calm of northern Italy.
I returned to my hostel, once again successfully dodging the men and the child pickpockets.
I stopped at a small pizza joint next to the hostel and ordered a slice of cheese pizza in broken Italian. A young man approached me and asked if I was American. He sighed with utter relief when I said yes. He too was American and said he’d spent the whole day without speaking to anyone in English. He asked me if I wanted to get a coffee with him.
We found a small café and ordered some pastries, coffee and tea. He was a 26-year-old US soldier stationed in Iraq on his two-week vacation, which he chose to spend in Rome. That night was his last night before he returned to Iraq. We could not have been more different and yet we could not get enough of each other. The café closed and we walked around and found another that was open all night. We sat there, eating a cheese platter with tea, and shared our stories. He told me about his life in Iraq and his decision to join the army. I shared my experiences travelling around Europe, and my life in Los Angeles. We talked politics, religion, culture – everything we could think of. We sat at the café until the sun rose. We exchanged e-mails, said our goodbyes and we never contacted each other again. I suppose we both wanted to preserve the perfection of that night and our connection in Rome.