This is Part One of a six-part series on Rome, following this plan:
I walked off the plane and into the sweltering heat. Then I paused to look around and breathe in the hot, humid air. I was in Rome.
Well, not quite. I was in the Ciampino airport, about 12 kilometers from the city center. Now I had to find my bus.
Back in Madrid, while I was on the queue to board the plane, a representative from Ryanair went by selling bus tickets. Impulsively I bought one—they were only four euros—and now I had to figure out where to go.
This would not have presented any difficulty to a sane person. But I was stressed and anxious, partly because I am always like that when I travel, but also because this was the first international trip that I had taken by myself. I felt totally exposed and vulnerable. I had no support system if I messed up, nobody to bail me out if I did something stupid. More pragmatically, I did not have a working phone. Anything could happen.
Panic attacks notwithstanding, the bus was easy to find. Exhausted, sweaty, and shaking with nerves, I dropped my bag into the luggage compartment and climbed aboard. The sunlight shone harshly through the window, causing my skin to burn and my face to flush with the heat. The bus seemed to sit there for a long while, as passengers lazily threw their bags into the bottom compartments, and shuffled on.
I felt terribly self-conscious already. What kind of loser travels alone? What did these people think of me? Were they staring at me? Was I staring back? And why wasn’t there air conditioning? Finally the bus began to move, saving me from myself. We were off towards the eternal city.
I could hardly believe it: I was going to Rome. I had been hearing about this city all my life. Roman poets, generals, statesmen, emperors, philosophers, historians, slaves—the names of so many Romans were familiar to me. I was visiting the city where Cicero delivered his speeches, where Virgil penned his verses, and where Caesar bestrode the narrow world like a colossus. All these people were like characters in a long-cherished novel, creatures endowed with the aura of my imagination. Now I would be standing where they stood, under the same sun, sky, and stars, walking on the same soil. (And this is not to mention the Renaissance Italians!)
My eyes were glued to the window. Everything that even hinted at antiquity—crumbled buildings, little run-down shacks, piles of rubble—sent my imagination flying. Were they ruins? Was that a castle? Was this a temple?
Soon reality intervened. Pharmacies, car dealerships, tobacco stores, and rows and rows of ugly buildings surrounded the bus. Pudgy pedestrians walked on the streets, cars honked their horns, and exhaust fumes wafted up into the sky. This was the eternal city?
In fairness, we did pass through a lovely stone gate on the way to the main bus terminal: Termini. (This is an enormous transportation hub, the Roman equivalent of Grand Central.) There, we were dropped off, and soon I was panicking again, wondering how to get to my Airbnb.
Once more, there was nothing inherently difficult or perilous about this. But I was a ragged bundle of nerves, filled with terrible anxiety. Plus, it was hot.
Because I am a millennial, the prospect of navigating a city without Google Maps is alarming. I only ask strangers for directions in emergencies, and I cannot be trusted with a physical map. Luckily, there is Maps.Me, a navigation app that allows you to use your phone even when you don’t have service. (I was confused by this at first, but apparently your phone’s GPS still works even when it’s on airplane mode.) The application is pretty neat, and I certainly recommend it; although it can be pretty laggy and sometimes crashes.
After struggling to find the address in my notebook, walking in the wrong direction, enduring three panic attacks and some hyperventilation; and after getting lost and looking hopelessly at the sky while fighting back tears, I found the apartment. It took about twenty minutes.
I was greeted by a friendly older Italian man, who spoke good English. Seeing him, hearing him, having some of the fresh fruit he offered me—all this calmed me down instantly. I have been talking to Italian people and eating Italian food all my life. I wasn’t in a foreign country; I was somewhere very familiar—where I knew the history, the cuisine, and the culture (though unfortunately not the language). I was in Rome.
I had five days to explore the city, five days to drink up as much of the history, art, and architecture as I could. I got started immediately.
First Impressions of Eternity
What they say about Roman drivers is true: the roads are bedlam. Every time I crossed a street I felt like I was taking my life into my hands. The drivers would not stop to spare a whole kindergarten class. At best, the drivers swerved around me; most did not seem to notice me at all. I would like to see the mortality statistics.
I had been advised not to visit Rome in July; but that was the only time I had available, so I went anyway. Nevertheless, it is good advice. In a word, the weather is inhospitable—hot and humid. Just a few minutes in the afternoon sun were enough to soak my clothes through with sweat. The air hung heavily around me, seeming to physically pull me down.
The only compensation were the drinking fountains. Rome is full of them. Do yourself a favor and bring a refillable bottle. Just watch out of the fountain says “non potable.” Otherwise, drink up—you will need it. Several times I was so thirsty that the water tasted like divine ambrosia.
Because I was trying to save money—and I’m not a connoisseur, in any case—I ate as cheaply as I could. This usually meant eating pizza. I ate a lot of it. Maybe I am a snob when it comes to pizza, but I was not terribly impressed by the quality. The one exception to this was the pizza from a place called Pinsere, which was both excellent and reasonably priced.
Rome is full of tourists in any season, but this is doubly true during the summer—another reason to choose a different time to visit. Everywhere was packed. I could hardly walk three blocks without overhearing Americans chit-chattering away. Rome can be a religious experience, even if you are not religious. But it is hard to appreciate the beauty, history, and sanctity of the place when tour groups go stampeding by, their guide yelling into a microphone; or when you have to keep dodging out of people’s photos; or when the people next to you are whining about the weather while taking several selfies. Complaining about tourists is as old as tourism itself, of course. It is an activity especially popular among tourists. Nevertheless, I suggest that you visit Rome in fall or winter, if you can.
If you knocked down all the churches, destroyed the Roman forum, blew up the Colosseum, dynamited all the monuments, burned the museums, and smashed the statues, then Rome would not be much to look at. The streets are a bit dirty, the buildings are plain, modern, and unremarkable, and the traffic crawls through the streets like a column of army ants.
But of course Rome has churches, ruins, monuments, museums, and statues in abundance.
The night of my arrival, I decided to walk to the Colosseum. I got there just as the sun was setting. There it was in the twilight, its familiar iconic form towering above me, shushing me with awe.
How many others had stood in wonder at that same sight? How many others had come to Rome to pay tribute to the civilization that had flourished, conquered, ruled, declined, and then passed away? It boggles the mind that a civilization could build such a thing and then pass away. But Rome was more than an empire; Rome was more than a culture or a people. Rome was an eternal achievement, an achievement for all of humanity, setting a standard of civilization that futures peoples would forever emulate.