This summer I was lucky enough to spend five days in Rome. I saw so many things there that, if I wrote about them all in one post, it would be much too long. To avoid that, I am breaking up my writing into several posts: introduction, churches, museums, basilicas, ruins, and the Vatican.
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 really wasn’t difficult. 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 took 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 didn’t 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 bus. 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 put their stuff away 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 couldn’t believe it: I was going to Rome! I had been hearing about this city all my life. One of my all time favorite books is The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. 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?
To be fair, 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; if you go to Rome, you’ll end up in Termini.) There, we were dropped off, and soon I was panicking again, wondering how to get to my Airbnb.
Again, there was nothing particularly 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 I got lost and looked 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 fruit he offered me—all this calmed me down instantly. I have been talking to Italians 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.
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 simply wouldn’t stop. At best, they’d swerve around me; most didn’t 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’s good advice. The weather was inhospitable. 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, drag, and weigh me down.
The only compensation was 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’ll need it. Several times I was so thirsty that the sight of the running water struck me as heavenly nectar. Nothing tastes better than water to a man suffering from thirst.
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’m a snob when it comes to pizza, but I wasn’t 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. Otherwise, the food in Rome was expensive and mediocre.
This is because of the tourists, of course. Rome is full of them, especially in summer. Everywhere I went was packed. I could hardly walk three blocks without overhearing Americans chit-chattering away. Complaining about tourists is as old as tourism itself. It’s an activity especially popular among tourists.
Visiting Rome can be a religious experience, even if you’re 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 complaining about the weather, in English, while taking several selfies. 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 wouldn’t be a very beautiful city. Indeed, not much would strike you as special. 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 disappear. 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, and this was one of its monuments.