When I began to plan my time in Italy, everybody said I had to go to Rome. The Vatican, the Colessum, the Roman Forum; these are the foundation of our civilization! Everyone said “you can’t skip Rome!”. And I agree; you can’t. But I think some people may have let Rome get a little too big for it’s britches. It is true, Rome is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But, in my opinion, you only need to experience it once.
Now, for all you Rome-lovers out there, I send my sincerest apologies, but whatever Rome did for you, it certainly didn’t do it for me. Before I get into what I didn’t like, I want to spend a little time telling you about what I did like. Namely, my plane ride over.
Many European travelers or budget backpackers are already quite familiar with the likes of Ryanair, but seeing as how this was my first flight with this airline, we had not yet been introduced. However, from what I heard, they could nickel and dime passengers with the best of them; so naturally, I became a little concerned with the size of my carry-on luggage. Even though it is Rick Steves certified carry on size, I had a feeling that Ryanair kept their overhead bins a bit on the small side. As I rolled by bag stealthily behind me into the queue, my grip became moistened by the nervous sweat seeping through my pores. An attendant was passing through the line handing out bag tags and I was sure my goose was cooked. But, when he got to me, he simply handed me the tag and told me that due to a full flight I would have to check my bag, free of charge. I “eeeked” to myself in my head, calculating what I could do with the money I had earmarked for the fine, just in case. It was the beginning of a great trip to Rome.
After finding my seat, I was soon joined by my row mates; two tanned, golden, and gorgeous Hawaiian surfers on their way to Rome from Nazare. We got so involved in story swapping that I didn’t have time to realize the plane had taken off and was already halfway to the destination. It was a short flight, but one of the most memorable I had had thus far. The Hawaiians, while on their international escapade, had made it their business to make movies for all the places they had been (basically the same idea as this blog, but we were all a little behind schedule). As they told me where they had been and what they were doing, I did things that any normal girl does when sitting next to hot guys on a plane: laugh hysterically at their jokes, interject funny anecdotes of my own, talk about USA (pronounced ooh-suh according to the Hawaiians). I was having the time of my life! And then came the Italian lady.
What she said to us as she leaned over the back of her seat, (scolding us with her fingers molded perfectly in the way people only imagine Italians speak after watching too much of The Sopranos) I will never know. But that moment will always be remembered by me for what will now be known as The Capisce-Off. Now this is something I couldn’t make up if I tried. Wanting us to “settle down” apparently, she speaks to us all in Italian and then makes a sort of silent motion with her hands, you know, all Dr. Evil style. Then she says those fateful words: “capisce?”. Having watched enough Everybody Loves Raymond, we all knew that in Italy, the mama runs the house, so of course we all vehemently shook our heads yes with agreement. No sooner had we gotten our chins off our chest when a neighboring Italian woman stood up, flailing her arms in protest, shouting “No capisce!”. It was an inner airplane turf war. “Capisce”, “No capisce!”, “Capisce!”, “No CAPISCE!”, “CAPISCE!!”. By the end of it all, we didn’t know who to believe. It was truly a matter of to capisce or not to capisce. But the flight was landing so we figured what the heck, and kept on chatting.
The flight landed and everyone did that awkward thing where they get up and bustle about even though the door is still closed. But our little old capisce friend just turned around to give us the stink eye. Then, as if she imagined that we three Americanos spoke Italian all of a sudden, started talking to us again. From what me, Torsten, and Cody gathered, she was from Naples and (they think) she invited us to her house. I think she was trying to tell us something else, like don’t ever come to my house maybe? At any rate, Torsten decides that he’d like to indulge her in a little conversation. So he tells her that it’s our first time in Rome. But he tries it in Italian. Unfortunately, not knowing Italian, he also didn’t know that primavera doesn’t mean “first time”, it means “spring”. But he was so confident and excited at the idea of being right that Cody and I…had to burst into fits of laughter!! It was one of the most hilarious airplane encounters I have ever had; both with the Hawaiians and the Italians.
It was shaping up to be a heck of a time. And then, it wasn’t.
My hostel was decent, but coming from the awesome digs in Lisbon I was a little less than impressed by my new quarters. It was fairly close to everything though, so it served me well (even though there was no free breakfast). My first day in Rome I was so tired from my late arrival that I didn’t actually get out the door until about 12:30 or 1, so really it was my first half a day but I wasn’t going to let the concept of time deter me. I was off to see the Colosseum.
Originally, during the planning stages, I was only going to be in Rome for two nights because from what I heard, Rome was very touristy. Most people I talked to said you could accomplish seeing the major sites in two days or less, and I believed them. Then, I talked to a few more people, namely a former professor of mine who happens to hail from Italy. She told me that two days was definitely not enough time to see all of what Rome had to offer. In her opinion, there is a lot more to Rome than meets the eye. Because I trusted her opinion, when I got a few extra days through my serendipitous amendment, I stayed an extra night in Rome. And it is true that there is a lot to see, but I would have to disagree with my former mentor on exactly how much time it takes to see it.
Talking to people in my room at the hostel who had already been to the Colosseum, I got the low-down on how to get in. While you might think it is as simple as getting in the line, in actuality it is not because that line is longer than the Great Wall of China, let me tell you. So, benefitting from the wisdom of my experience, I will tell you that the best way to get into the Colosseum is to buy your ticket to both the Colosseum and the Roman Forum at the entrance to the Forum nearest Palatine Hill. Here the line is almost insignificant and you can use those two hours you would’ve spent waiting in line (bored out of your mind!) actually looking at things that you came to Rome to see: the remains of an ancient civilization!
I did do thorough research on all the places on my trip, but for some reason, I was unaware of how captivating the Roman Forum would be. A labyrinth of age old marble, the Roman Forum is a captivating maze of a culture long abandoned. Gone but not forgotten, this expanse of old marble puts a picture to what you have only read about in history books and anthropology classes. I didn’t think it would take more than two hours to walk around the grounds, but three hours later there was still more marble to be seen.
Inside the Roman Forum, aside from the ruins, there is a museum exhibiting all the finds from the excavations of the site as well as the complete history of how the forum was amended and changed over the course of its long, long, history. Having seen many an emperor in it’s days, it was fascinating to see how the Forum grew; as centuries passed, it became more and more modernized. Until today, that is, where now all that remains is a shell of it’s former glory.
After having seen what I thought to be the majority of the Roman Forum, I wandered back over to the Colosseum to fulfill part two of my ticket.
At the time of my visit there was a bit of construction around the Colosseum (what I assumed to be restoration, seeing as how it’s almost 2,000 years old), but I still managed to crop out the scaffolding just enough to get decent pictures. Going inside the archaic stadium, the line was still quite considerable, even at 4 in the afternoon. But, that was no matter to me since I already did my waiting in line (for all of 2 minutes).
Once in, I could tell that this wouldn’t be another 3 hour venture. Yes, it is a very cool piece of history, and architecture, but it is the same all the way around and there isn’t a whole lot else to see besides what remains of the stadium-style seating and a small exhibition on one of the upper levels. But of course ,this is one of the main reasons I, and many other people came to Rome, so you do have to do your due diligence. At least that’s what I thought, until I got cut off and pushed around whilst trying to take a simple photo. Then, that was the end of my due diligence. I caught one good selfie and high-tailed it outta there!
That night, I gotta talking with an Australian couple in my room and we all decided to head out for some food. Being in Italy, I was beyond excited for some real, authentic Italian so I went to my trusty TripAdvisor app. In my price range, the number one restaurant was called Pic-Nic Store and it was about a half an hour’s walk away. Not wanting to short ourselves on the best food in Rome, we all committed to going the distance for some pasta primavera!
Once we arrived, I was a little taken aback by the looks of the place. I wasn’t expecting fine dining by any means, but it was an unusually small space. Also, the fresh italian-style pizza we were so looking forward to seemed to be already prepared and under hot lamps. I wasn’t giving up on it just yet, but I was definitely a little perplexed by my fellow TripAdvisor reviewers. The man who greeted upon our entry was beyond gregarious, welcoming us to sit wherever we like, making sure we all had menus, making recommendations; things were looking up. Due to the fact that we came for dinner, seemingly they had run out of a few of their pasta sauces (or they would take too long to make) so we ordered what was available: carbonara and arribiata . Luckily, the most talked about sauce on TripAdvisor was the carbonara, so I was excited that they were still serving this dish. We also got a pizza to share because, at the time, we were starving and it sounded like a good idea. The owner recommended the Italian version of a supreme, with the addition of egg (something I had never seen before, but is apparently very popular in Australia). To entice us just a bit more, the owner also brought us some traditional appetizers: arancini, mozzarella sticks, and something else breaded and fried. No complaints.
When the food came, forks were flying! But after the initial starvation subsided, I found myself wondering how this place ended up as the number one restaurant in Rome. It was good, but not spectacular. The carbonara was fine, but it wasn’t the best I’ve ever had. The pizza was big and the egg was a nice touch, but it didn’t blow my mind the way people said it would. And then I realized: tourists.
So here’s the thing about TripAdvisor that can sometimes mess you up. Not everyone is seeing these things the way you do. A lot of people are wearing the “rose colored glasses” of travel. Just because this Italian food was made in Italy does not make it the best Italian food you will ever have. In fact, there are loads of Italian places just in my small town that would’ve put this place to shame. But because its Rome, every Italian restaurant is the best.
This is not unique to TripAdvisor either. Every place you walk by is serving the same half-assed Italian, pandering to the tourist’s ideal of Italian food. I don’t even know how many real Italians live in Rome because all I saw during my time was an invasive species of tourists!
Now, I acknowledge that I myself am considered a tourist by some. But I prefer to think of myself as a traveler. Yes, I wanted to see the sites of Rome, but I also wanted to experience what Rome was really about; how the history had influenced the growth and development of a now modern civilization. However, it would seem that from what I saw of Rome, the culture they have to offer is one of made-in-China souvenir shops and cold pizza cafes. It was a major disappointment.
Bouncing back from my melancholy, the next day I set off for Vatican City. The museum and surrounding space opened at 9 am so I thought that getting there around 9:30, I wouldn’t be standing in line for too long. Wrong. Before approaching the proper entrance to the museum, the line was already wrapped around the building. As I stood in horror, a man came up to me and asked if I’d like to join a tour. I shook him off saying that it was a little out of my price range, but then he told me that he could give me a student discount. I am no longer a student, but if someone made the mistake that I was and was willing to give me discounts because of it, who am I to correct them?
After a bit of hemming and hawing, I figured why not? Yesterday at the Roman Forum, I found myself wishing I had sprung for a guided tour or at least an audioguide. Now, here I am at one of the most important places on earth and I should probably learn something about it. So for €40, I joined a 50 person tour (the largest I have ever been a part of), skipped the line, and began the most frustrating two hours of my life thus far.
To be continued…