Author’s note: For the purpose of this six-part travel blog series, “summer” is defined as two weeks from the end of June to mid-July 2014, and “Europe” is defined as several cities in Italy, as well as Prague in the Czech Republic.
We began in Rome.
What do you think of when you think of Rome?
I’d been there twice before — once when I was 16, once when I was 19 — but my arrival this year still surprised me.
Rome is an old city, and old cities are rarely polished. Some tourists may feel disillusioned by the amount of graffiti (one of the things that most impressed me was how they kept the historic monuments unblemished, while everything else had a good heaping of blemish), but it might help to remember that Roman graffiti is a tradition going back to ancient times.
However, some aspects of Rome this year matched my memory. Like how easy it was to glance up and lose your breath.
Who appreciates Rome (and by extension, Europe) most? The historians, the artists, the archaeologists, the architects. And the romantics. As a writer, I cannot deny I am a type of romantic. In college, I enjoyed a couple Roman history and archaeology classes, but my art history and architecture knowledge is nearly nonexistent. I still love visiting both Rome and Europe. All this year, I got a thrill out of counting off the days to my departure: Soon I will be in Rome.
Then you arrive in a vast, bustling, impatient city where you’d better not forget about your bag for a moment, where there is always someone seeking to take advantage, and your surroundings are grimier than you’d like to know. The same as any international city.
This is the thing about Rome: for centuries now, it has been a tourist town. I don’t think there is a single day of the year that passes without a tour group striving to get from one museum to a recommended pizzeria and back to their hotel. So inevitably, there is an established culture that feeds on tourists. You must be aware of this, in order to go to Rome and escape without being conned.
Travel tip: when you need to consult a map, always step out of the middle of the sidewalk or square and put your back to a wall. This is not only considerate to the other people moving past you, but there’s nothing that screams “I’m a distracted lost hapless tourist please come pickpocket me” like burying your head in a map, lifting it only occasionally to glance for street signs and landmarks. You’re still radiating that message with your back to the wall, but at least no one can sneak up on you from behind.
As for the Italian residents, they tolerate their tourists. After all, this is their home, their neighborhood. They are just trying to get through the day, and the tourists are always there. Every day of the year. There’s always some dolt getting stuck in the metro entrance, stopping in the middle of the street to take pictures, trying to ask you directions in a language you don’t understand.
And yet, for the tourists, there is a magic to be found in Rome too, if you have so much as a single romantic metacarpal in your body. Because Rome is old. Thousands of years old. Archaeologists find evidence of human civilization in that area dating back 10,000 years. The legend of its founding involves a wolf suckling two human babies. You can yet walk through structures that were the feats of past millenia, of men whose bones have turned to dust.
Now there is one way that Rome extends a friendly hand to all who pass through it: the fountains. As my traveling companion explained to me, all the free-flowing public fountains of Rome — from those that are simply a protruding spigot, to the grandiose attractions — provide potable water.
And our tour guide told us there are no green spaces in Rome, but that’s not quite true.
I can’t recommend the Villa Borghese as a wholly tranquil place, since you must navigate between the persistent vendors and the tourists on wheeled contraptions careening all over the walks, but it’s still a good place to get off the cobblestones and enjoy the shade.
Now I’m sure you want a restaurant recommendation. I certainly did. I love Italian food, and I’d listened to Barbara Kingsolver rhapsodize over the universal authenticity and quality of Italian restaurants.
So once you arrive in Rome and start scrutinizing the restaurants, it may come as a shock just how many restaurants:
- Stay in business solely because there are always tourists who simply don’t want to walk any further
- Rely on prepackaged food that they microwave and serve to customers (this is true of not just Italian restaurants, of course, but I’m sure happens all over Europe; I spotted the same practice in Spain, back in 2009)
That said, sometimes even the prepackaged food is very good.
Travel tip: restaurants like the one featured above may look like everything you want in a Roman restaurant, but still offer bad food and creepy service. Try the neon one next door instead, the one for which I was not sufficiently adventurous. Let me know how that goes.
When visiting Rome, the temptation — or the inevitability — is to over-plan. There are only so many hours, and so many things to see, to do, to taste. You’ve got your metro pass and map, you may have even calculated how long it’ll take to get between places. You have an itinerary.
(Or, you have next to none of those things and spend your time wandering lost until you expire. Or something. I don’t know how the non-planners live.)
What you don’t want to take into account, though, is how you’ll tire, and how — unless your true passion is for art and history and archaeology — being footsore and overwhelmed will drain your appreciation for the items further down in your itinerary.
Here is something I had forgotten: managing a successful trip, being a good traveler, involves skills that can get rusty like any other type of skills. And one of the most crucial skills is flexibility. Things will not go according to plan, and you’ve got to know how to roll with it. There are good experiences to be had even if you didn’t know about them in advance.
Also, the bus stop signs are surprisingly helpful. If you’re outside the range of your map, your phone battery dies or Google Maps is telling you lies, and all else fails, just pick a bus number with familiar stops listed (ideally Termini Station), from which you can get back to the place you call home while in Rome.
If you do find yourself back at Termini and looking for a meal, try to find Ristorante Da Nazzareno (Via Magenta, 35, one block from the north exit). There are many, many bad food options around Termini, so we were lucky to blindly pick one of the good ones on our second try.
Also, if you don’t care for gelato but still want a refreshing treat in hot weather, look for Pascucci (Via de Torre Argentina N., 20, off of Corso Vittorio Emanuelle II). They are friendly and have excellent fruit milkshakes.
And remember: even with all the reasons to be always on your guard, some things and people are there just to make you smile. You might find that a few coins in exchange is a fair trade.
Things we did of which I do not have photographs:
- Hydromania, slightly outside Rome but accessible by bus. A small waterpark by American (Texan?) standards, but still refreshing. Highly recommended if it’s summertime and you just want to stop walking for half a day oh my god please. Don’t cross the lifeguards; they are stern.
- Le Domus Romane di Palazzo Valentini, which was at the time of our visit one of the highest-rated Roman museums on TripAdvisor. But our passion for archaeology and history were not high enough to appreciate the exhibit for its own merits, as all we really wanted at the time was somewhere to sit.
- Galleria Borghese, a lovely museum packed with paintings and sculptures and also, possibly my favorite, nice little couches in many of the rooms. The staff require that you check coats and bags and carry anything with you in a plastic bag that they provide.
- Schegge Leather Shop on Via del Corso, which had a really helpful and English-fluent saleswoman who assisted me in the purchase of a long-desired leather jacket.