I arrived in Rome on 9/11. For some reason I seem to be frequently out of the country on 9/11 at least 3 of the last 5 years anyway.
I found my hostel quickly and got setup in my 6 bed dorm. All the other beds were in various states of made-ness so I knew I had roommates. You never know what you’re going to get in a hostel. Some have gender specific dorms but more and more are mixed. Still, the hostels do a good job of managing the loads to accommodate the comfort of their guests. You get options of bathrooms in-room (ensuite), separate stand alone showers and toilettes with closable doors, or gender specific group bathroom/shower facilities. Although Goalfever, the hostel I stayed at in Essen, didn’t quite have enough facilities for the ladies, either that or they just felt more comfortable brushing their teeth with their boyfriends in the men’s room. Whatever the reason, when I came out of the shower area I had to question if I was actually in the right place.
My hostel in Rome, The Yellow, was a very well appointed hostel with a full bar next to the lobby, a basement outfitted for beer-pong, and some fun custom drinks like the “Chuck-Norris-Roundhouse-Kick-To-The-Head”.
I met the bulk of my roommates around 5:30am the first morning (no worries guys). There was a burst of laughter and four of them came stumbling in. They’d been out and had found that elusive state of drunkenness where everything is funny. From my top bunk I watched through sleepy unfocused eyes. A strange Canadian woman named Fern noticed I was awake and decided to strike up a conversation with me.
“Are you awake?”
“Oh, sorry. This is what happens when bars close.” As if I was new to the phenomenon, and then she shuffled off.
A short time later I was asleep again…
For my first day in Rome I decided to play with the public transportation system. While efficient, the underground in Rome is very very dirty. Actually quite a bit of Rome is dirty. Take that many people in that size of space and add a casual disregard for cigarette butts and small garbage and you get a mess. At least around the main train station I saw staff dedicated to sweeping and wiping up after the throngs of people, but not many other places.
I found the B&B where Summer and I would be staying for a few days without too much difficulty (about 30minutes of wandering and looking at maps). All around the location were signs to St. Peters and the Vatican Museum so I decided to follow them and get my first taste of the amazing architecture of Rome.
The first thing I saw was the wall surrounding Vatican City, the smallest country in the world. It’s an imposing wall about 40 feet tall and just went on and on. I kept walking in the direction I’d started and as I walked I noticed it was not the way that the incredibly long line of people was headed.
I eventually walked through the north entrance of St. Peter’s square. You can tell you are entering something significant because the food carts start to get closer and closer together and the street merchants selling their brand name knockoffs are wandering through the crowds saying “Nice Lady, I give you best price” to every woman who turns their head for a moment.
All that chaos aside, when you step into the center of that imposing square you realize how effective Bernini was at his task. In 1656 he was commissioned to create the square such that all who entered it were humbled. Circling the edges are towering columns with what appear to be small sculptures adorning their tops. These sculptures are actually life-sized but due to the scale of everything in the square their actual size and detail are almost lost in the grandeur of the whole.
Then of course you have St. Peter’s Basilica, the masterpiece of Michelangelo, a truly massive structure designed to be greatest church in Christendom. I actually thought it would be bigger. Not that it isn’t a truly massive basilica but based on descriptions I’ve read I expected it to be at least half again bigger. Maybe these people I’ve read are just much shorter than I am. Regardless, this is the trouble that expectations can get you into.
I began walking from the square in a direction that seemed to make sense; I wandered off in back alleys for a couple hours watching the chaos of the people and cars. There are very few bicycles in Rome or in Italy for that matter. I think they must just be too slow for the Italians. All the rumors in that regard are true. Italians drive like maniacs. There are no lines on the streets and there is a kind of eat or be eaten mentality to traffic. The pedestrians are just as crazy, I don’t know if there is some type of state mandated break check or reaction time minimum associated with acquiring an Italian driver’s license but people would just walk in into active intersections with the faith that traffic would see them and not turn them into whatever keeps the cobblestones in place.
Back to my meanderings… I walked for several hours just trying to get a feel for the city. I would occasionally blend into a tour group (which there was no shortage of) assuming they were off to somewhere interesting and if they didn’t find it by the time I became bored with the collective I’d veer off in another direction.
With this method I found my way to the Pantheon, the oldest Church in Rome. Also, the oldest Christian church in Rome, but only because by order of Pope Boniface IV in 609AD it was reconsecrated and all the statues of Pagan gods were removed to be replaced with statues of Christian Martyred Saints. It is an ancient and imposing structure. The columns that support the entryway dwarf the masses of people gathered there. And when you enter through the massive entryway you see the magnificent dome with its giant open top. According to a discovery special I watched it is believed that the oculus was a design consideration for the unsupported dome to reduce the total weight and keep it from collapsing in on itself. This engineering marvel stood as the largest unsupported dome until until we started building domed stadiums nearly 1800 years later.
I ended up walking across Rome from the Vatican to the Coliseum, which when you first walk up on it you have to remind yourself that you are present, in Rome, standing before one of the single greatest achievements of man, however horrible its purpose by today’s standards.
The next couple days I spent close to the Hostel, re-reading Angels and Demons by Dan Brown, and tending to my largely stinky wardrobe. I didn’t want to see too many of the sights before Summer arrived. The nights were spent drinking with my Argentinean and Swiss dorm mates while wandering around the Trevasteria neighborhood of Rome. This is supposedly where the “Locals” hang out, but you really can’t go anywhere in Rome that isn’t overrun with Tourists (like ourselves).
Early early the morning of the 14th Summer flew into Leonardo Da Vinci airport. I waited by what I thought was the right arrival door. Constantly checking the “Arrivals” board, wondering why there was nobody coming out the door I realized that the door I really wanted was 300ft further down the terminal so, fearing I had missed her exit, I jogged to the customs door in the C terminal (same building) and stood anxiously waiting for her to appear. About 30 minutes passed and I was shooed away from peering around the corner at least twice by a large disgruntled Italian woman. Still no Summer. I feared that she was wandering around the terminal wondering why I wasn’t there to meet her. Eventually she appeared through the door and we were both incredibly relieved and incredibly happy to see each other. (insert lots of hugging here).
The next day we began our exploration of Rome with St. Peter’s Basilica and the Castel Sant’Angelo which were both just down the way from our B&B. We took it easy the first couple days mostly because we were happier to be hanging out with each other than to be tourists in Italy.
After our couple days at the B&B we switched to more budget accommodations. I’d booked a “cabin” at a camping site outside of Rome. Note: Italy and moreover Europe in general is very expensive. After a confusing journey and several trains we found our way to the spot where the bus for our facility was to pick us up. We met a group of other confused backpack toting travelers and communed about how none of us knew where we were supposed to be. Luckily someone had a cell phone and was able to contact the campsite and find the correct location for pickup.
We got settled in our “cabin”, basically a 300sq ft room with a bathroom and paper thin walls, Rome was quite hot so we paid for the AC option and began cooling our room to somewhere just above freezing and set back out toward Rome in pursuit of the Coliseum.
On the way we met Dave and Nikki, a couple on break from Oxford, who became our travel and drinking buddies for the next several nights. We all made our way through the Forum ruins together and into the Coliseum at the last possible entry time.
If you have the opportunity in your life to stand in that structure and consider its history take it. If you don’t feel you have the opportunity, make it. It is an awesome feeling. Not only is it a wonder of ancient engineering but to stand there and consider the realities of the Emperors that presided over the games, the sheer volume of lives lost, the fact that entire species were made extinct to entertain the masses in this same space is quite a experience even though you are looking at it through the lens of history.
We talked about how it must have been for the attendees to watch real blood being shed for entertainment and I was forced to consider the correlation to our entertainment today. We no longer lose real lives in our day to day entertainment but we have become expert at simulating it. The difference for me became more subtle that day. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to stop watching action movies or boycott video games or any other form of entertainment. I love watching stuff explode and shooting the virtual bad guys. I don’t think this makes me a bad person. I just don’t feel we’ve changed that much as a species. We’ve actually gotten better at the spectacle, we are no longer limited by the real world or its consequences, we are only limited by our imaginations, bolstered by the safe distance of fantasy.
Life as we know it wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the impact this culture had on the world. For better or worse this was a part of it.
We took a day off of Rome to hang out by the pool at the campsite and relax. We met up with Dave and Nikki at the bar and drank too much; eventually getting beers to go and trying to continue conversations in front of our cabin but we were repeatedly visited by a security guard on a bike and eventually had to end the night. As we said our goodbyes Summer and I were adopted by a stray kitten that snuck in the door as we were shutting it. There was talk about whether or not it might fit into carry on luggage but even in our inebriated state we were able to consider how unfortunate quarantine might be. Regardless it kept us company until the morning and then went about finding another foster family.
Our last must-do for Rome was the Vatican Museum. So on our last day we went to the main train station, got tickets for Venice and made our way to Vatican City. I’m not exaggerating when I say the line was a quarter mile long. While standing in line I started to envision the flat escalators from airports guiding people through the museum. That was the only way I could imagine why the line was moving as fast as it was. The reality wasn’t much different. The Vatican Museum supposedly has the largest private collection of art in the world at over 60,000 pieces. While I don’t doubt it, I can say I didn’t see it. So much art and so many people are crammed into that museum that the whole experience is a waste in my opinion. Huge tour groups overrun the entire museum. All trying to get to the Sistine Chapel. There are literally thousands of people walking in packs with little regard to others in the relatively narrow halls of the museum. If you didn’t get a good enough look at something, forget about it, trying to go back to investigate a piece after you’ve passed it is like salmon swimming upstream. I would not be surprised if people have died in some type of stampede in those halls. Fire codes and good sense seem to be suspended in the country of Vatican City. The whole experience would be vastly improved if there were specific times or days that were dedicated to tour groups and other times dedicated to independent visitors.
Beyond all that, when you finally make it into the Sistine Chapel, it’s worth it. It is such a stunning work of art that you can almost forget the two thousand other people staring up at it. The frescoes are bright and brilliant and huge. The detail is so amazing that no picture or reproduction does it justice, there is just no way to represent the feeling of turning your head and in every direction being in awe of it. I’ll save my diatribe on the need for tourists to understand how to use their cameras for another time.
Sufficed to say, if there are two things to do in Rome, they are the Coliseum and the Sistine Chapel, everything else is amazing, but those two left a lasting impression.
And we were off to Venice in the morning.