Travelling Alone Part 3 - a 3 day adventure in Italy's capital
02.10.2007 - 05.10.2007 28 °C
Pretty much as soon as I settled into my seat on the train to Rome I realized that I didn’t have my journal. A slow panic started rising up in me and I searched every pocket of my bag, and then I searched them again. I could not believe that it wasn’t with me! The directions, address, phone number and confirmation number for my hostel in Rome where in the journal, along with the confirmation number for my flight from Rome to Frankfurt, not to mention the hundreds of stories and feelings that I had recorded in it during my previous travels. I cursed myself for not looking under my bed in Florence (the first time that I have EVER forgotten to do that) and thought about returning to Florence, but not only would that waste tons of precious time, but it wouldn’t guarantee that I’d get my journal back. I called the hostel and gave him my address and a description of the journal and he agreed to send it to me if he found it, but I as of yet I haven’t got it, so I presume it is lost forever. I spent the rest of the train brooding in self-pity and trying to plan my itinerary in Rome, but I was too overcome with exhaustion from racing all over Florence, so I napped.
The nap had refreshed me and some of my old excitement had come back by the time I arrived in Rome, but my spirits sank again when I realized that I had no idea what the address or phone number of my hostel was, let alone the directions! I found the tourist office mentioned in my guide book and, thankfully, they were able to tell me how to find it. It was as if my body knew everything was ok now, because as soon as I got the directions, I got all of my energy back and felt ready to take on Italy’s capital full storm ahead, with or without my journal.
The Freestyle hostel I was staying at was a small, but very warm and communal type of place. Breakfast, along with a daily dinner consisting of salad, a pasta dish, and wine were included in the nightly rate, and I planned to take full advantage of each. Dinner would be served at 7pm and it was only 4:30pm, so I decided to go for a walk in the area after I had settled in. Shortly before I left, the power went out on the whole street, so I left wondering if there would actually be supper at 7pm.
The weather was beautiful: the sun was still deliciously hot and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The first place I found was the Santa Maggiore Cathedral, and luckily I had planned ahead and brought a shawl to wrap around my too-short-for-in-a-cathedral skirt, otherwise I wouldn’t have been allowed to see the outrageous splendor inside. I really imagined that I would have been tired of seeing cathedrals by now, but it seemed that almost every one I saw was more beautiful than the last one. The countless gold engravings, marble sculptures, ancient paintings and frescoed windows are completely unexplainable and I hope everyone has a chance to see at least one beautiful cathedral in their lifetime. After I marveled at that I continued down the road to the Coliseum and found it strange that I wasn’t recognizing anything yet. I guess you look at things in another way and therefore remember things differently when you’re twelve years old. The Coliseum, however, looked exactly how I remembered it, and although it did impress me a second time with its immense size, it failed to lure me into paying the 10EUR to see the inside of it again. Being there opened up a flood of memories and for awhile I stood looking at it and reminisced about being there with my mom and sister, and how Anja had never been so excited in her life; the Coliseum was her number one sight in Europe as far as I can remember. From there I started circling back to my hostel, with the intentions of seeing the Piazza del Quirinale and the San Carlo Quattro Fontana (an intersection which has a fountain representing each season on each corner). The Piazza was disappointing, but offered a nice view of the sunset, and the intersection was just a busy car place, with some ancient, but un-kept fountains. On the way home I was surprised to find the Opera in which we had seen the ballet, Giselle. The tickets had been really cheap, so I figured it couldn’t hurt to see if there were some tickets. Phrase book in hand, I went to the information desk and was informed that a ballet was indeed playing tonight, at 8:30pm and that the cheapest tickets were 17EUR, but that the box office didn’t open until 7:30pm. Excited about my find I rushed back to the hostel, just in time for dinner. We lined up at the kitchen door old-school style and someone ladled our dinner into our bowl and then we helped ourselves to the salad and the boxed wine. There were no tables, so everyone sat on cushiony stools around the room with their bowls on their laps and their plastic wine glasses by their feet. The food was good, everyone was happy and soon lively chatter filled the warm air. A girl had gotten tickets to see the Pope the next morning and invited me to come with her, which I gladly accepted and I asked her if she wanted to join me at the ballet, but she was wiped and everyone else had planned to see the opera playing the next night, so it looked like I was going alone. I made it to the box office shortly before 8pm and it turned out the ticket was only 11EUR!!
The foyer of the opera house was the picture of royalty with red carpeting, large marble columns, a grand piano, and a high ceiling with huge crystal chandeliers. The nicely clad patrons held their slender champagne glasses and conversed in polite little groups, while the children sat on the velvet benches in strained reserved ness. I found my seat and while I drank in the theatrical atmosphere I attempted to interpret the program that I had been given, but all I could gather was that it was an old ballet, performed countless times and re-choreographed by an Italian. Luckily my neighbour spoke English, and he informed me that it was Sleeping Beauty, which was coincidentally the first ballet I had ever performed in: fourteen years ago, at age five, I was a cat in Virginia Nelder’s Sleeping Beauty. The first act was a little boring because I found the choreography to be quite simple and the story to be quite drawn out; I hoped that it would get better. It did indeed and the second and third act where enjoyable to say the least and I left the theatre feeling completely satisfied. It was almost 1am, and I didn’t feel comfortable wearing my short skirt, so I wrapped my shawl around it, and just to be on the safe side, I held my pepper spray ready all the way to the hostel.
Earlier in the day I had noticed a few itchy red bumps on my ankles and shins, but I had dismissed them as bug bites. During my afternoon walk they had started to ooze yellow pus and I figured they were just irritated from the dust, but during the ballet I started to worry about them because they continued to ooze, more of them had appeared and they had all become quite swollen and gotten extremely hard. Back at the hostel the manager and I decided that I must have come in contact with either a poisonous plant or some vicious bugs, but there was nothing we could do other than wash them with hot water.
The next morning they had big crusts on them, so I washed and bandaged them, but they remained horribly itchy and I was forced to continue wiping them throughout the day which was a little embarrassing and quite disgusting. But I was convinced to have a super day anyway.
Anastacia and I took the crowded underground to the Vatican, found some seats in the Vatican square and waited for the Pope to come. There were hundreds, if not thousands of people and tons of school groups, religious groups and other tour groups. The sun beat down on all of us viciously and I was quite glad that I had a cap, but many people, especially the old ones, were resorting to folding up their maps into paper hats; the childish hats on the gray heads created quite a hilarious contrast. Finally he showed up and drove by us in his Pope-mobile, surrounded by an army of suited bodyguards and the Vatican employed Swiss guards. After every group in attendance was recognized individually, an introduction was said in five languages and then the Pope held mass in Italian. We left shortly afterwards because neither of us were religious, and we had only come for our celebrity sighting, but I must say that I’m glad I saw him – he’s a cute little guy and not nearly as scary looking as he was in the papers a few years ago. Anastacia went to go wait in the mile-long queue for the Vatican museums and I continued on to the Campo di Fiori which is a large market square surrounded by tons of shops. I wound my way through Rome’s confusing streets and without too much difficulty arrived at the café Peru, which was supposed to have the best and cheapest coffee in Rome. It was a small place, frequented by locals and crowded with people sipping their espressos and macchiatos while standing. I ordered the espresso, joined the crowd and enjoyed feeling like a local. The Campo di Fiori was much smaller than I remembered which probably has a lot to do with the fact that I got a lot bigger, but it was just as lively as before. I meandered between the stalls, compared spice prices, ogled a whole swordfish, and finally I began ordering my spices and with some successful haggling I got it five euros cheaper. A fountain spluttered cold, clear water and I filled my bottle, which was a much better experience than my usual habit of sneaking into restaurant bathrooms and filling it from the tap. Some people say you shouldn’t drink the tap water in Italy, but it’s not like its Africa and I wasn’t going to pay 2EUR for each little bottle of water.
From there I shopped around, got lost and stumbled upon the ancient cat sanctuary, the Sacred Area of Largo Argentina, which is a city block of ruins sunk beneath ground level and a charity vaccinates, spades, neuters, and feeds the cats in the sanctuary. I explored the nearby Piazzo Navona, which is a lively artist inhabited square surrounded by a huge cathedral, ritzy restaurants and interesting little shops. I had always wanted a caricature of myself, so I decided to get one here and I’m quite pleased with the results. It was terribly hot and I must have been sweating, because the artist drew a few beads of sweat on my forehead! I bought a piece of original art and as I made my way towards the Pantheon one of the many relentlessly aggressive waiters approached me and offered me a free cappuccino. I had seen how they lure people in, so I ignored him and kept walking, but he wouldn’t give up so I asked him what he meant and it turned out that he did actually just want to give me a free cappuccino. I took a seat, he brought me a cappuccino, spoke with me for a few minutes and then I was alone to enjoy my cappuccino and watch the people go by. When I was finished I simply said thank you and that was that!
We had not seen the Pantheon last time, so I was quite excited to see this 2000 year old temple. Not only is it extremely well preserved, but it also boasts the largest poured concrete dome; architects today still can’t figure out how it was erected without the support of vaults, arches or ribs. It is indeed impressive, despite the ridiculous amounts of tourists in and around it. The entrance is breasted by rows and rows of massive pillars, and the dome inside is huge and perfect. A hole in the middle of the dome lets light into the Pantheon and was used in the early days as a sundial and to record the dates of solstices and equinoxes.
On the way home I made a quick stop at the Fontana di Trevi, which is the nicest fountain I’ve ever seen, but I had already seen it and there are just too many people to make staying there long enjoyable. I made it just in time for supper again and it was so great to be able to compare stories with other travelers, give tips on what you’ve already seen and get tips from others. The communal atmosphere at the Freestyle hostel is exactly what a person traveling alone needs and I recommend it to anyone visiting Rome. We spent most of the evening talking and before I went to bed the manager gave me a cortisol cream he had picked up for me. I washed my still badly pussing wounds and spread it on them; the cream almost immediately relieved the itchiness and by the morning the wounds had lost some of their swelling, but they were still oozing and forming crusts.
I had planned to get to the Vatican Museums early in order to beat the line up, but I got lost and the line was a mile long again by the time I got there, so I decided to skip the museums and continue on. I walked along the outside of the old city walls and really enjoyed the relative quiet that presided on the winding, tree lined road. It was a huge wall and seemed impossible to scale; the perfect protection. I daydreamed of ancient battles and imagined enemy armies trying to get over the wall while the Roman armies shot them down mercilessly. At a break in the wall I re-entered the old city and found a park with a great view of the city outside and inside the wall. I was shocked to see how far I had walked the day before! From the park I slowly descended the hill into the Trastevere region, which is known for being authentically Italian and largely untouched by tourists. I crossed the river from Trastever and landed in the ancient city. Ruins stretched their ancient structures above me and I was awed at how old everything was. I reached the Roman forum and as I observed it I tried to recreate the ancient buildings in my imagination. It was pretty impressive, but I didn’t have the energy or the interest in history to walk through it all, so I observed it from above and then began my long walk across the city and to the Spanish steps. I stopped at a lovely restaurant for lunch and watched the business groups come and go as I munched my chicken breast. The Spanish Steps were even more disappointing than they had been last time and I wondered why on earth I came back, but I was there, so I made the best of it and climbed up the hill to the park behind. The park was cool and peaceful; a nice change from the touristy and hot Spanish Steps. My back was starting to hurt from all of the walking, so I sat on a bench and listened to the birds and the children playing. It was shortly before 3pm and I was wondering what I should do next, as I had seen pretty much everything that I had wanted to see, when I realized that I might make it to the Vatican museum before it closed.
There wasn’t a single person waiting in front of the entrance and I was able to walk straight into the foyer! My student card gave me a 4EUR discount and then I was in. A word about the Vatican: it manages to stay its own independent state by minting its own coins (euros with the Pope’s face), running its own press and postal system, maintaining an army of Swiss guards (which still wear the ancient uniforms that resemble a jester’s costume) and hoarding art in its museums. I sent a postcard from the Vatican post office and then I entered the huge museum. Galleries upon galleries flew past me and vast hallways with sculptures, maps and tapestries loomed all around me. It was overwhelming, but I enjoyed it and took in as much as I could; my brain was popping with art by the time I got to the Sistine Chapel. Luckily I’m not ridiculously short, so I was able to see over the sea of heads with some tiptoeing. It is a small, fairly dark chamber and is covered in paintings. The famous ceiling by Michelangelo was there in all its splendour and despite the guards’ frequent warnings of ‘NO PHOTOS’ flashbulbs popped all around me. For some reason I decided to behave and not take any photos. The crowd pushed me along and before I knew it, I was at the exit. I took one last look at everything and then with a woosh, I was back in the museum. My back was seriously hurting now and I was in desperate need of a seat, but I couldn’t find anything. The museum was closing now, and I knew I had to hurry if I wanted to see the actual Vatican cathedral, so I sucked it up and kept trudging. I made it to the Vatican cathedral just in time, and after wrapping my skirt in my shawl I was allowed to enter. Mass was taking place, so booming, echoing voices filled the cavernous rooms, but there still managed to be an tremendous silence. Nothing can beat the beauty and size of the Vatican and I felt eternally thankful that I had made it in time to see it again. I think I could go there every day and still be amazed! I was so amazed that I forgot how tired I was, but after wandering around the cathedral for half an hour I began to feel my back pain again – it was time to call it a day, and what a day it was! I have no idea how far I walked, but it was far, really far, way too far and now I was dead. But I had seen absolutely everything that I had wanted to and felt that that was worth every minute of pain.
I took the underground to the train station and figured out that I needed to catch a 4:30am bus in order to make it to the airport on time! Supper at the hostel was even better than before because I knew quite a few of the backpackers by now, and after supper we spent the evening drinking wine and eating cheese and olives. I stayed up until 1:30am with the intentions of staying up all night, but then everyone went to bed and I was overcome with tiredness, so I slept for an hour. The trip home was long, I was dead-tired and felt like I had been traveling for a month, rather than just a week. But I loved every single minute of it and wouldn’t have traded it for anything. It would have been great to have Kyle with me, but I must say that it was nice to be free to do whatever I pleased, whenever I pleased and at whatever pace I pleased. I truly hope to go back to Italy and explore the very south of it, but for now I’m totally pleased with my week long Italian adventure, and a month later my leg sores are finally just scars! Nothing could have been better!