My final stop in Italy before re-joining my tramily (tribe + travel + family) was to Rome to see the beautiful historic cityscape. As mentioned previously, exploring Italy has was a dream of mine for a long while. I wanted to see the Vatican, even though I have since strayed from organized religion. While I was in Rome, I learned that while the historical sites are insightful and awe-worthy, the city itself was much less than spectacular.
Arrival: Where do I go? What is this place? Why is it…trashy?
I arrived late at night from my short stay in Florence. Around 11 PM, shops were beginning to close and people were adjourning from the train station in numbers. It was time to head to my Airbnb, very late at night. Meaning to get smaller denomination of Euros, I was at the train station with only two €20 bills. This is where the premonition of things to go wrong on this trip started. I had to take a bus from the station to my Airbnb across town. Rolling my heavy luggage across the cracked parking lot (oh, how this reminded me of our wonderful roads back in Michigan 😑), I found a machine that dispense transit tickets. Deciphering the screen on-board, however, was a challenge. There was a mode to change to English, but what exactly type of transit tickets were being offered and what I needed was very unclear to me. This was confusingly frustrating, but I found the option I was looking for to get a single trip.
Attempting to put my money in the machine was fruitless, however. It did not accept any of the paper money I was giving it. There wasn’t an option for a card, either. Okay, guess I have to find another station, I thought to myself. I rolled my luggage with me indoors again to find the attached metro station which had a ticket dispensing machine. The elevator was out of order…so I had to lug all of my stuff down a (thankfully short) flight of steps. By this point I was sweating profusely due to the Roman humidity and warmth left over from the previous day. There was one machine that was functional while the rest were out of order. Trying again, I ran into the same issue with this machine. It was unable to accept any amount over 2 Euro and there was no card solution. Now I was upset. This and looking around and realizing how disgusting the metro station was. Puddles of water (or pee? It was smelly), trash littered all over, and a cavernous, run-down looking station was uninviting to say the least. I made my way back upstairs full-sweat and asked for help from a closing shop. I wanted to see if they’d give me change for my €20 bill so I could at least use the machines. They flatly refused as they were closing, so I stormed out. Then, I went back down to the metro stop to ask these security guards (the staffed ticket booth was closed) if they could help me out. Again, nothing. Made my way back up. Trying the machine outside one more time, I got visibly frustrated and punched it a few times. Finally, I gave up and decided to just wait for the next bus, which wasn’t for another 45 minutes, and just get on without paying.
Almost an hour and a half into this painful start, the bus finally arrived. I boarded and waited for almost another 40 minutes while the bus just sat there, seemingly in anticipation of other riders. Only a small handful of others boarded the bus, meanwhile I sat in frustration and sweat aboard this hot, run-down bus that sputtered its fumes into the air. Finally en route, I got off on the stop where my Airbnb was located to walk and roll my luggage over more garbage and broken glass. Yuck. I was taken aback: how could a city so historic, once so powerful, have such an absolutely nasty visage? Why was there trash all over? Why were the metro stations putrid with puddles? Why did I feel like I was in a ghetto right in one of the most central parts of the city? I was dismayed, but tired. I slogged the rest of the way to my Airbnb, got inside, spent 20 minutes trying to figure out how to turn on the air conditioning as I’ve sweated clearly through all of my layers of clothing by now. I cranked it to the lowest possible temperature at the highest speed setting, and went to bed, resolving that tomorrow had to be better.
The Vatican Museum
The next morning, my cousin and aunt arrived in town from Florence. We purchased online tickets to visit the Vatican Museum, so I made my way there. I cleaned myself off and went about headed to the museum. Another sunny hot and humid day greeted me as I went outside, and I boarded the bus once again. Sweating my way to the stop, I realized I was on the south side of the Vatican entrance without any easy way to make it around the tiny State. I wandered my way around the perimeter taking the wrong route twice, finally passing through a small opening that allowed me to walk through St. Peter’s Square. By this point, I was once again sweating profusely through my clothing. However, at least I was doing so on the most famous square of the Catholic Church, lined with ornate, decorative architecture and statues. Finally, I made my way through waves of tourists and third-party phony tour sales guides to meet my relatives in front of the museum entrance.
During our visit through the museum, we saw historic artwork, sculptures, and imagery most important to the history of the Catholic Church and the Vatican. Moving our way through the museum, I was again struck by the intricacy and elaborate nature of the artwork. This is a recurring theme in Italy, and it did not disappoint. Not just the artwork itself, but also the walls and ceilings were beautiful, adorned with striking detail and artistic mastery.
We also were able to see the Sistine Chapel. However, there are very strict rules against loud talking and against taking photographs/videos in the chapel. Therefore, I don’t have any to show you here. What I can tell you is that it is absolutely breathtaking and a treat to see Michelangelo’s signature work. The ceiling depicts nine different scenes from the Book of Genesis, revolving around the central work, the Creation of Adam: his outstretched hand reaching toward’s God’s, symbolizing God’s creation of man.
Following our museum tour, we headed to the gift shop then out on St. Peter’s Square to take in the outdoor scenery. We made our way inside Basilica di San Pietro (St. Peter’s Basilica). The inside of this church was just as breathtaking as the museum, if not more so due to the sheer height of the inside and the artwork that adorns it.
After visiting the inside of the church, we snapped some pictures before my cousin and aunt had to depart to catch their flight to London.
I stayed a bit longer at St. Peter’s Square to snap some more photos of the beautiful scene.
The rest of the day was spent finding dinner and headed back to my Airbnb.
The next day, I decided to venture out more into the city and discover the other historical landmarks that Rome is well-known for over the ages. Putting on another clean shirt and hoping for less sweat (spoiler: that didn’t happen), I ventured out from my apartment to the city. I picked up a handful of groceries and dropped them off, then headed out in earnest to see the city. My first stop was to the Pantheon to take in this 2,000 year old temple with a beautiful dome.
My goal was to hit as many sights as I felt I could in one day. Next up, Chiesa di Sant’Ignazio di Loyola in Campo Marzio (Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola at the Campus Martius):
This Baroque-style Roman Catholic Church was built in the mid 1600s
After, to the Trevi Fountain:
Visitors from all over toss coins over their shoulders into the fountain. This symbolizes that one day you will be able to return to Rome safely. I finally wandered to Piazza Navona.
Conversations and Familiar Faces
After headed back to my Airbnb, I met my roommates that were staying in the adjacent apartment. A woman and her daughter from Bologna were in Rome for the weekend. I tried to have a conversation with her, but quickly realized the woman only spoke English. However, I realized this was an opportunity to meet people from another culture, so I tried my best to communicate with her using my phone and Google Translate. We painfully managed to get a few words across before the daughter came out and realized what we were trying to do. She spoke English pretty well, so we ended up having a couple hour long conversation. It was awesome to meet these new people and exchange our stories! We talked a lot about American culture, Italian culture, politics (!), and beyond. They were only there for the weekend, but we were able to exchange a variety of ideas and learn about each other.
Afterwards, a good friend of mine from home, Danielle, was in town for one night on her
transition from Europe back to Detroit. I absolutely wanted to meet up with her while we were both overseas, so we arranged to get a late dinner around the hostel she was staying at. We met up and took a taxi across the river to find a nice place to eat. The first place we went tow was closing! So we wound up across the street at a nice place called L’Insalata Ricca. We polished off a bottle of wine with our entrees of pasta and vegetables, catching up on our European adventures. She was in Montenegro for the month visiting her family from that region. Afterwards, we strolled our way down Roman streets back towards her hostel. Bidding goodbye for her flight in just several hours, I took a taxi back home and settled in for bed myself. Danielle is one of my favorite people in the world, and I was so happy we got to meet up!
During this trip, I also met up with a fellow Kub, Eric. It was nice to see another face that I knew, especially in a city I was honestly having a tough time in. We grabbed some drinks at an Irish pub, catching up about travels and learning more about each other. We then ventured our way to a really cool establishment called The Albert. We struck up conversation with the bartender and bar owner, exchanging more travel stories and plans for the future. This was a cool, authentic experience and if you’re in Rome in need of some alcoholic refreshment, I highly recommend checking out this place.
Last Day: More Roman Challenges
After riding a euphoric high the previous night, I found myself again battling the elements and relative atmosphere around the city. I hadn’t stopped sweating since I got to Italy, so that was difficult. On top of that, I tried to find a wifi cafe to almost no avail. I spent the morning looking around as an ominous-looking thunderstorm rolled in. I waded around in search for cafes while the sky slowly started to open up. What first was a sprinkle became a near-torrential downpour, soaking me and my (thankfully waterproof) backpack. I stood on the the porch entrance to a tiny market to shield myself as much as I could from the rain, but I was still soaked by that point. This was definitely my fault due to a lack of planning, but it served to further hinder my Roman experience.
Once the skies let up a little, I ventured towards a cafe I thought would have internet. However, it ended up being a traditional, old-school Italian cafe serving only newspapers and tiny espressos. Exasperated and still soaked, I ordered an espresso, gulped it down, and tried to regroup. There was eventually one internet-enabled cafe, but it was crammed, with no A/C, and had limited “internet hours”. I gave up and decided to just head back to my Airbnb. During the bus ride, which was without air conditioning, I continued to sweat and was rattled around by the awful Roman streets, which are in comparable shape to Michigan roads, littered with cracks and potholes. At this moment, I pretty much decided it wasn’t worth staying until my original date. I changed my flight booking to be two days sooner on Monday to head back to my tramily in Bulgaria. I had one last day to explore Rome, and frankly for me that was enough.
The last landmark I officially visited was the Colosseo or Colosseum, built in 70-80 AD, and it is the largest amphitheater ever built. Previously home to gladiator events entertaining crowds well over 60,000, today it is now a world-famous tourist attraction. With its engineering excellence and iconic appearance, the Colosseum has withstood the test of time to remain a sight to see in Rome to this day.
When In Rome: Get the Hell Out
I hate to say this so casually, but after the sum of my Italian experiences, I can say I definitely was underwhelmed. Not so much due to the architecture and history, but due to the city and tourist-nature of the places I went to. Venice was a nice change of pace, but it was crowded, absolutely crowded with loud, clamoring tourists. This, I expected. It is also a difficult place to be vegan, as there are little to no options for vegetarian fare. Florence was probably the best of the three cities I visited, having a nice balance between more bohemian-style places and historical attractions. But Rome… Rome was a different story.
Between the disgusting metro stations and dirty streets, rough roads and unrelenting heat and humidity, the experience in the city was a rather miserable one for me, to be perfectly honest. So much so that I said “screw this” and booked my flight two days earlier than scheduled. It is hard to navigate, full of tourists, riddled with homelessness, and with awful roads, I was left to wonder what I underestimated about the city. The Romans, after all, had empires that stretched from east to west, that invented modern engineering principles and practices that are still used today. Hell, some of the aqueducts are still in use today. So what went wrong? My theory is the Italian way of life, extraordinary care-free and lax, has seeped into Rome. Rome was a progressive, intelligent State that conquered ideas and lands. Over time after the fall of the Roman Empire, this must have fallen off sharply. Not everything is awful: of course, the historical sites are still around and have cultural impact. However, it isn’t a place for the more anxious, the more motivated individual. Also, there was garbage everywhere. I don’t really know the cause of this, maybe due to the tourists, but it wasn’t nearly this bad in equally-touristy Venice. Walking over puddles of mud, construction, and trash didn’t create a nice visual of the place in my mind. That, and Rome is very expensive. A decent meal at a restaurant will run you north of €15 easily (close to $20 USD), even for vegetarian fare. Modern conveniences like wifi and air conditioning are sporadic. I spent dinner one night at a vegan restaurant, but was sweating profusely while eating my sandwich. It was warmer inside than it was outside the restaurant. Not cool, literally.
Not every place is paradise, as I have found out now first-hand. That’s okay; you live and learn what places are great for you and what places just don’t appeal to you. Rome happened to be one of the latter. I won’t be returning, at least not any time soon. Being overseas and visiting different places however gives me that perspective and knowledge to determine what type of places I’d like to visit and ultimately live in.
To Sofia I go…