“Great empires are not maintained by timidity.” – Tacitus
Such was, and is, Rome to this day. Timid is not a word the Italian people recognize. They love life, food, the simple pleasures and being among lovely company. I did not come across an Italian during my trip who was not full of life, bursting to the seams with language and energy, proud of their culture. It’s a really wonderful thing to witness and experience firsthand.
Rome was my first stop on my most recent journey. I was (no joke) the only person under the age of 65 on my flight which led to several conversations regarding my eligibility of marriage to various grandsons (still being mulled over I’m sure). Flattered, really. As usual we arrived very early in the morning and my excitement was almost too much to bear. I had spent months prepping for this specific portion of my trip since I would be in Italy a great deal longer than other countries. I had spent a great deal of time with a tutor learning Italian, and much to my pleasure I caught on pretty well. For once, I thank high school French, but mostly I thank Roberta for putting up with an awkward perfectionist who always struggled to find the right word. You don’t realize how much you take speaking and languages for granted until you realize you don’t know how to structure a complete sentence that is more than three words.
There will be several tips for making the most of your time in Rome in the following anecdotes. Each stems from a specific experience or encounter I may have had along the way that I learned from, and that I know will benefit others greatly (budget or no budget).
Don’t expect to be put through the same longwinded experience of UK Customs. They didn’t even check my passport when going through Fiumicino. What you do have to worry about is the massive gaggle of hootin’ and hollerin’ taxi drivers and their “agents” waiting to pounce on unexpecting tourists like yourself. You can take a train from Fiumicino airport straight into the city, but it’s not worth the ridiculous walk you need to take in order to actually reach the train. Take a taxi, but make sure it’s actually a taxi. That sounds dumb, but you are actually harassed by dozens of men yelling in your face and trying to take your bags that you really just need to stay calm and find taxis that have Rome city stickers on the side. Make sure you know the address of where you are going ahead of time, even if it is just a street as well as the name of the hotel. My driver knew exactly where he was going and didn’t even have a GPS. There are so many reasons I love taking taxis into city centers rather than another perhaps cheaper way. First, you get to see the city on the way to your hotel. You can’t do this on the metro. Secondly, and most importantly for me, I am so doggone tired when I get off that plane from lack of sleep that I am so willing to pay 50 euros for a nice Italian man to drive me straight to the hotel, no hustle, no fuss. Turned out he has family in Newport News so we had some lovely things to talk about on the way there, when language barriers didn’t get in the way.
I was lodged at Hotel Stella. I loved this hotel and felt like it was a great price for the city I was staying in. I paid $100 a night for a comfy bed, TV, clean facilities, big continental breakfast, super nice receptionist, a safe for my valuables, my own bathroom, amazing housekeeping, and great location. For me, I liked being a little out of the way of crazy bustling tourists but I was still a couple blocks away from the main train station (super convenient). Breakfast was also an ideal time to stock up on snacks for later in the day. They had salami and several types of bread, nutella, fresh fruit, cakes and pastries and all kinds of coffee and tea and orange juice. Apples and bananas were always out for me to snag to have after walking around all day. I was willing to spend the extra money on a private room in Rome mainly because I was saving money in other areas. I usually mix up whether I stay in hostels or hotels or with friends just so I know I can get a break from any of the scenarios. I don’t always like staying in hostels because I really do cherish my alone time. It depends on the city I am in as to my final decision. In Rome, it was a hotel, and I saved money by walking everywhere.
Kinda crazy to imagine what this looked like in color (yes, it was originally created with different colored marble which was later stolen and used to build the Vatican. Rude).
What’s awesome about Rome is you really can just walk to the places you want to see. I highly recommend doing this instead of braving the subway or taking a taxi mainly because of everything you see on the way to your final destination. I was slightly misled by the description on Stella’s website because it says the Colosseum is a few steps away. I thought “Oh cool! It’s probably right across the street!” So wrong. It was about 1.5 miles away. In the grand scheme of things, it was a good thing. It gets you out and about experiencing every nook and cranny of Rome. It’s a city that you would be lucky to get lost in because there are historic sculptures and fountains down every street which still blows my mind. I have never before felt so immersed with the past and present at the same time. I did take a taxi to get to the Vatican, however, and it was worth it because I still got to see some awesome things on the way there, and by that point my legs were pretty much jello after a week of being an extreme powerwalker. Indulge yourself, walk. Then you don’t feel so bad about the pounds of gelato and pasta you will eat later.
Roman Forum. Debate on what this space was actually used for. Blood was probably involved.
Food. That’s really what we think of when Italy comes up isn’t it? You don’t even have to go somewhere super fancy to get amazing quality or authentic Italian meals. Do pay attention to the size of the crowd around a place though. More people, especially locals, means a place is probably your best bet for incredible cuisine. Just down the street from Hotel Stella is an incredible gelato place (whose name unfortunately escapes me) and what makes it so spectacular is that the gelato stays covered in metal containers. Apparently, the best gelato stays covered until it is being scooped for a customer. Then the flavors aren’t exposed to the air to lose their rich and creamy texture. Is it hard to resist the extravagant displays of gelato art lining the streets of Rome? Yes, very. But don’t be conned into buying gelato from these places. Another great gelato place is Grom, which is also located in cities outside of Rome. I first discovered it in Venice. You must get the crema di grom! If you want something heartier and classically Italian, find a nice restaurant and order pasta. It is so fresh and doesn’t leave you feeling greasy afterwards. You must always try authentic Italian pesto. I took a pesto making class in Cinque Terre and it is crazy the taste difference between pesto made in a blender and pesto pounded by hand (it’s also a workout, lawd). Italians also love their seafood. I can’t account for the best dishes because I detest seafood, except salmon. Most restaurants have menus in other languages besides Italian, which I sometimes took as a sign for a more touristy location. I found these near big sites like the Colosseum. When in doubt, ask your taxi driver or a local where the place to go is, so you are bound to love it.
Nightlife is pretty cool in Rome. My friend Becca and I had gone past a couple bars on many of our day walks and had seen a couple Irish pubs we wanted to try out. The first one was a dud – overpriced drinks and lousy company (The Nag’s Head). Then we tried out The Scholar’s Lounge. The atmosphere could not have been more polar opposite between the two locations. The place was crowded with locals and was deceptively large. It had several large rooms you could cozy up in or chat about the football games on TV. Everyone was friendly and easy to talk to. It was also cool finally getting to practice my Italian – the ultimate test is always in a loud bar where distractions and noises abound. We met some awesome locals who took us to a disco called Mood. They claimed it was a mere 500 feet down the street…20 minutes later….we arrived. You had to walk down the stairs because it was in a basement of some sort, one of those hidden clubs that you definitely don’t notice during the daytime and somehow just magically appears when you are looking for a place to have a good time at night. Guys definitely have to pay a cover, but that is pretty standard. For girls, it is hit or miss – better make sure you are dressed appropriately. The playlist was well put together and channeled a lot of different music genres so everyone was happy and the drink selection was pretty extensive. You’re given a plastic cup which is brilliant because you don’t have to worry about stepping on shattered glass (it happens). Main point, get to know locals and they will show you good time. We still keep in touch!
A really important artifact – so the guide said.
When it comes to sightseeing, Rome is jam packed with awesome choices. It would take you forever to see them all. I hit up all the classics and it was worth it. I’m such a classical history buff I died walking through the Colosseum and through the Roman Forum which you really have to use your imagination to visualize what it once looked like because it’s mostly just piles of rocks and crumbled walls. I think it’s pretty humorous during tours when guides point to an unusually normal looking rock and claim it is something super important. How do you know though, really? It gets me every time. I highly suggest skipping the line and going with a guide through the Colosseum. It’s worth the extra money to bypass a super long, slow moving line and you also get a free tour of the Roman Forum. Our guide Helen was fantastic! She knew her history and was also hilarious which made the experience even more enjoyable. She was also British which made my day. The Vatican Museum is also a place you need to suck it up and buy the skip the line ticket or else you will actually never get in. Don’t hand any cash to those sellers on the street though, make sure they actually take you to their tourism office where you can buy your ticket there. Otherwise it is a scam. Trust me, there will be dozens of people trying to sell tours to you, be smart and don’t pick a scam. The Galleria Borghese is something you need to purchase your tickets ahead of time for, because you are given a specific time and date to visit. Be early for the appointment – I had trouble actually finding the villa at all (mainly because my sense of direction is horrible). I went in a giant loop of the whole park before I realized if I had just turned right at the beginning I would have found it. Figures. The park the Villa is in is pretty spectacular too – there’s a zoo and everything! Don’t miss out on other classics like St. Peter’s Basilica (which is free) or the Sistine Chapel which you can only see if you go through the Vatican Museum first. Be prepared to be completely silent and not take any pictures. You will be tackled to the ground. Not really, but the guards will make sure you never make that mistake again. The Sistine Chapel wasn’t at all what I expected. I guess I imagined there to be more painted figures and for them to be smaller. Not sure where I got this intelligence from, but whoever it was proved to be incorrect. Also, don’t pay to skip the line at St. Peter’s. Why would you pay for something that is free?
I could write about Rome forever. The adventures I had there were wonderful and I plan on returning on my upcoming trip. Until then, all I can do is live vicariously through my photos (surprisingly I took a lot here) and the friends Becca and I made on our night out. Then I think about going to an Italian restaurant at home…and remember it’s not real.
Sometimes I’m a nice tourist and take photos of you with your Ipad while wishing I had one.