Arriving in Rome was a breeze. I set off from LA on an early flight to Washington, DC, where I connected on a direct flight to Rome. I slept for the majority of the second flight and when I landed in Rome at 8:30 in the morning local time, I was ready to go! My Bulgarian passport gave me access to the EU customs line, which is not actually a customs line but a series of automated kiosks where I simply scanned my passport, had my picture taken and went on to exit without speaking to anybody. I was through in less than 5 minutes.
My first order of business at the airport was to exchange some US dollars, get an Italian SIM card, which was way more expensive than I thought (but having 1 GB of data here is invaluable when you want to use apps like CityMapper to get around), and get myself a Roma Pass. The pass covers free entrance at the first two sights you visit from a long list of included sights, plus you get to skip the line most places; it covers public transit for 3 days also, which is nice to have. The Leonardo Express train runs every 10 minutes to the center of Rome, so that’s what I took to get into town. From there, it was a quick 15-minute walk to my AirBnB. My first impressions of Rome during that walk: the streets are very narrow, and street signs are hard to come by. Street names are mostly inconspicuously etched on the corner of a building so you can’t seem them until you get up close. And the narrow sidewalks with varying surfaces can make rolling a suitcase challenging. Luckily, I had packed light and it wasn’t too much of an issue.
My hostess, Antonella, lives on the 3rd floor of a building on a small quiet street in-between the Coliseum and Fonana di Trevi. Her apartment is small – probably no more than 400 sq ft. And everything inside is small too – the TV, the washer/dryer that sits in the kitchen, the couch… Every since wall was lined with shelves or cabinetry – this was really the quintessential European apartment. What cracked me up the most was the set of Italian coffee makers on the stove.
Antonella promptly made coffee in the smaller of the two and we sat down to chat. I love being able to stay with locals when I travel. It makes for a much more authentic and intimate experience than staying in a hotel – not to mention the fact that I didn’t have to wait for a late-afternoon check in. I settled in, took a shower and was ready for a full day of sight-seeing by 12:30.
I left the apartment, turned left and realized the Coliseum is right in front of me, about two blocks away. Via Dei Serpenti, the street I am on, dead-ends at the Coliseum, so you get to see it immediately when you get out on the street. I bypassed a long line of people waiting to get tickets and went right in with my Roma pass. I loaded up the Rick Steves walking tour of the Coliseum I had previously downloaded, and set off to walk around this marvelous piece of architecture (for those who don’t know, Rick Steves is a travel guide whose European guidebooks are excellent). It is massive – it is a third of a mile across. The floor (the arena) is no longer there but you can see the underground passages that were used by the gladiators. Spectator boxes towered on each side. The Coliseum was build at the height of the Roman empire and it served as a way to entertain and indulge the population – “give them bread and circuses” was a way to placate the masses. The Coliseum could hold about 50,000 screaming Romans; passages below the seats (called vomitoria) were designed to help all those people enter and exit in less than 15 minutes – and that’s where the word vomit comes from (in Latin, to spew forth). I was glad to have the Rick Steves tour on my phone and do my own thing, vs. paying a handful of Euros for the official audio guide. Freebies!
Between the Coliseum and the Roman Forum sits the Arch of Constantine. This arch marks the coup that made Christianity mainstream – in 312 AD, Constantine defeated his rival Maxentius; the night before, he dreamed of a cross in the sky – when he became emperor he legalized Christianity and penalized everyone who wasn’t one by death.
Once at the Forum, which sits right across from the Coliseum, I lined up another Rick Steves tour. I listened in awe of all the major historical events that had happened right where I was walking – kinda hard to believe I was walking around where the major center of European civilization once stood. The sun really did rise and fall with the Roman empire; once it entered its decline and the last Roman Emperor checked out, Europe was plunged into the Dark Ages for about 1000 years. The Roman Forum was one of my favorite parts of the day.
As I was leaving the Forum, I saw a little overlook across from the Coliseum. It was the perfect spot for a photo, and I asked a guy with a fancy camera to take a photo of me. Finally, a stranger took a great photo! 🙂
From the Forum, I walked around a bit. I went down to Circus Maximus – an ancient Roman chariot racing stadium, which was rather underwhelming. Then I walked all the way to the other side of the Roman Forum to Capitolne Hill – the smallers but tallest of the famous seven hills surrounding ancient Rome.
The square at the top of the hill is Piazza del Campidoglio and to this day is the home of the city’s government. Michelangelo designed the square and the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius that stands at its focal point.
The twin buildings of the Capitoline Museums stand on each side. On the other side, where Michelangelo meant for people to approach the square from, a huge staircase leads to Piazza Venezzia. Here, I stopped to take a break from all the walking; I sat on the steps among locals and tourists alike, and consulted my guide book to decide what to do next. It was mid-afternoon by then, so I figured I’d walk through a few of the piazzas and settle in for dinner around the Pantheon.
I took a bus for a couple of stops, then got off and started my walking tour at Campo De Fiori. This area goes through several transformations throughout the day. There is a market in the mornings; in the afternoon, tourists and locals alike fill up the cafes for an afternoon drink or meal, and later in the evening, the local youth takes over to party. When I arrived, the afternoon crowd was there with some remnants of a market.
Further up the street through was a much more magnificent square – Piazza Navona. This oblong square retains the shape of racetrack that was build here in AD 80. The fountain in the middle, The Four Rivers Fountain, is a famous work of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the man who remade Rome in Baroque style. A giant Egyptian obelisk, one of several in Rome, sits in the middle. The square was full of life. Eateries lined the streets on the oustide, while tourists marveled at local artists and musicians who displayed their work in the middle. I was tempted to stay here for dinner and people watch, but it all seemed a bit too touristy, so I headed for the Pantheon, which was only a couple of blocks away.
There, I sat down at a pub facing the back of the Pantheon. I had just settled in outside facing the rotunda when I realized that the neighboring table was full of young Italian priests. It is always a good sign when you sit down some place and are surrounded by locals – even more so if they are men of God, I presume.
I had the most fantastic meal here at Miscellanea Pub. I started off with the crostini mix, which included the most delicious meats, tomatoes, olives and bread I’ve had in a long time. I added a glass of Italian draft beer and voila, I was in my happy place. This is the Europe I miss – amazing food, an ancient building as a backdrop, the hustle and bustle of life strolling by… Ahhhhh. Not long after the quarter hour hit, and the bells of the church next door got going. It was one of those perfect moments in time. My pasta carbonara arrived shortly after,and I forgot about everything else but the plate in front of me for the next 15 minutes.
I consulted my guidebook again to figure out where to eat gelato, and I was delighted that one of the best places in town is on the other side of the Pantheon. So grabbed a cone of hazelnut and banana gelato and sat on the steps of the fountain in front of the Pantheon, enjoying yet another musician’s work and people watching. Selfie sticks have completely taken over this city, and it’s quite amusing seeing all the tourists pose for photos with them.
I could have stayed here for hours, but alas, I wanted to check out Fontana Di Trevi and get home because I was getting tired. On the way there, I saw a couple more obelisks (I’d love to know the history behind how they got here) and the Italian Parliament.
I knew I was getting close to the fountain because there were many other tourists heading in my direction now. Then, a disturbing sight peeked at me up ahead. What looked like the side of the Trevi Fountain was surrounded by a construction fence. My heart sank when I rounded the corner – the fountain is indeed under renovation. The water is not running and there is a construction skeleton in place. At least they built a clear fence around, so you could still take a selfie and throw some coins in the fountain. In fact, a special alcove for selfie taking had been constructed, and a sign on the fence encouraged people to take their selfies anyway and upload them to the official fountain website.
From Fontana di Trevi it was a quick 10-minute walk home. I knew Antonella’s apartment was centrally located but now I had new appreciation of exactly how close it was to everything.
I have to say, Rome was very quick to steal my heart with its narrow streets and gigantic ancient buildings and amazing food and gelato. This city is amazing, and I can’t wait to see more tomorrow.