Real Life Travel

When in Rome…

November 2, 2011

Published in Red Deer Express, November 2, 2011

It’s nice not to travel to foreign countries on your own. You can have a whole conversation with your friend while watching the locals and never say a word. You can navigate the metro system together. You can dine out and it not be echoed by the handsome waiter as, “table for one?”

I just returned from Italy with a friend where we stayed six nights in Rome, with a day trip to Sorrento. I wouldn’t claim to be an expert on Italian culture after such a short time, but we did share resolutions that could be useful if ever you decide to go to Italy.

Meander my list, and while you do, picture cobbled streets, mini espresso cups that are so strong they clear your nasal passage, and historic buildings with people standing outside smoking. Here we go…

1)    Air Raids and Harps – Decide ahead of time what kind of schedule you will be keeping and whose alarm clock you will be using. Apparently, to my friend, mine is like an air raid screaming at you to get out of bed. “Good morning at gunpoint” so to speak. Her iPhone alarm however resounded a soft melodic harp. Yes, a harp. I barely heard it and if I did it would’ve lulled me into a deeper sleep.  Settle what time you will be waking, what days are “go-getter days” and what hours or days will be “relaxing in the sun watching the world go by”. When you get two very different travellers in one hotel room, you will need to compromise!

2)    Navigation and Toilets – Rome is fairly easy as far as the metro system goes. They only have a Line A and B, you just have to know which direction you are going. However, the metro doesn’t go into the main touristy areas so you’ll likely take a bus as well. Be prepared to cram like sardines and jump off in a moment’s notice. We got a 7 day metro/bus pass that cost only 16 euro.

The day we went to Sorrento we had to take a train to Naples, and then grab a different train from there to Sorrento. It should’ve taken us just over an hour and after about 45 minutes I began to wonder how much longer it would be. I was looking at the map of train stops and asked the guy standing next to it, “Dove siamo?” (“Where are we?”) He told me what stop and it was then I realized we were on the wrong train going to Sarno. We had to backtrack and it cost us about 1.5 hours of an already long train day.

Oh, but Sorrento was worth it! The contentment and peace we both found by the water and meandering the market (not to mention wonderful pasta and café macchiato) was worth the seven hours we spent on a train that day.

You can find toilets at Termini Station in Rome (the main transit station) and nearly every café or restaurant. Overall, I found Italians to be very friendly. The only time I questioned that was when I was eyeing up a pair of jeans and the lady looked me up and down and said, “These are small. You are not small.” My lifetime size 6 apparently was not small in Italy! I had to chuckle as I walked out empty handed.

3)    Espresso, Leather and Gelato – Those three words would sum up what you see everywhere in Rome. Well, that plus smoking, tourists, 2000 year old buildings, and pigeons.

After a couple of days my friend and I both questioned why we hadn’t seen a Starbucks in Rome. Not that we needed it with such an array of wonderful cafes, we just found it odd. When she Tweeted “@Starbucks, are you in Rome?” Someone responded to the affect of, “Why would you need Starbucks in Italy? That’s offensive.” There are no such franchises throughout the country.

Being from North America where everything has to be “bigger and better”, I found it very interesting to watch grown men gather around the café bar with their 2 inch shot glass of espresso, one hand in pocket, one hand talking, and one hand drinking. You do the math 😉

Leather shops are everywhere and you will know it’s real by the smell. Don’t let a shopkeeper tell you it’s real, do the investigating yourself.

And gelato. Well, you just have to try it. Grab a couple scoops, sit down on a stony church step and watch the world, and pigeons, go by. Rome is very busy so you will need to take such moments as this.

4)    Colosseum and Sistine Chapel – These sites were probably my favourite. In its day, the Colosseum saw approximately 700,000 gladiators fight. They entered as slaves and for a moment became heroes as the crowd cheered them to fight for their lives, unto death.

This massive amphitheatre is considered one of the greatest works of Roman architecture and Roman engineering. We paid 27 euro and for that we got a tour of the Colosseum, Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum. All worth it we figured as it also enabled you to skip the lines. In the Colosseum I had to stop and imagine the roar of the 50,000 people that could’ve sat in this stadium at one time. I imagined the lives of impoverished people literally watching their life flash before their eyes; or the class system of the seating, though all were welcome at the matches.

The Sistine Chapel, a part of the Vatican Museums, was a place where emotion hit me unexpectedly. When we walked in, this sense of awe came over me. To think that Michaelangelo gave nine years of his life to a committed work of heart, and over 450 years later we are still enjoying it. He likely never set out to be famous, but just created something beautiful from his heart for God. You’re shoulder to shoulder in this Chapel. I sniffled not wanting to get too emotional, but I suppose the “artist” in me had an appreciation for the idea of creating something that outlasts you.

5)    Roman Holiday – Perhaps you’ve seen the Audrey Hepburn movie? That depiction of driving a scooter throughout Rome, or even all of Italy, was one I very much wanted to relive. I even packed a bright pink scarf with me. However, traffic in Rome is a little crazy and in some places it’s quite difficult to tell if there are lanes and who has the right of way. After reading some Trip Advisor reviews on renting a scooter in Rome, I opted for the non-motorized version.

On our last day we had seen all the sites, were exhausted from walking, and decided to each “find our own fancy”. I found a scooter/bike rental place and agreed to meet my friend four hours later.

I happily hopped on my new wheels and was off down the cobbled hill. I had a map tucked in my basket, but really had no idea where I was going. I just knew that eventually I wanted to get to the river. After driving in some traffic with scooters and cabbies, I realized I probably could’ve done a scooter (albeit white knuckled!). But my bicycle enabled me to go areas I never would’ve been able to squeeze otherwise. I had a great view from the top of the Spanish Steps. I meandered through cobbled markets and piazzas. I stopped in the odd shop when I saw something pretty. I had a smile on my face the whole time!

Earlier when I had asked a friend what he thought about renting a scooter in Rome he said, “As long as you remember some things are coolest because Lani found them at 4:58pm with her own wind.” Well, I had found my own wind.

And that is truly what I’ve discovered in travelling. You can see all the touristy spots until you are exhausted and its just another check mark on your bucket list. Or, you can follow your heart, do something different, and find your own wind down a cobbled alley after drinking a latte in Piazza Navona. That moment of freedom on two wheels with a map of Rome and no plan will stick with me always. And I didn’t find it on a Lonely Planet page.

Travel, yes you must, but find your own wind in doing so.

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