How time flies when you’re not.
It had been almost two years since I’d been on a plane — or rather the three that it had taken to get back from Syktyvkar in Russia — and I’d hardly noticed.
That’s partly because I’d been so busy. Sure there had been a few months of unemployed complacency at the beginning but I’d soon found work; my film blogging was opening ever bigger doors as I commuted through to Glasgow for regular press screenings; and having decided to see as much of my native Scotland as possible I was spending more and more time outdoors.
But as much fun as I was having seeing Gigha, exploring the Trossachs and walking the West Highland Way I was beginning to feel a familiar itch. Scotland is so small, and having exhausted its largest cities with repeated visits to Dundee, Glasgow and Edinburgh I knew I needed to escape in order to really stretch my legs. I could have crossed the border into England, I suppose — and I’m sure I will in 2015 — but I’d found my way onto Ryanair’s website and was already pricing trips across the channel.
I used to live on the Continent; for four years I called Germany home, and in that time I’d managed to see a fair amount of Europe. I’d already been to Berlin, Barcelona, Paris, Luxembourg and Amsterdam, and as nice as it would have been to revisit any of those places I didn’t want to compromise on adventure. I wanted to see something new — and after putting a pin in both Dublin and Prague I decided a few days in Rome would more than likely do the trick. Surely everyone has to see the Colosseum before they die?
I’d been to Italy once before — on a family vacation to Venice in the early noughties — but I figured that by visiting the Vatican I was still technically notching up a new country too. I hadn’t been all that impressed with Italy on my previous visit, however; Venice was undoubtedly impressive, but it stank to high heaven and I’d found it almost as intimidating as I had inspiring. As an avid cinemagoer I’m prone to the odd preconception, and my only real exposure to the country had been through movies like Don’t Look Now, The Devil’s Advocate and The Godfather. A part of me will always be on the lookout for dwarves, devils and duplicitous mafioso.
I can’t say my misgivings lifted immediately upon my arrival to Ciampino Airport either. Even accounting for its status as a landing site for low-cost airlines it seemed particularly overcrowded and unfriendly. It was after eight and therefore after dark when I finally left customs — I’d only brought the allotted carry on luggage but Ryanair being Ryanair they’d insisted on checking it into the hold anyway — and I immediately felt vulnerable and exposed. Admittedly it was largely my own fault for not having attempted to learn the language but I am still a seasoned traveller and not used to feeling quite so ill at ease.
Having bought a bus ticket from a kiosk in the foyer, I followed the directions I had been given to find an amorphous mass of commuters hording the three coach stops. Nobody seemed quite sure what they were waiting for, and every time a bus arrived the scrum rushed forward only to be rebuffed for not having the right ticket. Eventually, the service for which we had all actually paid turned up and its driver was quickly overcome but a sudden surge of passengers. For almost an hour we toured the outskirts of Rome before finally alighting at the main train station.
I’d been warned about Roma Termini, with both my parents and a variety of online blogs telling me to beware of pickpockets in the station’s vicinity. Not wanting to look too much of a tourist I glanced at my Lonely Planet guide before surreptitiously stowing it away in my suitcase. Despite my best attempts to memorise the geography of central Rome in a few miliseconds, however, I couldn’t quite get my bearings and spent the next thirty minutes lapping the station as I searched for Via Cavour. Eventually I had no choice to scan quickly for scoundrels and retrieved the map.
Unlike most towns and cities I have visited, Rome has an unusual habit of placing its street signs two or three buildings in so that you have to actually start down a street before you can properly identify it. This quirk is complicated further by the constant construction and conservation work that characterises the streets of Rome, so that these signs are often covered by scaffolding. Most of that evening was spent searching for my hotel, and indeed much of my time in the city was similarly used on reconnaissance — sometimes running the length of whole streets only to find that I had taken the wrong one.
That evening — just before 11 — having finally found my hotel, I went to a restaurant proscribed by my concierge. Unsure whether I was the first customer they had seen all day or a latecomer preventing them all from going home, I had no idea whether to blow my budget on a three course meal or scrimp for a snack that could if necessary be finished on the way back to my room. I opted for pizza — pineapple, randomly, after a long thought process I have since forgotten — and watched in embarrassed bemusement as the waitress proceeded to remove an intact specimen from the window display just for me.
Naturally, the next day was better. Things have a habit of looking less frightening in the morning light, and Rome was no exception. Having slept reasonably well — between inexplicable midnight alarms, anyway — and breakfasted on rosetti and marble cake I set off on a day of exploration. I’m not a planner by any stretch of the imagination, and was quite happy to pinball around the capital until I had it mapped out in my mind. Then, the next day, already my last, I would be able to make beelines for my desired tours without delay or distraction.
No sooner had I left the hotel than I turned a nameless corner to find myself in the shadow of the Colosseum. It, like the rest of the capital, was in the process of being renovated, but even half under wraps it was still a sight to behold. Magnificent, megalithic, monstrous; it exists at a size and on a scale that is as compelling as it is incomprehensible. I couldn’t put my camera down as I circled it in awe, struggling to squeeze the whole structure into one frame as I kept getting drawn in by tiny details only visible at full zoom.
Saving the tour for the following day I passed the nearby Arch of Constantine and entered the Palatine. While I knew I wanted to learn more about the Colosseum and the Vatican I was quite content to wander the rest of the capital unguided. Neither a history buff or a religious pilgrim I was there simply to experience the city as a 21st Century mortal, through my own eyes and the lens of my camera — whether that makes me ignorant or enlightened, I don’t know. Even with a guide I would never truly know what life was like in Ancient Rome, and without one there’s only so much time you can stare inquisitively at rubble.
That said, the Palatine is undeniably impressive. I spent most of my morning exploring the hilltop and Forum below, forever removing and replacing my jacket as the sun played peek-a-boo above. Even at the end of November Rome was unimaginably warm, and even covered the sun had a power that is completely unprecedented to a pasty white Scotsman. Equally remarkable was how serene it was — especially at the Imperial Palace. There was hardly a soul about, and removed from the hustle and bustle of the streets below it was really very pleasant indeed.
I thought I could see Vatican City in the distance — at least, I saw a familiar statue that I loosely associated with, like, The Da Vinci Code or something. By the time I reached the Forum crowds had started to gather, and I waded through couples, tour groups and school trips to reach the Northern exit. Parched, I crossed Capitoline Hill and Piazza del Campidoglio in search of a street peddler, stocking up on water and Coke before the next part of my journey; for I hadn’t reached Vatican City at all but had instead misidentified the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Altare della Patria — known colloquially as “the wedding cake”.
I still had a few miles to go to reach St Peter’s Square, through a labyrinthine network of alleys and lanes. My concierge had given me a simpler, foldable map — the sort a five year-old might find on the back of his Happy Meal, with landmarks realised in pictorial form — and consulting it I wasn’t sure I would ever make it through the maze. I aimed first for the Pantheon, taking Via del Corsa until I saw signs for Piazzo del Collegio Romano and Piazza della Minerva. That should have been ‘sign’ actually, for as soon as I left the main street the directions stopped and I was left to fend for myself.
Not that I minded being lost — in fact, it is one of my favourite things to do when alone in a new city. Rome is a great place to lose yourself; not only is it easy but it’s the only way you have any chance of seeing certain under-sung sights. The problem, however, is that you’re never entirely sure whether you’re looking at a Thing or just a thing. Half of the city’s streets don’t seem to be labeled so there’s little hope for the buildings that line them. Is the ruin you’re gawping at an officially recognised site of special interest or is it simply an municipal building of misleading splendour? You’ll probably never know.
I found it eventually, though, and when I did I took a seat at a table overlooking the Pantheon and associated fountain. Handed a menu and a WiFi code, I whiled away an hour or so over cannelloni, beer and tiramisu as I posted a couple of pictures to Twitter. I then went to a gelateria to order the biggest, barmiest ice cream possible. A three-scoop cone containing Bounty, Snickers and pistachio (my favourite) flavours that almost immediately melted all over my hand and camera. It was the most disgustingly beautiful thing I had ever seen.
It seemed a little easier after that, and no sooner had I discovered Piazza Navona a few streets away I was walking along the Tiber towards Vatican City. Like Red Square and the Kremlin in Moscow it just sort of engulfs you, and on foot it simply isn’t possible to comprehend its true size or shape without a full day’s circumnavigation. I didn’t have a day — at the rate the sun was setting I doubted I even had an hour — so I just stared up in wonder until the rain started and I decided it was probably time to take cover somewhere that also serve dinner.
Instantly soaked I didn’t see much point in rushing, so with my camera stowed away in my waterproof rucksack I set off northwards towards Piazza del Popolo. I was only wearing a t-shirt so I soon caught a chill. I took a seat at the first restaurant I could find that had an outdoor heater, but looking at the prices decided I’d save dinner for later and instead settle for a latte and a croissant — even if that still set me back over €10. If Rome had been transformed by the sun it was further enhanced by the rain, and once it had slowed to a drizzle I set off once more back towards the hotel.
The next day then I was ready to rock and roll. After breakfast I headed straight for the Colosseum, stopping only to book an afternoon tour of the Sistine Chapel, and used my ticket from the Palatine to jump the queue and gain free access to the amphitheater. There’s no denying that the Colosseum is spectacular, or that it is something that everyone should aim to see for themselves, but it’s difficult to ignore the fact that — inevitably — it is a ghost of its former self. As my audio guide waxed lyrical about all of the things I might have seen if only I’d been a century sooner, I couldn’t help but feel ever so slightly disappointed by the reality. Ain’t entropy a bitch?
I then made my way to the Foot Locker at Piazza del Risorgimento where my tour of Vatican City was rather ignobly set to begin. Together with my tour group — five Singapourians, pairs of Americans, Brazilains and Germans, and an Australian — we followed our English speaking guide to the Vatican museum. Again, I found myself somewhat underwhelmed by the Sistine Chapel. For some reason I had expected the The Creation of Adam to dominate the ceiling, but instead it was simply one picture in a patchwork of paintings. It was still impressive, mind you, but not at all what I had imagined.
St Peter’s Basilica, on the other hand, is another story altogether. Quite simply indescribable, it is a building of unparalleled intricacy and design; the architectural equivalent of sensory overload. With a grin as wide as your eyes, you wander its interior in a state of dumbfoundedness that would mark you out as some sort of simpleton if it weren’t shared by everyone else inside. It reminded me of the first time I entered London’s Natural History Museum as a child — but this was no childlike wonder. This was different. It was a strange mixture of awe, confusion, respect, inspiration, reverence and — as something of a devout religiophobe — horror.
Having got speaking to a few of the others on our way out of the basilika I wasn’t exactly sure what to do next. I followed them into a souvenir shop across the road but was reluctant to make dinner plans knowing that I only had one evening left in Rome and still wanted to see Castel Sant’ Angelo. We dispersed around six and I headed straight for the river, having noted the day before that Sant’ Angelo was open late on a Friday. I paid the entry fee, forwent the audio-guide and wandered in blissful ignorance around the fortified walls and into the museum. My camera had by this point died which left me free to amble aimlessly.
And that was Rome. All I’d eaten since breakfast was ice cream and tiramisu so I stopped off at a cafe on the way back to the hotel for pizza, taking a longer route along the river to savour the city at night — now that I was comfortable and no longer afraid. That is, at least, until I came to a road or junction and found myself in mortal peril. Rome’s roads are notorious for being deathtraps, with most dangerously lacking in traffic lights or zebra crossings. They bring to mind the crocodile-infested rivers often featured in David Attenborough documentaries; and pedestrians have little option but to herd together like frightened wildebeest and hope that the awaiting drivers pounce on another member of the pack.
I’m glad I saw Rome. Most European cities have an old town of historic quarter but Rome is simply an ancient city — one where past and present co-exist in a manner unlike anywhere else. You could likely live in the area your entire life and not see half of what it has to offer — forever passing open doors or unassuming alleys and catching glimpses of hallways or courtyards with secret stories to share. And that’s on street level; take to any of Rome’s seven hills or countless terraces or balconies and you are confronted by a sprawling cityscape that is even more overwhelming in its depth and detail. Stare into the viewfinder of your camera and the experience is almost microscopic.
I’m not sure that it has much improved my view of Italy, however, and having now seen Venice, Rome and Vatican City I feel I am able to cross the country off my list for the time being. I know you can’t do a city like that justice in two days, let alone a country, and I’m not doubting that there is more to see, but simply acknowledging that there are almost undoubtedly a lifetime’s worth of places I’d rather experience before returning.
So, when not in Rome, where else?