When In Rome...
Updated: Feb 28, 2021
When we last left our naïve honeymooners a few weeks ago, they had already spent several days of otherworldly beauty on the Amalfi Coast. If you missed that post and would like to catch up, please click here.
It goes without saying, but Rome was an entirely different beast than Amalfi. The high-speed train from Naples whisked us into the Eternal City on June 2, 2009, and we were immediately overwhelmed. Come to think of it, overwhelming is the perfect word for Rome, in both the best and worst senses of the word.
Let's start with the good - Rome's history, architecture, art, churches, etc., would be the envy of many countries, let alone cities. There's more of all of these things than anyone could possibly absorb in a lifetime, let alone three days. The traveler, when in Rome, is fascinated around every turn.
Now the bad - the secret's been out for 1,000 years. Probably longer.
Seldom have I ever seen, heard, and felt crowds like I did in Rome. As someone who loathes throngs, the relentless noise, clamor, fumes, and sweaty tourist masses became harsh and tiresome. The Trevi Fountain was so jam-packed that we actually visited at several different times in an attempt to breathe, knowing full well we'd never have it to ourselves. Maybe it's because I didn't grow up in a big city and usually only visited them on day trips that the urban pandemonium was particularly jarring.
All roads lead to Rome, right?
After the daily strafing from maniacal moped drivers, our evening escape was a minuscule hotel room, 1/3 the size and 3 times the price of Nocelle's magical Casa Cuccaro. One had to be careful not to punch through a wall or upset a lamp when stretching out. The hotel elevator was made by Ferrari (yes, that Ferrari!), and it was surely the most lethargic one in Italy, sluggishly wheezing between floors like it would rather have been elsewhere. Perhaps it was bitter about its fate as a frumpy elevator instead of a world-class sports car.
Sometimes I think visiting the world's most famous cities is actually overrated. How could it not be? The first-time visitor to New York, London, Paris, or Rome is engulfed in the impossible task of merely seeing the highlights.
In the few world-famous cities I've visited the task becomes deeply disheartening. The list of sights is insurmountable, with the corollary being that your time in these places is terrifically inadequate. It's like someone asking you to read War and Peace in ten minutes. Do you read the beginning? The end? Tiny samples from throughout? To compound things further, the finest sights are often the most popular, so you rush between attractions only to stand, helpless, in long queues while the sands of the hourglass drain.
Of course I could spend 5 or 10 days in Rome instead of 3, but what good would that do? I'd then see 2% of the city rather than 1% and lose several precious days of my travels in more authentic locales. As with anything in life, balance is key. Make the most of it, and accept that when someone asks about your impressions of a city, they are necessarily extremely limited. Despite all I've said, it's better to have been, even for a day, than not at all.
Imperfect a strategy though it may have been, as a first-timer I still had to experience the must-sees: Spanish Steps, Colosseum, Pantheon, ruined stuff. Taking our time and absorbing the city's hidden authenticity would have to wait.
Alyse had been to Rome previously, as party of her study abroad during the winter of 2005. She equated it to the New York City of Italy, incredibly influential both historically and today, but not a "true" representation of an entire country, either.
Then there's the Vatican. The smallest country in the world, and the only one of which I can say I've seen a good portion. St. Peter's was as astounding as I had expected, its size and grandeur so monumental that it (gasp!) didn't even feel crowded. We had intentionally visited on a Wednesday to experience a papal audience, and it didn't disappoint.
Being within these extraordinary walls was both magnificent and intimate. The very air was different here, sliced and permeated from a light that wasn't just from the sun. The dome was so lofty that I couldn't capture both it and the floor in one photo. Laying eyes on Michelangelo's Pietà was marked by the arrival of gooseflesh, even on a hot June day.
Another favorite of mine was Piazza Navona, an oblong, cobblestoned gathering place dignified by handsome fountains and flowerbox-festooned windows. Somehow it maintained a classic refinement in its simplicity. I wondered how far back in history you'd have to go to find more locals hanging out here than foreigners.
At the end of the day, Rome is an enigma. It's simultaneously the most and least authentic Italian city. It maintains its historical panache despite the unyielding onslaught of camera-toting, sneaker-clad tourists. It's the national capital and has more historic treasures than anyone can comprehend, but when you walk through its streets and see few actual Italians, it raises an eyebrow or two.
As a visitor, perhaps there's a superficial comfort in knowing you're not alone in your explorations. However, comfort is often the archenemy of authentic travel, and this is a place where authenticity mixes with a "watered down" version of Italy so complexly that I came away with very mixed opinions. Let's just call it... overwhelming.
But the honeymoon wasn't over... not by a long shot. After the cacophony of Rome, it was time to kick the authenticity of our Italian experience up several notches. We boarded a plane and took off again, this time to the sun-scorched shores of Sicily. The stage was set for more epic coastal brilliance, a day-trip to an English-speaking Mediterranean island, and even a brief sojourn in Alyse's ancestral homeland...