Photo Journal of the Eternal City
After bidding farewell to my family and my home for the last year, I left Spain this week to begin a new adventure in Italy. But before heading to the vineyards of Tuscany, I got to spend two days ~roaming~ around Rome. While I wish I’d had more time to explore every crevice of this “open-air museum” of a city, I was thrilled to see just a few of the most famous sites and taste some of the incredible bites of food Rome has to offer. Here’s a brief summary of everything I managed to squeeze into two days!
After one of the worst flight experiences I’ve had during my time in Europe (a 2.5-hour delay for a 2.5-hour flight, not getting to my hostel until 3 am, etc), I couldn’t pull myself away from my pillow until about 12:30 pm the following morning. Grateful for the rest but trying to make up for lost time, I hurried off into the city with one thing on my mind… pizza, obviously.
On my way to the restaurant I’d researched and planned on visiting for lunch, I found a pizzeria near a little market in the Traiano area. I glanced over the menu and practically collapsed into one of their open tables on the patio. I ordered the pizza above, baked in a wood fire oven, and served to me by a 20-year-old waiter who proceeded to bombard me with questions about myself until his boss yelled at him to get back to work. It was exactly what I needed (the pizza, I mean). The melty cheese over the perfectly doughy crust. The crispy squash blossoms. A sprinkle of pepper on top to pull it all together. I ate until I thought I was dying and then I ate a little more.
Uncomfortable from the waiter and uncomfortably full from eating a whole pizza myself, I took off down the street towards Trevi Fountain. I found the crystal clear waters of the fountain filled with glimmering coins, a towering facade with impressively massive yet intricate sculptures, and a sea of tourists poised to jump into any open space around the perimeter for a selfie.
The coins in the little pool come from the belief that if you throw a coin with your right hand over your left shoulder, you’ll return to Rome someday. According to Wikipedia, in 2016 about 1.4 million Euros were tossed into the fountain, many of which were donated to subsidize food for needy families in Rome.
For those of us who didn’t study art or history (*slowly raises hand*), a little context: artworks like this were significant because they were constructed during Baroque period, which immediately followed the Renaissance. At this time (roughly the early 1600’s to the mid-1700’s), the Catholic Church had a lot of extra money to throw at projects like this to demonstrate its power and prominence to the rest of the world. There were contests held to create such extravagant pieces throughout the “Papal city,” and the most renowned artists and sculptors from all over came to Rome for the opportunity to immortalize their work. Trevi Fountain, the largest Baroque-style fountain in the world, exemplifies the ornate, decorative nature of art that came out of this time period.
From the fountain, I walked towards Piazza Venetia, one of the most recognizable plazas of Rome. This area is considered the center of the city, as the Piazza directly faces Via del Corso (main street, which gets its name from livestock races that Roman elites once held there).
From here, I looped back towards my hostel near Termini Station and walked along a huge park filled with Roman ruins. 2000-year-old pillars standing tall or laid out on the ground. Arches and aqueducts a block away from modern apartment buildings. Ancient places of worship for long-dead religions. I couldn’t believe these relics could be found so easily, directly in the center of a massive, modern city.
I made one more stop to walk around and gawk at the Colosseum. I’d find out from a tour guide the following day that the Colosseum today is less than half of its initial mass. Since it was made from valuable granite, robbers would raid the area and make off with the precious stones to sell to other builders. For this reason, granite originally from the Colosseum can be found incorporated into buildings throughout Rome. Still, I was awestruck by the sheer size of the building, let alone the complexity of its architecture or the history it has seen since its completion. If buildings could speak…
From here, I meandered through the streets, occasionally pausing to take a picture of flowering trees or particularly adorable intersection, until I reached my hostel for a much needed break.
After a full-blown nap, it was time for dinner. I’d looked up a couple of restaurants to find the best pasta in Rome (naturally), and they all seemed to be concentrated across the river in a neighborhood called Trastevere. As I walked, I debated the eternal question: cacio e pepe (a cheese and pepper pasta dish) or carbonara (Roman pasta with pecorino cheese, egg, and Italian bacon)?
On my way, I was pleasantly surprised by a beautiful sunset and lights shining over the Tiber River. The city was coming alive for the evening.
Across the river, crowds of Italians and tourists were waiting outside the well-known restaurants I’d read about. I waded my way to the doors to ask for a table for one, at the bar if need be, and was turned away from each of them. I eventually ended up at a restaurants called La Cornucopia a Trastevere, which was infuriatingly difficult to find in the network of somewhat nonsensical alleyways. I sat at a table on my own, quietly observing a French couple in the corner sipping wine and enjoying the tranquility after a day of dodging boisterous tourists.
I ordered a Chianti and as I waited for my carbonara to come, a group of twelve or so young Italian men came into the restaurant. They sat down at a long table directly across from me. The waiter brought out four bottles of wine. The peace and quiet was short-lived.
I seem to have acquired some sort of strange curse; I have no idea where it came from or what I did to deserve it. It seems that every time I try to treat myself to a romantic evening out on my own, a rowdy bachelor party of ten or more men appears. It happened for the first time in Paris last month when I signed up for a wine class and ended up being the only woman in a private class that was arranged for a bachelor party. Tonight, at my first dinner alone in a small, intimate restaurant in Rome, I couldn’t look up from my phone without making eye contact with a tipsy 30-year-old dude staring at me while I shoved pasta in my face.
Luckily, the food was worth it. The pasta was perfectly al dente, the thick slabs of guanciale were hearty, the cheese and egg melted together to form a thick coat for the spaghetti. This is the kind of magical meal I live for: simple, high-quality ingredients, skillfully prepared according to tradition. There was nothing pretentious about this plate of pasta. Still, it was one of the best things I’ve ever tasted in my life.
Reeling from such an amazing dinner for only 8 Euros (accompanied by a 7-Euro wine, God I’m going to miss Spanish wine for 2.50 a glass…), I crossed the river, pausing on the bridge to watch the lights over the water, and called it a night.
The next morning, I started the day with a walking tour (if you’ve read any of my other posts, you already know I’m all about the free walking tours). We started the tour with Rome Free Walking Tour at the famous Spanish Steps (where I spilled espresso all over myself, yay memories!) and explored the city for an hour and a half, listening to the history behind the buildings and structures we passed along the way. The pillar above, for example, is a 2000-year-old monument celebrating the battle in which the Romans took over modern-day Germany. There’s a spiral starting at the bottom and ending at the very top, depicting the chronology of the battle with about 2,100 carved figures. Possibly the coolest thing about this statue is that it hasn’t moved or changed at all (apart from some minor weathering) since the Romans put it here thousands of years ago!
A quick note on booking tours in Rome: be careful! There are strict laws about running a tour company of any kind in Rome. The leader of a tour is required to have a degree in history or archeology and acquire a certification by taking an exam. Without these credentials, the tour is operating illegally. Out of all the free walking tours in Rome, only two meet these requirements. This is one of them! Given the rigorous process it takes to legally lead tours (our guide studied Art History in Rome for 8 years), a position as a tour guide in Rome is a full-time career and these guides are exceptionally good at what they do.
The highlight of this tour, and perhaps of the whole trip for me, was seeing the Pantheon. Originally a pagan temple, the Pantheon was completed by Roman Emperor Hadrian in about 125 AD in order to honor “all gods” of the pagan religion. The huge (and I mean truly ENORMOUS) marble columns were shipped from Egypt and transported by elephants (and slave labor, one can only assume) over land. The building itself is the first recorded dome structure in the history of architecture. Inside the Pantheon, you’ll find more marble in many different colors decorating the floors and walls. The dome is open at the top, filling the large spherical space with rays of natural light.
As if this wasn’t already one of the most awe-inspiring moments in all of my travels, directly across from the Pantheon is an original Egyptian obelisk (one of the spoils of war the Romans stole and displayed in their capital city as a symbol of power) which was originally created in 1500 BC. This is exactly why Rome is referred to as the “Eternal City.” As our guide explained, Rome exists in the past, present, and future all at once. It’s the world’s most comprehensive outdoor museum, where a 3500 year old structure exists on display, as it has for thousands of years, to be revered by tourists passing by on segways. The city’s history is all around, incorporated into modern life rather than hidden behind the walls of some exclusive museum.
This is also why accessible education, through free tours in this particular case, is so important. Every year, there’s someone who tries to swim in Trevi fountain or climb up the fragile obelisk. The hope of this tour company is that if more people understand the significance of these ancient artifacts, which are available for free to the public now and hopefully will endure long into the future, then fewer people will make idiotic decisions that cause them harm.
After the tour, I briefly explored the Vatican and St. Peter’s Square. I didn’t have time to go inside the cathedral or the Sistine Chapel, but simply being among these historic buildings was enough (for now, at least). I read online as I was walking around that the obelisk in front of St. Peter’s Cathedral (above) is said to have borne witness to St. Peter’s martyrdom 2000 years ago. He was sentenced to death by crucifixion for his religion, but he did not want to die in the same way as Jesus so he was crucified upside-down on a hill where this obelisk stood. St. Peter is credited with spreading Christianity in the earliest days of the religion, which is why he’s honored so extravagantly in the heart of the Vatican.
By this time, I needed to head back towards the train station to collect my luggage and catch my train. I stopped for lunch and ordered another carbonara (for comparison’s sake, of course, and the second wasn’t nearly as good as the first) and then grabbed one last gelato before boarding my train to Florence, where I’m writing this now.
Tomorrow morning, I’ll be in the town of Lucca near Pisa! Stay posted for my adventures WWOOFing on vineyards this summer!