Viva Italia!

Unsurprisingly, I woke with a sore back and a numb bottom after far too little sleep. I checked in at around 4:15am onto my WhizzAir flight… eventually. I had to argue with one of the staff that I didn’t have to pay to have my rucksack shrink-wrapped for its own protection. This after she tried to get me to take it through the security baggage check as hand luggage! A slight problem given the two knives, fork, aerosol sprays and so forth that showed up in the X-ray.

We compromised with me removing the sleeping bag and bedrolls (thus actually creating more dangling straps for the machinery to snag on and her saying that I "had been warned". Whatever. I’d made a wild guess that between this rucksack and the last, my luggage has gone through something like 40 flights in the last 16 months. The only problem I’ve had was when jobsworth Israeli guards started jabbing probes into all the damaged seams of my old bag.

Despite this, I was just waiting to see all my luggage pop out of the carousel in Rome item by item like the memory round of The Generation Game. To make matters worse, I was now rather thirsty. None of the water fountains in the airport had any actual water in them. And the cheapest drink I could find was 8.5RON. I only had 6.6RON left on me. So I filled up my water bottle from the tap in the loo.

After an hour or so I was eventually bundled on my my plane and grabbed a window seat. An Italian couple crammed in next to me, the wife holding one of the most beautiful little toddlers I’ve ever seen. As a result, she was spilling over into my seat, but I just didn’t care. This kid was adorable and amazingly well behaved, doing nothing the whole flight but sleep, giggle and look angelic. A shame the same can’t be said of two other children on the flight. One screamed constantly as if terrified – or in pain. His parents ought to get his ears checked in case the pressure change was causing him some discomfort. The other one just cried and wailed until his parents gave him things.

And finally… bump, screech, welcome to Italy – my first ever visit. I landed at Ciampino airport, the "budget" one of Rome’s two which is actually nearer the city. My luggage also arrived in one piece and swiftly off the carousel and I opted to jump onto the express bus into the city for six Euros. There are other options involving buses and Metros which will save you a little money and potentially a lot of time if you’re lucky with the scheduling. The express bus takes an hour, but that’s mainly due to Rome’s notorious traffic.

My hostel was a short, easy walk from Termini past the Basilica de Santa Maria Maggiore – a huge ornate church. Rome has quite a few of these… I checked in and asked where was good for breakfast, at which point I was handed a packed lunch for free! What’s more, it wasn’t bad at all. Two juices (carton and can), crispy red apple, croissant, chocolate roll and two sweeties. Superb.

As I only had three days and Rome’s rather over-indulged itself with touristy niceness, I set off straight away for the Metro in the direction of the Vatican. I wanted to see the Vatican Museums, but this didn’t happen as the queues were simply unreal. I’d hazard a guess at 2 1/2 hours, which I just wasn’t prepared to wait for. Instead, I walked past the end of the queue to the St Peter Basilica. Free to get in and swift queues as a result. The only marginal bottleneck is a perfunctory security check. Have a quick gander at my YouTube video to have an idea of the scale of this thing.

Inside, this is one impressive building – but you won’t see if it your shorts are too short or you’re exposing your shoulders. Think "mosque" and you’re dressed fine. Ornate, enormous and containing the only Michelangelo statue marked with his signature. The Basilica is apparently built on the site where St Peter is buried and a tiled area marks the spot (no "X"’s, Indiana Jones fans). Underneath are the catacombs where past popes are interred. Needless to say, the biggest and brightest memorial is to the fairly recently deceased John Paul II.

You can also climb the dome which apparently offers a tremendous view. However, it costs money and – partly as a result of this – the queue’s huge and slow-moving. In addition, if you don’t know that you have to pay, you won’t find out until you’ve waited ages and you’re at the front where the kiosk is. There’s no indication further back. If you are interested, I believe the prices are EUR4 / EUR7 for stairs/lift.

Like the West Bank of Israel, the Vatican has its own postal system separate from the rest of Italy. As such, I sent a couple of postcards from their post office. This wasn’t just an excuse to stand underneath a fully operational air conditioning unit for fifteen minutes. Honest.

I browsed my Lonely Planet and the huge tourist map I’d been given at the hostel to spot my next tourist destination. I picked on the Pantheon as being one I’d heard of and walked there via the Castel Sant Angelo, the Pont Umberto I and the Piazza Navona. Then I popped into a McD’s to get away from culture for a short while. I guzzled pre-processed flab and artificially flavoured coloured water in the blazing sun. There was no shadow from anywhere as the light was coming right done from above. Ouch.

I then attempted to use the (free) loos in McD’s. First of all I queued for ages as an Asian man washed his hands. And his arms. And did them again. Maybe he thought he had just finished surgery. But, no. He did all this for around two minutes then went into the only cubicle. Good grief. Finally I got in, closed the door, spotted that there was no paper and left again. I didn’t do the whole arm-scrubbing thing.

The Pantheon is a strange building. From outside its huge, plain columns are very imposing. A little decay and damage makes them look all the stronger in a "look at the punishment I can take" kind of way. Inside, it’s all lovingly crafted with a huge domed roof and just looks too clean and modern compared to the outside. In a way it’s like walking into the TARDIS. The old columns are weather beaten while the interior looks like it was just finished off yesterday.

Well, from there to the Area Sacra with its ruins, Chiesa del Gesú, Piazza Colanna, Palazzo Chigi, Temple Adriano (currently being worked on and behind huge curtains), Piazza di Monticitoria… the names trip off the tongue like a fluent waiter reading you the menu in an Italian restaurant. Nothing I’ve ever eaten, however, has looked as awe-inspiring as the Fontana di Trevi (Trevi Fountain).

I can’t repeat the words that almost slipped from my lips as I rounded the corner into this little square and came face to carved face with this masterpiece. I can’t repeat them partly as they’d have been rude and unsuitable for this blog, and partly because as I only almost said them, so technically repetition would be impossible.

Anyway.

The Fountain is beautiful. Bold and incredibly crafted without being gaudy, showy or in bad taste. People loitered around and were chased off from standing on the edges by guards in white hats armed with evil Whistles of Doom ™. They’re probably on full-time patrol since a Milanese tourists took a skinny dip there a couple of years ago (careful – low resolution boobies at that link).

I people watched and relaxed for a while, then refilled my water bottle from one of the countless fountains littering Rome. I don’t know how anyone sells bottled water in this city when cold, clean water is available for free at every other street corner. Even in weather such as today’s, the water was cool and refreshing.

Stoppering my bottle, dunking my cap and slapping it on my head to keep cool I marched ever onwards. Trinita del Monti, Piazza del Popolo, Mausolea Augusta, Ara Paris, Monumento a Vittorio Emmanuelle II, Colonna Traiana, Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Piazza della Repubblicam Teatro dell’ Opera… and finally back to the hostel to complete check-in.

I could describe everything I saw, but this is one of the longest blog postings I’ve done so far so I’m afraid you’ll just have to believe me when I say that they were all pretty damn impressive.

I showered (boy I needed that) and went online for an hour before chatting to a Romanian roomie for a while. Then a walked down the road for an authentic Italian meal – a slice of pizza, sold by the kilogram! Pretty good it was, too.

The hostel does free sangria most nights, so I joined most of the rest of the population up on the roof, guzzling away and chatting. The terrace overlooks the Colosseum if you know what direction to look and we enjoyed the heat, breeze and view as we demolished two tureens of the free booze.

The company and conversation were great and almost every continent was represented with people from – amongst others – Romania, Peru, NZ, Oz, US, UK, Switzerland, Japan, Sweden… At midnight, the terrace closed and we split into a few groups. One of the US guys, the two Swiss girls and myself just walked next door to an Irish bar (apparently the oldest in Rome) and paid a whopping EUR5 each for a pint of Harp. Ow. Still, that being all we’d paid for all night, it was till a cheap evening.

Somehow I managed to stay awake past closing time and chatting-after-closing time despite the long night before. A good day. A long day, but a good day.

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