Our wakeup call came at 5:30, but I was already awake. Today was the big one. We’d be in Rome this morning. Rome, The Eternal City. Rome, one of the crowning achievements of human ingenuity and creativity. Rome, one of the most important places in the history of Western civilization. After years of reading books and articles, seeing movies and documentaries, I’d finally get to see it with my own eyes.
Yeah, I was excited.
I wasn’t the only one, either. Though we’d planned to get up earlier to beat the morning crowd at the Windjammer, we found that every else had the same idea. Every table on Deck 9 – even the ones outside – was packed. It took a couple of laps around the restaurant before I found a couple of unattended seats. We ended up sharing space with a family from the Philippines. Unlike us, they were taking their time to enjoy their food; this wasn’t their first time to Rome, so they knew what pace to set. After exchanging contact information and business cards, we gathered lunch supplies, packed up, and waited at the designated meeting point for our tour. Our group gradually grew to a few dozen, and we shuffled off the ship within the hour.
As soon as I disembarked, I was struck by how cold it was outside. I’d anticipated the chilly temperatures – I’d gotten used to it after a couple of mornings – but the wind felt like a knife on my cheeks. Our guide’s voice was lost on the breeze, but he kept waving and beckoning us toward the small fleet of buses nearby. A massive sea wall loomed across the road from us, “WELCOME TO CIVITAVECCHIA” painted in letters two stories high. After being assigned our tour number (a little sticker that seemed perpetually on the verge of falling off), we climbed aboard. We were each handed a fold-out map of Rome. I compared it with the my travel guidebook and realized the unfortunate truth: There was too much to see. Even if we stuck to the most famous and touristy areas, there was no way we’d be able to see everything in one day.
The tour guide explained the choices in simple terms: we could either spend the day exploring Rome, or in the lines and crowds of the Vatican. Like a travel-themed Highlander show, there could be only one. We’d be dropped off in front of St. Peter’s Square in the morning, and we’d have until the late afternoon to get back. As the guide went around selling Vatican Museum tickets in advance, Mom and I quietly debated our options. Vatican City is self-explanatory; the sheer amount of history and culture would be mind-boggling. We’d get to see the Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, and some of the most famous works of art in the world. But that would also mean being stuck in the seemingly endless horde of tourists for the entire day. If we wandered through Rome, we’d get to see more sites at our own pace. That meant improvising an itinerary in an unfamiliar city and somehow getting back to the meetup point on time. When we asked the guide, he recommended the latter; it was our first time in the city, so we should get as much out of it as possible.
I leaned back and grumbled, but I knew he was right. The Vatican would have to wait. When I asked Mom what she wanted to see, she immediately chose the Colosseum. Which, to be fair, was at the top of my Things To See In Italy list. Of course we’d visit it, just had to find it. How hard could it be?
…It was on the opposite end of the map.
Okay, so obviously we’d be saving that for last. We’d have to start at St. Peter’s, then walk across town to the Colosseum. No problem, I’d done literally three times the amount of city hiking in a day. But that was in San Francisco, on my home turf, and without a time limit. On this trip, both endpoints and hours were established; all that was left was to find a walking route that was not only efficient, but maximized the amount of sites we could visit. After staring at the map for several minutes, I had it all planned. We’d walk from the Vatican to Castel Sant’Angelo, cross the Tiber via Ponte Umberto, follow the street to Piazza Navona, then turn left and head to the Pantheon, continue on to Trevi Fountain, take a slight detour north to the Spanish Steps, and then head south for the Colosseum. Getting back to the Vatican from there would have to be improvised depending on how much time we had left. It would be a little rushed, but doable.
After getting through the Vatican’s parking garage – a concrete monstrosity apparently capable of handling dozens of tour buses at once – our group trudged out of a tunnel and and stopped right in front of St. Peter’s Square. Like any piece of history, it was so much grander than anything seen in a book or painting. The sheer size amount of open space, the way the rows of columns curved like cupped hands, the gargantuan fountains, the Egyptian obelisk that has lasted since the Roman Empire…This place had seen – and survived – so much. I’m pretty sure I spent that first half hour awestruck, gaping and drooling over every last detail. Mom and I walked around the square and took photos, but we knew we couldn’t stay long. The tour guide wasn’t kidding; the line to get into the Basilica wrapped around the perimeter of St. Peter’s, and the constant influx of visitors made it hard to tell where it ended. Remembering the choice we’d made, we left the Vatican behind.
Our quest for the Colosseum started off relatively smoothly. Castel Sant’Angelo is right next to the Vatican, so finding both it and the bridge was easy. I’d also read and watched Angels and Demons years ago, so I my inner bookworm was geeking out. In retrospect, I wish I’d spent more time there; the museum lines were too long, and the bridge (and its wonderful statues) was too crowded for decent photography. When we crossed Ponte Umberto, I took a few minutes to enjoy the silence and view. The Tiber was almost serene; there were only a few joggers and bicyclists on its banks, and only one tour boat chugging upriver. We waved at the tourists as they passed underneath, then continued to Piazza Navona.
Fun fact: Like most ancient cities, Rome’s layout is pretty unusual. The narrow alleys, twisted, interconnected thoroughfares, and clustered buildings make navigating it a daunting task. Which makes sense, given how it’d be a massive obstacle for invading armies. But for modern visitors, it just required more time with the map. I’d started second-guessing myself when we emerged onto Piazza Navona and a whole new crowd of tourists. They were there for good reason; the fountains and architecture here are among Rome’s finest. The piazza was practically overshadowed by the Sant’Agnese in Agone, but everyone’s attention was focused on the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (AKA the Four Rivers Fountain). Originally designed by Bernini in the 1650s, it featured another obelisk supported by four gigantic statues. They represented the Nile, Danube, Ganges, and Rio de la Plata, the four major rivers in which continents the Vatican had authority. It was meant to represent the power and influence of the church, but I was more impressed by how lively they looked; like all of Bernini’s sculptures, these were incredibly detailed and seemed to capture the human form in motion. Just look at the way Ganges is posing in style, or how Rio de la Plata is stumbling back in fear. You wish you could make something that cool.
On our way to the Pantheon, we wandered past Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, a masterpiece of Roman Baroque architecture. It was relatively deserted, but about half a dozen art or design students were hunched over their sketchbooks, trying to capture the building’s perfect arches and hallways. A couple of alleys later, we reached out next stop. That feeling of awe consumed me again. St. Peter’s Square is incredible, but the origins of the Pantheon predate Christianity itself. Just stop and think about that. It was rebuilt – the timeline is still debatable – but still. This architectural relic, standing tall and proud in the modern world, was already old when Vatican City came to be. As I walked past the front columns and into the building itself, I was struck by its unbelievable scale. The Pantheon is topped by the world’s largest unreinforced dome; I had to nearly bend over backwards to see all of its intricate designs. Even with a wide-angle lens, I’d have to lie down on the floor to even attempt photographing it. The oculus at its center loomed overhead, casting the afternoon sun on the walls like a gigantic spotlight. I tried taking a panorama (never thought I’d do that inside a building), but I could only record about half of it. We spent nearly an hour wandering around the Pantheon, looking at wonderful artwork, and the tombs of King Victor Emmanuel II, Umberto I, and (most famously) Raphael.
I was still reeling from the history overload when we stepped outside for a much-needed break. While it was cold in Rome, we were wearing three layers of clothes each, I was carrying our food, guidebook, and camera, and we hadn’t stopped since we’d left the Vatican. There was an open spot right in front of the Fontana del Pantheon, so we sat down for a few minutes, snacked on our sandwiches, and watched the ebb and flow of people. I wandered around for a bit and took a few more photos of the building, though it was nowhere near as fascinating outside. I also noticed people walking up to a small fountain nearby, refilling their empty water bottles or just getting a palmful of refreshment. I’m normally concerned about germs and contaminated drinking water – I avoid the tap at home whenever feasible – but I remembered the old adage: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” I threw caution to the wind, restocked my supply, and silently prayed I wouldn’t get sick.
Next stop: Trevi Fountain. In a city full of fountains, this was supposed to be the grandest of them all. It wasn’t that far away, either; according to the map, it was just a couple of streets away. We quickly set off…
…And immediately got lost.
It was then I realized the problem with our little map: it didn’t present the landmarks just by name, but by small, caricatured drawings of them as well. The little cartoon versions of the Pantheon and Trevi Fountain partially obscured the streets necessary to reach them, and names of those streets weren’t even listed. Also, the drawings were facing in incorrect directions, which made them far less useful as reference points. In retrospect, I was being an idiot; Trevi Fountain was to the slight northeast. All I needed was the position of the sun, and I could’ve figured it out instantly. But when you’re tired, cold, and stuck in a huge crowd, it’s easy to get distracted. We wasted about fifteen minutes walking in a circle before another traveler pointed us in the right direction. Pro-Tip: the alley to Trevi Fountain is to your left when you’re facing the front of the Pantheon, no matter what your cruddy tourist map says. There’s also a “This way to Trevi Fountain” sign to guide the way, which of course we missed on our first run.
Now going the correct way, we took a few minutes to get souvenirs. I added another keychain to my collection, and Mom got on another magnet for her fridge. The shopkeeper was Filipina, which was somehow surprising; she and Mom chatted in Tagalog while I finished shopping. By that point, however, we both needed a restroom. There happened to be a McDonald’s along the way, which proved to be the absolute worst part of the trip. Like any McDonald’s in Europe, the place was overrun with tourists; the line was nearly out the door, and the roar of hungry patrons was deafening. We squeezed through the horde and went upstairs to the restrooms, only to find there were more than a dozen women already lined up against the wall. I got my business done mercifully quickly, but the single-toilet men’s room was horrendously smelly, dirty, and rancid. Seriously, you could smell the filth even behind the door. I was in there for barely a minute, and I felt sick when I left. Come to think of it, I should probably report them to whatever health inspectors Rome has…Anyway, Mom saw how absurdly disgusting the place was and decided to leave.
We kept walking until we came to Trevi Fountain itself. Mom made a beeline for the Melograno restaurant nearby, which was far more sanitary and less crowded than McDonald’s. No bathroom lines, either; she was back in fifteen minutes wish some gelato for the both of us. In the meantime, I pushed through the crowds and attempted to get a look at the fountain. I was disappointed to discover that it had been closed off for restoration; the entire area was surrounded by plastic, transparent barricades. While it was possible to see the fountain, it was drained of its water, and construction crews were hard at work. It ended up reopening just days after our trip ended. No use crying about it now. As I finished my gelato, I looked at my watch and considered our options. If we picked up the pace just a little bit, we’d still have time to see the Spanish Steps.
At that point, however, I hadn’t learned my lesson about using the map’s landmarks as reference points. The Spanish Steps were less than a ten minute walk away; we just had to go north and follow the street. But of course, I had to follow the map. A few minutes later, we’d mistakenly climbed up to the Quirinal Palace. Fun fact: The Spanish Steps were also closed for restoration, but I didn’t know that at the time. Feeling rushed, angry at myself, and utterly tired (hauling all that stuff wasn’t helping), I took a moment to sit down and regain my bearings. The front of the palace doubles as an elevated lookout point; the rooftops of Rome spread out as far I could see, and I could just make out the top of St. Peter’s Basilica in the distance. We had only a couple of hours to make it back there. How much more could we possibly see?
Our problems were partially solved when we started climbing back down and came across a Carabinieri. He was incredibly nice and gracious enough to point us in the right direction; I’m sure he’s probably sick of answering tourists’ questions countless times every day, but the effort was very much appreciated. Just a short walk down to the Piazza Venezia, and then past it via the street to the left. It was a simple as it sounded…for the most part. Crossing a street in the heart of Rome, even with the pedestrian signal, felt like the parting of the Red Sea; a narrow path with potential death bearing down on you from all sides.
Once we made it past the piazza, the rest of the walk was breeze. The Colosseum loomed high in the distance, and the road to it was a straight line. Our only obstacles were the thick, impassable throngs of fellow tourists, and our own exhaustion. I was still doing fairly well, but Mom kept falling back repeatedly. When we reached the Roman Forum, I gave her a chance to rest. As we looked over the railing, I took a few photos and gave her a brief history of the location and its importance. I was sorely tempted to go down and explore, but there was precious little time left. By the time we reached the Colosseum, it became clear that we wouldn’t be able to go inside; the lines were huge, and we’d basically have to run through the tour. Instead, we settled for walking around the entire perimeter and peeking in where we could. It wasn’t nearly as much as it could’ve been, but it worked with our time constraints. Mom was happy that she finally got to see something she’d read about as a child, and that’s what really mattered.
As the wonder and awe of the Colosseum faded, reality started sinking in. We were about an hour’s walk away from St. Peter’s. We could totally do it, assuming that we didn’t get lost on the way back. We briefly considered taking the subway, but I don’t think either of us had the energy left to learn another map system. We’d trudged all the way back to Piazza Venezia when I realized that we couldn’t make it back on foot in time. Mom was going far too slow, and I’d lost faith in my navigational skills. After walking and debating for a few more minutes, and we finally settled on a taxi. I collapsed into the front seat, told the driver where to go, and turned on my camera. If I was going to be leaving Rome, I wanted one last, unique memory: I recorded the entire taxi ride from the piazza back to Vatican City. The drive took less than ten minutes, but it felt so much longer.
After paying up and thanking the driver (Keep being chill and awesome, Alessandro!), we were back where we started. Aside from the position of the sun, nothing had really changed; the line to get into the Basilica was still endless. We had 45 minutes left. Not enough time to see a museum, but just enough to do some shopping and find the Vatican’s exclusive post office. Seriously, the Vatican Post Office! It’s hidden behind the pillars to the right, within shouting distance of the Sistine Chapel. I bought a postcard, addressed it to the family back in California, and handed it off to the worker inside. Said worker was a big, burly fellow who was probably making fun of my inability to speak Italian. Anyway, that postcard is currently stuck to my fridge (it arrived two days before I returned home), and I got a Vatican-exclusive euro as part of my change from the transaction. At that point, Mom got tired of me dragging her around to take photos. She left in an exasperated huff without warning, so I spent a few minutes in a near-panic trying to find her in the crowd. She’s a fighter, but she’s not quite as resilient as she used to be. She knew where the meet-up location was; I just hoped no one tried to mug or pickpocket her while I wasn’t around.
She was fine, thankfully. We met up shortly before the designated time, still annoyed with the other. I spent the last few minutes taking photos; it took me several tries, but I managed to get a panorama of St. Peter’s Square from the front. I ducked into the Vatican gift shop and quickly searched for a decent souvenir. I didn’t want to get a cross – I’m not particularly religious – and I didn’t want to bother with overpriced jewelry that I’d never wear. Instead, I opted for something a little bizarre, but a uniquely perfect keepsake: holy water. That’s right, I have a vial of holy water from the Vatican on my shelf now. In terms of unusual travel trinkets I’ve gained over the years, that tops them all. I’m glad I was able to hold onto it; according to our tour guide, the short walk back down to the Vatican parking garage is a haven for pickpocketers. He even had us carry our backpacks in front of us. Aside from a couple of missing group members (who ended up getting back on the ship late), the trip back was uneventful.
When we piled back onto the tour bus, I felt weariness wash over me like a tidal wave. We’d been up before dawn, explored one of the greatest cities on Earth, seen so much art and history…and that was just a taste of Rome. We’d have to go back there someday. I don’t remember falling asleep, but I was woken up by the tour guide explaining the importance of Civitavecchia. Fishermen in ancient times would go to the port at the end of the day to sell their catches, and the tradition is still alive today; dozens of boats were docked nearby, silhouetted against the sunset, crates of fish already being sold. Had we not been on a fully-catered cruise, Mom and I probably would’ve gotten something. Instead, we staggered back onto the ship, traded travel stories at dinner, and called it an early night. After all we’d done, we’d earned a great night’s sleep.
To be continued…