Returning to the Eternal City

It’d been a very long time.

My first trip to Rome was two decades ago. Italy still used the lira back then, and I remember fumbling with the colourful, unfamiliar notes every time I paid for a meal.

With no such thing as online booking, I’d stood at a pay phone at Florence train station, calling the three budget hotels listed in my dog-eared copy of Let’s Go Europe 1998. One was full, one didn’t answer, and my Italian definitely wasn’t good enough for whoever answered the phone at the final place.

My girlfriend and I then got on the slow train instead of the express, giving us a few extra hours to fret about where the hell we were going to sleep that night. All I knew was that we definitely wouldn’t turn left out of the station, because the guidebook suggested it was dangerous after dark.

Before even getting to the end of the platform at Roma Termini, a local in his thirties approached us. “Do you need accommodation?” I glanced at my girlfriend. Neither of us had yet learned to trust strangers on the road, so a thousand potential problems loomed on the horizon. Still, we did need somewhere to stay.

Agreeing to at least take a look, we followed our new friend out of the station… and immediately turned left. Great.

Of course, everything turned out just fine. We stayed in the spare room of a lovely family, paying less and getting more than we would have with any of the budget hotels. It wasn’t the greatest location to explore from, but the metro was close, and in April, the weather was perfect for walking.

And so we did… at least until we wandered off the edge of my tourist map, or got lost in a maze of back streets somewhere. That seemed to happen a lot.

Still, the highlights weren’t hard to find. Queuing outside the Vatican before it opened, we joined the hordes of people traipsing through the museums. Paying scant attention to the many paintings, suits of armour, and tapestries, we hurried towards the one thing that had brought everyone there: the Sistine Chapel.

Statue of Saint Peter

We marveled at the sheer scale of St Peter’s Basilica until people ignoring the “silence” signs forced us out. The ruins of the Colosseum and Forum beckoned, and I gaped at the towering Trajan’s Column, a monument I recognised from afar thanks to a wonderful old high school teacher.

It was a hectic few days in Rome, and I headed for the airport tired, exhilarated, and vowing to return.

And then, for twenty years, I didn’t.

I’m not sure why, really. My travels just took me elsewhere, and even when I visited the north of Italy a few times, I never made it back to the capital.

And then Lauren found super-cheap flights from Rome to Japan at the end of last year, and that was that. All roads lead to the Eternal City, apparently, even if they sometimes take a while to get there.

Many things were different, of course. Italy uses the euro now, so I didn’t even need to change money when I flew in from Portugal. Instead of fruitlessly calling hotels from a payphone, I’d booked a room through Airbnb a few weeks earlier.

The metro, which I’d found so crowded and hard to navigate on my first visit, was calm and obvious on a Sunday morning. Rather than walking off the edge of my tourist map, I just plugged a few names into Google Maps and followed the blue dot.

Of course, while the process around visiting had changed a lot, Rome itself hadn’t. After all, in a city that’s been welcoming visitors for millennia, two decades is just the blink of an eye.

We couldn’t check into our accommodation straight away, so dropped our bags and headed back out for the Vatican. The museums were closed by the time we arrived, so we’d planned to head to the basilica… but apparently weren’t the only ones with that idea.

Line at Saint Peter's Basilica

Sure, we could have spent the rest of the afternoon waiting in line, but we didn’t. Instead, we took a few photos, strolled around the square for a while, and decided to walk the five kilometres back to the apartment instead.

And that’s when Rome really turned on the charm.

Ponte Saint Angelo, Rome

There wasn’t a particular plan, only a vague direction. No longer worried about getting impossibly lost, I wandered down back alleys, over random bridges, through bustling squares. That bustle was mostly locals, though — late November is far from peak time for tourists, and away from the main streets and attractions, we saw few others.

One thing I’d remembered from my previous visit to Rome was how it was hard to go far without stumbling across something spectacular. If you love history like I do, there’s legitimately nowhere quite as rewarding to explore.

And so it was that, without even trying, we ended up at the Pantheon.

Outside the Panthron

I hadn’t made it there on my last visit, for reasons that elude me now. A marvel of engineering like so much Roman architecture, it’s still standing proudly nearly two thousand years after it was built. It’s a beautiful, tranquil place to linger for a while.

Inside the Pantheon

From there, it’s only a few minutes to the Trevi fountain. I’ve never really understood why it’s quite so popular with visitors, but sure enough, it was standing room only on all sides. Bobbing and weaving to avoid the waving selfie sticks, I squeezed my way to the front to take a few photos, tossed in a coin to ensure I’d return to Rome one day, and got the hell out of there as fast as possible.

Whenever I do come back, if I visit that fountain again, it’ll be very early in the morning.

Trevi fountain

And then, the Forum. I’d been there before. I thought I remembered what it looked like, the buildings and general layout, the overall feeling of being there.

Apparently I didn’t, because when we caught a glimpse of some ruins down a side street and wandered over to check them out, I gasped aloud. My memories had taken on that washed-out, sepia tone of old photos, but this? In the late afternoon light, the scene was vibrant and spectacular.

Roman Forum

I didn’t know where to look, which way to point my camera… and this was just one small part of a sizeable area that I wouldn’t even go inside until the next day. The Forum was the centre of Roman life for hundreds of years, and has been sporadically excavated for centuries more. It’s no wonder there’s a hell of a lot there.

Roman Forum panoramaWith the light starting to fade, and the temperature dropping, what was left to see? Oh, just the Colosseum.

We were staying not far from it, and our route home took us straight past Rome’s most famous attraction. Bathed in a warm glow from the setting sun, a rainbow appeared overhead right on cue to finish our day.

Rainbow over the Colosseum

It was hard to believe we’d seen so much in a two-hour walk on our first afternoon, but in Rome, that’s not hard to do.

We had ambitious plans for the next day, and as usual with such plans, didn’t achieve them. Instead, we ended up spending the entire time inside the Colosseum and Forums, and up the Palatine Hill, broken up by a leisurely, tasty lunch at the nearby La Taverna dei Quaranta restaurant.

It’s a tiny area, probably less than one square kilometre, and yet my feet were aching by the time I got home in the evening. How could I spend an entire day sightseeing around places I’d spent plenty of time in before, you may ask?

Because of this.

Inside the Colosseum

Colosseum in the sunshine

And this.

Inside the Forum, Rome

Three columns in the Forum, Rome

And well, this.

Shadows on Palatine Hill

On top of Palatine Hill, Rome

Seriously.

I’d expected the next day, my last in the city, to be a little more relaxing. Less walking and taking photos, more chilling out in cafes with a strong espresso or three.

My feet and my camera had other ideas.

View over Rome

Up to and around the Villa Borghese I strolled, with a quick ten-minute break to bask in the sun on the Spanish Steps. Hey, if it’s good enough for the locals (and it clearly was,) it’s good enough for me. The sprawling Borghese park was a delight in the autumn sunshine, leaves crackling underfoot as I stomped along every trail I could find. Much like my trip to Rome itself, this was a morning I didn’t want to end.

Trajan's Column, RomeThe afternoon saw me back in the heart of the city again, ignoring my phone in favour of wrong turns, detours, and shortcuts that weren’t. Apparently old habits die hard.

Still, by the time I’d finished, I’d somehow found my way to the run-down Circus Maximus that used to hold public games for 150,000 people at the height of the empire, along with a final stop at a place more important to me than anywhere else in Rome.

Trajan’s Column had loomed large in my imagination for twenty years. More than anything else, it symbolised what drove me to travel in the first place, and started a literal and figurative journey that’s lasted my entire adult life.

For several minutes I stood in front of the towering sculpture, hearing my old teacher’s voice playing out over the background noise of the city. These days, I barely remember the detail behind those intricate carvings winding their way around the column, or indeed from most of the lessons in my creaking Classical Studies classroom.

The fire they lit under me at the time, however, to see firsthand what I’d only learned about in musty textbooks half a world away? I remember that like it was yesterday.


A Few Random Tips for Visiting Rome

Rome gets a lot of grief for being too hot, overrun by tourists, and full of grumpy restauranters and over-charging taxi drivers. If you visit in summer, that’s all undoubtedly true.

So don’t visit in summer.

My two visits have been in spring and autumn, and they’ve been nothing short of spectacular. The weather’s less predictable, but I had blue skies much of the time. It was quite chilly in late November, but hey, I’d rather walk all day with a jacket on than sweat through three t-shirts by lunchtime.
 
Contrary to popular belief, it’s still possible to eat very well in Rome if you’re like me and don’t consume dairy products. There’s more to Italian food than pizza and lasagne, and I thoroughly enjoyed every mealtime despite the lack of cheese or creamy sauces. Avoiding carbs, though? That’s definitely harder.
 
If you’re visiting both the Colosseum and Forum on the same day, buy your ticket at the latter. It gives entry to both sites no matter where you buy it, and the lines are much shorter at the Forum.
 
Don’t feel you need to stay right in the heart of the action. Assuming the weather cooperates, Rome’s a pretty walkable city, and the metro and buses are cheap and cover a lot of ground if necessary. Staying slightly further out will save you a small fortune on accommodation, especially during peak times, and often make for better, cheaper meals as well.
 
Some of the best, and certainly less-crowded, parts of Rome are away from the main tourist attractions. Not even all that far away, in many cases. Just by taking a few random turns, you’ll often find yourself in quiet back streets just begging to be explored, full of restaurants and cafes catering to locals rather than visitors. Unlike the first time I visited the city, a working smartphone will even let you find your home again afterward.

 

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Three Days in Rome

3 Responses to “Returning to the Eternal City

  • Lory Martinez
    3 months ago

    That was great!
    You remind me my trips without internet or GPS! Im glad those days are over😊

  • That’s a great post Dave, thank you so much! And, nice pictures too!

    Did you go to Tazza d’oro for an espresso? It’s right next to the Pantheon and they pride themselves on serving the “best coffee in the world”… I don’t know if it’s the best in the world, but it’s very good and it’s affordable vs. most touristic coffee places in Rome.

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