A whirlwind 9-hour race through Rome

I was asked, “did you take all the photos on this site.” Answer to that is yes (except for the ones where someone took a photo of me). When you’re done reading through this blog entry, I hope that you will enjoy the photo collection from Rome. It’s probably my favorite of all… and I hope that it will be obvious how much I absolutely enjoyed the city.

As I’ve said, I was beyond looking forward to visiting Rome. Not even solely for the religious significance of the city or its vast history. It was to see the sights and sounds and atmosphere of this incredibly famous city. Over the two previous Italian ports, I had gained a huge affinity for the country and its culture, so to see the pinnacle of what Italy’s all about… I was stoked!

It took a little (well, a lot) of preparation to free up a decent amount of time for Rome. Normally my visits ashore are limited to a few hours. That wasn’t going to cut it for Rome, especially since we were only in port until midnight. Also in the equation was a one-hour train ride from the port of Civitavecchia to the actual city itself. To free up my entire evening, I worked double-hard the day before: normally I would do the layout of one day of the guest newsletter per night and then edit/publish it the next morning. Instead, I worked late into the night preparing a second newsletter. That way, the morning of Rome I finished editing that day’s edition… and didn’t have any work for the evening since I had worked ahead. I finished editing… and bam, raced right to the train to Rome. Got there at about 1pm.

So – that left me with with a mere nine hours to see a city I had built up huge expectations for. To make my whirlwind visit work, I deliberately went alone (there’s not many people who can really keep up with someone who’s on a mission to seriously explore a city on a tight schedule. I wanted to see what *I* needed to see, pronto!, without anyone holding me back). A few days before, I laid out a plan of the sites I needed to see and how to get between them. Preparation and adrenaline were the only ways I was going to make this work. Doesn’t this sound a little like “Amazing Race?”

With highly elevated expectations for my Roman adventure, I knew there was a chance that I’d be setting myself up for disappointment. I’m very happy to say that Rome did not disappoint. Not one bit. The city goes down in my books as far and away my favourite city… and I saw some incredible places on this adventure, so that’s really saying a lot!

What about it exceeded my expectations? In one word: “atmosphere.” 

This city is literally dripping with Italian culture. It started even with the train ride in, where they play music during the entire journey. Tarantellas, accordion, a bit of opera – it set the mood. And then you get off at the “Roma San Pietro” train station.

You’re suddenly at the footsteps of the Catholic church with all its majestic presence. The dome of St. Peter’s Basilica standing only a few kilometers away: religious or not, its enough to induce goosebumps.

Further contributing to the feeling of authentic Italian atmosphere is the fact that most of the touristy areas of Rome (which is pretty well the whole city, save for the newer business areas on the outskirts) are exactly as they were in historic times. Unlike so many of the world’s greatest cities where the central area is the main financial district, dominated by skyscrapers – the heart of Rome is its oldest, most historic area. Rome built itself as a religious and political mecca, so all those breathtaking buildings are what make up the downtown. And, of course, they remain. There’s no way that they’d get rid of all that history for modern progress. New Rome is far away from what tourists see. So, rather than the ‘fake’ or ‘tourist-ized’ experiences that are recreated in many tourist hot-spots, Rome was the real deal.

My first treat of pure Rome was my lunch stop. Being so close to the Vatican City, I was concerned that I’d wind up at a restaurant that either over-charges or offers a watered-down version of the real taste locals enjoy. Well, walking near the Vatican along the too-narrow-for-cars streets, I was reassured that this was true Rome. The restaurants, shops and homes were probably all originals, and among the tourists walking around were many locals (accordion players and roaming opera singers entertaining us! music to my ears!). Searching for an ideal spot to eat, I spied a cobblestoned outdoor restaurant with a table-full of priests. That looked pretty authentic to me! I couldn’t savour the perfectly al dente noodles more fully. 100% As good as it gets.

Belly full of all that is good about Italy, I walked through the arched wall around the Vatican City… and was stopped in my tracks. I’m not exaggerating. 

Seeing photos of St. Peter’s Square and the famous facade of the Basilica, I remember thinking “It looks smaller than I expected.” But photos cannot capture the sheer scale. It’s massive, and beyond impressive. Like I said, it stops you in your tracks. To get an idea of the scale, the square had probably several thousand people when I was there and still seemed fairly empty. The Basilica itself was brimming with tourists, yet still felt cavernous. The papal balcony, the arches, the vaulted ceilings inside, the sunlit domes: it all towered overhead and filled my senses with wonder. And, due to the size of it all, although the Vatican was full of visitors, it felt calm and peaceful… and I did not feel rushed at all.

Reaching the stunning altar, I looked up at the imposing dome and saw people walking high up along its perimeter! “Oh ya,” I remembered. “You can climb it.” Several hundred (very narrow) steps through the inner walls of the dome later, I was standing high above the altar and then enjoying a bird’s-eye vantage of the square and the city itself. I spied in the distance the Spanish Steps, my next destination. The whirlwind had to move on… [I didn’t have the time to stand in line for two hours to see the Sistine Chapel].

Entering Rome’s Spanish Quarter, I had not really seen so many people jammed into one area without any sort of special event to attract them (there weren’t Spanish shops or restaurants… but I understand it takes the name from the quarter’s church which was given by Spanish people to the city). The streets were jam-packed. The Quarter is probably best described as the Times Square or Champs Elysees of Rome: all the best shops and restaurants, and the most tourists. Everyone was drawn to the highlight – the famous Spanish Steps. These are flower-lined and fountain-flanked ornamental steps that lead from the Spanish Quarter up to the Spanish Church. Beautiful indeed (including the attractive Italians relaxing in the warm afternoon sun)… except that the facade of the church was covered in scaffolding. This started a major curse for me: almost every European monument I visited was under renovation! But I can’t exactly get away with saying I have bad luck, can I?

Navigating the steps and the sea of humanity, I escaped for the peaceful flowing waters of the Trevi Fountain. Okay, not peaceful at all: there were just as many people in an even tighter area. I’m not really sure why Rome was so busy on a late April weekend. 

What’s so neat about this fountain? First of all, like everything in Rome, it sets the bar high. What looks like a grand building is actually solely a fountain… water flows from beneath sculptures and an intricate facade. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, is the legend of the fountain. If you toss a coin into the pool, it’s said that you will seal your fate for a return to Rome. With such an entrancing first impression, I wanted to do everything in my power to guarantee a future visit.

By now, the sun was starting to dip below the balconies and domes: time to hit my final stop. The main road leading up to the Colosseum is like a gradually-unveiling curtain to the deepest history of Rome. You’re on a modern, four-lane road with the latest European cars zooming past. And then it starts to transform. First, the silhouette of the crumbling stadium rises slowly in the distance at the end of the street. Then, the already-ancient buildings flanking the street give way to fenced-off pits… pits filled with arches, fallen bricks, stonework and the remains of buildings. This is ancient Rome. The Roman Empire. Literally at my feet! When you think it’s old and authentic, it just gets even older and more storied.

Finally, passing by a statue of Caesar, I was gazing up at one of the most famous buildings in the world. I took the trade-off of not getting to go inside for the upside of seeing the Colosseum lit up at night: its arches and circular layers all hauntingly backlit, almost bringing to life the ghosts of all that happened inside long ago.

A mad rush back to the ship, I was disappointed that the Italian music on the train was interrupted by Avril Lavigne and the song “Suicidal/ aka Beautiful Girls by Sean Kingston.” Seriously, that song was playing all over the world and if I heard it one more time I was probably going to follow its instructions.

But not even that annoyance could wipe away the completely enveloping Italian atmosphere of Rome that left me with one of the best memories of my adventure.

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