Italia. Where to begin? At the beginning of course, but what beginning would that be? The first day of the trip itself, or do I go all the way back to when the idea of visiting Italy first glimmered in my brain? And who knows when that truly happened? Certainly the thought had been percolating somewhere in those vast empty spaces inside my head for many years, if not decades, so long that I really can’t say where or how the notion first took root. I claim no Italian blood on either side of my family, yet I’ve always felt drawn to Italian art, food, history, language, music, and particularly football. Yes, that’s right, soccer to Americans.
I first fell in love with Italian soccer in the mid 1990’s and I’m still not sure why. Is it that much better than English or German or Brazilian football? No, but it is different to my eyes. Some combination of their style of play, the passion on display, the history and winning tradition of Italy on the world soccer stage and who knows what other intangibles all contribute to my love of calcio, the Italian name for soccer.
What does this have to do with choosing to travel to Italy? Nothing, other than to illustrate just how mysterious the whole process is of what draws us to one thing and not another. Of course, if I could explain or understand all this in some rational, scientific manner it might lose the allure that attracted me in the first place. Perhaps, in this case, the unexamined life (or notion) is not only worth living, but the better option.
So by whatever means you come to Italy, you must come to Rome. All roads lead there, right? To visit Italy without seeing Rome would be like visiting England without London, or France without Paris. We flew into Rome and spent three days there, which is only scratching the surface of the Eternal City, but that gives us good reason to go back some day.
Having now been there, I can say Rome is a city of big monuments, big history, and really big traffic. And when I say traffic, I mean congested, high velocity insanity on wheels in every form of motorized vehicle imaginable, from the smallest Vespa motor scooters to double-decker tour buses and all of them careening wildly at breakneck speed down broad avenues and narrow cobblestoned alleys. Just watching people cross the street is a spectator sport, both entertaining and harrowing to see. It’s only when you decide to go across yourself that you realize you really are putting your life on the line.
Not only do drivers not view pedestrians as having the right of way, from what I could tell they view them as targets. Just remember when you do cross that it’s harder to hit a moving target than a stationary one. Hesitation will only get you flattened. We learned quickly to follow close on the heels of the natives, who are either fearless or foolish, striding boldly in front of oncoming vehicles and getting away with it. The cars/scooters/buses slow just barely enough to avoid contact and rush by you a hairsbreadth from your elbows and heels. I found myself uncertain whether to curse or pray, and usually doing a combination of both. Now I know why Italians are such devout Catholics. To be honest, by some miracle I never saw anyone actually get hit, but it could only be that, a miracle. That’s probably why the Pope hangs around Rome all the time, to spread his blessing and protection over everyone just trying to move around the city.
From Flumicino airport we took the Leonardo Express train, an easy connection from just outside the airport directly to the main Termini train station in central Rome. At fourteen Euros a person it’s not exactly cheap for a thirty minute train ride, but it is convenient and still saved us twenty Euros over the standardized taxi fare of forty-eight Euros into the city.
We’d chosen the Aberdeen Hotel both for its central location to attractions and its proximity to the Termini station, a ten minute walk away. Well, yes, a ten minute walk if you know exactly where you’re going. By the time we’d wandered through Termini, gotten (dis)oriented outside and finally pointed in the right direction, it was closer to thirty minutes before we walked into the hotel. We settled into our room, freshened up and at about four o’clock we headed out armed with map and camera to see what we could see in the remains of the day left to us.
It was too late to see any major sights so we decided to simply wander and soak in the city. After dodging a lot of the aforementioned traffic, we eventually ended up without really intending to at the Trevi Fountain. It’s a nice enough fountain, large and impressive, that is if you can actually get close enough to see it. For me, Trevi epitomizes the sort of overhyped, overcrowded attraction completely overrun and pretty much ruined by the hordes of tourists swarming over every square inch of the area. Okay, we’re guilty of contributing to same simply by being there, I get that, but to be honest we took a few photos and got the heck away.
We wandered for an hour or so, had some panini and gelato and ended up – again unwittingly – stumbling into the Spanish Steps area. Ditto our experience at Trevi. You could scarcely walk up the steps between the acres of people sitting, standing and hanging out all over them and honestly, I failed to see the attraction. The Spanish Steps are just a big, wide stairway leading up to an old Spanish style mission. Nice enough, but for us no big deal. We did have fun, however, taking some Where’s Waldo type photos with me playing the part of Waldo in the midst of the teeming crowds on the steps.
We then ambled up Via del Corso which is more or less the main drag in that part of town and location of the nightly Italian ritual of the passiagata, basically where everyone comes outside and walks around in the evening to hang out and see and be seen. Good for people watching, but in places the sidewalk was barely wide enough to accomodate two abreast, and though the traffic here was limited and not quite so madcap as in other streets, there was still enough to cause constant over-the-shoulder vigilant glances when the throngs of passiagati forced us to walk in the street.
When hunger found us there was no shortage of options. We chose what we hoped would be a nice cafe (it was) ate our pizza and pasta and eventually – despite several misreadings of my map and unplanned “sightseeing” detours in the dark – found our way back to the hotel and called the day a good start to our Italian odyssey.