October 25th, 2014
After our flight was delayed over an hour, we finally arrived in Rome. We landed at Ciampino airport, which was much smaller than we imagined the airport it to be. I guess Fiumicino, their other airport, must get all of the international flights and jumbo jets. From the airport, we needed to take a bus to the train station, where we would catch another bus to the apartment we were renting for our stay. We stood in the general vicinity of the bus stop, but there was no semblance of a line or any sort of order to the chaos. Hundreds of people with luggage and purses jostled around one small bus shelter. Some people were making small but constant adjustments with their arms, legs, elbows, and bags in order to deter intruders and claim their own little bit of personal space. Others, probably from some sunny, laid-back locale by the Mediterranean, were oblivious to all of this polite posturing, leaning into other people’s bags, gesturing expansively with their arms, and not minding in the slightest if they were brushing shoulders with three different strangers at once. You can guess what category we fell into.
Once the bus pulled up, there was a collective lurch as everyone lunged to claim their new bit of personal space, regardless of whether this was the bus they needed, whether they had the right kind of ticket, or the dozens of other people ahead of them. The concept of the queue just didn’t exist. We had to throw our luggage in the bottom of the bus and then dash to the front of the line to try to get a space. The last few months in orderly London made this little bit of anarchy unsettling. Dozens of families were trying to get on the wrong bus and arguing loudly with the bus driver about their tickets. None seemed to care that they were speaking different languages and were mutually unintelligible to each other. The arrival of another bus, operated by an entirely different company, caused the heaving crowds to storm that bus’s door, regardless of which company these travelers had actually purchased their tickets from, and the whole process started again. After the arrival of yet another bus, everything quieted down on ours, and we were able to pull away from the stop and start our journey into Rome.
Driving along the highway was uneventful until we began to get closer to the city. Every now and then, we would catch tantalizing glimpses of old Roman city walls running along the city, some falling into complete ruin and others incorporated into much newer buildings. We couldn’t wait to get off the bus and start exploring. When we finally did get off the bus, we realized we weren’t in the greatest area of town. The area surrounding the train station is a bit undesirable, to say the least. We entered the station to buy bus tickets and were approached by a few gypsies offering to help us find our way or teach us to use the ticket machine. Having been warned about this particular event and its potential dangers in advance, we were prepared with a firm “no” and kept walking. Once we went around in circles a few times and rebuffed a few more overly-helpful people, we found the tourist desk, and I tried out my rusty Italian on the desk clerk. She nodded while I was explaining how many tickets we needed and what bus stop we were trying to find, and she helpfully started explaining the bus system to me… in English. Oh, well. As she was printing off our tickets, a gaggle of Italian youths were standing behind us with their luggage piled nearby, and she told them rather sharply in Italian to beware of gypsies, which caused the youths to look startled and clutch their bags to their sides. Proof that no one can afford to be cavalier about petty theft in Rome.
We hurried to the stop to catch our bus since it was supposed to depart in a few minutes, staked out a bit of sidewalk, and tried to look as street-smart and standoffish as we could. We ended up waiting over 40 minutes for it to come, despite it supposedly running every 10 minutes. We were definitely not in Ka— I mean, London anymore. Once we were on the bus that would take us to our apartment, we started to pass some of the most iconic Roman sites like the Altare della Patria (Alter of the Fatherland) and Lago di Torre Argentina. We didn’t enjoy this beautiful entry into Rome as much as we should have because we were so mortified at being almost an hour late to meet our AirBnB host. As soon as the bus stopped, we were on our feet running towards the little side street that housed the apartment. Our host was nothing but kind about our tardiness (she probably has taken a lot of Italian buses) and she showed us around the apartment.
Once we got settled in, we were ready to start exploring. On our Rome schedule, I had the rest of that day mapped out as “Fountains and Monuments” which really meant that we walked around to some of the closer sights and started to form a tentative mental map of all of those winding, cobbled streets. Our apartment was just around the block from Piazza Navona, so that was our first stop. Piazza Navona is shaped like a very long oval because it was built on the site of the Stadium of Domitian, a Roman venue built in the first century for athletic contests. In the center of the piazza is the famous Fontana dei Quattri Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers) by Bernini, topped with a Roman obelisk. And that, in a nutshell, is what is so amazing about Rome! You can walk along a modern public square within an old Roman stadium and look at Renaissance masterpieces- all while eating gelato.
Our next stop was the Pantheon, a few minutes’ walk away. Stephen was of course excited to see the largest unreinforced concrete dome ever built, and in the second century, no less! He loves him some Roman engineering. In front of the Pantheon was an ancient Egyptian obelisk. They seemed to be everywhere, and the sheer size and beauty of them was astonishing, even more so when you consider that the Romans had them brought over all of the way from Egypt thousands of years ago and erected them with their very own cranes. Even by first and second century standards, these obelisks were considered ancient– made more than a thousand years before the birth of Christ. It is almost too much to wrap your brain around. We had never before been in a place so immersed in world history and culture. It was awe-inspiring.
Another one of my absolute favorite things about Rome was the availability of water. All over Rome there are these little fountains which flow day and night with fresh, clean, and super cold water. There are 2500 in total— 200 in the historic center— and they are called fontanelle (little fountains) or more commonly, nasoni (big noses, due to the shape of the spout.) We carried around water bottles in our bag and just refilled them as needed throughout the day. The water naturally flows into a drain like a faucet, but most of them have a little hole you can plug with your finger to make water shoot out of the top. Voilà! Instant drinking fountain!
After the Pantheon, we had dinner at a wonderful restaurant a few blocks away (bruschetta, wine, lemon and butter pasta, peppercorn steak, tiramisu, and espresso, if you were wondering) and then walked by Lago di Torre Argentina, at my insistence. Lago di Torre Argentina is a public square famous for being the supposed site on which Julius Caesar was assassinated. In my world, that takes a major backseat to the other reason for which it is notable: the no-kill cat shelter. It is home to over 200 homeless cats who spend their days lounging on Roman pillars and starring in Instagram posts. I was almost as excited to see the cats as I was to go to the Roman forum. We were in Rome for 5 nights/6 days, and I went to see my cats at least once a day, but usually twice and sometimes more if Stephen would permit it. He got really sick of cats by the end of it.
After getting my cat fix, we went back to the apartment to get some sleep. After traveling for half the day and walking 8 miles in Rome, we were dead tired. We had a big day ahead of us the next day, which I’ll tell you all about in my next post!
(Below are some photos from our first day. Click any picture to open up a slideshow, from which you can browse though all of the full-sized images.)