This post is going to be a bit disjointed, mostly because I want to share a lot of photos and am trying to sum up the activities of a few days.
I’m going to come right out and say it: Rome has way too many tourists. I was staying in a hostel near the Termini train station, Rome’s central transit hub, and trying to walk anywhere was an exercise in frustration, at best. I must have spotted dozens of school groups, their teachers facing various levels of success in maintaining order over their charges. Small children and teenagers seem to be the worst, crowding the sidewalks and pushing each other as they walk. I’m genuinely surprised that teachers manage to leave Rome with all of their charges intact. Don’t even get me started on gelato eaters as this appears to be the one food item that completely strips rational humans of their situational awareness. Yes, the gelato is good in Italy, but it’s not THAT good.
Rome is also not quite what I expected. I don’t know what I was expecting – people talk of this city with such affection and with something approaching reverence – but the city I was walking in just seemed big, noisy, crowded and dirty. I suspect the crowds will only get worse as I continue my trip, culminating with the disaster that will be Paris in July.
Our Busabout guide told us that there weren’t really any free walking tours in Rome, recommending instead that we pay for one using their preferred local tour operator. I’m usually a big fan of free walking tours as I find that they give a great overview of the city and the guide often has recommendations of what to see, eat or do while you’re in Rome… plus you pay for performance. If you don’t like the tour, you can tip accordingly. The tour I did, which met at the Spanish steps in the early evening, was fine, but not amazing – the Munich walking tour I did so far seems to be my benchmark for European free walking tours.
The guide brought us to a number of sites, but we were often there at the last second, squeaking into a church minutes before closing time. Roman churches have fairly strict dress codes, requiring that the knees and shoulders be covered, but there were quite a few girls – and a couple of guys – who arrived without meeting the requirements and without anything to cover up with. They just kind of faded away after the first or second stop, disappearing into the crowds. The enforcement of the dress code varied by church as in some there were too many visitors – like the Pantheon – for it to be applied while in other churches there just weren’t any enforcement personnel.
We were going to stop at some of the government buildings, but there was a protest of some sort happening in front of the Italian Parliament buildings. The guide quickly consulted with the police there and it was suggested that skip that stop on our itinerary. One of the women on the tour, a know-it-all from the Toronto area, protested, saying she just wanted to take a few photos. My general rule of thumb, which I feel is pretty reasonable, is that when the police suggest you avoid an area, you avoid it. Especially in a foreign country.
One of the random things I learned on the tour is that all of the marble statues we see were initially painted. I had assumed the Romans were just ahead of their time with the marble decor and shades of white, but this has been proven to be incorrect. The Renaissance masters, who were inspired by the ancient Romans, didn’t have the luxury of science in order to be historically accurate. I can’t help but feel that the painted statues would be tacky – the lack of colour, I think, is what makes the statues so timeless.
The tour finished at the Trevi Fountain, the famously ornate fountain into which one needs to throw a few coins to guarantee their return to Rome. Our guide told us to make sure we threw in three coins – one to guarantee a return to the city, the others to guarantee some stuff about love and romance. The correct way to throw the coins are to hold them in your right hand and then toss them over your left shoulder.
Apparently there is upwards of €3,000 in coins collected from the Trevi Fountain every day, with proceeds going towards providing food and services for Rome’s homeless population. Rick Steves recommended going to the Trevi Fountain at an odd hour, like 4 a.m., in order to avoid the hordes of tourists that plague the area. I think that would be a bit easier if one had the budget to stay in that neighbourhood instead of having to trek across the city to achieve this supposedly magical experience. The latest I was there was around midnight and it was still packed, with hundreds of tourists clamouring for the perfect photo.
The touts and street vendors in Rome were incessant, calling out to tourists with a quick “hello” or, the most dangerous question in Europe, “do you speak English?”. The worst items for sale are the “splat” balls – these are hard to describe, but imagine walking down a busy street and hearing a splat noise a dozen or so times. These are small plastic balls, thrown onto a hard surface which make an annoying splat noise and kind of appear to disintegrate into a pile of goop before slowly regaining their shape. Zeroing in on kids, the splat ball sellers – to the chagrin of parents everywhere – know their target market. I saw quite a few of them in Venice but nothing prepared me for the splat barrage that was Rome. I can’t help but wonder if there is a hierarchy to street vendors, with splat ball sellers at the bottom and counterfeit handbag sellers at the top. They must get all of their merchandise from the same importer because of the overwhelming similarity between offerings.
Another interesting phenomenon, and these are apparently in all of Europe’s major cities, are the “wise men” who are levitating. Dressed in brightly coloured golden robes, these men work in pairs with one person levitating and the other pressuring onlookers and photo takers to drop some money into their donation bag. Solely for the purposes of this blog, because I care about my readers, I took a couple of photos and dropped a few euro cents into the bag… but now, the explanation. I didn’t see any of these men get set up, but I spoke to some people who had watched, with interest, in other cities. All of the men wear long sleeves and hold onto a stick which, to the casual observer, appears to be for balance. In reality, the stick (and mat below) is heavy enough to be used as a weight while the men sit on a platform, with the connection between the stick and the platform threaded through the long sleeves. Kind of ruins the magic, doesn’t it?
I followed a Rick Steves audio guide on a walking tour one afternoon through the neighbourhood of Travestere, a formerly working class neighbourhood located on the wrong side of the river. It is known, by locals and tourists alike, as the best place to eat in the city and is a pleasant area in which to engage in the Roman tradition of strolling. It is also Rome’s best preserved medieval neighbourhood with narrow streets, filled with trattorias and osterias – many with vibrant patios. Romans, happily, seem to understand the simple pleasure of eating and drinking outside and there is a vibrant patio culture throughout the city.
The worst part of Travestere, however, was the political rally happening in its main piazza… it kind of ruins the atmosphere to have political slogans and promises blasted into the piazza at high volume! I quickly left the main piazza, heading into a bustling bar with cheap drinks. Instead of waitresses, however, you went to the cashier, ordered your drink, paid and then handed the receipt to the bartenders located across the room. They handed you plastic glasses and a bottle and you went outside to the patio, hoping to land a seat. If not – no big deal, this is Italy after all – you could sit on the church steps, pick a public bench or stand around the fountain, chatting with your new friends.
I do need to give credit where it is due, however, and my absolute favourite thing about wandering through Rome is their water fountains. Not just the beautifully ornate and decorative fountains, whose only purpose is to be pretty, but the practical ones which dot the city. Instead of paying for bottled water – which I really hate – I could slide my water bottle under any of the hundreds of fountains throughout the city and refill with cold, clean water for free. We were told that the water in Rome is tested daily as the municipal water supply is considered a terrorist target. Some of the fountains were just simple spouts while others could be considered practical works of art in their own right. I would like to see this concept expanded to North America – our cities could use it!
I posted a picture of this sight during the day, however I think it’s pretty eye catching at night too. Plus the name, the National Monument of Vittorio Emanuele II, is grandiose enough to require a second viewing…