European travels, part 3: Rome

The next stop on my travels around Europe this year was Rome. I took Latin and Italian in school and had been to (Northern) Italy countless times, but for some reason never made it all the way down south to Rome. Fortunately I had the chance to visit the city for a conference in June, and the trip turned out to be one of my favourites of 2012.

Despite being a large city, the central areas of Rome make it feel relatively small compared to other European capitals – considering there’s about as many people there as in Paris, seems a lot more walkable. Many of the streets, especially in the city centre,  are narrow and despite the heavy traffic it’s generally quite easy to get around by foot (which is good, since there’s only 2 metro lines anyway and bus services in unknown cities are always a bit of a mystery to me). I stayed at a room at the ‘Roma Vintage B&B’, an apartment which is conveniently located near one of the rare metro stops, and only 20 minutes walking distance away from the Colosseum. I shared the flat with 3 other guests and a fantastic coffee machine, which made up for the otherwise lacking breakfast – well, I suppose biscuits already count as breakfast in Italy.

The first day took me right to the Colosseum – it being a Wednesday afternoon in term time, there happened to be hardly any queues, and within a few minutes a was inside what is probably one of the most famous ancient buildings in the world, fully equipped with an iPod touch as video guide. I’m a sucker for audio guides, so I paid for one when I bought my ticket, only to find that I had accidentally paid for a video guide, which the rather flirtatious Italian at the audio guide booth was more than happy to hand over and explain to me. It turned out that the video guide was actually pretty awesome, with an interactive map and little movie snippets of Spartacus playing at the right locations in the Colosseum. I also met the official Colosseum Cat which had either fallen over or just fallen asleep in the sun.

After my trip to the Colosseum, I moved across to the Roman Forum (they do a combined ticket) and spent several hours wandering around gardens and ruins of old temples on a lovely sunny afternoon, which was pretty amazing. I’m wondering what today’s equivalents to the Roman Forum – a crammed area full of temples, statues, government buildings and memorials – would be. Probably something like the Printworks. Another thing to note in Rome is that there are drinking  water fountains everywhere (even on the side of roads – there was one right outside my apartment), so save your money for bottled water and just keep an eye out for a free refill.

I only just realised that I spent most of my time in Rome outdoors (well, expect for the conference days) without paying a lot, since a good number of the attractions are temples, squares, churches, or ruins thereof, which are often freely accessible. I also paid a visit to the “Torre Argentina”, a cat sanctuary located in – what else – the ruins of an old temple, had a wander round the Vatican, went up the Gianicolo hill, went on a open top bus tour down the Via Appia (organised by the conference), and visited countless churches from the past few centuries.

In the evenings, the focus shifted quickly from ancient ruins to the one other thing Italians are pretty good at: Food. Luckily we even had a native Roman tour guide – well, one of my fellow PhD students – who was happy to take us to some of the nicest pizzerias around. Having said that, they’re probably all nice. We gatecrashed a pizzeria opening where I had some of the most amazing pizzas I can remember eating (and I mentioned I’ve spent practically every summer of my childhood with my family in Northern Italy), went to another pizza place where we placed our orders on iPads, visited what is said to be the best tiramisu place in Rome – twice (man, that pistacchio tiramisu… THAT PISTACCHIO TIRAMISU!!!), and went to a family run trattoria (this time without our Italian speaking guide) where we communicated with the incredibly friendly host via gestures, pointing, random words, and a lot of laughter.

Am I glorifying Rome a bit? Maybe. It’s quite dirty. We are actually surprised to see how much rubbish there was around and how run down some areas look. The traffic is insane – in order to cross a street, you basically just walk and hope for the best while cars are swerving around you. Some people are rude and give you funny looks when they notice you’re foreign. But then again, I get funny looks all the time. But, well, I can live with that. Can I come back to Rome now, please?