Float On in Venice

The Grand Canal of Venice

When you think of Venice Italy while sitting in your office cubicle, immediately your mind transports you to a gloriously romantic city laced with picturesque waterways that flow between enchanting pastel buildings. Here couples exchange kisses as they float around on gondolas while the gondoliers sing in operatic voices accompanied only by the trickling sounds of their paddles in the water. When I arrived at the entrance to the Grand Canal in Venice, I was expecting to be whisked off my feet with romanticism and charm. I soon discovered, though, that a solo traveler on a tight budget has little chance of falling in love with Venice.

Saint Mark’s Basilica –the multi-styled church that is a top attraction in Venice

A typical view in Venice –narrow canals with gondolas floating on

As the over-stuffed ferry shuttled me and at least fifty other fresh-off-the-train tourists down the wide central canal of the city, I was giddy with the reality of cruising through the legendary Venice. I was here! The facades of the many buildings lining the canal were just as I had imagined. They really were built on water. I could see the smaller canals snaking through them. Oh my god! A real gondola! However, the enchantment wore off as soon as I got off at the Rialto Bridge valperetto stop. I had to shove my way past deathly-slow tourists in their drone-like lingering in front of stores. Just when I thought I was moving at a normal pace, the people in front of me would suddenly stop to look at fancy masks or shiny objects through the windows. The atmosphere was not one of romance, but of consumerism.

Mask store –these are everywhere! It’s a Venice thing, hide your identity and then go slut yourself around town

The only affordable lodging I could find was a hotel that basically put me up in a closet. The location was good though, walkable to any major attraction. Unfortunately, everything in Venice is pricey, from lunch to wine to apparel, so I felt very restricted. I was now on the last leg of my Italy trip, so the pile-up of foreign transaction fees on my credit card statement were starting to weigh on my capriciousness. I discovered that gondola rides were almost $100 for a 40-minute ride –yes, you read that right– one hundred dollars!!!! I got lucky a couple of times and found restaurants with laidback atmospheres that were priced fairly. Like all similar places, they were a good distance off of the central tourist pipleline and hidden behind an entryway that doesn’t necessarily invite you right in. I learned that if you feel like an intruder when you first walk in, it’s probably a legit Italian place to eat.

Saint Mark’s Square. Though the background doesn’t show it, this place is PACKED with people ogling and snapping pics

Here in Venice I had the most startling meal of my trip. The receptionist at my hotel vaguely recommended this place (she circled the approximate location of a restaurant she couldn’t remember the name of on my map), and as I walked by, I saw that it was a hip little place hiding in the side streets. Like many Italian apertivo locations, there was a counter in front where you can order a drink and some appetizers and just stand to enjoy –no bar stools– and a back area if you decide you want a full dinner. I tried a chardonnay and some meatballs and sat outside. The meatballs were fantastic, so I had to have dinner. Kind of a mistake. I realized shortly after I got seated at a little back table that only tourists sit here; all the locals just chill by the front with appetizers. Well, I was going to get through it. “Menu please? Oh it’s on the chalkboard? Okay. No I’m good, you don’t have to translate.”

I sat at my little table staring at the chalkboard of Italian dishes dumbfounded. I had no idea what most of it was. I could recognize the names of pastas, but I had no idea what went with them –gambretto? pettine? mazzancolle? Crap. I didn’t read about those in my Italian phrasebook and as I scrambled through my dictionaries, I could only find some of them –shrimp, scallops… I didn’t want to ask the waitress to translate the whole menu, but when she came over she could tell I needed help. She read off some items –squid, yuck! clams, ukk! octopus, ahhh!!– I definitely was not a fan. I’m not a lover of seafood, especially all the weird mushy stuff and things that live under rocks. She got to one item and said it was thick pasta with “groun”. “Ground?” I wondered. Did she mean ground beef? Hmm, I could do that. So I hastily ordered that dish to end the embarrassment of not knowing my Italian foods well. I munched on bread, thought about life, and finally my dish came.

The horror I had to stifle when I saw what was on my plate was unforgettable. I uncomfortably smiled at the sweet waitress as she left me to eat my WHOLE, GIANT CRUSTACEANS!! They looked like shrimp, but were much bigger and freakier. (I learned afterward that they were “prawn”…. Ohhhh that’s what she said, not “ground”!) The long antennae were jutting out like grass and the shriveled eyeballs were staring at me in their deadness. I didn’t even like shrimp scampi, never mind whole mutant shrimp laying on my pasta waiting for me to crack open their shells and eat their guts. Eww. Eww. Eww. Despite my disgust and squeamishness, I refused to be a wimp. I was in Italy, Venice in particular, and since this was a traditional Venetian dish –as Venice is known for its seafood– I had to at least try. I managed to eat all the tail ends of the ghastly creatures, and it was actually pretty tasty, I have to admit. The head parts were another story, and I simply cracked them open to make it look like I ate them. I could only handle so much and had to tap out after I forked away the third piece of crispy antennae in my pasta.

“Prawn”, giant mutant shrimp! For dinner! If you know me, you know this is my worst nightmare.

As I waited to pay, a group of gray-haired American women bounded in, attempting not a word of Italian, loudly speaking English, and expecting the same restaurant customs as they would receive in the states. They sat down, expecting fast service and informative menus, but were ruffled when told that the menu was on the board in chalk. I think this was one of my favorite moments of my trip, when these four old American ladies looked up at the Italian menu, of which they probably couldn’t read a word, and their faces said it all.

“Hi there dear. Our travel guide recommended this place, so hurry up and clean off that table for us. Can we have menus right away please? Oh, it’s on the blackboard? Okay. Hmm, what do we want with our pino grigio gals? …What the @$&#?!”

Other highlights of my time in Venice were climbing to the top of the bell tower and Saint Mark’s Square. I got a panoramic view of the city, which made the city less intimidating than what I had experienced on the ground by wandering the labyrinth of side streets. It was fascinating to see the boundaries of Venice. It really was a city built on water, an island. Unfortunately, I missed out on the Peggy Guggenhiem museum, which was closed on Tuesdays… of all days! And I was too late to get inside Saint Mark’s Basilica. I visited one museum, the Accademia, which housed many famous Venetian paintings. At this point in my museum-going, I thought to myself that I had definitely seen enough baby Jesuses and Marys for a lifetime. Italy loved its Christianity (duh, Meri… the Pope lives there.)

Venice from above

I had planned on spending 5 days in Venice, originally thinking I could relax along the canals while sipping wine; maybe I would meet a man who would romance me around town for a couple of days. Nope. I felt that Venice was like a theme park aimed solely at money-wielding, clueless tourists. No one lives in Venice anymore. It’s too expensive. There is no nightlife. Everything shuts down by 10pm. I walked around the city after 9:30pm looking for a fairly priced, non-touristy place to eat and felt like I was in a ghost town. The streets and canals that were so romantic during the day when graced by lovers were now frighteningly dark and narrow alleys that would be the perfect setting for a mugging. Instead of a relaxing dinner in a courtyard overlooking a canal, I spend my last night in a grocery store trying to buy snacks.

Along the Canal

A quiet canal. No singing gondoliers here –it’ll cost you an extra $10.

So Venice just didn’t do it for me, the disclaimer, of course, that I was a solo traveler. I can imagine couples and families having a delightful time. Also, at this point in my trip I was starting to get rather homesick. This Italy trip was my first time traveling alone and in such a foreign location –3 weeks was a little ambitious I realized. Loneliness was beginning to bother me. On top of that, I still had some unexpected loose ends to tie up at home in terms of my past relationship. The stew of emotions I was struggling with while in Venice undoubtedly tainted my experience. I made the call of switching my flight home for four days earlier than planned. Although I had to pay a $250 fee for this, I was sure I would save money in the end since lodging and food was averaging around $120 per day. And that was on the cheap side! Traveling sure is expensive!

After my two-day stint in Venice, I was excited to spend my last days in Rome. I wondered if I loved Rome so much simply because it was my first experience with Italy. Did I just not enjoy Venice because I had enough of traveling at this point? Would Rome still have the magic I felt at the beginning of my trip? I’d soon find out!

Oh, by the way, Venice dispenses condoms like cash from an ATM.

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Coastal Relief

The Cinque Terre, or “five lands”, was definitely a highlight of my trip even before I arrived. I love the ocean and nature, and with these five picturesque villages roosted along the rocky Italian coast connected by gorgeous hiking trails, I was sure to be satisfied.

Manarola, the second village of the 5 lands

The train rides from Siena to Cinque Terre were dicey, especially because I had three transfers with less than 10 minutes in between arrival and departure to haul ass and luggage to a screen and find out which track my next train was on. Trenitalia (the Italian rail system) was not my best friend on this trip, but I needed her nevertheless.

View from del treno

The train ride from Siena was beautiful –the Tuscan countryside– and then dulled as we neared Pisa. Out of Pisa it got progressively beautiful as the towns crept higher into the hills and the hills grew into mountains. The train entered a dark tunnel for a few minutes then a stunning view of the grand ocean zipped by and we were back in dark again. I was staying at the second town of the five, Manarola. The train pulled in, I scrambled off with the mass of passengers, then decided to wait for the train to pass so I could see what lay behind it. After the train pulled away my eyes soaked in the expansive ocean framed against steep rocky cliffs. After the hustle and bustle of Rome and Florence, this was exactly what I needed. I belong by the ocean.

Living the good life

Finding my room was tricky. I rang the bell of an unassuming home with a small placard on the front. I little old Italian lady greeted me with not a word of English and led my up a hill as I scrambled for my Italian phrasebook with one hand while hauling my luggage with the other. She demonstrated keys, pointed at things, and smiled at my obliviousness as nodded and smiled. I had no clue what she was saying but she didn’t seem to mind much. She left me to my room –which wasn’t a hotel, nor a bed and breakfast– just a room by the sea.

The view from my room

Overlooking the ocean and the village of Manarola, the room was unbelievable ideal. There was a balcony with chairs, flowers, and a lemon tree just for me. I had the perfect view of what was Manarola –adorable sea-worn buildings stacked on top of one another as though they were piggybacking, many with little balconies of their own, each varying shades of pastel. The cove of Manarola had jutting rocks protecting it from the aggressive surf, which continually crashed with explosive splashes. The sun was warm, the air smelt fresh, and I had a bathing suit. Off I went!

Happiness for Meri = sun + water + bathing suit

I grabbed a Mediterranean calzone for lunch for only 3.50 Euro –way cheaper than any other city I visited– and sat along the coast with my feet in the water. The Cinque Terre villages don’t have beaches, well, except Monterosso, but it’s not really sand, more like dirt I discovered. Instead they’ve made stone and cement platforms that lead into the ocean and then protected them with rock barriers. There are no coral reefs out here, so you feel the full force of the vicious ocean waves. I scoped out a good spot to lay where the water didn’t splash up very often and set out my blanket on the concrete. It wasn’t exactly comfortable I have to admit. Sure wasn’t Hawaii! But the steep mountains nose-diving into the ocean, the quaintness of the town, and the remoteness of the location made it all very fulfilling.

Despite my fear of getting thrust into rocks or the concrete wall by the waves, I mustered up enough bravery to jump in the ocean. It was warm and invigorating, especially rising up and down with the waves. I laid in the sun some more, read The Hobbit, and did some people watching. My favorite games had become, “Are They Americans?” and “Guess What Language These People Speak”. Most Americans are SO obvious. They don’t even try to fit in. Same with Asians, but they have a harder time blending in with Italians.

I perched here like a protective seagull defending my territory from camera wielding tourists and watched the sun set

For a couple of days I simply enjoyed my room by the sea. I found this smaller cove about a 10 minute walk around the coast where a mix of locals and chill tourists go to relax in the sun and venture for a swim. I switched villages halfway through my Cinque Terre stay and moved to Riomaggiore which was a bit more busy and touristy. However, Enricho, the owner of the B&B, provided quite a delectable breakfast spread.

Pristine sunset –all for me!

Okay, now after a few days of relaxing and appreciating the simplicity of the coastal village lifestyle, it was time for the epic hike. The mountains of the Cinque Terre are laced with trails of varying views, popularity, and difficulty. I planned to do the popular coastal hike called the Blue Trail, which is over 11 km, almost 7 miles, and takes between 5-6 hours. There are four stretches connecting each of the five villages –Riomaggiore to Manarola to Corniglia to Vernazza and then to Monterosso– but the stretch between Manarola and Corniglia was closed so you have to hike into the mountains through terraced vineyards to get to between the two villages. A man sharing internet access with me on the patio the night before warned me that doing all four of the hikes in one day was awfully ambitious; he did the hike between Vernazza and Monterosso and that was enough for him in one day.

As I geared up the next morning, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to achieve my goal of visiting all five villages by foot. Since my suitcase was jam-packed, I couldn’t bring my hiking sneakers and instead only had a wimpy pair of Sketchers. I recalled a painful hiking experience with the wrong footwear a few years ago and shuddered at the thought of throbbing blisters. Well, it wasn’t going to do me any good sitting around whining about it, as Llyod Christmas once said, so off I marched.

Beginning my solo hiking extravaganza –onward!

Like my hiking hero Larry Moll, I plowed past sauntering tourists and hand-holding couples clearly not prepared for a full day of hiking. This first stretch of the hike was the wimpy, flat, paved part called the Via Del’Amore –The Lovers’ Walk. I wanted nothing to do with it, so I blazed through it in about 10 minutes. The next stretch was the ridge hike, which required a shuttle bus to get to the trailhead at the top of the mountain. Most people skip this part because they don’t want to deal with the shuttle bus. Losers! This was the most beautiful part of the entire hike! The trail led me up and down tiers of terraced vineyards high in the mountains, through the quiet yet powerful beauty of the Cinque Terre landscape. It was still morning, so the sun was soft in the almost cloudless blue sky. I heard water trickling through makeshift aqueducts and birds sweetly chirping from wherever they were hiding. It felt like a perfect world.

Up on the ridge with the village below

The other stretches of the hike were not as peaceful, but they were equally spectacular in terms of their views of the ocean. I powered through all of them, only stopping for a half hour lunch break. My little wimpy Sketchers did not let me down! As I neared the last village, Monterosso, I was shocked to see people –well, women– beginning their hike heading in the opposite direction from me in the most inappropriate footwear: strappy sandals, platforms, and dressy flats. They obviously weren’t planning on doing the whole coastal hike, but still, I knew what lay ahead of them on this stretch and it was not easy! I guess my Sketchers were great choice after all.

Beautiful view. I was going to hike all the way out there!

I was BEAT when I arrived in Monterosso, the most touristy and crowded of the five villages. It boasts the villages’ only “sandy” beach. It was more like dirt, if you ask me. I hung around there for a little bit, hoping to get a victory gelato, but eventually I tired of the touristy vibe. I was sad I didn’t have a buddy with me to congratulate and felt a little lonesome all alone, especially after seeing so many couples being all snuggly in the past few days in the Cinque Terre’s romantic atmosphere. I jumped on the train and headed back to my B&B for a nap.

Made it to Monterosso –champion!

Victory Sketchers! These guys are my buddies now… if I didn’t wear out the soles too much

But… nap postponed! I bumped into a middle-aged American couple looking for a bar in Riomaggiore that supposedly serves the best mojitos. They were way off their mark, so I helped them locate it and they invited me for a drink. Unfortunately the bar was out of mint, so no mojitos, but I sucked down a nice margarita and told them my elevator-pitch summary of why I was traveling alone in Italy. I sure get a lot of sympathy that way! Once the couple took off –after treating me to my drink, woo!– I got my victory gelato and crashed back in my room. I went out again a bit later to get some last minute coastal lounging in and soak up just a little more relaxation and sun before heading to Venice the next day. The Cinque Terre was such a fantastic experience that I’m sure I will see again, if only in my dreams.

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Florence Flops, Siena Tops

Overlooking Florence from the Duomo

I feel terrible admitting this, but never have my expectations of a place been so let down. Florence certainly had a lot to live up to. When I thought of Florence, I thought of art, romance, and beauty. I thought the city would sweep me off my feet with the enchantment of the Renaissance. Instead I was sorely disappointed and couldn’t wait to get out of the crowded, hot, and unfriendly city.

I can relate my experience in Florence to a hypothetical yet misfortunate dinner at a restaurant where the food is reputed to be delicious but the service and atmosphere is lacking. We’ve all had one or more of those dining mishaps, so hopefully it will be easy to follow my analogy.

I am the great Duomo of Florence! Here me roar! And pay 8 Euros to climb me!

First, I made my reservation for the wrong day. Navigating the train system is difficult, but I thought I had it down. Nope! I got kicked out of my seat and then almost got kicked off the train because I had no idea that my ticket was for Monday not Sunday. I had to pay an upgrade fee and a change fee. Ouch. Then I arrived at the restaurant but lost my $100 gift certificate. Yes, this relates to how I felt when I realized I left my Euro power adapter, camera charger, and extra camera battery on the train from Rome. The string of swears I chained together was quite a work of art in itself.

With the bad help of Marco, I booked my train ticket for the wrong day and had to deal with fees and major embarrassment. Not pleased!

Next, I got seated at a table far in the basement away from the view, and my waitress was too busy to greet me so instead she sent the inexperienced hostess, who had no idea what she was doing, to take my drink order. Translation: the B&B I booked online was over the river and through the woods of the Florence ghetto. The owner, who was practically a celebrity in the Trip Advisor reviews that I read of the place, was on holiday this month, so instead her two teenage daughters handled me while their awkward boyfriends looked on from the common area. I did not feel welcomed nor at ease.

Next, the wait staff gave me unfriendly stares as if I came in 5 minutes before closing, just as the Florencians (?) wanted me out of their hot city so they could get the hell out themselves and go on vacation. Florence, surrounded by mountains, is unbearably hot in July and supposedly August. No resident wants to be there during this time.

The Ponte Vecchio at night. I don’t know what’s going on with that slime in the river though.

The taste of the city, at least for my appetizer of exploring, was not as good as reputed. It was overcooked, bitter, and soggy. Basically. I had to wait a long time for what I really wanted –the meal– since I arrived in Florence late on a Sunday. Everything is closed on Sunday evening and all the big museums were closed on Mondays too. On Tuesday, the meal finally came in the form of The Accademia Gallery, where Michelangelo’s David is housed, the sculpture haven of the Borgello Museum, and the world-famous Renaissance documentary that is the Uffizi Museum.

Needless to say, the taste of these museums was spectacular. It was the service and atmosphere that tarnished them:

  • Around the David statue, some child was shrieking as though she was being murdered, and it echoed throughout the hall threatening to shatter Michelangelo’s masterpiece and everyone’s eardrums.
  • The security women wanted to slaughter any reckless tourist with the words, “NO PICTURE!” (I snuck a few from behind the columns, shhh!).
  • The process of getting into the Uffizi even with a reserved ticket had me standing in line to the entrance, then being sent across the street to another line where I needed to exchange my reservation for a physical ticket, then back to the same grueling entrance line again.
  • Once I was finally inside, the security man there made me cry after I gently, but innocently, tapped him on arm to ask if I could keep my water bottle. He chastised me for daring to touch him, as if he was a priceless work of art.
  • The audio guide for the Uffizi was as interesting as listening to the hum of an air conditioner.

And here it is! Michelangelo’s David –I sneaked behind a pillar to snap this one. Ooo sabotage!

Overall, a delicious meal, but everything else in this restaurant that was Florence sucked for me. Most people say they had a wonderful experience in Florence. I guess I was just unlucky.

Positives:

  • Alessandro, who ran the B&B I stayed at, was handsome, kind, and apologetic to my less than stellar Florence experience.
  • The statue of David was magnificent. He has quite the figure –and pair of balls.
  • The Borgello was easy to enter and explore. Very few people go for this not-as-famous sculpture museum.
  • I learned a lot about the history of art. I am still shocked at how advanced the Greeks and Romans were and how retarded the medieval Christians were. Now I can officially say it, “Thank god for the Renaissance.” I now truly understand why it is so celebrated.
  • Gelato makes everything okay.
  • My Insanity training came in handy as I hiked with ease up the four-hundred-some-odd steps of the Duomo to the epic top for a panoramic view of the city.
  • Did I mention Alessandro?
  • Oh, and David’s balls. Wait, I already… Oh whatever, they’re worth mentioning twice.

View from Piazella Michelangelo at sunset, a little hike up a hill, but totally worth it for this shot

Gratuitous picture of myself –I had to copy the Asian girl next to me who was fluffing herself up for her own personal iPhone pic of herself

And now for dessert: Siena! I followed travel guru Rick Steves’ recommendation to experience Siena not just for a day trip, but also at night. I took a bus there rather than the train because the bus station drops you off in the center of the town; the train ejects you on the outskirts. Exploring Siena was delightful. It’s an old medieval town that actually rivaled Florence in its day, but evil Florence shut down Siena’s banking operations and effectually stopped the city’s growth in its tracks. This is wonderful for tourists because they can enjoy a city that hasn’t changed much over time. It was enchanting! Although I missed Il Palio by a week, the orgasmic horse race that happens twice in the Siena summer.

A view in Siena –enchanting!

In line to climb Sienna’s main tower I befriended an American family who let me tag along with their sightseeing. I think the timing was perfect for me; I was getting tired of struggling to communicate in Italian all of the time and I was getting a little lonely. It was a relief to be able to communicate normally, to have my mannerisms picked up rather than lost in translation. The family consisted of 3 middle-aged cousins, a brother, sister, brother-in-law, two young kids, and the family matriarch. They were all in Italy to support one of the sons who plays soccer. Kevin, the brother of Karen (who had the kids and the soccer player) was happy to have me there since he was getting irritated with his family’s foot-dragging and incessant need to check out every cheap souvenir store. We toured in a way I wasn’t a fan of: very slow transfers between major sites, then really fast explorations of sites. I prefer to sightsee the opposite way. This experience helped to remind me of the benefits of traveling alone.

En route up the tower, under the Tuscan sun

I spent dinner with the group as well and enjoyed probably the best meal of the whole trip in this cellar of a restaurant. The owner was a small Italian man who considered himself and his chefs artisans of food. They cooked me up a killed gnocchi with meat sauce!

Edible ecstasy! Best meal of the trip

After dinner, I parted ways with the family with the potential to see them in Cinque Terre in a few days. I found a bar with internet, chilled for a bit, then got gelato (my second of the day!) and sat on the sloping beach-like pavement of Siena’s main piazza as friends and lovers sat drinking, smoking, and enjoying the warm midsummer’s night. Siena was totally worth the trip –despite my bed, which felt like a stone slab– and I took a little inner peace of the city with me.

The nightlife of Siena –actually pretty hip and laid back

Next: Cinque Terre! A picturesque set of 5 villages nestled like seagulls along the northwest coast of Italy. I’m already there now, so let me quote from Carly Simon, “It’s the stuff thaaaat dreeeeeams are maaaade of!

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Sightseeing Ancient Rome and Astounding Art

No trip to Rome is complete without seeing the Colosseum. Like any visitor I was eager to stand inside a structure that is world famous, has appeared in movies, and allows you to easily visualize the events that took place there thousands of years ago. Since I was rather lethargic in my first two days in terms of sightseeing, I was now determined to cram as much in as possible before moving on to my next city. Of course, in my typical fashion, I didn’t get out of the door until mid afternoon!

The fearsome Colosseum –ancient Rome’s Gillette Stadium

To avoid the long line at the Colosseum, I went to the entrance of the Roman Forum to buy my tickets. They let you buy one ticket for all three sights: The Colosseum, The Roman Forum, and Palantine Hill. I researched this in advance, which is invaluable in order to sightsee without wasting hours standing in lines. ALWAYS research how to get your tickets rather than just showing up. Even though my trip is all about “winging it”, I sill research tickets because standing in line with a bunch of sweaty tourists is as tolerable to me as swimming in a sewer.

Amid the rubble of the Roman Forum

Since I was already standing in front of it, I decided to explore the Roman Forum first. I had downloaded the Rick Steves Audio Tour Guide for my iPod in advance (Rick Steves is a traveler’s god) so I plugged in my headphones and followed his directions and quirky commentary. The Forum presents itself as a haphazard jumble of ruins. Without a proper guide, you’d have no idea what you’re looking at. It’s all about using your imagination, visualizing what this extensive public space must have looked like in its prime. Only then will you truly be able to appreciate it. Otherwise it simply looks like an ancient dump.

The Roman Forum had a special hang out for virgins

It was hot and humid under the Roman sun with practically no shade in the Forum. I found it interesting that Rome lets tourists trounce all over its ruins and finger its ancient art. For example, at the Vatican, tourists had run amok with their cameras, flashing, and touching. No one stopped them. Same at the Forum. I wondered if that was just the way Italy operated. Maybe Italy figures that since these works and ruins survived thousands of years of wars, destruction, and mistreatment, what’s a little manhandling from tourists going to do?

After an hour of sweltering in the Forum and imagining its former glory, I headed up Palatine Hill, supposedly the posh place for ancient Romans to live. It’s like the Bradford of Haverhill. Palantine Hill wasn’t as interesting for me. I didn’t have Rick Steves in my ear to tell me what to look for and most of the area was scorched and dusty from lack of rain with the hot summer sun firing down all day.

The remains of what was once a massive basilica

It was near 5:30pm and I knew that the Colosseum closed an hour before sunset. I had hoped to time my visit so I would be able to see the giant amphitheater at sunset and then lit up at night. I glided right through the entrance –bypassing the moderate line with my combo ticket– and stepped through a towering arch to look out over the oval arena. I’m sure the effect is the same for all visitors. “Wow.” Another site at which using your imagination significantly improves your experience, the Colosseum is an unsettling reminder that before football, U2, and TV, people entertained themselves by watching others get mutilated. As I sat on the steps of an old stairwell to the upper level, I tried to compare today’s current options for entertainment with those that took place thousands of years ago at the Colosseum. I don’t think too much has actually changed; instead of live violence and murder, we have pre-recorded violence and murder. The biggest difference is we can now watch the same actors die over and over again.

Sunset in the Colosseum –after the tourists have pooped out

The best part of visiting the Colosseum in the evening was that the crowds and the temperatures were much more manageable. As I wandered the upper level, I was able to take pictures without a single tourist in view. It was strangely calming to have a site all for yourself. I continued to sit and contemplate all sorts of things as the sun sank lower, casting interesting shadows throughout the stadium. I did some people watching, relaxing, and imagining until finally an announcement echoed throughout the Colosseum that it was closing time –everyone must leave. I took my time toward the exit, trying to snap any last pictures worth capturing. The Colosseum employees had to get pushy with people since everyone had the same inclination as me, so we all essentially got kicked out.

Inside the Colosseum. When in Rome…

Russell Crow was on my mind

I left the Colosseum to find its exterior brilliantly lit up with the setting sun. After enjoying that view, I decided to look for a place to have dinner. I wandered around the area until I found a restaurant on a side street with a fabulous patio view of the Colosseum. I ordered speaking as much Italian as I could manage, and lounged at the table while enjoying a carafe of white wine, salad, bread, and thick, saucy pasta. In the middle of my dinner, a group of six Italian men, who were obviously gay –rainbow flags were hanging overhead in the adjacent restaurant– sat in front of me and offered me delightful entertainment as they heckled the restaurant owner, who must have been a friend. They spoke slow enough at times so I could make out a few words and attempt to decipher what they were saying. They paid little notice of me and went about their business of being sassy, demanding, and dissatisfied with the service. Once guy just ditched the menus in the potted plant he was sitting next to. A gorgeous sunset emanated from behind the Colosseum as I finished my last sip of wine. I figured out how to pay the bill and started my journey home just as twilight faded to night.

The heckling gay guys and the Colosseum –interesting contrast

On the way back I stopped for gelato at what seemed like a very friendly place. After washing my hands inside and getting water on my dress in a manner that looked like I peed myself –someone pointed and said, “pee-pee”– I ordered a mint and chocolate gelato. One of the older waiters recognized that I had an American accent and started chatting with me since he had lived in Chicago and Philadelphia for eight years. He asked me to have a seat so I could practice my Italian and he could practice his English when he wasn’t busy, so I figured it would be another great improvised opportunity to enjoy the culture of Rome. I even got a free slushy out of it. After an on-and-off twenty-minute chat, and a vague invitation to stop by the next day to go dancing, I finally left for my B&B.

The Colosseum lit up at night –even more badass

As always, I stayed up late trying to plan the following day. I just couldn’t seem to get off East Coast American time. There were two more art galleries I wanted to visit on my last full day in Rome, The Borghese Gallery and The Capitoline Museum. Since I was just in the area of the Colosseum and Forum that day, where the Capitoline is located, I decided that the Borghese was the best choice. It was close to my B&B and is touted at the best art museum in Rome, also one of the top in Italy. Unfortunately, it is a pain in the ass to get into. The Borghese only lets a limited number of people in at a time and you practically have to reserve days in advance. You also must select a particular 2 hour time slot for your visit. Online, it was sold out for the day I wanted, but Marco, my B&B owner, suggested I just show up, smile, and hope they let me in.

I navigated to the Borghese using my phone GPS and offline map combo –as usual— but I underestimated how long of a walk it was. Scrambling to the ticket office just before the 1:00 start time, I explained my attempt to buy the one ticket online. The lady kindly gave me the one ticket with no questions asked. At this museum you have to check your bags, and the line was quite long. An impatient Jewish couple stood behind me; the old-ish woman was sharing criticisms with her knodding husband at the variety of lines people had to stand in. (Imagine your favorite New York Jewish accent) “Why don’t they just put everything together, you know, get your ticket, check your bags, get the audio thingy? This is crazy. First you stand in one line for fifteen minutes, then another line for ten minutes. Aren’t these people smart enough to consolidate?” I gave her an outraged shake of my head in agreement.

The Borghese Museum –I felt cultured just being near it

Okay, the Borghese Museum is awesome! It has some unworldly sculptures that blow you away with their realistic, dramatic poses. I wish they let me take pictures, but even still, I should have brought my sketchbook.

Bernini’s David –compare it to Michelangelo’s David. Two different interpretations. Yay! I’m an art connoisseur!

Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne. Apollo is like, “Hey girl, let’s get it on.” Daphne’s like, “No way creep.” Then Apollo’s like, “Woman, gimme the goodies.” Then Daphne tells him to eff off and turns into a tree. “That’s the only wood you’re gonna get from me, jerk!”

I was so enthralled by the Bernini sculptures on the first floor that I didn’t leave enough time in the 2 hour slot to see the paintings on the second floor. Security was trying to escort me to the door. “Quick! Quick!” I begged, making a circle with my finger and sporting my best innocent face. Yet another benefit to traveling alone, security let me stay past my timeslot and explore at my leisure. I was in the zone at the Borghese. They had an excellent audio guide that I purchased and a brilliant layout to all of their rooms. Definitely my favorite art museum experience!

Bernini’s Rape of Proserpina. Pluto wants some action, Persephone’s like, “Screw you, you’re old and your beard’s got lice.” Pluto doesn’t eff around.

For the rest of the day, I wandered Rome again, although this time with a general plan. I stopped by a couple of churches and piazzas to see their paintings and sculptures, had a scrumptious lunch, finally explored the interior of the amazing Pantheon, which had been closed every time I strolled by, then spent the night appreciating the roof deck of my B&B with a glass of wine. I seriously loved Rome!

Inside the Pantheon, one big dome.

Next on the blog agenda: Major disappointment in Florence –I can’t believe it myself!

Outside the Pantheon –yellow shirt guy photo bombed me!

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I Didn’t Want It To Be A Date

My sweet room at Domus Valeria

For my third day in Rome, Thursday, I laid low for much of the day. Summer in Rome is extremely hot and sunny, so I wanted some chill time to enjoy the delightful bed and breakfast I was staying at, Domus Valeria. The B&B, as with many B&Bs in Europe, is actually a person’s apartment, and they rent out rooms to travelers. Marco Valeria, the owner, was the epitome of warm and welcoming. Compared to my first hotel, Locanda Carmel, this B&B made me feel at home. Marco gave me tips on where to go, was always available for any question I had, served a delightful breakfast on the gorgeous roof deck, and made me feel like a friend sleeping over. Domus Valeria was advertized as a gay-friendly B&B; its logo was the Colosseum colored in a rainbow, and that actually attracted me to it. I’ve realized how much I genuinely enjoy the company of gay people. I feel that gay people have had to do a lot of self-reflection and discovery in order to confidently face the world with their divergent sexuality, and I’ve noticed because of that, they seem more in touch with who they are. Most gay people I’ve met are thoughtful, witty, and unreserved, and I like that, especially after my recent break up with someone who apparently can’t figure out what kind of person he is, nor give a shit about anyone else in the world. I’m really starting to appreciate people who know themselves and love others.

The shared space in the B&B -charming!

Roof deck of the B&B –I know, right!?!

Eventually, at like 5:00pm, I finally got my act together and headed out. I was now in the northern part of Rome right next to the Spanish Steps, so it was a new area for me to explore. I asked Marco where the nearest ATM was since I was running seriously low on cash and wanted to limit my credit card purchases due to the foreign transaction fees that I obliviously forgot to consider. As I was walking in the direction he advised, I passed by a store that exchanged currencies and offered cash advances on credit cards. Meekly I entered and asked the young man behind the thick glass if this was similar to an ATM. He claimed it was. Naturally I went into “Are you sure you’re not trying to rip me off?” mode, but despite all of my poking and prodding, the place seemed to be legit. I hovered while an older Italian man confidently made a transaction, so if he could do it, so could I. The young man behind the glass spoke pretty good English, but didn’t seem to mind that I wanted to practice Italian. He told me to count the money in Italian, acting as my teacher, and that sparked more conversation. He seemed to enjoy my company, and I enjoyed practicing my terrible Italian skills, so I hung around for a bit and talked to him. His name was Devid and he was 28 years old like me –I guessed because he gave me his Skype screen name if I ever wanted Italian practice, and it had an “83” at the end. He was shocked that I figured out his age. Devid invited me to grab some food once he got off of work in 10 minutes (dieci minuti), and promised to help me with Italian, so I figured “why not?”

 

Devid and I walked the streets of Rome while my brain absorbed and cranked out as much Italian as it could handle. “When is your birthday?” “Do you have any brothers or sisters?” “What did you study in school?” Devid helped me through all sorts of basic questions and answers. It was a blast. I can barely remember most of it now, but the experience was invaluable because it was genuine and meaningful. I wasn’t just memorizing phrases from a book; I was using the Italian first hand. I found it interested that when I asked Devid what he studied in school, he said “legge”. I thought that was the Italian word for “reading”. He said our schools called it “low, L-O-W”. Low? I’ve never heard of that subject. Was it advertising? Computers? Devid couldn’t seem to explain what it was. Toward the end of the evening, I finally realized he was talking about LAW! Lost in translation.

Night time at the Trevi Fountain

Devid was a wonderful teacher and a very friendly, sweet guy. We got our pizza and continued our informal Italian practicum as the sun set, having too much fun messing around with language. I got to see some sights at night, particularly the Trevi Fountain lit up all dramatically with a thinner crowd surrounding it. As Devid and I continued our walk, I started to realize that he was treating this like a date, especially when he started flinging compliments my way, wanting to take a “coupley” picture, and insisting on hanging out again. He bought me a bottle of wine, we had a glass, and soon he was pretending to be drunk. Sorry Devid, I don’t know what kinds of girls you’re used to, but I’m honorable and wholesome (for the most part) so it’s time to part ways. I finally convinced him to head home reluctantly –he was the reluctant one. By the time I got to bed, it was 2am. Even though I did practically no sightseeing that day, my brain was fried from attempting so much Italian and navigating the tricky social dynamic of making sure Devid didn’t get his expectations too high. Learning a new language truly is a massive challenge, but the best way to do it is to jump in and flounder for a while. Eventually you’ll string some words together that actually sound right and make sense! But keep the jumping and floundering outside of your hotel room!

Devid, my informal Italian teacher

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“What’s Up God?” at The Vatican

The Vatican Museum and St. Peter’s Basilica were spectacular. I had trouble getting there using the public transportation system in Rome. Supposedly it wasn’t just me… it’s a terribly labeled and difficult to navigate system. Because I wasn’t sure where to get off, I ended up having to walk over half an hour. From Trastevere, where I was staying, it was probably a 40 minute walk. Merp. Oh well. The whole point of my trip is to learn, and learning how to navigate public transportation is valuable! Can’t get much worse than in Rome! My reservation for the Vatican Museum was for 11:00am (you have to reserve a time if you book online) but I didn’t arrive at the reception until noon. Thankfully, no one cared. I had read that the lines at the Vatican Museum were enormous and sometimes hours long, but I strolled right in.

The dome of St. Peter’s Basilica

The museum was amazing. Around every corner, I was stunned to find world famous sculptures, paintings, and frescos that I studied in my Art History courses in college. This was a benefit of not over-planning. I didn’t know which works to expect ahead of time, but brought my guidebook with me and read as I browsed. Going alone let’s you wing it like this. If I had some cranky sidekick, I wouldn’t be able to give all of my attention to the artwork. As I was reading my guidebook, which was giving me hints at to what to look for, it said that there were two famous works in one of the beginning courtyards, The Loacoon and The Apollo Belvedere. THE LOACOON!!! I remember learning about this sculpture in a textbook and being awed at a photograph of it. I looked around the courtyard and saw a tour group in an alcove –it must be there. Once I wiggled my way into the crowd, my eyes widened and my jaw dropped. The sculpture of a Trojan priest and his sons being strangled by a serpent was more astonishing than I expected. I stood and stared for a while, then moseyed over to the Apollo sculpture, which was also unbelievably gorgeous. As hasty tourists wandered by in their efforts to see everything in the most efficient way possible, I allowed myself as much time as I wanted to appreciate the works that I was most moved and intrigued by.

The first unbelievable sculpture I saw: The Loacoon

My experience in each room of the Vatican Museum went similarly. I would hover around the works I liked the most while people flushed through in waves. The tour groups were particularly annoying. Everyone in each group was shepherded along in a tight pack with a machine-like tour guide at its head who was holding a wand with some sort of fabric attached to it like a unique flag for the group to follow. When a tour group came up from behind me –and there were many, speaking in every different language– I just found a spot to lean or sit and waited for the clump to pass. Another annoying aspect of the tour, although I took advantage of it too– was that people were allowed to take pictures, and with flash. All of the museums I’ve been to strictly forbid cameras, especially with flash, partly because flash damages the artwork over time, partly because they want you to buy the images from their gift shops, but also because people obnoxiously abuse their cameras and obstruct the viewing pleasures of others. That did happen in the Vatican Museum. I was especially annoyed at the constant flashing and the beeps of people that didn’t bother to turn the sounds on their cameras off. But thankfully the works of art were powerful enough to absorb my thoughts.

Apollo Belvedere: a gorgeous hunk of stone man!

One of my favorite surprises in the museum was turning a corner in one of the Raphael rooms, looking at the wall, and recognizing The School of Athens. Oh my god! One of the world’s most famous frescos! And I could touch it if I wanted to. There was Plato, pointing up to the heavens to argue for the brilliance of theoretical thinking, and next to him stood Aristotle pointing down to the ground to argue for the brilliance of practical thinking. Since this was the home of the Pope in all of his Christian importance, there were many frescos of religious scenes. I have to admit, they looked rather cultish, but were still beautiful when you looked around the rooms and saw that every inch of wall, ceiling, and floor were decorated with art.

Raphael’s The School of Athens in your face!

Plato and Aristotle: “Theory!” “No, Reason!” “Vanilla!” “No, Chocolate!”

On to the Sistine Chapel! The highlight of the Vatican Museum! The Sistine Chapel, which is not a museum but a church, has the world famous frescos by Michelangelo on its ceilings and walls depicting the stories from the Bible, especially The Creation of Man and The Last Judgment. The buildup to entering the church is great. You walk through all these modern art exhibits that you don’t really care about, thinking, “C’mon! I wanna see the Sistine Chapel so I can tell my friends!” Everyone is very excited. You have to cover your shoulders before you walk in because it’s a holy place (?) and then WOAH! This mother is HUGE! You’ve seen photographs of it in books and on the internet and on PBS or History Channel specials, but nothing compares to actually being in the room. There it was, one of the most famous images in the world, God reaching out to give life to Adam, and I was standing under it. Looking up at the ceiling, I was again in utter awe. Tears filled my eyes at the beauty and immensity of the work I was beholding. Sadly, the place was PACKED with tourists, and tour guides continued their narrations despite incessant shushes from security. No one respected the fact that this was a church, a place to be reverent. Everyone did and said whatever they wanted. Fortunately, I found a seat on a side bench and listened to my Rick Steves audio guide podcast that I downloaded. I brought a mirror with me so I didn’t have to strain my neck staring up the whole time. I sat and admired Michelangelo’s unbelievable work for about 45 minutes. I was also stunned with The Last Judgment on the wall of the altar. Jesus looked pretty badass smiting the wicked.

The Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

The Creation of Man: God said unto Adam, “Pull my finger.”

The Last Judgement: Jesus is laying the smack down

Finally I left through a sneaky exit that led me straight to the front of St. Peter’s Basilica, the MASSIVE church with a humongous dome constructed by Michelangelo. The front of the basilica is infinitely impressive on its own with its towering columns and giant doors. But when I stepped into the nave I froze in my tracks. No amount of swear words could possibly capture the disbelief I felt when I saw this unearthly space. It was a galaxy of gaudy sculptures, ornate trim, lavish frescoes, and immense decoration that spread out and up beyond what I thought was humanly possible to construct. The pillars and columns and arches that essentially lifted the church’s domes up to the sky were colossal. The space that everything was spread out in was bigger than any stadium you’ve ever sat in. This structure was simply unbelievable. Of course, that was the point when it was designed –to impress the world with the greatness of Christianity. If it weren’t for all the creepy sculptures and paintings of popes in all their comical costumes, I would say this church could convert anyone. Truly, this was the most amazing thing I have ever seen in my life. I spent almost an hour floating around taking it all in.

St. Peter’s Basilica: redefining the word “massive”

Feeling Holy

When I was finally ready to leave, I spent some time wandering St. Peter’s Square, another ridiculously massive space lined with colossal columns. The sun was setting behind the basilica, which gave the square a nice calm to it. I was determined to try the public transportation system in Rome again. I did a lot of wandering and second guessing, but eventually I figured it out and landed back in Trastevere. If you ever travel and you have an iPhone, MAKE SURE you download CityMaps2Go, which gives you offline maps (I think it was $1.99 –so worth it!) I found bus stops, tourist attractions, places to eat, hotels, piazzas, EVERYTHING on it. Plus, iPhones have a GPS on them that is not connected to your data plan, so you can track yourself on the map as you move. To use the GPS, you might have to register for Find My Phone (free) which is a program that let’s you locate your phone in case you lose it. This combo has been the most INVALUABLE resource on my entire trip thus far!

St. Peter’s Square

Anyway, once I made it back to Trastevere, I wandered to a little restaurant with outdoor seating, managed to order in Italian (barely), and enjoyed a glass of mineral water and chicken with ham and sauce. I had issues paying, since I forgot phrases to use when doing so and no one knew English, but I managed to swipe my card and be done. I felt bad for the waiter, who was getting overwhelmed with tables of non-Italian speaking tourist couples by the time I was leaving, so I gave him 2 Euro, which I’m told you do not need to do since service staff have a pretty good salary. The waiter was thrilled, grabbed my hands, and kissed me on the check. That was totally worth 2 Euro!

Next in my adventures: An unexpected date with an Italian guy, using my imagination in Roman Forum, getting kicked out of The Colosseum, and dinner in the gay section.

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Part 2 of My First Day in Rome: Wandering

People who say the best way to experience Rome is to get lost in it are 100% correct. It was a truly magical experience. After a grueling journey just to get to my hotel, I almost wanted to hide there the rest of the day and recover. I was afraid to encounter more fast-speaking Italians and look like a fool. I was also convinced that I needed more resources like tram guides, maps, and translators before venturing out again. Somehow the lure of the city softened my fears and I took off to wander.

Armed with my crucial iPhone app of offline maps, I walked in the general direction of what I believed to be the city center. I strolled down to the main boulevard and across the Tiber river. A mix of sleazy and chic shops lined both sides of the streets. Cars and Vespas (motorbikes) rushed around me from every which way. Watch out! Crosswalks are NOT sheltered pedestrian territories! As I walked through many intersections in Rome, I was struck by the haphazard arrangement of parked cars and Vespas. Here in Rome, it feels as though people park their vehicles in any random gap they can fit.

Streets jammed-packed with Vespas

Once across the Tiber, it was difficult not to be swept in the general direction of tourism. Simply go with the flow of people. I wasn’t thinking very much as I wandered, just trying to take in the character of the city. I walked into an open square –or better yet, massive traffic circle– and was suddenly awestruck by a towering white building topped with epic sculptures, flags, and columns. Woah. I was not expecting to see that! I was used to the quaintness of Trastevere and the close-quarter bustling of narrow streets. This massive monument (called Il Vittoriano) stood proudly in the open air, full of grandeur and pompousness, while angry drivers zipped around the traffic circle trying to cut off goggling tourists. Okay, I guess I could take out my camera now.

Il Vittoria: This is Italy, bitches!

Continuing my walk in the hot afternoon sun, I glanced to my left and –hello– ancient ruins. Fallen columns in an excavation site were less than 50 meters from mobile phone shops and trendy clothing stores. I knew Rome had ancient monuments, art, and architecture, but I wasn’t expecting these wonders to be so intermingled throughout the hectic modern city landscape. I walked on and to my left were more ruined columns and –wait, is that where the Roman Forum is?! Oh wow. I was walking by the famed Roman Forum. Cool. This little expedition of mine was starting to get thrilling. I looked up ahead and –no way. Is that the eff-ing Colosseum!? Yup. The top tiers of the Colosseum crested over the blocks of buildings in front of me. As I neared the site, vendor carts along the road grew in frequency, signaling the proximity of a major tourist attraction. The closer I got, the more badass the Colosseum became. It truly was colossal. When I was finally standing at its base, I stood in awe for a while at what I was beholding. I was eager to explore the inside and get a feel for the bloodshed circus that the amphitheater used to be, but I told myself that I was just in wandering mode –just walking to get an initial feel for the city. I’d be back.

The badass Colosseum

After paying way too much for a frozen bottle of water (it felt really good though!) I decided to get lost. I still had my GPS/map combo on my phone, so I could always get myself back to the hotel, but I wanted to explore some of the streets and areas on the map to find out what was there. So roaming in Rome I went.

At this point in my journey, I realized I could lessen the stress of not understanding Italian by putting in headphones. It’s a cheap trick that I’m sure everyone can see through, but it makes me feel less helpless by giving me a layer of intellectual protection. I have more control over who I interact with because if I don’t understand what someone says, or a street vendor tries to sell me something, or a sleazy Italian guy comments on my looks, I can pretend my music is too loud to hear them. It’s useful, especially if you’re traveling alone like I am. I hope it helps me blend into the background more.

Anyway, back to my recap. I wandered through a park where I found old folks at folding tables playing a card game. More wandering led me to narrow streets bordered by enchanting apartments with colored shutters and plant-filled roof decks. Vespas were EVERYWHERE and all sorts of people rode them, from your typical young professional men to women with skirts to fathers with their kids. As an American accustomed to the spacious gas-guzzlers on our roads, I found this transportation culture to be intriguing. I now kind of want a Vespa! (although the crappy New England weather wouldn’t be a good fit for one.)

A very typical Roman building

As the sun sank behind the buildings, I checked my map for the Pantheon. I wanted to scope out its location before the day was done. As I headed in the general direction of the site, the man who was blabbering on his cell phone close behind me finally said “Ciao” to the person on the other line and started to pass me. My trick with the headphones didn’t work, because he said something to me in Italian. I nodded and smiled, so he must have figured I didn’t understand him. He switched to English and said how hot it was out. We started chatting as we walked and he introduced himself as Antonio. “Mi chiamo Meri,” I replied confidently. The small talk was fun because Antonio humored my attempts at Italian words and phrases and corrected my pronunciation. I was an “insegnante, elementare.” My “albergio” was in “Trastevere”. And more. Good practice for me! Antonio showed me how to get to the Pantheon, called me pretty, then kissed me goodbye on the cheeks. What was an initially creepy encounter turned out to be delightful! Doesn’t usually work that way in Boston, that’s for sure.

I was back in the touristy section, so I followed the throngs of people. I took a wrong turn in my quest for the Pantheon and ended up… –oh man, what are all these people doing here? Is that the eff-ing Trevi Fountain?! Wow. I was surprised by yet another grand monument. Gaudy is the best word to describe this tiered monstrosity. A dramatic Neptune in a chariot, writhing horses, towering Roman figures, water gushing in abundance… it was quite extravagant. I stood against a wall away from the crowd to take it all in, then –huh!? Something plopped on my neck. Did someone throw something at me? I reached back and felt something warm and wet… and… bright green!?! Gross! I looked up, and sure enough, it was pigeon poop. Aw, come on! I scampered into the nearest storefront –oh, gelato– to grab napkins to wipe the shit off my back. I was horrified, but managed to clean myself up satisfactorily. To reward myself for the trouble, I bought a vanilla and chocolate gelato and shuffled through the crowd to find a perch to gaze at the fountain. The plaza was packed with people. They were almost more interesting to watch than the fountain. I slowly savored my gelato then headed through the narrow streets to find the Pantheon.

The scene of the crime

The Trevi Fountain in all its gaudiness

Street vendors are a little out of control in this area. They place their wares on a blanket on the ground and stand over them while cajoling passersby to check them out. Sunglasses, purses, scarves, and more have never seemed so cheap and unattractive to me. Once I made it through the maze of vendors, shops, outdoor restaurants, and slow-walking tourists, I was pleased to find an airy plaza lined with columns. Nothing special here in Rome though! I sat for a bit to give my sore back a break, then continued on to find the Pantheon sitting snuggly in another plaza. Unfortunately its doors were closed, but I took another opportunity to sit, take it all in, and rest my back. One thing I love about Rome –and there are now many things– is that everything is happening outdoors. Every restaurant has its storefront wide open with sections for sitting outside amidst the passersby. Rome is definitely a city that celebrates the outdoors. Little convenient bars serving cocktails and small appetizers are also very common. They’re like fast food restaurants only for alcohol.

The front of the Pantheon

Okay, I was getting a little pooped and twilight was setting in. I headed out of the city center to cross the bridge over the Tiber. At the bridge, another charming surprise awaited me. Lining the banks of the Tiber river far below me were hundreds of white tents in what looked like a twilight marketplace. Strings of soft glowing lights and the hum of music enticed me to find the stairs and walk down to explore. It was delightful! Set up alongside the ravine walkway, the vendors and bars housed in the tents offered everything from clothing to steak to vacuums to purses to phones. There were hookah bars with cushions set up against the ravine wall where people lounged, drank, and smoked. This wasn’t just a festival setup where drink and food selections were limited to beer, wine, pizza, and French fries. They had full bars, full menu selections, and a classy atmosphere. Although I wanted to stop and grab a drink, I was a little intimidated and worn out. However, I did need a new satchel. I eventually found a reasonably priced purse vendor.

“Quante coste?” I asked pointing to a pretty orangey and maroon satchel.

“Dodici,” the man replied. I thought that meant twenty Euro, which was still a good price in my opinion. It was actually 12 Euro.

I struggled to say more, so I told him “Non parlo italiano.” I grabbed my phrase book to try and ask if I could look at the purse I wanted, which was hanging. I must have said it wrong, because he didn’t understand, said a similar word –the correct pronunciation?—and got the purse for me. What a struggle it was to buy the purse! The man asked me a question, and I had no idea how to respond. Eventually he held up a plastic bag, to which I responded “no.” He gave me change, I thanked him profusely, then scampered off. Wow! Foreign language interactions take a lot out of you!

Sunset along the river

I walked back up to the top of the river ravine where I stood along the edge of a pedestrian bridge to admire the moon over the lights of the market. Absolutely charming! I headed again back to Trastevere taking a different route. This led me through enchanting narrow streets spilling with diners and drinkers enjoying the warm summer evening. Here was the character of Trastevere the tourist guides always describe. I stopped to purchase an apple from a small fruit vendor. Ooo pink lady apples! My favorite. That exchange was very easy, thankfully. I walked more, trying to lead the GPS dot on my map to my hotel, but I took a wrong turn and ended up in a major piazza in Trastevere with a center flowing fountain overlooked by a beautiful church. People were chilling on the steps of the fountain, kids were playing, diners and drinkers were chatting. The nighttime vibe was infectious. I hovered for a bit, then finally made it back to the hotel. What an amazing expedition that was!

Twilight along the Tiber

I flopped on the bed thoroughly impressed by all that I did and saw in my very first day in Rome –and not even a full day! On the agenda for tomorrow: The Vatican Museum.

Buona notte!

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