I've been home the night of the 14th, and I’m going back on the 6th. It’s been a glorious break of little brain activity and a lot of sunshine. I’ve baked a ton of cookies, watched movies and caught up on TV, played games, scrambled the rocks in Garden of the Gods, eaten as much Mexican food as possible, reunited with friends, enjoyed a visit from my grandparents, and generally forgotten that I should be reading Paradise Lost or some Oscar Wilde to prepare for next term. Oh well.
I did read one book for fun: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. I heartily recommend it to everyone. Gladwell takes classic examples of success (i.e. the Beatles, Bill Gates, Asians who are good at math, etc.) and picks apart our preconceived notions of what makes someone successful. I’ll give you a hint—it has little to do with the individual. It’s a short read, about 285 pages, and Gladwell is a fantastic writer. I’ve forgotten how good it feels to stay up late reading because I want to—not because I have an assignment due in a matter of hours.
Anyways, I leave the Denver airport around 11am on the 6th, spend a few hours in Canada (eh), and then land in Heathrow around 9am on the 7th. On the afternoon of the 8th, Teresa, one of my best friends from high school who is spending the year studying in Italy, is coming into Oxford. And the early on the morning of the 9th, we’re going to Edinburgh, Scotland! We’re going to see some castle-seeing, and we’re hoping to meet up with a girl who’s friends with my friend Jessi. It should be a lot more relaxed trip than Italy was—definitely more vacation-y, and I’m really looking forward to it!
In any event, I’ll be back at the grindstone too soon, so I’ll give you the lowdown on Italy while it’s still freshish in my mind. Luckily I kept a journal, so hopefully I won’t miss anything too important. It’s under the jump!
It began in the wee hours of Sunday, December 6th. Annie, Maura, and I caught a 1am bus to Stansted, and we arrived at the airport around 4. Surprisingly, we slept most of the way. At the airport, Annie and Maura decided they wanted some breakfast, and we had a little time to kill before our boarding gate was announced, so we found a table and they ate while we sat in full view of the flight screen. At about 5:15, the gate number appeared and we set off. No need to rush—we had plenty of time. But suddenly, we turned the corner and a new screen said Ciampino: FINAL CALL.
“Crap!” we yelled, and we hauled the rest of the way to the gate, scenarios racing through our minds of missing the flight, chasing the plane down the runway, and resorting to hitchhiking all the way to Rome.
But when we got to the gate, everyone was just standing around in a couple of lines. We got a place in one, purchased some bus tickets from the Ciampino airport to Termini station, and waited. And waited. And realized we were standing in the wrong line. And got in the very back of the right line. And waited. Finally, we boarded, and I was asleep before takeoff. I vaguely remember trying to fold my legs up in front of me after a snack cart crashed into them, and I kept hearing the stewardess walk up and down the aisle saying, “Ravashanties?” In my slumber, I remembered that this was another weird British word meaning “snacks,” but when I woke up I remembered that it’s not a word at all. It took me over a week, though, to realize she was saying, “Rubbish? Empties?”
I woke up right about the time we passed over the coast of Italy. The views out the windows left me with my mouth open and briefly wishing I hadn’t demanded an aisle seat. To the left, the majestic Italian Alps towered, snow-capped, over a sea of thick, swirling white fog. To the right, the sun was reflecting off clusters of little villages of white houses. After a few minutes, the landscape became more urban, and we soared over the Colosseum—our first view of Roma.
The bus ride from the airport to the station was also gorgeous—clear sky, bright morning sun, random ruins scattered among the green hills. When we got to the station, we had only about a five-minute walk to our hostel, Casa Olmata. It’s in a tall and skinny house dating back to the 16th century, I believe, and a married couple runs it. We were pretty much the only people we ever saw.
After dropping off our luggage, we got some lunch at a nearby grocery store, faking our way through an Italian phrasebook, and then we went back to the hostel and napped. When we woke up we were ready to set out on an adventure, so we handed Annie, our genius navigator, the map and took off. We stopped at a corner, and Annie said, “Oh, we turn left here.” And when we did, the Colosseum was just staring us in the face! One second we’re going along a modern Roman road, and the next we’re in the middle of ruins.
The Colosseum was unbelievable. It’s about as big as a modern football stadium, but it was all built by hand. The floor has since rotted, but the walls creating the series of halls below are still in tact. Staring at this maze I couldn’t help but imagine it full of slaves and gladiators and lions preparing to meet either glory or death. There was even an elevator-like system to transfer the beasts from below to the floor. The lone gladiator would be standing in the middle of the floor with absolutely no idea which door to face—the attack could come from anywhere. We also learned that they had, in some cases, flooded the whole arena in order to reenact naval battles. I mean, these people knew how to entertain.
From the Colosseum we did a little wandering, trying to follow a self-guided tour in our Rick Steves’ book, but we got to the Forum and Palatine Hill right after closing. We decided to keep wandering, and we went past Capitol Hill, which is mind-bogglingly massive, and then we ended up at the Pantheon. It’s a massive, perfectly circular place of worship which has beautiful, intricate detailing not only all along the walls and columns, but also on the CEILING. Most of my shock during this whole trip was just trying to wrap my head around the fact that these gorgeous buildings were all created by hand, without modern equipment to even design them, much less construct them.
After leaving the Pantheon we were starving, so we found the nearest restaurant and each ate a whole margherita pizza. We were sitting outside on a patio area on a fairly busy street, so we were readily available to various street vendors. One in particular was a tall African man who kept trying to sell us carved giraffes and elephants… not exactly the kind of souvenir I was planning on bringing back from Italy. Anyways, after each destroying a whole pizza, we still had room, so we went to what is apparently the best gelato shop in the nation. It was absolutely packed full of people, and it took us a little while to figure out the ordering system, but we managed it and walked out of there eating some of the best gelato we’d have all week. Starting at that level gave us pretty high expectations, that’s for sure. With bellies full, we wandered back to the hostel through a shopping center, and we were in bed asleep by 10:30.
The next day, Monday, was one of the most epic days of the trip. I woke up at the crack of 7:30 in total mom-vacation mode—We’re getting up early, we’re eating breakfast on the road, we have to catch the metro at this time so we can be the first ones in line at the Vatican. We had plans to meet our friend Rebecca at 3 in front of the Castel St. Angelo, so I wanted plenty of time to enjoy the Vatican museum so we didn’t feel rushed going to meet her.
The first sign the day was going to go way differently than planned was when we had already been standing in line for an hour. We finally got to the Vatican—er, the line to get into the Vatican, at about 9:40. We avoided hordes of tour guides trying to wrangle us into skipping the line for a guided tour, but we were mountains that would not be moved. We even pretended like we didn’t speak English, and we ignored one particularly insistent guy for so long that he blurted out, “What the heck, do you guys speak, like, Japanese or something?” We managed to hold it together until he was out of earshot before we started laughing.
In line, we tried to keep ourselves entertained with the kinds of games parents employ on road trips to keep cranky five-year-olds happy—names as many countries as you can think of, alphabet celebrity games, etc. Then I took out Rick and decided to read about the Vatican, so we’d have a better understand of what we were going into.
Oops. His first tip—don’t go in the morning. In the afternoons you’ll miss all the crowds of guided groups.
His second tip—don’t go on Mondays. Period.
We were there on a Monday morning.
He also said a quick visit takes about two hours—to really enjoy the museum takes about four. What we didn’t understand is that the museum is basically one long hallway. Once you’re in, you can’t get out.
Well, we finally got in around noon. We took our sweet time going to the bathroom and getting our bearings, and we decided to start with a little side gallery so we didn’t have to walk all the way back after seeing the Sistine Chapel. When we got through with that, Maura wasn’t feeling well, so we got her settled in the pizzeria, and Annie and I set off to find the Sistine Chapel. It took us forever to figure out the one-long-hallway ordeal, so by the time we really got on our way, it was about 1:15. Rick wasn’t joking—we were blazing through these halls, finally ignoring every piece on the ceiling, and it was still taking forever. We saw Raphael’s School of Athens, which I learned about in AP Euro in high school, so I had a major geek attack.
But finally, finally we made it to the Sistine Chapel. Due to its recent restoration and a deal with the company that did it, no photography is allowed inside. That sure doesn’t keep people from trying, and the signs requesting reverent silence didn’t keep people from talking, either. We pushed our way in to the sounds of guards yelling, “No photo! No photo! Silence! Sh!” We found a spot in the middle of the floor and craned our necks. Creation of Adam, check. Last Judgment, wow. Five minutes, and we were gone.
After hustling through some modern art galleries, we were finally outside. It was 3:15. No sign of Maura. I took the map and set off to find the Castel St. Angelo, where we were supposed to meet Rebecca at 3. I got turned around immediately, and I didn’t find the castle until 4. Understandably, Rebecca had already left. I sat down on a wall to try to get my head on straight—I hadn’t eaten and was cranky and frustrated and, oh, by myself in Rome. I looked to my left, and St. Peter’s Basilica was RIGHT THERE. Geography lesson: The Vatican City is its own country, and it’s home to the Vatican Museum, the Pope’s house, and St. Peter’s Basilica. The whole thing is surrounded by a wall. I walked towards St. Peter’s, followed the wall up, and was back to the museum exit in 15 minutes. Meaning my meandering around the area looking for the castle was pointless. Cool.
When I found Annie again, she had just found Maura, whose phone had died. She had ended up going to an Internet café, finding one of Annie’s Oxford friends online, asking her to call Annie, and finding her that way. Thank the Lord Almighty for technology.
Reunited, we focused on finding food first and foremost, since we had a tendency to get snippier the hungrier we got. After dinner followed gelato, of course, and some shopping, and we found an Internet café that was only a euro per hour. It was nice to just wander for a while; we hadn’t realized how stressed we’d been since the trip began.
On Wednesday morning, I woke up early and went to St. Peter’s Basilica by myself. I got to catch a Roman sunrise, which served as an incredible backdrop to the walls comprising the courtyard of St. Peter’s. I got there at about 8:40, and the line was practically non-existent. And when I got inside, I was walking into a church—a holy place—not another tourist mill.
Rick told us, “To call St. Peter’s vast is like calling Einstein smart.” It’s all kinds of football fields long and high, and it’s home to Michelangelo’s Pieta, which is one of the most beautiful and heart-breaking pieces of art in all of history, if you ask me.
St. Peter’s was a powerful place. In addition to its relative emptiness and its enormity, there was a mass going on in one corner, so the congregation’s singing filled the building with a tangible, eerie holiness. The art on the walls, if not sculpture, is entirely mosaics—often replicas of famous paintings. The tiles are so small that from far away, it looks like a painting. Obviously, I was speechless, since I had no one to speak to, but I also felt thoughtless. I didn’t even know where to begin processing all that I was looking at. To think that my God couldn’t even fit in this huge and beautiful place actually made my heart pound a little faster. To think that this glorious feat of art and architecture, designed and constructed completely by hand, was intended to be a form of worship, to be a reflection of the beauty of God—and to know that it still doesn’t even scratch the surface—absolutely wrecked my mind. It was by far the most beautiful manmade thing I have ever seen, and probably ever will see, and it still isn’t enough.
When I had pored over every inch of the inside, I paid to climb inside the dome and inspect the ceiling up close and personal, all the while trying not to think about how high off the ground I was. Then I climbed up onto the top of the basilica, which overlooks all of Rome—nothing is allowed to be taller than it. I could also see the grounds inside the Vatican, home to some of the most luscious gardens I’ve seen—and it was the middle of December.
I got back to the hostel around 10, woke up Annie and Maura, and we ate breakfast and hit the road. We made it to the Forum, which is now just a field of ruins, but the platform where the Empire’s greatest leaders spoke is still there. That is the podium where Julius Caesar refused the laurel crown from Marc Antony. I stood staring at the platform and the crumbling pillars and willed my imagination to superimpose gleaming white marble buildings looming in front of me, hundreds of people wandering about, smells of summer sweat and dust from carriages. Whose footsteps was I standing in? It was too significant to grasp.
We spent the day crawling over every inch of the Forum and Palatine Hill, the hill where all the emperors would build their palaces. Its almost entirely ruins as well, but we went from wall to wall discussing floors plans, we descended stairs and theorized who or what was kept down there, we described scenes of ancient Roman pool parties and thrilling sporting events, and we wondered aloud who would one day be wondering aloud about us.
After lunch and a nap, we went to the National Museum. It mostly housed sculpture, and it was funny how each bust managed to take on its own personality in a room lined with similar works. And who knew how much historians relied on hairstyles to identify these people? A couple of the statues had motion sensor alarms that we accidentally set off a couple times. Docents immediately came to us and began to follow us from room to room. We tried to prove we were actually responsible young women who had just wanted a closer look.
We ate dinner at a Rick-recommended place called La Gallina Bianca, and while it was good, I’m still not sure it warranted nine and a half euros. Annie and I got gelato afterwards, and we ate it outside an Internet café while Maura checked her email and bank account. We got admiring looks and cat calls like you wouldn’t believe. Nothing like Italian men to boost the ol’ self-esteem.