How does a cradle Catholic even begin to put down in words what it meant to go to Rome with her daughter? That, my friends, is where I find myself today: at a loss for words but so desperately wanting to jot it all down. In many ways today’s blog is written as much for me as it is for you. It’s a way for me to share my wonderful experiences with you, but to also preserve my memories in a manner that I can look back on from time to time.
Let me say up front that the flight was not so bad, other than it’s truly the time you wish you could have anted up for first class! In my crowded British Airlines aisle seat, I watched several movies and episodes of “House of Cards” and read a lot. I also slept being that my flight was overnight. I arrived in London (non-stop from Austin!) refreshed and ready to go. Before I knew it I was in Rome and looking frantically for Kristen in baggage claim, as her flight from Seville miraculously arrived within 15 minutes of mine. (Thank you dear Lori at AAA!) I found her, hugged her nearly to death, and we were off to search for our hotel’s airport shuttle driver. If you’ve ever been to Rome’s airport, you know what a challenge this is! We eventually found him and were on our way.
Before I go on though, can I just ask why so many people who travel like to be or pretend to be the most seasoned travelers going through security, at the gate, and even in the plane? People, please. I don’t care how much you’ve flown overseas or how often your illustrious job flies you around the world, we all hate flying and we’ve all “been there, done that.” I’ve been to Europe many times but felt perfectly fine in coach. Quit with the holier than thou attitude.
Okay, now onto something truly holy: Rome.
Beginning with Sunday mass in a small church near St. Peter’s Square on our first full day in Rome, the trip got off to a great start and only got better. St. Peter’s Square was next. It was electric and joyful with throngs of people dancing and singing and all eyes gazed upon the window where “il papa” would soon appear. Once he did, chills. I literally had tears in my eyes with one arm around Kristen and both eyes and ears attentive to Pope Francis’ Sunday Angelus. THE Pope! I still can’t believe it. I never wanted it to end. From his initial “bon giorno” to his final blessing, I was in awe and in heaven. He is one of the main reasons I chose to meet Kristen in Rome rather than London, Paris, or other European destinations. I’ve been to both but had never been to Rome and I love this Pope. With our daughter? The decision was easy and one I will never regret.
The City of Seven Hills is a crazy, busy, and noisy city. I can’t say I fell in love with it, but I did fall in love with its people and its food. Those lovable, passionate Italianos drive wherever they want, park wherever they want, and basically do whatever they want. They talk a lot, eat a lot, drink a lot, smoke a lot, and stay out late. What’s not to love?! In talking to many of them, I also discovered that they work a lot and they work long, hard hours. They are quick to point out that their homeland doesn’t offer the same opportunities that they envy about America, but they make the best of their lives and epitomize believing in “la dolce vita.” I didn’t find the city particularly pretty, but I did find it enchanting. Everywhere you look there is something historical or remarkable. It is chalk-full of Bucket List items.
I will also always cherish that when an Italian tells you something in English, most words end with “uh.” “The church-uh is at the end-uh the next street-uh.” And it’s definitely true that when they speak to one another, they “sing” the words. It is beautiful to hear. Language was everywhere and I will never forget when Kristen asked her new friend Alessandro if he spoke English his answer was not “a little” or “not much,” but “very small.” Adorable. Yes it becomes a struggle to have to think about what you are saying, to not use contractions or slang of any kind, and to have to refer to a translation book or app constantly, but it’s also so delightful and something we just don’t get to experience in America.
For the most part, most of the people we met were fascinated with America. We were pleased to learn one young man is a huge Kevin Durant fan and were somewhat surprised to learn that an Italian man said he was happy Germany won the World Cup only because, “the cup stayed in Europe.”
I loved meeting all those people speaking different languages and coming from different lands. One night we ate dinner between two tables, one of Israelis and one of Mexicans. I couldn’t help but think that those two countries are the lead stories in newscasts every night back home and here I am sitting with and talking to them. We were all just enjoying life and not worrying about bombs or borders. Another night a group of older couples from Pennsylvania chatted with us as a couple from Malta sat between our two tables. You can’t make this stuff up. It is what travel is all about and why, although expensive, is ultimately priceless.
Now can we talk about the food in Rome? As Kristen said, “this is seriously a dream of mine come true: pizza every day!” Sorry other world-class cities, Rome has you beat hands down on this one. Everything you’ve heard about it is true. The pizza. The pasta. The gelato. Uh-mazing.
Knowing we’d be eating quite a bit, we quickly discovered what would become our favorite “home away from home” restaurant: L’Insalata Ricca in Piazza Risorgimento. It’s a small, unassuming place and the piazza is not one of Rome’s finest or most famous, but the food was fabulous and the waiters became our friends. We would return many times.
Another foodie highlight was our cooking class, which I talk about in a bit. It was a blast and not only did we learn how to prepare authentic Italian pasta dishes, we also learned that the ingredients of a Margherita Pizza are what they are because they represent the colors of the Italian flag: red sauce, green basil, and white cheese. Prego!
Getting around Rome is not easy. Street and landmark signs are often impossible to find and walking is often the best way of getting somewhere. Maps are a must and yet we forever found ourselves lost. Constantly having to refer to one or to ask directions is probably the one thing I don’t miss about being in Rome.
We walked a lot. Forget heels ladies, they would be a nightmare on the cobblestones and even a cab couldn’t save the day for you here. You have to walk. Did I mention you walk a lot in Rome?!
The subway system, with just two lines, is easily navigated but I wouldn’t recommend taking it at night. We’d heard horror stories about pick-pockets on them and throughout Rome, but we never had a problem. We kept our eyes open and our minds on task.
Cabs were also our friends, and what saved us many times with drivers who notoriously don’t speak English, was my idea to carry several cards from our hotel in my purse, which I would simply hand the driver.
Our first underground venture took us to the bustling Piazza di Spagna and the adjacent Spanish Steps. Amazingly, Kristen ran into some of her American study abroad buddies from their school in Spain right in front of the famous steps. Tell me I wasn’t quick to snap a few photos of her “Spanish” friends in front of Rome’s Spanish Steps! Kiss, kiss, adios, and ciao and it was on to shopping on the city’s famed Via del Corso. You want it, they’ve got it…for a price. We were officially beat though. Time to head back to the wonderful Hotel Hearth and call it day.
Another tip I’ll share: do cities by neighborhoods. I do this all time and it works. Before visiting a big city, I’ll research its various sections or neighborhoods and divvy them up by days. This worked like a gem in Rome and I was so glad I did so!
We got lucky with our hotel. I chose it based solely on on-line reviews and photos. It was perfect. Small and quaint with a staff and room that were both wonderful. Mere steps from the Vatican, the hotel offered free breakfast and free Wi-Fi and the room was big, modern, and new. We quickly grew to love Enrico and Nicola at the front desk as they went out of their way to make sure we got to where we were going. Write it down. Hearth Hotel. You won’t regret it.
Walking and Cooking
The city’s “Centro Storico,” or historic old town, was our next destination. This is the area of Rome that tourists pine for and our pre-scheduled walking tour of it included Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, and all sights in between. And, although Trevi Fountain was closed for repair and we couldn’t toss in the requisite “return to Rome” coin, the tour was informative and interesting and ended with a cooking class in a traditional Italian restaurant aptly named “That’s Amore,” during which we made pasta from scratch and enjoyed the fruits of our labor. It was certainly one of many highlights of the trip.
When in Rome you are never too far away from something sacred and religious, so next we hopped on the subway and headed the Lateran area. Not the first stop on a tourist’s to-do list, but I’d read about the “Scala Santa” in our diocesan monthly newspaper months ago and knew I had to go. The 28 white marble “Holy Stairs” are, according to legend, the Jerusalem steps leading up to the praetorium of Pontius Pilate on which Jesus stepped during his Passion. Jesus walked up them. What?! Today, pilgrims crawl up the steps on bended knee, which was astonishing to see. I will never forget the moment I witnessed it all. (Interesting note: contrary to popular belief, St. Peter’s Basilica is not the seat of the Bishop of Rome. That title belongs to the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, right across the street from Santa Scala.)
The next day was yet another “Bucket List” day as we headed to the island of Capri. Pinch me. On board our chartered bus we met another mom and daughter travelling under similar circumstances as ours (daughter studied overseas, mom comes to visit) and we enjoyed the Italian countryside as we made our way to the port city of Naples, passing the notorious volcano Mount Vesuvius on the way. Not much to admire in Naples, but historic nonetheless. We quickly hopped on a ferry and soon found ourselves among the lemon trees and blue waters of Capri. Following in Jackie O’s footsteps…literally…I had a pair of sandals personally made for me, bought plenty of lemon products, marveled at the spectacular views that I’d seen so many times in movies and magazines, and swam with Kristen in the sea. Such an amazing day.
Seeing It All
Day four brought us back to Rome and an official “Skip the Lines” tour of the Vatican. In a word: wow. Funny and knowledgeable Luciana from Argentina was our tour guide and made every minute special. I, of course, could write an entire blog on just Vatican City, but what I loved most was not the Sistine Chapel as so many do, but actual St. Peter’s Basilica itself. Described as “an ornament of the earth and the sublime of the beautiful” by American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, St. Peter’s is an amazing feat of architecture and beauty without equals. Religion aside, consider just the art and architecture of the building and you can’t help but stand in awe.
Before I go on, I cannot stress enough how much I recommend booking all tours ahead of time. We did so for the Vatican, Capri, and our walking tour/cooking class through an excellent company called Viator. There are many tour options available, but I also like time to roam and wander. The Vatican one is a must though. I found the entire place mesmerizing. These are just a few of my personal highlights:
- The “baldacchino,” a pavilion-like canopy structure that sits over the main altar is 10 stories tall. Ten stories!t look that big thought because the entire basilica is so massive. s also said to be the largest piece of bronze in the world.
- The church itself takes up more space in just length than two football fields, and coupled with St. Peter’s Square, encompasses the equivalent of four football fields. That’s a lot of walking to do, and trust me, you walk every inch of it.
- St. Peter’s gravesite sits under the altar. Yes, that St. Peter.
- St. Peter’s Basilica can host 20,000 people…comfortably…and 800 people actually live in the surrounding square.
- The Sistine Chapel is not really a chapel. I pictured a gorgeous altar and pews, but it’s really “just” a long room that was packed with people and guards making sure no one took photos or talked. Granted, the art is unmatched anywhere on earth, but I still found myself longing for a more “churchy” atmosphere.
- I loved the famed bronze statue of St. Peter, the one that pilgrims rub or kiss his right foot. And yes, I did it. I also love that in it, Peter is holding the keys to heaven in his hand.
- Which brings me to the fun fact that St. Peter’s Square and Basilica, when observed from above, were designed to be in the shape of key, as the faith inside of them are the Keys to Heaven.
- I also loved all the chapels off to the sides, particularly those of the Pieta, Michelangelo’s only signed piece of art; the one that holds the body of Pope John Paul II; and the one dedicated to Queen Christina of Sweden who abdicated the throne in order to convert to Catholicism.
- Finally, I love that inscribed in the nave’s ceiling is, “you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” taken straight from the bible.
To me, the Vatican is Rome and every morning I’d wake up, open our hotel room window, and see the line of people waiting their turns to tour it. Every morning. Hundreds of people. In line for hours. Lines winding forever around the building’s immense wall. It is so impressive and so powerful to see. These people are standing in line to see what is undeniably the world’s greatest religious structure and all it symbolizes. Not a movie star or an athlete. But religion at its finest. They are there to pay homage and to pray. So unbelievably powerful.
Vatican aside, turns out my favorite area of Rome was Trastevere. Its small, tree-lined streets were calmer and quieter then those found elsewhere and, sitting adjacent to the Tiber River, it also has a festive river-side section with tents and live music. Granted, cars literally drove right next to us as we sat eating dinner, but the ambiance was unbelievable. Loved. It.
We saved the Coliseum and Roman Forum for our last day and found ourselves smack dab in the middle of what I consider to be the most hectic area of the city. No arranged tours this time, we just winged it and had fun doing so even though our energy level was low and the area seriously lacks for signage and directions. I feel fortunate to have seen the Coliseum, but the grounds surrounding it were so busy and chaotic that some of its charm and significance were diminished.
I did, however, love the nearby Santa Maria in Aracoeli Basilica. I truly felt as peace the minute I stepped into it. Located on the highest summit of Capitoline Hill, one of Rome’s seven hills, the church is reached by walking an almost unbearable amount of steps that I had to rest between several times. It was worth it and I knew it would be as it houses “Santo Bambino,” a wooden statue of an infant Jesus with faith-filled miraculous powers. The church itself was gorgeous. Stunning. Breathtaking. Again, not included in the normal tourist guide but worth every step.
Rome is amazing. I love that, unlike Paris, London, Madrid and even Naples, there are no high rises. The city buzzes with its own unique energy. Cars drive anywhere, park anywhere, and are generally banged or scratched up. There are also nuns everywhere. We saw them in the subway, crossing busy intersections, and standing in that massive line to tour the Vatican. (I kinda think they should have their own private entrance, but what do I know!)
The Little Things
Come to find that what I loved most about Rome were the little things; not the grand ones that one would expect.
I loved the cobblestone streets and sidewalks and that in between each square-shaped black and worn stone you can find hundreds of wine corks. I also loved that dogs were everywhere and that the breed of choice was none other than Jack Russell Terriers. Boomer would have been so proud!
I loved the street musicians as we ate outside and drank Prosecco and “acqua natural.” Often times I felt like Audrey Hepburn in “Roman Holiday.”
I loved just watching the people as they congregated in piazza after piazza and I love that, even though we didn’t go to one, they sell beer at McDonald’s!
I will most definitely never forget all the laughs Kristen and I had (“oh no, Prosecco got on my phone!); all the great food we ate; and the wonderful, wonderful people we met, including the sweet Asian girl who laughed and said “we velly silly” as we all kept trying to “pull” a store’s door instead of “push” it, all the time wondering why the sales girls weren’t opening it for us. Again, the little things.
My visit to Rome was a full week, but I still often felt hurried and rushed. We were determined to relax and take it all in, but it’s inevitable that tours keep you moving and crowds keep you on edge. I cherished the down times and the times when Kristen and I could just talk and laugh. Rome is trying. Both Kristen and I were often exhausted, but it is also mesmerizing. I’d often catch myself thinking, “are those columns really tried and true Roman columns and can they really be that old?” Yes and yes. You simply can’t believe what you are looking at and I enjoyed and appreciated every bit of it.
Most of all, I loved experiencing everything with Kristen. I will never forget the man from Montreal with the stunning eyes who sat next to us on the flight from Rome to London and said, “I can tell the two of you have a very special relationship.” It melted my heart.
Mom and daughter did it all and are so grateful to “dad” for making it all possible. I feel so incredibly fortunate to have taken this trip of a lifetime and my gratitude for it will never cease. And, even though Trevi Fountain was closed, we both vow to return and will forever be open to a trip back to Rome. Mi piaci molto.