For many, Italy serves as an introduction to Europe, and for good reason. Rome, in particular, is often one’s first destination, with its iconic landmarks, rich history, and great food. But, because it is so popular and such an almost cliché introductory city, I had mistakenly put off my visit for far too long. Before getting around to seeing Rome, I’d canvassed much of France and Spain, seen London, parts of Belgium, Sweden, Norway, Copenhagen, Munich, Austria, Switzerland, Portugal, and Ireland. Through my first four trips abroad, I’d managed to avoid Rome.
I’ll admit I held some sort of deep-down prejudice, I think. It would be overrun with casual American travelers and so wouldn’t feel exotic enough, removed enough from home. Places like the Colloseum and Forum, the Vatican, were already too well-known and universally recognizable. And with a population bursting at nearly four million, I wasn’t drawn to it. I’d spent summers in Madrid and visited London and Paris. On later trips abroad I was more taken by smaller cities, even villages, that were a little more off the radar of the American traveler. I fell in love with Salzburg, Austria, but also places like the mountain village of Murren, Switzerland, and the locals-only beach town of St. Jean de Luz in France.
But on my fifth trip abroad it was time to see Italy. I couldn’t put it off forever, and to be honest it was starting to feel a little weird that I’d been so many places but not Italy. I worried that I’d be stuck in throngs of tourists, jockeying for elbow room, all snapping photos of the Colloseum and seeing it only through their small screens. Selfie sticks poking in every direction. And so I viewed my visit with the wrong approach: get in, check it off the list, get out.
But iconic places like the Colloseum are no less impressive just because one is already familiar with it and recognizes it. Walking over the hill and around the corner, with the decayed remains of the Forum in the foreground and the Colloseum, sitting there in the center of this busy city liked fossilized bones, was mesmerizing. It was like running into a celebrity. Traffic passed, horns blared, peddlers selling their knick-knacks at roadside kiosks, and then it catches your eye. There it is. That stone crown silhouetted against the blue sky. “Holy shit, there it is,” I think I said, more to myself than my wife.
The lines to get in are long. Over an hour. We’d skipped the Duomo in Florence a few days earlier for this very reason—long lines make touristy things feel even more touristy, and therefore less appealing—but this one was different. We stayed in the queue. And just as the magic of seeing it from a distance was wearing off, we were through, walking in the shade of stone erected in the year 80 and stepping into the expanse of its interior, massive in scope, brilliant in the midday sun, enveloping us in the ghost of history.
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We spent time at all the heavy hitters: in addition to the Colloseum, we walked through the crumbling ruins of the Forum, stopped to gaze up the Spanish Steps (too far to climb), and marveled at the Altar of the Fatherland. The memory card in my camera filled up quickly.
We visited the Vatican early one morning and even stayed for a mass. After, we vistited a farmers market for orange juice and then coffee. We stopped back at the hotel so my wife could FaceTime her 102-year-old grandmother, who’d visited Italy back in 1971 and was excited for our trip. Her grandmother—Mem—had always kept a travel journal (my wife possesses it now, worn and delicate like an artifact) and had encouraged my wife to write in one as well when she traveled, which she does, every stop on every trip, a small piece of her grandmother she carries with her across the globe.
But none of these sights are what I remember most about Rome. What I remember—what I still find myself reminiscing about—were the nighttime strolls through the city’s labyrinthian cobblestone streets. Rome is a big city that plays small. Surprisingly, almost amazingly, the city—particularly after dark—feels quaint. We wandered side streets, getting lost despite the guidebook, strung lights glowing overhead like fireflies. We people-watched and checked out restaurant menus and cafés. We listened to street music. Walked some more. It was impossible not to hold hands.
Though these streets were often quiet and even empty—making us feel as though we had the city to ourselves—each opened suddenly onto a festive square, and suddenly we found ourselves in the middle of a party. One quiet alley filtered out to the stunning Trevi Fountain, its waters mystic blue, people everywhere, taking photos, laughing, playing music, lovers kissing. We stayed for a while to absorb the energy but missed the solitude of the side streets, and off we went again.
We found a small restaurant with an open front inviting the warm summer air. It was crowded, our small table tucked in one corner, but we were near the window and the place felt festive and celebratory. We drank wine and I ordered a personal-sized pizza and—maybe it was the magic of Rome, I don’t know—but it was the best I’ve ever had. I still think about that goddamn piece of perfection to this day.
Later, the night growing long, we got up and wandered some more under the moonlight, the quiet, glimmering alleys emptying into more beautiful piazzas, more ancient fountains, another corner and suddenly the Pantheon loomed over us, its mighty pillars commanding our attention. We sat on the lip of a fountain, resting our weary feet, and took it all in—the layers of history, the beauty, the people, all of us happy to be here, in this place and in this moment.