Long distance runners and cyclists sometimes talk about “hitting the wall”, a sudden onset of extreme fatigue, sometimes accompanied by confusion and the desire to simply stop, sit and not move. This usually happens towards the end of a marathon when glycogen stores simply run out. There’s usually not much to do about it except for simply gutting it out (or quitting).
Sad to say that I’ve hit a traveling wall. Granted, it’s a beautiful Roman wall with a fountain and thousands of years of history, but it’s a wall, just the same. It’s only been 7 or so weeks of traveling for me (albeit 11 countries and 15 flights) but I regularly read blogs of travelers who have been on the road for more than a year! How do they do it? My flight from Budapest to Rome was early, meaning I was picked up at 4:20am. When I got to Rome, all I wanted to do was sleep. I ventured out for some dinner and felt like I should do some exploring, but like a real live marathoner, my legs just didn’t want to listen. Instead, I just wanted to stay in my comfortable room and watch some of the dozens of movies I had downloaded to my computer, or surf the net, or sleep some more. This went on for DAYS. Oh, I’d drag myself out for a few hours of wandering but by 4 or 5pm, I just wanted to go home.
Having been here for just one perfect, insane day a few years back on a cruise, I was looking forward to exploring the Eternal City at my leisure, the three thousand years of its history and all its sights. It’s not called the City of Fountains for nothing. But everything started to irritate me. How there are only two metro lines so half the time, you have to rely on a bus (or a long walk) to get where you want to go. Earlier, I saw a sign that said the metro would be closing at 21h00 but it was in Italian, so I couldn’t be quite sure. I thought I must have read it wrong. Why would the metro of a major city close at 9pm? On a Friday night? I was in for a rude awakening as I tried to find a replacement bus in the middle of nowhere at 10:30 pm… (I’ve since found out that a third metro line is under construction, leading to construction in some of the stations and the early closure of some of the lines). Rome was not doing a good job of impressing me so far. The metro stations are hideously ugly, the metro cars are old and the bus system is way overtaxed. Most of the time, they are filled beyond capacity, a mass of heaving bodies vying for space that just isn’t there, a wall of humanity propping each other up after every swerve, bump and rut in the uneven roads. The bus doors can barely close because so many people are on the bus, and yet at every stop, more people squeeze, elbow and push their way in. The signs at the bus stops don’t indicate when they’re scheduled to arrive, so people just have to stand and wait. Plus, Rome has so many sights to see it’s exhausting planning your day. (Wikipedia lists 56 museums alone, not to mention fountains, piazzas, monuments and churches). What absolute must-see would I be missing? Googling major attractions didn’t seem to help as most of the time, they were simply the most popular (as deemed by tourists who may simply be following the herd) or places I’d already seen.
It wasn’t until my fifth (and last) day here that I started feeling differently. I was coming around to the idea that was Rome. I’m still not sure what exactly did it. Maybe it was when I accepted the fact that I wasn’t going to see everything and that it was OK to be travel weary and head back for a mid-day nap. Or that it was OK to not set the alarm clock and just get up whenever. Or that it was OK to walk slowly or even sit and do nothing (!) but read a book in a picturesque but nameless piazza. My severely type-A personality wants to get things done. Efficiently. With minimal waste (of time or energy). So it was when I forced myself to slow down that I really started enjoying this beautiful city. I present Rome By Numbers.
4 – The number of tennis tournaments going on this week. And my B&B had the SuperTennis channel which showed them all 24/7, making it even more difficult for me to leave the room…
3.5 – The number of hours I spent watching online episodes of What Would You Do?, a fascinating news/reality show where people were put in ethically challenging situations to see how they’d react… Another thing I did instead of sightseeing…
14 – The number of arias in the opera performance I went to. I love classical music but have never really been exposed to opera. So I picked a performance of selected opera arias instead of a full-on opera… an Opera for Dummies, if you will. However, I ended up only recognizing 2 of the arias, so I guess I should’ve chosen the Opera for Idiots version! However, I can appreciate the art form, the amazing power, control and passion required. The performance was conducted in the intimate Teatro Salone Margherita and performers were in 18th century costumes. Cheesy? Slightly. Entertaining? Mildly. Am I happy I went? Sort of. Would I go again? Probably not.
25 – The cost of the Roma Pass (in euros), an excellent value card that allows free admission to two museums, three days’ unlimited transport and discounted admission for the rest of the 3 days. It saved me about €10.
3 – The number of tourist information kiosks I had to visit to get the highly sought after pass.
50,000 – The number of spectators that could be seated within the Coliseum. While it’s more iconic from the outside, the inside gives an interesting look into the workings underneath the stadium floor where animals, props and combatants were lifted up in the name of sport. Fun fact: The wooden floor was covered by sand. The Latin word for sand? Arena!
2 – The number of hours you’re allowed to visit the Galleria Borghese, described as the “queen of the world’s private collections”. Housed in the former Villa Borghese Pinciana, it was conceived as a kind of ante litteram museum, a microcosm of every form of art. I’m still not sure what was more stunning – the works of art themselves or the villa which houses them. Colored marble, painted ceilings and gardens all demand your attention. However, I thoroughly enjoyed this visit and although there was a lot to look at, the collection and villa are small enough to not overwhelm you (unlike the Vatican which is just too much!)
45 – The number of full-scale machines on display at the Leonardo Da Vinci museum. Made out of simple materials like cloth, glue, wood and metal, these are just some of the inventions taken from Leo’s thousands of pages of notes collated in his famous codices. There were machines designed to make everyday tasks easier, flying machines (he was a bit off with those, expecting the user to generate enough energy just using his muscles to power the machines), tanks and my favorite, the Room of Mirrors, designed so that if you stand in the mirror, you can see every part of yourself. I’m drawn to Leonardo as the ultimate “Universal Man” or “Renaissance Man”. Part science geek, part artist, part inventor, architect, engineer. So far ahead of his time!
476 – AD. The year the port city of Ostia started its decline. Originally the thriving port for ancient Rome, located about 30km away at the mouth of the Tiber River (Ostia is Latin for “mouth”), Ostia was abandoned after silting of the Tiber River and a drop in sea level (it’s now 3km from the ocean). Ironically, the silt that killed the city is precisely what has preserved it so well. A mini, grittier Pompeii (minus the marble that was carted off to build the many piazzas in Rome), Ostia Antica is a pleasant day trip from Rome and does not stretch the imagination of how everyday life must have been with its mosaic-ed baths, rows of warehouses, intact taverns and well-preserved theater.
10 – USD for a McDonald’s meal. I know. What was I doing eating McDonald’s in Rome? Well, that was the night of the opera when I had to take the replacement bus home. The only people at the railway station at 11pm are sad or seedy. I was actually getting tired of pizza (which is EVERYWHERE) and a cheap, fast option for food on the go. There are lots of unusual options like broccoli/cheese and artichoke/olive. Out of everywhere I’ve been so far, Rome has been the most expensive food-wise. A proper sit-down meal would set you back at least €15 and even then, it was for relatively uninspiring pasta… But then again, I probably just didn’t know where to go!
All in all, though, I’m happy I came to Rome. There is literally something visually stunning around every corner. And I’m not talking about the iconic sites like the Pantheon with its surprising oculus and mathematically perfect dome or the Coliseum or even the Vatican with all its mind blowing treasures. I’m talking the odd fountain, row of columns, spectacularly adorned church just… there, barely deserving mention on the map, but beautiful nonetheless.
Travel tips: (1) There is a separate line at the Coliseum for Roma Pass holders, another benefit of having the pass – skipping the long lines waiting to buy tickets. The usual entrance fee is €12 and is easily the most expensive of all attractions on the Roma Pass, so make sure the Coliseum is either your first or second stop. (2) Online forums have been reporting that the Roma Pass is becoming difficult to get, with quantities running out quickly. They’re sold at all the tourist information kiosks spread across the city and at some convenience / tobacco stores. Try and get one early in your trip as the museums / attractions it includes is extensive. (3) Rick Steves has free downloadable walking tours of various sites in Rome, including Ostia Antica and the Coliseum. I found these informative and entertaining. (4) There are lots of buses waiting to take passengers from the airport to Termini, the main train/bus station. I noticed three different companies, prices ranging from €4-8, for seemingly the same service. (5) I stayed at the excellent Anthony’s B&B, a 10 minute walk from Termini. While there isn’t much worth seeing in the area, lots of buses started / ended at Termini which gave you more options when you’re out and about and about to pass out from too much walking. Just remember to elbow your way in. When in Rome…