I woke up to the sound of footfalls echoing down the street. Seconds later, the clatter of shop shutters rang through the air. Two men stopped for a conversation below our window, their voices occasionally drowned by the urgent honk of a horn. I could have slept for another half an hour were it not for the aroma of coffee that wafted into our room.
My feet throbbed, a reminder that another day of endless walking lay ahead of us. But as I thought of the first sip of coffee filling my dry mouth, the prospect of getting out of a warm bed at 7am seemed less daunting. Besides, the streets of Rome were already a hive of activity, and I couldn’t wait to get out there and explore the rest of the city.
Rome was never on my bucket list, despite being a mere 90-minute flight from home. Perhaps what put me off visiting the Italian capital was the fact that almost everyone I know has been there at least once in their life. It’s the same reason why I’ve never been too fussed about visiting London. I’m drawn to offbeat destinations and the wilderness. So when an unusually excited boyfriend phoned me up to ask me if I fancied heading to Rome for Christmas, my reply was simple.
“Only if the flights are incredibly cheap.”
But he had already made sure that this trip wouldn’t break the bank, and an hour later I was brushing up on my (almost non-existent) Italian.
There are two things I wish I had done before our four-day trip to Rome: bought a second memory card and saved more money. Rome turned out to be more beautiful and expensive than I had thought, and after the first day in the city I decided to take less photos and drink less cappuccinos throughout the rest of our stay. But that didn’t last very long.
Hunting out the perfect cup of cappuccino soon became our number one challenge, followed by capturing the perfect sunset photo in different parts of the city.
Yes, Rome is indeed beautiful, but what really stunned me during our trip was my boyfriend’s extensive knowledge of Roman and Greek mythology, which I became fairly acquainted with on our first day in the city, well, in the Vatican City, to be more precise. We were in the Gallery of Statues and the Hall of Busts, admiring the well-preserved collection of ancient sculptures, and Douglas was correctly guessing the identity of each and every pagan god.
“This must be Artemis. And that’s Hercules on the other side. Oh my God, is that sexy beast over there Zeus?!”
And as we marvelled at the intricate details of each work of art, I decided to ask Douglas a question. A really stupid question.
“Are these the original statues or are they simply replicas?”
Although I actually whispered the question, I’m quite sure I felt all eyes in the room swivel to me. Douglas just stood there, mouth agape. He looked just like the theatrical masks hanging on the wall behind him, his face frozen in shock.
“We’re in the Vatican Museums, the richest in the world. Of course they’re the bloody originals!” He said at last.
And that, I shamefully admit, was the first thing I learnt in Rome.
Despite being a self-proclaimed history buff, the Roman Era is not exactly my forte. Neither is Italian Renaissance. In other words, I visited Rome without ever having heard of the Romulus and Remus myth, the great sculptor Bernini and the breath-taking Pantheon.
Needless to say, I learnt quite a few interesting things while I was in Rome, mainly thanks to Douglas, who was in possession of a Lonely Planet guidebook
and had just watched Angels & Demons before our trip. But it wasn’t just the compelling history lessons that made this trip surprisingly blissful.
Here’s what else I learnt in Rome (including a couple of unpleasant lessons).
Lesson 1: You can still get off the beaten path in major tourist destinations.
I could have never imagined that one can actually escape the crowds in a place like Rome. On our last day in the city we somehow ended up in a forest, where the only sign of civilisation was an old woman walking out of a creepy, derelict house. Although this (mis)adventure took place on the outskirts of Rome, we still managed to find a few tourist-free spots in the city centre, including the quiet neighbourhood of Trastevere and the Jewish Quarter.
While my idea of ‘adventure’ involves climbing mountains and exploring little-known villages, Rome has taught me that you can still get off the tourist trail in popular cities, as long as you are willing to venture beyond the main highlights and resist the urge to stop for a cappuccino every 45 minutes.
Lesson 2: The best things in life are not always free.
While I’m not exactly a big fan of Italian food (I’m more of an Asian and Middle Eastern food lover), I must admit that I’ve had my best dining experiences in Rome – except that time when we were made to pay for four slices of bread that the waitress had unceremoniously plonked on our table.
Eating out in Rome turned out to be a great pleasure… and expense.
Lesson 3: Sometimes it’s OK to do touristy things.
As much as I hate doing typical touristy activities, I tend to make exceptions when visiting certain cities. I mean, you don’t exactly go to Rome without seeing the Colosseum, do you? I have been up the Eiffel Tower, explored Edinburgh Castle, walked over Charles Bridge and visited Parc Güell, and I would do all of them again.
We visited most of the main attractions in Rome
, and yet, I never felt like a tourist while we were there – perhaps for two reasons:
1) I probably get more absorbed in the history of a place than the ordinary visitor.
2) I don’t own a selfie stick.
Lesson 4: When in Rome, you MUST do as the Romans do.
It’s more than a cliché – it’s a money-saving tip. When in Rome, do as the Romans do and drink your espresso at the bar. Otherwise, expect to pay between 4-6EUR for your coffee. Shocked? Well, I certainly was when I first found out about this.
I was sitting at a table in Piazza Navona, soaking up some sun, when Douglas walked out of the café looking rather dumbfounded.
“We have to drink our coffee by the bar,” he said firmly.
“Why? It’s a beautiful day,” I protested.
“BECAUSE I’M NOT WILLING TO PAY 12 BLOODY EUROS FOR TWO CAPPUCCINOS.”
Well, I couldn’t really argue with that.
Lesson 5: Perhaps I should stop being such a travel snob.
Yes, I want to continue exploring lesser-known places and getting as far away from crowds as humanly possible, but after falling in love with Rome, I think I should give other popular destinations a go. Visiting London might not be such a bad idea, after all.
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