It felt surreal.
Frankly, I did not plan to start my trip in Rome. Had I known my flight would not have been operated by that Boeing 787, I may not have started from Rome. Universe used Qatar Airways to trick me. Even when I tried any possibilities of changing my route, I did not find any possible alternatives due to some constraints.
So ultimately indeed all roads lead me to Rome. Just as what people always say.
Okay, enough with all hyperbolic thoughts on my mind when I arrived at Fiumicino Airport. I had to find my way to my host’s apartment.
He had informed me that I only had to find T.A.M bus going to Roma Termini via Roma Ostiense, because it was way cheaper (€5) than the Leonardo Express (€14 one-way CMIIW) and I did not have to find my way from Termini to Ostiense (which was within walking distance from his apartment). But still, the first-time-arriving-alone-in-a-totally-foreign-country anxiety was haunting me a bit. Thankfully the sign was clear enough to guide me to the bus stop and I managed to get on the bus on time.
martedì, 31 maggio 2016 // tuesday, 31 may 2016
I alighted the T.A.M bus at their bus stop in front of Eataly (next to Roma Ostiense Train Station), a fancy Italian food supermarket. I waited there until my host picked me up. While waiting, I tried to adapt myself to the surroundings, especially signs on the streets. I have been learning Italian and I was unsure if my Italian was decent enough, so I just tried. I was so happy when I could understand this Eataly motto:
Wohoo! Felt ecstatic. Not so long, my host came and we directly went to his apartment. He was Michelangelo, but unfortunately not the resurrection of that famous artist. He was old enough – 59 years old – yet he was quite busy with work until he could not accept Couchsurfing request anymore because he often goes out of town. He could only accept my request 3 days before my departure, luckily because my third day in Rome was the Italian National Day.
Note: it was depressingly difficult for me to find a Couchsurfing host in Rome compared to other cities I have been with CS. Half of CS hosts in Rome are “open-minded”, but probably only for sex as their references are full with girls’. I guess it can still be a no-no for some girls, but it is definitely much easier for girls to find hosts in Rome. I did try requesting some of them, and of course, got rejected. Try opening your options by being okay with older people, sometimes they have tons of interesting stories you do not expect.
Michelangelo stayed in a simple yet nice apartment, like most Italians. It was not that big because he lives alone, but definitely enough and comfortable for him. As it was already late (around 9.30 PM), he decided to cook pasta after picking Limanan – my highschool friend – up. I was certainly excited as it would be my first time tasting the authentic Italian pasta. I observed him while he was preparing the pasta. These are things to take note when preparing the real pasta:
- Always use pasta made of grano duro (durum wheat).
- While boiling the water to cook the pasta, you have to add salt to the water. This will add texture to the pasta.
- (If the pasta is spaghetti) DON’T BREAK THE FREAKING SPAGHETTI. Every time you do this, an Italian soul is also broken.
- Italians eat their pasta al dente (literally meaning to the tooth). It means the pasta must be a bit hard – so you can feel it on your teeth – and to do that, cook the pasta for t-1 minutes, where t is the recommended time stated on the packaging. Michelangelo told me he threw away a whole plate of spaghetti in Seville just because it was too soft for him.
- DON’T ADD ANY KIND OF MEAT IN BIG SIZE. I paraphrase this from “don’t add meat” to the pasta because Italians actually do put meat on some of their pasta, but only in small pieces. The easiest example is ragu sauce in spaghetti bolognese. No matter how delicious it can be, spaghetti with meatballs like in America or spaghetti with chicken chop in Singapore is…. totally wrong. Italians believe in the separation of food, so pasta is normally eaten as il primo or the first (round) while meat is eaten as il secondo or the second.
- Pasta carbonara has no cream.
- Tomato sauce that you find in supermarkets has to be cooked too. My host told me that the sauce’s color will slightly change when it is well cooked. Oh, and you can add some chili or olive oil if you want to.
And there you go, our late dinner. It tasted different than what was familiar to me, but it was delicious. It was also my first time to understand that Italians love tomato so much. To make things better (or worse), Michelangelo offered me… limoncello. The name is derived from limone which (obviously) means lemon and cello is actually a suffix, just like -simo in belissimo. You might think there is nothing wrong with that until you know that it has around 40% of alcohol. It was my first time taking such high alcohol concentration and especially after such a long journey from Singapore, I got a shock after taking a sip. It felt so strong. But do you know what did I do after drinking a little bit of that? Asking for more. I was reckless, really.
mercoledì, 1 giugno 2016 // wednesday, 1 june 2016
Night faded away and morning came. I learnt an important lesson from my experienced friend that sleeping throughout the flight will help you avoid jetlag – and it certainly did. I woke up at 8 AM with a solid sleep. It was a sunny yet windy morning – certainly a great thing to know when we wake up – and we started preparing breakfast. The breakfast was simple: coffee and bread with choice of jams and butter, not as much as what I usually had at home. I later learned that Italian breakfast is indeed that simple, something sweet plus a cup of coffee are enough.
The first difference that I noticed was the butter. It was made of milk and a bit sweet! I also had an espresso, which was served in that small cup.
As Michelangelo was going to work, we left home together. I and Limanan walked to the nearest metro station which was Piramide because of our first destination – Vatican – was quite far from Ostiense.
It was my first time trying metro in Europe, I did not know how big the city was so I assumed the city would be quite big like Singapore. With an influence from the high-spender Limanan, I decided to buy a €7.5 day pass.
Being highly accustomed to Singapore’s MRT, I think that Roma’s subway is awful in terms of coverage. There are only 2 fully operating lines (the third is under construction). It is still possible to reach most areas by transferring to bus or tram, but it is inconvenient and lags far behind other big cities with similar size such as Paris or Barcelona. Perhaps being an ancient city with tons of artifacts underground is a logical reason. The stations also looked old and dirty, no wonder as it was built in 1940. Did I mention about trains being mostly overcrowded on working days, unless in the early morning? Transferring at Termini during peak hours was quite an experience. And since that Paris attack, there are 2 armed soldiers in every metro station.
It took around 30 minutes to reach the nearest station to Vatican. We still had to walk, and the nearer we were to Vatican the more people approached us to offer their service, mostly skip to queue of la Basilica di San Pietro. I did not want to use such service so I just continued walking until we reached the Basilica.
My first impression of Vatican was actually good, but it did not reach a “beyond godlike” level. La Piazza di San Pietro was big and the Basilica di San Pietro looked huge as well from outside, but looked pale due to cloudy weather. It was also immensely crowded because Pope Francis was meeting the crowd that Wednesday morning. It was perhaps a public mass, but I arrived quite late to know what was happening. The square was full with people from all over the world, with some people waving their countries’ flags. They looked like Pope’s supporters, honestly (but no offence to Catholics).
When he was done meeting the crowd, people started disappearing. It was 11 o’clock and the Basilica would only be open at 1 PM, so there were 2 hours in between. We decided to go to the Vatican Museum.
The entrance fee for the museum was €16, but students got 50% discount. The problem was I did not bring any identity cards. I was so anxious about the possibility of being pickpocketed until I did not bring anything other than cash in my money belt for the sake of safety. Another thing that I learnt, passport and other identity cards must be in possession at all times. Some policemen on the street might have asked me to show my passport.
Fortunately, there were multiple ticket sales booths so I exploited that fact by asking Limanan to buy one ticket twice from the different booth.
What could I say about Musei Vaticani? It was magnificent. I have poor artistic sense, yet I could know that everything inside was incredible – perhaps it was the true representation of the Italian word grande (which actually means big but this word has a “majestic” connotation for me). The early part of the museum was full of
mostly dick-less statues, but as we went through the rooms there were more paintings on the floor, wall, or ceiling. The paintings were tremendously complex and I could not stop wondering how could ancient people drew so many paintings like that, let alone the majestic architecture. Capella Sistina was perhaps the best of all, while at the same time it was also the holiest part of the museum.
Done with the museum, we went for lunch first before we continued to the basilica. We knew the queue would be long, so we just took a quick lunch. Thankfully because it was a touristy place, everything was mostly pizza or pasta; just that the price was inflated. We walked a bit further until we found a (really) small pizzeria with a TripAdvisor sign (well that means it could not be that bad) so we went inside. It was perhaps a good decision! We had pizza diavola, it was just €6 – normal price in Rome – and tasted great (and spicy – diavola is the most spicy type of pizza in Italy). I soon realized that the pizza in Italy has wet toppings as compared to dry in Pizza Hut/Domino’s/whatever.
Done with pizza, we rushed back to the basilica to find that the queue was crazy. I did not know it could be that long! Eventually, we had to queue for 45 minutes before we could enter the basilica.
Again, the basilica was stunning. It was truly a masterpiece, and perhaps it described how God’s temple was like back then in the Bible. Even at the end of my trip, no church ever came close to this. Well, as the centre of Roman Catholic, isn’t it as expected?
Thinking that we might have the chance to visit Colosseum on the same day, we decided to leave the basilica after almost 1 hour. Along the way to the metro station, we passed by Castell Sant’Angelo.
Eventually we arrived in the Colosseum at 6 PM while it was going to close in 45 minutes. Hence, we decided to just take some pictures and go somewhere to kill time as we had made an appointment with our host to go home at 7.30 PM. We decided to visit Roma Termini because I wanted to know where should we go when we take the train to Florence. The train would depart in the early morning so we would have little time finding our way.
To further kill time, we went around Termini until we ended up at places such as Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore and Piazza della Repubblica. Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore was another big church with the similar interior as Vatican. Piazza della Repubblica looked like a glamorous area with elegant buildings surrounding a roundabout, and it was one of my favourite places in Rome.
Time was up and we went home to meet our host, then we went for dinner! He brought us to La Valle del Sacco, a pizzeria nearby. The following day was the National Day, so the pizzeria was full of locals eating together with family. The pizza was not that expensive – around €6-7 each, so I ordered a calzone, supplì (a Roman croquette), and a glass of beer.
My pizza is rather unique because it is folded in half, like what you see above. FYI, calzone actually means trouser leg, and do not ask me why. It was delicious though. I also learnt one new lesson: Italians do not share their pizza. They order one plate of pizza just for themselves, so no “I buy A, you buy B, we try each other’s pizza” thing. And they eat pizza with fork and plate.
With that pizza, were we done? Of course no!
Our host then offered us gelato, because he said it was an Italian tradition to always have a dessert after a meal (remember the separation of food they have here). So he brought us to Gelateria La Romana nearby his home at Via Ostiense (this gelateria has many other branches). This gelateria was also packed with locals, but the queue was fast and the service was friendly! The girl in charge was even surprised and smiling when I
teased her ordered in Italian. Gelato medio (medium ice cream) with 3 scoops was only €2.5 while a single-scoop gelato near Vatican was €2, and this one was much better! My scoops were stracciatella (vanilla with choco chips), vanilla, and frutti di bosco (something like mixed berries).
And it was enough to close the day.
gioverdì, 2 giugno 2016 // thursday, 2 june 2016
After the sunny first day, it was surprising to wake up feeling cold because it was raining outside. Since our plan that day was to visit Colosseo and Foro Romano – which were open places – we were quite worried. Ah, I missed sheltered pedestrian lanes like in Singapore. Anyway, since Rome was pretty windy on our first day, I hoped the wind would shoo away the clouds as I was having a breakfast.
The breakfast was the same as yesterday, but anyway the butter and jam were great – so why should I complain? We talked a lot with Michelangelo about Italy, like how Rome is positioned as the midway between chaotic South Italy and somehow classy North Italy, or how ancient Italians named their children (for example da in Leonardo da Vinci actually means “from”). It was simply eye-opening for me!
The rain stopped when we finished breakfast, but it was still dark. Nevertheless, we still went to Piramide. It was Italy’s National Day and I was curious about what was in store during the day. My host told me that there would be a parade starting from Colosseo, however that made the Colosseo metro station closed and we had to go to Colosseo from Cavour metro station. It was perhaps a blessing in disguise because we went through Roman houses. Rome was like a chaotic city from far, but the buildings were quite pretty in detail.
The closer we got to the Colosseum, the more crowded it got. Since the road must be cleared off, people were filling the pedestrian path and it was difficult to walk around.
I did not know at all if the parade had started, but there were airplane squads flying around with Italian colour. It cheered the crowd, but that was all. People were waiting again until it started raining. Perhaps I was being stupid that time, I knew it had been raining yet I did not even bring my jacket. With strong wind, being strong while looking for protection was your only option. So we went across the street to find a police post as a shelter. We did not know if we were allowed to go there but well… we took our chance.
When the rain stopped, we directly went to the ticket counter. The Colosseo ticket is integrated with Foro Romano (Roman Forum), so it would only be worth the price if we visited both. The ticket price was €12 and unfortunately no student discount 🙁
Entering Colosseo, it was like ticking my checklist. For me, Roma = Colosseum because I had read about Colosseum as the icon of Rome in my childhood encyclopaedia. Colosseo was pretty big despite not looking that big from outside. It was not used as a football field anyway, so why made it so big? The gladiators would be tired running around the arena.
Too bad that the weather was still bad so I did not get the best feeling of it, and there was a renovation in some parts as well.
Going out of Colosseo I felt hungry, so I went to the previous street where I found shelter. I thought I would try finding another cheap pizzeria until I found… Carrefour Express! Carrefour Express is a 7-Eleven-style minimarket and I could find a lot of frozen food while they have a microwave to heat it up. Panini (sandwich) is less than €3 there, while outside it might have been €4++.
Done with food we went back to the complex to enter Foro Romano. Foro Romano (Roman Forum) is a piazza (square), which was the center of ancient Roman life. There were important buildings surrounding the plaza, like churches, governmental buildings, or marketplace. Due to its enormous size, I did not feel it was crowded there. There were also a complex nearby where you had to hike in order to reach there. Foro Romano was mostly remnants of the buildings, so it just felt like a messy graveyard. The good thing was in some remnants you could find some explanations. From Foro Romano I could get a view of Rome which was…. also messy. Rome was built on 7 hills and it made the city not flat, and hence the buildings looked irregular.
Thinking that it was already 3 PM and we were afraid we could not enjoy the centre of Rome, Limanan and I decided to leave Foro Romano. We walked along the streets while we found some interesting places. The first we found was no other than Piazza Venezia (Venice Square) with Altare della Patria (Altar of the Fatherland, or Victor Emanuel Monument) next to it. Piazza Venezia itself was not a square full of people, but it was at a busy roundabout and the view around it was quite pretty. And the altar… majestic with white everywhere.
As Piazza Venezia is on the Capitoline Hill, it was not far to go to the Campus Martius where you can find most touristy places in Rome. I walked toward the west to the Piazza Navona, and there were places like Chiesa del Gesù, Largo di Torre Argentina, and Basilica di Sant’Andrea della Valle along the way. I went in the Basilica di Sant’Andrea della Valle, and it was another gorgeous church with magnificent decoration. The good thing about this church was that it was like a normal church – nobody would chase and try to rip you off.
After the Basilica, I directly went to the Piazza Navona because Campo de’ Fiori had already been closed. Piazza Navona was a place with a nice atmosphere and I could see people enjoying their time there, locals or not. I love the concept of public square for people to meet up and socialize. There was also Sant’Agnese in Agone church at Piazza Navona.
Not far from Piazza Navona is the famous Pantheon. It was truly incredible, after almost 1900 years the building still stands strong. In contrary to the most Roman buildings, this Pantheon was built with Corinthian style. Apparently, Piazza della Rotonda in front of Pantheon is frequently used by people to express their voice. That time, there was a group of people encouraging people to start adopting dogs rather than sending them to China, because they said dogs sent to China would be tortured.
It seemed like Rome is full of churches. After I passed Pantheon I met yet another church, Chiesa di Sant’Ignazio di Loyola; and after that, I went to the Trevi Fountain. It was beautiful indeed, but the number of people there was immense until I could not even see the fountain. As I hate crowd, I only spent a few minutes there and continued my walk to Piazza di Spagna where there was the famous Spanish Steps.
I arrived there and the people were around the Spanish Steps…. which was under renovation. Too bad. It still looked nice actually, as I could see Trinita dei Monti at the top of the stairs. Then I moved to my last destination… Piazza del Popolo. My host had mentioned that he liked 2 piazze the most: Piazza Venezia and Piazza del Popolo; hence I was curious how was Piazza del Popolo.
It turned out that Piazza del Popolo was nice! The square was the end of a few streets, so the piazza lived up the expectation as the meeting point. It was also perhaps the piazza with the highest number of churches. There were 3 churches there: Santa Maria in Montesanto, Santa Maria dei Miracoli, and Santa Maria del Popolo.
Similar to the previous night, Michelangelo set a meeting time at 7.30 PM to have a dinner. This time, he brought us to have l’aperitivo at Doppio Zero. L’aperitivo is a similar concept to tapas in Spain, where people pay for an alcoholic drink and they will be served with extra snack. In Italy, though, the snack is self-service and you can take as many as you want. This type of dining is normally done before dinner. This makes l’aperitivo extremely popular among Romans, especially the youth because having l’aperitivo is cheaper than having normal dinner yet unlimited snack is still fulfilling. It normally costs €10 – more expensive than a plate of pizza – but it includes drink.
And so, with l’aperitivo we spent the night to conclude my days in Rome.
Rome from my memory:
Rome feels messy. It lacks symmetry like Paris, and laying on 7 hills does not make it neat either. The city layout – especially in the city centre – is a total mess if you prefer US-style cities. In addition, the remnants of the ancient buildings in Roman Forum add the messy feeling in my memory.
These ancient buildings, however, still hold the unrivalled majesty behind the remnants. Typical tourist probably will not understand much, but if you read the Roman history you will greatly appreciate Rome. And the churches, oh my God. Roman churches easily outclass every church on earth, arguably by far.
Public squares in Rome are great, especially (my personal preference) Piazza Navona and Piazza del Popolo. They are huge and the atmosphere is also enjoyable. As the Italian way of socializing, I suggest you visit as many piazza as possible in Rome (and every city in Italy).
To end, here are my advises:
- Take your time when visiting Rome, do not rush. 2.5 days were not enough for me to capture the whole Rome. I did not even touch Trastevere as the modern cultural center of Rome, which was my biggest regret.
- Stay near the center. Despite its size, Rome is pretty compact if we consider the location of the sights, so the savings from not taking public transportation should offset the higher accommodation costs.
- If you want your existence on social media to remain during your trip, download apps such as Wi-Fi Map to get Wi-Fi passwords or buy a SIM card if you are rich enough. Public Wi-Fi in Rome sucks.
- Learn simple Italian! Romans are pretty talkative for my standard, and they will be super friendly when you try speaking with a bit of Italian to them.
and lastly, grazie Michelangelo!
Questo è tutto! Florence will follow next 🙂