Monday, May 21, 2012

Beautiful Italia.

I should preface this post with the warning that this may be the longest blog post you've ever read, as it accounts for five incredible days in Rome, Italy. So take it in chunks, skim it if you like, or just opt out now... whatever you please. :)

Tuesday, 15 May 2012: Fishy Fishy in the Brook.

The day started out at about 3:00am, if you can even consider that day. We caught our cab at 4:00, nearly died on the way there, but made it to the airport safely. After a three-hour flight to Rome, we had quite the interesting experience trying to orient ourselves in an Italian airport. It would have been nice if the ATMs offered an English option, but we managed to translate a few Italian words very quickly. It didn't take long to observe the people around me and realize that all the rumors about pick-pocketers and scammers and such in Italy were likely true; that in mind, I became OCD about assigning my cards, cash, camera, etc. in their specific pockets of the purse. Not that anyone could ever get to the purse that was always glued to my body and fastened to my fingers, but it was good to be safe.

We waited an hour or so for a bus that would take us to the heart of Rome. Although my first experience using Rome transportation was terrifying and exceedingly stressful, it was nothing I couldn't handle after becoming a master of London transportation. During the bus ride, I kept singing an old familiar song in my head that went a little like this:

Fishy fishy in the brook
Daddy caught him with a hook
Mommy fried him in a pan
And baby ate him like a man.

Dad used to sing this to me when I was a kid. It took me a minute to figure out why on earth this silly song was stuck on repeat in my mind, but it all came together when I finally made the connection. Fishy in the brook. I felt like a little fishy in a brook, except Rome was more of a large ocean. I must have been a little nervous to be in a foreign place, half expecting to be swallowed up in all of this unknown. I was nervous to be in the minority. But as the ancient ruins started to become visible (as we drove into Central Rome) and the city began to look like the famous place I'd seen in the pictures, the nerves turned into excitement and delight. I loved Rome before I had even roamed its streets (no pun intended). Giant ancient walls from the time of Caesar, broken boulders from who knows when, enormous towers and columns--I enjoyed it all much more than I expected.

Our little hotel, the New Inn, was just a few blocks from the Termini Station. If I do say so myself, it was a pretty good landing for just searching "hotel in Rome" on and booking one of the first available options. It was small, but very clean. AND there was a bright red theme to the room... anyone who knows me knows that I would adore it. Little did I know that I would soon consider that room to be luxurious after transferring to our hostel the next night.

After checking in to the hotel and getting settled a little bit, we set off to the Colosseum. The massive, ancient, wonderful Colosseum of Rome where games similar to the Hunger Games were played on a regular basis. The eight of us walked around the stadium, being taught by Rick Steves via Hillary's iPhone. I learned about the unique seating of the stadium, the human and animal wars, and the cruelties performed on the Christians of the time. We read that, during the games, there were people whose jobs were to go around spraying perfume in order to dim the overwhelming odor of blood. Even after being there and seeing it, it's too difficult to believe that those things actually happened. That was another moment during which I found myself embarrassed to be human. After the Colosseum, we explored the gorgeous greens of Palatine Hill and the ruins of the Roman Forum. It's funny how the ruins of Rome are what make it so gorgeous.

In the evening, we tried one of Rick Steve's favorite restaurants for dinner (Rick would remain a close friend throughout the entirety of the trip... his book became a bible), tested our first Italian gelato, showered up, and fell straight to sleep after a long travel day.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012: Rome's Hidden Treasures.

When we went to redeem our free breakfast down the street from the hotel, we were given a cup of coffee and a croissant, so we left the drinks untouched and ate the pastries on our way. We found the Trevi Fountain and took a few traditional tourist pictures. (The fountain became our meeting point throughout the week, so we saw it in bright light as well as lit up in the evenings. Beautiful place!) We then visited the Pantheon. It's a beautiful, intricate dome (the world's largest concrete dome) with a circular opening at the top and a floor slightly heightened in the middle so that the rain drains can drain off. It was commissioned as a temple to the gods in Rome by Agrippa, and is still used as a place of worship today. The coolest part of the Pantheon was Raphael's tomb: "Here lies Raphael, by whom nature feared to be outdone when he lived, and when he died, feared that she herself would die."

Making a wish at the Trevi Fountain! 


Tomb of Raphael.

Next, we wandered through some small markets (I was sucked in to buying souvenirs on only the second day--an Italian sweatshirt and an I love Roma bracelet) on the way to Rick's favorite National Museum. We found Augustus Caesar, Discobolus, and a sunny courtyard in the middle of the museum filled with orange trees.

Taking a breather in the courtyard of the National Museum.

Julius Caesar (we're studying the script in class...)

One of the neat things about Rome is that there are hidden treasures on just about every street. Small churches and cathedrals that blend in with just about every other building, but that have spectacular artifacts and sculptures and paintings and exhibits waiting to be explored. We found a couple of these, namely the San Luigi Cathedral, and the Santa Maria sopra Minerva. The San Luigi was a favorite, because it contains three massive original Caravaggio paintings, including the Calling of Saint Matthew. The Santa Maria contains the phenomenal statue of the Christ, which was also neat to see in person. The buildings and walls and especially the ceilings of all these places are just incredible; I could've spent all day observing the beauty of the buildings themselves!

Caravaggio exhibit at San Luigi Cathedral.

The Christ - Michelangelo. 
Outside of the Santa Maria, a bird lady parked her bike by the steps and started feeding dozens of filthy pigeons. She then proceeded to pick them up, one by one, and clean in between their toes (toes?) with her bare hands. She was like the Mary Poppins bird lady, but much worse. Oh, the things you see in Rome. It's so different from London, and especially from home. People are friendly, but ruthless and loud and often lazy. I don't know how many times a woman shoved her baby in my face trying to get me to give her money "for the child." Or how many times a drunk man yelled "Ciao, Bella!" or cat-called one of us or tried to follow us. Or how many times a menu or bracelet or purse or sunglasses or souvenir was shoved in front of my face, completely intruding on my personal space and tempting me to steal money from the beggar. The Italians are funny, but very forward and often inappropriate. Let's just say that I feel completely safe in the city of London now. 

Crazy bird lady!

After being on our feet all day, we spotted a little Italian pizza place with red and white checkered table cloths and decided to give it a try. Somehow I managed to order pizza with no cheese, but the nice server gave me half a pizza with cheese for free because I was a helpless little American girl who couldn't read the Italian menu. Italian pizza is bomb. I think I'll be craving it until the next time I'm in Italy. After dinner, I couldn't stand the blisters on my feet any longer so we shopped around a little and found me some cheap sandals that proved to be a hundred times more comfortable than the $70 sandals I bought for comfort before I left. Funny how that works.

Italian pizza place.

We then found the Spanish Steps, where Hillary and I posed as Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. I love that Audrey is all over Rome! I even got a bright red print (surprised?) of Audrey from a market that will soon be hanging in my room at home. I really enjoyed sitting on the Spanish Steps and relaxing for a minute. I've heard several people say that the Steps are overrated, but I thought they were beautiful and well worth the visit. Needless to say, we found a nice little gelato shop on the way home.

Sometime between all of our museum visits, we checked into the hostel, which was placed in a little bit of a sketchy part of town. Let's just say that I will never ever complain about a bed or bathroom or shower ever again in my life. My bed was two stacked foam pads covered with a sheet, and the only source of warmth was a sheet and a disposable blanket to cover me at night. The door to the lookout didn't close completely, so our room froze over each night. The shower door was broken; in fact, I smashed and sliced my finger in it on one of the last days. The hostel owner lived in a room across the hall, so it was a little bit strange to walk outside my room and see him in his underwear with his door wide open. I think it's safe to say that Mama Tobler never would've set foot in that place. Nights proved to be exciting; there was a bar directly below our room, so our nights were full of loud music and smashing glass bottles and drunk people singing and yelling. I actually didn't mind that part. I got to live vicariously through the spirited Italians underneath.

Thursday, 17 May 2012: One Short Day in the Vatican City

The sun, the sun, the sun. Seriously, the blazing sun completely made this trip for me. When the other girls were searching for shade, all I wanted was to bask in the rays. The girls kept saying, "When the sun is happy, Cassie's happy." And it's all too true. I couldn't stop smiling because of it.

This was the day of the Vatican and St. Peter's Basilica. We left the hostel early, waited in line for the Vatican, bought a book about the different exhibits, and started our journey through that very large place. Once again, Music 201 came in handy. I never thought I'd have so much fun looking at the statues and paintings that I've studied at BYU. I've never been a huge museum person, up until this summer. I don't ever get tired of them now, which was a good thing at that point because it took us several hours to get through it. My favorite parts were the ceilings (gorgeous in every room) and the hellenistic art. I also loved seeing the famous works of Caravaggio, Raphael, and Michelangelo. I'm not sure where this great appreciation for art is coming from, but it's definitely become a part of me.

I always like the guards.

Gorgeous ceilings.

Walking through the Sistine Chapel was a humbling experience. It's not quite like I imagined it would be, but it incredible. Every space of every wall, ceiling, and floor was covered in an original beautiful painting done by one of many geniuses. It was gorgeous. Of those paintings, my favorite was most definitely the focal point of the room: the Creation of Adam by Michelangelo.

Because we wanted to fully appreciate St. Peter's Basilica, KayCee and Hadley and I took a break before going in. We wandered the streets near the Vatican City and eventually found a unique panini stand. Paninis and Calzones are huge in Italy. Because you're not allowed to eat in the piazzas, we wandered some more until we came to a little ledge of a building we could sit on to eat our chicken and eggplant paninis--so good. They put cooked eggplant on everything. On our way back to St. Peter's, we discovered Old Bridge Gelatoria, the place we dubbed the greatest gelato in Rome (ok, at least I did). Huge portions for cheap, with whole hazelnuts and fluffy ice cream. I would've eat that for every meal if I could've.

St. Peter's was spectacular. There was one place where the light from the sun streamed in just perfectly and made the entire place glow. More amazing art and stained glass, in a breathtaking cathedral still used for worship.

St. Peter's Basilica.

We met up with the rest of the group, sat in the sun for about an hour exchanging stories and experiences, then walked to a cute Italian cafe for dinner. I ate the best dang grilled zucchini I think I've ever had, but paid 4 euros for about ten small slices. Whatever, it was worth it. We won't mention that after dinner we visited our friend Old Bridge for the second time that day... more heavenly gelato. I love the scene in Eat Pray Love when Julia talks about taking advantage of the Italian food (particularly the pizza), then going to buy jeans one size bigger the next day. I decided to follow that wise counsel, and luckily I haven't yet needed to purchase new jeans. Win-win.

The evening was spent in various places throughout the city as we followed the "Heart of Rome" night walk. We wandered through piazzas full of artists selling their work, markets full of food and knick-knacks, and enchanting music. While walking to the hostel that night, we encountered a few scary (drunk) people and had a couple of close calls. There were several times when I just planned on being taken, as everyone on the streets with a face and two legs seemed to be out to haunt me. I think I know now what a piece of meat must feel like. We made it back safely; shaken up a little, maybe, but safely. Rome is a crazy place.

Friday, 18 May 2012: Heaven on Earth.

Remember in the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants when Lena goes to Greece? Ever since I saw that movie, I've been dying to visit the exact place where she spent the summer and fell in love with Kostas. Much to my surprise and pleasure, this little tiny town called Sperlonga, Italy looked just like that beautiful place from the Sisterhood. I didn't find my Kostas, but I certainly found the landscape I'd been searching for. It's the most charming area I've ever seen. After a stressful morning of getting train tickets, figuring out the train system, and catching a bus from the station to Sperlonga, Hadley and KayCee and I were relieved to be able to pick any spot on this gorgeous empty beach and soak up the sun while we ate our packed lunches. A picnic on the beach. The weather was warm but there were enough clouds that the sun wasn't beating down; we didn't even have to pay 13 euros for a patch of shade.

We wrote things in the sand and took all sorts of pictures. We sat and talked about "deep" things at Hadley's request. We walked the stretch of the shore and explored the Greek-like village up on the hill that divides the two beaches of Sperlonga. And, you guessed it, we found a little gelato shop that served kit-kat and kinder chocolate gelato. What could be more perfect?

We had some time to kill before the bus came to pick us up, so we split up for a short while. I laid on a large rock that overlooked the beach and wrote in my journal. I remember thinking that there was no way I could capture my feelings at that moment through a camera, or even through a pen and paper. For the first time in a long time, I was completely at peace and entirely content. I looked out across the bright blue Mediterranean and observed my surroundings. God created beautiful beaches for a reason. I wish I could have stayed there on that rock for a very long time.

Hillary met us at the Trevi later on, and we spent the remainder of the evening eating at Baffetto (first and undoubtedly the greatest gnocchi experience of my life) and recounting the day's memorable events.

Saturday, 19 May 2012: Ciao, Roma!

The majority of the day was spent traveling back to London. Hillary had three free breakfast pastry vouchers from her hostel that she hadn't yet used, so we tried a few in the morning. It seemed to take us forever to get moving and be productive. Eventually we made our way to the train station to get tickets to the airport, but we ended up waiting in line for shuttle bus tickets because they were much cheaper. We were scheduled to visit the Borghese Gallery, Phil's (our program director's) favorite museum in London,  at 1:00pm, so we were quite pressed for time. To say the least, it was a trek hauling all of our bags to the Borghese on the other side of town. I didn't bring a big enough backpack to fit my clothes and belongings for travel week, so I was carrying a heavy sidebag that bruised my shoulder after only a few minutes of walking with it. But, after what seemed like hours, we made it to the museum. When we went to the ticket office to confirm our reservation and buy tickets, we were informed that the ticket prices had been increased and there were no student discounts. Between the high cost and the fact that we were only going to be able to spend about thirty minutes in the museum before we had to leave to catch our bus, KayCee and I opted out and began our walk/metro ride back to the bus station.

The Borghese... at least it's pretty from the outside.
Most of the girls in my group couldn't wait to come home to London. I love London, but I wasn't ready to leave Italy. There's something to be said for sunshine and friendly people--two things that I found in Rome. The language barrier was hardly a problem, and it was a great change in scenery. The city of London is cleaner, yes, there are definitely more opportunities for entertainment, and the transportation is surely more organized and reliable, but Rome was a nice breath of fresh (actually quite contaminated) air that I really needed. It taught me life-long lessons in just a few short days. I really hope to be able to return to Italy and explore several areas like Venice, Florence, Milan, Naples, etc. in the not-too-far-off future with the people I love. I sure enjoyed my time in Rome! It's a shame that I can't conclude this post with romantic Italian accordion music, but you can always pretend.

We'll miss Italia.
Ciao, Roma!

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