Of all the trips that I’ve done so far this term, Rome was probably the most overwhelming. I did the most planning with this trip but I felt the most unprepared this time around, oddly enough. There is just so much to the city. There are 900 churches, more restaurants with adorable patios than I could have ever imagined, and every corner that I turned, there was an alleyway to be explored. Absolutely insane. I only had about 48 hours in Rome and honestly, I feel like I barely dented the surface of what the city has to offer. All the more reason to go back!
9:30 AM: Vatican Museums/Sistine Chapel
1:30 PM: Zia Rilla for Lunch
3:00 PM: St. Peter’s Basilica
4:30 PM: Pantheon
6:00 PM: Mamù for Dinner
8:00 PM: Gelato
9:00 AM: Roman Forum and Colosseum
1:00 PM: Trattoria Da Lucia for Lunch
3:30 PM: Chiesa de Santa Maria della Vittoria
4:30 PM: Trevi Fountain
5:00 PM: Shopping and Exploring
9:30 PM: Tonnarello Rome
4/900 Churches Down…896 to go…
My trip started with four hours in Vatican City. Victoria and I chose to do the audio tour and honestly, if you choose to do one as well, prepare yourself. It is a LOT. The whole time that I was walking through the museums, I felt the intense need to just sit down and absorb. There were Egyptian mummies, Etruscan artifacts, Roman statues, and then the casual School of Athens right next to other frescoes by Raphael and oh yeah Michaelangelo’s Last Judgement and don’t forget Pieta either. Each piece of art has a unique story that’s told through this audio tour, so it felt like a classroom at times but an interesting one!
The best part of the audio tour was that it was self-lead, meaning that I could take as much time as I want on the tapestries and breeze past the things that I am less interested in. Tapestry is amongst my favorite forms of art. The intricacy of the whole process and the sheer size of the artwork never fails to boggle my mind and pique my curiosity. For example, I stared at this tapestry for a solid 10 minutes as I tried to figure out how they were able to make the fabric actually shine. Lucky for me, there was an entire hall of Raffaello’s tapestries, 10 total to be exact. I was in heaven!
Another wonderful part of the Vatican museums is that everywhere you look, there’s art. It might be through the structure of the buildings, the frescoes (that are everywhere) or the exhibits themselves. In the 513 years since the museums were first established in 1506, popes tirelessly worked to acquire valuable pieces of religious art, to commission artists into creating unique Christian works and to compile all of these into a space where people from all over the world to marvel at. Catholic or not, I have an immense amount of respect for those that made the trip possible and worthwhile.
It was in this city that I wished the most for a DSLR. I have a barely functioning iPhone 7, so it was quite difficult to maximize the photo opportunities in the museums. My creative outlet has always been through writing, but I’m growing to love photography as well. It’s really easy to be inspired when you’re surrounded by such good photographers (like my roommate). My favorite part of taking pictures has to be the editing though. It’s incredible what a few changes in structure or tint can do.
In high school, I took an Art History course that served as the catalyst for my interest in the subject. Since then, my memory has done me dirty and I’ve forgotten most of it, so I was surprised when I saw Raphael’s School of Athens casually when I turned a corner. I remember spending an entire 50 minute class period talking about each and every philosopher, mathematician and scientist featured in the work. I wish I remembered. I joke about how I think there’s something wrong with my hippocampus all the time but it was in the Vatican that I was most frustrated with my incapability to recall certain details.
I walked through the museums with my friend Victoria and when we got the Sistine Chapel, I felt even more shame when she asked about the art. I realized that all my work in my Art History class really did go down the drain as soon as I graduated high school. Whereas before I could do an accurate analysis of The Last Judgement, from the flayed skin of Michelangelo to the distinction between the elect and the damned, I could barely point out the wingless angels when I sat in front of the fresco in its flesh.
When we entered the Chapel, we were asked to observe absolute silence and to not take pictures. It made me happy that at least most people observed the latter. Occasionally though, the volume in the room would slowly rise and the security guards had to request over a speaker for silence again. Victoria and I sat and just soaked it in. There’s a certain air in a building with so much history that cannot be explained. Even if you aren’t religious, I think it’s difficult to not feel emotional being in a chapel of such beauty.
After spending almost 20 minutes sitting in the Chapel and hours walking through the 54 exhibits in the Vatican museum, we were thankful to finally be able to rest our eyes and minds for a bit. Thankfully, Vatican City is not only beautiful inside the museums but also outside. The square in front of St. Peter’s Basilica served as the perfect photo opportunity. On Saturday, the weather was all blue skies with a slight breeze. 60 degrees may be winter in California but compared to Scottish winter so far, it’s summer! I seized the opportunity to wear a summer dress. (I covered my shoulders with a sweater when I was inside the buildings though, don’t worry).
At one of the churches that we ducked into while we were exploring on Sunday, we took a bit of time to rest our feet and listen to the Mass that the priest was giving. We chose a pew closer to the back as to not disturb the people actually attending the Mass but then I saw a dog. Yes, a dog. In a pink sweater. The owners, who were sitting in the pew in front of us, were diligently listening, unaware that I was now ferociously petting their dog. Mass pushed to the back of my mind, I focused on making sure that the dog knew I love it more than anything in the world. Deciding that if I pet it anymore that I would never leave, I stopped. Then, the dog decided to sneeze and strain against her leash, i= an effort to get back to my ferocious petting. Say no more, cute dog! This back and forth went on for another couple of minutes before her owner scooped her up in her arms and away from my love. I felt the parting like a stab in the gut.
Pizza? Pasta? Wine? Gelato? All Four?
My first meal in Rome was at Zia Rilla, a hole in the wall restaurant that we walked past multiple times before we found. My first impression of restaurants, especially if we are in a country that does not primarily speak English, is whether or not I can understand the conversation around me. When we walked in, I heard nothing but Italian, smelled nothing but butter, and saw a brimming rack of wine. Just how I like it! I don’t think that you can ever have bad pasta, but I think when you have really really good pasta, it’s life-changing. This was really really good pasta.
At this point in the trip, I was still ordering just a glass of wine instead of a bottle. Because of that, the only options available were a red wine or a white wine variety that I’d never heard of before, gewurztraminer. (I know. Try saying that three times in a row) Because I was eating seafood, I decided to go with the white wine and to my surprise, it was the best glass of wine that I’d ever had. I’m not sure if this is a good thing but I’m learning more and more about which alcohol my taste buds and my body enjoy. Tequila and Vodka? Never. Pinot Griogio and Gewurztraminer? 10/10 a good time.
We decided to alternate between pasta and pizza for each meal but honestly, we should have stuck with just pasta. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m not one for fancy pizza. I like my pizza on a paper plate from Costco. It doesn’t mean that the pizza in Italy wasn’t good! It just means that maybe the pasta would have been better. This may look like a standard margherita pizza but apparently, this mozzarella is Buffalo Mozzarella, from the Italian region of Campania, which is supposed to make it better. I wish I could say that I could taste the difference but cheese just makes me happy no matter what.
Our second meal at Mamú was at an adorable patio with twinkling lights. What started off as a wonderful idea to sit outside took a turn for the worst. It started to lightly sprinkle, but since we were under a covered patio, we didn’t fully comprehend why people were suddenly starting to walk faster or why someone was now suddenly standing on the corner of the street in a poncho selling umbrellas. Then. It started. The torrential rain that threatened to topple over street signs, created puddles that you could drown in and turned romantic dates into well…unromantic dates. We tried to wait it out but the rain just kept coming down. Even in Scotland, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it rain so hard. (is that statement going to bite me in the butt later?) Thankfully though, we caught a break and the rain let up just a bit so that we could grab some gelato and then head home.
Trattoria Da Lucia had to be my favorite meal in Rome. We turned down alleyway after alleyway until we stumbled upon this gem. Similar to Zia Rilla, we heard nothing but Italian around us. The ceiling was adorned with swinging cloves of garlic and rows of kettles and pans. Pictures of family members and formers owners hung on the walls, making me feel like I was walking into someone’s home more than a restaurant. My favorite part was that there was wine everywhere. On the table, on top of the shelves, in the cabinet by the doorway – so much wine! We ordered a bottle for the table for only 15 euro. Oh how I love Italy. The pasta was amazing as always. Because the options were limited, I ended up ordering one with red meat (oxtail to be exact) and it was absolutely divine.
The last night in Rome, Becs and I decided to go to Tonnarello, which has more than 10,000 reviews on Google! Even at 9:30PM, there was a line out the door! In the alleyways on the way to the restaurant, there were several tables outside with piles of handmade jewelry and enthusiastic vendors, happy to make a sale or simply to have a good conversation. Groups of friends, old and young, stood in clusters around the restaurant, taking their time and enjoying the night air in Rome. I don’t know if I’m just seeing the tourist side of things but if this is how Italians truly live, I think I need to move to Italy permanently. Living in California, I constantly feel time’s presence in my life. I never have enough time, I need more time, time time time time but in Italy, time is an afterthought. It was always about living in the moment and what a breath of fresh air that thought is.
On one hand, I wish that I was more adventurous with the flavors of gelato that I tried but on the other hand, I like what I like! So that means there was a lot of caramel, coffee and matcha flavored gelato action. See below for a picture of the oh-so-photogenic gelato that was served at the shop right near our airbnb! I’m not a big dessert person, so I didn’t try any cannolis or anything but I think I made up for it with how much gelato I consumed.
So what else is in Rome?
What really ate at me in Rome was that I only had 48 hours. There was so much on our agenda that we wanted to do but as I was walking around Rome, I had the sudden urge to just throw all of those plans away and wander. When I was talking to a friend in Glasgow a few weeks ago, she mentioned that even though she’s lived in the city for three years, she’d never been to the Kelvingrove Art Gallery, which is arguably Glasgow’s biggest attraction. I asked her if she felt like she was missing out by not going and what she responded with really struck me. Experiencing a city isn’t just checking off the attractions when you google “things to do in ____”. I’ll be the first to admit it, but it’s the first thing I do when I plan an itinerary. It’s always exciting to see the pictures on postcards in person but I can’t help but think about whether or not I’m really experiencing a city if my experience is the same as every other tourist. Food for thought, I guess.
Between churches and pasta, we made time for a few other stops! One of them was the Trevi Fountain. I knew it was big but I didn’t think it was that big! I’ve probably seen more grandiose fountains in Las Vegas, but I felt so much more inspired when I saw this work of art by Nicola Salvi. In one of my favorite classes in uni so far, Rhetoric in Writing, I learned about the concept of exigence. It’s a mixture between purpose, inciting event and symbolism but at the same time, something completely different. I found so much exigence in Rome that it overwhelmed me. These artists actually had something to say. Their message is so valuable that people from all over the world travel to listen and learn about it. I wonder what my message to the world would be.
What boggles my mind is that all of these important buildings that are hundreds of years old are just in the middle of the city. For example, I was walking past pizza restaurants and shoe stores one minute and then a turn of a corner later, the Pantheon is standing in front of me. What’s also strange is that you can just come and go from this building freely! When we got there, we just sauntered right in. A fun fact about the Pantheon is that it is the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. How the weight is supported when there’s a HOLE in the ceiling goes over my head. Another fun fact is that during the Summer Solstice, the sun shines through the Oculus at an angle where the light points directly at the entrance of the building. How cool!
On Sunday, we woke up bright and early and headed to the Colosseum and Roman Forum. Again, the weight of history is so incredibly heavy. 70 AD. I find it hard to wrap my mind around the fact that something built around that time is still standing today. Albeit damaged, but standing! In much of the museums that we go to, there’s usually a limit to how close you can get to the art or exhibit. At the Colosseum, I could run my hand along the stone walls. I climbed the same stairs that spectators would have climbed. It may not be a singular experience but what a special experience nonetheless.
When we got past security and were at the first viewing platform, I heard the first Vietnamese speaker since I’ve left home. A surge of emotion had me do a double take. The familiar cadence of the words was something that I didn’t know that I needed. I wish that I would have had the courage to join in and speak with the tour group because I forget how much I love speaking in my native language. Facetiming with my mom and family keeps me in practice but I want to speak it even more. I want to make conversation at the supermarkets, order food at restaurants, and banter with my friends. So much of my connection to my culture is through language, something I hope that I never lose.
Looking at these pictures, you might have done a double take. Wait. Is that girl wearing…heels? Yes. I had no choice but to wear 4 inch heels. (I originally thought they were 3 inches but measured them when I got home and they’re 10cm, which is 4 inches…) So why in the world did you have to wear heels around the cobbled streets of Rome you might ask? I was planning to wear my mules for the weekend, but due to the torrential rain on Saturday night, my mules were soaking wet and it was not appealing to wade through puddles with flat fabric shoes on Sunday. So I figured that my leather heels would be a better option, and they were! Proud to say that I survived 11 miles in 4 inch heels around Rome. My feet were a bit sore by the end of the night but it felt much better than wet fabric flats would have felt. The rain also put a damper lovely outfit I had planned (floor length flowy skirt doesn’t really suit the rain now does it?), but at least the rain didn’t stop our adventures!
One of my biggest disappointments about Rome was the shopping. I went on this trip with only half a suitcase filled and the intention of filling the other half. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or not that I didn’t fill the other half. Everyone talks about how Italy is one of the best shopping destinations in the world but I truly found it hard to find something to buy!
Wandering around the city, I popped into more leather shops than I’d like to admit, hoping to find the one purse that I would be able to justify splurging on. With each store, I found that all the leather was dubbed to be “genuine Italian leather”. Maybe it was genuine! However, after the first three stores had the exactly same purses on display, I grew tired on my search. Is it too much to ask to find a cute boutique shop in the middle of tourist-y Rome with a uniquely designed genuine leather at the right price point? A bit? Okay then. I did, however, find a wonderful mixture between a coat and a cardigan that is perfect for California winters! I’m sure that other cities like Florence or Milan are probably better for the type of shopping that I’m looking for though.
Traveling around Europe has made the ability to figure out public transportation a necessary skill. One of the things that frustrates me the most about public transportation is that you aren’t ever in control of it. The schedule may say that the bus will be there at 12:15PM, and you might be there on time, but traffic or delays can make the bus late and then you’re left there on the side of the street waiting for 16 extra minutes when you’re tired and hungry and your feet are soaking wet from the rain. (can verify: it sucks). There’s been so many times when I’ve sat in a taxi or a bus where I’ve wished to just be in the driver’s seat again. I wish I had my car with my comfortable seat cushion, my finicky bluetooth speakers, my crooked steering wheel leather cover – I miss everything about it. I can’t imagine having to depend on public transportation to go to work in the mornings. I’m blessed to say the least.
The Ecstasy of St. Teresa is one of my favorite art pieces of all time. Bernini’s sculpture in Santa Maria della Vittoria is just the perfect amount of extra. The drama, the sensuality, the grandeur – Baroque art is my cup of tea. I’m still in shock that I was able to see the sculpture in person. I could never have imagined it in my wildest dream three years ago when I took the class. The art pieces that I learned about were always so distant but then before I knew it, I was on an airplane to see them in the flesh. I guess that’s how life keeps you on your toes.
One of my favorite movies is Roman Holiday. I suppose it’s quite a common dream to be swept away by someone like Gregory Peck but next time in Rome, I’m making it a point to try to recreate this picture! How iconic it would be! Counting down the minutes until I get to stroll down your cobbled streets again, Roma!