Looking down at our “map” (phone), we’re walking in the direction of a large, green square in the city center, hoping to find a park to lay down a blanket for our first picnic (of many, it turns out) in Italy. We walk quickly up Quirinal Hill, comparing the incline to that of Mason or Taylor Street in San Francisco (a common conversation on the way up a steep hill) until we reach the top of the highest of Rome’s seven hills. Looking around for the green square, we soon realize that the park is actually a huge garden tucked safely within the walls of the Palazzo del Quirinale, a 27 acre complex that serves as one of the three homes of Italy’s President. (We later learn that the palace, which is 25 times the size of the White House, has also been home to 30 Popes, four kings, and 12 presidents). While there is no park, there is a beautiful piazza, and an incredible view of the city. We’ve learned that the perfect spot isn’t always what we originally envision and agree that in this moment, our first night in Europe, this is where we’re meant to be. We lay our blanket on the palace stairs, pull out our homemade caprese sandwiches (fresh mozzarella, basil, tomatoes, olive oil and a pinch of sea salt on fresh baked ciabatta), and open our 2 euro bottle of wine. As the sun starts to set beyond the Vatican, the tiled rooftops of Rome turn pink. It’s the perfect welcome to Italy and we end up sitting on the stairs drinking wine until dark, before heading down to Trevi fountain for two scoops of gelato.
Ah, Roma. The “eternal city,” the capital of Italy, home to over 2.6 million people and one of the most concentrated areas of ancient ruins in the world, all nestled within the bustling Centro Storico. Rome has everything you think of when you think Italy - grand piazzas, incredible food, beautiful fountains, narrow streets, large cypress trees and a gelateria or coffee bar on every corner. As one of the most visited cities in the world (7-10 million people visit each year), taking a selfie in front of the Colosseum or tossing a Euro into the Trevi fountain tops many people’s bucket lists.
We’re visiting Rome in July, and it’s hot. After three months of Southeast Asian humidity, we expect the dry heat of Italy’s mediterranean climate to be a breeze. But there’s no breeze in Rome, and the daily 95-100 degree temps radiate off the city’s ancient stone. We run from one shade square to the next, eat a ridiculous amount of gelato, granitas, and fill up our water bottles at every fountain we see (relishing the luxury of having cold, clean drinking water so accessible).
Our AirBnB apartment is about 20 minutes outside of the center in a local neighborhood called Torpignattara (about a 15 minute walk from the local hipster neighborhood Pigneto). The neighborhood is multicultural, “eclectic,” and entirely local. We channel our inner Roman and get into the Italian routine; each morning waking up and heading to the corner for cappuccinos at the local panetteria and coffee bar. It’s trial by error selecting bread for picnic sandwiches - English isn’t as prevalent in our hood - and we sit on the street amongst a group of old Italians in a cloud of smoke sipping our coffee. On most days we take the tram into the city center, getting lost in the web of tourist-filled streets. A few days we stick closer to home, exploring the local neighborhoods that surround Rome.
It’s easy to see the sights of Rome, even without seeking them out. And that’s the magic of this place - the beauty is in the form of a surprise attack. Around every street corner, a classic building or ancient ruin pops up out of nowhere. Still, there are downfalls to being the ninth most visited city in the world. At the center, the crowds are thick, everything is overpriced, and the experience feels less than authentic. On our third day, we make the typical tourist mistake of bringing our cappuccinos to an outside table (like we do in our neighborhood) only to be shuffled back inside and told that the prices outside are different (inflated) for table service. It’s the afternoon and we know that ordering our caps after 10am is already a faux paux, but it’s one we’re willing to make in exchange for this perfect Italian creation.
Our time in Rome is nothing spectacular and spectacular all the same. We walk and walk, and ...walk. We people watch. And every single day, we drink coffee, picnic, eat gelato and drink wine. Life is good here, and it feels like a well-deserved respite after the lost in translation experience of much of Southeast Asia. On our last day, we pick up our little red Fiat Panda, which we will drive north, slowly making our way to Italy’s lake region (with stops in Tuscany [Montepulciano, Siena, Chianti], Bologna, Modena, and Parma along the way). We completely acknowledge the fact that this - the next few weeks in our grand adventure - is a vacation that many people dream about. And you better believe that we’re relishing every second.