I'm about to take a large man who fears heights and small spaces on a 20 person plane from Budapest to Rome. Wish us luck! It's Thursday night and it's the first time either of us have traveled via one of these small inter-European airlines. They're very tricky. At first you think you're getting some kind of amazing deal, flying across multiple countries for 11 Euros, but wait, you haven't paid for your bag, or your seat, or the space above your head or below your feet. I'm exaggerating but that is pretty much how it works. By the time you tack on all the taxes and fees associated with your flight, those 11 Euros have multiplied into maybe 60-70 Euros. Still, not a bad deal, but an important travel lesson to learn. Budapest to Rome was our first stint that wasn't attainable by train. Bring on RyanAir Flight FR9417.
I had been to Rome once before, but not in many years and was eager to experience it as an adult, and not an uninterested adolescent being forced on amazing adventures with her family. This one would be quick though. We had to be in Sorrento by Saturday which only really gave us a day and a half to explore a city with an immense amount of history and culture.
When we landed in Rome, there were about 80 college students sitting on the floor of a very small room in the airport, seemingly waiting for whatever we were waiting for; the bus. The next one won't come for an hour so I get in line behind the other 10 people who are also waiting for the one employee to serve them some caffeine. When our bus arrives at the train station it's pretty run down, it's late at night and there are a lot of homeless people and beggers. As someone who started traveling back to Egypt alone at a very young age, I like to think that my intuition for dangerous situations is pretty spot on. So, this is the moment where my ears perk up, I hold on to my passport and wallet a little tighter and I'm very eager to figure out how to get home. We follow the crowd into the parking lot and are standing between a line of taxis and a bus depot. We walk around the train station quickly looking for a schedule, map or something to help guide us to our home for the night. At this point we've been traveling for most of the day, we're tired and we're hungry.
Brandon wants to get food, I want to get home, but we walk across the street and get some Shawarma for dinner. It's funny, only because through the course of this trip - whenever we've had a really hard time finding a place to eat, I've insisted we keep looking and somehow a Shawarma place has appeared out of the heavens like White Castle at the end of Harold and Kumar. Needless to say, I was not amused but agreed, because I wanted to get home. We get food relatively quickly and as we're walking across the street, we see a bus leaving the depot. We walk to it's sign to see when the next one will arrive and realize it's the last bus of the night...and we're stranded. Queue the first travel fight. My sister will attest to this, because we've traveled together before and because she's known me my whole life - if I am yelling at you at the top of my lungs and saying hurtful things, it's just an argument and I don't mean it, and in a few moments it will be over and the issue will be resolved. When you really need to worry, is when I've gone completely silent, not interested in working it out. This was, the quietest cab ride home, in the history of all cab rides.
Tomorrow is a new day.
Our stay in Rome was also pretty unique. We found a room in an apartment through airbnb, where a woman names Mirta hosted guests coming and going. She provided us with towels and hot water and tea, as most airbnb hosts did. But more importantly, she took the time to create a map/itinerary for her guests. On this small, fold-able paper was a city map, stating where the top 10 most visited attractions we're located, in comparison to us. And the schedules of the buses that would take us to each. Backpacking GOLD here people. We were very grateful.
We woke up very early, and went across the street to the Tabac store to buy some bus passes and we were off on our quickest adventure yet. First stop: Foro Romano. One of the favorite parts of this Euro trip was coming across places I had been with my family as a child. There is this unexplainable feeling, deep in your gut, triggered by familiarity in your surroundings that tells you you're getting close to a memory. Not as popular as the Colosseum (but located nearby), some say the Roman Forum is more interesting, and FREE! The Roman Forum is comprised of much of Ancient Rome's most important structures. The interesting part about Rome, much like Athens, is that the ruins are in the center of town. They have been preserved in small sections, and through the years, as industrialization has happened, the city has been build up around them.
After a quick mozzarella and tomato panini, we entered the Colosseum. We opted out of the tour because we were on our own schedule, but often ran into groups standing near by and listening in to catch some historical explanation of what we were witnessing. The massive stone amphitheater was commissioned around A.D. 70-72 by Emperor Vespasian as a gift to the Roman people. When it opened, officially known as a the Flavian Amphitheater, it hosted 100 days of games, including gladiatorial combats and animal fights. After four centuries of active use, the arena fell to neglect, and up until the 18th century it was used as a source of building materials. We walked up an down the maze of entries and exits, exploring each crevasse, and trying to make our way to higher ground to get some sweet touristy pictures for our instagrams. We used Brandon's height as a measure to show how large or small the doorways were. Small love locks and graffiti covering the walls throughout the ground floor. And as we both explored, we'd lose each other and end up running into a familiar face on the other side of a wall. After what seemed like hours of exploring, and hundreds of photos, we made a quick stop in the gift shop, posed with my dads favorite comic 'Asterix', bought out moms some post cards, and followed the crowd up a cobble stone hill. We didn't realize at the time but the Roma Pass we had purchased to enter the Colosseum also granted us access to Palatine Hill, one of seven hills of Rome, and one of the most ancient parts of the cities. It stands 40 meters above the Roman Forum, looking down upon it on one side and Circus Maximus on the other. The Palatine Hill is littered with ruins from ancient palaces and other buildings; among them the Palace of Domitian, House of Augustus, the Temple of Apollo and the Temple of Cybele. At the north-west end of the Palatine Hill are the ruins of the palace of Tiberius, one of the first botanical gardens in Europe. The garden was connected to the Roman Forum via several flights of stairs.
I wish I had a fit bit back then because we must have walked over 10 miles that day. After the Colosseum, we wanted to walk to the Pantheon. According to Google it's a 22 minute walk, about 1.8 km via dei Fori Imperiali. It even looks like a pretty straight line on the map, but I guess that is if you have internet, a smart phone, and straight streets, all of which we were lacking. So, after a very squiggly, round about, way of walking in the completely wrong direction, and a pit stop for the piatto del giorno, and some white wine at Pasta e Pizza, we stumbled into Piazza Navona. Not at all the landmark we were looking for, or thought we were walking towards, but Hey! it was gorgeous. The most important part of traveling is being nimble and adaptive to change. So, we adapted, we walked through the square, admired the fountains, took photos under the piazza signs and even chased a pigeon or two, all while dodging the men aggressively selling selfie sticks and fake Gucci bags. Piazza Navona is built on the site of the Stadium of Domitian, built in the 1st century AD, it houses the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (fountain of the four rivers) with an Egyptian obelisk in the center. Naturally, I felt right at home.
Knowing that our map was pretty useless at this point, we attempted to follow the signage on the buildings and the people in the street. And we finally found the Pantheon. Being lost, on a hot day, with a pretty bad cold makes for high temperament and exaggerated emotions. Brandon and I had had quite enough of each other at this point, we're tired of being lost, and we're too hot to have a rash conversation. When we reached the Pantheon, we went our separate ways and explored the area on our own.
Initially, I wanted to take this trip alone. 72 days of solo travel, planning and exploring and learning, on my own. I thought it would teach me something about myself that I didn't already know, challenge me in some way, help me to grow and be more self-aware. What I didn't account for, was that traveling with another human being, even your best friend in the entire world, is equally, if not more challenging. You're not just responsible for yourself, you're responsible for another person. The only person in fact, in the entire country, that knows your whereabouts, what your face looks like, and is conscious of your feelings at the time. That is a lot of pressure, and a lot to ask of someone. More often than not, I think I took this for granted. On this day especially, where I actually had to separate myself from my travel partner, I became very aware of how enjoyable it was to have him around. I really loved having someone to share all of these new experiences with, someone to reminisce about the memories with later.
As a sat in the pews of the Pantheon, I closed my eyes and I prayed. I'm definitely not a very religious person, but as a child I traveled a lot with my grandma, one of the most intelligent people that I know, and she taught me that every time you entered a new church, you should bow down onto one knee, touch your forehead and both shoulders in the name of 'le père le fils et le saint d'esprit', and that with your prayer you're allowed one wish. If my grandma said it, it must be true. So I sat, and I prayed, and I used my one wish - please let me find my travel partner, and find my way home.
We did find each other, and although most of our afternoon would be spent still in the heat, lost, wandering around - the moments I will remember about this day are definitely the resolutions over the arguments. I really wanted to see the Fontana di Trevi. I remembered it from my trip back in 2007 and it's grand allure, and I was eager to show Brandon one of my favorite parts of Rome. We were so close to it, we walked and walked and walked, went back and forth through small streets, stumbled upon a marketplace where I bought myself a nice ring, and a snack. And still, we couldn't find it. We walked for what seemed like hours, miles, and around monuments I was sure were not at all important or what we were looking for. Finally we walked through a small alley, stopped to make up over a cup of Gelato (the man knows the way to my heart is through my stomach) and down a large stair case, there it was. La Fontana di Trevi! or Trevi Fountain was designed by Italian architect Nicola Salvi, its the largest Baroque fountain in the city and one of the most famous fountains in the world. Unfortunately, on this particular day, it was under construction, completed draped off and unattainable by the public. The city had built a bridge you could traverse to see a small portion of it that had not yet been covered, and there were thousands of people in line to see that small square. Welp, ya win some you lose some. On to the next.
We had a wonderful Italian dinner together. Prosciutto pizza, a calzone, beer, limoncello and a small patio overlooking the moon. Our waiter made a nice joke about us needing a table for 3 because Brandon was going to eat enough for two, and we countered asking if he was planning to join us. We passed by a few bars, thought about partying, but since I was still pretty sick, we headed home to rest up for our day at the Vatican.
Our train to Naples wasn't until 4:30pm so we had one more morning to explore Rome. Feeling like we had the bus system down to a science, we hit the tabac store, bought a pack of tickets to last us the rest of the day and headed towards the Vatican feeling like we could take on the world. Two buses later, we were stranded on a tall hill, with gorgeous views of the city, but at what seemed the be the end of the line and the only buses that were coming past us, we're headed in the direction we came from. Shucks. Don't panic, don't panic. Take some photos from this epic lookout, and start walking. We finally got on the right bus and we're dropped off just outside the Vatican city walls. Ah, something familiar. I remembered from my previous trip that all the fountains in the street had clean water coming from within the Vatican so we drank, cleaned our hands and walked through quiet streets up into the Vatican City. Absolute chaos.
Brandon, hold my hand, I'm serious. Get a sandwich, we have to get inside. Cross the street, don't get hit. Watch out for that bus! Vatican City, officially the Vatican City State is a walled in enclave within the city of Rome. With an area of approximately 110 acres, and a population of 842, it is the smallest internationally recognized independent state in the world by both area and population.
I entered Saint Peter's Square feeling pretty confident, since I had been before and even knew a bit of the history behind it. I showed Brandon the Obelisk in the center of the square and even made him stand on the dials
on the ground where all of the 4 rows of columns around the square magically form into one line. Ha! So cool. I know things. My confidence quickly dwindled after we saw the line to get in, and once we reached the front of it, the security guard told me I wouldn't be able to enter because I was wearing shorts.
Really Stephanie? Shorts, on the day you're entering the Vatican. This isn't your first Rodeo, it's not your first time traveling, it's not even your first time in this particular tourist attraction. The ultimate rookie move. As I bowed my head in defeat, and forcefully convinced Brandon that he should still go in, because it's an incredible thing to see and because I've been it before, I turned around and started walking back to the Obelisk where we planned to meet a couple hours later. As I was about half way there, a gentleman approached me and just as I prepared to shoo him away, he offered me a silk scarf for 5 Euros. Did I need a silk scarf for 5 Euros? Absolutely not, but could I use this scarf as a makeshift maxi skirt and swindle my way back into the Basilica? Now, we're talking.
After a few rounds of statues and some epic stained glass in Saint Peter's Basilica, I spotted the only 6'5 Jamaican in the place, and scurried up behind him in an effort to scare the crap out of him as he wondered who in Rome could be poking his butt. It's just me, B. Don't worry. We toured the Basilica together, fascinated by all the painted ceilings and lifelike statues. Designed by Donato Bramante, Michaelangelo, Carlo Maderno, and Gian Lorenzo Bernini, St. Peter's is the most renowned work of Renaissance architecture, and remains one of the two largest churches in the world. Now, I will admit, reluctantly, that for the majority of the time we were in Saint Peter's Basilica, we we're wondering if we were in the Sistine Chapel. Dang tourists.
As we exited the Basilica, we decided to see what the other extremely long lines were leading to, and one in particular caught my eye, as I remembered standing in it last time I was there but turning back after 3 hours of not moving. We determined it was the line for the St. Peters Dome, designed by Michaelangelo. Please, oh please Brandon. Can we? We checked our timing and decided to try and make it, little did we know what we were in for. We climbed what seemed like a million stairs, as my "skirt" flailed behind me, we lapped tourist after tourist as we we're in a rush, and they were slow. Brandon crouched through doorways that were too small, stairways that were too tight, and as we got higher, it got hotter. Finally, we entered the Dome, and it was 100% worth it. The frescos on the wall were unlike anything I've ever seen. We could see down into the portion of the basilica that we had explored earlier and it all became a little more real. It was gorgeous. We exited onto the roof and realized there was more to be seen. You could climb around the top of the dome to a much smaller dome, and see views of all of Vatican City, hell, all of rome. Although I knew he was scared, of the height and of the small spaces and I was too at this point, Brandon agreed to the adventure and we continued onward and upward. We got stuck behind crowds of people all headed to the same small place, through the same small stairwells, and we all suffered, together. Don't panic, don't panic. It's almost over. It wasn't, but we didn't know that, sometimes ignorance really is bliss. We finally made it to the top, took a huge deep breath of air, and took some epic photos of the views in front of us and all was right in the world.