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When in Rome: An Absolutely-Non-Comprehensive Visitor’s Guide to the Eternal City
By Kate Bailward | On 27 May, 2014
If you decide to teach English in Italy, one thing’s for certain — you’ll be spoiled with all the public holidays there are on offer.
As an officially secular-but-to-all-intents-and-purposes-Roman-Catholic country, there are more saints’ days than you can shake a stick at. Plus, there’s Good Friday, Pasquetta (‘Little Easter,’ a.k.a. Easter Monday), Festa della Liberazione (April 25th), International Worker’s Day (May 1st), Festa della Repubblica (June 2nd) and Ferragosto (August 15th).
Oh, and don’t forget ‘il ponte’ (the bridge). This is the term the Italians use to describe taking an extra day one side or the other of a public holiday to extend it to or from a weekend. When a holiday falls on a Wednesday, they’re in heaven – I remember a group of adult students explaining the concept of ‘il ponte’ to me the first time I encountered it, their eyes glittering as they whooped with glee. “The holiday’s on Wednesday. That means a DOUBLE BRIDGE, Kate!”
If you start a school year in October, one of the first holidays that you’re likely to encounter is Annunciation, which falls on December 8th. For me, it couldn’t have come at a more opportune moment in my first year here.
I’d been in Italy a little over two months, I still spoke barely any Italian, and I was, to put it bluntly, miserable. Christmas was still almost a month away, so when I cottoned on to the fact that there was a bonus holiday coming up, I grabbed the opportunity with both hands and booked a return bus ticket to Rome: a city I’d never been to before…in winter…alone.
I loved it.
I’ve been back to Rome a fair few times since that first visit, but nothing quite compares to the wonder of discovering a city for the first time. Going in winter was a happy accident; I’ve realised on subsequent visits that Rome in summer can be stiflingly hot. In December, though, the air was fresh and I could walk around the city without having to do battle with the numbers of tourists that appear in the warmer months.
On that note, I walked everywhere. Negotiating public transport when you don’t speak the language is always a minefield, but the central area of Rome is compact enough that you can see the main sights without ever having to get on a crowded bus or metro. Just remember to wear a good, stout pair of walking shoes that won’t give you blisters.
In the past, I’ve stayed at The Beehive, which I would recommend to anyone looking for good-quality budget accommodation. It’s a short walk from Termini, Rome’s central train station, and if you’re there in summer, their secure courtyard garden is a little well of peace and tranquillity. The food that comes out of their café is delicious, and when it comes to rooms, they have both dorms and private apartments, so pick which suits you best. Do book well in advance, though, as they’re (justifiably!) always busy.
I didn’t discover The Beehive until later, though. The first time I went to Rome, I arrived on an overnight bus from Puglia, getting into Tiburtina station at about 6 am. From there, I hopped on a train to Termini – and thus started my Roman adventure. On that occasion, I was staying in a hostel called Orsa Maggiore, in Trastevere. As a part of the International Women’s House, it’s set in what used to be a 17th century convent, is blissfully peaceful, and is within walking distance of everything central. Add to this the fact that Trastevere is one of the prettiest, most welcoming zones of central Rome and you’re onto an absolute winner. If you’re a solo female traveller (it’s women only), I can’t recommend it highly enough.
As I left Termini, the sun was up, though hardly any people were. I wandered through deserted streets, sunglasses protecting me against the early-morning December sunshine, wearing a smile as wide as the Tiber on my face. Before the general populus of Rome had started to stir, I’d been bowled over by the majestic frontage of the Quirinale, pottered through the winding streets of the Ghetto, had a wander along the river and was at my hostel in its leafy courtyard in Trastevere. The previous incumbent of my bed in the hostel hadn’t got up yet, but the receptionist showed me to the showers, locked up my bag in the suitcase room and gave me local breakfast recommendations.
I was in heaven.
A short hike up to the top of the Gianicolo, and I was breathless for more reasons than just the steepness of the climb. It takes a lot of beating to look out across the whole city on a clear, sunny morning. It’s a job that the Eternal City is more than up to, however.
Another excellent reason for walking, rather than taking the Metro or buses, is that you can hardly turn a corner in Rome without falling over yet more wonderful sights and curiosities. Discovering the Pantheon by mistake, approaching from the back, rather than from Piazza della Rotonda, was wonderful. As I walked towards this enormous, as-yet-unidentified building I wondered about the tiny bricks that had been used to build it, and marveled at how long it must have taken. Seeing the mundane parts first – which aren’t intended to be impressive – made the eventual reveal of its huge columns and famous oculum, with bright sunlight pouring through it, even more spectacular than it might otherwise have been. It’s just possible that I got a little bit overwhelmed when I finally went inside, and could be seen by anyone who cared to notice wiping away tears of lump-throated emotion with an open-mouthed look of wonder on my face. However, this is the internet age so, y’know…if there are no photos, it didn’t happen. Ahem.
The rest of my weekend in Rome passed in a haze of happy wandering, heading out to eat with my hostel roommates in the evenings, and discovering Rome in all its ancient, shabby, overly-touristic-and-yet-still-magical beauty during the day. Like millions of others before me, I discovered that the Trevi Fountain, far from being the enormous, gleaming edifice that you expect from the photos, is in a tiny piazza, constantly rammed with people.
It doesn’t matter. Get yourself a gelato, stand in the shade at the back of the piazza, and drink in the details of the marble figures that stand in constant watch over the water. The more you look, the more there is to see: a rolling equine eye paired with bared teeth and a tossing mane make a horse come to life right in front of you; a proud Roman nose under imperious eyes seems as immediate as your own – or, indeed, any of the hundreds of other people’s milling around you.
If you want to brave the crowds and throw your coins into the fountain, be aware that there’s a right and a wrong way to do it (I confess: I’ve not tried either method). If you do want to, however, you should hold your coin(s) in your right hand and stand with your back to the fountain, throwing your money over your left shoulder into the water. One coin means you’ll come back to Rome, two means you’ll come back and fall in love, and three means you’ll be back, you’ll fall in love and you’ll get married.
Choose your weapons wisely. Roma ti aspetta …
If you’re planning to go, here are some tips for exploring the Eternal City…
Getting to Rome:
- By plane to either Fiumicino or Ciampino airports. From there, take one of the Terravision airport shuttle buses, which will drop you next to Termini.
- Top tip: the buses are cheaper if you book seats online in advance.
- By train to Termini Station.
- By coach to Tiburtina station. From there, pick up the Metro to the center.
Recommended places to stay in Rome:
- Ostello Orso Maggiore (women only): http://www.foresteriaorsa.altervista.org/foresteria_uk.htm
- The Beehive: http://www.the-beehive.com/
Useful links and websites:
- General Rome guide: http://www.gogobot.com/rome
- Cheap eats guide: http://budgettraveller.org/cheap-eats-guide-rome/
- General food guide: http://www.parlafood.com/
- Driving Like a Maniac – Roman Holiday: http://www.katebailward.com/drivinglikeamaniac/2009/12/roman-holiday/
- Driving Like a Maniac – Three Coins in the Fountain: http://www.katebailward.com/drivinglikeamaniac/2009/12/three-coins-in-the-fountain/
- Driving Like a Maniac – Caecilius est in Colosseo: http://www.katebailward.com/drivinglikeamaniac/2009/12/caecilius-est-in-colosseo/
- Keane Li’s travel posts about the best pizza and gelato spots in the Rome: http://keane.li/category/keane-in-rome/
How about you, readers? Have you been to Rome? Got any tips to add?
Kate started teaching ESL in 2009, after giving up her career as an actor. She was originally headed for Argentina, but instead ended up in Puglia, southern Italy, with no friends, no idea how to speak Italian and only a hazy clue of how to teach. Four years later – and now in Sicily – she has many Italian friends, lots of teaching experience and a blog: Driving Like a Maniac.
Latest posts by Kate Bailward (see all)
- Why I Love Being a Cambridge Speaking Examiner - February 11, 2015
- Easter Break Backpacking in Florence (Without Breaking the Bank) - July 9, 2014
- When in Rome: An Absolutely-Non-Comprehensive Visitor’s Guide to the Eternal City - May 27, 2014