When in Rome...
For years I have dreamt of going to Rome. I must admit; my fascination for the city heightened after reading the book Eat, Pray, Love. The way the city was described in the book, as this food haven with a beautiful culture that appreciated history, art and the simple things in life, made me fall in love. This year, I finally got a chance to visit the city of my dreams with my husband and it was awesome!
We went to Rome in the first week of December, just about when autumn was ending. Some online research revealed that the weather would be quite chilly so we prepared with winter wear accordingly. While we were in Rome, I joked with my husband that I was a walking Uniqlo ad; head to toe I wore Uniqlo thermal wear from my winter cap all the way down to my thermal socks. No regrets as they kept us nice and warm even on the coldest days of our stay. We booked our flight tickets well in advance and I had looked forward to our trip all year long. Finally, the day arrived to board our Qatar Airways flight to Rome, yay! This was my first long distance flight and although it was comfortable and we were well fed, entertained and kept well hydrated, I still got very restless towards the end. Nonetheless, we landed in Rome safely, cleared security checks, collected our luggage and made our way to the hotel.
Once we were done gawking at the Pantheon, we proceeded to check into the hotel. Our room was comfortable; it was equipped with all the necessities including space and water heaters plus a safe to keep our valuables, well, safe. We unpacked, put on our winter wear and headed out to explore the streets of Rome. We visited a few pizzerias along the way, their display cases full of assorted pizzas that we can buy by the slice. I was like a child in a candy store; so many pizzas of different colors and toppings, I wanted to have them all! The highlight of the night was a chicken pizza that was deliciously spicy and dotted with generous chunks of chicken. My mouth is salivating just thinking about it again!
There's one thing you should know about me; I'm incredibly paranoid. I often picture a future event and run through all the possible worst-case scenarios in my head. Prior to leaving for Rome, we were warned to be cautious of pickpockets and scammers. The idea of losing our belongings, including our passports and money, in a foreign country made me extremely anxious. So I borrowed my dad's anti-theft bag which is what I'm carrying around in most of the pictures you see. This is a small sling bag with a concealed zipper that makes it very difficult for anyone to access the items inside. It was difficult even for me to access my things with my winter gloves on but it was an inconvenience I was willing to put up with. I kept my phone, tissues, tickets for all our visits and power bank in the bag. I would wear the bag such that the pouch was at my front and in view at all times. The bag gave me great peace of mind, I can't even tell you!
Another thing we realised we had to do before the trip based on our research was to buy the tickets to attractions we wanted to visit online. This isn't a must but it definitely helps to beat the long queues you may face to buy tickets on-site. This was especially the case when we visited the Vatican Museums. We bought entrance tickets online and were able to skip the queue to enter the museum. We did the same for our visit to the Colosseum. Oh, the Colosseum was really something! We purchased tickets for a guided tour and it was really worthwhile. Our guide explained the history of the Colosseum and walked us through the ancient structure right up to the arena. The Colosseum truly is a reflection of the greatest strengths and weaknesses of human civilisations; the innovation and perseverance to build such a gargantuan amphitheater with none of our modern technologies speaks volumes of the resilient spirit of the human race, and yet on the other hand, the violence of how men were pitted against each other, often fighting to the death reflected the other side of human kind.
Standing before the arena, I tried to picture how the amphitheater would have looked like all those years ago. The stands full of people, eagerly waiting for an intense battle between Gladiators. On the arena, the trapdoors open to reveal the two men that will fight and soon, the battle begins. The crowd goes wild, everyone cheering for the Gladiator they favored. The men fight; they give the battle all they have as the outcome would determine whether they live or die. Finally, one man is struck down and soon, his lifeless corpse is taken away and the next battle begins. This brings to mind a quote by the wand-maker Ollivander from the popular book series Harry Potter about the book's cruel villain. "After all, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named did great things - terrible, yes, but great." Terrible, but great: that is how I view the Colosseum.
Attractions such as Vatican City and the Colosseum were a distance away from our hotel (I suppose some may consider it walking distance but I neither have the physical nor mental strength to cope with such a stroll in the cold weather). Taxis are available but they're a little pricey so we opted to travel by bus instead. Prior to our trip, I tried to study the public transport networks but I eventually gave up because I found it quite confusing but it turned out to be very user-friendly. So step #1 is to buy bus tickets at any news stand or tobacco shop (bus tickets are €1.50 each), and step #2 is to use Google Maps to map out your journey; it tells you exactly which bus stop to head to, which bus line to board and step-by-step navigation on how to get there. The buses come quite frequently and it's a great way to get around the city at a reasonable price.
Our trip to Vatican City was an unforgettable one. We first visited the Vatican Museums and the highlight of this trip was definitely seeing the Sistine Chapel. At the risk of sounding like a complete idiot, I must admit that before this trip I thought it was actually called the Sixteen Chapel. I have since learnt that I was gravely mistaken and the chapel is actually named after the Pope that commissioned Michelangelo to paint the now iconic space. We couldn't take pictures of the Sistine Chapel and now I'm at a loss for how to describe it. It's unlike anything we had ever seen before; every surface of the ceiling was covered with artwork. As we took in all the paintings and the stories they represent, our respect and admiration for Michelangelo grew. It is said that when the Pope commissioned him to paint the Sistine Chapel, he was outraged: "I was born to be a sculptor, not a painter!" Ironically, this work of art brought him great fame and recognition and one can understand why. I try to imagine the ceiling of this chapel bare and slowly, it is filled with painting after painting, detailed and meticulous. Every stroke of the brush had purpose, every character well-defined and life-like. With no backspace, delete or copy-paste, Michelangelo's work would have required a level of planning and mindfulness that I cannot possibly begin to fathom. On another day, we visited St. Peter's Church early in the morning to avoid the long queues. Entrance into the church is free but you can opt to purchase an audio guide or join a guided tour of the church. We wanted to explore at our own pace and decided to get the audio guide. So we entered the church and yet again, we were left in awe. The church hall was so huge and every corner was either filled with paintings or sculptures of important figures in the history of Christianity. With the audio guide, we made our way slowly through the church, listening to the stories about what each painting and sculpture represents. Once we were done, we then headed to climb up to the dome of the church. Entrance into the dome requires a payment; you can either opt to pay less and take the stairs the whole way or pay a little more and take the elevator halfway up and then proceed to take the stairs. Personally, I hate stairs and would have rather opted for the elevator but we realised we were short on money at the time and had no choice but to take the stairs. It was exhausting! We climbed a spiral staircase up to a platform that gave us a great view of the paintings on the inner-ceiling of the dome.
To my dismay, there were more stairs to come. We climbed up further and this time the stairwell was very odd; the stairwell was angled at first and we tilted out bodies to one side to go up and then as we went further and further the stairwell narrowed. Finally, we climbed up a spiral staircase that was so narrow that we only had a piece of rope in the middle to hold onto and keep us steady. Once we got past all the stairs though, oh my, the view! I think we were at the outer circle of the dome, looking out at Rome from what had to be the best vantage point in the city. We walked around the platform and we could see the whole city before us. We took pictures and just admired the view for some time and then, it was time to make our journey back down. So through the various stairwells we went once again.
And of course, how can I forget the food! We tried different types of pastas, pizzas and desserts galore. Some pictures of our food adventures are seen below. The highlight of our trip was a dangerously delicious tiramisu we devoured in Trastevere over lunch. In fact, we had a lot of tiramisu on our trip, practically after every meal. G and I actually got sick during our trip, first him then me, so most of the time we had to avoid gelato in the cold weather. But towards the end of our trip, I couldn't take it anymore. I threw caution to the wind and after visiting the St. Peter's Church, I practically ran into the first gelataria I could find and ordered a triple-scoop, YUM!
The food was rich and cheesy; we enjoyed it a lot but by day five, we started craving for Asian food. So one night we came across a Chinese restaurant and we couldn't help ourselves, we went in, ordered rice and pork in spicy sauce and practically gulped it down! It's hard to describe that feeling; it felt like a slice of home in a far away land. Looking back at our pictures, I realise that I don't have that many pictures of the food we tried. This is mostly due to my lack of patience; as soon as the food is served, I can't help but dig right in. Only midway I would realise that I didn't take a picture and by then, I'm in too deep and there's no going back! Oh well, I may not have much picture evidence of the meals we had, but my happy belly assures you: they were good!
One night after our food adventures, it started pouring cats and dogs outside. Earlier that day, it was drizzling and I insisted we buy an umbrella just in case. Yes, AN umbrella. A very small and can-definitely-only-fit-one-human-adult umbrella because G refused to buy one for himself. "No, it's only drizzling and the jacket has a hoodie anyways!" So as it started pouring after dinner, I gave him this look that so clearly said, "I told you so." He ignored this look and said, "Ok, let's run back. You hold the umbrella." And that's what we did, except - I swear, I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried - as we were running, my umbrella fell apart. I don't know how else to put it, it literally fell apart. The metal rod that kept the umbrella open suddenly detached itself and I was left holding the umbrella open with both my hands up above my head; I looked like an absolute idiot. I ran to the first storefront I could find and my husband followed behind me. If only I had a picture of the smirk on his face. Well, right about then, a Bangladeshi salesman saw an opportunity and went for it. "Sir, you want umbrella?" We bargained and yet, ended up buying two extremely overpriced umbrellas. The best part - as we walked back to our hotel, the rain eased and came to a stop. ERGHHH! Umbrella frustrations aside, food is a huge part of travel for me. I feel the best way to explore a new place is to dive right into its local cuisine. It's a little piece of our travels that we can bring back home with us; I may not have been able to bring Rome back with me but I can fondly recall the memories made there the next time I make a bowl of pasta at home. For this reason, G and I always sign up for a local cooking class wherever we go. So far, we've attended classes in Bali, Krabi and now, Rome. We signed up for a pasta making class and our teacher, Lucas, was a very friendly chap. He brought us to a local market to buy some vegetables, chatting with us about Rome's history along the way. Once we returned to the kitchen, we put our aprons on and got started mixing flour and eggs and combined them to form our pasta dough. Lucas taught us to make different types of pasta including fettuccine and tortellini (I had to Google these names to remember them, the shapes stick but my god, the names don't!). G and I attempted to shape our pasta as Lucas had done but ours ended up looking like miniature versions as we both somehow ended up cutting our rolled out pasta dough wrongly. Finally, we cooked all the pasta (Lucas' perfect shapes and our scraggly ones; I'm sure there's a lesson in there somewhere if I look hard enough - no matter how we look like or where we come from, we're all in the same pot called life after all - but let's not kid ourselves). At the end of the class, we all sat around the kitchen counter and ate up all our hard work. G and I had a great experience making pasta; we probably aren't going to make a lot of fresh pasta at home, let's be honest, but it was really nice to try our hand at this age old tradition. It gave me an even greater sense of admiration for the Italian culture. Combining flour and eggs to make pasta dough, kneading it, rolling it out and forming perfect shapes that are then cooked and eaten along with sauce and cheese. The ingredients may be simple, but each step when done with care and attention produces a meal fit for the Gods.
Alas, it was time to go home. The thought of reuniting with rice and curry brought me immense joy but it saddened me to leave Rome. There are some places in this world that you see and you wonder whether you'll ever get to see it again and bask once more in its beauty; Rome is that place for me. As we reached home, we did the usual, unpacked our things and put our recently obtained fridge magnets on the fridge. Hopefully one day, we'll return to Rome. And if and when that day comes...we will sure as hell bring some umbrellas along!