“The epiphany was served cold with that final smiley-faced cappuccino. A little teaser of a true connection; A touch of local life during my short visit.”
Most stories in my old Latin textbook took place in the very early years of the first millennium. They described Roman culture through the daily lives of its rulers and their subjects. While I didn’t expect to recognise those characters in the modern city, I was still curious. For a place that’s famous for its past success, what does “when in Rome” really mean today?
I’m not sure that I ever found out.
I actually visited two cities: A Rome that I was part of and a Rome that I managed to snatch a seductive moment with here and there. One was a beautifully organised tribute to a powerful empire that also held true to the more recent notion of the Dolce Vita; the other was a Rome that maybe only locals truly know.
Textbook Rome and the visitor experience
More than most cities I’ve visited, Rome’s must-sees were exactly that. Even with hindsight, it has been impossible to choose a favourite. The Vatican City with its renaissance murals, mammoth art collections and an entire little world within its walls surpassed my expectations.
Exploring the trio of the coliseum, Palatine Hill and the Forum below was one of my best-spent days of travelling. They jumped from my school curriculum into my adult reality with vigour. The textured marble of the temple columns, the visible layout of the emperors’ palace and 1000-year-old architectural details that had hardly worn, were more vivid than any book could be. Rome’s history for me was a journey through the senses. Although oddly, I often felt warmest when sat in its piazzas.
Taking prime position at one of countless outdoor tables, I watched young budget savvy Americans huddled around fountains to munch on freshly baked bread. Smart middle-aged couples shared brief but tender squeezes as the hot afternoons faded into cooler dusks.
Less romantic maybe, but just as fascinating, were the troupes of tours that marched like sightseeing armies behind energetic guides waving tiny little flags. They never looked for a moment like they had done all of this a thousand times before.
The contrast between these temporary, fleeting feet and the permanence of the buildings behind them made me feel strangely content as it played out beyond my glass of chilled Frascati. Even if this wasn’t the real Rome, it was one that I felt comfortable to be part of.
Slightly more at home
I stayed in a suburb not far from The Vatican City. My quirky hostel room, refurbished to mimic the pages of a comic book, overlooked a typical roman avenue. Its pavements alone were wider than most streets in Florence and tall trees that lost their pollen to a biting, early morning breeze lined the road itself.
Slightly removed from the central tourist hotspots, my surroundings were home to a population of dapper lawyers, who downed their espressos at the counter of my local cafe in the blink of an eye, before gliding back out into the street. By my final morning I was only a small sore thumb in this daily skit, and received a smiley face on top of my takeaway cappuccino to prove it.
A short distance away, a pleasant string of restaurants lay in wait to capture weary visitors as they milled away from St Peter’s Basilica. I was tickled to see priests in their dog collars enjoying long lunches alongside me but I questioned it. Wouldn’t they rather escape to their ‘real Rome’ for a while, away from the prying smartphones of photo opportunists? As one of them raised his camera to take a group selfie, I realised that they too were tourists. In 2017 maybe this was the real Rome.
City travel is a contradiction. The constant hustle and bustle and very visible history can make us feel instantly connected but can also give us a false sense of immersion. It took three days in Rome for me to realise this, and the epiphany was served cold with that final smiley-faced cappuccino. A little teaser of a true connection: A touch of local life during my short visit.