We face such a dilemma here in Bishkek. Basically any destination in Asia and Europe is around $400 round trip right now. We spent so much time debating where to head for our Winter Break, joking about throwing a dart at a map to decide where to go. Exhausted of trying to pick, we settled on Italy – oh, the bother 😉 . Something about the thought of cold weather, Christmas bells, and a big plate of pasta next to endless glasses of wine called to us for Christmastime.
We flew into Rome and were there for 8 days, including over Christmas. The first days were magical. Crowds simply didn’t exist, and we wandered the city seeing almost nothing but locals. We got up one morning and just found ourselves at the Roman Forum and Coliseum without meaning to. The feeling of meandering and finding hidden gems in such a tourist-heavy city was charming.
After wandering the Forum, we showed up to a reserved tour of the Coliseum. We reserved through Coop Culture, and for 12 Euros each we skipped the line (well, there wasn’t a line, but it would have been an added benefit) and got to go underground and up to the third ring. After wandering the Forum trying to figure out what we were looking at, it was nice to have a little explanation too.
Every afternoon we found our way to a glass of wine and some bruschetta. Cafes lined the streets with outdoor seating, near fires or heat lamps to keep warm. If you found just the right seat in the sun, or near a fire, you could stay pleasantly warm for hours just sitting back and watching people pass.
One morning we woke up early to go for a run and catch the sunrise. On the way from the airport we had driven over a hill with sweeping views of the city, and we wanted to find it again. As we ran uphill and as the sky got lighter and lighter, we started to lose hope. We ran into a park when it was still dark, church bells singing through a foggy mist as we ran past other early risers. Still hoping to find the view, we ended up lost and fenced in. The park was gorgeous, but seemed to go on forever.
The sun had risen by the time we found a place to see. On one side of the hill, trees rolled on in and endless wave. It seemed so strange to me that we had started in the city and somehow found ourselves in what appeared to be a vast and endless forest. As we peeked through the fence on the other side of the hilltop, golden and glowing buildings in the distance. We didn’t find the sunrise view we were looking for, but ended up on a gorgeous run. Later we learned we had found our way to Villa Doria Pamphili, and caught a gorgeous early morning view of St. Peter’s Basilica.
We spent a day at the Vatican, going to the Museums and quickly giving up on taking in the overwhelming amount of gorgeous art. I was as impressed with the ceilings as with the art itself. We listened to a Rick Steve’s podcast for the Sistine Chapel, straining our eyes upwards until our necks started to hurt. With sore legs we left the Museum 6 hours after we had entered, confused about how time had taken so long when we saw so little.
In the evening we climbed the dome at St. Peter’s Basilica, a winding, small path leading up up up. We emerged at the base of the dome and walked around the edge. Although I’m not particularly afraid of heights, the arched ceiling leading right behind me left me feeling like I was being pushed forward, and I stayed back against the wall and far away from the fence with sweaty hands. After leaving the dome another set of stairs leads all the way to the top, the ceiling slanting inward as you climb ever higher to accommodate the shape of the dome. At the top, the golden light of sunset lit up the city.
By the time we the Basilica, the moon was out and we had a beautiful night view as we headed to dinner. We enjoyed the Christmas tree and the detailed nativity scene outside.
Our days in Rome were mostly filled with wandering and eating delicious food. The weather was a little chilly but perfect for feeling like Christmastime. Many times we felt like the only tourists in the city, something that I’d imagine rarely happens in Rome. I think this is why I loved it so much when so many others pick on the city.
Rome was everything I expected it to be. Perhaps it’s the countless movies or tourist blogs or recommendations from friends and family who have all traveled there telling me what to expect, but I expected to be underwhelmed. I wasn’t. The charm of finding ancient ruins on a walk in the morning or getting a capuccino in a crowded cafe is, I suppose, the cliche of the destination but also the charm; because it’s so exposed, part of it feels familiar even to a newcomer. And it is so delicious and beautiful that even though I realized it was cliche, I couldn’t help but love it.
The crowds didn’t come until after Christmas, when we were on our way to Venice.