Milano Centrale was just down the block from the Hilton Milan where my clients put me up for the summit, and with the business portion of my trip wrapped up, I headed out early Thursday morning to explore Italy with the rest of my time.
I rolled out of bed and packed for two trips: one to tote just enough for an overnight stay in Naples/Capri, and prepped everything else for my immediate return to the States after. My day bag had doubled as my attaché case during the conference, and now held just a notebook, toothbrush, charger, mascara, and a flowy apricot wrap dress. For the time being, I could not abandon my pencil skirts and stilettos quickly enough and recklessly tucked them away into my carry-on. Ready to get out of the hotel where I had spent the week so far, I stowed it behind with my leather jacket (to my regret) in my nearly-emptied room, before hurrying to catch my seven o’clock southbound bullet train.
Though I had made it to the terminal with time to spare, I could NOT find the platform for my train. I jogged up and down the length of the bay, reading and rereading every name, departure time, and destination for each train. This was just a regular week day in March for everyone else, so I’m sure I looked every bit the foreigner, aimless and underdressed without a jacket. Commuters scowled at me when I boarded the wrong train, realized my mistake, and barely made it off before its delayed departure.
I could tell I really miffed the Milanese and wondered why. I wasn’t that clueless, bothersome tourist, so I guess it was my obscene lack of spring outerwear in the fashion capital of the world. By 7:10, I knew I had somehow missed my train, and in defeat, shuffled over one of the red kiosk attendants I spotted earlier on the landing. Maybe they could help.
It turns out, you can totally just catch the next train if you missed the one you booked; something I kept in mind when I eventually got to Rome and couldn’t bring myself to leave. With my newly printed ticket and fret behind me, I hopped onto the 7:30 express and was sipping a cappuccino in the caffé car in no time.
My fellow passengers and I spent the next three hours in the countryside passing by towns nestled into hillsides and winding roads lined with tall Cypress trees that would lead up to a villa or sometimes a church. Sniffling and shaking off more side-eyes in my train car, I began to make my way out of the chilly terminal when I saw a pretty mod jacket in the window of a Sisley shop. The retro frock had three-quarter length sleeves with pink, black, and gold stripes and looked light enough to fold into my bag if needed. I had to have it. Moments later, stepping out in my new spring-wear, I headed out to spend the afternoon falling in love with Rome.
Outside of Roma Termini were a dozen idling buses waiting on the crowd of tourists who were hovered over bus routes, figuring out where to go from there. With limited time to explore, I skipped the confusion surrounding the bus corrals, and around the corner found a sun-bleached map to study, which was more decorative than directional.
Though my Classics major friends may cringe at this, my preconceived notions of the epic city had come mostly from the 1953 classic, Roman Holiday starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck.
Looking over the layout on the mural, I was just excited about finding as many favorite locations showcased in the film that I could, and welcome any unexpected discoveries in between. Colosseo stood out right away and I began following Via Cavour, which just felt like the right way to go. The street led me downhill for about 10 minutes, until the unmistakable Colosseum came into view between the high walls of Via degli Annibaldi.
Had I continued straight, I would have been greeted by the Roman Forum, which would have made for an incredible introduction to the site. Unaware and nonetheless thrilled, I made a beeline for the giant icon as soon it appeared. I was in awe, never having expected to stand under its great shadow or walk the ancient grounds.
Leading up to it, there were sellers offering selfie sticks and tours, but having come to terms with my time constraints, I didn’t count on a tour and was content to walk the perimeter of the fabled amphitheater. Then a very persistent vendor insisted that he could get me on the inside in five minutes. When I joked that I might be up for the tour if it cost 20 Euros and not 30, he accepted and I suddenly found myself waiting off to the side with a blue “Visitor” sticker on the collar of my pretty new lapel.
I had forgotten that the concept of being on time is relative to Italians. FORTY minutes later, myself and other mistaken patrons were still standing outside the colossal monument, no tour guide in sight. It was a pity, when she finally arrived, that she seemingly showed up to only work in complaints about her football-obsessed husband between names of dynasties and dates of reconstructions. With no hope for hurrying inside and getting the hell on with it, our group of misguided tourists could only collectively sigh.
Though I learned enough outside of the marital woes of Alessandra and Lorenzo to gain a real appreciation of the place, I recommend paying half the ticket price and standing in a long but fast-moving line for a self-paced, self-guided tour. An hour in, we were finally inside, but only just passed the metal detectors and with no sight of the infamous hypogeum, just listening to more about how sports are nonsensical entertainment, equivalent to gladiators fighting to the death. This is where I took a wide step to the side and excused myself for the remainder of the tour.
Perched alone on a balcony under a mostly sunny sky, I stood looking down across the quiet ruins and imagined what it must have been like in 80 AD during its inaugural games, or around 435 when the last gladiators were said to have competed there.
Later, to make up for lost time, I hopped on the subway that an Irish couple had tipped me off to that was supposedly in the direction of the Spanish Steps. I didn’t catch what stop though, and found myself at Piazza Barberini, a late Medieval square with Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s 17th-century Triton Fountain at its center.
From there, I snapped this photo and asked an American family if they could point me in the right direction of the Spanish Steps. Long story short, they pointed me precisely in the wrong direction, but I could see why. The neighboring area did seem to have at least a Spanish influence there.
I came upon a Greenpeace worker who explained (even though I would not give him my credit card info) that I needed to go five minutes back the way I came. His directions placed me five minutes too far the other way.
Eventually a busy dry-goods shopkeeper let me know that I only needed to continue five more minutes down the hill. This led me to a traffic circle with four different outlets, and several of these smart and sophisticated ensembles that I should have bought in every cut and color.
Then two young women who spoke English, both in long black felt coats and platform shoes, convinced me to keep going down the hill until I came upon an orange building. They said to take the alley that cut in front of it, and left it at that.
That alley split off into many other tendrils of walkways. I enjoyed this; stopping for gelato and eventually, the web of winding passages led me to the glorious Fontana di Trevi.
I spent several minutes taking it in. It was such a surprise! As I made my way up and around the edge of the Dulce Vita waters, I offered to take the photos of honeymooners who were struggling to capture selfies as they admired the fountain. I was in awe of the moment and that’s when I noticed it was the first time I had a thought about myself all day. I had been content to marvel at everything in front of me, I hadn’t thought of anything I think of most days, which is one of the beautiful things about travel. Adventure author, Bill Bryson, shares this idea best:
To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.
Inside a book store, I found a poster print of just the place I’d been searching for and picked it up. Towards the back of the shop, I saw a man who I thought must be the owner. He wore a grey fisherman’s sweater with its wooden toggle clasped below the neck and was twirling a sachet of tea leaves around his finger while grinning into his tea cup. I brought the poster of Smitty and Joe over to him and he sort of glanced my way without really looking up. Knowingly, he simply pointed north and said, “Five minutes walk, that way.” so that is the way I walked.
Like everyone around me, I basked in the light gleaming from the stairway to Trinità dei Monti, the Roman Catholic church at the top of the steps. As I made my way up, I lingered from step to step and thought about how much history they had already seen by the time Ms. Hepburn ascended them sixty-four years before. Taking it slow and taking it in, when I got to the top, I turned back toward the city and caught possibly the best view of Rome I think I could have found all day. The sun was just starting to descend and it cast a magical golden hue across every balcony, rooftop, and steeple in sight.
Soon, I knew it was time to get back to the station and I hailed the first cab that came by (all too quickly).
I wouldn’t take my eyes away from the window, saying goodbye to the great city, while my driver went on to describe the different types of people that taxiing allowed him to meet. When we passed by some tall defensive walls, he pointed out they were the Aurelian Walls, built between 271 and 275 AD, after the 4th-Century BC Servian Walls had been swallowed by the expanding city.
His long grey hair and indigo John Lennon sunglasses made me think he might be up to giving me more of a history lesson, so I asked him if those were Egyptian hieroglyphs on all the obelisks I was seeing. He let me know the scattered monoliths were decorations taken from Egypt by Roman Emperors who were fascinated with the culture and sought after the divine symbols of the pharaohs, for trophies of their conquests.
We passed by another, Flaminio obelisk (Rome’s first) in Piazza del Popolo. It was brought from Heliopolis by Augustus Caesar in 10 AD, and he mentioned though Rome has more than any other, there were Egyptian obelisks in other capitals of the world like Paris (that I do remember seeing between the Louvre and the Arch d’Triumph). Then before I knew it, we rolled up to Roma Termini and it was really time to say goodbye. But first, I got a scoop of stracciatella to make parting more sweet than sorrowful. It worked, and as my train pulled away, I felt elated by and grateful for that handful of awe-inspiring hours.
Time seemed to stand still from the moment I peeked into the Colosseum, and the world, a playground at my fingertips. Rome had me fully captivated in both its mystique and esteem.
People have asked me if it’s lonely traveling alone, and comment on how hard it must be to sight-see by myself in such a romantic place. While Rome is certainly a beautiful place that should be enjoyed with someone special, my answer is no; Rome was an adventure! Being alone gives me the chance to lose myself in extraordinary moments. I don’t feel like I am missing out on anything because I exist only in the present. I felt like myself again in Rome, even though I hadn’t noticed that I hadn’t felt so much like myself in the days before. Life just gets busy and puts so much in front of you. I remembered that I like my own company, who I am, how I think, and that I have the ability to feel awe at any given moment. Back home now, I am trying to recreate and practice living in that state of mind more often.
The only thing I regret about my Roman afternoon, was not managing to stick my hand inside the Bocca della Verità, or Mouth of Truth, as Audrey Hepburn so famously chickened out in the film. I found out later that I was so close! It was less than a one-mile walk southeast of the Colosseum. If only I had squeezed in the time to do some research, or download an offline map, maybe I could have planned something as coordinated as the Times article, In Rome: Using ‘Roman Holiday’ as a Guide that I discovered afterwards looking for movie stills for this entry. It’s no surprise to find out that this has been done in a variety of ways too, but in the serendipitous hours I spent there to myself, I found a thrill to call my own.
Have you ever been inspired by a film, other form of art, or media to travel?