When in Rome, take your time.

There is not one square metre of Rome that is not interesting.

Woman in Rome.
Near the Forum.

“Rome will wear you out.” I don’t remember which of my traveling friends issued this particular warning, but I shrugged it off at the time. Rome was a kind of dream for me. Having visited Europe four times and northern Italy once before, I still hadn’t made my way down the peninsula to the cradle of Western civilization. Finally, a couple of years ago I got my chance, and I wasn’t going to let my friend dampen my enthusiasm. Sure, I knew what it was like to visit the big, big capitals of Europe, and they can tire you out. But I generally find the big cities energizing. I don’t know if it’s because I’m an extravert, or perhaps because I love walking for miles and miles, but I have nothing but good memories of wading through the crowds of London, Paris, Amsterdam. Of course they’re crowded. They’re cities, right?

Rome street scene
Street scene.

The first thing you need to know about Rome is that it is small enough that you can walk everywhere, but big enough that getting around is physically taxing. Plus, the sidewalks are narrow and busy. Really, really busy, in fact; there are very few quiet little neighbourhoods that you can deke through on your way to the Forum. So if you’ve made plans to cover two or three of the big attractions in an afternoon, you need to give your head a shake. In fact, you need to drop your plans altogether, and everything will get much easier. Don’t push your agenda with Rome. Surrender. Let Rome show herself to you, on her time and her terms, and nobody will get hurt.

Trevi fountain
Trevi fountain

For me, my Roman epiphany came on day three when I realized I hadn’t taken a single photograph yet. This is not normal. I’m a photographer, for heaven’s sake, and this was a bucket-list destination for me. But as I wandered through dense crowds and chaotic traffic, it was all I could do to try to assimilate what I was seeing. There is not one square metre of Rome that is not interesting. I knew there would be churches to visit, for example, but I had no idea that glorious Renaissance architectural masterpieces could be found on almost every other street corner. Honestly, in any other town, one of these churches would be a the pride of the entire region; here they’re as common as a Starbucks in Seattle. I recall wandering into a small basilica to get out of the rain, and being suddenly enveloped by incense and silence and marble and gold and fantastic arches… and I stumbled across a Caravaggio. Big and beautifully lit, and perhaps recently restored, it looked like it was painted yesterday. And to think that I was on my way somewhere else, and would never have stopped if it hadn’t been raining… That was when I knew I needed to slow down.

John the Baptist
John the Baptist

And so I pulled out my camera and stopped worrying about seeing everything, and concentrated on seeing everything. 

I began to photograph the people, the cats, the nuns and the priests, and the legions upon legions of Vespas (scooters) swarming through traffic. I photographed the cafes, while sampling the outrageously strong espresso and nibbling rich cheesy pastries. I photographed the beautiful Romans, with their fine-featured faces and expressive hands. I photographed the Roma people in the streets, and the graffiti on the walls.

Street scene
Street scene

And yes, eventually I got to the Pantheon. And it is incredible. I got to the Vatican museum, though I’m still not convinced the four-hour wait was worth it. And I got to St. Peter’s Basilica where the sheer scale of it all nearly resurrected the lapsed Catholic inside me.

Sunset over the Tiber
Sunset over the Tiber

For so many of us, a trip to Rome is a homecoming of sorts. Not that I have any real roots there; my ancestors were card-carrying barbarians. (I like to picture them with blue paint on their faces, frolicking around the wilds of Hibernia and Caledonia, when Rome was at its peak.) But it occurs to me, as I sit here typing a Roman alphabet and preparing to celebrate the doubly-Roman holiday of Christmas (Saturnalia run through a Roman Catholic rinse), we each carry a bit of Rome and her culture within us.

Getting a chance to visit the cradle of that culture was a privilege that I won’t soon forget.

At the Borgia estate.
At the Borgia estate.

2 Comments

  1. And for further reading, you really should take some time to read this:
    The Shape of Rome http://exurbe.com/?p=2219

  2. Amazing photos, Don! I completely understand the reaction you had – not taking any photos at first because you just need to soak it all in. I think that’s a sign of one great destination!

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