Milano Centrale was just a hop, skip, and a jump away from my hotel so I took Thursday morning, the beginning of the pleasure portion of my business trip, to catch up on some much-needed sleep before exploring more of Italy.
At six o’clock in the morning, I rolled out of bed and packed for two trips: one to get me through an overnight stay in Naples and the other to ready everything needed for my return to the States immediately after. My day bag had doubled as my attaché case during my conference meetings, and now held just an essential notebook, toothbrush, phone charger, mascara, and a peaches-and-cream-colored wrap dress. I rolled up my pencil skirts and gladly tucked my stilettos away into my carry-on. Expecting warmer weather, I left my leather jacket with it, in my nearly emptied hotel 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 couldn’t for the life of me find the platform for my train. I scurried up and down the length of the bay reading and rereading every name, departure time, and destination for each train. It was chilly and for the other passengers, just a regular week day, so I’m sure I looked every bit the foreigner to them, aimless and underdressed without a proper coat. Several people were overtly scowling at me, I noticed, and not just when I boarded the wrong train, realized my mistake, and barely made it off before its (delayed) departure.
I didn’t have time to think of what I’d done to miff the Milanese, but it kind of bothered me. I almost thought it could be about race, but decided against it, as I saw a significant local Asian presence in Italy so far; they seemed happy. Also, some of the locals had to have mixed up with biracials before I came along for this commute, and I wasn’t that clueless, bothersome tourist, so it was probably just my obscene lack of customary outerwear in the fashion capital of the world. By 7:10, I knew I had somehow missed my train, and in defeat, shuffled over to an attendant at one of the red kiosks I spotted here and there on the landing. Maybe they could help.
As 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 got to Rome and just couldn’t bring myself to leave). So 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, before we arrived. Chilled and shaking off more side-eyes I had caught in my train car, I began to make my way out of the terminal, when I saw a pretty mod jacket in the window of a Sisley shop. The retro frock had three-quarter length sleeves, contemporary pink/black/gold stripes, and looked light enough to fold into my purse if needed. I had to have it. Moments later, happy with my purchase and not a mean mug in sight, 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 hovering over bus routes, to decide where they wanted to go. With limited time to explore, I skipped the confusion surrounding the bus corrals and just 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, I decided on the spot that I’d find my favorite locations showcased in the film and welcome any unexpected discoveries in between. On the map, Colosseo stood out right away, and so 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 iconic 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. Unaware and nonetheless thrilled, I made a beeline for the Colosseum 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 seek out 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 27, he accepted the lower payment and I soon found myself waiting off to the side with a blue “Visitor” sticker on the collar of my pretty new coat.
I had forgotten that the concept of being on time is relative to Italians. Forty minutes later, my fellow punctual patrons were still standing outside the colossal monument, waiting on the tour guide. It was a pity, when she finally arrived it seemed only to work in complaints about her football-obsessed husband between names of dynasties and dates of reconstructions. Dying to get inside and on with the tour, we often unintentionally gave a collective sigh (with more gusto coming from the English family next to me), so I knew I wasn’t feeling the worst of it.
Though I learned enough to gain a real appreciation of the place, aside from marital woes, the guide offered nothing special, that couldn’t be found online (but hey, I took a chance). I recommend paying half the ticket price and standing in a long but fast-going line for a self-paced self-guided tour instead. An hour in, we were in at last, only just passed the metal detectors, with no sight of the infamous hypogeum, listening to more about how sports entertainment is non-sense and the modern equivalent of gladiators fighting to the death. It was at this point where I took a wide step off to the side…and excused myself for the remainder of the tour.
Perched on a balcony under a mostly sunny sky, I stood looking down across the 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.
A few moments later, I took the subway to make up for lost time and got off at Piazza Barberini, a late Medieval square with Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s 17th-century Triton Fountain at its center. Before I had abandoned my unfortunate tour, an Irish couple in the group tipped me off to it, when I asked if they knew of the Spanish Steps and how to get there.
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 can 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 but signed his petition anyway) that I needed to go five minutes back the way I came. His directions placed me five minutes too far the other way.
Later a busy shopkeeper let me know I only needed to continue five minutes farther down the hill. This led me to a traffic circle with four different outlets, and several of these smart and sophisticated ensembles I now regret not buying in every cut and color.
Then two young women who spoke English, both in long black felt coats and platform sneakers, 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 waters, I offered to take the photos of strangers on their honeymoons, 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: It was the first time I’d thought about myself all day. I’d been so content marveling at everything in front of me, I hadn’t thought of most things I think about every day, which is one of the beautiful things about travel. One of my favorite authors, 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 hoping to come across. I picked it up and turned to a woman next to me who shrugged and moved away. Towards the back of the shop, I saw a man who I imagined to be the owner. He wore a grey fisherman’s sweater with its wooden toggle clasped below the neck, and was twirling a sachet of leaves around his finger while grinning into his tea cup. I brought the poster over to him and he glanced at it without really looking up. He continued to smile, pointed north, and simply said, “Five minutes walk, that way.” so that is the way I walked.
Like many 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. Lingering sometimes as I made my way up, I thought about how much history they had already seen when Ms. Hepburn ascended them sixty-four years before. Taking it slow and taking it in, at the top, I turned back toward the city and caught possibly the best view of Rome I think could have found that day. The sun was just starting to descend and it cast a magical golden hue across every balcony, rooftop, and steeple in sight.
Reluctantly, I knew it was time to get back to the station and so 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 The 4th-Century BC Servian Walls had been swallowed by the expanding city.
His long grey hair and John Lennon sunglasses made me think he might know a thing or two and feel up for more history lessons, 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 such as 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. As my train pulled away, I felt elated and grateful for my experience.
In just a handful of time, 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 I missed my husband terribly on this trip, and commented on how hard it must have been to sight-see alone in such a romantic place, especially as a newlywed. While I missed him very much and wanted to experience all of it together, Rome was an adventure! Because I’d had adventures alone before and being alone gave me the chance to lose myself in extraordinary moments, I didn’t feel I was lacking anything at all at the time. This allowed me to truly live in the present with only the world in front of me for the first time in a long time. I felt like myself again in Rome, even though I wouldn’t say I hadn’t felt so much like myself in the days before; life just gets busy. I remembered I really like who I am, how I think, and what I feel. And that feeling is priceless. Back home now, for me and my new husband, I’m aiming to keep that state of mind, for as long as I can.
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 was so close too! 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 downloaded 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 just came across while looking for movie stills. It’s no surprise to find that this has been done in a variety of ways too now, but in the serendipitous hours I spent there to myself, I found a thrill to call my own.
How about you? Have you ever been inspired by a film, other form of art, or media to travel? Tell me about your own adventures in the comments below!