39. Rome // Italy

In no way will words be able to convey just how much we loved Rome. Maybe think of Noah and Allie on the Notebook or Jack and Rose on the Titanic? But I’ll try. And will fail. So please just remember as you read my feeble attempts at trying to portray that love, that whatever level you feel it is at, multiply it ten fold. Let’s begin.

We loved Rome! A lot! I never thought I’d say it but Saigon has been relegated from the top of the podium of our travels to second place. It’s true! Maybe it was because of the rotten month we’d had previously, or because of much lower expectations than what we had had in Istanbul. Whatever it was – it BLEW US AWAY!

Our Easyjet flight from Athens landed in Rome mid-afternoon. A City-Sightseeer commercial was looping every 30 seconds above the bag-collections conveyorbelt wth an image of the colosseum. This lead me to believe that Rome would be very similar to Athens. A city that draws people for its one or two ancient attractions but has little else to offer. How wrong I was to be! But this was good as it greatly lowered my expectations.

We had to catch a train from the airport to Trastavere station where our Air BnB was, and I think the train was a nice metaphor for Italy. It was excessively glamorous, spacious and expensive. Which was nice but I would have been just as happy to pay a third of the price and catch a cagey bone-rattler with metal seats.

We were running our brief experiences so far through our mental filters, as you do when you first enter a city, to try and work out what to make of it. We had to walk just over a kilometre from the station to our Air BnB which again gave us another foray of information to register. The work day had come to an end and office workers raced past on little Italian mopeds. People ran quickly back towards the station, reminding us that we both needed a serious wardrobe cleanup and urgent haircuts. A man entered an apartment with two bottles of wine for dinner. A pizzeria. The smells of baking dough. A wine shop. Glasses clinking. Ok. Ok. It’s coming. Those feelings. They’re rising. Rising. Overwhelming us. Until finally – hearts throbbing and romanticised by everything around us, we looked at each other and exclaimed “We’re in Italy!!!”

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We were to meet a guy who was of course called Mario who was to check us in. We found the big green door to this monstrous complex and got buzzed in. Unsure of which level we had to go up to, we clambered into this incredibly tiny (“What is this? A house for ants??”) elevator, figuring we could just go up to each floor until we found him. It was just as we were about to press the button for level one that Mario emerged from another door, looked at us confused, laughed and said to follow him. We awkwardly shuffled our way with our backpacks out of the lift and followed him out a door, across a courtyard, through another door, up two flights of steps, into another door which was for the actual BnB and then into another door which was to be our room. That’s right – we needed about five keys to get in and out each morning!

Mario was the opposite of Mussolini and was infectiously friendly. Of particular importance, he pulled out a map of the area and, using all his years of local knowledge, circled the best place to go for a pizza, for gelati, for a wine, for pasta, for a walk, for everything. Sadly, he advised that the Trevi Fountain was under renovation and we would be unable to emulate the scene where Julia Roberts waltzed past on a crisp Spring evening with a giant smile on her face (well, I guess we could but it would just mean there would be steel pipes and scaffolding everywhere.) Elisha has always been drawn to the Italian’s relationship with food because they just simply get it. And it was reassuring to hear Mario recommend a pizzeria because he believed the type of flour they used was lighter and wouldn’t leave you feeling full, or another restaurant because he knew they changed their oil daily whereas some other places only did it once a week. The details for quality!

We wasted absolutely zero time getting back out and, even though it was around about 9pm at this point, headed out in Trastavere to one of Mario’s pasta recommendations. We were not even one or two streets in before we were completely paralysed with awe. These old, old laneways. Some latin up on a wall. The sound of Italian conversations everywhere. Bars. People milling about, spilling onto the streets from crowded bars. Wine. Wine. Wine. I’ve talked to some people who describe their experience of Rome similar to ours of Istanbul. That it’s too busy, full of tourists and nothing is authentic. As such, I think we were really lucky to have our first moments in Rome what they were. Trastavere was an absolute gem to be in (founded by the Jewish community many centuries prior when they had been banished from the city side of the river and forced to make home there) and we would have been just as happy to have aimlessly walked around in that moment even if we were to find that the restaurant was closed.

But it wasn’t. And moments later, with a smile you could not wipe from our faces even if you were to use WD40, we were seated in this small and simple restaurant, our eyes scrolling through a list of various pastas and pizza. We love the Italians idea that food should be fresh and simple and find it a shame that places like Dominos have entered our world and turned it into a load as much onto the pizza as you can even though it all tastes like rubber. We ordered two simple pastas, spaghetti with tomatoes, oil and chili, and penne with pancetta and peas, and a pizza with tomatoes and prosciutto. Sharing a carafe of vino rosso, we sprinkled some parmesan over our plates, looked at each other again and exclaimed “We’re in Italy!”

Even though we had been told the Trevi Fountain was under renovation, it was still our closest landmark. Hell. The night was beautiful and we were still buzzing like two climaxing bees so we loaded a rough map on our phone and took off. I can’t articulate how beautiful Trastavere is, but we ensured we walked really slowly through its tight laneways and across its cobbled stones back towards the river. Rome just continued to amaze us. At one point, we made an innocuous left turn around a corner and found ourselves standing before a gigantic cathedral with large letters in latin sculptured across the top and ornate artwork accentuating the edges. We were awestruck! What was this building of ancient significance? We loaded the map, zoomed in – nothing. Zoomed in more – still nothing! What the hank? This was one of the greatest things we had seen in months and it was apparently so insignificant it wasn’t even on the map! We were to learn this would happen quite a lot in Rome. The buildings are so detailed and enormous. Considering they are also in stiff competition with things like the Colosseum, Piazza Navona and Starbucks, they just don’t seem to get a look at online. For the sake of it not having a name to us ignorant country folk from down under, let’s call it the 8th Wonder of the Random World. Filled with wonder at the random 8th Wonder of the Random World that we had just seen, we continued on to the Trevi Fountain. We proceeded along another tight, cobbled pathway and passed a street performer who was painting these incredible stencils of the Colosseum under the moonlight. Our eyes were darting at everything left, right and centre, unable to take it all in. It was not hard to miss the fountain though as, true to my concerns, massive metal scaffolding appeared out of nowhere. But using my limited imagination to remove these abberations, this feature certainly put the previously marvelled at 8th Wonder of the Random World into rather small perspective. Everything was so ornate. And impressive. Even without the water (which is usually crucial when the word “fountain” appears in your title) it was hard to ignore the true splendour of this attraction.

We had planned to go home after this but we were now completely mesmerised by the spell Rome had cast over us, like one of the characters in the 50 Shades of Grey saga. Piazza Navona popped up from the map as another near attraction from where we were standing. It was also sort of on the way home and so we decided to also check it out on this Night of Nights. Piazza Navona has always been special to us as it was the name of one of the Italian restaurants we used to frequent just around the corner from us in South Yarra. Until it went bankrupt that was and was sold to some stinky fat man who renamed it Cappriccio, continued with the exact same menu but marked everything up by 20 per cent . . . and then that went bankrupt too. On our way there, we passed some loud ecclesstial music coming from – where was it coming from? We looked up at the three story building beside us but could see nothing, even though that’s where it seemed to be. We investigated down a side street but that lead no where either. Next thing we passed a guy who seemed to be on the same quest. He was looking up, scratching his head. Where was this beautiful music coming from. He looked at us utterly confused. If he had just come from the opposite direction and couldn’t tell, then no one knew. We threw our arms up and shrugged, leaving each other bewildered. We soon left these orcestral sounds and found our way in the expanse known as Piazza Navona. This big open area is ringed by restaurants and filled with fountains and sculptures. We found a little place to sit around the fountain with all the horse head sculptures and pensively watched all the other people who seemed to be doing the exact same thing as us – nothing.

It was nearing midnight but we were now well and truely suffering from a severe case of wondawe (the feeling you get when wonder and awe collide.) We never wanted this night to end and so pulled out our phone to see what else was in walking distance. The Pantheon! Fantastic. I already knew a fair bit about this place from my Instagram hiccup. And that knowledge was that it was not spelt Pantenon. Another friend had also humiliated me on Facebook so I was keen to grab a photo in front of the Pantheon to rub it in, just one day later, that I could in fact go to another world landmark just to take a photo if I wanted to. We arrived from the back of it and were amazed to see the recognisable dome that essentially became the design for almost all churches built this way. As we emerged from the street, we were greeted by all the Roman columns (different to Greek columns in that they are one solid piece of marble) that form the entrance. Another marvelous fountain features just outside of this and once again we were left feeling overwhelmed by all this history.

It was now past midnight. We had seen the Trevi Fountain, Piazza Navona, the Pantheon and of course the 8th Wonder of the Random World. Could we leave the Colosseum until tomorrow? Hell no! It was 3 kilometres away and our feet were a little tired but we convinced ourselves we could do it. The streets were surprisingly quiet at this time (sleeping perhaps?) which romanticised the moment even more. Alone almost every step of the journey, we spent the next half hour walking along streets we had never seen before, past buildings that over and over again blew us away but failed to be noted on the map, and around monuments that seemed to pop up like the boils on Job’s back after Satan was given permission from God to torment him in any which way he liked.

When the Colosseum first came into view, my heart skipped a bit. Surely the most iconic and historical landmark from the Roman Empire stood before us. We joined a small contingent of other late-night wanderers and stood silenty, taking in and admiring this spectacular construction. An amazing piece. It still stands to the fourth level in some small parts, scaffolding continues to hold up and repair others. The fact it stands smack bang in the middle of modern day Rome is humurous. Generic roads head straight towards it before bending around and continuing on their way. We’d ticked off most of Rome’s landmarks in that night alone, but we knew there was still a lot more to see and do the next day so at 2am we finally made our way back to bed to get some rest.

The Air BnB put on one spectacular breakfast the next morning and we got chatting to a couple staying there from Texas. After telling us they’d been on a Segway tour the day before, we agreed never to talk to them again. But after finishing some melon and prosciutto, we did follow in their footsteps and headed across to the Vatican. They of course paid for a cab. We of course decided to walk the 4kms. Vatican City is a confusing place. There are mills of people scrambled all over the place, appearing to be doing something but upon closer inspection not doing anything at all. Are they in a line? Are they taking pictures? Which part of all these buildings is actually the Vatican? Vatican City is it’s own country essentially, running completely separately to Italy even though it’s plonked right in the very heart of Rome. We were a little overwhelmed by all the people and weren’t sure where we were to go exactly to get in. Eventually, we found some spruikers advertising tours, selling the fact we could skip the lines if we paid them absorbidant amounts of money. As we walked away, they quickly dropped the price and we grabbed a pamphlet. However, Rome had allured us so much the night before, we just didn’t see how being around this many people was in the remotest way fun. So we bailed. And thought we’d come back early the next day and try and beat the rush.

Instead, we followed a recommendation and went for lunch at a place called “La Proscuitteria.” If it was ever possible to cry over your food, then this was it. And we know this because we did. Perhaps it was more a reflection of other circumstances, such as the horrible month just gone by or because we’d been reminded as to why we had sold everything for moments just like this, but it all culminated into a flurry of emotions as we worked our way through small portions of richly flavoured prosciutto, honeys, nuts, freshly baked breads, olives, truffle dip, melons, grapes, cured meats, bresciola and washed it all done with a perfectly matched glass of Chianti. If you are ever in the city – that is the one thing you must do! Way before you do any of the tourist things! It was one of the most incredible dining experiences of our life and something we will never be able to replicate anywhere else in the world again.

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We followed this decadent moment with desert. And that came in the form of gelato 2kms away. A fair walk but we had again been advised to ignore all others and only eat at “Come II Latte.” We were not disappointed. Simply supurb.

Full of calories, we thought we’d try and tick of the Pantheon and Colosseum that afternoon. We walked to the Pantheon where you can enter and sit inside for free. We had previously downloaded a Rick Steves audio guide so sat huddled together on a pew as we learned about the history of the church. Some key points were the dome design. This was the first building that featured the dome roof and was the model used for any others built after it. The tomb of the artist Raphael sits inside. The columns out the front are of Roman design. These differ to Greek columns in that they are solid columns of marble, whereas the Greeks built their columns from many parts of sculptured marble.

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We headed back to the Colosseum but arrived a little too late to warrant paying the entry fee. Somehow we were now going to have to try and fit in both the Vatican City AND the Colosseum the next morning before we left for Naples. Fat chance of that. As it was nearing dinner time, we walked the 3kms back to Trastavere where we attempted to find a decent place to eat without the use of our phones. Tough task. We meandered for quite some time and were getting quite disgruntled by everything appearing as a tourist trap. Eventually, we gave in and entered a crowded place called “Da Enzo.” This could have went either way but thank the Roman gods it was a winner. The carbonara was incredible. Made from actual egg yolks and the most crispy but juicy portions of fleck, it has to be the best carbonara I’ve ever enjoyed.

Following that, we said goodnight to Rome and tried to work out how we were going to plan the next morning. We weren’t going to be able to fit in both Vatican City and the Colosseum so we settled on this – Doing the Colosseum and coming back to Rome to do Vatican City after Naples! So after a very food and wine driven day (because what else is there to do in Italy really?) we dozed off, counting pigs instead of sheep and those pigs were turning into prosciutto and landing in our hungry mouths.

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After another crazy good breakfast, we checked out and walked the 3kms to the Colosseum for the third time in three days. This time we did pay the fee to enter in and wowsers – standing within the Colosseum! Goosebumps anyone? It’s essentially just a shell now, with eroded shapes that used to be seating and dusty walls that used to be elaborately decorated. The interesting thing to learn was that the Colosseum was nothing spectacular in its day – it was just a city necessity, like modern day overpasses. Regardless, it was inspiring. Designed so well that 50,000 occupants could evacuate within 15 minutes. We imagined the arena full, people cheering as two Gladiators battled before Caesar. We imagined ourselves as two of them – Clintosaurus and Elishious Maximus. It was also interesting to find it oval shaped inside instead of the perfectly round shape that I’d previously assumed. Another Rick Steves audioguide filled in all the blanks for us and helped to create a world we’d otherwise be blindly making up – rubbish like “I think Caesar probably sat at the very top” (when in fact he sat on his throne at the bottom) and “Did you know this is where the Olympics were held?” (when they obviously hadn’t.)

Knowing we’d be back again in four days time, we weren’t too upset to say farewell. We still had Vatican City to do and an abundance of food to eat in the meantime. We walked the 3kms back from the Colosseum (I think we’d now clocked close to 50kms walking in 3 days?) to collect our bags and jumped on a bus to the main terminal (which, knowing our luck, probably wasn’t too far from the Colosseum.) We boarded a train and left Rome for Naples where the pasta would be replaced by pizza and our safety would be replaced by the mafia.

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38. Athens // Greece

Over the next four days, the world was to open it’s doors to us, revealing an ancient snapshot of human accomplishments that went back to the 5th Century BC. Our time in both Athens and Rome will forever leave us feeling like someone had bent the fabric of time and allowed us to walk straight into when the Persians sacked the Acropolis and when the Gladiators roared within the Colosseum. Ok, that’s probably a little dramatic and would assume someone has solved time travel. But we were certainly awestruck numerous times as standing remnants of these ancient masterpieces towered above us.

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After what was becoming a seamlessly never-ending summer, we were keen to return to some tourist spots and inject our minds with a strong dose of culture. We flew into Athens rather late, with few expectations of the city but a keen appetite to visit the Acropolis. Strangely, Elisha was struggling with a severe headache and was on the verge of vomiting so we made a concerted effort to get to our accommodation as quickly as possible. Lonely planet states on page 513 of the Europe on a Shoestring (8th Edition) under Dangers & Annoyances “Streets surrounding Omonia have become markedly seedier, with an increase in prostitutes and junkies; AVOID THE AREA, ESPECIALLY AT NIGHT!”

On a shoestring budget but desperately needing our own space, I’ll give you one guess where our “hotel” was located. That’s right – in AVOID THE AREA Omonia.

The streets were dark and eerily quiet as we walked with our backpacks from where the bus from the airport had dropped us off in Syntagmos to our hidden hotel. Grafitti was laden everywhere. In fact, it seemed every spare inch of space on any building, poster, pole, transport or living thing was marked with grafitti. And then, on that grafitti, was more grafitti. Words like “seedy” and “needles” began to enter our discussion as we walked rather closely into the abyss. Sirens could be heard somewhere. Was that a glass bottle smashing? “Hey Elisha, remember that time in the backstreets of Kuala Lumpur when we feared for our lives?”

We eventually found our hotel around the corner from a street littered with trash. We checked in, climbed the stairs to our room, turned the lock, engaged the deadlock, shoved a chair under the handle and then turned our bed into a fortress. Thankfully, Elisha did in fact vomit.

Which was fantastic.

For this meant she did not wish to head back out for dinner. Which was fine by me because I didn’t want to open my eyes again until the sun was up. So with howls and screams bellowing at us from the street below, we huddled and shook beneath the bed until, finally, we fell asleep.

Our reasons to fear were confirmed the next morning when, as we exited the building mid-morning, we saw a large armoured police truck parked across the road and an armed policeman standing at the hotel’s entrance. As a result of this “scared-shitlessness” I guess you would call it, we unfortunately don’t have many photos of Athens as we ensured we left the hotel each morning wearing our cheapest shoes and simplest clothes and left our valuables, such as watches, cameras and phones, at home (where they were probably at an even greater risk with the wage-deprived hotel staff.)

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But Athens is an interesting city. We are all aware they were hit hard by their own financial crisis in 2010. I think for those who may have seen the city before this time would tell a very different story to ours. However, it seems because of this recession that the city has blossomed and redifined itself into one that we very quickly fell in love with. If you like Berlin because of its grittiness but underlyingly adorable personality, there’s a good chance Athens will win you over too. Skipping ahead quickly, when we flew to Rome, we read an article which confirmed our suspicions. The recession has lead to incredibly cheap rent in the middle of the city. Jobs just do not exist and there are a lot of people sitting around with nothing to do. So what does this breed? Ingenuity. Small businesses, such as new waves of bars and coffee shops, barbers and app designers, are flourishing. We read that rent can be as little as 250 Euros per month in the city. People, who are so sick of waiting for a job to become available, are tackling the problem first hand and taking the initiative to create their own jobs. It’s really cool. As a result, there are heaps of new and cool things to check out, the city is alive and has an incredible night scene. Throw in numerous specialty coffee brewers and Elisha had me legging it all over the city. When we weren’t being tourists and snapping photos of 2000 year old rocks, we were meticulously comparing Athens with our other favourite cities, such as Berlin, Prague, Budapest and Melbourne.

With all that urban stuff aside, the real reason anyone goes to Athens is to of course visit the Acropolis. I think history books for absolutely any period in time probably confirms that some race or person lived on this very hill. It is shrouded in history. And I won’t go into it here – because this is a blog and not a textbook. But to again be standing on something so significant not just to the Greeks but to all of humanity really was truely amazing. It is also home to the Parthenon, the iconic temple that has been renovated at the very top. Please reader, be very careful when hashtagging this on Instagram. If you do what I did, and mispell it as Panthenon, two things will happen. One – your photo will join a mash collection of photos that comprise both the Parthenon in Athens and the Pantheon in Rome from tourists who don’t know the difference, and Two – some self righteous twat will comment on your photo to correct you. However, because he is also a tourist who doesn’t know the difference, he will say “It’s Partenon. Panthenon is in Rome.” Twat. His name is Bartekwasu if you wish to join me in forever trolling him.

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The other main attraction in Athens is the Acropolis Museum. This is incredible as it is built on top of the archaeological site of Markygianni and the ruins of a part of Roman and early Byzantine Athens. You walk over glass floors where you can see the foundations of the old city directly beneath you and marvel at its layout, design and architecture. Inside the museum itself are over 4,000 items that have been excavated from the Acropolis. Let’s just say lot’s of penises. Or is it penii? Battye, you’d know. Tell me.

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Athens is exhausting. It’s hot and you do an incredible amount of walking. As such, it’s important to mix it up with plenty of refreshments. Elisha took me to a number of different coffee places. As we hadn’t had a great coffee in well over a month, this was almost the highlight of the city. There is also this bakery which does a Greek-style pie and is eaten for breakfast. They are served flat, taste great and I ate two. We visited a few different bars and had one final Mythos before saying farewell to Greece.

 

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Before catching the bus back to the airport, we had to again make the dreaded return to the hotel to collect our bags. Ignoring Lonely Planet’s advise to AVOID THIS AREA, we made one final trek, empty-handed, through the suspicious hords of tramps loitering on the streets just so we could make a return trek, handed with cameras, watches and phones, through the suspicious hords of tramps loitering on the streets.

Athens had one final surprise for us. As we sat in the warm comfort of our bus, the heavens truely opened. I haven’t seen a flash flood like this since I was in Toowoomba the day cars were rolled down the streets in a torrent of muddy flood water. The bus splashed waves of water high over the pavements as we rolled through a foot-deep river or rushing water and we smiled gleefully as we took pictures of people on mopeds and people running beneath umbrella’s as they tried to escape the tsunami created by our bus.

We were excited to be heading to Rome after Athens. Although we assumed it would treat us with another display of ancient wonder, we were mainly keen to get there for more obvious reasons. And that was so we could be staying somewhere that Lonely Planet didn’t have a firm “AVOID THIS AREA” warning for.

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