I emphatically recommend traveling with British people. To travel with a Brit is to become a Brit – if only for a long weekend– and doing so provides a thrilling respite from being the American tourist. You suddenly have license to roll your eyes at the loud Yankee accents on the metro. It's the best.
As last August faded to a broiling end, I joined two of my very own Brits (this one and this one) to beautiful, sunbaked Rome. We rolled into the city near midnight, got inexcusably lost in the three-block walk from train station to Airbnb, and mimed our way through the house rules with our Italian-only nona of a hostess. The apartment was a black-and-white-tiled, artfully ramshackle museum of flea market paintings, philosophy books, and green house plants. A home-baked lemon cake waited for us on the dining table.
Emily and Naomi navigated the city with a paper map, which I probably found too quaint and novel. Our wanderings through the city's hyper-saturated palette affirmed one of my life's philosophical pillars: people love beauty. The concrete walls of Rome could be an untouched grey, but the vibrant Italian quintessence paints the facades in glowy apricot, mossy green, cerulean, and lemon. Beauty is instinctive.
The sharply slanting summer sun sliced the city's colors into shards. Walking the streets was a study in contrasts – this vivd orange building abuts that pale blue wall, glaringly sunlit streets twist into dark alleys, shiny new cars trundle down cobblestone roads. Rome's very personality plays a foil to itself. This historical juggernaut of conquest and institution seems to sing and laugh, refusing to take herself too seriously. She's nonchalant and unwound. She invites you to romp among the relics.
We wound through said relics to the dazzling Trevi Fountain, flooded with other tourists but totally stunning nonetheless. The sun was so hot and the fountain water was so blue that I almost took a dive in the spirit of one Miss Lizzie McGuire. We ambled over to the Pantheon in the Piazza della Rotonda – a vivacious square full of music and color. Standing in the milky cylinder of sunlight streaming through the Pantheon's oculus was worth the entire trip to Rome. I could have gone back to London then in perfect happiness.
Winding through the alleys of Rome provides little sense of orientation or direction, but the twisting path eventually spit us out in Piazza Navona. The piazza felt a bit like a film set – musicians played for change, artists painted at easels, and people strolled with gelato in hand. We ate pizza off blue checked tablecloths at Caffe Barocco, and I couldn't figure out if it was touristy or good, or both. Frigidarium, a highly recommended gelateria, was definitely good. We did very thorough research in the form of about four scoops each.
Even accounting for all the world famous pasta and pizza and gelato, I was most thrilled by Rome's drinking water. Brass spigots jutted from walls and fountains with sweet-tasting water just waiting to be drunk from my cupped hands. Exhilarating.
The next day earned us the distinct lifetime achievement of walking from one country to another. The sovereign Vatican City is surrounded by an enormous stone wall and you enter with a horde of other sweating tourists, but the experience is pretty singular nonetheless. The tour takes visitors through the Vatican Museum, which houses the Pope's personal art and antiquities collections. The beautiful Hall of Maps was my personal highlight and the Sistine Chapel was, of course, awe inspiring. It looked so different than I imagined. The famous "Creation of Adam" fresco is just a tiny section in a constellation of Michelangelo's equally mind-boggling paintings.
We skidded into St. Peter's Basilica just before it closed at sundown. The church was one of those places too beautiful to process. At some point the brain meets its beauty quotient and a building becomes an exquisite blur of vaulted ceilings and gilded domes and mosaics. The sunbeams cascaded onto the marble floors and I felt both sad and happy that this place existed – a monument to God's worthiness of worship mostly empty of the actual worship.
Tired and hot and happy, we walked (what seemed like) thirty miles to what would be one of the loveliest meals of my life. After the fifteen requisite detours to photograph ourselves in front of interesting walls, we reached La Matriciana, which was recommended by my brother after celebrating his 30th birthday there a few years prior. A happy waiter in a white dinner jacket seated us at a table right on the street, where the cooling evening air and purple sunset sky and soft chatter of passersby filled my heart to overflowing. Three hours. We sat at that table for three hours because none of us wanted that perfect evening to end. We laughed and twirled pasta around our forks and declared the tiramisu to be the world's best.
When life gets difficult, I remember that somewhere in Rome a person is eating a plate of black truffle fettuccine at La Matriciana, and I feel hope once more. I keep those white table cloth, flickering candlelight, olive oil scented hours in a special compartment in my heart.
The next morning took us to the Colosseum, a spot so famous that you can't quite believe you are actually looking at it in real life. In our imaginations we filled the amphitheater with Roman spectators felt the energy that must've charged the air as gladiators rushed into the arena. I thought about the Hunger Games a lot that day and felt very confused by humanity's appalling track record of entertainment consumption. I also thought about how I never miss an episode of the Bachelorette, which made me judge the Romans less harshly.
After more pizza and more gelato, we poked around the Roman Forum and its surrounding ruins. In my travel experience, you hit a point in which another ruin (despite its significance to modern democracy or philosophy) can no longer compete with the prospect of a caffeinated beverage. We hit that point at the Forum and quickly located Sant'Eustachio Il Caffè, which sources (i.e. Naomi) call Barack Obama's favorite cafe in Rome (i.e. he went there one time). Three shakeratos (and a pistachio gelato) later, we ventured to the Spanish Steps. The sunlight was hitting the Piazza di Spagni at the perfect angle and a man was blowing bubbles and a clique of teenage girls was giggling and all was right in Roma.
Rome is a highly walkable city; we only used the Metro once on the final morning of our trip. We had grand plans of checking out the National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art, so we traveled all the way to Villa Borghese only to discover the museum was closed on Mondays. Nevertheless, we enjoyed a walk in a shady green park and a beautiful hilltop view of the Piazza del Popolo. We muscled through one last bowl of gnocchi at Antica Osteria Brunetti, then met up with some honorary Romans at the heavenly and highly Instagrammable Giolitti. The catch-up with my beloved friends was as sweet as the grapefruit gelato.
A late night flight back to London brought our magical Roman holiday to a close, but many days I revisit warm Roma in my mind. If any city's got to be the Eternal City, I'm sure glad it's Rome.