I recently found myself with an 18 hour layover in Rome. Normally, I am all about the 18 hour layover. That's a perfect amount of time to leave an airport, get to a city, explore a day's worth of exploring, and then get back to the airport in time to be on your way. This time, however, the 18 hours fell on an overnight layover. I landed in Rome at 7:00pm and departed at 2:00pm the next day. Obviously I was still going to take advantage of the layover, but these hours were certainly going to put a damper on the experience as a whole.
I'd never slept in an airport before, but hell if I was going to spend the money on a hostel just for a few hours. At the Duty-Free store in my initial airport, I bought four small bottles of wine. I figured if I was stuck in an airport, I may as well have some fun! Unfortunately, I arrived in Rome with a headache that quickly grew into a migraine (always ideal for airport sleepovers!), so the wine was no longer an enticing option. As I went through security from one terminal to another, I decided that I would save the wine for home. However, even though they were small bottles that were sealed in the Duty Free bags, security insisted that I take them out in order to test them. I thought the entire point of Duty-Free was to ensure that would not happen, but alas, I was too nauseous at that point to have any inclination to argue for my wine's rights.
I did grab myself a slice of pizza in the hope that that would help the head, but it just made everything worse. I stumbled over to as quiet a corner as I could find, and, ignoring the "no lying!" sign on the couch, I lay and covered my eyes with my black sweater as an attempt to block out the bright overhead lights. Luckily, none of the janitors cleaning nearby cared about my lawless ways, and left me to sleep off the migraine.
I had the alarm set for 6. The first train left at 5:35, but given the state of my health the night before I had decided to let myself "sleep in". Thankfully, I awoke headache-free. I joyously jumped up from my couch and skipped off towards the train station in a mixture of happiness from an awaiting adventure along with good health. I caught the 6:35 train, and watched the sun rise over the Italian architecture as I made my way into town. The train deposited me in the smack middle of the city, still early enough that the true rush hour had yet to begin (ah, southern Europe).
I kept an eye on Google Maps as I wound my way through the sleepy neighborhoods. I'd been to the Eternal City twice before, so it was not essential to fit in all of the sights in the four hours I had. I wanted to see as much as I could, but I did it via the pretty, quiet neighborhoods rather than the main thoroughfares. Soon, my maps app turned obsolete, as the Colosseum loomed clearly between the modern buildings.
I am absolutely not a morning person, but I will say that this particular morning carved away at my staunch anti-alarm sentiments. I arrived at the Colosseum before 8am, so it was just me and a few older Japanese couples. This particular stop killed two tourism birds with one stone, as right next to the Colosseum (on the right, from this picture's angle) is the Roman Forum. This was the center of Ancient Rome, really. This was where there were bustling markets, political speeches, sporting events, etc. Today, it is an archeologist's dream, a sprawling area of ruins big and small. However, you need a ticket to enter and I had neither the time nor money to acquire one (as I'd been there twice before, I wasn't too sad about it).
Onwards I trekked, one mile (1.6 km) northwards to my favorite place in Rome: the Trevi Fountain. I love fountains and this is one of the best ones out there. Huge, with an expansive marble scene overseeing the water, this 18th century stunner was also devoid of tourists that morning. I lingered for about ten minutes, but as I was standing in the shadows near the cold water in late November, my hands froze a bit quicker than I expected. Thus, I threw a coin in the water and then headed off to find breakfast.
I wish I could tell you that my magical four hour Roman adventure was punctuated with a romantic Italian breakfast, but alas, all I did was duck into McDonalds in order to have a quick, cheap biscuit. In my defense, it was the only thing I could find that was open. And the radio inside was playing "Friends" by Justin Bieber, which was my jam du jour, so I wasn't complaining.
Less than a ten minute walk from the Trevi Fountain is the Pantheon. It is an immense, 2,000 year old building that is one of the best-preserved Ancient Roman buildings anywhere, and is the best preserved ancient dome. When the Visogoths (from modern Germany) sacked the city in 410, they were ordered to destroy everything they could. But the Pantheon was exempted. Historians do not quite know why, but my favorite theory is that they were ordered to not destroy something that was such an engineering marvel.
1.6 miles (2.5 km) west of the Pantheon lies another country (technically) - the Vatican. As again, I was being somewhat leisurely about this day, I walked alongside the Tiber River rather than on the more direct roads. It was an absolutely exquisite day now that the sun had risen. The water was like glass, reflecting the architecture and fall leaves of it's banks. I passed under many grand bridges as I made my way towards St. Peter's dome in the distance.
Like I said, this was my third time in Rome. I hated the first trip (might explain why, someday. It's a bit of a difficult political and cultural subject to breach on a blog), and grudgingly enjoyed the second, but this serene walk along the river finally pushed me into the category "Fans of Rome". Sure, it was still early-ish on a weekday, the crazy Roman personality had yet to emerge from its slumber, but I loved it.
I got to the Vatican around 10:30 am. It was exciting to see the Christmas preparations, though it being November they were still not quite ready. There were a few more tourists here than there had been further east, but it wasn't the crack of dawn anymore. I stood in the security line, they looked in my bag, and then I headed on into the world's most impressive Christian structure.
St. Peter's cathedral is simply too big to begin to capture on film (can we still say "on film" in the digital era?). Inside there is a marker to show the size of various other famous landmarks that could all fit inside of this Renaissance feat. I will flesh out the Vatican in another blog, and thus will leave the words for later. But let it be known, this is a breathtaking building no matter how many times you see it, no matter how many other cathedrals or Renaissance buildings you have seen, and no matter your opinion of the Catholic Church. Just wow.
I headed out of the Vatican around 11, with 45 minute remaining before I needed to get back on the metro to the train station and back to the airport. I walked to the next bridge over and sat in the shade of the Castel Sant'Angelo (pictured in the top photo of the blog), built in the 100s as the tomb for Hadrian (of wall fame). It was here I produced my four little bottles of wine. As the inner-airport security folks had made me open them, I needed to either drink them now or throw them away, because security wouldn't let me bring them when I returned to the airport. Considering I had done a day's worth (multiple days worth, really) of touristing in the last four hours, I figured it counted as the end of the day and thus it was fine to be drinking wine in the morning. As I sipped through the bottles, I watched as the traffic and crowds increased. During my second bottle, a violinst set up shop near me and began to play Disney songs. Always one for the Mouse, my morning drinking became even better with this addition to my senses.
And then, it was time to go back to the airport. The wine had worn off by the time I arrived, which was a bit of a bummer - I'm scared of flying and if I had to drink before noon, I should have at least gotten the side benefit of being more relaxed on the flight. But alas. Thankfully, the flight was not bumpy and I was at my next destination a few short hours later.
Before I had struck off on the train that morning, I would never had thought I would accomplish as much as I did in the very limited time that I had. It was a reminder of just how small central Rome is, which is great from a tourist perspective. Obviously, four hours is a bit less than the ideal amount of time to explore one of the world's most historic cities, but it was better and more inclusive than I thought it was going to be. And hey, now I actually really like Rome!