A couple of weeks ago, I outdid myself in the spontaneity stakes. A friend and I were discussing options for ways to spend the upcoming fiesta – we had a Monday off, giving us a whole, glorious, extra day of freedom. This meant one thing – travel. It being January and all, the year abroad seems to be flying by, creating extra pressure to get out and do and see all the things you intended to do and see when you arrived, fresh and vulnerable, in September. A weekend where you don’t experience something new is a weekend wasted. So, with this in mind, we began trawling the Internet for cheap deals on travel and accommodation, thinking that we might visit Barcelona. After half an hour or so (and a few gin and tonics), we began the amusing game of randomly typing cities into the Easy Jet website, and comparing prices. It was then that we realised that flights to Rome were cheaper then flights to Barcelona – a fact that still slightly astonishes me. Hardly daring to do it, we began searching for deals on hotels and found one that looked great and fulfilled all our requirements – cheap, central, breakfast included. Wincing slightly (neither my friend nor I are usually the sort to book impulsive holidays – I’m more the draft-an-itinerary-six-months-in-advance sort), we decided to go for it.
The weeks in between flew by, and before I knew it, I was packing my regulation size hand luggage bag and setting off to the airport. Due to a strange anomaly in prices, we had decided to fly Ryan Air to Rome, and Easy Jet on the way back. Now, for one reason or another, I had never flown Ryan Air and was slightly dreading the experience, having heard less than delightful things. Of course, they serve their purpose, and I definitely don’t turn my nose up at the low prices, but I am rather a nervous flier. The centre aisle of the plane is so narrow, that if an unsuspecting soul attempts to go to the toilet at the same time as the flight crew are serving refreshments, that soul is forced to perch on another passengers lap whilst the trolley passes. This did not fill me with confidence. Neither did the garish advertisements plastered all over the sides of the cabin or the life jacket under my seat that was coated with a thick layer of dust. However, I tried to reserve judgement and quash my fears. I was rewarded with a safe flight and a rather over-exuberant fanfare on arrival, as a speaker announced that Ryan Air had landed ‘yet another flight on time’.
Getting from the airport to the train station (by bus) and from the Termini station to the hotel (by foot) was a relatively unremarkable experience, the only standout incident being a dashing and genuinely helpful man noticing us staring at a map and offering to point us in the right direction (this encounter occupies a particularly fond place in my mind, as, although Italian men often offer their services to pasty English girls on the street, it’s usually not quite the service that you require). The hotel itself was a gem, hidden on the second floor of a lovely building on a quiet backstreet. It was more like a B&B than a hotel really, with only fifteen rooms. It being January, only two of those rooms were occupied – including ours – making it feel safe and cosy and guaranteeing us a lot of attention from the hotel staff. The room came complete with an ensuite bathroom, a kettle and a Nespresso coffee machine. In the morning, a little basket filled with delicious pastries and bread rolls was hung on a hook outside our door, ready to be enjoyed with the selection of butter and spreads already provided. Thus began our (regrettably short-lived) morning ritual of making tea, collecting the basket and enjoying our hand-delivered breakfast in bed.
We spent the three days in Rome walking everywhere and taking in as many sights as possible. I had been to Rome before, as it was the final destination in a three week tour of Italy I did two summers ago, but it was my friend’s first time in the city, and I was more than willing to have a second look around. We arrived on the Friday morning, and, after checking in and dumping our bags, went for a stroll down Via Cavour towards the Coliseum and the Roman Forum. We stopped at a roadside restaurant for pasta, before continuing our walking tour of the city’s main sights, which culminated in watching the sunset from the top of the Spanish Steps. After long hours of strolling, admiring and photographing, we were exhausted, so returned to the hotel for a restorative cup of tea. In the evening we found another cute, warm restaurant on Via Cavour, with a flirtatious Italian waiter, in which we devoured an incredible pizza and red wine.
On Saturday we decided to do everything that we had done on Friday again, but slower and without the added benefits of sleep deprivation. We queued in the winter sunshine for the privilege of strolling around the Coliseum (yes, it’s touristy, but it’s also extremely interesting and undeniably important). We continued the tour of the ancient relics with Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum – but, eventually, we got a little tired of inspecting ‘a series of small walls’ and went in search of lunch. We found it in a cute – if a tad touristy – restaurant in a sunny square right opposite the Pantheon. We sat enjoying a platter of grilled vegetables, mozzarella and deliciously fresh bread with a crisp white wine, basking in the winter sunshine. Heaven.
Rejuvenated, we spent the afternoon strolling along the riverbank and had a little mooch around Trastevere, an area below the river in the South West of the city, famous for its lively nightlife. Later, I reflected that Trastevere is the only area of Rome that I could actually live in; as undeniably impressive as the ancient ruins, the Trevi fountain and the Spanish steps are, I felt that I had only found the heart of Rome when I crossed the river and escaped the crowds. If I return to Rome, I would love to spend more time exploring those winding streets.
After the obligatory rest and tea break at the hotel, we found a spot for dinner and then went for another late night stroll – by far my favourite way to explore Italian cities. We stumbled across a great, if rather high-end, bar called Baccano, which was just around the corner from the Trevi Fountain. After a relatively cheap pasta dinner, we decided to splash out on champagne cocktails – deep pink, fizzy and studded with blueberries.
The next day was our final full day, and we decided to make a trip to the Vatican. Seeing as it was the last Sunday of the month, it was free and, as the sun was shining, we decided to walk there. About five minutes from the Basilica Square, we noticed we were not alone; a procession of children and nuns was making its way down the street, waving banners and chanting in Italian. We were soon engulfed by the crowd and happily (once we realised that it was a peaceful demonstration and not a scary Lord of the Flies-esque riot) allowed ourselves to be swept along towards the Basilica. When we got there, we settled into the long queue to look inside the church, whilst the children gathered into the square in a huge crowd and their leaders began making speeches through the loudspeaker. This was fine at first, but became a little annoying after half an hour in the queue. When, after having a look around the enormous, elaborate and stunning Basilica, the speeches were still going on, I began to get grumpy. “I wish they would shut up – they’re ruining the atmosphere!” I complained to my friend. However, as we began to move through the crowd, intending to head to the Vatican museum, something strange happened. People began to drop to their knees. Then I noticed that the crowd was no longer just children, but people of all ages. And they were all standing looking up at a window near the top of the huge Vatican building. Following their gaze, I saw that a small figure wearing a white cap was leaning out of the window and addressing the crowd, many of whom were chanting along with him. We watched as he performed a blessing and then proceeded to release a dove from a cage (the poor thing then tried to fly back into the cage before settling on the wall and having to fend off the aggressive advances of a couple of Italian seagulls). A little confused and a lot embarrassed by my previous rantings, I turned to my friend – “Could that be… do you think that’s…It can’t be the Pope?!?!” And, after some heavy squinting (and speedy googling), we decided it was.
When the Pope had finished his addresses and retired to his private Vatican bedchamber (or so I presume), we wandered around the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel, feeling a little dazed and confused by our accidental encounter. We surmised that there wasn’t much in the city that could top that experience, so decided to focus the remainder of our time in Rome on culinary adventures. We popped into Taza de Oro, an infamous café just off the Pantheon Square that has no tables and is always packed. You make your order at the till, and then stand at the bar to wait your turn, when you present the bartender (or barista) with your receipt. After receiving your coffee, you chuck it down your throat as fast as possible and get back to business. My friend and I stayed a little longer than the average Italian, sampling the mocca, made with thick, liquid chocolate and topped with whipped cream. Caloricious.
In the evening, we ate at a tiny little restaurant down a side street (also near the Pantheon), sitting at an outside table with a red and white checked tablecloth. The restaurant was run by South Americans (a common occurrence in Italy, more so even than in Spain) and we soon realised that we received less sycophantic, more genuinely friendly service when we spoke in Spanish – both to the waiters and to each other – than English. Thus, we found ourselves in the somewhat strange situation of being two English girls, in Italy, speaking Spanish – a true ‘year abroad’ moment. Aside from the pick-and-mix language games, this restaurant deserves a special mention for serving the best pasta I have ever tasted. My friend chose spaghetti carbonara and I had spaghetti bolognaise – two of the most basic Italian dishes – and we found ourselves slightly emotional after the first mouthful of each. For dessert, we shared a lemon meringue cake. Indescribable. I don’t think my taste buds have ever been treated so well – which, from me, is saying something.
And so, our appetites – both for food and culture – sated, ten pounds heavier but ten times more relaxed, we grabbed one final pot of gelato by the Trevi Fountain before jumping on a train to the airport and flying back to Madrid (this time, in the relative luxury of Easy Jet). It was a really wonderful weekend, which, for me, confirmed something unexpected; despite the beautiful architecture, whirring vespers, passionate language and delicious food, I was happy to be returning to my little Spanish city. Somewhere along the crazy ride that has been the last five months, Madrid has become more than an exotic holiday destination or a challenge to be overcome; it has become home.