Italy is every bit of the cliché that we know it by and much more. It’s a special destination for me as this was my first trip as a solo backpacker. Here is a country that has contributed immensely to civilisation as we know it today and yet it does not preach. It effortlessly juxtaposes modernity and history in a seamless fusion. And Rome is certainly the flag-bearer of this connection.
Rome is an eternal city, nothing less than grand. The sheer size of her fountains nestled with pagan temples and her churches will blow your mind. As you emerge out of the underground metro in to the Colloseo station, you find yourself standing in front of the Coliseum. It takes a moment to fully comprehend the enormity of its size and the history that surrounds it. All you can do is stand and stare as time rewinds itself to another era going back thousands of years ago. Your head may short circuit due to overwhelming emotions and just as when you’re about to come to terms with the history, a supercharged Lamborghini thunders past you.
The only conceivable way of discovering Rome is on foot. With Rome, guidebooks are passé and pointless. There are hidden gems in narrow alleys and corners throughout the city – from a wooden cross perched on a wall from the 13th century to a water fountain from 200 BC that still supplies parched tourists with drinkable water. Some places will suck you in to the bustle and some will offer you a safe haven.
At the Piazza Navona, the buzz is mind-boggling. There are artists painting scenes, musicians singing their songs, women selling souvenirs, kids splashing about in the fountains, the click-click of the tourists, folk dancing and people on terraces sipping chilled white wine in the Italian summer. The Sant’Agnese in Agone is a church at the square that keeps the buzz firmly locked outside. Once inside you are immersed in tranquillity and art. Also at the square are some gelato parlours. The gelato here is so fluffy and creamy that momentarily I was teleported to a soft white cloud floating in the river of cream somewhere in heaven.
The Alessandro Palace at Via Vicenza was where I stayed, near the Roma Termini, and was like crashing a mammoth house party. Filled with young vacationers from all over the world, it was a brilliant place to make ‘bar-crawl buddies’. The hostel was kind enough to organise free pizzas for everyone in the common bar area and the chef pretty much climbed on the table and started dishing out slices of pizzas to everyone.
Nightlife in Rome = Intense! After a point, I couldn’t care less about what bar I was walking into or whom I was walking in with and who I left with. Pub-crawls are big in Rome and the organisers usually arrange a good deal at the bar along with free shots at almost every public house-of-the-kind. I was drained out from all the walking and eventually it was the Peroni, the Moretti and the countless Sambuca shots that were doing the walking for me! I was definitely partying with Caesar!
After a lovely breakfast at a bakery nearby, it was time for the Vatican. This headquarters of the Christian faith is the smallest country in the world. The Vatican experience cannot be described in words as it is so pristine and historic that you simply cannot believe where you are. St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel make your gait so slow that you realise you’re using all your senses together to accumulate the experience. All I could say to myself was, “Man, that’s a Michelangelo on the ceiling!” On my way back from the Vatican, I stumbled upon an exhibition of Da Vinci’s work. It was an exhibition of recreations, the Da Vinci’s designs made to scale. The whole spectacle was quite impressive. There were army tanks and 6-barreled guns, revolving guns and flying cycles and whatnot. From there, I made my way back to the hostel to rest a while because I had a long journey to the Mediterranean villages of Cinque Terre the next day; one maddeningly exciting place after another.
Somewhere on the way back to my room, I heard loud thumping bass playing. Out of curiosity, I followed the sound and “Lo and behold!” here was a gathering of about a 1,000 or so people and trucks with speakers piled up on them blaring different kinds of electronic music in the middle of the day on the streets. It was some kind of a ‘free for all’ street rave. There were all sorts of interesting people holding up banners: homosexuals, anarchists, animal right activists, human right activists, pro-marijuana activists, hippies; you name it.
The parade started and people were following the truck of their choice, all through Rome. We passed through the historic Centre and some of the places I had been to on the previous day, only this time I wasn’t gaping at them in historic reverence but was dancing in a crowd of thousands to some psychedelic music. People kept joining the crowd and things just got bigger and louder and crazier. Rome is such a perpetual city.
The ‘Cinque Terre’ is a group of five Mediterranean villages in the north west of Italy famous for their seafood and wine. The train from Roma Termini takes you to La Spezia; a four hour ride, and another train from La Spezia takes you to Riomaggiore; the first of the five villages.
I had a rather interesting train ride to La Spezia with an Italian family that could not speak English, but were nonetheless very enthusiastic to communicate with me when they heard I was Indian. As the train descends in to Riomaggiore, all you can see is the porcelain blue Ligurian Sea starts shimmering under the sun. My hostel was located at Manarola, the second of the five villages.
The walk from Riomaggiore to Manarola is a peaceful paved stroll on a cliff along the sea-side. On your way you may find painters painting the breathtaking sea in its myriad shades. There are quaint cafés along the way where they serve white wine with croutons and peanuts. It takes about thirty minutes of leisurely walking to reach Manarola. Manarola is a laid back fishing village. The village is built on a cliff and the villagers produce some amazing local wine. This place was a dream. I had worked up an appetite from the long journey and after checking-in I strolled in to a seaside restaurant.
Wine was a must, and I just had to try their seafood, so I called for a Seafood Ravioli. The ravioli was home-made and the seafood was so fresh that it literally melted in my mouth. A tête-à-tête of kinds ensued between the owner of the restaurant and me, and he offered me a shot of vintage extra-virgin olive oil. I repeat, DREAM!
After lunch I descended to the sea and got lost in the serenity. Time ticked away and all I was purely living each minute of my life. Sometimes, the only way of doing that is through inaction. As urban folk, we tend to DO a lot of things – accomplish tasks, finish chores, meet objectives – but sometimes all you have to do to feel alive is NOTHING, and that’s precisely what I did till sundown, and then decided to rest.
I skipped dinner and went straight back to the hostel. The kind of people I was sharing my room with here were in stark contrast to the flash-packers I met in Rome. No pub-crawls here, just solo travellers with books and notepads. I plonked myself on the top bunk, plugged in the ‘Unplugged in New York’ album by Nirvana and let Kurt Cobain sing me his lullabies. It was 7.30 in the evening and I was already asleep.
I woke up at 6 a.m. and headed straight for the breakfast counter. I said my ‘goodbye’s to Manarola and headed to the other villages. Next was Corniglia, which made you climb 300 stairs to get to it. It was a little more numb than Manarola, but beautiful nonetheless. Corniglia has some nice quaint churches and, after a lunch of Quarto Fromaggio pizza, I was gone. My next stop was Vernazza which was much livelier and bustling, in a Mediterranean village kind of a way. This was also the first village to have a proper sand beach. NOTE: The women in Italy are beyond gorgeous, and when one of them comes strutting around in her bikini and happens to ask you something, try not to make walrus-like sounds as a response.
There was one more village to go, but I hardly had any time before the train back to La Spezia was due, and from there to Rome again. So I sat down in a dark wooden café and ordered a cappuccino, and I can safely say that it’s got to be the best cup of my life.
On my way back to London from Rome, I kept thinking to myself about how much I loved the feeling of experiencing something on my own. Walking around and having conversations with myself made me realise that I am my own best friend. I did a mental high five with the person inside me.
This was also the trip that made me decide to make travelling the centre of my life. So far, so AWESOME!