On my 31st birthday, Nick surprised me with dinner reservations at Lidia's where he had gone earlier and left a card on our table. I was surprised at the reservations alone, but that he had gone earlier was like whoa, way to go Nick. In that envelope, was a beautiful Hammerpress card (the die-cut one that says 'The Great Adventure Awaits' and written inside was simply 'Italy 2016'.
I spent the next year dreaming, talking to friends and strangers about Italy, about traveling, about history, and culture, and adventure and in September of 2016 (a few weeks before my 32nd birthday) we took off for Roma.
Here is the first post in a 3 part series featuring our trip - an abbreviated overview of where we went, what we did, and what you should do if you ever find yourself in Italia.
Part 1: Rome
"The founding of Rome goes back to the very early days of civilization. It is so old, it is today known as 'the eternal city'. The Romans believed that their city was founded in the year 753 BC. Modern historians though believe it was the year 625 BC."
(H/T to this old site for the history lesson)
We flew into Leonardo da Vinci–Fiumicino Airport in Rome. We were exhausted and jet-lagged, but knowing I was in Italy made me happy, excited, and energetic.
My first impressions of Rome were:
1. Dang, it really is old.
2. Yikes, it's dirty.
3. Wow, it's so lush.
We spent the first few nights in the neighborhood Pigento. It is known as the Brooklyn of Rome and I was sold by the airbnb host's promise to live as the Romans do.
Our first night we were overwhelmed and tired. The fatigue, unknown and language barrier were compounded by the lack of sleep and many hours of traveling (2 flights, 1 train ride, 1 tram ride, and 1 long, lost walk with our packs).
But we were hungry, and thus motivated, so we wandered out and stopped in a restaurant across the street. It felt like the whole restaurant was staring at us (I think they really were) and I marched up to the cute, young, dreaded hipster waitress and asked her in horrible Italian if she spoke English. She looked at me kinda skeptical and said, "yeah, what's up" in perfect English. I could have kissed her. The kitchen was closed (it was 6 PM, obviously not dinner time), but she hooked us up with a wonderful charcuterie plate and a local IPA and we started to feel like things might be OK after all.
We found a local gelateria to enjoy (at least once a day), walked the streets in the evenings, observed parents and young kids at the chained-in park, and walked to dinner at traditional Italian restaurants.
I was surprised at the diversity and modernity of Pigento and would highly recommend staying here if you're the adventurous type.
I enjoy traveling to see how people live today, rather than visiting the list of must-sees, but I did book one 'touristy' thing before we left the states - a bike tour of Rome. Bikes were involved, I had to! It was a great way to take in the big sites of Rome and with a knowledgable guide.
Our guide, Laja, (pictured on the far left) taught me more about enjoying travel and Italian lifestyle than anything else. Her biggest takeaway on how to be a better traveler - enjoy what you see with your own eyes, savor it, feel it's history, it's holiness, it's uniqueness. Put the camera away and store it in your memory.
You can read my review of the bike tour here.
While we enjoyed the traditional Italian food, we needed a break and were both craving Asian. We took the tram from Pigneto to the heart of Old Rome and followed the locals into this great joint where we enjoyed a delicious meal and local Lazio wine.
My favorite part of Rome was wandering. Getting lost in the streets. Seeing a cool, old structure and discovering it led to ancient Catacombs. Paying 8 Euro to explore those Catacombs and learn about the ancient traditions surrounding death and the afterlife (rich folks built rooms for their dead - including servants - and 'picnicked' there to spend time with the dead who they believed still lived in that room).
While I did not fall in love with the city, I greatly appreciated it and enjoyed every moment there.