In Rome we stayed a few blocks away from Vatican City. Despite not having a single Catholic bone or tissue or neural path in my entire body, it still only made sense to make a pilgrimage to St. Peter's as soon as we arrived. Its size and grandeur are such that other cathedrals around the world must all be forced to have an unshakable inferiority complex. It bears the kind of earth shattering significance that makes a city like Geneva create the most conspicuous phallic symbol the Swiss could ever imagine. And yet, in spite of a church whose mere facade made me say, "Holy shit," the first thing I saw were two beautiful and hopelessly, inextricably bored girls sitting by the gift shop door completely immersed in their phones, texting. In my mind, they were probably messaging each other: "Church iz so lame. Wut R U doin 2nite?"
To each their own.
As we walked back to our hostel we passed a cafe by the river that we would continue to pass each night on our way back home. Every night there was a new musical act that one might describe as the worst musical act they'd ever heard in their entire life. D described it as his own personal hell, a life aboard a cruise ship that is supposed to be fun but actually just sucks out your soul into overpriced and over-watered drinks; sharing the company of overweight souls who have given up just a little on life's possibilities and are ready to settle for calling the worst musical act of all time a really nice evening on their only vacation this decade.
Sundays have traditionally (We've been traveling long enough to have traditions) been our lazy days. We woke up this Sunday intending to continue that trend. D had said the night before that we should really drag ourselves out of bed and go see the Sunday mass at St. Peter's, but, as if I was back in my adolescence in the States, I slept straight through the church services. Luckily, as I mentioned, I am not Catholic, so I didn't feel guilty about it at all. Sometimes it's incredibly relieving to not need to be forgiven.
We decided through our afternoon yawns that a nice, relaxing Sunday activity would be to take a bike ride on the Appian Way - the old, old, very old road that used to be the main way in and out of Rome.
Unfortunately, we grossly underestimated the length of the walk to actually reach said road. And, yes, we could have taken public transportation there, but we have generally avoided it as much as possible - not because it is too complicated or logistically worthless, rather that we see so much more of a city if we make ourselves walk everywhere. Subway stations all basically look the same, after all.
It took us well over an hour to reach the mouth of the Appian Way. By the time we arrived we'd already drank both of our bottles of water and I was legitimately concerned about heat exhaustion. My dark gray shirt was sweat soaked and stained with white streaks from all the salt pouring out of my body. I'm surprised it didn't crystalize.
We hired our bikes with only an hour and forty-five minutes before the bike shop closed. They told us that we'd have to hurry if we were going to see all the sights along the way. I forced my rapidly liquifying legs to pedal hard up the first hill.
The landscape was dusty and barren, the sun was exceptionally bright and it washed out any colors that hadn't already been masked by the layers of summer dust. The road was paved with ancient stones that our bikes struggled to climb over and weave around. At some points the terrain was so severe that we had to get off the road and ride through the dusty ditches along the side. (You should make note of how many times I had to use the word "dusty" in that paragraph. There's no better word to describe it.)
The Appian Way is lined with ruins, monolithic piles of stones that no longer even resemble whatever they once were. There are catacombs and ancient bath houses - where only they mosaic floors and the outlines of walls remain.
Pushing ourselves and our bikes, gear boxes grinding, we made our way far enough to see planes landing at the airport outside of Rome. Later, after returning our bikes, we checked a map and realized we'd biked all the way past the last of the tourist destinations along the road and still made it back with time to spare before our bikes were due. Apparently we are pretty swift bikers and now I honestly wouldn't mind owning a bike again when I finally get home. I haven't had one since I was a kid.
On the return trip, beside one of the crumbling monoliths was a pair of lipstick red stiletto heels casually discarded beside the road. There was no one in sight, but the shoes were not there when we'd passed by fifteen minutes earlier and they had yet to be covered by the dust that blew relentlessly in the wind. Someone had kicked them off minutes earlier and scampered away, barefoot.
My Sunday was amazing, but whoever owned those shoes, I think, was having an even better one. Rome pulsed with passion, a thumping heart after a hard run or a first dance or a first kiss.
We found a neighborhood that night that we immediately recognized as the place where we would live if we ever actually moved our lives to Rome. It's called Trastevere and it is edgy and hip and full of plazas where young twenty-somethings seek out the kind of passion that leaves stilettos beside dusty ruins. We found a bar at one of these plazas that served shockingly good (and strong) micro-brew beers for a very reasonable price. We came here almost every night after we discovered it. One night we sat and watched a fire dancer in the square, swirling her burning ropes around that plaza as if to say that not even the night in Rome could stop the burning heat. She writhed on the ground as the fire spun in tight circles over her head.
This entry would be worthless if I didn't take a minute to talk about some of the food we had in Rome. The real highlight for me came from a place called Restaurante il Boom, which we chose because any place that names themselves "The Boom" is just kind of cool and because they had photos of 1950's pin up girls on their doorway. We were told by the owner that it's a rather new place, open only a few months, which I suppose makes us Roman trendsetters. They brought us free champagne and bruschetta and I swear they didn't pay us anything at all to rave about their food online. We had a plate of pasta carbonara that brought creamy, eggy little tears to my eyes and veal with a paste of rosemary and panchetta that was to die for. But, the highlight - and I don't say this lightly, because, honestly, I'm not a big fan of dessert at all - was their tiramisu. It was like being hit in your taste buds with the H-Bomb of tiramisu. It redefined for me what tiramisu should actually be. The shape, the presentation, the texture, the sweetness, the richness. It was flawless and inspired. D and I almost always share plates of food when we eat out (so as to maximize how much food we get to experience) but after this meal, we began to refer to having "a tiramisu moment," which is to imply a sudden feeling of ownership and entitlement that leads one to no longer want to share.
The pizza we had in Rome was also divinely inspired. In fact, it was some of the best pizza of my life, if not the best. But, what really struck me (while our mouths were in the middle of pizza induced orgasms) was the couple beside us. They were married. The husband had long, dark, flowing Italianesque hair and a face of casual stubble. The wife had brilliant green eyes and a figure that was an elegant balance between slim and womanly, garbed in a shirt that read "I left my heart in Chicago." They jokingly harassed the man trying to sell roses to the patrons, they were good friends with the servers at this incredibly hip restaurant and they never stopped staring at each other like they were freshly in love; making each other laugh all night. It made me feel very warm and optimistic to bask in the glow of their obvious love. At home, with a few exceptions, I feel like all I ever hear is, "Well, life is over now that I'm getting married," or, "Oh, I'm headed back to the old ball and chain." But, no. That's ridiculous. It doesn't have to be that way at all. It shouldn't. The "Good Life" doesn't have to end; with the right person it only grows and when two people like that make it grow it's so powerful that it even knocks over the travelers sitting at the table beside them who can't understand a word of their passing conversation.
When the scalding sun came up again we went to the Vatican museum. Their collection of timeless masterpieces is seemingly infinite (although often still radiating the faint glow of being stolen or corrupted.) The museum itself is a timeless masterpiece, every inch of wall is a work of art. There were rooms covered in frescoes by Raphael and an endless hallway of painted maps of the Roman empire at different times in history (something I assume served as the original Google Maps.) There were mummies and crowns and treasures piled on top of other treasures. I saw the corner of a door so ornately carved that it had been roped off from tourists so they couldn't pet the sculpted cherubs on their way past. There was even a contemporary art section with unseen works by Van Gogh (amongst others) that the tour groups just stomped casually past. I overhead an English girl passing by a towering abstract expressionist canvas painted bright red say, "I hate art like this." A statement from a person so selfishly involved in their own limited perception of the world that they couldn't even take the time to think that there might actually be some deep value in the piece that was chosen amongst thousands of others to be presented in the Vatican (which only houses treasures in the first place) as the last work of art you see before you step foot into the Sistine Chapel itself. "I hate art like this."
Oh, and by the way, I am not even going to try and write about the Sistine Chapel. I can't do it justice and the photos I took that I was technically forbidden to take can't do it justice either so I'm just going to not say anything about it except go there. See it before you die. This belongs on your bucket list. You have no idea.
Also, if you look very carefully near one of the upper corners in the Sistine Chapel you can vaguely see the outline of a secret Pope escape passage. And, my opinion is that anything that involves such important secret passageways is intrinsically worth your time, masterpiece or not.
Sistine Chapel, holy fuck. I am glad we didn't see these things before we saw the other churches in the other cities. They would have just seemed silly.
We walked to the Trivi Fountain and I watched tourists tossing in coins over their shoulders, hoping for the luck they'd need to return to Rome one day. We climbed a hill to a park that reminded me so much of Barcelona's Park Guell, except that this park didn't seem to be melting around us. Although, I must mention that much of the architecture that we saw in Rome was so old that the surviving stones actually resembled Gaudi's work that we'd seen in Spain. It was endlessly interesting to see the things that he probably saw at some point that inspired his designs and his dreams. The park atop the hill in Rome was filled with couples intensely making out, leaving their stilettos beside dusty ruins, I assume.
We went to the ruins of the Roman forum and wandered around them lost and confused. The forum ruins are interesting because no particular fallen column or broken wall seems all that interesting. But, when you find yourself able to step back and take in the entire, massive site it is imposing and tremendous and still filled with the echoes of the academics and scholars and philosophers and senators that once paced those dusty, broken floors.
We walked through the Colosseum in much the same fashion, our perception undulating like a sine wave between a feeling that this stadium is pretty much just like any stadium you've ever seen today (minus the flat screens) and a knowledge that the stone you just ran your hand across has been covered with layers and layers and layers of blood from warriors and criminals and the innocent and wild animals and that it was filled with the whole city of Rome and its emperors that once stared down on those bloody stones with cheers bellowing from their throats.
I loved Rome. Deeply. The heat, the passion, the love, the exhaustion, the hypocrisy, the lines of souvenir shops that seem to ruin the monuments that were technically already ruined, the dust and the sun and fallen columns and a shirt that read, "I left my heart in Chicago."
But this was the end of Southern Europe for us. We worked our way to the airport, where you could just make out the winding curves of the Appian Way we had biked a few days earlier and checked our bags into the comfortless belly of a Ryan Air jet and headed for Stockholm.