The three of us sat in the back of a defunct army jeep abandoned near one of our favorite bars. My good friend, and fellow volunteer had met, as we would later call him “the Italian” a few nights prior. As we sipped Serengeti beer in the warmth of an East African evening, we asked him, in broken spanish mixed with english about his life. Later, as a whirlwind romance would develop between them they would spend evenings on his porch speaking in the same, strange mix of languages that allowed them to communicate. She was young, and enamored. He said he was from Rome. We gushed our love for Italy, though neither of us had visited, but dearly wanted to. He scoffed, and told us, “go to Italy, do not go to Rome-it is for tourists. You won’t like it.” But, what about all the history? The Colosseum, the Vatican? Surely, the food must be fabulous! We tried to pry one positive feeling about Rome, a city we had both very much wanted to see. He shrugged and changed the topic, his distaste for his home city clear in his demeanor.
Three years later, I had yet to go to Italy. When a friend decided to go, and invited me along I eagerly agreed. There were cheap flights to Rome, so this is where we would go for a quick three-day city break. My desire to go to Italy has never wavered, but those words of warning regarding the spectacle of Rome held strong in my mind. I was concerned, though it would still be off-season that our trip would entail standing in hours-long lines just to be shuffled about like cattle. Of more concern, was that I had been told several times that the food in Rome often proved to be mediocre at best. Surely, this couldn’t be true? It is Italy after all! I made it my mission to find excellent food. In a city of nearly three million there must be good food! And with hope, and a little skepticism we flew off to Rome.
Our mid-week break would prove to be far more enjoyable than I could have ever anticipated. Though the weather was less than ideal, Rome proved itself an absolutely fabulous city, despite the crowds. Perhaps, it was because it was the off-season, or because of Ashley’s excellent research, we never waited more than a few minutes for any attraction. Timing and pre-booking was essential, and despite others waiting in what turned about to be 2-3 hour waits, we breezed through everything (no passes, or extra costs necessary). We opted not to take any guided tours, aside from Ashley’s absurd level of knowledge, we found the freedom of just wandering about the Colosseum, Forum, and Vatican to be absolutely essential in dealing with the throngs of fellow visitors. And the food! As it turns out, Rome does have fantastic food, even for those on a student’s budget. We ate fabulously. With a bit of research we enjoyed a plethora of delicious meals all around the city. For one notable meal we wandered into the neighborhood north of the Vatican to find a take-away bakery serving up “New Roman” pizza options. With our goods, we wandered around the corner to find a place to eat. A small wine shop which sold glasses of wine as well, had a barrel outside, we asked the owner if we could order a few glasses of wine and eat outside. He flatly refused, ushering us inside. He placed table mats in front of us at a table for two overlooking the street, handed us silverware and filled our glasses of wine, and ensured they stayed that way. The only other patrons to this small shop were a group of elderly Italian women who spent the hour drinking, laughing, and in raised voices discussing something that was probably relatively common, though we preferred to believe it was something highly scandalous. We ate, drank, and people watched into the early afternoon. I thought, I think I might love this city. On another food venture we also ate the best carbonara, which I count on my top list of dishes eaten, ever.
Yes. There are a lot of tourists. There are far too many fanny packs than should be legal. There are loud, pushy groups playing follow the bobbing umbrella with little concern when it comes to trampling you. There were even loud, young Americans perpetuating stereotypes we’ve only begun to get over, making us shake our heads and will them telepathically to just go home already. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll quickly experience museum fatigue and be unable to pay attention to yet another “very old, very impressive” exhibition because all you can think about is the entire bowl of carbonara from your new favorite lunch place you plan on consuming as soon as you leave. But if you can look past the minor irritants Rome is a vibrant, and fascinating city. There is of course, reason for its mass tourism. It is one of the epicenters of human history. It holds those places we learn about as children in school, and dream of visiting. So, I can’t fault the masses, even if I would prefer they come back a different time. And it helps, if you love food and are willing to seek it out. Which for me, excellent food makes any destination worth the trip. And Rome proved more than worthwhile in that category. It was a short trip, to be sure, and there was much left unseen, but I wouldn’t hesitate to return. Except, maybe I’d steer clear of high season.