Traveling, no matter how much of a planner you are, means being able to cope with unforeseen obstacles. The photo below, which I took in Rome, is a small example of what I mean.
Rome was my second stop in Italy and the Western European destination that I was most excited to visit. I exited a high-speed train from Venice and boarded a local bus to the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome. As I walked, I realized that Google Map’s direction detail, “Take the stairs,” meant serious business. I stared up at one hundred and twenty-six steps! Not wanting to exert unnecessary energy, I phoned my Airbnb hostel host and she timidly confirmed that I needed to take the stairs. Just four days prior I’d received an Airbnb message saying that they had made an overbooking error and I would instead stay at a partner hostel, the one beyond the mountain of steps ahead of me. The hostel I originally booked was just steps away from me, before the stairs. Ouch.
I took a deep breath, slipped my thumbs under my backpack straps and began climbing. Once atop the steps, I crossed the street and a made it to the entrance. A man exiting the building saw my condition and caught the gate before it locked, allowing me in (I later learned he was one of the founders of the hostel partnership and he showed me and another resident a popular pizza restaurant and a local outdoor film-screening event). The only things that ever eased the hike up the stairs in the days that followed were conquering them with fellow hostel residents or a having a gelato cone in hand.
The next day, I ventured around Rome with no specific plans, just seeing what I could see. It was the day after this that my tourism game got kicked into high gear. I paid top dollar to have a skip-the-line tour of the Vatican Gardens and Museum, which turned out to be the right decision for me. I noticed that the line to enter the Vatican starts early and grows quickly. Later in my travels I heard from people who waited in the line for 3 hours!
The guided tour through the Vatican Gardens was a peaceful stroll, even while a slight drizzle came and went. Our group was even paid a visit by the cat that lives on the Vatican grounds. Then we began our tour of the Vatican Museum: ornately beautiful, immense, and swarmed with tourists. Thankfully our guide briefed on us on what entering the Sistine Chapel would be like, suggesting we grab a seat along the Chapel’s walls once inside, if possible. The Chapel is stunning, but being so popular it comes with its share of overwhelming elements. Every few seconds guards quieted the crowd, attempting to keep the silence that is requested upon entering. Mob mentality seemed to set in and there were many different tourists trying to make a mad dash for any seats that became available. I dislike that vibe, so I quickly decided to skip seeking out a seat and just enjoy the experience. Calm vibes bring smooth tides though and I saw a seat open up. I made certain that no one else was vying for it and then sat down. Staring up at the ceiling and taking in The Last Judgement by Michelangelo was one of those “Wow, I’m really here!” moments.
Soon I noticed some sort of commotion. A woman looked to be ill. Having been a sociology student in college and hyper-aware of diffusion of responsibility I naturally looked to see what could and would be done in the situation. Dishearteningly, it seemed those nearby weren’t going to be at all interested in offering this woman a seat. While I get that visiting the Sistine Chapel is a once in a lifetime opportunity for many, it was upsetting that apparently people would rather keep their seat than simply offer theirs up and continue viewing the Chapel while the woman gathered herself. Having a seat was nice, but I figured after 5 minutes of viewing the Chapel from that position I’d been lucky enough already and would prefer to help this woman have a place to rest. This, I believe, was simply the right thing to offer to do. However, as the seconds passed it seemed that the woman may have been suffering from a panic attack. She adamantly refused the seat, growing more anxious, and guards came over to attended to her.
I take the time to make this aside because it wasn’t the first, nor the last time I saw anxiety creep up on someone during travels. I feel that it is important to acknowledge that traveling is a stressful thing on the body and the mind. Add in dense, sometimes not so friendly crowds, and being a tourist can become a concoction for concern. It is important to do what feels right for you. Don’t ever feel bad if you need to take a day off and relax, postpone, or altogether skip an attraction. You and your health are important. You deserve to respond to the needs of your body.
After the Sistine Chapel we toured the rest of the Vatican Museum. It was about 5 hours in all, both thorough and thoroughly exhausting. Amazingly enough, my day was not done! After a rest back at the hostel I was out once again for an exclusive nighttime tour of the Colosseum.
I knew that it was very important to me to visit both the Vatican and the Colosseum while in Vatican City. I especially wanted to be able to visit the underground section of the Colosseum to see the dungeons where fighters and caged animals were kept before battle. There is a limit to how many people are allowed to take these tours per day to protect the sight and I struggled finding one before leaving the States. Eventually, I found a nighttime tour that still had space, which turned out to be an added bonus. It meant that only these special night access tours were operating, i.e. no huge tourist crowds! I went with the first tour group of the night and for a good thirty minutes it was just us in the Colosseum – – how awesome!
As the sun began to set, I sat down while our tour guide stopped to speak to us and whattayaknow – another cat! The Colosseum cat was a sleek black feline and a few members of the group took turns trying to pet it. Now I’m not opposed to animals, I’m just sometimes…iffy. I prefer to be able to communicate with other beings, and since I’m not an animal whisperer, I generally take caution before interacting with unfamiliar animals. Embarrassing as it may seem, when the cat made its way towards me I did feel the slightest pang of fear (read: my mind was screaming ‘It already hates you! It’s gonna scratch you all over!’). A beautifully tattooed Argentinian woman, there with her husband, who was equally tattooed, said to me “aww, it likes you!” I begged to differ and responded “uhh…I don’t think so!” I watched it take swift, dignified cat steps to where I sat and then it happened – the cat climbed onto my lap. Oh my goodness, I instantly fell in love! It felt so sweet having a friendly soft animal in my lap and I stroked its fur while it cuddled into my form. The Argentinian woman was excited over my
bonding experience. It’s really warming to see how much love animals can create. As everyone in my group moved onward with the tour guide I waited until the very last moment to bid my new and short-lived friendship farewell. Perhaps the cat just saw me as the stillest, softest seat available at that time, but I’ll admit that moment immediately made me think about adopting a cat upon returning to the US. My good luck continued upon the tour’s end because I didn’t have to wait for a bus, the Trastevere-bound bus pulled up immediately.
I spent my next and last full day exploring Rome with a New Zealander from the hostel. We’d planned to see the Pantheon, but seemed to be having trouble finding it. Right around when we were deciding to give up I stopped to take pictures of a fountain (the Trevi Fountain was under renovation and I figured at that point any fountain would have to do). We spotted a building where tourists were flooding in and out approached it with curiosity. Funny enough it turned out to be the Pantheon! Staring up at what is essentially a hole in the ceiling turned out to be stunning.
We explored some more on our way to the bus station and returned to the hostel where we stayed up talking with the other travelers. In my few days at the hostel, I’d met folks from America, New Zealand, Germany, Brazil, and Switzerland. While my time came with its struggles, roaming Rome was worth it.