"Rome is like a lasagna" and other sound lessons from our night walking tour of Rome.
Have you ever happened to randomly take notice of a stranger on the bus, waiting at a cross walk, or in line at the coffee shop? Maybe it was their unusual shirt or colorful shoes that caught your eye, or perhaps they were just in your line of sight. And then, inexplicably, you notice the same person in a completely different location, hours or days after the fact. There has to be a word that describes this quirky travel phenomenon!
I've experienced it a few times, but never was it so curious as in Rome, where I noticed a very distinctive elderly man on the subway. This petite gentleman was carrying a curiously shaped case - was it a ukulele or a squash racket? He was stooped over and moved slowly, but there was something still undeniably nimble about him. He was captivating to watch and I wondered what his story was.
To my astonishment, I saw him again, hours and miles later, halfway across the city, sitting at a restaurant outside the Pantheon. His case contained a lute! I saw him strumming it at a number of cafes- yet he didn't seem to be busking, nor having a drink, nor enjoying a meal. Sometimes he even sat down at tables occupied by other people. What was he up to? I was enthralled by this diminutive gentleman but had no idea how to approach him without sounding like a stalker who had been keeping an eye on him since the subway.
My octogenarian paramour was the undisputed highlight of an altogether fascinating night in Rome, discovering the city's main sights at night with City Wonders's walking tour (complete with wine!) Here's what else I loved about this tour experience.
A glimpse of true love at the Trevi Fountain.
I'm not sure how many people head to Rome with dreams of finding love but I know the city's magic worked for at least two people.
Our City Wonders tour had an extended stop at one of Rome's most popular spots, the Trevi Fountain. I could hear a hum as I approached - of rushing water, rustling people, the splashes as coins were tossed in for good fortune and the guarantee of a return to the city. It was crowded, a bit chaotic, and packed with selfie-sticks, touts, and melting cones of fallen gelato. Charming and romantic? Not quite.
And then suddenly everyone started to clap and cheer. EVERYONE.
It's incredible to me that so many people, from so many walks of life, visitors and locals, families and couples, old and young, of all different languages and backgrounds, all knew exactly what to do when they saw someone proposing marriage at the fountain's edge. It was like a cloud of joy swept over us all and it was absolutely amazing. A bottleneck formed as everyone stopped to get a photo of the happy couple. Charming and romantic? You bet!
Like most people, I dreamed of getting a fantastic shot of the Trevi Fountain, no crowds, no chaos, just the gorgeous fountain all on its own. And thanks to the zoom lens, I got it! But the first photo above isn't representative of the true Trevi experience. People twelve rows thick is a bit more typical! But I'm so glad that everyone was there. It was like hundreds of people all at once just knew how wonderful it was to be in Rome, alive and in love. It was such a fantastic shared experience to be a part of this couple's joy. And hopefully they felt the same!
PS: In case you were wondering, this is what the fountain looks like underwater. Thank you, waterproof camera!
The Spanish Step's silent side.
(While the Trevi Fountain was crowded, there was ONE spot where I did get a great shot of a classic sight without anyone else around - no zoom lens needed. I wish I could say that our guide shooed everyone away from the Spanish Steps just for me -well, they're good, but nobody is THAT good!
Alas, the Spanish Steps are undergoing restoration work and are closed to the public but I wasn't disappointed. Our evening tour was the perfect chance to catch of glimpse of them completely empty, not even a worker in sight. (Breaking news! As this went to press, I've heard that the restoration work is complete and the Spanish Steps have reopened.)
I always knew the Spanish Steps were one of Rome's most popular attractions but I truthfully didn't know anything about them prior to our tour. Our guide did a great job of entertaining us with the history of the area and explaining the political and historical significance of the square, the Spanish Steps, and the adjacent Fontana della Barcaccia ("Fountain of the Old Boat"). He used the analogy of Rome being like a lasagna, with many layers, each section building on the other, with so many stories and legends being swirled together. It was an apt example, one we'd return to again and again throughout the evening.
Towers and tall tales.
Here's a confession I haven't shared on the blog before: I read Dan Brown novels. I even re-read them! I know they aren't exactly academic works held to the highest of historical standards, but what can you do? For those who share my secret shame, you'll know that a key part of Brown's novel Angels and Demons is set in Rome and revolves around obelisks.
Rome is filled with obelisks, beautiful ones that serve as both handy reference points for tourists and for the fictional Robert Langdon in his search for an assassin. But their beautiful facades mask an ugly history of pillage and pilfering from ancient Egypt. And, curiously, many of the ancient obelisks of Roman origin are covered with reproductions of Egyptian hieroglyphics - reproductions which mean nothing and make no sense. They are purely decorative in nature - another layer in the lasagna that is Rome. Every time we passed one, or any other tall monument, our guide would stop and fill us in on it's history and meaning. By the end of the evening we were self proclaimed experts in obelisks, Roman history, Egyptian writing, and - Dan Brown would be proud - ancient symbols.
A chance to eat (nope, not lasagna!)
As we wove our way through the center of Rome, fascinating tidbits of history peeked out at us from every corner - and we caught them all, thanks to our fantastic guide. There was the first McDonald's of Rome (laugh not - this is the best restroom available near the tour's starting point), the headquarters of Versace (which I was totally not qualified to even stand near), and the home of renowned Roman sculptor (and privileged playboy) Bernini. There was a good smattering of churches, government buildings, and high end shops (including one which sold both bespoke lingerie AND Mickey Mouse hats. Because of course!) All more layers of the Roman lasagna.
Approximately three quarters of the way through our tour, we stopped for refreshment at Ristorante Di Rienzo, set in the square outside the Pantheon. Alas, it was not one of the restaurants that my lute player was patronizing! We had a quiet inside section entirely to ourselves to savor a drink (a choice of wine, sparkling wine, beer, or soft drink) and an assortment of appetizers - all included as part of the tour.
We enjoyed bruschetta (delicious), several thin crust cheese pizzas, cut into small slices (not bad), mini bowls of pesto covered pasta (not lasagna, but close!) and, curiously, triangles of what I would describe as tea sandwiches (like tuna salad, ham and cheese, etc). They were good but did seem a bit out of place.
Overall, we enjoyed a good selection of tasty snacks that doubled as our dinner (hey, if our table mates weren't going to finish all that pizza.....). My only regret is that there was nothing sweet at the end. It would have been amazing if some of the pizza could have been swapped for little samples of gelato! Still, it made for a refreshing break and we had a great time chatting with the other members of our tour. (Plus: clean washrooms!)
Some sound parting words of advice...
The Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the square around the Pantheon, monuments and marbles - this is everyone's Roman wish list come true. It was incredible to see so many famous sights in such a personal context and our guide made sure we understood the history and politics which made each one so significant. And he kept us laughing the whole time too! Rome's history may be long and serious, but it's also filled with scandal, gossip, and intrigue - just the kind of things I love served next to my lasagna (real or metaphorical).
Overall, our Best of Rome Night Walking Tour was the perfect introduction to the city. Many of our fellow participants had just arrived in Rome that very day and were cleverly using the tour as a means of fighting jet lag - a brilliant move. It really helped us get our bearings and feel like we had seen a significant amount of key attractions in a short amount of time. And we felt much more confident when we were exploring on our own the following day - it felt like we had a real sense of direction in the city.
The last thing our guide said to us before we all parted ways in the busy Piazza Navona was to make sure we took the time to get lost in Rome and discover something in Rome just for us. Excellent advice and we were already well on our way thanks to the tour.
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We were provided complimentary media passes for the tour. All research, writing, and opinions are my own.