Fellini’s ‘La Dolce Vita’ showed a side of Rome, which was elegant and alluring. We witnessed the birth of the paparazzi, Via Veneto style. American girls were the most sought-after beauties with their long legs and delicate silhouettes. First time visitors to Rome, whose only reference is a Fellini film, may no longer recognize Rome at all. A lifetime has passed since the days of La Dolce Vita. Rome and American visitors have completely changed, but change can be good or interesting, at least. Walking around Rome will reveal many contrasting elements that visitors may find unexpected.
Most visitors will not be surprised to see Italians whizzing about the Colosseum on Vespas with their raven hair flapping in the wind; Italian cafes and rustic restaurants lining every monument-packed piazza; Fendi, Gucci and Prada bags on every arm. But did you imagine them being sold in front of the Vatican Museum?
If you start your walk of Rome at Porta del Popolo (originally Porta Flaminia), the famous door which leads to Piazza del Popolo and lies just below Villa Borghese, you will be greeted by a live golden Egyptian sphinx, which appears to be guarding the obelisk while asking for small change. In order to get to Via del Corso, however, you will have to walk through a mob of Gothic teens clad in their latest Twilight meets Japanese-street-style garb. They may appear somewhat frightening, but they are all show.
If you wander off the main streets of Rome with your cup of exquisite gelato in hand, you will encounter certain unpleasantries that challenge your senses. You may expect the sweet scent of fresh bread wafting toward you from a bakery, but the little parcel the baker’s dog left behind, is unexpected.
As you finish that last taste of gelato and you seek a garbage bin, you will find that an hour has passed and you have yet to find one. Finally, upon sighting one, you realize it is full, so you do as those previously have. You gently balance your cup on the pile of rubbish.
Now, your eye starts to decipher the graffiti written everywhere and you wonder why it has not yet been removed. Some have written dates and adding up the difference you learn that ten and sometimes 20 years have passed.
By the time you reach the Pantheon, you will have been accosted by charming South Asian men selling light-up toys. If you do buy something, more vendors will make their appearance, all in the hopes that you continue to buy. Italians complain about these immigrants but few realize that they are placed there by their own fellow Romans. Visitors are also usually surprised to see a McDonald’s near the Spanish Steps. Save your souvenir shopping for after your Vatican Museum tour where you’ll find the best deals nearby. In the meantime, Rome’s best coffee and ice-cream are in the vicinity.
Pleasant surprises abound as well, but if you bother to ask an officer about them you will be stunned to see that they have no knowledge on the subject. You will have better luck consulting your guidebook.
A stroll through Piazza Navona features what appears to be Rome’s artist community at first glance. A closer look will prove otherwise, as most paintings you will find are actually mass-produced. You may be amused by the random street musicians, circus acts and the frozen man. I am still bewildered to see people stare at him for so long. I suppose it is curious to see a man with such an open smile. It makes one wonder whether anything flies in.
As the sun goes down, change continues especially in Campo dei Fiori, where the flower market retires as the crowd begins to overly enjoy themselves. Campo dei Fiori is a popular area with the under-30 crowd, foreigners and those looking to bed them; they fill every crevice. Alcohol flows like the characteristic Roman fountain of Trevi. It is an interesting sight, but every night features a fight or a brawl of some kind, so beware while you sight-see here. It may perhaps b the least expensive piazza where one can sit and drink. A glass of wine can cost as little as €2.
As you head toward Piazza Venezia, you may notice an enormous group of English-speaking drunks in their twenties. This would be The Pub Crawl, which is a tour of pubs that features an hour of unlimited beer for one low price. Many college-age visitors are attracted to this but it can be very dangerous as it creates a false sense of security. According to the American Embassy, it is one of the main concerns due to the excessive drinking. Female students are commonly molested, raped and some have even died after drinking all night with people they have only just met. Many Italians are under the impression that foreigners are easy; they do not realize that vacationers lower their inhibitions when they are away from home, regardless of where they are from. The Pub Crawl does not aid in curtailing this myth.
Across the Tiber, you will find Trastevere, which is said to be Rome’s most authentic neighborhood. The streams of tourists that flow through the maze-like roads of Trastevere make this hard to believe. It feels more like a zoo, where you walk through to view the strange and avant-garde in their natural habitat; it is just as interesting and as safe as the safari in Six Flags Amusement Park. The streets are lined with bars, restaurants, lounges and cafés, which overflow onto the crowded cobble-stoned lanes outside.
While most of the street beggars are gypsies, some are the elderly who may have lost their homes with Italy’s past administrations. One example is seen in the main square, Piazza Santa Maria di Trastevere, where a woman in her eighties awkwardly bounces a little dance in the hopes of receiving a coin; she, too, has learned that people pay for entertainment more than for pity.
At some point, you will embark upon crossing a street without a traffic light. You will be dumbfounded in your attempt. While the crosswalk is clearly marked, the cars show no sign of pausing. You remain locked in your position at their mercy until finally a native appears. That is when you learn how to cross a street in Italy. You simply cross and the cars will stop. Yes, they do speed up before they actually stop. This is why it takes such courage. Italians have mastered this art to a fault. They only listen for cars and cross without looking. As a cyclist, I must warn you that this practice is dangerous. Bicycles are silent and I have scared many a pedestrian who has jumped in front of my bike from behind a parked truck or garbage bin. You must look, be seen, then cross.
No matter where you go in Rome, you must be aware of your surroundings. You will experience something unexpected at every turn and that is the most exciting part of visiting Rome. You can still have a great time as well as meet new and interesting people but remain safe. Trust your instincts and tell your travel-mates where you are going so that you can enjoy Rome to the fullest.
In the end, Rome is a complex city. It is the unexpected elements that you will remember most. After all, Rome is not just what is on the postcards. It encompasses so much more.