Backpacking in Italy? When in Rome, don’t do as the Romans do
Time turns and eras change, that’s when you know you’ve landed in Italy. Among ruins and art, the clock ticks a little slower and life becomes a little rosier. Everything -- except Italian driving -- is unrushed and leisurely.
But if you do as the Romans do, you’d be left with empty pockets; Rome and Florence are on the expensive end of the spectrum and most enticing candlelit ‘trattorias’ or cafes charge extra for sitting (excluding service charges!) – something Roman Holiday failed to mention when it made you fall in love with Italy.
You may have to look for economical hotels or guest houses – like Papa Germano in Rome, situated five minutes from the primary railway station Roma Termini -- because hostel culture hasn’t quite seeped into Italy. Yet, there are a few options -- Hostel de Artistes in Rome and Ciao Hostel in Florence. Both aren’t as impressive as Wombats in other cities of Europe but fairly clean and tidy. Either of the two may cost around 25-30 Euros, fluctuating with season and availability.
Both cities resonate with echoes of the past; stranded in ancient history, they tell stories of Pompei’s reign, Julius Caesar’s tragedy, Nero’s cruelty, Cleopatra’s mystery, Michelangelo’s vision and Da Vinci’s genius.
The Eternal City
Rome’s subway is simple with only two lines that connect most of the tourist spots in the Italian capital. You have the option to purchase 1-,3-,7-day metro tickets according to your preference.
While the Colosseum has become synonymous with the city’s identity, the real wonder is actually the Roman Forum -- right next to the much-featured amphitheatre. It is essentially a mini city of ruins and demands at least a day to cover.
Standing on a hill overlooking the Greek and Egyptian-inspired structures coupled with an orchard faintly smelling of oranges, and walking through busts of Roman emperors and gods once revered, you’ll be amazed at the Roman grandiosity still preserved here today.
Rome is perhaps ever more charming (if that’s even possible) at night. You can stroll endlessly across its many plazas, get a 7-10 Euro pizza or 3-5 Euro Panini to go with freshly-brewed coffee and if you’re lucky, listen to a street musician playing some heartrending songs while an in-love couple sheepishly starts waltzing there.
If the heart-strings are tingling a little by then, top your day with making a wish in the infamous Trevi Fontana, although opt for throwing a rupee and not a Euro! (Wish-fulfilling fountains can’t be biased, right?)
If you’re in Rome, it’s only mandatory to cover Vatican – it’s literally right there and you tick another country (city-state, technically) on your list. It is accessible from the subway but if you’re already walking around the Trevi Fountain, you just need to cross the Tiber by foot to reach the papal residence. The resplendent St Peter’s Basilica and its delicate intricacies and extensive detailing would put any of the churches you thought were majestic to shame.
The Vatican Museum is another mind-boggling world of art, art and just art. Imagine hundreds of rooms full of paintings, murals, frescoes, statues, busts, tapestries and even mummies; and you might be close to half of what it really is. The most admirable part is not just the collection, but the range of phenomenal work displayed there. You’ll chance upon masterpieces of Salvador Dali and Van Gogh as well – definitely not what you expect at the Vatican. It’s best to pre-book tickets online (worth 16 Euros)and avail a sizeable student discount -- if applicable -- as crowds are huge and you have to get through a strict security barrier before entering.
Hub of renaissance
Tuscany may be known for its vineyards and villas, but it also hosts Florence – once known as the fulcrum of enlightenment situated just a two-hour Tren Italia ride from Rome.
Artists thronged its alleys speckled with antique street lamps, possibly to let its Mediterranean hues and picturesque sights become their muse.
Most tourist spots, including renowned galleries, Santa Maria del Fiore or the Duomo, Baboli Gardens, Basilica de San Lorenzo etc. are ticketed and queues are long and tedious. So be prepared to slog early in the day to witness these marvels.
If there’s enough time, you can check another place off your ‘Wonders of the World’ list -- Pisa. Only an hour away from Florence with last-minute train tickets available easily, this quaint town’s attraction is the leaning tower of Pisa (which is way more tilted than you’d imagine in your head) but its main markets have lesser-known restaurants that serve mouth-watering canneloni and lasagna, offering even vegetarian options. Yum! Layers of pasta with fresh cheese and mushrooms will leave you feeling oddly fulfilled. Well, good food, no, scratch that, amazing food usually does that.
The Ponte Vecchio bridge, however, steals the show. Standing over river Arno and surrounded with shades of orange and yellow, it still houses miniature wooden shops with peep-holes that will make you curious to shamelessly peep inside. It’s here that you can still feel the artistic and cultural magnificence of the Tuscan capital from its glory days.
What’s better than ending your day with a panoramic view of Florence, atop the Michelangelo Hill where you can sit outside a cafe/restaurant, sipping a delicious espresso or devouring a gelato while staring at a mesmerising sunset. There’s a small flee market to keep you company after the spectacle ends and the drapes come down on this wondrous city.
When you’re back home in your own bed and under the skin of ordinary life, you’ll think of Europe with a yearning to do it all over again -- and why not, all it takes is a little bit of saving and a lot of planning.
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