Italy, Part I: Rome Recap

There’s a balance I try to strike on big trips, between living in the moment but also pausing long enough to reflect and document – whether by taking photos, jotting down the name of a restaurant, or writing a paragraph about the magic of a particular moment. I want to be in the best position possible to recapture, or at least recall, all those impactful experiences once I’m home.

I returned on Tuesday from a week (and change) in Italy, and I’m taking time now to sift through my notes, look back on photos, and put all my memories and travel tips together in a coherent story. Already, there are moments I’ve forgotten, but I was careful on this trip not to let a major memory escape my notes.

The basic trip details: I traveled with my sister, Hope, who lives in Germany, and my roommate, Jeanine. The three of us did Munich, Salzburg, and Prague together last year, so we feel good about our travel dynamic. We all flew into Rome on a Monday morning; we stayed there until Thursday morning, when we traveled by train and ferry to Positano on the Amalfi coast. We left Positano on Saturday afternoon for Sorrento, which became our home base until Monday (we took a day trip to Capri on Sunday). On Monday morning, we stopped and toured Pompeii on our way back to Rome (Hope left from Naples, which is reachable from Pompeii by commuter rail, and Jeanine and I caught a train in Naples back to Rome for one more night before our flight Tuesday morning).

If we did the trip over again, we’d skip Sorrento and make Positano our home base for enjoying all of the Amalfi coast. We spoiled ourselves by doing Positano first – it’s the most beautiful place any of us had ever been. Sorrento grew on us, but we enjoyed Positano considerably more, and could have easily stayed there longer and made it our jumping-off point for Capri and Pompeii.

I want to go into detail on each place, and I’m starting with Rome. Yes, it’s long-winded. I’m writing this mostly for myself, trying to preserve every meaningful detail. More to come on Positano, Sorrento, and more.

Rome

Rome is my favorite city in Europe. That might be a big statement, and I haven’t visited that many European cities, but the combination of modern, livable, navigable metropolis + the birthplace of so much of our western tradition made it irresistible. We stayed in the Monti neighborhood, and to be walking through a buzzing square, filled with locals enjoying their after-work cocktails…while spotting the Colosseum out of the corner of your eye, down the road? That’s the kind of old-meets-new feel I loved about London (and that I love even now about New York) – but it’s the Colosseum. The Renaissance is old, but 79 A.D. is a whole different ballgame.

I loved the way that history was woven so seamlessly into the city. Staying in Monti (we had an Airbnb) gave us close access to the Colosseum and Roman Forum, and the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, and Pantheon were all walkable in 20-30 minutes. Heading home on our first night, we passed some ruins that I thought at first were part of the Roman Forum. Upon closer inspection…they were just ruins. Some pedestrian walkways had been constructed so we could take a look, and a couple of signs talked about what the structures served as in Ancient Rome, but what shocked me was how recently they’d been excavated – they were uncovered between 2004-2006! And had just been sitting there for 2,000 years prior. That’s what astounded me about Rome – so much of our Western heritage exists there, and they’re still finding more of it. Who knows what could be right underneath your feet.

Jetlag had its way by the end of Monday, but we made the most of our functional hours, seeing the Pantheon and getting to know the heart of the city. We oriented ourself by doing a combination of Rick Steves’ “Dolce Vita Stroll” and his “Heart of Rome” walk, which take you through the central neighborhoods and piazzas. Rick Steves was our honorary fourth travel companion. There’s something to be said for making sure you don’t rely too heavily on his suggestions, but his walks are helpful for understanding a new place, and it’s nice to have a go-to guide tell you were to eat when decision fatigue sets in and you just want something that’s been vetted by another human. Rick (yeah, we’re on a first-name basis) led us to Alle Carrette in Monti for dinner, where we got our first, joyful taste of real Italian pizza. And our first, joyful taste of a good house red.

Tuesday, we tackled the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. They’re a combined site, and you can see both with one entrance fee. The Colosseum is awe-inspiring and 100% worth visiting (I’d do a repeat visit the next time I’m in Rome) but I found the Forum to be more illuminating. It’s worth reading a lot of the Colosseum’s info panels for background. My favorite was titled “Cine-Colosseum.” It highlighted the structure’s place in American and Italian film and television – everything from “Roman Holiday” to “Spectre” and more.

After about an hour or so, we strolled to the Roman Forum, which houses dozens of ancient structures, from temples to the meeting place of the senate. It was an experience with history unlike any I’d ever had. We were there on a gorgeous, warm day, and I consciously took a minute to stand there and let it sink in – I am actually here at this place so foundational to the government of the country I call home, at this place I learned about in Latin class as a kid. Maybe I’m overstating it – I wasn’t near tears or anything – but visiting the Roman Forum was the highlight of the entire trip for me, and it convinced me Rome is a place I want to keep returning to and learning from.

On the sobering side, though, there’s an interesting element to consider when at the Forum (or even at the Colosseum). When all these structures stood in their original glory, the Roman Empire appeared invincible. And look at it all now. We literally call them “ruins.”

We embraced the “siesta” in Rome, and returned to our apartment after touring the Colosseum, Forum, and Palatine Hill (another adjacent site; heading to the top offered a sweeping view of the ancient sights we just saw, and the city beyond) for some foot-resting and wi-fi-using. In the evening, we visited the Borghese Gardens (we didn’t do the Borghese Gallery on this trip, which was probably good for our sanity so we didn’t get lost in a fog of museums, but it’s at the top of my list for a future visit) and then walked toward the heart of town for an incredible dinner near the Spanish Steps. We ate at Antica Enoteca and I had the best carbonara of my life – and some pretty good Cabernet Sauvignon and tiramisu. Later that evening, we had drinks at Salotto42, a nearby spot Jeanine’s coworker recommended. I recommend, as well! Drinks were great, and they had a fabulous playlist (I wrote down what I thought the name was, based on what I could see of their Spotify, but I must have it wrong, because nothing shows up when I search. If anyone knows the name of a band whose sound could be described as “Italian Beach Boys,” please lmk.)

That evening, we saw the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain. The steps were gorgeous by sunset, and we got a real treat when a lovely couple started taking their wedding photos near where we sat. There’s something that restores your faith in humanity, just a bit, about dozens of people instinctively knowing to move out of the way for a moment so the photographer can get the perfect shot.

Wednesday was our Vatican day – we had tickets for the Vatican Museums, and went into St. Peter’s Basilica. I am truly grateful to have seen the Vatican, but honestly was overwhelmed by it all. The Museums are vast, and I wasn’t prepared enough for their scale. Besides the Sistine Chapel, my favorite part was the Gallery of Maps, a hall lined with gorgeous paintings of topographical maps of Italy and its islands. The works were impressive both as maps and as paintings – rich greens and blues and gold.

On every vacation, there comes a moment where you’re just hot, tired, and hungry, and even your best-laid plans must go awry. This happened to us at St. Peter’s Basilica, which we toured right after the Vatican Museums. We had a fine visit, but after waiting in a long line to enter, well into lunchtime, we were kind of done, and abandoned a lunch reservation that was a 20-minute walk away in favor of something more convenient near the Vatican. After that, we took a bus to Trastavere, a neighborhood we wanted to check out, but even then, had limited enjoyment due to our conditions. I hate to sound whiny; it wasn’t like any of us were completely miserable, and obviously we could have just sucked it up. But after two full days of sightseeing, combined with a crowded site like the Vatican, and a hot day…we’d reached the point of just needing a rest.

Wednesday was our last official day in Rome, though, so we did want to make something of our evening. After freshening up, we took the night to explore Monti, our Airbnb neighborhood. We revisited a restaurant that caught our eyes on Night 1. There, we took full advantage of what I believe is Italy’s best quality: The aperitif tradition. When you order drinks, you don’t just get the drinks. A whole array of snacks is brought before you – mostly variations on crackers, olives, nuts, and bread. The three of us snacked and split a bottle of red. Moments like these were the ones I cherished most during the trip. They gave us time to relax, get a little something in our stomachs, and reflect on our adventures up to that point. I treasure the time I had to talk freely and openly with two of my closest friends – in the way that you really only can when you’re removed from the realities of everyday life.

We wrapped up with gelato (from a place in Monti that is, I’m sure, just a regular place, but it was one of our favorite gelato spots on the whole trip) and a surprise visit to Blackmarket Hall, a jazz spot down the street from our apartment. We were about to turn in for the night when a sign outside lured us in with the promise of “jazz funk.” For our last night in Rome, we enjoyed (really) delicious cocktails and fabulous jazz; the group played “Moanin’,” one of my favorites, for their first song.

The next morning, we were at Termini Station (also walkable from our apartment – a huge plus) early and en route to the Amalfi coast. More to come!

If you’ve been to Rome and have recommendations (food/drink/museums/places to stay), I’d love to hear them. I will be back.

Read Lately: “Personal History”

This Memorial Day (in New York City, at least) was one of my favorite kinds of days: A day off, but not one where it’s warm and sunny and I’m filled with guilt about not being outside. It’s cloudy, a little rainy, and I’m sitting on my bed in a mood to write about nothing in particular.

Right now my mind is on Rome. I’ll be there in a week and I’m ready. Well, ready in the sense that I have planned a lot of outfits, acquired lots of miscellaneous toiletry items, and formed a basic outline of what to do each day. But the fact that I’ll actually be walking around Rome in a week hasn’t quite sunk in.

I’m going with my roommate, and my sister will fly down from Germany to meet us. The three of us tackled Munich, Salzburg, and Prague last summer, and while that was a great trip, I’m excited to keep our travels to a tighter range this year; after Rome, we’re just going down to the Amalfi coast. Most of my prep so far has concentrated on Rome, and I’ve been poring over Rick Steves’ Italy guide (if this trip is anything like last year’s, Rick will essentially be our fourth travel companion; we took his book everywhere and had a lot of “well, what does Rick say we should do?” moments). Also consulted: This post from one of my favorite bloggers, and this Conde Nast Traveler article.

In preparation for this trip, though, I had one major task: Finish a book I’d been reading for way too long (it would have been embarrassing to take it on another plane ride). Last weekend, I finally wrapped up Katharine Graham’s memoir, Personal History. It’s a tremendous book, so filled with detail and vulnerability. The specificity with which she remembered events that were 60 or almost 70 years in the past is impressive. I’ll admit there were times it felt like a slog (a section about the Washington Post’s battle with striking press operators made me feel like I was re-reading A People’s History of the United States). But I’d recommend this book in a heartbeat, because I learned a lot from the way she shared a thoughtful lesson from every experience in life, whether it was her privileged upbringing, the deep personal tragedy of her husband’s suicide, or her learn-as-you-go experience as publisher of the Post.

A few favorite moments, or interesting ideas the book presented to me:

  • Katharine Graham was born in 1917, and was a pioneer as far as women in the publishing world. She talks at length about issues related to this, and openly discusses how she and other women at the Post endured sexism in big and small ways (I remember her talking about how Meg Greenfield, a leader on the Post’s editorial page, was treated with great respect in many senses by her male counterpart, in that he valued her ideas, but she was still the one expected to type up notes from their meetings). But she also talks a lot about how, despite being an industry pioneer, she still came of age in an era where it was ingrained in women that they couldn’t do what men did. And she had a hard time overcoming that. She spent nearly an entire chapter talking about how she came to understand what “feminism” really meant – Gloria Steinem helped educate her – and admitting she didn’t do enough to support female talent at Newsweek, overlooking researchers (a traditionally female role) and not promoting them to bigger writing jobs. One such overlooked researcher? Nora Ephron.

 

  • One thought I kept having: Katharine Graham ruled in a journalism era largely untouched by the pressures of the internet, and she died almost a decade before social media precipitated so much change in media. She always seemed able to look back and honestly assess how she and the Post handled various changes in technology and various unstable times in the country’s history, and I kept thinking about how she would have handled all the issues that would have come up today – yes, the internet, but also Facebook, Twitter, and smartphones. She talked about getting a call from Ben Bradlee on the day of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, discussing whether they should call a print circulation manager and literally stop the presses. What would she have thought about her paper, purchased by her father in 1933, being sold in 2013 to a man whose other company delivers stuff you buy on the internet to your door in two days?

 

  • Watergate is the reason I knew who Katharine Graham was in the first place, so I was excited to read her perspective on the scandal. I don’t want to say I was disappointed in her Watergate chapters, but they weren’t quite as illuminating as I thought, in large part because Mrs. Graham wasn’t making day-to-day reporting and editing decisions the way someone like Ben Bradlee was. She didn’t really have juicy tidbits about how the story was chased. But, her telling of Watergate gave great insight into Bradlee’s personality and working style, and she shared a few choice anecdotes that are especially satisfying for people with at least a working knowledge of the Watergate tale. My favorite: One of Woodward and Bernstein’s biggest breaks came in the fall of 1972, when they printed that John Mitchell had controlled payments from the Nixon re-election committee slush fund while he had been Attorney General. Famously, when Bernstein called Mitchell to tell him about the story, Mitchell threatened that Graham would “get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published.” Later, a dentist from California fashioned a tiny wringer out of the gold used to fill teeth, and sent it to her. Someone at the paper made a tiny gold breast to go with it, and she sometimes wore them together on a chain around her neck.

I learned a lot from Personal History. There was something alluring about Katharine Graham’s proximity to so many powerful people, her front-row seat to Washington society and practically all the important political events of the second half of the 20th century. She seemed to be unlike anyone else I’d encountered, in real life or in a book, and I enjoyed getting to know her through this work.

For vacation, I have a couple titles ready to go: Senator Ben Sasse’s new book, The Vanishing American Adult, and Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I’m notorious for biting off more than I can chew, reading-wise, on trips, so we’ll see how it goes. I’ll report back.