Every semester, TCU sends their students studying in Florence on a three-day excursion to the Eternal City. The trip includes walking tours, a visit to the Vatican, and a trek through the Roman Forum. As this is my second time through the program, I’ve participated in the trip before and I was told the excursion was optional in my case. So I considered skipping the weekend to instead remain in Florence or perhaps visit small Tuscan towns I’ve yet to discover. However, after some thought I realized my three days in Rome last September simply weren’t enough. The city is rich in history and culture, with an enchanting surprise around every corner. With a population more than seven times that of Florence, I realized it would be incredibly foolish to pass up an opportunity to miss one of the most visited cities on earth (more than 20 million tourists a year).
So at 9 a.m. this morning I hopped on a train with 46 of my fellow TCU students, and we left Florence for the first time in two weeks. The train to Rome took a little under ninety minutes, and the trip offered breathtaking views of the Tuscan countryside. After arriving, we walked through the winding streets to our hotel, a rustic place next to the Piazza Navona. This piazza is one of my favorite spots in Rome. The marvelous architecture of the Church of Sant'Agnese in Agone never fails to leave me open- mouthed in awe. The 17th Century structure is one of the few Baroque churches in Rome, and it’s definitely worth a visit. We stopped inside on our walking tour later in the afternoon.
An American professor of Ancient Studies for Penn State (whose name I’ve unfortunately forgotten) led our walking tour through the city. He told us he studied abroad in Rome for grad school and never came back to the US, instead choosing to live, teach, and start a family right here in the City of the Seven Hills. I often wonder if I could do such a thing- completely abandon my life in the States to start anew in some foreign country- but then I think about Target and Tex Mex and my family, and I realize a transient traveler is all I’ll ever be.
The tour started with a look inside one of the buildings of La Sapienza, the oldest university in Rome. The spacious courtyard was full of lush green moss and trees with centuries old cobblestone lining the pavement. The focal point of the building is the La Sapienza Chapel- a stunning architectural feat with a pointed tip that’s an iconic piece of the Roman skyline.
After this we roamed through the charming streets, our guide occasionally pointing out different buildings or sculptures from the Medieval Ages or the Renaissance. Wandering around an unknown city is one of my favorite parts of traveling- the thrill of not knowing what lies around the corner, or whom you’ll bump into along the way. The more I’ve traveled the more I’ve realized that the most exciting, memorable experiences in a city aren’t around the tourist attractions, but in the local streets with the people who call that place their home.
Our guide then took us to the Pantheon- the building after which many Western buildings are modeled. The first known domed building in existence, the Pantheon was built in 126 AD. Its construction wouldn’t have been thinkable without the newest Roman innovation of the time: concrete. The concrete made it possible to shape the walls by placing the plaster in between bricks. However, the builders lacked the proper equipment to construct the dome. So they piled in a massive mound of dirt and plastered the concrete on top of it. Once the concrete had dried, they went inside and shoveled the dirt back out to create a freestanding dome. (All of this information is coming from that unnamed tour guide, so if any of it is incorrect I apologize).
Our final stop on the tour included the Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II- a monument for the first king of the unified Italy, Vittorio Emanuele II. The magnificent marble white building- which has acquired the nicknames “the typewriter” and “the wedding cake”- sits on a hill facing the Vatican.
As a group, we climbed to the viewing platform where we had the opportunity to witness Rome from above.
After the tour we were released to explore on our own. My friend Caroline and I immediately sped off to the Trevi Fountain- touristy but necessary when in Rome. Even though I’d already seen the fountain on two previous occasions, I was still taken aback by its massive presence and beauty.
Of course this turned out to be a tourist hot spot, and we struggled to make it to the front of the fountain as we squished through the crowds. Eventually, we secured a seat on the foot of the Trevi, and we each tossed in a coin. Legend has it if you sit on this spot and use your left hand to toss a coin over your right shoulder, you’ll certainly return to Rome in the future.
From the Trevi Fountain we walked a short five minutes to the Spanish Steps. Another popular tourist destination, crowds packed into the small square to catch a glimpse of the famous steps.
But we finally made it to the top of the staircase where we were greeted by a miraculous sunset. We sat and watched the pinks, purples, and blues fade into a misty black, and our first day in Rome concluded.