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Milan fulfilled my expectations : fashionable women, thin-crust pizzas and people with pizzazz. But the Eternal City was different. On my recent and first ever trip there, I found swarms of tourists, rustic delicacies like pig's cheek, inefficient public services, bad driving and crumbling infrastructure.
Yet it remains the 11th-most-visited city in the world and a top outbound destination for Indian travellers, who are swelling in number by 15 per cent each year, according to the Italian State Tourist Board.
Rather like Mumbai, it possesses a je nesais quoi that seduces tourists. It could be the flamboyant ancient buildings or perhaps the Romans who are surprisingly down-toearth, open, and warm. They will tell you their whole life story within minutes of meeting you. But the difficult part is finding a local amid the multitude of tourists.
Yet if you look hard, Rome has everything from swanky restaurants to pokey back street bakeries. Of course, tourists will get ripped off and no one stops at zebra crossings, seat belts are ignored and gesticulating maniac taxi drivers are the norm, but something about Rome bewitches its guests.
After landing I went to the ladies' bathroom in the airport and the floor was completely flooded, a sign of the dodgy plumbing awaiting me at my B&B. After walking past some scary-looking policemen, I found myself in a long queue to get through immigration, even though I was an EU national, which was odd as the non-EU passengers sailed through.
Yet I was soon struck by the awe-inspiring, majestic buildings and interesting architecture. Before long I was at a piazza brimming with tourists and suddenly realised I was in St Peter's Square. Standing at such a iconic landmark felt exhilarating.
The following day I returned to go for Mass at St Peter's Basilica, Italy's largest church built over the tomb of St Peter.
The 20-minute wait in the queue in the blazing heat to get through security was well worth it as the interior was dazzling. I was entranced by Michelangelo's famous Pieta.
Security guards were everywhere, struggling to determine who was a Catholic and who was not so that only the genuine ones got into the Latin-sung Mass. The biggest challenge before the church was preventing tourists from disturbing the religious services. Dozens of altar boys, cardinals, bishops, priests and incense created an unforgettable high church experience.
Afterwards I went outside to watch the Pope deliver his blessing from his study window. His white cassock was just a speck but his multilingual prayers delighted everyone present.
The next day I had a tour of the Vatican Gardens. They were not worth seeing but the 31-euro (Rs 2, 000) online ticket had got me entry to the museums, thus helping me avoid another long queue.
There is no need for a guide in the museums as the crowd surges in one direction - that of the Sistine Chapel. If you only see one thing, then it should be Michelangelo's Genesis and The Last Judgment, deeply religious and intricately drawn Renaissance paintings, spread across the entire ceiling and walls of this fascinating chapel-cum-picture gallery. Next should be The Raphael Rooms, where The School of Athens, Raphael's great masterpiece, is on show.
Many of the other museums, such as the Gregorian Etruscan Museum, contained endless Roman jars, drinking horns and pitchers, which soon blurred into one and I had to take rest in a cafe.
There are no rickshaws and taxis are expensive. So, you either walk, or use the metro. The latter is cheap at one euro (Rs 67) for a single journey. If you opt to walk, a sun hat is essential.
I paid 80 euros (Rs 5, 200) a night for a budget B&B near the Vatican. There was no room service, no cafê and no laundry facilities. I was told I could take my washing to the launderette or do it in the room sink. That is Rome. Breakfast was always a large cappuccino and croissant. It was also the only chance to have a cappuccino as the rest of the day one had to survive on espresso. The most difficult aspect was not the danger of having my handbag stolen or being leered at, it was the heat. Moreover many B&Bs, shops and restaurants did not have fans or A/C and if they did, they had them on a very low power.
Another difficulty was changing travellers' cheques. Even though one is supposed to be able to do so at banks and the post office, when I tried, the staff refused. Banks were uninviting, with closed glass tubes you had to go through to get inside. On one occasion I got stuck inside listening to repeats of a recorded Italian message. Finally a member of the public pressed a button to let me out, just before I fainted from the heat. The staff ignored me.
Banking annoyances aside, the food was divine. Dishes I enjoyed included cacio e Pepe (with sheep's cheese and pepper), spaghetti al pomodoro (with fresh tomatoes and basil) and tiramisu. Il Margutta on Via Margutta was a great place for fusion Italian food. There I feasted on buckwheat pasta with strawberries, gorgonzola cheese and asparagus.
The Spanish Steps were the place to hang out at dusk and indulge in people-watching. Climb to the top and one sees a postcardperfect picture of artists painting visitors.
Wandering around the bohemian side streets was also fun, such as Via Margutta and the area around Piazza di Spagna, which had chic shops, galleries and cafes.
The Piazza Navona was just how you would expect Rome to look: cafes flanking it from all sides, violin players serenading diners, fountains and a relaxed vibe. Close to the impressive Pantheon, where the painter Raphael was buried, one can sample the famous strong coffee (gran caffe) of Caffê Sant'Eustachio.
The other must-see was the Colosseum. The long queues can be avoided by getting a ticket at the Palatine entrance. The famous amphitheatre which was built in 80 AD to entertain Romans with wild animal and gladiator fights is mostly intact and one can walk around it.
Nearby the Roman Forum and Palatine contained ruins of various ancient temples, churches and buildings. It was already the middle of the day by then and I was exhausted. The signs were unclear so if you hire a guide anywhere, this would be the place. Slather sunscreen and drink plenty of water.
The final sight was the Trevi Fountain, a commanding spectacle of gushing water. Tourists were everywhere and I felt like I had stepped into a holiday brochure. Nearby shops were selling chocolate and squid ink pasta. After throwing in my two coins to bring an Italian man into my life, I had dinner at Vineria il Chianti where I ordered a very non-Roman dish, a gorgonzola and rocket pizza.
I then mulled on how close my experience had been to that of Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love. Well, I hadn't found love. But I had found plenty of spirituality and I had indeed eaten well. I guess I had experienced La Dolce Vita.
AT A GLANCE
When to Go:
April/September/October when the heat is tolerable.
How to Get There:
Flights to Italy only depart from Delhi. Jet Airway flies from Delhi to Milan daily nonstop. China Airlines flies from Delhi to Rome directly twice a week.
What to bring:
Sun hat, high SPF sun cream, hardy sandals, cotton/linen clothes, mosquito repellent, lots of T-shirts (two per day)
A diet coke in a cafê : 2. 5 euros (Rs 160);an espresso: 1 euro (Rs 65);a 3-course dinner for one with glass of wine and coffee: 20 euros (Rs 1, 300)
What to buy:
An Italian leather handbag, Caffe Sant'Eustachio coffee, a rosary from the Vatican, unusual shaped dried pasta
At many restaurants you get free aperitivos (snacks) when you order drinks before 7. 30 pm Do not bring travellers cheques. Withdraw money using your debit card at ATMs All water is drinkable in Rome, including the water from fountains Don't miss the free Pope's blessing from St Peter's Square at noon on a Sunday Pre-book your trip to the Vatican Museums online A Roma Pass will give you many discounts. Go to www. romapass. it
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