Rome is not as I remembered. The last time I was there was in 1987 so there has been plenty of time for it to change. In 1987 I set out from Lincoln station with my best friend, an unfeasibly heavy rucksack and an interail ticket. The whole of Europe was spread out before us. However, in a desire not to just see the inside of railway stations for the whole of our month, we had decided to limit our travel and focus entirely on Italy. With that aim in mind, we joined the Youth Hostel Association and booked beds in all the places of interest. Rome was fourth on the list after Venice, Pisa and Florence.
We had heard from fellow travellers that Rome was a bit dodgy and that you were likely to have things stolen by gypsy children who worked in gangs across the city. We had had a near miss in Florence so we were feeling a bit vulnerable. As a result we were cautious to the point of obsession. But it seemed to us that we had good grounds. As I recall, the city was dirty and seedy with beggars on every street corner and gangs of feral children.
The Rome of 2009 is very different. Like many cities of my acquaintance, it seems to have cleaned up its act. No litter, bins and not beggars on every corner and a friendly and welcoming atmosphere so that even when we got quite badly lost on our second night we still felt safe and not scared.
Another thing that seems to have changed is Catholicism. When I was there before, Catholicism seemed to be the very essence of the city. Every second person seemed to be clutching a rosary or trying to sell one. There were lots of those little shrines that you sometimes find in holes in walls. And lots of candles. This time I saw a few nuns in various colours and a monk who wouldn’t have looked out of place in The Da Vinci Code and apart from that you wouldn’t have known that we were in the centre of the Catholic world. Even at the Vatican the signs weren’t easy to spot. No one praying and no real candles, just electric ones with switches.
Another difference this time was that I flew in. Not nearly as romantic as pulling into the station by train and considerably cheaper than my rail ticket. Instead of carrying my kit on my bag I pulled it behind me on a little set of wheels. We did catch a train from the airport in to the city and then a tube to our hotel. We walked up the road looking for Hotel Firenze. We walked down the road. No Hotel Firenze. We rang the hotel and they told us that they were at number 106 but when we got there the hotel appeared to be called Hotel Doge. How very curious. As it turned out they were in the middle of changing its name. Might have been an idea to mention that on the web site but not to worry. We were there now.
After dumping our stuff we set off in to the mele of chic Italians and dreadfully turned out tourists. The Italian women were slim, smart and strutting about the cobbled streets on impossibly high heels. The tourists had pasty skin, bad shorts and flat footwear. We hoped that we fell somewhere between the two – clearly not Italian but not letting the Union Jack sag either. In fact, on our very last coffee stop, our trip was made by a gentleman asking us for directions and calling us Signorinas and not the more credible Signoras. So shallow and easily pleased!
Another thing to strike us was how very old everything is. The churches are full to bursting with paintings and sculpture from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries – an embarrassment of riches. But of course the art work is a mere spring chicken compared to the Colosseum and the area around the Forum. The degree of preservation is incredible. It was so very humbling to be there and it made me feel very small and insignificant but at the same time awe struck by the buildings magnificence.
And so I passed a very agreeable four days in Rome. I was pleasantly surprised by the city and the changes that it seems to have undergone. Or could it just be that I am older and wiser? Of course, the benefits of the relaxation I enjoyed have more or less evaporated now, 24 hours later but that just means I shall have to go and explore somewhere else before too long.