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Rome (Part One), Italy

Today's driving challenge was not our GPS, not crazy drivers, it was the wind. Overnight and all morning it was blowing a gale, making for challenging driving conditions. At one stage, while cruising along a highway, the wind managed to pop open our sunroof (I still don't understand how it happened). We were thankful there was no rain. 

Next stop, Roma! There were times when I wondered if we would make it this far on our holiday, but after nine months on the road we have finally arrived. We found a train station and parked cheaply - €1.50 for 12 hours. I love this city already. The train took us all the way to the centre, where we hopped off, grabbed a map, then jumped back on to head north of the city. The central train station was a maze – I wasn't sure if it was under construction, but it was dimly lit, there were barricades everywhere, and we had to climb 10 flights of stairs (up and down) just to reach the correct platform. There are only two metro lines in the whole city - it shouldn't have been that hard. 

After the drive we only had a couple of hours left in the day to start exploring Rome, so we decided to check off a smaller, out of the way sight. We decided on the National Gallery of Modern Art, one of the only museums in the city that focuses on non-Renaissance art (this requirement must be fulfilled for us when choosing museums). Although one section was closed for renovation, the rest of the gallery was excellent. The majority of works displayed were by Italian artists, many of which we had never heard of. A few of my favourite Impressionist painters were also in the mix, so overall it was a worthwhile trek.

 

Once we had achieved our art fix, we strolled through Villa Borghese, a large public park on top of a hill. It was a picturesque setting, containing a lake dotted with row boats, manicured gardens and palatial-like buildings. There was hardly anyone around, which made it even better. We were also granted decent views over the city, with the dome of St Peter's Basilica sticking out in the distance. Not a bad way to end our first day in Rome. So far we think it is beautiful, neat and clean, with wide, campervan-friendly streets – almost the complete opposite to most cities in Italy. 

Being a weekend the next day, we planned to avoid the popular sights and just wander around the city to tick off some of the smaller landmarks. For Danny, this meant visiting a flea market, where he bought a jumper for €2 that he couldn't stop raving about. In the meantime, I visited three highly ornate churches, one containing a Michelangelo statue surrounded by a mob of tourists, and another with a silver urn that apparently contained five pieces of Jesus' manger. True or not, it also attracted a huge crowd.

 

Afterwards, I met up with Danny at the Scala Santa (Holy Stairs), which you were supposed to climb on your knees and pause on each step for an indeterminate amount of time. We considered giving it a go, even though it apparently takes about half an hour to reach the top and it would have ruined my already dodgy knees, but it closed for siesta before we had made up our minds. Instead, we visited Piazza della Repubblica (via another church), where we were greeted with a large gathering of protesters, all anti-government about something I couldn't translate. To assist with their anger levels they apparently required an open-sided truck to follow them, serving beer out of taps. I think Danny was almost ready to join their cause. Riot police were positioned all around, and later we spotted them at various points throughout the city. We managed to push through it all to visit another church (the city must have one church per resident), this one revered because it was designed by Michelangelo. The building was formerly a public bath, so I can't imagine it would have been easy to convert it into a place of worship.

Next on our hit list was Trevi Fountain, walking via Quattro Fontane to reach it. It came as no surprise that it was swarmed by tourists, meaning every photo I took captured several strangers as well. As far as fountains go, I'd say this was a fairly decent one. The tradition is to throw money over your shoulder and into the Fountain, to ensure your return to Rome. This caused both of us to dig deep into our bags, searching for all of the loose change from the various currencies we had collected over the year. Each of us threw a giant handful into the water. This seemed as good a way as any to rid ourselves from the coins we had uselessly collected, plus we would be more than glad to return here one day.

Feeling somewhat lighter after emptying our bags, we ventured over to the Spanish Steps, inadvertently arriving at the top rather than the bottom. We proceeded down the staircase to take photos from below, where we were met with a wall of hawkers, who continuously pushed their wares on us in an infuriating manner. Once we had escaped the salesmen's clutches, we strolled over to the slightly quieter Piazza del Popolo, an enormous circle-shaped plaza lined with three churches (we only visited one), a couple of fountains and several other important-looking buildings. 

Then it was finally time to head back to the car. Or so we thought. We walked to the closest Metro station at the Spanish Steps but it was closed off, much to our surprise and to many others' (it was only 4:30 p.m.). Blindly following the crowd, we were led through an underground passage and hoped there was another entrance to the station. Fifteen minutes later we were still stuck in the passage, with no station in sight. When we finally found daylight we had no idea where we were and had to ask a waitress for help. She directed us to a different station, however this one was closed too. We pondered if maybe the whole line had been shut down, so we crossed the city to reach the other Metro line. Halfway there we arrived at a street that had been barricaded off along its entire length, halting our plan. We made a detour to try yet another station, but found it cordoned off by the riot police. It was becoming exasperating.

 

Giving up, we asked a policeman how we could get to our destination. He told us that four stations had been closed (the four we happened to try) and our best bet was to make our way to the central station via a street that was still open. When we found this street, we caught sight of TVs inside the cafes, broadcasting the news. It quickly became obvious why the stations were closed. The screens were showing scenes of violence from the protesters, filmed earlier in the day on the street we were currently standing on. The demonstrators had moved on to another section of the city, allowing us to pass through here safely. As we walked along, we stared in awe at the cars and storefronts with smashed windows, broken glass bottles covering the ground, and workers beginning to clean off the graffiti. TV footage showed burning cars and injured people, making us immensely relieved that we hadn't been caught up in it all. It took us an hour and a half, but we did eventually make it back to our car. That definitely was not on our to-do list in Rome.