Like all parents, I think my daughter is pretty smart. But she showed extreme astuteness when we asked her what were the things she enjoyed the most about our trip to Rome. She thought for a bit and said, “Ice cream, good restaurants, and having fun with our friends.”
She enjoyed the museums, the statues, the grandiose architecture. Rome has those and to spare. It was fun wandering around the city and stumbling across some Egyptian stele or an antique collonade-fronted building. But the Trevi Fountain convinced me that these Big Name sights weren’t the most impressive thing. The fountain, one of Rome’s Famous Sights, was closed for restoration. Workers were cleaning the marble and making the plumbing efficient …and hordes of tourists stood outside the fences, snapping pictures. We quickly moved on, and found ourselves wandering through quiet streets with plenty of ordinary architecture and street life to take in. (And some extraordinary street life: on one street, a woman was busking by singing an absolutely gorgeous rendition of Ave Maria.)
We walked around St Peter’s square, but what was on her mind was ice cream. Rome is known for its gelato and there are enough shops in the city to fill a guidebook. (Now, there’s an idea!) Each one has a wide variety of flavors: from the tried-and-true stracciatella to more exotic varieties. Getting a cup and a spoon means several types of pleasures: there’s the obvious one of enjoying a sweet treat. But more than that: you sit and you watch the world go by. You listen to the chatter of other people. You engage multiple senses with flavors, smells, sounds as well as sights. Whether it’s a gelateria, or a cafe, or just a park bench, it’s always worthwhile to stop and look around.
And a restaurant can serve the same purposes as well. Sitting at an outside table in an Italian restaurant and enjoying a meal while the world goes by is a great attraction. However, we found that so many of these places are occupied solely by tourists, and we found it far more enjoyable to find a spot that did not have an English menu (and certainly lacked a tout standing outside in the street urging passers-by to come in!) and was filled with people speaking Italian. It meant more fumbling with ordering, but it definitely made for more memorable meals and a more enjoyable experience.
Finally, our friends made the trip the best thing ever. They weren’t our tour guides through the highlights of Rome: they were our charming and delightful hosts. We had fun with them in their apartment in the north of the city, and on outings to supermarkets, local restaurants, church, train stations and more. Apart from just being incredibly welcoming and fun people, they helped us to feel less like we were tourists in Rome and more like we were living there.
When in Rome, do as the Romans do, goes the old saying. And it applies well to travel. If you focus less on the Big Sights and more on the smaller domestic pleasures, it can make the visit more enjoyable and give you a better taste of what life is like in that place. You won’t tick off all the items on the standard tourist checklist, but you’ll feel connected to the place by more than a photograph.