by Rick Steves, September 25, 2020
As we've had to postpone our travels because of the pandemic, I believe a weekly dose of travel dreaming can be good medicine. Here's a reminder of the fun that awaits us in Europe at the other end of this crisis.
I'm hard at work, writing in my hotel room. I've spent the whole afternoon splicing changes into the next edition of my Rome guidebook. It's time for a quick little break, but stepping outside is hazardous. It's too easy to get swept away into a Roman sea of colorful — and fragrant — distractions. The current out there is too strong. Still, promising to be back at my desk in a few minutes, I decide to take the risk and plunge in…
From my hotel, I flow downhill to the Pantheon's portico, where I wade into the surf of images. Designer shades and flowing hair are backlit in the magic-hour sun, happy ice-cream lickers sit on a marble bench, and a fountain spritzes in the background under an obelisk exclamation point. Romanian accordion players stroll along, entertaining passersby. The sunburned stains of a golden arch on a wall mark where a McDonald's once sold fast food.
As I let go of the Pantheon's columns, the current sweeps me past siren cafés and TV crews covering something big in front of the parliament building, and out into Via del Corso. On my swim through the city, this is the deep end: The crowd from the suburbs comes here for some cityscape elegance. Today they've gooped on a little extra hair product and have put on their best T-shirts, leggings, and heels.
Veering away from the busy pedestrian boulevard, I come upon Fausto, a mad artist standing proudly amid his installation of absurdities. He's the only street artist I've met who personally greets viewers. After surveying his tiny gallery of hand-scrawled and thought-provoking tidbits, I ask for a card. As he gives me a handmade piece of wallet-sized art, he directs me to the end of the curb and his "secretary" — a plastic piggy bank for tips.
I pass a homeless man, tattered but respectfully dressed, leaning against a wall. He's savoring a bottle of wine while studying the parade of Roman life as if trying to follow the plot. Next, I chat with twins from Kentucky, giddy about celebrating their 40th birthdays together here in Rome. Their Doublemint smiles and high energy argue a good case for embracing the good life.
Moving on, I slip into a church just as the ushers close the doors for Mass. Inside, the white noise of Roman streets gives way to the incensed hum of a big church with a determined priest — and not enough people. I slip down the side aisle, hands folded as if here to worship, to catch a glimpse of a Caravaggio, that thriller of the early 17th century.
Slipping back outside, I find myself at the north entrance of the ancient city. Determined to swim to my hotel room to get back to work, I pass the same well-dressed bum with the wine buzz, still intently caught up in the city. I imagine being in his pickled head for just a moment.
Near him, guys from Somalia launch their plastic fluorescent whirlybirds high into the sky while their friends slam plastic doll heads into boards so hard the heads become spilled goop. Then the dolls creepily reconstitute themselves, ready for another brutal slam. Selling these street trinkets keeps undocumented African immigrants from starving. Seeing them today makes me think that if I had bought all the goofy things people tried to sell me on the streets of Rome over the years — from the flaming Manneken Pis lighters and the five-foot-tall inflatable bouncing cigars to the twin magnets that jitter like crickets — I could have opened a kitschy museum.
Rome is a cauldron of urban life — mixing random bits from today, yesterday, and centuries gone by. It's high class and low class, sacred and profane, grandiose and fragile, stormy and tranquil all at once — a mix seemingly designed to give visitors from far away indelible memories.
I swim with a struggling stroke back to the stillness of my hotel, closing the door to keep out the Roman current. While taking a break from writing up my work, I wind up coming home with even more to write about. In Rome, one thing leads to another. For a travel writer trying to catch up on his notes, that can be dangerous.
This article was adapted from Rick's new book, For the Love of Europe.