My flight out of Santiago left at 6:45am, but the buses from town to the airport don’t run that early. Since I really didn’t feel like sleeping in the airport overnight (which several pilgrims did; no thank you!) I splurged on an early-morning taxi. I almost had a heart attack going through security at the airport. Something kept on scanning in my carry-on bag, and the woman who worked there repeatedly asked me with suspicion what I might have that was setting off the sensors. “A knife?” she asked warily. “No, I don’t carry a knife,” I answered, confused. I frantically rummaged through the compartments of my daypack to see what the offending item could be. To my horror, I slipped my hand into a small interior pocket and pulled out my little Swiss Army knife. “Oh nooo…” I moaned, knowing that it would probably be confiscated. I have no idea how my knife could have gotten into that pocket (unless I had maybe placed it there for the Finisterre trip in case we decided to buy supermarket food for lunch). Luckily, she measured the largest blade, and somehow it was small enough to fall into what must have been the “bread and cheese” category and not the “serious threat” category, and I was able to keep it. (I still do not understand the rationale behind this, but I was not about to argue with her; I like my knife!) I sheepishly threw it back in my bag, knowing that I was now That Stupid Passenger At Security that I had always mocked before, and headed to the gate.
My flight was not direct but flew through Madrid, where I had a few hours to kill. The design of the Madrid airport is gorgeous. Airy and modern with plenty of natural light, it puts other airports to shame (ahem, Boston Logan Terminal E).
On the flight, I had to begin the process of switching the Spanish in my head to Italian, which proved to be no easy feat. I sat next to a Spanish woman who for some reason tried to converse with me in Italian even though it was apparent that neither of us spoke it well. She would also proudly answer me in whatever English she knew. I would offer her something while speaking in Spanish, and she would accept, perk up, and beam, “THENK you VER-y MUCH-a!”
Once in Rome, I took several trains to reach the subway, which took me to the neighborhood where I would be staying the next four nights. I had booked a place online at booking.com (which, by the way, I quite like. They offer the option of looking for a single room for one person- including or excluding dorm beds in hostels depending on your preference- and frequently allow cancellation or changes in reservation at no cost). I had reserved the most reasonable accommodation I could find; no 10 Euro pilgrim albergues here! The place was a casa religiosa, which appeared to be a mix between a school and a seminary with conference rooms and a large chapel inside. When I reached my room and saw a crucifix and picture of the Annunciation on the wall, I smiled: it felt like I was still on the Camino.
I had been in Rome 15 years earlier, so my goal was just to take it easy but see some of the sights that I had missed the first time around. My first night, I took the metro to the Spanish Steps and sat there eating a piece of pizza and a Coke. Gelato in hand, I wandered past cozy restaurant patios and came upon the Piazza Populo, where a MASSIVE free concert was going on. I was amazed at the relatively relaxed security: I was able to walk up the street behind the stage and watch the show from amidst the statues on the nearby hill. In the US, my guess is that the whole area would have been roped off and guarded, so I appreciated the opportunity for a good view!
On Saturday, I took a bus down the Via Appia to the Roman catacombs. The tours there are brief (around 30 minutes) and are offered periodically in several different languages. Even though we only saw a tiny fraction of the underground passages, I can understand why they do not allow entrance without a guide: it would be nearly impossible not to get lost! The cold subterranean tunnels also provided a welcome break from the heat of the afternoon. Many members of my tour group were priests and seminarians from Nigeria, so I spoke to them for a bit after the tour. On the way home, I decided to take the scenic route, buy a gelato, and walk past the Coliseum on the way to a different subway station. It was kind of pleasant to sit next to Roman ruins and just read a book!
So I had dropped the ball when it came to planning my Rome trip. I had intended to go to the Sunday Papal Mass but didn’t realize until it was too late that you need to reserve a ticket to even get in. Oops. I settled for going to St. Peter’s on Sunday at noon to hear the Pope pray the Angelus. I got there around 11:40, which was not nearly early enough, because the square looked like this:
That square gets crowded, man! I was forced to decide between two options: a direct view of both the Pope and the scorching sun, or a spot beneath the columns in the shade that was in, uh, earshot of the Pope. I thought like a dermatologist and stayed out of the sun but was able to get this shot by extending my arm around the column that blocked my view:
[Fast forward: Two days later, I returned to the square and was able to take a normal tourist shot of myself without the massive hordes of people:]
But those hordes were all there on Sunday, when I waited in line for 45 minutes just to get into 5pm Mass. I had forgotten just how enormous St. Peter’s Basilica is. Beautiful, but enormous. It’s like a holy airplane hangar. Sometimes I can feel almost overwhelmed in such a large space, so I focus on little details. It helps keep it in perspective for me.
Back at the hotel, I had met another solo traveler at breakfast, Julia from Russia. As much as I like to travel alone, it is always nice to have someone to share a meal with. We went to dinner at an inexpensive restaurant around the corner from the hotel. The waiter brought us our silverware, glasses, and one lemon-scented wet-nap.
We went shopping for souvenirs on my last day in Rome. In addition to the standard Rome/Italy offerings, there was a plethora of Pope-related memorabilia for sale: some of it pious, some of it funny. I saw delicate rosaries and prayer cards, but in the same store I also saw cigarette lighters of the Pope giving the thumbs up sign like the Buddy Christ :). Satisfied with our purchases, we stocked up at a grocery store (note to self: prepackaged salads are cheaper in Spain) and, with the addition of some of Julia’s leftover pizza, had a feast for lunch back at the hotel.
In addition to all the fun in Rome, I took a day trip to Pompeii. But that’s a story for another post :).