Before venturing to Italy for the first time I (CrazyUS) solicited some travel advice. I would say at least fifty to seventy-five percent of the people told me (no I am not exaggerating), “Do not go to Rome. It is boring! It is an old, big, dirty, and smelly city. You will not like it.” They would pause long enough to let me know how serious they were, and then would continue, “Seriously, there are much better places to see – like Florence.”
I will admit. The feedback I received filled my brain with complicated doubt, making me want to shut my eyes, close my ears, and pretend Rome was not there. Ultimately and thankfully, I could not ignore Rome, the birthplace of Western Civilization. I reasoned that even if Rome is dirty and completely sucks, at the very least I must to my responsible-tourist duty and cross the Forum and Coliseum off of my important-things-to-see-in-your-lifetime list. In the end, and with my brain brimming with travel tips, we held our breath and went to Rome.
And as I found myself walking along the narrow cobblestone streets, with the outdoor vendors, the fresh flowers and produce, the graffiti, the architecture, and the reverent street beggars bent over with heads bowed low, I wondered, “how can anyone NOT like Rome?” And then it occurred to me. Perhaps the not-so-compelling Rome advice was actually a result of how my advice-givers saw Rome.
Wait. Wait. Let me defend them. First, people should travel the way they want to travel, wearing-recorded-tour-headsets through museums, riding organized tour buses and all of it. Secondly, please know that I am the hugest fan of public transportation, especially when traveling. If you want to take a taxi everywhere, then so be it. This post, however, is about walking. And when it comes to travel and getting to know a new city, I am an even bigger fan of hoofing it. In truth, I would argue that cars, trains, and buses steal away from your trip. They often prevent you from seeing the unexpected beauty (and sometimes horror) along the way. Simply put, cars, taxis and organized bus tours steal your adventure. Along with the physical and mental health benefits, walking not only allows you unexpected adventures, it allows you to intimately learn, observe and connect to a particular place.
And in the interest of full disclosure my travel blog should really be a how-I-walk-around-the-world-because-I-love-to-walk blog.
Case in point:
Had we taken a bus or taxi from our centrally located apartment to the Vatican that day, we probably would have been, “Meh. We saw Vatican Plaza.”
Instead, we walked. Our experience was instead:
“Meeting Stinky Mario at the top of Piazza Giuseppe Garibaldi after getting directions from the Nuns in Nunville.” Really, our walking began when we decided to take jumping pictures Saint Peter’s Square Vatican City. And really, I think it began with all the dudes trying to sell us selfie-sticks and making a game out of how we could ignore them. After we left Vatican Plaza, we found a cash machine and our travel companion and navigator remembered hearing about a cool place nearby, Piazza Giuseppe Garibaldi. We knew we were close. We saw a locked gate, and were trying to find another way around. As we walked up the hill we saw a sea of apartment buildings, and noticed the occupants were nuns. “This would be the coolest place to live if you were a nun,” I said.
Seeing as how we were steps from the Vatican we all agreed that all these nuns had won the nun-jackpot (no disrespect intended). And there they were, three nuns. Two were Polish and one was Indian. They heard us talking and turned around. “Are you lost?” they asked. “We are,” we said. “Do you know how to get to the top of the hill?” we continued. The sun was setting. We wanted to see the view. “Go this way.” One said to us in English. Then we stood there talking. We were happy they spoke English. They could not believe we were Americans. “Americans don’t walk.” I felt compelled to tell the two Polish nuns about my Polish heritage and all the nuns in my family tree. Soon we were on our way. In a bus, we would have missed this moment. We hustled up the hill and saw the view. No bus was waiting and we took our time. In the middle of the plaza circle we noticed a fleet of Minis decorated as Sponge Bob, Superman, and even an ambulance. There was a man dressed up as Spandex Cat/Batman taking pictures and then I saw Mario. We were in Italy. His car looked like my favorite Wii game. I walked over and asked if I could take my picture with him. Adorable, chubby Mario put his arm around me. And that is when I sensed a delightful horror. Mario needed a shower. It was totally worth it.
Case in Point:
Architecture tour of Barcelona. We made it a walking tour. A local grocery store was celebrating by dressing up as their favorite Flintstones characters. We saw someone dressed up as a “neanderthal” according to Eli, who said I would love it. We followed the neanderthal into the grocery store and that is when the magic happened. It happened to hit the first day of Carnival.
I know I am only giving you a glimpse. It may be the simpleness of flowers along the street, or maybe you will travel to and discover a nearly domesticated squirrel in Hyde Park. I promise if you walk, you will see. You will learn a place. You may get sore feet, but you will not be disappointed. I promise. You may find that a forgotten and maligned place like Emeryville, CA is actually filled with cool warehouse buildings, and beautiful, quiet, flower-filled streets. In Barcelona, you may see a man flipping you off while he screams at you in Catalán. And with a pair of walking shoes, you may even find yourself in Rome and fall in love.