The first time I visited Europe, I was 16 and desperate to see Paris. I’d been studying French for years and I was beyond thrilled to be able to use it in the wild. Plus, I was enamored with so many French artists and writers – I wanted to see this romantic city that seemed to have inspired all of them.
For the longest time, I idealized living in Europe and wanted to find any way possible to move there. Of course, when I was 28, I finally succeeded in getting that EU passport: I was eligible for Italian citizenship through my family. At the time, I had made the decision to move to Rome, even going so far as to book my flight (and my dog’s!).
At the last minute, I decided against it. Financially and emotionally, it didn’t make sense. I wanted to be close to my family which, in a way, was probably the most Italian decision I could have made.
Since then, I hadn’t been back.
I had a conference in Barcelona, Spain during the last week of October, so Gustavo and I decided to tack a visit to Italy onto the trip. It was a) an opportunity for us to see each other, and b) a chance to visit Europe. Together. For the first time. (First time ever, in his case!)
What we saw
For the first week we were in Barcelona, I was at a conference so we weren’t able to do much sightseeing. However, we took the full week off in Italy so we could really explore. I consider Italy a bit of a second (or third?) home and wanted to be able to share the connection I have with it.
On our way back home from Rome, we had a day-long layover in Barcelona so we booked at stay at the Ayre Hotel. We knew it was close by to Sagrada Familia, but we didn’t know how close by. As we opened the windows in our room, BAM, the cathedral was right in front of us. It was one of the most amazing views I’d ever seen.
We also had paella, which I tried for the first time, and a lot of Spanish cheeses. After lunch, we made sure to stop for some churros with hot chocolate. Ironically, we ended up sitting next to a Brazilian family, also turistando just like us.
On our first week in the city, we walked around the Gothic Quarter, especially the area near La Boqueria market. Now, we didn’t go into the market because I failed to note that it’s closed on Sundays, but nevertheless we enjoyed the sights around us.
Of course, we also did a bit of Crossfit at both AlphaLink and Crossfit Sant Martí, which worked as our second homes for training for about a week. Gustavo was able to go to Crossfit Sant Martí every single day and I’m a little jealous – it was such a great space!
Gustavo’s description of Rome, and Europe in general, was my favorite so I’m going to use it here. “When you see it in the movies, you think they’re using effects but it actually looks like this.”
On our first day, we (of course!) stopped at a Crossfit on the other side of the Vatican and decided to walk through on the way “home.” Watching his face as we walked into St. Peter’s Square was one of the highlights for me. As you walk into the piazza, the entire space opens up with these grandiose buildings somehow perpetually dosed in sepia tone. It’s impossible not to react.
In Rome, we actually took one day to hang out together, watch a TV show on our computers, and cook some food in the Airbnb. We were in the city during some of the crazy weather, so instead of trudging about miserably in the rain, we found a local Carrefour and cooked up a storm. It was so relaxing and, with Italian food, even the most basic items you can pick up at the grocery store are full of flavor. It was one of the nicest days.
We also visited the Colosseum, which is perpetually epic for its sheer size. Even though it was raining, we had a lot of fun imagining what it must have looked like in its hey-day.
Actually, a lot of our trip to Rome was like that – imagining the past. It’s a city that’s so intermingled with its history that it’s unlike anywhere else in the world. On the same street, you can have a modern shopping mall, a medieval church, and ruins coming up from below the pavement. I love Rome so much because it’s a place that doesn’t put history behind plexiglass. Instead, they use their history as part of their everyday lives.
While the Colosseum was the highlight for Gustavo, I fell in love with Basilica San Clemente, which houses ruins of an ancient Roman home below the church. In it, there’s a Mithraeum, a gathering and ritual place for worshippers of the god Mithras. I picked up on so much wild energy in there that it freaked me out at first. I was so scared because I just had this sense that I wasn’t supposed to be there. As I was able to explore the place more, I felt like I was just picking up on residual energy from a place that has been very powerful and spiritually significant for thousands of years. With the context, all I wanted was to explore the place more and more.
We also had really good meals at Giggetto and Dar Poeta. One, a recommendation from a good friend, specialized in classic Roman Jewish cuisine. The second, a recommendation from our Scooteroma tour guide for some really delicious pizza with local specialties, like a cacio e pepe pizza!
Naples and Pompei
Naples, in a way, is everything I hoped Rio would be, in its glorious mess. My family is from the Campania region of Italy and it’s also the first place I ever visited in Italy, so I have a deep soft spot for it. I know, I know. It’s dangerous. It’s dirty. It’s run down. Nothing works. But, still, it feels familiar in a way that I can’t quite pinpoint in any other city.
Of course, seeing Naples isn’t quite as appealing as a trip to Pompei. While I still have yet to spend more than one consecutive day in the city, that did give us the opportunity to explore the archeological site that determined what I studied in college. (The last time I went to Pompei, I decided I wanted to be an art restorationist, which led me to studying, with quite a bit of passion, cultural anthropology.)
It only takes about an hour to take the Frecciarossa from Rome to Naples. From there, we hopped on what I like to call the “Neapolitan PATH train” to the Pompei station. From here, we walked to the park and started what was one of the windiest, rainiest, sandiest visits to Pompei. At one point, it was so windy, my glasses actually flew off my face into a puddle on the ancient Roman streets.
Nevertheless, we enjoyed wandering around the various ruins, from homes to shops, temples to public forums. We stood at the top of an amphitheater in the middle of a rainstorm looking at the silhouette of Vesuvius. It was gorgeous.
On the way back, we stopped in Naples for a quick side trip to L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele. I first heard of this place on a travel show, years ago, as the place where pizza was created. Of course, I wanted to go!
When we arrived, it was still so windy in the city and Naples has had many decades of garbage pickup problems. So we stood on the corner, with our number in hand, amidst the dirt and plastic bags and various sundries on the streets flying around over our head. When we finally went in, we glanced at the menu on the wall and picked out one of the two options: margherita pizza.
Ordering was interesting in that the waiter mostly walked by as we confusedly shouted our orders at him. Yet despite the rain, the wind, and the wait, it was all worth it. It’s definitely the best pizza I’ve ever had: simple, flavorful, and both delicate and chewy at the same time. Gustavo even ordered too, much to the confusion of the staff.
On the way back home, we ran through the ran, into the safety of Napoli Centrale where I had one last sfogliatelle before we made our way back to Rome. For me, that day in Naples was the best of the whole trip – it was an intricate amalgamation of all of my nostalgia for my family who’s no longer with me, excitement to share this part of myself with my new family, and sheer joy for the moment.
For now, we’re both back in our respective countries, counting the days until we see each other next. Just two more weeks before Gustavo lands here and we can start our big long holiday with my family!