I have never been a very good tourist. I often don’t know what important landmarks a city boasts. I rarely do any research before a trip. I don’t do well on tour busses. Lines and crowds stress me out. And truthfully, I hate being told what I should do.
So when everyone told me that I absolutely had to visited the Vatican during my time in Rome, I took their advice with a grain of salt. Wanting to make my own educated decision, I did some basic research. I read about long lines, strictly controlled time slots and hordes of visitors taking photos of priceless paintings. Not exactly my scene. Still I was so intrigued by the complex history, the breathtaking art and the stunning architecture that, against my natural inclination, I decided to visit the Vatican. I should have known better.
I started the day with the best of intentions and the best laid plans. While I’d originally wanted to prebook a ticket, the staff at my hostel said it was unnecessary. Unfortunately, that turned out to be wildly untrue. By 9am the line was already two city blocks long. It took me a full 10 minutes to walk from the gates to the end of the line. Making my anxiety spike further were the dozens of tour guides promoting their services. They were incessant and insistent. I must have been approached by 30 people in 10 minutes, many of whom followed me as I walked. There were dozens of tour busses parked along the roads and these groups of 60+ people got to skip the line creating an even bigger backlog. Did I mention I have trouble with lines, tour busses and crowds? Then it started to pour.
I considered my options – joining a 2 hour tour for a whopping 140 Euros, standing in the pouring rain for up to 3 hours surrounded by aggressive guides, or simply just giving up. Thinking about walking away was incredible disheartening. I was leaving Rome the following day. Could I really have come to Rome without seeing the Vatican? But the thought of staying was causing me serious anxiety. Eventually I decided to walk away from the crowds and give myself some space to think. A few minutes later, I found myself sitting in a warm bakery drinking a cappuccino and seriously considering whether I should just give up and go home. Not home to my hostel, but home to Canada, to a job, to my old life because obviously I wasn’t cut out for this travel thing. I felt like I was a terrible traveller.
But after while as I dried out, and the chaos faded from my mind, I noticed my surroundings. I was in a cozy, local bakery that prepared the most delicious, fresh, ingredient-rich delicacies. I watched restaurant owners buying their bread for the day, grandmothers choosing treats with their grandkids and police officers warming up with steaming espressos. It was real life. And I was overwhelmed with gratitude to be part of it.
Later when I left the cafe, the sun had come out and I contemplated going back to the line at the Vatican, but if my experience in the bakery had taught me anything it was that I like exploring the normal life of a city. I am interested in the ordinary day to day lives of people and I wanted to see more. I walked through some backstreets and stumbled upon an outdoor flea market where I bought a purse and a used book. I ate a slice of pizza that was a truly religious experience and followed my nose into a busy local food market. As I watched the locals haggling over fish prices, buying bundles of zucchini blossoms and sampling dozens of olive oils, my heart was full.
Not wanting to give up on the Vatican, I walked by St. Peter’s Square one more time but as I got closer I felt my stress increase and my happiness fade, so I simply walked away. Instead I ended my day basking in the sun in a square overlooked by a church, drinking wine, watching the crowds go by and reading my book. I’ll always remember that day as the time I decided to skip the Vatican to visit a fish market!
How do you feel about must-see attractions?