Flashback – eight years
Eight years ago this Easter I was in Rome. It’s not a bad place to spend Easter (although it is one of the busier times of year to be there). I didn’t originally plan it this way. Beginning a month and half long trip around Continental Europe and Ireland from London I had decided that I would spend a a day or two in the big cities I visited in Western Europe and take longer in places like the Czech Republic. I budgeted four days for Paris which was great but only one for Barcelona after hearing many a horror story about pick pocketing and theft from fellow travellers. But less than a week into a trip across Europe on the trains with new friends I’d met less than a week earlier I was rethinking my time allocation. Arriving into Barcelona late at night after a cross country struggle with France in the grip of a train strike, I was not in the mood to get moving again after just one day rest. The trip to Barcelona from Brive in France involved multiple trains, a longer than average stop in Toulouse and buses (including a scenic bus ride to the Spanish border through the Pyrenees), and a stop for the train to be sprayed with noxious substances right near the border – this being just after the height of the foot and mouth outbreak in Britain in 2001. It was also many, many, many hours longer than it was meant to be and although beautifully scenic, it was very, very tiring.
So my travelling companions and myself decided to spend a few extra days in Barcelona, not realising that this would set us up to arrive in Rome right before Good Friday just a few stops further on the journey. As it turns out, Barcelona was beautiful. It was sunny, and warm and friendly. We wandered through Parc Guell for hours, marvelled at stunning Cathedrals and drank lots of bad sangria (not all at the same time) and marvelled at the discovery that a six pack of coke cost the same as a six pack of beer. Good times.
But on to Rome another week or so into the trip. Navigating a foreign city around a major religious festival can be interesting. The city was busy as always as we made our way through all the regular tourist sights and came to grips with the supermarkets around the central train station. We also came to grips with sharing one bathroom between two dorms of people, each with about ten or so people in each. The only person getting a good night’s sleep was the deaf guy who took out his cochlear implants to sleep and could subsequently hear no mumblings, murmuring, snoring or rustling in backpacks.
Bereft of touristy things to do so close to Easter and with all the shops shut (which also meant we had no dinner that night because we’d run out of food), we walked to the Coliseum to watch the Stations of the Cross. The Coliseum was lit up for the occasion and the area was crowded with thousands of people waiting for Pope John Paul II to arrive. He was already quite elderly at this time and was very late in arriving but no one in the crowd seemed to mind. The service was, of course, in Italian and we couldn’t understand a word and even though I’m not religious it was one of the highlights of the trip. To be somewhere with so many other people, seeing the Coliseum (usually thought of as a remnant of the past) used as part of the service to honour Christian martyrs, while the Pope conducted the service from atop the ruins of the facing church on the hill was great. So many times while travelling you feel like it’s all just sightseeing. Taking in too much information and retaining too little while not really getting to see what the non-tourist oriented part of the city/country is like. This allowed us to experience a different part of Rome and share that experience with the others there that night.