It’s Christmas- yet again we’re at that time of the year when we reflect and take stock of everything that has happened over the last 350 odd days. With everything winding down, people look towards the coming days with hope. It’s that time of the year when we make resolutions. Again.
Thinking of Christmas yesterday I was reminded of Christmas 10 years ago. In 2006 I spent Christmas holidays on my first backpacking (well technically not backpacking as I had a rolling suitcase) trip around Italy. I was an intern at the European Commission (DG Agriculture & Rural Development) in Brussels and my trip to Italy was bankrolled quite generously by my mother and sister. I had no money to speak of then. Out of the nearly 1000 Euros I made as stipend per month at that time, I spent over 700 Euros on rent ( I have always been picky about where I live but little else).
It was a landmark trip. Armed with a Eurail pass, I started my journey from Brussels early on the morning of 23 December. I remember passing through Cologne- the ever imposing Kolner Dom unmissable as part of the view out of the window (I had earlier in November made a short day trip to Cologne from Brussels) so I looked on the city with an air of familiarity. We then passed deeper into Germany passing through Ulm (I found the name strange then) and then finally Stuttgart- a name I could recognise. It was almost 3pm by the time my train pulled into Munich which was going to be my transfer point for my overnight train to Rome. I had over 6 hours to kill in Munich so I stored my suitcase at the station locker and decided to walk around the town.
If there is one thing I remember about Munich it was the cold weather. Remember, this was December and Munich was probably the coldest place I’d ever been to until that point of time in my life. I tried to seek warm shelter where I could during my walk around. The first was a pit stop at McDonalds. If I had to draw up a sponsor board for that trip my family would have been title sponsors and McDonalds the culinary partner. I subsisted almost entirely during that trip on fries and milkshake. I’m sure a lot of us have been there.
I tried prolonging my stay at McDonalds as much as I could but I was also torn about seeing as much as Munich as I could so walked through the city square and the Christmas market (crowded, crowded, crowded). After about 3 hours of walking around in the cold I decided that it was time to head back to the railway station. I still had at least 3 hours to kill for the train but it was already dark outside and I was tired from having spent an entire day in the train.
I don’t know if Munich station is still the same but on that day I hated it as it had no seating in the terminal building. The only seating that was available was on the platforms (open to the elements, no thank you!) or inside the one very crowded coffee shop in the station. I was loathe to spend money on a coffee but I was too tired to stand and so eventually I found myself inside the coffee shop with a beverage (I can no longer remember what it was). The one thing I do remember was that the only seating I could find was close to the automatic doors and it kept opening and closing with annoying regularity bringing in a blast of cold air every time. After about 2 hours I couldn’t take it anymore and decided to brave it out on a bench outside on the platform where my train was due to arrive (it wasn’t originating in Munich).
The train arrived eventually and I clambered on to it to find that my seats were not in the chair cars section but in what seemed like a sleeper section but without berths- that is there were just two elongated seats inside a close door section for 6 people to sit but no berths to sleep on. At that point of time I was too tired to care so I fell asleep almost immediately. The rest of the train journey passed without incident except for ticket checkers who kept waking us up almost every hour to check passports and tickets. I’m sure this violated some kind of basic human right but at every stage I fell back asleep. Overnight, we slowly descended into Italy.
I just remembered that one of the reasons why I chose this strange routing- I needed to pick a train route that did not go through Switzerland. My residency visa for Brussels allowed me passage into the Schengen states but not into Switzerland (as it was not part of the treaty). So if I boarded a train that passed through Switzerland, I would need a separate visa. Therefore the need to find a passage to Italy that would not pass through Switzerland.
Morning of Christmas eve the train pulled itself into Rome Tiburtina station which is the city’s second largest station. I had booked accommodation at a student hostel near Termini station which is the largest station. Taking a taxi was out of the question so I lugged my suitcase and took the metro that went from Tiburtina to Termini. I remembered the look and feel of Tiburtina and at that point the station reminded me more of India than any other station I had seen until then.
Once at my hostel I was told that I could only check in at 2pm (of course!) but they kindly stated that I could help myself to the buffet breakfast and use the restrooms. Once refuelled I decided I would start off with my sightseeing immediately and headed to the Colosseum. There is a metro station in Rome that is called Colosseo and I remember exiting the station and beinf struck immediately by the looming Colosseum in front of me. Those were still the days before extensive and pervasive travel blogging, days before Instagram and snapchat. You had seen some images of the Colosseum online but you could still admire the reality of the monument before you and not feel jaded or underwhelmed because of all of the perfect photographs that people seem to post all the time.
Instead of heading inside the Colosseum I decided to check out the Roman forum. I had torn out the pages for the cities I was visiting from the lonely planet guide for Europe but I also discovered during this trip that somehow I did not like lonely planet guides. I guess my brain is wired in such a way that I do not enjoy the combination of information and advice that’s presented in the guides. I kept getting confused by the directions (more on that later) given and was a bit frustrated. Inside the forum I took a walking guided tour of the Palatine hill. I knew almost nothing about Ancient Roman history at that point .Conn Iggulden’s books on Julius Caesar the only introduction I’d had- I wonder how many people believe that Caesar and Brutus were childhood pals after reading his books. To me they were a starting point- I would much rather recommend Colleen McCullough’s deliciously detailed Masters of Rome series- though they are very long and probably over detailed for the casual reader.
In any case I walked around the Palatine hill with a group of people and then spent some time at the Forum before heading back to the Colosseum. On the way there I asked another Asian tourist to take a photograph of me- one of the few photographs of me from the trip as I’m always reluctant to ask strangers to take photographs of me (it was much before selfies but then even selfies aren’t my style). I then spent a couple of hours at the Colosseum where I decided reading my lonely planet guide that I would head to the Baths of Caracalla next.
Rome was thankfully not very cold and it was fairly pleasant to walk around. But somehow I lost my way enroute to the Baths and I found myself walking along a very quiet road. My reluctance in asking people to take photos of me is only matched by my reluctance to ask for directions. After walking around cluelessly for about half an hour I decided to accept defeat and head back to the metro station. By this time my fatigue was catching up with me and I realised I was in no frame of mind to do any more sightseeing.
When I arrived at the hostel I was allowed to check into my dorm room which I shared with three other girls- two Americans and one other girl whose nationality escapes me now. The girls were quite friendly and warm in a way that only Americans can be and asked me if I was planning to attend Christmas Mass at St Peter’s square that night. Although a marvellous opportunity, the only thing I was looking forward to that evening was a good night’s sleep.
Christmas day dawned bright and beautiful in a way that can happen only in Italy. I can’t remember the details of every place I visited on that Christmas day in Rome but I remember visiting Trevi fountain (I tossed a coin- the smallest cent- it took time but I returned to Rome in 2012)Piazza Navona, the Spanish steps- onwards and onwards. I was by myself and didn’t really have the opportunity to talk to anyone. But as I walking by one of the churches, a nun walked by with a smile and wished me a ‘Buon Natale’. I remembered enough Italian at that time to wish her back. I felt touched and it is still something that I remember to this day- 10 Christmases later.
I eventually ended up at St Peter’s square and St Peter’s Basilica on Christmas day- it was thronging with tourists and the faithful and it left a lasting impression on me- one of those once in a lifetime opportunities. By this time I was once again quite exhausted as it was well into the evening and I had been on my feet all day (with the exception of lunch break- one of the rate non McDonald’s lunch break- heck! It was Christmas!). I headed to the metro station ‘Ottaviano’ with the intention of heading back to my hostel only to find that the station was already closed that day! I didn’t know how to get back to the hostel (taxi wasn’t an option) and I slowly started walking back. I noticed a few bus stops and buses with Termini station emblazoned on them passing through but at the bus stop I couldn’t see how I could get myself a ticket (of course I could ask but I didn’t). I passed one stop, the next until there came a point when I could walk no longer.
I waited at the bus stop and then climbed into the next bus headed for Termini. The bus was heaving with passengers at this point and there was no way I could even move leave alone asking someone how I could buy a ticket. It was SO wrong but that day I rode the bus in Rome without buying a ticket. When the bus finally stopped at Termini I literally ran out of the bus before I could be asked to produce a ticket. I’m not necessarily proud of what I did that day but there is no way I will ever forget that incident- my Christmas day transgression. I haven’t since then ridden any form of public transport without a ticket.
I spent one more day in Rome before continuing on to Florence, Milan and Venice. On my way back I took the train from Venice on to Salzburg and then an overnight train to Frankfurt from where I took a train to Cologne before finally taking another train to Brussels. I think I should think of that itinerary the next time I complain about having to do a two stop flight.