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 like tour busses. I hate lines. And I don’t like other tourists.
So when everyone told me that I absolutely had to visited the Vatican, I took their advice with a grain of salt. Wanting to make my own decision, I did some basic research. I read about long lines, hordes of visitors taking photos of priceless paintings and strictly controlled access to see the most famous pieces. But 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. My original thought had been to prebook a ticket, but the staff at my hostel convinced me it was unnecessary. This turned out to be a very big mistake. 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 the situation more uncomfortable were the dozens of tour guides promoting their services. They were incessant and insistent. I must have been approached by 30 people in that 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 leaving was incredible disheartening – who leaves 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 rain had stopped 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 back streets and stumbled upon an outdoor flea market where I bought a new shoulder bag and a used english book. I ate a slice of pizza that was a truly religious experience and followed my nose into a busy 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 anxiety rise and my happiness decrease, 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 day I skipped the Vatican to visit a fish market.
Today I say yes to following where your heart leads. To the simple beauty of everyday life. And to retuning to Rome for another chance to visit the Vatican.
We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open. – Jawaharlal Nehru