I had my first Italian language class in 1986. I was just six years old so I can only vaguely remember the teacher and, unfortunately, a minimal number of words he taught us (made even more unfortunate by the fact that I was to continue learning this language for the next decade, and then spend the ensuing decade forgetting it).
One thing comes back to me with a jolting force of clarity, though: the realisation that there were other countries out there to see.
It was an exciting thought. There were people living in countries far, far away from Australia, eating different foods (remember the 80s? – not nearly as much choice in foreign delicacies as we now have) and speaking beautiful languages.
I knew I had to go there one day.
So, when my husband and I decided to travel to Europe In 2006, Italy was at the top of my list of places to visit. Two decades after my introduction to Italian language and culture, we disembarked a train in the city of Milan and hired a car for a week of touring.
This visit followed a whirlwind two weeks of sightseeing around London and Paris and driving across Switzerland and, as we neared closer, my ideas of the boot-shaped land became more and more romantic.
We would spend hours at a time wandering the cobbled streets of ancient cities, then laze around drinking wine and eating huge bowls full of fresh pasta, followed, of course, by delicious gelato. The language I had spent so many classroom hours learning would come rushing back to me when I was surrounded by Italian people. I dreamed of rolling Tuscan hills, romantic gondola rides, beautiful seas, wonderful people and amazing food.
And Rome? The pinnacle of all my dreams? Of course, our time in the great city would be just like a scene from the classic movie Roman Holiday.
The reality of travelling is that things are not always as they appear. Clichés are fantasies and movies are the height of artificiality. Moreover, the reality of driving around an entire country in one week, with no road maps, planned stops or accommodation bookings is not as laid-back as it sounds.
Our first day in Italy consisted of a drive from Milan (a city in which I have now seen the train station and the car hire depot) to Verona. Cue more romanticism with the image of Romeo and Juliet’s balcony. In fact, it became more a case of ‘Verona, wherefore art thou accommodation?’ when it turned out there was a big tourist event in the town at the time we arrived. The idea of just stopping when it took our fancy lost some appeal on that first night when I was starving and desperate for, um, non-squat facilities.
The trip became better and better from there. Venice (complete with gondola ride that was more humorous than romantic), Cinque Terre and Pisa followed, and were all wonderful.
A quick stop in a small town in Tuscany meant we missed those hours strolling through the rolling hills and filling up on scrumptious country cuisine, but such is the sacrifice when travelling on such a tight timeframe.
One of my biggest disappointments was Florence. We spent, literally, an entire day queuing to see the statue of David and, whilst it was magnificent and wonderful, et cetera, it would have been nice to see the city itself.
From there were more big names and awe-inspiring sights: the Vatican, Pompeii, the Amalfi Coast and (be still my beating heart) Rome. I enjoyed every minute of our time in Rome, but Audrey Hepburn I most definitely was not. Nor was a semblance of Gregory Peck anywhere to be seen.
As we neared Rome, my husband and I made a decision to stay on the outskirts of the city and catch a train in each morning. We had come with dire warnings from those who had been before us: whatever you do, do not drive in Rome.
Okay. Message received loud and clear. We won’t drive into Ro…
“Um, Megan,” said my husband nervously from the driver’s seat. “I think we’re in Rome.” Together, we panicked and he parked the car in the next spot we saw, which happened to be opposite a hotel.
I ran in and asked if they had a room. “No,” replied the man at the desk, “but my cousin owns a hotel a few streets away and he has a room.” He pulled out a map (you know, those things that tourists really should carry with them) and pointed – you are here. I held my screams inside long enough to watch him point again – my cousin’s hotel is there – and ran back to the car.
Then I began.
I showed my husband the map. It was one of those tourist maps that show all the city sights in little three dimensional pictures around the streets. “Here’s us,” I managed to say in between all the “Oh my God”s and struggling to breathe. “And here, right here” – and I pointed to the unmistakable image a mere centimetre on the map from our current destination – “is THE COLOSSEUM!”
We were beside ourselves. We were this close to one of the most famous ancient sights in the world. A place I had dreamed of seeing for twenty years.
We found our way to the other hotel and spent the next few days walking around the city, not daring to drive in Rome again. We saw so much – the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, Pantheon, Mouth of Truth, Castello Sant’Angelo and more.
And, although it was slightly Hepburn/Peck-esque, with gelato on the Spanish Steps and laughter and fun, I don’t recall them squashed onto a train with a million Romans in an effort to find their way around.
Perhaps we should have hired Vespas to complete the experience!
When it was time to leave, we departed Rome at 4am, so worried were we about driving in this huge city amidst peak traffic.
At the end of it all, I could not have been happier. My dream – albeit slightly warped – had come true. I had my Roman Holiday.