Forget about tour guides. The best way to explore Rome is with a third-year architecture student who has spent the last few months walking, sketching, and living the ancient cobblestone streets and narrow alleyways of the city.
As we walked to the Pantheon, my architect friend explained how, a few weeks before, her professor had guided the class along several different routes to the Pantheon. Walking from one direction allowed you to see the Pantheonís rising dome long before you saw the building itself. Walking from another framed the porticoís marble columns in the gap between the apartments lining the streets. The path that we had chosen was narrow and bordered by tall buildings on either side. I had no idea we were even close to our destination until the street suddenly widened into a piazza: there was the Pantheon covering most of Piazza della Rotonda with its shadow.
I was only in Rome for three days before heading to Florence, but I felt like I learned more about Rome in those few days with my aspiring-architect friend than I would have in an entire week with a tour group. She explained to me how, supposedly, Rome was built in such a way that the narrowing and widening of the streets would lead you to the major sights in the city without a map. If you just followed the streets, the city itself would guide you.
I had no idea where I was 80% of the time I was in Rome. Not knowing where we were heading and trusting that the flow of the streets would eventually lead us back to a landmark or a major road gave me a sense of comfort that I never thought Iíd enjoy in a foreign city where I didnít speak the local language.
In return for my intentional wandering, the city rewarded me by leading me to hidden churches with stunning painted ceilings and beautifully crafted nativity scenes, carefully carved fountains without the usual hordes of tourists, and empty alleyways draped with ivy. When we found our way to Trastevere, I pointed out an archway above the street to ask what it was, and my friend replied, ďI donít know. But it looks like something we should walk towards!Ē The archway wasnít that interesting, but the road took us to the east bank of the Tiber and across the Ponte Sisto bridge. The city led the way and we followed the call of the streets.
Usually, I am all about efficiency. Scenic routes drive me crazy when all I want is to find the fastest way from Point A to Point B. To literally throw my map away and walk in random squiggles and circles all across central Rome intimidated me, but it was also one of the most rewarding things Iíve ever done. Contrary to my expectations, I was never frustrated at making a wrong turn or not being able to find where I was on a map. I never had to search desperately for the best route to the next major tour sightóeventually, I got there. Iíve got my typical pictures of the Coliseum and St. Peterís Basilica, but thanks to the streets of Rome, Iíve also got so many more. I may not be able to name every church or building or street I took a photo of in Rome, but the memories of feeling so at peace in the tangled streets of a foreign city are something I will never forget.
~ Jessica Zou '16
© 2014 Princeton Traveler