When in Croatia... escape to Rome for the weekend

I like to explain to people that there's an arc you go through, emotionally, when you spend an extended amount of time in Split, Croatia. The first week, you're charmed. By the piercing blue waters. The Dalmatian lifestyle. The ancient Roman architecture and the shops and cafés nestled within its narrow passages. But by week two, it quickly sinks in that this is a small town for a big city girl. Everything starts to look the same, the days blend into each other, and you internally scream every time someone suggests getting coffee. Week three and four roll by and I am straight up angry. Fed up with the slow pace of things. Bored beyond what I would ever be back in LA. I'd rather stay in bed than trek to the city center because what's the point? We were there yesterday. And the day before. And the day before. And I don't want to wander around the same passages trying to think of things to do that isn't sitting at a café but eventually end up (defeated) at a café anyways. So I took things into my own hands, and during one morning spent in bed, found the cheapest ticket out of Croatia for the weekend and booked it without thinking twice. A few days later, I found myself on a plane to Rome, my first time in Italy, and the number one destination on my bucket list. LET ME REWIND. Italy has always been at the one place I always wanted to travel to. The number one thing I've always wanted to see irl is St. Peter's Basilica, which I fell in love with in 10th grade AP Art History. (The runner up was the Palace of Versailles, which I checked off two years ago while studying in Paris) On top of the architecture which I was obsessed with, there's the food. Pasta, gelato, bread, cheese, tomatoes, basil, pizza, cannoli, tiramisu...I LOVE Italian food. But considering how much I love Italy, it's a destination that I never knew much about (read: I didn't even know where Rome was in relation to Florence or Milan or Venice). I tend not to figure out a place unless I actually have a chance of going. And I didn't think I would for a while. So ironically, this was one of the least researched destinations I went to.
Somehow, it all worked out. And on a budget too. My roundtrip flight from Split to Rome was €120 and within the hour I also booked two Airbnbs ($69 for 3 nights in Rome, $59 split between me and a friend for 1 night in Florence), two bus tickets (€9 from Rome to Florence, €7 from Florence to Milan), and a high speed train ticket (€52 from Milan to Rome). I had €150 cash on my that I had exchanged back in the US. So my 3+ day escapade set me back <$400. Which is only impressive when you consider that my friend and I went crazy and decided to hit up 3 cities in 3 days.
Here's how it went down.
One of my friends from LA is studying abroad in Rome, so we decided to meet up and explore more of Italy together. Her schedule was pretty full so we decided to make the most of the weekend. While I usually prefer to spend extended periods of time exploring a place, I figured I am definitely going to have an extended Italy trip in the future so I made it a relaxed, play it by ear weekend where I saw what I saw and made plans on the go. So we pushed the boundaries of sanity and went from Rome to Florence to Milan and back to Rome all in 3 days. "I'll sleep when I'm back in Split," I said to myself. But I think the most important thing for me about this trip was that in a way, it was my first independent trip. Sure I've flown by myself for years (and much longer flights at that), and sure I came all the way from LA to Munich to Split to meet strangers and live in a country I knew nothing about and spoke 0 words of the language, but this trip, at least the Rome leg of it, was all me. From booking the tickets to figuring out how to get to the Airbnb to wandering the streets alone, I thought I'd be terrified, but it was actually liberating and therapeutic. Just what I needed after spending 24/7 with a big group back in Split. rainy split plane My journey began on a rainy Thursday morning, I took a local bus to the Split bus station, and then a shuttle to the airport. Checking in was a breeze in the tiny place. Makes me hate LAX that much more. My flight was slightly delayed and didn't leave until a little after noon, so I got to know a couple girls who happened to also be from California (SD and SF) who had spent a week in Split and were going on to Rome for the next leg of what they deemed "glampacking" aka backpacking while enjoying the finer things in life. I would be down. rome plane land italy map The flight took maybe 45 minutes. My phone maps tracked the entire thing, and looking out the window, I watched as the Dalmatian coast faded away into a brief Adriatic Sea before turning into the Italian coast. After landing in Rome, I made my way to the train into the city, trusting Google maps and the directions from my Airbnb host to take me to Trastevere. Of course, I had no idea what I was doing the entire time, and it was a small miracle I bought the right tickets, got on the right train, off the right station and walked to the right building and hit the right number on the apartment. All without wifi or a phone to call for emergencies. (Or so I thought - apparently my Croatian number had some credit that could work internationally, but I didn't figure that out until later). Finally made it to my Airbnb and I was in for a surprise. It was in an apartment with multiple rooms all rented out as separate Airbnbs. And I had a roommate, a young guy from Brazil studying in Germany and traveling alone in Rome for the week. Oh, and they didn't have a key for me. So I waited while they made me one. Not sketchy at all. Up until this point, traveling alone was 100% as terrifying as I imagined.
But it got better as soon as I dropped off my stuff (hoping it'd still be there when I came back), grabbed my camera, phone and €20 and went on a walk. I was so done with figuring out public transportation, and figured I would see more of the town and avoid the crowds and pickpockets if I went on foot. So I did. I had 5 hours before my friend Ari would be out from class and we'd meet for dinner. Following a rough path I starred on Google Maps (seriously, my whole trip was basically sponsored by Google offline maps - link to a post on how to utilize Google maps abroad or how to travel offline), I set off, wandering my way toward the general direction of Vatican City - about 2 miles away from the Airbnb. This was when I fell in love with solo traveling. I was able to wander at my own pace, take any path I found interesting, not feel the stress of having someone else to consider. I could linger when I wanted to, and hurry without feeling bad.


After wandering up and down random paved and dirt paths I found, one of the first places I stumbled upon was the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, one of the oldest churches in Rome. The piazza was beautiful and peaceful, and felt so much like a neighborhood, with everyone casually hanging out. No crowds of tourists. It was nice. I didn't even realize how nice it is to find that in such a populated city. walking-7walking-9walking-12walking-16


Eventually I dragged myself away, one narrow passage at a time, up to the best view of Rome. Here, my pace slowed down a lot. Because I kept stopping every few steps to try to capture just how amazing the view is from up here. And try to match roofs to monuments. Neither endeavor was particularly successful, but I did get to appreciate seeing the city from above. Surprisingly, on a beautiful sunny day, it was quite peaceful up there. A nice change from the crowded streets below. walking-18view-3view-5


Among the many random works of art I stumbled upon on the way was this...column...orb.


At some point, I checked the time and realized I better hustle. Because the best was yet to come.
walking-28walking-29vatican-1vatican-2 Along my walk and in my short stint in the city in general, I didn't see the "important" things in Rome: Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, the Coloseum. But that's ok, because I saw the most beautiful thing in the world. The work of architecture I dreamed about since 10th grade AP Art History when I would have my giant book of art opened to that page so I could stare/drool at Bernini's Baldacchino and wonder in awe at the majestic colonnades, etc. So my whole meandering journey through the east side of town was really just the scenic route to this destination I had in my mind since the very moment I decided to come to Rome. Some people fangirl when they see their favorite celebrity. I was near tears when I got a first glimpse of St. Peter's Basilica. This was next level. Even more than when I stepped into the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. Or stood at the foot of every Jacques Louis David's paintings I encountered. Cue all of the emotions. All of them.
vatican-16 vatican-8vatican-27vatican-31 I probably spent a good 30 min frolicking along, trying to capture the way the late afternoon sun was hitting the beautiful baroque façade. And then I remembered I should probably go inside. Entrance into the basilica is free. After going through an airport-like security, I followed the flow of people to the front door. I paused. Not sure if I was really allowed to just go inside. But I was quickly ushered in by an impatient volunteer. And then it was like everything stopped. There was hundreds, maybe even a thousand people inside. But it was quiet, with low murmurs and footsteps echoing in the vaulted ceilings. Down the center and to the back was the centerpiece: the baldacchino. And the sun shone through the windows of the dome, beams of light from heaven perfecting the portrait of stillness. It was like stepping in the presence of history. I've been to my fair share of religious buildings: cathedrals, temples, mosques. But it wasn't until I got here that I finally understood why people constructed such beautiful places in the name of religion.
vatican-62vatican-59vatican-66vatican-56 It was truly the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. And extremely difficult to walk away from. But I had to hustle back for dinner. After all, with no internet and no phone, setting up a meeting meant we both better be punctual. But of course I couldn't help but snap a couple more photos as I practically ran back towards my Airbnb.


By some miracle, Ari and I managed to catch each other on the street corner. Together with her roommates, we went to a nearby restaurant for dinner. For me, it was just so weirdly refreshing to be surrounded by fellow Americans/Californians. I had to remind myself that I could refer to distances in miles and be understood. And being able to use Venmo to split the bill was lifechanging. Turns out, it is the little things that make us miss home.


Though I had been determined to get gelato, we couldn't pass up this Tiramisu spot giving out samples. With a dozen different flavors to choose from, we each ended up with our own freshly assembled desserts. Shout out to the two workers there who were ridiculously friendly and put up with all of our American obnoxiousness. I think they found it endearing. I hope. tiramisu-2 And with a major Italian food baby and very sore feet, I trudged back up to my Airbnb and passed out for the few hours I had before waking up bright and early for my next day of adventure.