Peering out at the feet of passers by from my half-sunken hotel window and listening to the relentless noise of rumbling moped engines, it was the first of three days to explore Rome with my camera and I was all ready to go. Eight years had passed since my only previous visit and I was keen to go back to some of the places I remembered. Hoisting up the backpack of lenses and supplies and wishing I knew how to pack lighter, I walked out into the sunshine to join the masses. Deciding it was impossible and probably wrong to avoid the major landmarks, but interested to explore a little further and attempt to get under the skin of the city, I was hoping to find any evidence of the ‘real Rome’ and perhaps discover a few secret places or learn something more about the culture. What I never expected was a city that in one day would show me so much about people, love and what can happen when you take a chance.
With no particular plan, I headed for the nearest famous landmark ‘Castle St Angelo’, a short walk from the hotel along the Tiber river on a path lined with Sycamore trees. Everything was as it should be in springtime Italy; a gentle breeze took the edge off the heat nicely and dappled sunlight made its way through the newly green leaves. At the bridge I snapped a few tourist shots of the Castle, stopping to look down the river towards St Peter’s and below me on the slightly overgrown cobbled banks I noticed a man fishing alone. Watching him for a while standing next to the enormous river bank walls I was struck by the scale of his isolation; up on the bridge it was warm and busy with people, but a few meters below it was shady, quiet and he looked insignificant.
I spent a moment photographing him fishing and decided to head down there myself. Beyond his spot was a set of steps leading down to the bank and as I made my way down I immediately had to hold my breath. The smell and then sight of human excrement interrupted the springtime morning and abruptly suggested I was crossing one of those invisible city borders where the rules aren’t quite the same. I felt strangely pleased to already be leaving the tourist path and peeling back a layer of Rome, so I carried on down to the bank assuming the personality of an experienced photojournalist.
Graffiti lined the concrete walls and underneath the next bridge was a scant pile of someone's belongings laid out on the stones. With St Peter’s clearly visible from under the archway, I ventured a little further luridly hoping to get an artistic shot of a homeless camp at the foot of the world's most famous church looming in the background. Crouching to frame the photo, full of Pulitzer ambition, I watched through the viewfinder as a figure suddenly emerged amongst the rubbish and makeshift beds. For a moment she didn’t notice me, but then all too quickly became aware of my presence and turned her head to looked straight down the lens; I felt like a child being caught stealing and immediately let the camera drop, turning away in shame and embarrassment. Realising I was conducting a gross invasion of what little privacy she had my thoughts raced through a moral maze of photojournalism, the financial weight of equipment on my back and the two thousand year history of people surviving in this city. With the ancient river gently meandering past and with only half an hour gone I was suddenly and hopelessly out of my depth; taking a deep breath and climbing back up the steps to the sunlight, I moved on.
Deliberately turning away from the river I headed into the backstreets vaguely hoping to walk in the direction of the Forum and Colosseum. Street cafés and restaurants spilled out into the cobbled passageways giving off a vibe of lazy meals, Italian coffee and all the paraphernalia that draws so many people each year. Even on narrow streets, cars were parked both sides at every available space and jammed in between were rows of scooters and mopeds. Occasionally a car would squeeze it’s way past a restaurant and nervously hover at a junction wondering which way would be the path of least resistance. I was happy to be on foot and made a mental note never to hire a car in Rome.
Content and lost for a moment I wandered further into the maze and then heard faint sounds of whistles and shouting, turning a corner I was back out on a main road facing hundreds of people with colourful balloons chanting and waving banners. At first it was difficult to know what was going on, but the images on the parading banners soon made it clear this was some kind of an anti-abortion march. I remembered it was a Sunday morning and was perhaps a church-led protest in place of a service. Certainly what caught my eye was a fifteen foot effigy of Jesus on the cross riding high above the crowd and wheeled forward by what looked like members of the clergy. As it slowly passed along the main road it was watched over by two bikini models on a giant advert covering one side of a building, bigger than any of the Roman statues to the Gods and serving as a strange backdrop to this stage of the rally. Thinking it was almost certainly some kind of metaphor but not knowing exactly what for, I turned back into the narrow side streets and almost immediately the noise drifted away. Throughout the rest of the day I heard faint whistles and voices echoing past various buildings, but I never saw them again.
My morning so far had been nothing but surprises, in fact the only thing consistent with my last visit was the need for comfortable shoes, something I vowed to heartily recommend for anybody exploring Rome. I passed through a flower market in one of those small piazzas that pop out from time to time and headed on south to the Foro Romano, located just past the much newer and frankly enormous "Altar to the Fatherland" building. The crumbling ruins of the two thousand year old Forum are an iconic part of the city and I was eager to research a spot where I could capture them in the right light. I would realise later with some regret that the right moment would be sunrise and that on this trip sleep would be a little too scarce for my liking. Unable to leave the forum without taking at least a few photos in case I never made it back, I dragged myself away and scouted a spot for lunch.
After devouring my favourite Italian dish of cheese-less pizza, one of many dairy free hacks in Italy, I followed the crowd down the wide pedestrian road to the Colosseum. I had been inside once on my previous visit and didn't feel drawn see it again this time, so I just circumnavigated the enormous structure and grabbed pictures featuring springtime flowers that lined the southern bank. Extremely thankful that I had never had to fight lions and wondering if gladiatorial fights to the death would have been captured on helmet cameras if technologically had developed at a different pace, I vaguely looked for a more peaceful spot to catch the sunset later.
I was drawn back to the view over the Forum from the west side of the Campidoglio, but on arrival I knew it would be a mistake, as large buildings would block the sun at the right moment. Looking around for alternatives I took another route uphill and a short walk later found myself out on a terrace with a fantastic view over the rooftops to St Peter’s. Not really knowing where I was or if I was allowed there, I quietly took a few shots and looked around at the smattering of people enjoying the early evening sun. A man sipped a coffee and read the paper, while ahead of me a young couple sat intertwined on the very edge of the high terrace wall, laughing and looking out to the city. Thinking it was a nice image and tempted to catch the moment I found myself half hidden behind a bush and once again feeling a little wrong about firing the shutter, but doing it anyway. Relatively pleased with the shot, but wanting more, I decided reluctantly that this would be a time I may have to pluck up courage and retrospectively ask them for permission to take a few photos. Normally keen to avoid this kind of interaction and preferring to let the anonymity of the city be my camouflage, this was my first time approaching people out in the open and I felt awkward and nervous. I nearly walked away to find another spot, but at the last minute decided to take a chance and speak to them.
After a mumbled “hello” and “excuse me”, I popped the question. To my relief and amazement they were full of smiles and positive gestures, clearly happy together and hardly bothered by my proposition, the girl spoke to me in good English saying that they didn’t have many photos together and they would love for me to take some. Slightly shocked by the welcome, but pleased that I hadn’t been ignored or punched in the face, I started snapping away pretending this was something I did all the time. A good five minutes passed as I tried different angles and directed poses before I stopped to get some details.
Teo and Lorenzo: both from Rome studying literature and fashion design. She makes her own jewellery and speaks English; he’s got the moped and does all the cooking. She told me it was their first anniversary and had brought him here because although they’d grown up not far away, he’d never seen this view. I thought about how odd it was and perhaps at the same time quite common, that lifelong residents of any city have never visited places a tourist can find in one day. I mentioned feeling bad for interrupting their special occasion together, but they insisted it was ok and were pleased to have met me. I was put at ease by their warmth and acceptance and the city became all of a sudden smaller as I realised I knew somebody here and that felt good. I wasn’t to know then that I would meet up with them both again the following afternoon and spend several hours being given a guided photo tour of the city. To find these two friendly young Italians, both very much in love and reflecting a microcosm of modern Rome's future was an unexpected treat. I had assumed this gamble with strangers would be a good lesson in photography, but in the end I came up trumps with a tutorial in friendship.
After exchanging contacts and thanking them for their time, I let them be and moved to the other end of the terrace looking out once again at the dome of St Peter’s waiting for the sun to drop. It was a typically warm hazy evening and I didn’t know if it would do me the honour of setting in the right way, but finally after an hour of indecision, it dipped just below the cloud-base to spend 15 minutes shining behind the Vatican and bathing the rooftops in glorious light. The old glass windows of two nearby domed churches appeared to illuminate from the inside with a warm orange glow as the sun moved onto the horizon. This was Rome as I wanted it and I couldn’t ask for any more on my first day.
After the light had disappeared I spent the rest of the evening walking the streets and capturing some of the landmarks in the old city. At the Pantheon I found a relaxed atmosphere of evening diners and happy couples dipping their hands into the fountain. The enormous columns of the ancient building, which looked to me like it could survive forever, were sporadically lit up by neon-blue spinning toys launched by streets sellers below.
At the Trevi fountain I found hundreds of people gathered late into the evening waving selfie-sticks and updating their Instagram feeds. I realised the scene would have been somewhat alien on my previous visit and was reminded how much camera technology and the Internet had impacted the way we all chose to travel and capture the moment. Facebook and Twitter were only just gathering momentum in Europe the last time I threw a coin into the fountain and standing there in this ancient city, famed for it’s technological innovation, I wondered what changes were to come in the next decade.
It was time to call it a night and after a few shots at the river I walked back into the hotel room and slumped onto the bed, my back and feet jubilant that I had finally given up using them. I opened the laptop to begin the process of importing what was more than a thousand photos collected in the past twelve hours.
I had no idea what to expect when I left that morning, except that I wanted Rome to show me something new. As I skimmed through the images, now barely able to keep my eyes from shutting, I realised it had delivered. From harsh realities, ancient monuments, political movements, delicious food, stunning views and perhaps most surprisingly new friends; I had let the city choose my own path and come out the other side better for it. Rome would always have a lot to offer the visitor for anyone willing to take it and with so much more to see I was looking forward to the rest of my time. Drifting into a deep exhausted sleep I knew at some point back home I would be asked “how was Rome?’ and now I could answer with complete confidence, “Wear comfortable shoes”.