I was in Italy the first ten days of April. This proved to be an incredibly good experience for me; I left Ireland's rain and came back dusted with freckles from Rome. That was the perfect memento, as far as I'm concerned. (On my return, Ireland greeted me with freezing rain as I disembarked from the bus in Galway, but the weather has done its best to do better since.)
I flew to Rome at the end of March and met up with two childhood friends. They're both fabulous, successful women who have traveled much more than I, and I owe a lot to them for their willingness to traipse around Italy with me under so little notice. I'd never taken several forms of public transportation before this trip, and now I've taken, well, all of them, and my friends are the reason I survived. They made Rome manageable.
Rome was beautiful, expansive, dusty, and sad. I fell in love with it right away, but my affection solidified that first night in our simple hotel room. I noticed I was slightly burnt and had dirt all over my face. I loved that; it was something I'd missed from home. Being dirty and sunburned feels like summer and summer makes me feel alive.
We toured the Vatican, pushed by the surrounding crowd through vaulted hallways that were full to choking on priceless touchstones of the past. I've heard it would take four years to look at every painting for just one minute, and there's a lot more than just paintings in there. We also went to St. Peter's Basilica; I was wearing shorts and had to buy a scarf to cover my knees in order to get in. (That scarf is my favorite thing from Italy, so I don't regret the misunderstanding.) The Basilica was enormous, the cold, carved stones somehow still seeming lavish.
There's so much splendor in Rome, and it casually shares space with street-hawkers and beggars. It's hard to ignore the dissonance of the wealth of ages as it sits, carefully preserved and protected, a wall away from people struggling to make it through the day. That was a lot of Rome to me, in my limited time there, both the beauty and the sadness.
After our two days in Rome, we spent two nights Couchsurfing in La Spezia. During the day we took a train to Cinque Terre, and while my friends climbed the coastal trails I wandered the five cities by myself. I took my camera and climbed the winding back streets, safe in the knowledge that the towns are small and practically impossible to get lost in. I did the same thing in Florence: my friends went on a wine tour but I was too bus-sick to go, so I struck out for the city, happy to try out my slowly-expanding gelato vocabulary in yet another new place, and happier still that my time abroad has given me the confidence to spend a solo afternoon in Florence as if it were just another thing to do.
We passed a night in Bologna and then went on to Venice. While all of Italy was so bright I had headaches every day, Venice was so bright sometimes I could barely see, and that was in overcast weather. I came to see Venice as wonderful and sad, like Rome, but for somewhat different reasons. It is so lovely for a dying city; it lights up at night for the tourists who keep it alive.
I came back to an Ireland beginning to leaf out with spring. I found myself happy to be returning; as I got onto my Aer Lingus flight and heard so many familiar-sounding voices speaking a language I could understand, it felt a bit like coming home.