The best souvenir I have ever received was a kiss from a toothless old nun on my way out of Rome. Did you know, there are convents and monasteries, scattered around Italy, and actually, the world, that operate bed and breakfasts? After our time in Nice (read about it here and here), my mom and I flew to Rome. We were greeted at our convent bed and breakfast by an elderly Italian gentleman, who spoke not a single word of English, but managed to communicate beautifully with his enormous smile and grand hand gestures. Our room overlooked a garden and there was a simple breakfast served daily. There was a curfew of 11pm- after that time they shut and lock the front gate- but we didn’t mind as we never planned to be out late anyway.
Rome is legendary for so many things. Of course we saw the Roman Forum, the Colosseum and threw our coins in the Trevi Fountain. We gazed up at the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican and celebrated Mass at Saint Peter’s Basilica. We strolled through peaceful parks with umbrella tree-lined paths and panoramic views of the city. We ate the pasta, the pizza, the gelato and the best focccia panini. There was a tourist map we kept, and we would take it out and highlight where we had recently walked (try this sometime, its a good way to keep track of where you’ve been and makes a fun keepsake). After two and a half days I added up our mileage and we had covered something like thirty miles. We saw a lot of the city and absorbed much of its history. The absolute hands-down best thing we did on this trip though, was a bike tour of the ancient Appian Way.
I am not big on tours. They seem so confined. However, this was the anti-tour. We met, were distributed bikes and helmets, then took our very lives in to our hands, navigating in and out of Roman traffic behind our chain-smoking tour guide, Manuel. After a while, we left the hair raising streets to ride down quiet country lanes and the tailbone-breaking 2,000+ year old cobblestones of the Appian Way. Manuel would stop along the way to spout history and roll cigarettes. We paid a visit to the Christian catacombs where several saints and martyrs had been laid to rest. Our route took us along the ancient Roman aqueducts to a working farm where we paused for a spread of wine, with bread, tomatoes, olives and cheese, served outdoors at picnic tables next to a large garden and a barn with sheep roaming in outdoor pens. We could have been a world away from the city. After this peaceful time-out we rode back on to the busy streets and around the Colosseum during golden hour before sunset.
Our dinner that night consisted of a bottle of wine and snacks around a fountain in a piazza with new friends from the tour. The next morning, before heading to the train station (where we proceeded to take the wrong train to Venice, stay tuned), we went down to breakfast with the nuns. As I stood to leave, the enthusiastic sister grabbed my face and planted a smooch on my cheek. If you are interested in unique and immersive accommodations, let me recommend a stay at a convent in Rome.