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What’s wrong with Rome

I wish I could say that Rome was a the crowning glory of my adventure, that it was everything I hoped it would be, and that the journey to get there simply paled into insignificance when compared to the splendour that was Rome itself; but I cant. Maybe I could blame the rampaging microorganisms, caught from a dodgy Sienese pizza, that curdled in my gut.

Tim Bush on Stephen’s bike

On the other hand, maybe the Peugeot driver bumping my rear wheel at sixty miles an hour as I rode tourist like along the pencil-pined roadways didn’t help my demeanour either. Perhaps it was the slight ache in my left foot from smashing the Italian drivers’ side mirror off as he pulled up alongside me. It probably had a lot to do with the insane amount of vehicle and pedestrian traffic there, and also the fast-paced, cheap, tackiness of it all I don’t know for sure what it was that made me dislike Rome so much, but that’s simply how it was, and I have no desire to ever return.

I’d bought a map as I entered the city, and had worked out roughly where I was and where I wanted to go. First up was the Vatican, then I’d planned on going to the Colosseum, and from there I figured I’d just make the rest up as I went along. So I started off along this great five lane roadway that resembled the starting grid of a formula one race track. Cars drove at a ridiculous speed, changing lanes with total abandon and zero regard for anyone other than themselves. Scooters in their hundreds zipped in and out, weaving through the tapestry of traffic like a demented bobbin on a loom. Road markings meant nothing and traffic lights even less. Red became Go. Green became Stop, and Amber didn’t exist, and no matter my attempts to move left or right, the traffic simply forced me to follow a route I really didn’t want. After twenty minutes, I found myself near the Olympic stadium, where I managed to pull out of the flow of madness and park the bike at the side of the road. I stood there a while feeling decidedly unwell, and watching this never-seen-the-like-of-before, mass of machinery go by in some kind of orchestrated insanity to which I didn’t possess a score. I rolled a smoke and pulled out the map. I could see roughly where I was, but couldn’t quite rationalise which direction I was actually facing. I stopped a girl in the street and asked for some help in finding the Vatican. I figured it was an important enough landmark for everyone in Rome to know how to get there, so I was quite surprised when she told me in rough English “it’s either up this way or down that way’. Great, I thought, I’ve got a fifty-fifty. She then phoned a friend, but he couldn’t help either. I was two lifelines down and none the wiser; I figured I’d ask the audience, and called out “The Vatican, does anyone have any idea how I get there?” About 75% pointed left, and the rest simply looked at me blankly; that was good enough for me. I thanked the girl and everyone else, then locked in Left, and headed back the way I’d just come. Half an hour later I parked the bike amongst a great stand of scooters and sat at the side of the road holding my pounding head in my hands and feeling vomit rising closer and closer to the surface. I had no idea where I was, I thought all roads lead to Rome, but here they all seemed to take me into one-way lanes that led off in every direction except the one I needed. I guzzled water, I sweated, I spat burning bile from my mouth. My breath tasted rancid as I burped into my hand, and my stomach was bloated and aching; all I wanted to do was find a road to get me the hell out of there. I was beginning to hate Rome, and it wasn’t even Rome’s fault. I strained to find a way through on my map, but it didn’t seem to matter what the map told me, as the reality of the streets was completely different. “Fuck it” I screamed into my helmet, and went straight up a one-way street in the wrong direction. Cars blasted their horns, scooters dared to play chicken with me, but didn’t realise I was past caring, and more than one ended up doing the sidewalk as a last second decision. Suddenly I knew where I was. A sign pointed me to St. Peters square just a hundred meters away. I sideswiped a scooter “get the hell outa my way” and cut across it and up onto the wide footpath where pedestrians scrambled to avoid me and my right on the very edge attitude of, talk to me and die. I leaped off the bike, ripped off my helmet and tried to breath. My guts were foul, I wanted to let rip the tremendous wind that had built up inside of me but nothing would happen; I couldn’t even burp properly. My head was spinning, my body racked in a cold sweat, and I was rapidly becoming dehydrated. I guzzled down water at a stupid rate, but all it did was add to my already bloated and uncomfortable stomach that ached as if I’d swallowed a football. I knew it would pass eventually, that all I had to do was walk it off, drink plenty of water, eat some plain food and soak up the nasties eating me inside out; but I could barely stand up straight, let alone walk in 30-degree heat. I soldiered on though, through a thousand people or more, all jostling for position on footpaths that were way too narrow, I crossed roads, dodging traffic that would rather run me over than slow down or even stop for the red-light in front of them. All I had to do was reach St. Peters square and see the Vatican. At least then, I could find a place to stay the night, work through the sickness that was rapidly devouring me, and tomorrow I could make my way out to the Colosseum and take some time out to enjoy the rest of the glory that was surely Rome.

So I sweated my way up the hell that led me into St. Peters Square, dodging the Hot-dog sellers and the purveyors of everything cheap and nasty. I shouldered tacky tourist bus spruikers aside with a don’t even think about it glare, and ignored the pretty little things in their tiny little skirts who tried in vain to shove all manner of pamphlets into my hand at every crack in the pavement. Eventually the vast columned circle called a square opened up before me. Towering Roman-built architecture surrounded me, dizzying me with its height, dazzling me with its brilliance and bringing gut-turning convulsions to me with its vulgar and tat-filled interior. The Vatican building itself was immense, but so out of reach through the swirling crowd of tourists queuing for miles to get in, that it may as well have been a hundred miles away. Priests stood amongst enthralled, ice cream toting audiences, telling the story of Saint Peter and his execution in the square, and all the while the cry of ‘Hot-dogs, souvenirs, cheap-crap for sale’ filled the area that was the seat of the Catholic church, reducing it to little more than the like of a travelling circus arena. I stood by the fountain and filled my water bottle there. An American woman in a god-awful floral top pointed to me and said to her equally fashion unconscious husband, “Hey Frank, I don’t think he should be doing that, why don’t you go say something to him?” I gazed at them with maniacal eyes while emptying the entire bottle over my head, soaking my shirt, my trousers and everything else around me. “Go ahead Frank, make my day”. I shook the water from my hair, scrubbed at my eyes and let out a huge belch. God it tasty vile, like someone had taken a crap in my mouth and left it to ripen in the sun for a few days; but it relieved some of the pressure in my gut, and the water had cooled my temper a little. I watched Frank walk away with his wife nagging at his tail between his legs, and made my way into the mass of age-old stone columns and sat in the shade for a while, trying to decide how I felt about it all, and what the hell I was going to do about it.

A man was playing in the small waterspout there with his young son. He was chasing after him, and splashing water and making monster faces and sounds. The boy was giggling and laughing hysterically. After a minute or so the mans wife arrived with another two children, they were both girls aged about seven or eight, and dressed in pretty little dresses with their hair done in sparkly tinsel and ribbons. Immediately I thought about my girls in Melbourne, and walked to the nearby Vatican post office where I bought them a nice card, wrote them some loving words and then posted it. The moment I put the card in the post-box I knew my time there was done, and I had to make plans for my escape.

I walked back to the fountain and refilled my bottle yet again. I took a long hard slug from it, put it back in my bag and braced myself for the road back. By the time I got to the bike I was near to bursting, I’d drank nearly three litres of water in the past hour or so and my bladder desperately needed emptying. Now I am not so gauche to urinate in public, but by that time, I’d decided Rome was nothing but a toilet anyway, and had sent numerous text messages to that effect. Even so, I needed to find a proper loo, and I needed to find one quickly; I also needed to a get out of Rome free card. I roared alongside the Tiber River, circled around the town centre time and time again, and crossed the same bridge four times, but Rome wouldn’t let me out. Somehow I got myself onto a ring road that circled the town, and despite my best efforts, I wasn’t getting away without a fight. With my guts on fire and my bladder on the very edge of letting go completely, I darted across three lanes of traffic and into a petrol station where I settled matters with my insides, and filled the bikes tank and re-ordered my thoughts. Somehow, I had to find a chink in Rome’s armour and thrust a sharp pointy stick into it, but its guardians were clever, and re-routed me over and over into a labyrinth of one-way roads that took me only deeper and deeper into the beast’s bone-littered lair.

“So how did you manage to get out of there?” Stephen asked me over a hot cup of coffee and a cold German sausage. “Dogged determination” I told him. “That and playing the beast at its own game and going where I wanted to go, not where it sent me”. I’d forced my way through the traffic, I’d ridden straight through Red-lights, and I’d beeped and tooted and abused and kicked the scooters, cars and pedestrians that got in my way. Eventually I’d made my way onto the Auto route and just kept going as long as I could. By eight o’clock that night I was drained and in desperate need of some food and somewhere to lay my head down. I saw a sign for a campsite near the town of Civvitavechio, so turned off the Auto route and wound my way towards a large Pine forest where I found the camps entrance, set in a woodland clearing.

It was very quiet there, not a peaceful quiet mind you, but an eerie quiet. It was dark too, but not a nighttime dark, more a Stephen King type dark. The woman behind the desk spoke little English, and my Italian had never even got passed Go. I read the Tariffs board and worked out it’d cost me 18 euros for the night, more if I wanted electricity. Fine, I really didn’t care, I just wanted to eat something even though It’d probably make me sick, which wouldn’t be such a bad idea. I handed over my passport and credit card, but the credit card machine wouldn’t work, so I reluctantly handed over 20 Euros, and then had to ask her for the change. I asked where the restaurant was, she said it was closed. Okay, so what about the shop that’s advertised on the front board then? It was closed too she told me. ‘Is there anywhere I can get something to eat here, anything at all?” She shrugged her shoulders, out of either disinterest, or non-comprehension. Bloody hell, if I hadn’t felt so done-in I’d have turned around and ridden straight out of there again, but I was wasted, and really needed to sleep.

“And so here you are now, enjoying a hot drink and eating German sausages”. Stephen said as he pulled a map-case out of his pannier and made his way to the table where I was sitting.

The receptionists’ husband had come out and bid me follow him on my bike to where I should put my tent up. We wound our way past deserted caravans that looked like they’d not seen life for years. I followed him deeper and deeper into the woodland; past the deserted and derelict restaurant, and the boarded-up shop with it’s remnants of long-passed holidays still sitting on the rickety verandah, and its tattered curtains peering out at me through filthy broken windows. It got darker and gloomier the further we went. I thought that maybe I could be murdered here tonight, and my body be buried in a shallow grave and all my belongings sold on e-bay. The track swung left past a pile of freshly felled trees, then right, towards a large washroom complex. The driver stopped his car here and pointed from his window to a large patch of open grass surrounded by a wild-looking hedge. I waved my hand as he drove away, and turned the bike into an opening in the hedgerow and onto the grassy campsite where I saw a man boiling water on a camp stove beside his tent. Parked to one side was a motorbike as laden with luggage as my own. It was a BMW GS 1150, and belonged to a doctor from Hanover in Germany named Stephen.

“And yeah, for sure there were other sights I’d wanted to see” I told him after retelling my tale of horror in Rome, “but after the circus Vatican, I wasn’t about to have my vision of the colosseum blown apart too. I didn’t want all my bubbles burst at once”.

Tim Bush on departure from Somerset

Stephen had arrived at the campsite an hour or so before I had, and had likewise felt uneasy about being there. He said that he had considered packing up and leaving but couldn’t face the prospect of having to find another place at night, and going through the whole breaking camp, and setting up routine all over again. When he’d heard my bike coming along the track though, he’d decided that things were possibly looking up, and had put some water on the boil for what he rightly considered my much-needed coffee. We sat at the table of a long deserted caravan and pored over maps of the Alps, and shared stories and coffee and cigarettes. My guts were still very unsettled, but the sausage meat and the Mars bars that Stephen offered went a long way toward making me feel better. He’d ridden down from Hanover to Trento in Italy, just fifty miles north of Verona on the first day of his week-long trip, a journey of nearly a thousand kilometers, and was on his way to Rome to see the Vatican. Well that had been his plan until he met me and I told him of my experience there. We laughed about where we were, and talked about our respective lives, and why we did what we did; but the day had taken its toll on me, and before too long I had to call it a night with the promise we would talk again in the morning. I fell asleep that night not feeling any better, but not feeling any worse either, and when I awoke in the morning the sun was fully up, and the sinister woodcutters forest seemed less morose, but still a little surreal. I looked at my map and traced the route north. Rome wasn’t getting a second chance. 

Tim Bush’s travels aren’t all miserable. Read more about his journey here.

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