When in Rome, Do the Walking Tour

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By Warren Brown
Sunday, January 6, 2008

ROME

We abandoned the automobile here. It made no sense to rent one. With only five days in the Eternal City, we did not want to waste one second procuring a car only to spend many moments more worrying about whether it was parked in a safe place while we walked about touring the ruins of ancient Rome or camped out in seemingly interminable lines awaiting entry to St. Peter's Basilica or the Sistine Chapel.

For me, going without a car took some getting used to. I seldom go anywhere or do anything without an automobile. The car is my motorized security blanket. I feel vulnerable and exposed without one.

But this wasn't a business trip, a journey where everything, including parking, is neatly set out and ordered for me in advance. When visiting corporations abroad, including those in Italy, I never worry about anything. I land at an airport. A car is waiting for me, replete with detailed instructions on how to get from point A to point B. All parking is secure, and secure parking is readily available. It's easy.

But this was vacation, and I was traveling with my wife, Mary Anne, and two daughters, Binta and Kafi. Binta and I are seasoned travelers. Mary Anne and Kafi are not. But I am a driver with a skewed sense of direction. Left to my own devices, I am easily lost. Getting lost behind the wheel is such common fare for me it doesn't bother me in the least. But the idea of getting lost in some Roman alleyway with two people who were likely to hit the panic button wasn't at all appealing. We decided to eliminate that possibility by eliminating the car.

There were other reasons for going sans car. Rome is odd. Motorists here will stop for nuns and priests crossing the street. But they will do a dance of death with regular pedestrians -- not stopping for pedestrians in crosswalks but, somehow, never hitting them either. I concluded that theirs was a well-practiced choreography based on an innate understanding of native rhythms -- you keep walking, I keep driving, time your steps, because I'm not jiving -- that easily is upset, with potentially disastrous results, by foreign drivers like me.

I tend to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks, regardless of whether they are wearing a nun's habit or a priest's collar. That seems the right thing to do. But it's the wrong thing to do here. It violates the mobility covenant between the motorist and the secular pedestrian.

Also, you can find religious medals, Bibles and other religious books and pictures all over Rome, especially in neighborhoods bordering the massive walls surrounding Vatican City, which is where we spent most of our time here. But municipal police in Rome will warn you that proximity to the Church does not equate to distance from car thieves, who find rental cars parked on the tiny side streets bordering the papal walls especially attractive treats.

A stolen car ruins a vacation under the best of circumstances. But dealing with a stolen car in a foreign language in a city famous for car theft is something best not experienced.

So, we took cabs when we needed motor transport; and that mostly was a good thing. Out of a dozen or so cab rides, we were discernibly fleeced twice. But those rip-offs were okay, because the dishonest cabbies drove us through some interesting neighborhoods. We called those excess cab fares "tourist fees."

We considered taking the metro on several occasions, but decided against doing so. Picking pockets on crowded trains and buses can sometimes be as common as tithing in Rome. We were loaded with cameras and other recording gadgets. We had "tourists" written all over us.

Thus, we walked all over Rome, initially to my chagrin but ultimately to my enlightenment and satisfaction.

You actually can see things when you walk, such as the way a setting winter's sun illuminates the cupola of a basilica, rendering it a memorable work of art. Walking also offers flexibility not available with a car, such as quickly ducking into a pizzeria for a bite to eat, a place to sit and talk and survey street maps, without worrying about where to park the car.

Walking also allows you to study faces, hear voices, to get a better understanding of people in their milieu. My God! Walking can be fun!

I'm going to miss it. But I always will remember Rome, the city that helped me discover the power of moving feet.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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