A Vacation in Rome: Angels, Demons and Dirt

angelOur vacation this year was to Rome, Italy and it was good and bad. I’ve been trying to reconcile this trip in my own mind but am still wrestling with it so thought best to get it out of my head and in a post.

Our family approached this trip with great anticipation. My kids are 26 and 19 so it is likely our last vacation together as only the four of us. Having never been to Rome, we planned for months. Here’s what we discovered, though these opinions are more mine than my wife or kids:


Tough to see, but the area in front of our five star hotel is littered with cigarette butts and trash...which is *everywhere* in Rome

Tough to see, but the area in front of our five star hotel is littered with cigarette butts and trash…which is *everywhere* in Rome (click for larger view)

1) THE FILTH: Oh my God is Rome filthy. Old is one thing, but cigarette butts, wrappers, cans and bottles, homeless people’s food debris (and urine) is everywhere, and no one has cleaned a sidewalk here since the time of Caesar (or so it seems). It is just simply dirty.

What really stunned me, though, was the endless graffiti. It covers every surface from upscale hotels and office buildings, to subway cars to every shop and apartment building.


Even in the town near Ostia Antica, the ancient Roman port city, there was graffiti on buildings.

Over several days as we were in neighborhood after neighborhood, tony shopping districts, the subway, towns outside Rome, and even major attractions, and the thought that kept coming in to my mind constantly was, “Man…Rome is a shithole!” and I couldn’t figure out if Romans didn’t care about Rome, or corruption is rampant so no one does much work, or something that makes people put up with this in a city with as much potential as this one.


Every subway car was covered, windows etched with knives, and graffiti was all over the inside too.

This filth, or lackadaisical attitude about the cleanliness of the city, even translates to the overwhelming majority of cars driven by Romans in the city. Nearly every vehicle I looked at on the road, in parking lots and parked on the side of roads was scratched, dinged and just simply dirty. Even new cars. I just didn’t get it, especially from this land and people who have designed and given us Ferraris and Lamborghinis.

I actually had my small wallet in a front pocket but the pickpocket got it anyway

I actually had my small wallet in a front pocket but the pickpocket got it anyway

2) THE CRIME: Our last day we were riding the metro bus from a museum near the Vatican and my wallet was pickpocketed. Even though I’d taken incredible caution for the entire trip—especially since every guidebook warns over-and-over again to wear a moneybelt and be extremely cautious—this time I slipped it into my pocket so someone grabbed it. To say I was upset and angry is an understatement, so much so my daughter got off the bus since I was “making a scene.”

Coat of arms of the Carabinieri

Coat of arms of the Carabinieri

We went back to our hotel room to cancel my credit cards and place a fraud alert on our credit report, when a call came in from the front desk. Turns out a team from the Carabinieri, the Italian national military police, had busted a gang of Romanian pickpockets and they found my wallet in one guy’s backpack!

I got everything back. To say I was stunned and amazed is putting it mildly. Based on all the TripAdvisor forum posts, the articles and forum post at travel expert Rick Steves website, this type of crime is rampant in Rome and, as Steves said in one article, “ least one person on every tour is pickpocketed.”

The scams, people hustling, and the ripoffs made me feel like I was traveling to a third world country, not a modern one like Italy.

But there was a lot of good and amazing things to see and experience and we had those too, thankfully.

No question the highlights of our trip were the stunning and amazing antiquities, the Colosseum, the Forum, our trip to Pompeii (though Naples is even filthier than Rome), and the sheer volume of human history here.

Our tour of the Vatican was breathtaking, especially considering the vast wealth held by the Catholic church. That said, I saw little public effort in Rome to deal with the incredible number of homeless on the streets, and wondered where was the Catholic church? We saw the same people day after day, some who exhibited signs of mental illness. I couldn’t help but think that, if the Vatican sold a couple of their statues, Catholic Charities could do a whole lot more about the homeless problem right in their own backyard.

We took a few hundred photos of our trip, most of which I'll post on my Flickr account soon.

We took a few hundred photos of our trip, most of which I’ll post on my Flickr account soon.

To see the places I’d read about all my life, ponder gladiators in the Colosseum, see the supposed place where the apostle Peter was crucified inverted, view the Sistine Chapel, and all the other major historical areas was absolutely overwhelming and totally worthwhile.

What’s curious to me is this: After our vacations to Britain, several other countries in Europe, Japan, Australia, and Peru, Rome is not on our list to return. I have a desire to see the Tuscany region in central Italy (and Florence) because of its physical beauty and as an epicenter for the Renaissance, but Rome? Nope.

Click here! Rome Trip Photo Album Available at Flickr
About Steve Borsch

I'm CEO of Marketing Directions, Inc., a trend forecasting, consulting and publishing firm in Minnesota. Prior to that I was Vice President, Strategic Alliances at Lawson Software in St. Paul where I was responsible for all partnerships at this major vendor of enterprise resource planning software products and services. Read more about me here unless you're already weary of me telling you how incredible and awesome I am.


  1. We went to Rome in 2008…our first trip out of North America. What a culture shock…the crazy driving, the inventive parking. I didn’t notice graffiti so much, I think I was just in shock at being in Italy. I will say the graffiti in venice on the Rialto bridge is disheartening. Seems to be no sense of pride or history. While we had 5 nights in Rome this first time, we felt like everything got rushed thru. We are returning in a few weeks for another 5 nights and looking forward to seeing the things we rushed thru, and seeing some new things as well!

  2. Steve Borsch says:

    Thanks for the comment Nicole. “Disheartening” is exactly the right word to describe what I was feeling too. Maybe that will pass and I’ll become eager, once again, to go back like you are doing in a few weeks. One thing is certain though: We will never go there, or anywhere around that latitude and near the sea, in the hottest part of the year again! ;-)

  3. What can I say but… You nailed it. My husband and I are in Italy for the first time and Rome was our first stop. We were stunned to see the absolute filth for such a beautiful city of history. Did the church & government just give up. As we were walking I did not want to touch anything. The urine smell, dog poop, graffiti, dirt in buildings, garbage EVERYWHERE broke my heart. You are also correct about the amazing art & structure. Simply breathtaking. Which is why I don’t understand why they would destroy their city. There was even graffiti & garbage inside & outside the Colosseum. I will not be going back to Rome as well.

  4. All you have to do is read about the abysmal state of the Italian economy and you’ll have part of your answer. There are very few garbage cans on the streets because there is no one to pick up the trash. We did see places where people had put out trash bags and garbage was collecting in them, but it’ll stay there until some enterprising person picks it up. We just returned from our third trip to Rome and the deterioration of the city since our first visit in 2001 is beyond sad. It’s a beautiful, vibrant city that is being swallowed by poor fiscal and economic management.

  5. Steve Borsch says:

    Agreed on the economy Lee. After the global economic meltdown many countries have struggled to get back in the global economic game. Unfortunately the movement of capital is bypassing those countries, like Italy, that don’t have their fiscal house in order. So maybe, after Italy “comes back”, we’ll possibly reconsider never visiting again. ;-)

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