A Vacation in Rome: Angels, Demons and Dirt
Our 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:
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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, “...at 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.
THE GOOD: ANCIENT ROME
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.
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.
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About Steve Borsch
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Podcasting hit the mainstream in July of 2005 when Apple added podcast show support within iTunes. I'd seen this coming so started podcasting in May of 2005 and kept going until August of 2007. Unfortunately was never 'discovered' by national broadcasters, but made a delightfully large number of connections with people all over the world because of these shows. Click here to view the archive of my podcast posts.
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!
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! 😉
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.
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.
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. 😉
I’m italian. Thanks for what you have written, I agree. Please send this article to Mr. Renzi and to the mayor of Rome.
I am in Rome right now and we have spent 4 days in the City. I could not agree more with your observations and overall experience. Rome is a fabulous city but it definitely needs some love…you don’t need ugly and meaningless graffitis and overflowed garbaged cans all over the city to keep it vibrant. It also starts with some discipline and pride from both tourists and residents. I have seen litterally hundreds of people leaving and trowing garbage (i.e empty plastic bottles and cigarette buts) all over the place not to mention people walking their dogs leaving shit behind them without having any second thought about picking it up. This trip will leave me with amazing souvenirs and experience but also with some disapointment having the feeling that The eternal city is hurting badly. Hoping that the actual state of the city can be turned around and that this jewel remains one of the treasure of humanity.
My wife, who travels the world for her job, has cajoled me for being a bit close-minded on occasion when I’ve been reluctant to go back somewhere if we had a bad (or not great) experience. This time SHE has said, “I don’t care if I ever go back there” which says it all.
One must keep in mind that Italy, and especially the big cities like Rome, have been & are being it hit with literally 10s of 1000 of undocumented immigrants from the Middle East and Africa south of the Sahara… This after the wave of immigrants from ex Yugoslavia, Eastern Europe, the Gypsies etc. Paris, I am afraid, is almost the same… Pickpockets everywhere, especially women traveling in groups so that they can quickly take care of the “evidence”. As to the Pope selling a few statues to feed the homeless, that would solve nothing long run like saying that Obama should sell a few paintings from the White House or the National Gallery of Art to help the hundreds of homeless that panhandle in the USA capital and sleep on the street… The Pope is already doing a lot setting up showers and toilets for the homeless in St. Peter’s square. Have you heard of Obama or Congress or any Governor in the USA doing that next to their offices?
Good points Jose. My fear is that, over the next few decades and due to climate change, the refugees from coastal areas will inundate countries ill-equipped to handle them.
“Have you heard of Obama or Congress or any Governor in the USA doing that next to their offices?”
Washington D.C. has always had a remarkably high level of crime and homelessness. Sadly ironic for a country with lots of social programs to “catch” the most downtrodden among us.
All of this makes me consider the “carrying capacity” of the planet. It often seems like there are simply too many of us on this planet.
Omg! It’s awful,the shock of scruffy stinky Rome! We are here right now and I’m just disgusted at the fact we wasted our vacation with my elderly parents on staying in an ex beautiful city! Its just wrong, the urine on the streets, plastic, glass beer bottles everywhere! But the scariest thing we found was opposite our hotel where what we thought were metro stations or underground tunnels were actually homes to around twenty or more homeless people! !I just want to get this out in the world, wake up Italy, clean Rome up! !And as for the driving, it’s just crazy I nearly vomited on the taxi driver who almost slammed into a van who pulled straight in front of our car! Also the same man driving saw three women (Romanian gypsies )physically pulling a bag from a chinese tourist! !!Our taxi driver opened his door midway driving to jump out on them, I really thought we were in a James bond movie! Never ever mention Rome again when we return home, I just want to try and forget the stench of urine, and I nearly forgot to mention the graffiti, ahhhh what’s wrong with these people! !!
Just got back having booked 6 days in Rome for my husband’s 60th, which I booked as a surprise for him. The historical stuff is great, but not sure this is balancing enough to make up for the utterly filthy city this is. Everything that people have said on this website… smell of pee, grafitti everywhere, rubbish in the streets, rubbish bins overflowing, homeless everywhere, beggars and possibly worse are the hawkers who try to sell you utter rubbish while you are trying to eat / walk down the street. The driving on the roads and the sheer weight of traffic has to be seen (and heard) to be believed. The condition of the streets is so poor that the surfaces of the streets are incredibly uneven. I have never tripped as much in my entire life.
Then there are the rats… we sat in the Piazza Navona one evening having a meal when three rats crossed the road and went under the tables of the next restaurant, with the diners sat at those tables totally unaware of their presence. We finished out meal just in time to see them heading towards the restaurant we had been eating in. It is shameful that there is so much wealth in that city, that so many tourists go there and pay vast amounts of money into the system and this is the state of the place. I would never go back to Rome, it is an total assault on the senses and not in a good way. Rome, get your act together, you have something very special there and you are squandering it.
We just got back from an eight day tour of London and Italy. Our first stop after London- Rome. On way to hotel- could not get over the grafitti and how blackened with soot all the buildings were. After checking in we walked a few blocks only to be stunned by the large garbage bins all up and down streets- I actually gagged following one- and then they expect you to eat next to or in front of them. The food was amazing and our servers- Marco and Franco could not have been better. But after 4 days in London-Rome no more. Florence was a little better. I was expecting Venice to be trashy ans stinky- the opposite- so beautiful- and I did not realize the rich history until after the trip (when I took time to research). Wish we had spent more time there. I don’t know why cleanliness is not a priority for cities anymore-my grandparents and their neighbors would sweep outside their apartment building back in the day- and they were poor immigrants. Citizens need to help – just not rely on government. Thank you for posting this- My family has been conflicted as well.
We had many good experiences as I attested to in my post, but it was overshadowed by the filth. That said, New York City was a cesspool in the 70s and early 80s and look at it now…it’s pretty clean and significantly less crime-filled. So there is hope for Rome!
Currently in Rome for first visit. Must say I am shocked at the trash and graffiti. Love the historical beauty and the oneness with time but now this is off my bucket list there will be no more visits here even though I am retired and quite able. I guess it is pure economics ? Mo money to clean? Or is this the beginning of cultural rot and a more basic level?
Same here. Just left Rome. Bucket list item checked off but no returns to Rome. It was filthy but I was able to focus on what is great. I felt a bit sad. This is abuse of a masterpiece
My husband and I spent 4,5 days in Rome in June this year. We were as shocked as everyone here. We live in Stockholm and the difference between two cities is unbelievable and obvious. It’s hard to believe that Rome is EU. I had a feeling that someone tricked me and sent to Africa. Your text is basically word for word our impressions and thoughts. It’s amazing that during these years nothing absolutely nothing have changed. We didn’t have time to see everything, but there is absolutely no wish to return. Shame.
P.S. I’ve been searching some info and comments on the matter and found a recent article in The New York Times. It is worth reading. It is called “The Filthy Metaphor of Rome”.
@Oksana I’m a South African who just returned from Rome and I’m sorry but all of our cities are ten times cleaner than Rome. Also Africa is a continent with extremely different countries.
I have just returned from a 3 day trip to Rome. Your review and the related comments are absolutely on point and are exactly my thoughts. While I was excited and overwhelmed by the history and art, the Coliseum, Vatican City & Museum, Sistine Chapel and the many beautiful churches, buildings and monuments, the graffiti and filth was shocking. I would like to return to visit these areas at a more leisurely pace in the low season, when there are not so many tourist! However, the filth of the city is a great turn off as well as the “skip the line” ticketing system and tour toots which is just designed to rip off tourist! I could not believe that Rome was an EU city!
Yup makes sense. Btw Oskana – Africa is not a country, it’s a continent and many African countries have much to offer.
Rome can be a shit hole but you can’t just blame their authorities or do a compare and contrast with Obama.
The Romans moan but don’t care. I’ve been dozens of times and they go on and on about how they live in the best place on the planet (when so many of them don’t travel), their police at airports are vile about foreigners, the people highly racist and their sport it to rip off tourists.
Yet, the main problems of their city are not tourist or migrants but themselves. They are up their arses but no pride in their city. They are the ones littering the streets. Someone once hit the nail on the head – they are peasants dressed in sexy clothes.
On the other hand. (Oskana) travel to a country like South Africa, which has significant challenges, and see how tourists are treated – it’s a country that knows how to maximise its industry by not ripping tourists off, welcoming all, being organised and ensuring that their visitors leave wanting to return .
My son is part Italian and hates going to Rome. It’s s shame but unsurprising.
Hope Rome can sort itself out but this has being going on for years and precedes migrants.
All of western Europe is overrun with illegal immigrants. Europe is not their ancestral home; they have no affinity with it or pride in it at all – they’re just there for the rich pickings and they couldn’t care less about the indigenous peoples or their countries. They’ll happily shit and piss everywhere, litter the streets and take/steal whatever they can while defiling hundreds of years old buildings with illiterate scrawl. Rome is only one of thousands of examples of what has happened/is happening and this is just the beginning folks, so get used to it.
With climate change potentially displacing hundreds of millions of people from coastlines around the world you are right: the problem is going to get a lot worse over the next few decades. We will all have to work together to figure out how to make this work for all of us though.
Simple just don’t fucking come back to my country.
Rest assured I won’t come back to Rome. But instead of getting all country-defensive, why don’t you convince your elected officials to clean up that dump?