Slowing Down on the Spanish Steps

by Gray Cargill on September 26, 2012

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I have two opposing desires in me when I travel that are constantly at war with one another: I hate crowds, but I love people-watching. Crowds mean personal space violations, which leave me feeling very claustrophobic. I need elbow room. Find me a place off to the side, though, where I can watch the crowd but not be part of it, and I’m pretty content.

When I visited the Trevi Fountain in Rome, I found the people-watching wasn’t worth it. The square just wasn’t big enough for all the people clustered around, and I started feeling claustrophobic. I was sure there were pickpockets working the crowd, because everyone was all up in their neighbor’s space. So it was a relief to get out of there and find the Spanish Steps.

View from Spanish Steps to Piazza di Spagna

View from Spanish Steps to Piazza di Spagna

Don’t get me wrong, the crowds are here, too. But the space is much larger and more spread out. It’s light and airy and sunny there. I could breathe.

The easiest way to get to the Spanish Steps is to take the A train (red line metro) to the Spagna metro station, which is right off the Piazza. I took a roundabout way, walking through twisting, turning, narrow Italian streets from the Trevi Fountain by way of the Pantheon. It’s a miracle I didn’t get lost along the way—but I did have to consult my map about twenty times.

The Spanish Steps actually surprised me. I didn’t expect the area to be as beautiful as it was. I was just expecting, you know. . .steps. (138 of them, to be precise.) I didn’t realize there would be a lovely fountain (the Barcaccia Fountain) at the bottom of the steps in the Piazza di Spagna, or a beautiful church (Trinita dei Monti) at the top, and I certainly didn’t expect a sea of gorgeous pink azaleas to offset the stark grey stone. (Clearly I did not do my research.)

The Barcaccia Fountain

The Barcaccia Fountain

It made me want to stay for awhile. There were so many vantage points for people-watching. I could stand down in the piazza, off to the side. I could move to the edge of the fountain, where people filled their water bottles, and enjoy the sound of cool water on a hot day. I could climb to the top of the steps, in front of the church and look down on the teeming mass of tourists. Finally, I climbed halfway down the stairs and just sat, resting and watching.

When I closed my eyes, face tilted into the sunshine, my brain started to spin with Italian phrases and images of buildings and ruins and the streets I’d walked over the past two days, trying to cram in as much of Rome as I could in the limited time I had here. I felt like a computer with too many browsers open at once, verging on a crash.

Trinita dei Monti

Trinita dei Monti

Being able to stop and sit and observe without acting was heaven in that moment. I didn’t have to talk to anyone, I wasn’t expected to buy anything, I wasn’t getting lost for the umpteenth time, I wasn’t dodging crazy Italian drivers. I enjoyed the warmth of the sun, and sat and watched. Other weary tourists trudged past me, up and down the steps. Some flopped down nearby. We were as one in our fatigue. I heard many different languages—American, English, Italian, French, and several I couldn’t identify. It was like a mini-United Nations, there on the steps.

And yes, maybe it was the English major in me who felt a little kinship with the Spanish Steps. The Keats Shelley Museum (named for John Keats and his friend and fellow poet Percy Bysshe Shelley) is next door in the building where poet John Keats lived (and died of tuberculosis at 25). That alone gave me a little bit of a thrill—not that he died tragically young, but that John Keats lived there. As a college English major, I was a big fan of the Romantic poets. For me, seeing the former home of Keats is akin to an Elvis fan seeing Graceland.

Keats Shelley Museum

The Keats Shelley Museum

And sitting on the steps, finally allowing myself a lazy moment in an otherwise ambitiously busy (read: exhausting) trip, brought to mind my favorite Keats poem, Ode on Indolence. Sometimes, there’s something to be said for being lazy. Sitting on the Spanish Steps for half an hour or whatever it was certainly wasn’t the most significant thing I did in Rome. But damned if it wasn’t my favorite.

Addison S. @ Visa Hunter October 9, 2012 at 8:59 am

What a great place to while away a few hours observing the tourists and stylish Italians go about their business. People watching is such a great aspect of visiting a new city/county. There are so many stories that flash before our eyes in a second.

Gray October 9, 2012 at 4:55 pm

Yes, Addison, I love people-watching when I travel. It’s my favorite thing to do.

Jeff @ GoTravelzing October 3, 2012 at 6:33 pm

I agree with you about the crowds. I like watched the people but do not want to be in the middle of the pack.

Your picture make me want to visit Rome again. It has been too long since I have been there.

Gray October 3, 2012 at 6:54 pm

So many places, so little time, right, Jeff?

JoAnn September 29, 2012 at 2:10 pm

What a beautiful area of Rome. There is a restaurant near there that has been come a tradition for me to eat at one my first day in Rome.

Gray September 29, 2012 at 4:27 pm

Which one is that, JoAnn?

JoAnn September 29, 2012 at 5:11 pm

Ristorante 34. It’s off of one of the side streets near the Spanish Steps.

Gray Cargill September 29, 2012 at 6:09 pm

Good tip! Thanks!

Kirstin September 28, 2012 at 5:03 am

I spent several hours sitting on the Spanish steps, just sitting in the sun reading my book and people watching. My friends decided to go to the Vatican City and they were meant to meet me at the steps but the queue at the Vatican was soooooo long I ended up sitting on the steps for longer than I expected. It was a great place for people watching.

Gray September 28, 2012 at 6:00 am

Sounds like a great place to read a book in the sun, too, Kirstin. 🙂

Jan September 27, 2012 at 10:56 pm

Your pictures are spectacular. I will be spending the entire month of November in Rome – the first two weeks solo, before hubby joins me. It’s my first international solo trip so I love reading your posts and I’m taking notes. I must admit that I did live in Rome for almost two years but that was many (yikes, 40!) years ago, and have visited numerous times, so I am not unfamiliar with the city. But I am still a little concerned about being alone there for such an extended period.

Gray September 28, 2012 at 5:25 am

No worries, Jan. You’ll be fine. Especially since you already know the city. That’s half the battle right there. An entire month…wow. I’m sure a lot of my readers will be envious. Enjoy! 🙂

Marsha September 27, 2012 at 6:59 pm

That first pic is gorgeous! BTW, is the Byron lettering next to the Keats Shelley museum related to Lord Byron?

Gray September 28, 2012 at 5:22 am

Apparently so, Marsha. It’s the name of a shop. Clever marketing, no?

Harvin September 26, 2012 at 7:46 am

I’m ecstatic that you saw the Keats-Shelley home! I was just writing about the Steps yesterday at work, and thinking about how much I’d love to visit that house.

Since you are a Romantics fan, did you see this exciting bit last week? http://www.openculture.com/2012/09/discovered_lord_byrons_copy_of_ifrankensteini_signed_by_mary_shelley.html

Gray September 28, 2012 at 5:23 am

No! I had not. Thanks for sharing. Can you imagine finding something like that? Wow.

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