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When Travel Isn’t What You Expect

by Penny Sadler

As much as I love travel and the thrill of discovering new cultures and meeting new people, I also enjoy familiarity. I think I’m not alone in this. I like getting to know an area and feeling at home there, seeing familiar faces, having a chat with the neighborhood shop owners, and establishing my favorite bar and bartender. I don’t think I’m unique; it’s human nature. It’s normal to desire feelings of security, belonging, and comfort.

When I first began traveling regularly to Rome, I unconsciously began to cultivate this feeling of belonging. It wasn’t difficult – Rome had me from the first Buongiorno.

When Travel isn't what you expect, Rome @PennySadler 2014

Bridge connecting Trastevere to the historic area of Rome

Since 2009, I’ve made Trastevere my home away from home, in Rome.

I always return to the same internet cafe, shop at the organic and gluten-free market Canestro, and buy fruits and vegetables at the open air produce market in Piazza San Cosimato. In this way, I get a tiny taste of what life would be like if I lived in this neighborhood in Rome.
I’ve gotten to know the guy who makes my cappuccino in the morning and my spritz in the afternoon, and other people in the neighborhood who recognize me to this day


When Travel isn't what you Expect, Trastevere, Rome, Italy @PennySadler 2014

A typical street in Trastevere

It’s not only that I like familiarity and comfort, but finding a room in Rome that fits my budget, and has a comfortable bed, a decent shower, a bidet, and that’s not dark and danky and crazy loud can be a bit of a challenge.

If you’ve ever been to Rome on a budget, you’ll know what I’m talking about. It can get ugly.

On my last trip to Rome, I was a more than a little disappointed when the apartment that I normally rent became unavailable. Che casino! Now what?

As usually happens, things have a way of working out. A friend of a friend had a lovely apartment in the historic center of Rome, on Via Del Corso.

Arrangements were made for my friend, Amelie, to meet me at the apartment (the owner was out of town) and deliver the key and any instructions I needed for staying there.

The door to this apartment was one of those big, beautiful, solid wood doors, with an old fashioned, three bolt lock and a long metal key, notched on each side.

When Travel Isn't What you Expect

The Key!

Amelie gave me a detailed lesson on how to lock and unlock the door, and which side of the key is which. Flat side up. Three clicks right to open. Three clicks left to lock..

In high spirits for being back in Rome and finding the sun shining, I locked the door and walked part of the way home with Amelie to have a little catch up chat.

Upon my return to the apartment just ten minutes later, I could not open the door. I felt my stomach flip. I had left without my hand bag or cell phone because after all, I was only going to walk a few blocks down the street and I had the key to the apartment. I began to scroll my mental list: no credit card, no money, no cell phone, no identification. I didn’t know anyone in the immediate area, and I don’t know Amelie’s cell phone number even if I had found someone kind enough to let me use their phone.

I worked on opening the door for fifteen or twenty minutes, counting each click and then imagining the door magically opening. That wasn’t working, so I began to contemplate how long I’d have to wait in the stairwell before someone would show up. Finally, in frustration and desperation, I banged on the door of a neighbor, Mark, who luckily was home. The apartment owner had let him know there would be someone staying in her apartment while she was away – thank goodness!

After another lesson on the mechanics of opening the door, I thanked Mark and decided to stay in for the evening. Surely things would be easier after a good night’s sleep.

When travel isn't what you expect @PennySadler 2014

Reflections on the Tiber

I rose early the next morning and walked over to the Ponte Sant Angelo to see the Bernini angels as the sun was rising. I had a glorious morning walk across the across the bridge for the first time, the warm Mediterranean light reflecting the bridge and buildings in the river below. I felt happy and carefree, lucky to be in one of the most beautiful cities in the world on a sunny day with nothing to do besides just be.

When Travel is not what you expecit @PennySadler 2014

Bernini angels-6

One of the angels on the Ponte Sant Angelo


Or so I thought.

After wandering around taking photographs for a few hours, I decided to head back to the apartment for lunch. One of the advantages of staying in a room in the historic center of Rome is that it’s so convenient if you want to drop off a bag that has become cumbersome, change shoes, or have a bathroom break.

And the next problem arose.

I arrived back at the apartment only to discover that the toilet would not flush and it wasn’t something I could tackle on my own. I’d been left a name and number to call for anything not related to keys. I was able to get a plumber, but I’d have to meet him the next day.

I felt annoyed that I was losing precious time when I could be out enjoying Rome.

The next day I awoke early and decided to walk to Sant Andrea Della Fratte, the church where the two angels Bernini originally carved for the Ponte Sant Angelo live, and take some photographs. I could easily make it back in time to meet the plumber.


When Travel is not what you expect @PennySadler 2014

The original angel with crown of thorns

When Travel is not what you expect @PennySadler 2014

Love the face of this angel. Originally sculpted for the Ponte Sant Angelo.

There was a light rain so I took an umbrella from the stand by the door thinking how convenient as I hadn’t brought one of my own.

Just as I was heading back to the apartment it started to rain. I opened the umbrella and it came apart in my hands.

When Travel is not what you expect @PennySadler 2014

Nothing like being prepared.

When Travel Is Not What you Expect

So handy to have an umbrella when it’s raining.

I started to get a bad feeling about the apartment and everything that went with it.

I couldn’t help but think if only I’d been in my usual place in Trastevere, none of this would have happened. I know this is a bit childish, but I’d arrived in Rome very tired after a press trip and I had a small cold. I wasn’t expecting to have to manage real life problems.

Even though I was of course familiar with the area (I’d walked down Via del Corso dozens of times), I had not established any relationships with the locals. I’d not been there long enough to feel at home or become a regular in any of the restaurants or bars.
It didn’t even feel like the kind of neighborhood where you could meet locals, unless they happen to be between the ages of 15 and 20.

The truth is, I was missing the comfort of having a familiar face to help me out, or listen to me rant about the fact that even though I was paying to stay in this apartment, I still had to give up time to meet with a plumber and then clean up the mess left behind.

For the first time, I felt restless and uncomfortable in Rome. I had only scheduled a week there before going home, and this was not what I wanted or expected.

Somehow this apartment on Via del Corso, as nice as it was, just wasn’t in the right neighborhood. I didn’t feel like my free-spirited self there, and it seemed the problems I was encountering, small though they were, reflected my discomfort back to me.

Would my experience have been different if I’d stayed in Trastevere?

What about you? Do you have a favorite city you return to? A favorite room, apartment or hotel? What do you like about it?

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Mary @Green Global Travel April 20, 2014 at 7:38 pm

Sorry to learn about your unsatisfying Rome experience. We’ve had trips where it just seemed like everything was going wrong. Our special place is Sanibel Island, Florida. We try to go back every 3-4 years. Two-thirds of the island is a nature preserve and it’s the best place in the world for sea shells.

Penny Sadler April 20, 2014 at 11:20 pm

I love Sanibel Island. Great choice!

Aleah | SolitaryWanderer.com April 20, 2014 at 2:33 pm

When I was in Rome, I stayed with a Couchsurfing member who didn’t live in the city center. One night I missed my train. It was stupidity; I was early for the last trip and decided to read. I completely tuned out and only later learned that the train had already come and gone. So I had to get off one station away. I walked around midnight towards my host’s home–without a phone, without a map, and without any alternative means of getting home. Thankfully, I eventually found myself back at the apartment around 1am, with my host waiting up for me. In short, despite this misadventure, I would still want to go back to Rome again and again!

Penny Sadler April 20, 2014 at 11:21 pm

That’s so nice they waited up for you. I’ve had stuff like that happen and it can be a bit scary, but always works out. Thanks for sharing your story!

Charles | The Barefoot Nomad April 17, 2014 at 3:26 pm

Penny, it’s funny about how where you stay can totally make or break a place. We’ve stayed in a lot of cities more than once and it’s always interesting that it’s the little things that can make you love a place or feel comfortable the moment you walk out the door.

I can remember staying at this one place in Spain where the door didn’t lock properly and I was convinced every time we came back that our things would be gone or a place in Thailand where the owner made us feel so welcome that we stayed for an extra week even though we had seen everything there was to see.

Likewise, there are certain cities I severely dislike that have probably nothing to do with the city itself but more to do with the neighborhood we stayed in and a few sour people we met. We always try to give every place its due however sometimes it’s the situation that sucks and not the place.

Hopefully next time you’ll get your standard apartment and enjoy the Rome you know and love!

Penny Sadler April 20, 2014 at 11:23 pm

I think environment is really important. If a place is dark or dingy, I just can’t stomach it. Thanks for your great story.

DJ Yabis | Dream Euro Trip April 16, 2014 at 6:18 pm

Oh no! What bad luck! I can just imagine how frustrating it might have been and how such things can ruin a trip. I love going back to Stockholm and Berlin. My happy places 😀

P.S. I also love Trastevere. That’s where I always stay!

Penny Sadler April 20, 2014 at 11:23 pm

Hey Dj. Maybe I should find out where you stay for a backup. 🙂

Val-This Way To Paradise April 15, 2014 at 8:43 am

Wow! That sounds like a disaster apartment. I can’t imagine the helplessness of feeling locked out!

Penny Sadler April 15, 2014 at 10:22 am

Well, I’m sure I would have figured out something even if the neighbor had not been home, but yes, it was unsettling!

Wandering Educators April 14, 2014 at 3:14 pm

I agree – we always try to do slow travel, rent a home, and stay a while.

Penny Sadler April 15, 2014 at 10:22 am

It’s the best! If I just pass through a place inevitably I will feel like I missed out.

Suzanne Fluhr April 14, 2014 at 1:01 pm

We took our then teen age sons to Rome in 2004. Our hotel ran out of rooms,so they put us in a neighborhood apartment owned by someone in the family. There was a courtyard for hanging laundry out the window, an ancient elevator and an old key. It was nice to have our own place in a neighborhood. The boys didn’t even squawk (too much) about having to share a bed.

Penny Sadler April 14, 2014 at 1:38 pm

Sounds perfect! Where was the apartment? Do you remember?

Jennifer April 14, 2014 at 9:56 am

When we went to Rome we were accosted by men “selling” roses at the Spanish Steps, it actually intimidated my daughters. There’s never a “perfect” travel experience if you drill down to much on the details, but I’d still call that Roman trip pretty ideal. 🙂 Sorry you had so many more bumps along the way! We’ve had disasters too.

Penny Sadler April 14, 2014 at 1:37 pm

I agree. All part of the experience. I’m not really complaining about the apartment, it was comfortable and lovely, but I did miss my neighborhood.

Matthew Hirtes April 14, 2014 at 3:54 am

It’s great that you know Rome so well, it’s a second home to you, Penny. I’ll get there one day. And this article will prove useful when I eventually do.

Penny Sadler April 14, 2014 at 9:03 am

You’re close! You could go easily. If you do let me know if I can help.

Matthew Hirtes April 14, 2014 at 9:05 am

It would be easier and cheaper to get there from London. But I’ll definitely take you up on your offer. Thanks again.

Cathy Sweeney April 13, 2014 at 9:25 pm

Sorry things didn’t turn out as you’d hoped, but that is life, I guess. I haven’t been to Rome yet. It was on my dream list for 2014, but the year is passing by quickly. Funny about the key. I got locked inside a bathroom in a restaurant in Italy with a key like that. I’m sure my frantic turning of the key just made it worse. Luckily, I was saved by one of the wonderful owners of the hotel/restaurant as he heard me call out for help.

Penny Sadler April 13, 2014 at 9:31 pm

I’d love to see your face when you see Rome for the first time. 🙂 Frantic turning is right. The neighbor’s maid kept telling me “tranquila.” LOL
Things do have a way of working out thank goodness!

helena April 13, 2014 at 12:55 am

Yes, I too love Roma. I stayed for a couple of weeks and loved every minute. I thought of moving to Roma but practicality won out and I stayed in Sonoma Co. Calif. I’d love to know your secret…an affordable place in Trastevere might lure me back to Roma.

By the way, I went south then took a ferry to Dubrovnik. I loved Dalmatia…gorgeous and relaxing.

So sorry about your difficult week. I totally understand – there is such a comfortable neighborhood feeling in Trastevere. It will be there waiting for you next time.

All the best,

Penny Sadler April 13, 2014 at 12:55 pm

Thanks for the tip on Dubrovnik. I would love to go. Staying in Sonoma sounds ok to me. 🙂 I was in the area a few weeks ago and loved it. Surely the next best place to Italy – especially in the US. Try the Beehive for affordable accommodations in Rome. Let me know if you go back.

Sandra April 11, 2014 at 10:47 pm

Hello Penny this is a little something I wrote after a trip to Roma in 2012. I have since been back to several times.

I live, laugh and love (La Dolce Vita) whenever I’m in Italy.

La Dolce Vita!……Italy

This is Italy; layers of history, the Mediterranean, magnificent art, the cuisine, wonderful music, and welcoming people. Packed and stacked with dialects, great cooks, hill towns , ruins, castles, mosaics, villas, vino, olive trees, church bells……… expect to be dazzled.
Italy oozes not only its history but love of life!!

Roma………..No matter how many times I visit Italy, its magic never fades. I am spellbound for the umpteenth time as our plane descends through the clouds into Fiumicino and the early morning light reveals the city of Roma below. My eyes, grow large with wonder and anticipation as we approach for landing, and I see the sunlit buildings and ancient ruins….

The intimate churches in neighbourhood piazzas each bring their own something grande or piccolo. Paintings, columns, silver hearts, tombs, paper flowers, marbled woodwork, ancient pews, wall hangings, crypts, statues, and best of all, statues of St. Anthony in every shape and size you could imagine. Sometimes he is hidden out of direct view, it’s a challenge to find him! Is he hiding from me? Have I asked too much of him recently? Should I light a few more candles?

At night we are exhausted, fall into our bed, and in the morning we are off again exploring every corner, church and piazza. Bruce trying Gelato at every second venditore we pass. There are tourists in big clumps, at the major sites, but otherwise, we are able to turn down any enticing Via and it’s ours. I photograph flower pots on windowsills and balconies, the fountains, people in Piazza Navona, crowds of tourists, the Trevi Fountain with many coins being tossed (will they all return to the Eternal City?), next the Pantheon and then we walk on to Campo dei Fiori. I photograph the flower sellers and flowers. Then we are lost and wander for half an hour or more…..

Siesta time…….early evening, shops shuttered, streets emptied of traffic, we find one of the few restaurants open early, should we have booked? All tables look to be occupied. But in the Italian way, a table is brought out and we are seated in the piazza, where we have a wonderful meal on a perfect Roman evening. La dolce vita!
After dinner we walk the cobble streets (our passeggiata), a cat asleep in a window, a scent of oleander, hoping to find the 116 that will take us back to Via Veneto and Hotel Golden.
I close my eyes, I think to myself, if I see any more, I will miss Rome too much.


Penny Sadler April 13, 2014 at 12:56 pm

Wow, sounds like you need to start writing a blog. 🙂 It’s always nice to hear from a fellow lover of Rome. Buona giornata!

HOWARD KOOR October 20, 2017 at 3:43 pm

Sandra, I love your passion and detailed description. We just returned from 5 days in Rome, and 5 days in Florence. It was our 2nd time in Rome, and first in Florence. We put almost 20,000 steps on our pedometer each day! We were were wonderfully exhausted at the end of each day. Gelato helped our energy level, and mood. I loved the food, the history, the architecture, and the energy of both cities.


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