Though heavy on the history, Rome and Venice are more than beautiful archives. They're complicated, living cities worth exploring.

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Venice beyond the crowds

On my last night in Venice, I stood on the Ponte dell’Accademia in the early darkness. Most of the tourists had all gone to bed or to dinner, leaving only a few people on the bridge. It was the Venice I had been hoping for when I booked my trip during the off-season. The view was ours alone, the picture the movies, books and Instagram posts had promised. You feel almost heartbroken walking away from something that perfect, knowing you will probably never see it again.

Venice is beautiful, and it knows it.

It knows everyone is looking, and leans into its best angles. But like any city, a closer look reveals scars and imperfections. Here are the sparkling canals. Here, too, just outside the city, are asylum-seekers cramped into overcapacity detention centers awaiting an uncertain fate. Here are the singing gondoliers. Here is a disturbing absence, as you notice that the city’s few darker-skinned residents seem almost hidden away. Here are the famed Rialto Bridge and the breathtaking San Marco plaza, overflowing with tourists hoping to capture the soul of Venice on a smartphone camera.

In Venice, I saw a stunning sunset from the top of the San Marco Campanile, loudly geeked out over a 400-year-old copy of Herodotus’ “Histories” at the Museo Correr, and saw a luminous Titian painting on the ceiling of Sansovino’s Library.

I ate my way through the Dorsoduro and Santa Croce neighborhoods, discovering pasta al nero di seppia (squid-ink pasta) and devouring every version I could find of local specialty baccalá mantecato (whipped cod). I sneaked through quiet alleyways that led to dead-ends at the canal, preciously empty back-alley cafes and — once — to a small patch of trees in a courtyard.

I was also stopped short by blackamoor statues, by caricatured sculptures of naked brown-skinned women in a jewelry-store window, by young men haunting narrow alleys, hats upturned for a euro or two.

Photographer Carrie Mae Weems “Roaming” series depicts a woman standing in a long black dress in different spaces in Rome, her back to the camera. This black-robed presence is a haunting specter, there to tell, remind and maybe even accuse.

At times, in Venice, I felt like I was an accusation.

I walked into the Hotel Bonvecchiati and found myself face-to-face with a statue of a black-skinned man in a loincloth holding a lamp. In what used to be the dressing rooms of the Empress Elisabeth, I shared space with sculptures of dark-skinned women holding up the weight of the Empress’ gaudy wardrobe on their shoulders. A server at a cantina told me that all of the empty tables were “reserved,” only to seat other customers who arrived without reservations after I did.

In surprisingly deserted art galleries, museums and lesser-traveled roads, I made a stumbling but earnest effort at new Italian vocabulary with locals, and it had become clear that the community here is tired from the influx of 20 million to 30 million tourists each year.

You can see the exhaustion in the faces of waiters halfheartedly waving tourists into their restaurants, and the terse words of bartenders defaulting to English. A graffiti-covered wall in the Santa Croce district demanded in English “No More Visitors.”

With Venice’s city center population down to less than 60,000 from over 170,000 in the 1950s, it’s something even a tourist can understand. Venice needs a break. And after five days of squeezing through crowded streets, I did, too.

Rome beyond the ruins

The Tuscan countryside — all bright-green hills and quiet country houses — rushed past the train window, a welcome sight after Venice’s abundant shuffling bodies.

Still, when a series of dark tunnels and tall graffiti-covered walls announced our arrival at Roma Termini and I emerged into the familiar busy din of a big city, I smiled. A city girl at heart and a one-time Latin student, I was geeked to wander the streets and ruins of the most ancient city my metallic-blue Chucks and I have ever seen (so far).

In an interview with Mosaic Magazine in 2007, William Demby, a Pennsylvania-born author who spent much of his life in Italy, said, “Once you understand that the world is never what you are presented with, that if you turn a corner, you’re going to be presented with an entirely new world, that has always and continues to excite me.”

When I travel, Demby’s words ground me, keeping me from being romanced by false fantasies of a place. Instead, I turn around corners and examine the many different faces of a city or town.

So, for the rest of my time in Rome, I wandered.

I stumbled upon a quiet section of the Tiber, a perfect view of the Roman Forum, the best Italian pizza I’ve ever had, and a basement restaurant, La Grotta Amatriciana, whose house-special risotto with lemon sauce was the best meal I ate in Italy. 

I marveled at the Colosseum and dodged street vendors who tried to get my attention by shouting “Hey, Africa Black and White!”

At the Palazzo Barberini, renovations kept me from my lifelong dream of seeing Caravaggio’s “Judith beheading Holofernes.” I settled for a shockingly private audience with Caravaggio’s “Narcissus.” (I would later enjoy the same privilege at the Keats-Shelley House, where I looked out at the Spanish Steps, which John Keats would have seen from his writing desk.)

The following day, I turned my feet in the opposite direction and found a park in the Esquilino district where the crowds of tourists suddenly vanished, restaurant menus promised curries and injera instead of pasta and pizza, seniors socialized on benches, and cats lounged on ruins around an “alchemy gate” (legend has it the gate’s inscribed with the recipe for transforming common metals into gold). Graffiti declaring “Esquilino. No borders” appeared on several walls and dumpsters — a reminder of the many immigrants living here at a time when the Italian government has taken a hard line against immigration.

Further east in Pigneto, under a cross-section of raised highways, a dull-yellow high-rise reminded me of housing projects in the U.S. Ten minutes east, the neighborhood erupted into a stretch of new-looking bars and restaurants in a cobblestone square. I met up with an old acquaintance, and our dinner conversation meandered through a Rome you don’t see if you stick to the tourist areas — a Rome of sanitation-worker strikes, gentrification and Catholic pilgrims crowding the church across from her apartment.

On my final day in Rome, I found myself in a neighborhood near Vatican City. Instead of waiting in line to see the Sistine Chapel, I walked with my gaze directed down, hunting for small brass plaques embedded in the sidewalks bearing the names of the Holocaust victims who once lived there — tiny reminders of a more recent, horrific past amid the city’s proudly preserved ancient ruins.

Rome (and Venice) may harbor art thousands of years old and the ruins of ancient civilization, but it’s more than a pretty mausoleum. Many wounds are still fresh, and much of its history is very much alive. This complicated, living Rome — and the many worlds and histories it contains — is the one worth visiting.

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If you go

Wander. It’s the best way to avoid the crowds around the “must-see” tourist spots and actually see the city.

Consider going in the off-season. From November to March, you may find reduced crowding, and cheaper rates on airfare and hotels.

Go to the galleries and museums. For every overcrowded, Instagrammable fountain, there are museums with historic and beautiful art you’ll practically have to yourself.

Take the train. If you’re visiting multiple cities, or want to take some day trips, consider a Eurail pass. But brush up on how to reserve your seats before you go.

Pack light. Venice and Rome’s stony streets and car-free city center aren’t exactly rollaboard-friendly.

Learn some Italian. Many of the locals will appreciate your efforts even if you only know the basics.

 

This post was updated December 19 at 10:57 p.m. A previous version of this story misstated the current and past population of Venice’s city center.  The current population is less than 60,000, down from approximately 171,000 in 1951.