Rome, Italy — After a full day of exploration, I’m back in my hotel room with a sore back, sweaty feet, bad tan lines, 32 new freckles and a big smile. Rome is awesome! I love surprises, and this city is bursting with them.

Around every corner, there is something new and magnificent, or rather, something old and magnificent, and much of it isn’t even on my map. It could be a set of old Roman columns on the side of the street, a fountain spewing potable water from an eroded lion’s head, an Irish pub in front of a crumbling palace, a bearded lady (sans circus), someone singing an Italian love song through an open window, or even dog poop (in itself not a pleasant surprise, but quite entertaining when one of the fancy ladies steps into it with her Italian stilettos and yells out “MERDA!!!!”).

There are many beautiful, well-dressed women everywhere with impeccably smooth hair, great legs and fabulous shoes. And most of them are pouting, which leads me to believe that frizz-free hair is not the key to happiness after all.

Coming in to the city from the airport, Rome looks like nothing special, to be honest. Just another airport, another industrial area, another city. But then things start to look different — like gas pumps right on the sidewalk. (I know, there are greater things about Rome than the gas pumps, but I’d never seen that before!) All of a sudden, around a corner, with no warning, there is the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican, the Castel Sant d’Angelo. Then a big tunnel, and VOILA! Roma!

It just exploded: monuments, cobblestones, churches, the Tiber River, fancy bridges — it’s all there, in one shot. And it keeps going. It’s almost surreal. It’s absolutely, strikingly beautiful. It’s also chaotic, crazy, loud, and … I can’t think of the word. I am hooked.

I admit I hadn’t really done my research on Rome before coming. I didn’t even see Eat, Pray, Love. (I did read the book, and I did try the house flavour [honey] at San Crispino Gelateria — heavenly! But coconut is better.)

Rome would be even more meaningful if I knew, or remembered, more about its history, but even without, this city is impressive. How I suddenly wish I had paid closer attention in school!

I spend my days wandering through town, dodging kamikaze cabs, getting lost on purpose and “discovering” piazzas, fountains, gates, statues, monuments and gelato shops. My first evening, in my quest to find the perfect place to have my first Italian meal in Italy (and the food does taste better here), I wandered up a hill and was surprised by a splendid sunset, bright orange from the smog, over St. Peter’s and the Vatican. I smile a lot here!

I generally try to avoid getting pulled into tourist traps when travelling, but every city has some iconic must-see sites. And that’s how I found myself one bright morning in Rome, being herded through a thick sludge of tourists on a guided tour of the Vatican. I’m glad I saw it; it is full of extravagance, of crazily beautiful artwork, of history and symbols, and of course, there is the famous Sistine Chapel painted by Michelangelo. Only the best for the Popes!

However, the Vatican was not like I thought it would be. I think I have Dan Brown to blame for that. I expected something more, oh, how to say it … mysterious. But it isn’t. I saw no evil Cardinals with sinister intentions hiding behind velvet curtains. I didn’t see a wholesome one either. No one in robes at all, but I did appreciate the Swiss Guard ensembles. These strapping young lads are supposed to be single while in the service of the Vatican. This must explain the uniform.

Rome is magical. Wandering around in the evening, the air smells like garlic and lemon, the Italian language sounds like a song (like gentle waves, just like lying on an air mattress in a lake), and that “life is good” feeling is strong. You know the one.