Arrived at roughly 11. Our room at the UNA Roma was not yet ready, so we dropped off our bags, bought our Roma Passes*, hopped the metro (much easier to navigate than Paris) and head off to the Colosseum. Was a very sunny, warm day. Thanks to our passes, we got in inside 15min rather than the 2 hours others waited and started on in. An amazing structure… not only could it seat 55,000 people (as much as Arizona Stadium) but could be emptied out in 15 minutes… the under structure allowed the crew to use elevators to lift up animals to surprise already engaged gladiators… and could be flooded to allow the Romans to conduct mock Naval battles. Oh, and Bruce Lee fought Chuck Norris to the death here as well.
We followed up with the visit to the Palatine Hill, a nice little hike, but easy in comparison to “The Day of 1,000 Steps”, got a great view of the Forum, as well as the Doma Augustus and numerous other impressive structures before heading down to the Forum. Constantine’s Basilica is stunning. While exploring the forum, Craig cocked his ear, hearing a familiar “boom-chick, bom-chick” alternating guitar riff… a band on the street above us was playing Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” – and sang the lyrics in Italian. Craig couldn’t help but wonder if they change that immortal line to “I shot a man in Roma… just to watch him die.”
Having toured the Forum we hiked off towards the Pantheon in search of lunch. After Craig enjoyed/got angry at his penne al arrabiata (penne in angry [spicy] sauce), we continued the Caesar Shuffle. We got separated by maybe 15 feet in a Piaza and some older guy with silver hair approached Katie, apparently thinking her German for whatever reason, but realized as I approached we were together. He asked me if we were German… “Nein!” I replied. He pointed to a café nearby, I said we just ate (assuming he was trying to harangue us into his café – many tourist café staff are very aggressive in trying to get you into their place. Avoid such places) and were headed to Pantheon…
The Pantheon, as with Saint Marks in Venice, the Torre Asinelli in Bologna, and the Duomo in Florence, was also under some renovations to it’s exterior… inside was astounding. The Dome was the largest built for something like 1,300 years. The building was kept in great shape as the Church simply converted it to their use.
We took in the majesty of the Pantheon, as well as some photos of the Oculus and the remains of Donatello before our enjoyment was cut a tad short. I turned to snap another photo, and who was 10 feet away from Katie but Creepy Dude, who tried to do one of those “head turns/cover face with hand” maneuvers so we might not recognize him. We were not at all fooled by his lame attempt at subterfuge/camouflage and made tracks. We ducked out, and quickly paced our way through a side alley and into another piaza, where we remapped our return to the Colosseum route so as not to hopefully avoid any further encounters. Not sure what that guy’s problem was, but we were fortunate in that we lost the creep for good without further incident… and found a nice outdoor café that was the first place in five cities that offered White Russians. Sure, due to differences in dairy it tasted odd and looked like a mud Russian, but it was still good.
We headed back towards the Colosseum and our Metro stop with Craig by this time, thanks to the Roman Sun, playing the part of a bona fide American Red Neck. Ouchies for sun burns.
We returned to our hotel, went to our room, cleaned up, showered, and had a nice siesta. (well, Katie slept while Craig watched early 80’s action show “Hunter” dubbed into Italian. No joke. They also show Diagnosis: Murder. At least France was more current with their dubbed Law & Order, Section Criminale.) We had a bit of an odd night – picked a restaurant courtesy of Rick Steves that would be on our path and set about on adventure…
Taking the metro a couple stops from our hotel, we began our night walk towards the Spanish Steps. We found the restaurant… closed. Boo! So we went to a nearby place that sat in an alley… they tried to sit us next to another couple so close we were bumping elbows in an outside table less than 10 feet from the smoking area. No thanks. We continued on and found a really cool looking, fancy-ish restaurant with waitrons in tux-like uniforms and decent prices. So we took a seat, arriving at the same time as a table of 13 rowdy Russians. The restaurant proved to be the only one in Europe that did not make us feel welcome. The Russians got bread. An Italian man who arrived 5 minutes after we did got bread… for him AND his dogs. We received no bread. Nor wine list. But having ordered a drink, decided we were fairly fed up and altered our plans for a nice Primi and Secundi dinner with a bottle of wine and instead just got pizza so we could get out of there and get on our way. We were basically ignored… Boo!
Unhappy with the turn of events so far, we continued to the Spanish Steps… our camera ran out of juice, so we bought batteries from one of those streetside vendors that sell everything… and the new batteries went dead within 30 minutes. No joke. And cost us 8e ($12). Ugh. So all our pics from that night look BAD as the flash sucked. (aide from the really cool one Katie took of a fountain pool) More boo!
We did climb the Spanish Steps, where a crowd of people had gathered to enjoy their vino and biera and people watch. Some middle-eastern youth of about 20 or so told Katie she was beautiful and gave her some fake rose flowers. Oh how nice. Then he proceeded to demand I pay him for the flowers he gave her. Oh. How nice. He wouldn’t take them back, and wouldn’t back off, hounding us, insisting Craig pay… until the Bill “You don’t want to make me angry… you won’t like me when I’m angry” Bixby moment and Craig’s Ugly American persona (powered up to 11 thanks to his temporary red neck) rose… glaring at the youth, jaw locked, “Take. Them. Back.”
Message received loud and clear, he took his little flowers and backed off.
This would probably be the point the annoying twentysomething hipster white couples on “Amazing Race” start to break down and the tension of exterior forces causes them to snap at one another.
We headed off to another restaurant, split a bottle of wine, then found a Gelatto shop for a quick stop before continuing to the Trevi Fountain. At the gelato shop, emboldened by the vino, Craig opted to try something he had seen on the show “Three Sheets” (it’s like Man vs. Food, only with firewater… so Man vs. Booze) during the Venice episode. Craig ordered grappa. Initially confused by the request for grappa coming from a tourist (who should not know of such things) thought I wanted the grappa ON my gelato. After miscommunications were put to rest, the order commenced. While the bartender/gelato man was pouring Craig his grappa, and Craig was filling out all the necessary paperwork which relieved the establishment of any negative outcomes as the result of this crazy Yank consuming said grappa, one of the other staff on hand turned to Katie, now enjoying her gelato, and said, (and I quote, as I will never forget this moment)
“Do you know what that is?” (looking towards my drink, being served in a champagne flute) “It is jet fuel!”
Both the locals (three were watching now, expecting the worst) and Katie (also expecting the worst) watched as Craig, showing nerves of steel lifted and tossed back the grappa in one fell swoop. (Truth be told, it was done in one fell swoop as Craig later copped to the fact had it not been done in one fell swoop, would not have been done at all… once was enough and he would not have taken a second sip.)
“GOODBYE!” cried the bartender, gesturing to the empty champagne flute. The staff then carried this crazy, iron-livered tourist on their shoulders around the establishment in a victory lap.
Ok, so there was no victory lap, (the bartender did cry “GOODBYE!” while pointing at the now empty champagne flute) but Craig earned a nodding approval from the assembled Romans for his daring-do and willingness to try the local firewater. (Grappa is made from the remains of the grapes of the wine process… and clocks in at over 100 proof.)
We continued on, in much better spirits (figuratively and literally), gelato in hand and scored a nice front row seat at the Trevi Fountain where we enjoyed the view, enjoyed the gelato, and just enjoyed the wonderful evening, despite the best/worst efforts of whatever cosmic forces sought to trip us up. We hiked back towards the Colosseum (now illuminated in bright red to honor a Chinese exhibit in town) and the metro to close out our evening.
The next day our luck with the weather ran out. It was supposed to rain for our trip to Versailles. It didn’t. So instead it rained on our trip to another “V” location… The Vatican. Once again, Katie proved her skills as a master strategist – we had booked our visit in advance with a set time, just as we had with the Eiffel Tower, Versailles Bike tour, Uffizi, and Academia. So while others waited for two+ hours in line, huddled under umbrellas, we spent more time hiking from the metro stop to the line than we did waiting in line to get in to the Vatican Museum.
Amusingly, while the renaissance museums carried the vast bulk of their art focusing on Madonna and Child, Adoration of the Child, and Italian Nobles, the Vatican museum, which you would think to be even more laser-like focused on aforementioned subject matter, had a ton of cool stuff from all over… Ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, etc. Go figure. The museum was mostly inside, but had a spectacular courtyard with some fountains that enabled us to momentarily escape the stuffiness of its crowded halls.
We eventually made our way to the Sistine Chapel. It was as wondrous as people make it out to be… but really, really, really dark. Light damages art, so in an effort to preserve Michelangelo’s masterwork they dim the lights to somewhere between “romantic mood lighting” at a fancy restaurant and “sssssh! The movie is starting!” at your local Cineplex. Also it was crowded, and the steady stream of tour groups had caused a bit of a backlog… so the guards were pretty much forcing people to go through and exit. During the cattlepush one rude woman attempted to hip check another out of her way… but the target momentarily shifted direction (ooh! Shiny! Must look over there)… causing her would-be aggressor to instead collide with Craig… and ricochet helplessly off of him. Take that! It also lead to us being able to sneak out a special exit with a Japanese tour group. Rather than having to circumvent the entire museum and half of the city to get to Saint Peter’s Basilica, we got deposited right out next to it… and were immediately escorted away from our exit by Vatican Guards, thinking we were trying to cut in line of the folks trying to climb the dome… and were deposited in another line that ended up getting us the added spectacle of going UNDER Saint Peter’s Basilica to where various past Popes and Catholic bigwigs (big hats?) are interred. There actually was a crowd (and two rows of bleacher seats) at the “grave” of Pope John Paul II.
After winding our way under the Basilica, we hit open air again, and were directed (quickly, at that, as in “Move! Go go!”) by the Vatican Guards towards the front of the Basilica.
While there is a line for the museum, there is a line for the Dome, and there is a line for the crypt below, however there is no line for Saint Peter’s Basilica. The place is so big it does not need one. It’s six acres… there are actually lines on the floor of the interior showing how big other big basilicas and cathedrals are inside Pete’s Place, just to show off how much bigger it is. Overhead, way overhead, along the edge of the ceiling, written in gold (literally) is each Biblical verse in which Peter is mentioned, starting with the “You are the rock” quote. The letters of the text itself are seven feet tall. Opulence, as with Versailles, is everywhere, but it all works to cause the tourist to be wonderstruck but the awesomeness of it all, particularly Bernini’s baldachinno (canopy), which stands some 98 feet tall itself.
It is really and truly an amazing place to behold… even 10 days into a trip in which every day we saw truly wondrous and amazing things.
It had pretty much stopped raining by this point, but was still misty, damp, and cold as we exited the Piazza and headed back towards “Rome” proper. Tired, cold, and in need of a boost, after crossing a bridge we (ignoring common sense) allowed ourselves to be herded into a streetside café. There we intended on a quick lunch consisting of a diet coke (to be split), a soup for Katie, a pasta dish for Craig, and some coffees to close it out. Should be 25e. Instead the waiter suggested we try 1? 2? Appetizers – thinking he was ordering just one, we ended up getting two very good appetizers – a mozzarella dish and some bruschetta with tomatoes – that were better than our soup and pasta courses. And were more expensive. Our quick, cheap-ish lunch ended up costing us 50e. This was also our third or fourth mediocre meal in a row at this point. Lesson learned.
After exploring a little more of Roma on the way to our metro, we returned back to our hotel for a siesta. The importance of a good siesta when traveling cannot be overstated. As Katie slept and Craig enjoyed another episode of “Hunter”, he planned out dinner in advance, once again turning to Rick Steves … and uncovered two things near our hotel that would make for a fun night. A highly recommended pizza place about a half mile from our hotel, and a bar another mile away from that. An actual bar. An Irish pub! Not a mini-mart with pizza, gelato, and Panini under glass and a bunch of beer, soda, and sports drinks on refrigerated shelves.
When doing research and not picking a place out of either exhaustion (that day’s lunch) or on the fly (as the disappointing prior night’s dinner), it was home run time again. We had eaten a lot of pizza from a lot of places at this point… from Venice to Bologna to Florence to a fancy-pants looking place in Rome. And La Gallina Bianca was the best. It was staggeringly good. Words really cannot describe. The waiter joked with us, gesturing up the streetway, pointing at other establishments… “Pizza! Pizza! Pizza! Pizza!”… yeah, but they had all the crowd. Why? They were best. After we hiked over to Flann O’Brien’s Irish Pub, found our way to the back and enjoyed a nightcap.
The next day would be our last day in Rome. Katie had booked tickets to see the Borghese gallery at 1300, so we took off after breakfast, used the Metro (we were Metro pros by this point) and hiked from the stop, past some financial institutions, the US Embassy (Craig tossing it a quick salute), and Hard Rock Roma… and found our way to the Borghese Gardens. The Gardens are pretty massive – not quite as big as Versaille’s 2,000 acres. I think. (Not remotely after a wiki check!) So not as grand, but still wonderful on a wonderful day. We were enjoying the park, wandering down the paths, looking at fountains when suddenly we hear
A gun shot. Followed by lots of screams.
(see the adjusted Cash line: I shot a man in Roma… just to watch him die)
Seconds later the WTF confusion evaporated and what had happened was clear. No need to call CSI: Roma. Whereas Pamplona has the “Running of the Bulls” the Borghese Garden has the “Running of the Bambini”. The shot was a starter’s pistol and we saw dozens of screaming children, legs furiously pumping, charging up the pathway at us.
Fearful of being trampled, we moved aside and joined in with their classmates in cheering them on.
We showed up to the gallery at our appointed time. Whereas others were sort of grey about such things (you had a 1300 appt, get in line at 1245 and no one cared), the Borghese was absolutely militant about enforcement. No cameras allowed. This included cameras, phones, WATCHES with cameras. No bags. No purses. No fannypacks. Katie and I attempted to infiltrate the gallery (after checking her purse) at 1255 and were rebuffed. It was not our time yet.
Once the appointed hour was upon us, we were informed we had no more than 2 hours to explore the museum, and had time limits in some of the rooms. A good chunk – maybe 10-15% of the gallery – was gone. That which was there on the first floor we checked out was a lot more of the Italian same. Noble, noble, Madonna and Child, noble. (Apparently the Borghese has a big Caravaggio collection. We saw some of these and were impressed. I wonder if some of the missing ones were the ones at the special Caravaggio exhibit we saw at the Uffizi?)
Then… Bernini. The guy who did the ridiculously awe-inspiring canopy at Saint Peters Basilica had more of his work on display here. Pluto and Proserpina is a wonderful piece. And David. Michelangelo’s David is a standing, cocky David. Bernini’s is reminiscent of a baseball card … it’s an action shot, David in mid-wind up and ready to hurl the killshot at Goliath’s melon. While both are really impressive in the detail of the human body, it’s the added effects that make Bernini’s (IMBO) more impressive. His cloak, whipping behind him, is so well done that it looks like cloth. It was an amazing piece.
On the way back from the gallery, we stopped at the Hard Rock Roma for a beer, and then some more Gelatto (Craig started to worry about having to contact the show “Intervention” for Katie at this point) before heading back to the hotel to start some of the packing and take a siesta before dinner.
For our last night in town, we moseyed to another Irish pub, “Druid’s Rock” to take in a football match and a barley soda before heading to dinner at the Ristorante del Giglio. (another RS recommendation) and it was another hit. Our waiter was a 9/10 scale replica of Dan Castellaneta (the voice behind Homer Simpson)… and our food was awesome. We both enjoyed what we felt were the best primeri we had in Italia. Craig opted for Rigatoni alla Matriciana (Rigatoni pasta with bacon, tomato and spicy ewes cheese sauce) – I believe Katie had the lasagna. We ordered a bottle of vino rossi, which was quite the, uh, challenge. The wine itself was very good… only it was served in some giant beaker-esque decanter with a particularly wide base. The challenge? The more wine you drink, the more complicated and intricate the act of pouring the next glass… just getting poured safely into your glass required you to turn the decanter virtually upside-down. And, after glass or two, the actual act of turning this heavy, massive, awkward decanter upside-down and aiming properly for your glass became more difficult. With furrowed brow, Craig was able not to douse our table in the vino. After our first night’s escapades in the quest for (non-Pizza) food, the Florence-stylee restaurant left us with a great memory of our last supper.
We concluded our evening by grabbing one last gelato and a mom and pop place near an opera house – best gelato our entire trip – and one last nightcap at the Druid’s Rock.
We didn’t particularly want our vacation to end so early… and it very nearly didn’t.
Craig had, with military precision, plotted our exit from the hotel. Learning it would take an hour (per the concierge) to get to the airport, and figuring at least an hour wait for customs, etc. With some last minute items to pack in order for us to make the Airport on time, a timeline was prepared, wake-up call ordered…
… and never came. Craig awoke with a start having a nightmare of missing a flight in Denver and facing the prospect of having to drive a snowplow back to Tucson (it’s a dream/nightmare. Don’t blame me.) … to find the clock reading a full hour later than intended. Freaking out we condensed our breakfast into such a short window we didn’t even get coffee (no time for them to make it)… still concerned for time, we placed the request to the hotel to order a taxi.
The taxis to the Roma Airport are regulated by the city. It’s a long ride. 40E is the max charge… this is to prevent tourists from getting screwed over. Cabbies are not allowed to ask for more. I didn’t catch our cabbies name, but I am pretty sure he’s a cousin or nephew of Mario Andretti. He got us to the airport in 30 minutes or less. I live 5 miles from Dominos Pizza and they cannot get us a pizza in that time… yet this man got us across Roma. Craig was stoked we weren’t going to miss our flight. Our cabbie was stoked that Craig gave him a massive tip for his spectacular display of fine Italian driving technique.
A scant 4596 hours later (well, closer to 10 or so, but it felt like 4500, partially thanks to a woman that would NOT switch seats leaving Katie and Craig separated for the flight home… and who insisted on attempting to make idle chat with Craig after he calmly voiced his dissatisfaction with not being able to sit next to his wife thanks to her obstinacy. Oh, and the fact we took over 250 pics in Roma alone. She topped that just during take off and the early portion of our flight. Look! A cloud! [click] Another cloud [click] the guy at the seat next to me clearly annoyed at me! [click] … after re-entering the United States, courtesy of O’Hare Aiprort, Chicago, Craig finally got his passport stamped and “enjoyed” a close encounter of the 3rd base kind with a member of our TSA.
And Craig spent the next 395,603 hours writing this… and you probably half that time again reading this far.
Roma Passes – if you go, you must get one – 25e – gets you entry into two museums and a metro pass for 3 days. The museums can include the Colosseum + Palatine Hill (the hill is free with the Colosseum, and will save you one hell of a wait in line. We got in in 5-10min) and got us in the Borghese for free as well. Roma pass: don’t leave Doma without it.