I am aware I don’t write anymore, at least not to a distinct and regular schedule. I write when I find things to write about and considering my holiday last year didn’t get nearly the post it deserved, I have decided that I will write this up now. I may have only been home an hour and I may have been traveling for the best part of 12 hours (having left the hotel in Rome at 4am their time, making it 3am UK time) and I might be craving my bed to the point I may never leave, but I will write.
I went to Rome with very high expectations and in some ways it did not disappoint. The last few days have been hectic in the best and worst of ways. 3 days was enough time to do a lot of things, but it required cramming a great many things into a very short space of time. There are still things I want to do in Rome and it would be a reason to go back, but for now, I will just write about the things I actually did.
At work, I was given quite a lot of tips about things to do in Rome, what to watch out for, things like that, and for the most part, the advice was sound. I did end up getting paranoid to the point I may have been clutching my bag for the entirety of the adventures in Italy. It is fine though, nothing was stolen, so it worked. I also wasn’t groped, so that is good in itself.
I arrived in Rome with Hanna quite early on Monday. Our flight landed at just past midday and we then had the fun task of trying to find transportation approximately 16 miles to the actual city. After trudging around and failing to find any sort of bus going to the city centre, we walked the 2 minutes to the station conveniently located in the airport. We didn’t get the train. We went to buy tickets and ended up paying for a service to drive us directly to our hotel. At 1 Euro more, it seemed like a good idea at the time and it did save us some walking, but we didn’t touch down in our hotel until after 3pm. Even from inside the very overly perfumed car, it struck me just how much graffiti there is in Rome. I wasn’t expecting it. I am used to big cities and some graffiti, but I was really overwhelmed by just how much of it there was in Rome. It was very odd. Once you get to the tourist attractions and the big sites, there is much less, but in the side streets, expect to see a lot of it. It does detract from the city a little.
Despite our very late arrival in our hotel, we were very quickly out on the city, trying to cram as much into the day as we could. Before I forget to mention it at all, I will talk about our hotel just briefly. We stayed in the Gambrinus Hotel. I had found it when I was booking our flights and it looked fairly nice on the surface. Good price, fairly close to things. It did everything it said on the tin. Aside from occasionally managing to forget where our hotel was, we had a very nice time. We may have made use of the fact the television had world radio. Making up lyrics to Italian songs was mildly entertaining after far too much sugar. Whilst the breakfast wasn’t the best, it was free, so I can’t really complain. I ate. I was full. We walked. It all worked. Our room was very comfortable, everything worked, we think someone was messing with Hanna and moving just one sock of hers each evening. It was all good fun. Just another note on breakfast, I acquired an orange the morning after we arrived. I had every intention of eating it. I picked it up and put it on my plate, and then decided peeling it required more effort than I was willing to put in at that very moment, so I would keep it as a snack. I then spotted that in the interests of hygiene, food was not allowed to be taken out of the restaurant, so naturally, I shoved the orange into my bag. My life of petty crime has started and here is the picture of the fruits of my labour… See what I did there?
Our first day after our hectic drive from the airport was mainly free activities. We wandered over towards the Trevi Fountain and then on to the Pantheon. They are both absolutely stunning. The size of the Pantheon is staggering. It looks huge in pictures, but when you are stood next to it, you realise just how large it is. The odd thing is, you cannot see it from a distance. For us, the indicator for our proximity to the Pantheon was a name of a shop or maybe a hotel. You stagger into the piazza and bam! There it is. It is well worth a look in just to look up and be amazed at how huge it actually is. It is quite peaceful too. The Trevi Fountain you will know you are coming up to. Apart from the fact all the shops and restaurants seem to be named after it, it was busy each time we went through. That and you will quickly see the corners filled with sellers of tourist junk, roses, and generally things that make very annoying noises. The Trevi Fountain was well worth a look, but we found a nice gelato place right next to it and got our first taste of the delicious treat. Strawberry and mango were the two flavours I went for first and they were like the nectar of the gods. In our browsing around for a place to eat on the first evening, we found (as you would expect) many shops selling pasta. Nothing unusual there… Until I spotted pasta in a very odd shape. There Hanna was happily looking in the window and I suddenly said to her: “Hanna…. That pasta is shaped like a penis.” She did not believe me until I pointed out the fairly distinctive shape. We later found out it is labelled ‘sex pasta’ and it was for sale in quite a few shops.
We also just had a meander around the Piazza Navona on the first day. There are a great many (often expensive) beautiful things to browse and buy in Rome. There are many artists on the street just selling pictures of the sites, and they are lovely to look at. I may have bought some if there had been room in my suitcase, but it was already a struggle since you are apparently not allowed a handbag with easyJet. It was a harsh turn of events at 6am on the Monday morning to find this out. Anyway, aside from my sulking about being unable to make use of my handbag, we found the most amazing little toy shop. We should really be old enough to not feel the need to go into a toy shop, but they had a full gladiator outfit outside so it appealed to my brain. In so many shops, there were masks, and these masks were absolutely stunning, in a sort of creepy way. I did eventually give in and purchase one and now my suitcase looks like a fairy has projectile vomited on the inside of it and there is glitter everywhere. So worth it.
Our meal for the first night left a little to be desired. I may have broken a tooth on my bruschetta and the mushroom topping looked like someone had already chewed it up and regurgitated it onto the bread. The pizza wasn’t much better. Smelled faintly suspicious, very yeasty, slightly undercooked, too much cheese. Hanna did manage to eat her whole pizza, though I think that was out of courtesy more than enjoyment. It was a little disappointing that with so little time on our hands to actually sample the cuisine that we ended up with a bad place to eat. Ach well.
Our second day started off much earlier. We wanted to make the most of the time we had. We decided quite early on that we wanted to visit ‘Ancient Rome’ on Tuesday, and we did. We had a slight detour before though and we went to visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. You can see it from quite some distance. It is enormous. And very bright. It is a very touching memorial site. There is a lot to see inside. It is a very interesting history museum, though it is a lot more focused on wars. It really is worth a visit. Very informative. And free. It also happens to be just down the road from the Flavian Amphitheatre (the Colosseum), so if you happen to be heading that way anyway, the Tomb is worth just a little side trip.
Onto the Colosseum. Hanna and I actually got in for free (sort of) because we had purchased the Roma Pass on the way down. The Roma Pass gets you in to two archaeological sites or museums for free (not including the Vatican Museums) and our free visits ended up being the Colosseum and Palatine Hill. The Colosseum really is a must see, but I would recommend getting a tour around. With the Roma pass, we also got a discount on the tour, so I think we paid about 13 Euros for our tour of the Colosseum and the Palatine Hill. The queues for the Colosseum were ridiculous. When we first started our little history lesson with our guide, we almost regretted it. He really did know his stuff and he was amusing, but we took a long time to actually go into the Colosseum, but once we were inside, we just walked right on past the lines. I suppose I should have felt guilty, but we were Romans for the day and we were better than everyone else, so we couldn’t feel guilty. We were too important to queue. Outside any of the main attractions, you will find about 100,000 different tour guides and you will undoubtedly be approached by at least 3 within any 30 second period. We were quite fortunate that the guides we had for our trips were fantastic. If you are approached by the ‘gladiators’ (and you will be), do not take any pictures with them. We stupidly did it, and as amusing as they are, they were not worth what we ended up paying. The pictures ended up at 20 Euros… For each of us. Don’t do it. Or if you really want to, make sure to ask how much it will be. We were morons. It was too appealing.
After our little prance around the Flavian Amphitheatre, we strolled off toward Palatine Hill with another tour guide from the same company. This part of the tour was actually complimentary as thanks for taking a chance on them. The lady who ran the tour really knew her stuff. I could have spent many more hours on Palatine Hill. The views from the top were astounding, there was a lot to see on the top of the hill without even thinking about the Roman Forum. It was very quiet, it would have been quite a nice place for a picnic, but we had eaten outside of the Colosseum. The picture on the right shows our tour guide. Slightly unfortunate face she is pulling, but she was an interesting speaker. Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum have so much to see in a relatively small space. It really was a struggle to see everything on there. It might be why I have something like 300 pictures over a 3 day period, I just needed to document it all. It was not particularly easy for us to find the Roman Forum, despite it being within view of the top of Palatine Hill because we managed to turn the wrong way and loop all the way back round to the top of the hill. We had fun working it out.
Dinner on the second (and third) day was far more successful than evening one. We ended up eating at Caffe Piave both evenings. It was only a couple of hundred feet down the road from our hotel and the food was sublime. On the second evening, I tried Sicilian style swordfish. I am normally no fan of tomatoes and not a huge fan of fish and that was essentially the entire dish… With olives, which I also dislike. Hanna had the olives and I had the rest, and I enjoyed it. I ate tomatoes as just tomatoes for the first time in many years. It was a very intense flavour so I was unable to finish, but I did obviously make room for pudding, and the profiteroles were the most magical things. The price was fantastic as well. I had a baked bread with mushrooms for a starter, the swordfish and then profiteroles along with water and wine and the total came to around 36 Euros, including a service charge. It was not too pricey. When we ate there again, I had a starter, pasta with mushrooms and a hot chocolate (which we will not even discuss because that was not hot chocolate. It was more like the gooey inside of a chocolate pudding in a cup) and that was around 25 Euros.
Third (and final) day
Our final day was dedicated to the Vatican. Unfortunately, we did not realise that the Pope has his audience on Wednesdays so we actually missed that. We arrived just as people were leaving at the Basilica was still shut. However, we were once again approached by a tour guide and we decided to give them the benefit of the doubt. Once again, we had a very good experience. This time, I do remember the name of the company: When in Rome Tours. My one issue was that we walked around looking much more like tourists than we had before. On the way up to the company office, we had bright orange radio packs with one earpiece to listen to our guide talking. She shepherded us along with a piece of purple fabric on a long stick. We were seriously asking to be mugged. That being said, she was probably my favourite tour guide because she recommended good places for pizza and gelato and we made the most of her advice after we had finished in the Vatican. The only thing I can say to sum up the tour of the Vatican museums and Sistine Chapel is that it is an absolute sensory overload. Even with the tour only covering a small section of the galleries, there was so much to take in. I could have spent a whole day in there just looking and it still would not have been enough time. It was quite busy in the museum, as you would expect and we left quite quickly after the tour was over since the tour had already taken almost 3 hours. There are some very clever optical illusions in the artwork on much of the ceiling in the museums. They look to be uneven or three dimensional with depth from the ceiling, but it is just how the shadows are painted on. In the museums quite a lot of the ceiling is curved but smooth.Case in point: The picture to the left shows a smooth ceiling.
Once you get to the Sistine Chapel, you are not allowed to take pictures, but it really was magnificent. Even if I have absolutely no religious standing, the artwork was phenomenal. So much detail. We moved quite quickly through the chapel once we had taken in our fill of the ceiling. From the Sistine Chapel, there were two exits, one for the normo’s and one for the tour people. Since we had been on a tour, we got to go through the special exit, which took us directly to the entrance to the stairs which take you all the way up to the top of St. Peter’s Basilica. It is 5 euros if you walk it or 7 if you get the lift. If you get the lift, yous till have to walk the majority of the stairs, you can just skip about 200. We paid the 5 and walked the whole way up. There are only 500 steps or so but that is no small feat. They started out as a fairly shallow incline but as the hundreds went by, they became narrower and steeper and I had assumed the tour guide was joking when she said there was a rope to help pull you up the last bit… But she really wasn’t… There was a rope. The walk to the top was an absolute killer, steep stairs, slow walkers, oddly leaning walls (because of the dome) but at the top… The view was the best in Rome, for sure. No building is higher so you have an unobstructed view across everything. It was well worth the euros.
The walk down was far worse than the walk up. After walking up that many steps, my legs were like jelly and there was every chance I was going to fall down face first and kill someone. Luckily, that didn’t happen, but it really was a likely outcome. I would highly recommend it if you can face the steps, but don’t do it if you have young children, that would be a nightmare and if you have a heart condition, probably best to avoid it too. I am fairly sure I gave myself early onset hypertension. While the walk down is as much effort in some ways as the walk up, it does deposit you right into St. Peter’s Basilica. I think much of the beauty of the Basilica was lost because all I could think about was food. It was another building that struck me by just how large it was. At lot of the sites in Rome have a way of making you feel very small and unskilled.
Clearly the most important part of the third day was food. After our monumental trek up and down the dome and all around the museums, we went for pizza in the little place the tour guide pointed out. It didn’t look like much. A few roads along from the Vatican, it was off the main road in a side street I would have walked past without any thought. It was busy both times we walked past but we went in and got some just plain ol’ pizza. It was magic. It was so good. There were no tables, no chairs, a few wicker pads on the steps outside, but god, was it the best pizza I had in Rome. (It didn’t have much competition since I only ate pizza twice.) I actually got more pizza than in the picture but by the time I thought about documenting it, I had already eaten a slice about the same size as the smaller one in the picture. The whole lot only cost me 2 euros and 50 cents. Worth every cent. That half working sign actually says Pizza al taglio. I may have had to google it because I couldn’t work it out. The pizza was sold by weight and you could ask for whatever you wanted. It was very good. Very good. We followed it up with an oddly stressful portion of gelato from Old Bridge. That was also particularly busy with the queue part way down the street. When you finally got to the front, there was no time to think about your flavour choices, it was just a point and go. I stupidly went for chocolate on chocolate on more chocolate. I think my actual flavours were: chocolate, cookies and chocolate (or cookie) chip (I can’t remember). It was lovely, but I may have also given myself diabetes.
Beyond that, we really just wandered. We got the metro back to Termini Central Station, which was just like getting the underground. It really could have been London if the metro system was more complicated and extensive (there are only a few metro lines in Rome.) Throughout our few days, we did a little shopping. I found the most beautiful jacket in the whole world, without question. I had been looking for one like it for ages and I found it and had to buy it. Hanna bought herself a particularly summery hat which will undoubtedly remain painfully unused until Spain because England is just not sunny enough (sorry Hanna.) We ate at the Caffe Piave again and probably annoyed the waitress with our pitiful attempts at Italian. I think I ordered one course successfully in Italian and the rest was fragmented and a little sad, but she tolerated us with good humour.
We were in bed on Wednesday at a very early hour because we had to be up at 3am Rome time (2am GMT) to get ready for our taxi at 4am. When I worked things out, it took me the best part of 12 hours to get home, rocking up finally at about 14:40. I naturally couldn’t leave the hotel in Rome with nothing so it was then that I had to part ways with my orange. It had been my faithful companion throughout the whole trip, remaining in my bag on the off chance I started to starve to death. Since I did not devour it, I tearfully left it. I didn’t think it would make it through security. In hindsight, the way I left it was a tad on the odd side… At the time, it seemed like a really funny idea, but I do wonder what the cleaner will think…
Things I learnt in Rome:
-Tea is expensive, as are most drinks, bring a water bottle and fill it up at the numerous fountains if you are someone who gets thirsty easily. You will likely pay 2 euros per bottle of drink or 4 for fresh fruit juice. Most hot drinks come in at around 3 euros, depending on what you are drinking. It quickly adds up. Gelato is cheaper… Need I say more?
-Sometimes tea is served up in odd drinking receptacles… It had a lid… It wasn’t a mug, or a teacup or a pot… I don’t trust it.
-The salesmen and waiters outside restaurants are quite pushy, just say no and walk on, it will be fine. I found that saying: “we are just looking for later” to the waiters outside restaurants worked quite well. If that fails: “We aren’t hungry” works too.
-There will be something about you that just screams ‘tourist’ to people. We got some very odd looks for reasons we could not understand, though I do think it may have been because we did just look continuously lost.
-If you do look lost enough at a bus stop, a local will very likely try to help you in very rapid Italian and you will stand there staring until he or she mimes what they are trying to say successfully. We had this on our final day when we were trying to get to the Vatican. Our hotel had told us to get the 62 from the main road and we were looking at the map by that bus stop when a very helpful woman started to tell us it was the wrong bus. We only worked this out because eventually, we worked out that she was telling us to get the number 40 bus from Termini Central Station. I caught her air writing of the number 40 and then heard ‘left’ which was a word I recognised in Italian. It did help her wild miming sort of led us there. It worked. We got there. It was all fine.
-Italian Radio is very much filled with English music, and not very recent English music. It seems to fall about 10 years behind, highlighted by the fact one breakfast someone in the kitchen was singing Robbie Williams – Feel very loud with a very heavy accent. It was most amusing.
-No shoes will be comfortable enough and backache will just happen. No explanation. It just will.
-Some art is just creepy… (See picture up and to the right. The lion wants your soul)
-There are occasionally just doors that are really high up. You aren’t allowed in them unless you have super powers. Really. They are just very high. No entry for you.