Sunday, June 16, 2013

Do as the Romans do

Author's note:  This post was a long time coming.  Got too busy to finish it off with our house guests last week, so apologies for the delay.  Also, the recap of their visit will be forthcoming.

We were excited to see Rome and experience all the touristy attractions.  We checked quite a bit off of the list in a short amount of tme.  Additionally, thanks to my Roman colleagues in the office, I got a short list of suggestions from someone who grew up in Rome.  Finally, our hotelier gave quite a few good suggestions.  He got so excited that when we finally got back to the room and I looked at the map, he made so many pencil markings that every landmark was circled.

The Colosseum   These tourists with their audioguides are too embarrassed to ask someone to take their photo.
I could tell our hotel manager enjoyed his job, we stood there at the check in desk for a good 15 minutes going over routes on the tourist map.  You know the kind of map that has the 3D building landmarks that obscure all the important street names around it?  Well, this one was especially irritating in that a landmark front could be facing north but it is drawn on the map as facing me, as I looked at the map with north pointing up.  The 3D perspective was a slant angle looking down from the south, so it would have made more sense to draw it so that I was looking at the south-facing wall of all the landmarks.  I kept getting disoriented and turned around because the stupid landmarks threw me off.   Luckily I had a loaner map from American expats Tim and Lori that was much more sensible, so in the end I disposed of the tourist map.

Here's a map of our walks in Rome.  I reckon we logged over 22 miles in about 48 hours.  Blue was Saturday night, Green was all day Sunday, and Red was all day Monday before we caught the train to to Ciampino.  Where you see discontinuities is when we took the metro.  I did a better job putting markers for the different highlights.  There should be at least one picture per marker.

View our Rome walks in a larger map

My Roman friend suggested we see the Trevi fountain around 3-4 am after a night out.  He said it's a different experience with no crowds.  Well, that clearly wasn't going to happen given our plan for the following day, so we headed straight out around 10:30 pm to try our luck.  We took a roundabout path from the hotel near Termini station.

Piazza della Repubblica reminded me a bit of the Crescent in Bath
Caught a cool glimpse of St. Peter's dome with the accent lighting,, this was at max zoom

Trevi fountain at night was very cool, indeed.  But how were the crowds around 11 pm?

Um, nope - we got the tourist experience.   And those annoying guys with roses or trying to take your polaroid were out in full force.  It's a business model I just can't even process.

Actually, one of those salesmen did take our picture with my camera (I was tricked), but then wanted me to pay him. I did not.  This picture with my oversized hoodie is not flattering at all.

"A daring, architectural feat" of a staircase called the Spanish Steps

Another fun dome shot of the lit St. Peter's.  We are really far away - this thing is massive.

The moon shines brightly, and we see our first obelisk. More on those later.

Moses(?) statue pointing at me.  YOU!!!
On our first full day we set out early.  This hotel offered no breakfast, so we just scrounged through a fruit and coffee stand in the train station.  I only know how to order an espresso, but that does the trick.  I should say that since last night post-gelato OD from Florence, Kerry was feeling increasingly poorly.  Probably not fully the gelato's fault, but she had lost her appetite.  Being a trooper she still kept up with the long walks without any sustenance.   She had no appetite, so we just kept going and going until I realized I was famished, I'll get to that in a minute...

Here's some highlights from our first full day.  We swung by some ancient ruins but we'll see much more on Day 2.

This victory column is full of reliefs depicting how the Romans always win in battle 
Vittorio Emanuele II's modest memorial

The classic depiction of Romulus and Remus drinking their mother's wolf milk, to fuel the building of Rome.

Our first view of Roman ruins from the patio of Campidoglio Piazza, more tomorrow. Pretty sky!

Kerry at the Piazza Campodoglio, there are museums here but we stuck to externals

At Piazza Navona - Rome harbors the most Egyptian obelisks in the world. Some were taken after Rome conquered Egypt, and others are more "modern."  Why?  

The Pantheon has a very cool ancient history which I will not elaborate on here for the sake of efficiency.  From an architecture point of view it's one of my favorites

The Pantheon's dome and occulus. Again, everything you see here has engineering purpose as well as artistic merit.  Form follows function, and if you can make it pleasing to the eye you are a true master.

Panorama of the Pantheon, lots of history folks, take my word for it, even if I don't feel like recounting it here as a caption.

Very Italian - not sure my tri-level in Indy could pull this off...

This is anothe obelisk at Piazza del Popolo, The Christians put crosses on top to symbolize who wins.

We walked up the hill on the east side of the Piazza Popolo for a nice view of Rome - St Peter's dome is ever present.
Kerry with the Roman stone pine trees.  I had never seen these trees before, and now they're one of my favorites

Facebook profile worthy
We wandered around the Villa Borghese gardens, sat by a pond to rest while Kerry took a nap (still not feeling well)

Honestly, I think I took this photo for the cloud shapes, but gives a good perspective of Rome being Rome - a small break from tourist crowds

As we walked down from the park we stopped at a popular church crypt.  The church is a mouthful: Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, or Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins.

Capuchin monks are a minor order of Franciscan monks who wear the Obi Wan Kenobi style brown robes with the rope belt and are the original "power doughnut" hairstyle trendsetters:  the bald spot on the top of the head with the ring of hair.  Also cappuccinos are named such after the color of monk's robes.

In the small museum before the crypt, there were some artifacts of the simple life of the monk.  The most interesting ones were the self-punishing devices.  These monks practiced asceticism as most monks did, but they took it to a new level with self-flagellation.  They would whip themselves with knotted cords during private prayer as penance if they had an sinful thought.

The monks at this particular church got very creative with the bones of their dead brothers of the faith, making artistic bone decorations and propping up skeletons in various ways.  It is very different from the ossuary in Paris (the bones of six million).

Pictures were not allowed, but here's a stock image from the internet. "What you are now, we used to be.  What we are now, you will be."

Next we took the metro to the south end of Rome to check out a few attractions off the beaten path - some more suggestions from my Roman friend.  We even discovered some of things on our own along the way.

A rose garden on a side street from Circo Massimo.  The picture doesn't do justice, the blooms were impressive.
And now, the optical illusion of St. Peter's Dome.  The instructions were to go to Giardino delgi Aranci - another garden a few steps up from the nice rose garden, continuing up Aventino hill from Circo Massimo.  I tried to capture the effect on camera.

The first step is to look out at the dome from the entry to the park.  It's the only thing you can see above the wall at the other end of the park.

You can see the dome relative to the size of the heads of onlookers as we walk toward the balcony wall
Then we were supposed to close our eyes, hold hands, and walk up the steps to the balcony. (We just looked down at our feet so we didn't run into anyone).  We got up to the balcony so we had a good view of Rome looking north.  Now look at the dome:

Again, compared to Kerry's head for depth perception
Very cool illusion! 

We kept walking until we got to Piazza Cavalieri di Malta. 

What is everyone queuing up at this door for?

Kerry took a peek...  I wonder what she saw?  I suppose you'll have to go see for yourself!
So up to this point we've had very little to eat, just some fruit from a stall at Campo de Fiori that morning (I didn't get any good pictures so I skipped talking about it).  I was starting to shut down but Kerry still had no appetite.  It was only about 5 pm, and the restaurant suggestion my Roman friend made that was nearby was not ready for guests.  So we made our way home on the metro to rest our tired feet.  Later, we walked to a restaurant recommended to me by our hotel manager as being "true Roman", northeast of the train station, called Sapori Di Casa.  I had the "Roman tasting menu".  Kerry had nothing, but I was worried my "tasting" portions would be insufficient - the price was much lower than I was expecting.  Therefore, I suggested some dishes that she could order but I would eat.

I got a good feeling that we were not at a touristy place.  Also tonight was the Final of the Coppa Italia, it was Lazio Roma vs. A.S. Roma. It was blaring on the big screen tv.  As time ran out, with Lazio ahead 1 to 0, the waitress, who was in the middle of taking our order, dropped everything and started shouting and running around the restaurant, turning the sound up even louder.  Haha!  

Anyway, my tasting portions were massive and I was stuffed to the gills at the end. I was very happy our waitress forgot to bring my dessert course because I wouldn't know what to do with it, and I hate wasting food.

Here's my dinner food collage, as I pose as a clothed David with an overfilled belly 

My meal was two pasta tasting courses - one with thick noodles and tomato sauce and one carbonara.  I was very happy with both - real Roman carbonara is incredible!  I've always passed on the creamy dish I've seen at The Cheesecake factory; this was nothing like that!  I also ate a dish of wide noodles with a mushroom sauce and a simple rocket salad.  Then came the oxtail in a rich, deep red sauce - I was very pleased to taste something that I've prepared similarly without following a recipe or knowing it was ethnic.  I just called it oxtail stew.  Then came the pork liver with greens.  The liver tasted strongly, but balanced well with the bitter greens and seasoning.  It topped me off.  I can't remember exactly what the dessert that I skipped was, but I feel like it i had ricotta cheese in it.  Whew, bed time.

On our 3rd walk (red) we experienced ancient Rome in the morning, then Trastevere in the afternoon, stopping at Gianicolo, then finishing at Vatican City.  Our first stop was the Colosseo.

One of our first looks at the Colosseum
Hmm, I struggle to say anything about this massive success of human achievement without pretending like I know all the historical and anthropological facts.  People study this thing in school, visit it in droves, and take billions of photos.  How presumptuous of me to think anything I could say about it would be worth reading?  My Roman friend said to skip the Colosseum  - "there is nothing there."  He is both right and wrong.  To appreciate it more than a pile of old rubble you must know the significance beforehand (or during, thanks to an audioguide complete with sword clanking sound effects and Roman cheers).  You need a knowledgeable person to talk you through it or read about it yourself, and you need to use your imagination.  Oh, and it helps to watch Gladiator.

So it's settled.  I'm not going to talk about any facts or figures.  Just go see it.

We did not buy advance tickets, but we arrived early enough in the morning to miss the long lines.  

View from the inside - looking at the maze of passages below the floor and all the different entries.

Better view of the different sections of the subflooring

Vomitoriums were not rooms where Romans would go puke so they could eat more. They were these passages to the different sections of the arena.  When people would leave they would spill out so fast it resembled vomit from far away.

Another cool view, beautiful day

Constantine's arch and some ruins of the forum
Numbers above the archway so you know which entry to go through, just like modern stadiums - your ticket was a piece of pottery
When we had our fill of colosseum, we made our way through the forum, still following our audio tour.  (Which was very popular amongst our fellow American tourists).

Hooray for ancient ruins along the via sacra!

This was one sidewall of Constantine's basillica.  The main ceiling would have blocked the sky in this picture

Oh just ancient ruins that no one seems to mind if I step on

There is a lot of history and importance in this building!   I'll leave the details to the reader to find out on his or her own.

I think this looks good on its own merit, but it also has magnitudes of historical significance that I learned about and retained well

Getting artistic with my camera angles of ruins

This arch with its relief carvings show how awesome Rome was from 500 bc to 500 ad.
OK I think I got you through about 4.5 hours of premium touristic material in just a minute.  We wanted to see the Basilica di San Clemente next - this is a church that was built on top of an older church which was built upon the ruins of an even older church!  All had been excavated and there's a great tour.  But, we finished our ancient Rome tour around 1 pm, and the Basilica is closed from 12:30-3, as we found out upon arriving.  Oh well, I can imagine how cool it must have been.  Maybe we'll get back some day.

Instead I'll have a negroni.  That is, 1/3 campari, 1/3 gin, and 1/3 vermouth. Beautiful. Again, thanks to our waiter way back in Monterosso for the tips on Italian cocktails
Funny story about this restaurant - another recommendation by our hotel manager.  I sat down on the plastic patio chair and kept going down.  The legs buckled under me and snapped, and my ass was on the ground.  No injury except my ego as the Chinese ladies sitting next to us starting giggling.  The waiter brought out a sturdy wood chair for me.

Typical Italy

Can they get any smaller?  (This pic always makes me laugh.) By the way Kerry is feeling better but did not eat very much.  Not sure how she's standing.

The fiume tevere on our way to Trastevere (literally "past the tiber river"), where all the uncool people lived when Rome was top dog.

Typical Trastevere on another walking tour, which we cut short, as we have a lot to see yet.

We made a quick stop at Santa Maria in Trastevere to have a look around.  Beautiful decoration in the church for the sake of being ornate.  Unlike the Pantheon.  Then we began a walk to Gionicolo, a high ground west of the city and south of the Vatican.  Our hotel manager warned us about this walk and advised a bus.  A warning went unheeded - he didn't know how amazing Kerry and I are.  Well, I was put in my place, as you can tell by looking at our walking map of the red line weaving around northbound.  The map was deceiving - there was no road that connected the low level roads along the river to the high road to get to the lookout point.  It took us over an hour, and I got more than a few fingers wagged in my face for attempting to trespass unknowingly.

Mutombo demonstrates an Italian finger wag

Finally, we made it!  It was worthwhile - the views from the west exceeded our other two vista points.  You can even see the mountains off to the north and east.
So after a bit of rest - I even kicked my shoes off and laid in the lawn.  We headed back down keeping north toward the Vatican city.  After a stop to change into trousers since shorts are not allowed (it was another very nice day), and a beer, we made it to the Vatican around 6 pm, with knowledge that there is no wait if you hold off until evening, since they don't close until 7 pm.

St. Peter's in all its glory as well as our third obelisk.  I understand this is the one that used to be the center of Circus Maximus, where Nero would kill Christians for sport.  The symbolism here is clear.

The plaza with statues of popes above (you wait in line under this) 

Here we are.

Fire up Rick Steves audio guide again!  We skipped straight to the interior guide as we didn't know how long Rick would blather on about the exterior and we had only an hour before closing.  Per his advice, we "left our Protestant swords at the door" and became "temporary Catholics".  He must have said that about 5 times in all the different guides and podcasts I listened to.  But his point is try to appreciate it from the point of view of someone who cares about it.  It was like how in Liverpool I became a temporary die-hard Beatles fan, but more on that later.

Words or pictures cannot describe the greatness of magnitude. Until now, every church I step it I compare to the York minster.  This one definitely exceeds the York.

The dome interior with the disciples around it, common in Catholic churches I've been in. The letters on the gold banner are 7 feet tall. That's equivalent to a font size of 6048!

God in the middle, full zoom and still hard to make out anything. I have no information on the height of the letters in the circle, unfortunately.

Michelangelo's pieta (Mary with Jesus after coming off the cross), protected by bulletproof glass, since someone tried to ruin it with a hammer a while back.  We saw another pieta in Florence.  I ate no pitas in Rome.

 Thus ends our Italian whirlwind adventure.  I hope you enjoyed reading about it as much as I did.  The exhaustion I feel of writing about Rome is nearly equivalent to the actual experience.  I've read my expat contemporaries experiences about Rome, and I feel like I've held my own.  I try to put a little twist on it to keep things fresh. 

Everything from here is just logistics to get home.  I've heard the bus from Rome city center to Ciampino airport for early AM flights is pretty miserable, with no clear process or guarantee you'll get on the 4 am bus.  So I booked our last night in the sleepy town of Ciampino, where you can listen to the Ryanair 737's take off all day.  The town is on the backside of the airport, so even though it appears easy to get from one to the other, you still need a bus or taxi - no walking across the runways allowed.

For our 7 am flight, I scheduled a 5:30 am taxi (I initially asked for 5 am, but the hotel manager was adamant that 5:30 is more than enough time).  20 euro and 10 minutes later (I likely got scammed, but I don't know how to argue it), we're looking at a massive queue at the check-in desk for luggage check for Ryanair.  Ryanair hates non-EU persons and requires a "visa check" before you can board.  In the UK, often there's a separate visa check desk to stamp your boarding pass, so no worries.   But here at Ciampino, it's one line for both luggage and stamps.  So we wait and wait and inch along.  Then an annoucement is made that all persons for such and such flight may skip to the front of the queue.  Twenty persons cut in front of us.  And we wait.  Another flight is called, and 15 more cut in front of us.  Then a family has overweight bags and open them all up and start redistributing right there at the check-in desk.  This happens two more times.  Finally, we're at the front of the line.  Guess what flight they call for everyone to cut ahead?  Ours - I had to get aggressive to maintain my spot get my damn stamp as everyone on my flight bumrushed the check in desk.  By the way, the whole time general annoucements were being made: "please proceed directly to security if you don't have luggage to check".   Technically that's only true for EU passports - they just want you to mess up!   Anyway, we were at the back of the boarding group and ended up with our bags in the front compartments with our seats in the back.  We had to wait for everyone to get off before we could access our luggage and leave ourselves.  Luckily the line for non-EU immigration control was much shorter than the EU line at Manchester, and we had our border control entry cards already filled out (I picked up a stack of cards a while ago).  

With that I say so long to RyanAir.  Thanks for the good prices, but the Ciampino experience was the last straw.   Our final trip will be EasyJet and Jet2 (who also requires stamps for non-EU, oh well).  Ciampino was a terribly run airport, and I'm just happy we made it out.

1 comment:

  1. Rome was one of my favorite stops. Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, St. Peter's, Colosseum, carbonara pasta - I loved it all. Bummer about Kerry not feeling well though. Rome is not a good city to tour when you are feeling "poorly". Keep on plugging, you are almost caught up.