Friday, June 14, 2013

Rome

Ah, Rome.  It is a city that is #1 on many a bucket list.  I finally realized that dream not long ago and the Eternal City was everything that I expected it to be.  Breathtaking views await at every turn and history is in the air.

Getting There

When you go to Rome, you will most likely fly into Leonardo da Vinci International, the airport most convenient to Rome.  This great city is easy to get around in because public transportation reaches every corner, starting at the airport.  No tourist in their right mind should drive in Rome.  Watching the cars cut in and out of traffic is like watching a slapstick comedy.  The lack of order and law enforcement is mind-boggling.  Cars are parked on sidewalks and medians.

The easiest way out of the airport is the Leonardo Express train.  The trains leave run every 30 minutes and the inexpensive tickets can be bought from vending machines right by the tracks.  One thing you should be aware of is that luggage goes on overhead racks on the train and there is no one to help you lift your bags.  However, most seats have ample legroom and you can keep a rather large bag at your feet.

The train will take you directly into Termini Station.  It is a safe place to be during the day but don’t linger in the area after the sun goes down.  We took a taxi from Termini to the hotel.  Buses were available at the station but handling luggage on a bus is difficult.  The taxi fare was less than €20 and our English-speaking driver dropped us right at our hotel door.

When in Rome, take only marked taxis.  You will find a long queue of cabs just outside of Termini.  Before you leave home, contact your hotel staff and find out what the taxi rate should be.  If the driver tries to overcharge you when you arrive, walk directly into your hotel and enlist the help of the staff there.  They are often able to intercede on your behalf.

Money Matters

You will need to pick up some Euros and the best way to do that is through ATMs.  You won’t pay exchange fees at ATMs but your bank might charge a small foreign transaction fee.  My bank’s fee was so minimal that I barely noticed it.  You will need to carry at least a small amount of cash as some smaller vendors don’t accept credit cards.  Euros are easy for Americans to understand.  The system is not that different from our dollar system.  This Wiki page explains it all very well.

What to See

There’s so much to see in Rome that you will want to plan your trip carefully so that you won’t miss a thing.  Here are the top sites to see:
  • Roman Forum
  • Pantheon
  • Spanish Steps
  • Trevi Fountain
  • Vatican & St. Peter’s Square
  • Coliseum
  • Villa Borghese
  • Appia Antiqua
I suggest that you start with the Roman Forum and pay a little extra for a guided tour.  Tours are available in several languages and are very informative.  Our group was led by an English-speaking archaeologist and she gave us an in-depth look at Roman history that helped us understand every other site we visited over the following days.  We toured the Forum with her and then she sent us up Palentine Hill on our own.  The views at the top of the hill are some of the best in Rome.  Our ticket package at the Forum also included admission to the Coliseum anytime with the next 24 hours, allowing us to by-pass those long ticket lines the next day.

If you do nothing else in Rome, go to the Vatican.  I knew that they had a nice art collection but I did not anticipate the magnificent scope of the collection.  We spent the day walking through long, winding hallways and into gallery after gallery of the most stunning art collection in the world.  The gift shops at the Vatican are nice, too.  I brought home some very affordable souvenirs.  If you plan on sending postcards mail them from the Vatican Post Office.  They have their own official stamps and the delivery is much speedier than that of the Italian government.

When you leave the Vatican, walk around the corner to St. Peter’s Square.  (I don’t know why they call it a square when it is clearly round.)  It is free to enter and well worth the visit.  The walls, ceilings and artwork in St. Peter’s Basilica are just breathtaking.  After you finish the first floor, be sure to find the staircase that leads to the basement.  Several popes are interred there, including St. Peter himself.  I was surprised to see that many people stopped and looked at St. Peter’s tomb but most seemed more interested in paying their respects to more modern popes.  I was in awe of standing before the final resting place of the man who walked with Jesus.  If you do go to the Holy See, go early because the ticket lines become very, very long.

We stayed out in Parioli, a lovely suburb on the north side of Rome.  We were within walking distance of the Villa Borghese, a beautiful park which hosts the Rome zoo and a splendid art gallery.  You must have reservations to go through the museum but they are easy to come by.  Plan to spend some time strolling the beautiful paths of the park.  The lovely picture at the top of this blog is of the Temple of Aesculapius, which sits in the midst of the park.

From Villa Borghese, we walked to Castel Sant'Angelo, a.k.a Hadrian’s Tomb.  Once you’ve toured in the inside, make the climb to the roof for a bird’s eye view of the Vatican.  After touring the Castel, we had a nice, inexpensive lunch at a simple street cafĂ© just across the Tiber  from the Castel.  The gentlemen there spoke no English but were charming and welcoming.  We got along just fine using gestures and a lot of smiles.  Those two elderly gentlemen were the sweetest, most welcoming people we met in Italy.

Speaking of the language, you don’t really need to learn Italian before visiting Rome but it is helpful to know a few key words.  It is a courtesy to the locals to at least learn hello, please and thank you in their language.  I listened to Italian for Dummies for a few weeks before I left.  I learned to say “I don’t speak Italian very well” and used that expression more than any other with the exceptions of “good morning” and “thank you.”

The only time I needed to utilize my limited Italian skills was when we wanted to buy bus tickets.  Those tickets are bought through tobacco shops and magazine kiosks.  None of the people running the kiosks we visited spoke English.

The bus system is really the best way to get around Rome while doing your sightseeing.  You can buy a seven day ticket and ride all week quite economically.  You validate it on your first day of use and then merely hop off and on at will for the rest of the week.  Visit this site for the specifics.

Safety

Don’t wear obvious jewelry in Rome.  Women in Rome wear scarves rather than necklaces.  A big necklace marks the wearer as tourist who might be a bit vulnerable.

Watch your pockets and bags closely on buses and trains.  If you’re a woman, carry a cross-body bag and wear it in front of you, not to the side or the back.  If you’re a man, either wear a money belt or put your wallet deep in your front pants pocket.  My sweetie reported having his tush tapped on more than one occasion and it wasn’t done by a flirty female.

What to Wear

It seems that every man, woman and child wears a nattily wrapped scarf every day.  You will feel out of place if you won’t wear one.  You will see a lot of dark colors such as maroon, navy and black.  The only white sneakers you will see there are on joggers and tourists.  Jeans are worn with nice shoes and good shirts.

Rome is a walking city with rough, uneven streets.  When you’re strolling about the Forum, you’ll be walking in rocks and dirt.  While at the Coliseum, you’ll be climbing steep steps. Wear your most comfortable walking shoes.  Everywhere I went, I wore my beloved Lands End driving mocs (see previous post on travel essentials).

As far as the temps, I found Rome temperature to be very much like northern Florida during our November visit.  I wore a light coat every morning but wound up taking it off in the afternoon sun.  If you travel there in summer, it can become horribly hot, so plan accordingly.

What to Eat

What to eat in Rome?  I wasn’t as impressed with the food as I thought I would be but I can say that I never had a bad meal.  I can also report that their pizzas are pretty tasty.  Pastries are big there, as well.  Nutella is everywhere there, even on breakfast buffets.  The street-side sandwich shops serve up some excellent fair.  Don’t’ forget to try the wine – Italians do it right.

Where to Stay

The choice of where to stay is obviously a matter of personal taste.  You can stay right in the heart of Rome in modern hotels, if you so choose.  However, you might consider staying in the suburbs if you want a genuine look at how modern Romans live.  The charming Hotel Delle Muse was in a nice area that was safe and charming.  We had a tiny but clean and pleasant room with balcony.  The hotel is a family-owned hotel that is quite warm and welcoming.  Most of the staff members speak English.

The hotel offers a free breakfast and the food is good.  We ate all of our breakfasts and many of our dinners there.  We saw most of the same staff every day and the place began to feel like home.  A bus stop is just about a block away from the front door, making it easy to get anywhere that you want to go.  It is a lovely area to walk in, even after dark and there are several nice restaurants nearby.

What to Buy

It seemed to me that shopping in Rome is either very high-end designer wear or low-end street goods.  However, I did find some fun things in tourist gift shops.  The Forum has a nice little gift shop offering beautiful souvenirs in a wide range of prices.  I bought several beautiful calendars and postcards there.  The Vatican has several nice shops with items well within anyone’s price range.  I’m not Catholic but some members of my family are, so I brought back a few rosaries.  My grandson had specifically asked for a replica of the Coliseum and I bought one of those from a street vendor who had a booth situated between the Forum and the Coliseum.  I also found some wonderful tri-colored pasta from a sandwich shop we visited.

One thing you definitely do not want to buy is a knock-off purse from a street vendor.  Italy is home to many fine designers and the government is very protective of their interests.  It is not only illegal to sell knock-off goods; it is equally illegal to buy or even possess one.  The penalties for doing so are quiet serious.  The vendors who sell souvenirs from tables and booths are safe but avoid buying from those who spread out their wears on blankets on the sidewalks.

Also, make sure that you take your receipt from every restaurant and store you patronize.  The tax police sometimes follow people and ask to see the receipt.  It didn’t happen to us but I have heard of it happening to others.

Leaving Rome

It was hard to pull ourselves away from the beauty of The Eternal City.  We spent our last day at Appia Antiqua and it was the perfect way to say goodbye to Rome.  We didn’t have a plan, so we just wandered around that beautiful park.  We found the ruins of ancient aqueducts, a cistern and a watchtower.  We stumbled across an ancient home that was being restored by the current residents.  It was a wonderful place to absorb the feel of ancient Rome.  If you go, don’t take the subway route suggested on the official site.  The better ruins are on the other side of the park, so take the bus route instead.

We were exhausted by the time our vacation was over, so we hired a car to take us to the airport.  It was a nice change from taking a taxi and the train back to the airport.  Our driver met us in the lobby of our hotel and drove us to the airport along roads that we had not yet seen.  He was charming and interesting and he dropped us off at the airport for a mere €55.  We arrived at the airport so much more relaxed than if we’d had to deal with a cab, then the train.  If I ever go to Rome again, I will hire a driver for both my arrival and my departure.

I could practically write a book on the joys of visiting Rome but there’s just not enough time or space here to write about it all.  However, as the old adage goes, a picture tells a thousand words, so I’m going to let these pictures do the rest of my talking.
 
 
 
 
 
 

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