Thursday, January 24, 2008

Travel Thursday: Oh yeah, we went to Italy!

Rome Part One - Sorry there aren't any pictures :(

We landed in Rome after two harrowing plane changes (luckily, we'd carried on all our baggage) and many many hours without sleep. According to our Rough Guide (more on this book later), we had the option of taking a cab or taking an 11euro train ride into the city from the airport. Luckily, we figured out that we could take a less expensive train to a different station and transfer to the metro line we needed to get to our hotel. So we did that instead.

We lucked out on a great hotel deal for Rome - $45 US/night for 5 nights, 3star hotel, which was cheaper than two hostel dorm beds would have been, and we had our own room with bathroom. It was not actually in Rome, but to the southeast of the city in a little town called Ostia Antica. We got to the Ostia metro stop and crossed the highway, to discover that it was a Really Little Town. Luckily, our hotel was on the one main street, so we started walking. And walking. There was no sidewalk for at least half of it, and the cars were going a good 40MPH along the street. We kind of feared for our lives and I had this mental picture of us as turtles on our backs in the middle of this busy road (we each had a larger backpack and smaller daypack, so wore the big one on our back and the small on our front). When we arrived at the hotel and asked if there was a back-road way to walk there from the station, the clerk looked at us in horror and told us to take the bus. Luckily, the bus system and metro system in the general Rome area are linked up, so one ticket is good on either system for 75 minutes. We decided not to try to walk between the hotel and the metro stop again, just because we preferred not to end up being roadkill.

Our hotel room was very nice, and we ended up taking a little nap, which turned into sleeping from 3:30 PM until about 6 the next morning. Ahhhh.

But of course, when we woke up I was starving. We didn't have much food with us, so we headed out for the metro and into Rome. Simon of A Girl and a Boy had loaned us a book full of walking tours of Rome, so we took the metro to Termini station (kind of a central point) and walked to where one of the tours started, grabbing some sandwiches in a little bar along the way. A note on food in Italy: you will see a lot of signs that say Bar. Mostly they sell a variety of things, including premade sandwiches/panini, cigarettes and candy, and booze and coffee. People eat standing up, and the ones that have tables, you have to pay extra in order to sit. Word to the wise.

Anyhow, we spent the first few hours taking one of the walking tours Simon had recommended (down Via Nazionale, around some ruins, up through the out-of-place Vittorio monument and down through the Roman Forum and around the Coliseum). Along the way, we found a grocery store and stopped in to provision ourselves. We found this was an economical way to eat in China, and it proved to be even more economical in Italy, since it was pretty much the only way we could eat three meals a day and not spend a ton of money (even take-away sandwiches and pizza are still 3-4 euro each, which translated to 4.50-6.00 US each - when it's two people, that can add up). So anyhow, the walking tour was really cool as it explained things about the buildings we were passing. Dan really enjoyed the ruins and the forum and walking around the Coliseum, and I really enjoyed getting to see them again, and sharing the experience with him.

For me, the Roman Forum is one of the most interesting things in Rome. It's fully amazing to me that this incredibly old thing, part of an ancient bit of Western Civilization, is just smack dab in the middle of the city of Rome. After more than 2000 years, it's still there - nobody has destroyed it, and thousands of people every year walk through the same pathways that the Roman hoi polloi walked through millenia ago. Nutty.

We decided not to stand in line/pay to tour the inside of the coliseum, but instead to walk around it and peek into the parts on the far side where you don't see many other tourists. Dan told me some interesting historical bits about the coliseum, and then we wandered over to the Arch of Constantine (more historical bits) and then attempted to climb the Palatine hill, where we got stopped in our tracks because we went the wrong way, and then it turned out you had to pay a bunch of money to get in (and it mostly just looked like a nice park) so we opted out.

One of the really cool things about Rome is that despite it being a really big city, most of the stuff you might wish to see as a tourist is within an easily walkable distance. We walked from the Paletine hill up to the Pantheon area and grabbed some take-away pizza (I think the best pizza we had in Rome, since it was hot and fresh from the oven, mmmm!), then went inside the Pantheon and marveled. I also find the Pantheon to be amazingly cool, even without knowing what an architectural feat it was at the time. Dan decided to draw the Pantheon, so we sat there in the afternoon chill while lots of tourists milled around and people trying to sell noisy things to tourists milled around after them.

We wandered by Trevi Fountain (more tourists, mostly Italian) on our way back to Termini station, and we looked for a place to go online to email our families and let them know we weren't dead. It took a while, since it was the 3rd of January and many places were still closed for the holidays, but we found one and then metro'd back to our hotel. We ate dinner in our hotel restaurant - it was decent and not terribly expensive - and then fell asleep pretty early after watching some so-awful-it's-funny Italian television and drinking boxed red wine (we didn't have a corkscrew).

The next day we were up pretty early and in the line for the Vatican Museum before it opened, eating our breakfast while we waited. It wasn't terribly cold (though I'd prepared by wearing warm tights under my pants) and the tourist-pushers were attempting to sell scarves and gloves to those who weren't wearing them. The line moved pretty quickly once the museum opened, and I'm pretty sure most of the people in line were Italian tourists (as all of Italy seems to be on vacation until Epiphany, January 6). If one planned a trip to Rome during high tourist season (read: summer) and one had specific time constraints, it might make sense to join a tour group, as that lets you jump the line. However, it's a really high price (I think I heard 90 euro?), so for people who have more time than money it really doesn't make sense.

The Vatican Museum was one of the things I skipped during my first trip to Rome, reasoning that I'd be back someday - and I was right. In a way, the museum is completely overwhelming, much like the Louvre, but in a way it's not difficult to see only the things you really want to see and go quickly through the things you don't care as much about. However, if you get there when the museum opens and you're trying to navigate between throngs of tour groups, it's a bit more difficult to actually see things you're trying to see. They have the museum set up in such a way that it is very difficult to backtrack, though I suppose if you were really determined you might accomplish it.

The most impressive thing about the Vatican Museum is that every single surface in the place is beautiful. No wall, ceiling, or floor is ungilded or unpainted or undecorated. In fact, it can be somewhat overwhelming and I ended up a little bit overstimulated by how much beauty was there. We both really enjoyed the Raphael rooms (Dan especially, since he'd studied so many of the works in his Art History classes - one of the paintings made his jaw drop and he just kind of marveled at it for about 10 minutes) and the Sistine Chapel, which is in some ways amazingly impressive and in other ways hard to be suitably impressed by, since the ceiling is so far from the floor. And it's packed full of people all the time, and the guards and intercom are constantly telling people to be quiet and not take photos, so the atmosphere of reverence they're going for doesn't quite seem to happen.

I would just like to note here that it is totally awesome to travel with someone who enjoys art and is more knowledgable about it than I am. It was like having my very own art tour guide, and I appreciated things a lot more when Dan told me about them.

We sent some postcards from the Vatican Museum, which was fun because Vatican City, being sovereign, has its own postal system and its own stamps. Apparently it also has its own euro coins, but we didn't check to see if we got any of them until it was too late.

After the museum, we wandered over to St. Peter's Basilica. When I was in Rome back in 2000, you could just wander in to the church and go wherever you felt like going within, but now you have to stand in a security line to make sure you aren't bringing in knives, and they have the inside set up so you can only walk around the perimeter. Or maybe that part was just because of when we were there, since they were setting up for the big Epiphany service. The Basilica would be much more impressive from the outside if there wasn't this enormous ugly facade tacked on to the front, and the inside is more a series of monuments to popes than a place of worship (to this non-Catholic, anyhow). But it, too, is adorned with beauty on all surfaces, and they had a mass or two going on while we were inside (sung in Latin, of course). And looking up is quite a celestial experience.

The one thing that really disappointed me about this particular visit to Vatican City was the dearth of nuns. On my previous trip, one of my favorite things about Rome (and the Vatican in particular) was how many different kinds of nuns I saw. This time, there were some nuns, but not nearly the amount or variety I'd been expecting. I guess they all make their pilgrimages in the summer just like everyone else.

After a lunch of uninspiring takeaway pizza (from a place recommended in the book) we walked across the city, up the Spanish Steps, and over and around the back side of the Termini station to a student neighborhood called San Lorenzo. I wanted to see a particular church in a cemetary in this area, but though it was described in detail it wasn't on any of the maps in the book, and then it started to get dark, so we kind of gave up. We had our first gelato of the trip at a chain place called Red Ice (still fantastically yummy, and not that expensive!) while we figured out what to do.

Because here is another downside to traveling in Italy in the winter: it gets dark pretty early, around 4:30 PM. And Rome is very much old-fashioned still when it comes to the hours of shops and restaurants. Pretty much all shops/restaurants/etc. close from about 3 PM to about 7 PM, and in most places it costs money to go into someplace that is open to sit down with your gelato or espresso or whatever. In the summer, this would not be an issue, as it would be lovely to stroll around in a park or something since it would still be light out and warm. In January, it is cold and dark. We thought about waiting around somewhere until we could find an open restaurant for dinner, but I was totally exhausted at that point (still dealing with jet lag) so we took the metro back to Ostia and decided to try to find a place to eat dinner there.

There was no place (we could find) to eat dinner in Ostia Antica. There's a small town with a post office and a butcher shop and a fruit stand and a few other little shops, but noplace we could find that was open and serving food in the evening. So we started to walk back toward our hotel, only we tried to go what we thought was the back way. We ended up on this wild goose chase, spending over an hour trudging through neighborhoods with unpaved streets, dogs barking at us, searching in vain for a place to eat (and then, eventually, for our hotel). Turns out that going the back way was an even worse idea than just walking straight to the hotel from the train station, but eventually we saw the blue neon HOTEL sign through the foggy mist and, completely exhausted beyond measure, we gave up and got horrible pizza and grappa at the hotel bar. Seriously, it was probably the worst pizza I ever ate, and man, we were in ITALY! There was no excuse for how wretched it was. At least it was food.

1 comment:

simon said...

For what it's worth, I like:

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Simon.