Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Week 6: All Roads Lead to Rome

All Roads Lead to Rome... unless the metro system is on strike.

Yes. It's true.  Here's the gist of the trip if you don't want to read it all.  Rome was a great city with really cool ruins and awesome fountains.  But it was dirty, hot, and frustrating in so many ways that it was one of those experiences I just never want to relive.  I do not think that I will be returning to Roma. Northern Italy, possibly. Here we go.

Noah and I headed out of here super early Thursday morning. Our flight was at 8:40, but we decided to take the bus and left our apartments at 6.  We ended up missing the first bus because it either left early or didn't come (instance #45489023 of failed public transportation that week) and we had to wait another 30 minutes for the next bus to leave.  We got to the airport and just had to scan the barcode on our boarding passes to get to security.  At security, I set off the metal detector (not sure why, maybe from my watch?) and got to get a "free massage" as the lady said.  She was really nice, so I didn't mind.  I went to pick up my bag and found out I had forgotten to drink the last bit of my water in my reusable water bottle.  In America, I think I would have been tackled and forced out of the secure area.  Instead, the nice massage lady came over and emptied it into another water bottle that was confiscated and let me go on my way.  I was relieved but thought it was funny that I had so many issues with the security and I love flying.  Somewhere in this process, my chapstick was lost, so I spent the next 30 minutes looking for chapstick in a store.   Unsuccessful, we boarded the flight and got settled.  We were flying Lufthansa, which I am now convinced is the best airlines ever.  The snacks were all great and different.  The seats were comfortable.  Both flights we had emergency seats, so had plenty of room to spread out.  The first flight was practically empty so we had an entire row to ourselves.

We got to the Frankfurt airport for our connecting flight.  The small flight from Brussels stopped on the runway pavement away from the building and a bus picked us up and drove us to the terminal. I had never done that before! We stopped in a store where Noah got a snack and I got some chapstick.  We then continued on our flight to Rome on which we were served a cucumber, olive, feta cheese, and bean salad.  Random, but good if you like that kind of stuff.

After arriving in Roma, we had to get from the airport to the city.  We found our way (through thousands of moving sidewalks) to the train stop and started to buy our tickets from a kiosk.  We were approached by a disheveled woman asking us if we could buy the tickets from her because she had bought too many and the office wouldn't reimburse her.  We agreed and followed her through the turnstiles.  Turns out she had three cute Italian children.  Noah started to talk to them, but their English (as we later found out from the mother) is not that great because of bad teaching programs.  We did have numerous occasions of them counting to us in English.  The eight year old only knew up to 11.  So funny! They were very charismatic and wanted to know our names, why we were in Rome, how old we were, etc. As we were arriving in Rome, the eight year old started to sing Shakira's Waka Waka, which is one of my favorite songs.  Thanks to Zumba class, I knew all the words and the dance moves, so I joined in singing.  He was so shocked that I knew the song, too! Meeting the authentic Italian family was worth buying the tickets from her.

Starving, we headed to one of the first places we found outside the train station.  It had air conditioning and I was already hot, so sounded good to me.  It was pretty cheap.  We got a 4 cheese pizza which had no sauce, but had blue cheese on it.  It was good and interesting.  The crust in Italy is like flatbread, not like our crust at all.  I knew it was thinner, but it was still a shock for it to be so crunchy.

Our next stop was the hotel so we could leave our bags while we walked around Roma.  We got to the hotel after walking through a sketchy Asian district that smelled like pee.  The door to the hotel was a gigantic full wall door that you had to buzz to get into.  We got in, walked up three flights of stairs and had to buzz to get to the front desk.  The hotels (economy version) in Rome were "guest houses" that are basically elaborate apartments that people convert into hotels.  Anyway, we checked in with the young Asian guy who didn't speak the best English, but at least knew some.  After we paid for the hotel came the issue. Here's the dialogue since I'm sure you love them so much. You must imagine him in an Italian Asian accent.

Him: "So there is a small problem. You have shared bathroom"
Me: "Yes...?"
Him: "It is broken. So what we do is this. You come and my father he brings you to new hotel with working bathroom."
(In my mind at this point, I'm thinking he means that every time we have to go to the bathroom we have to be driven to a new hotel. I don't know why I thought that but I did. Exhaustion, maybe. Anyways, he meant that our room would be in a different hotel in case you didn't understand either.)
Him: "You come back at 6:30 because your room is not ready now."
Me: "We have plans at 6:30, that is why we are here now. We are busy until like 11."
Him: "Hmm... well" *speaks Italian to father standing next to him "11 is fine.  But I will not be working at 11 so what you do is you message me (text) when you are here and my father will then drive you to new hotel. My father, he speaks no English."
Me: ... REALLY?! Whatever.

Looking back at the event, Noah joked that it was like those sketchy scenes in movies where they say "Knock on the door three times.  There will be a package inside the door. Open the package and listen to the tape. It will give you directions to the next location where there will be a package waiting for you..." (We kept going on like this that day and then on the flight home to Brussels as well. We just thought it was hilarious. Because it really felt like that.

So we set off to Rome without a chance to use the bathroom, put on sunscreen, look at the map, change shoes, or unload the bags.  Oh well.  We went to the Spanish steps area, got really hot and went to a gelato shop where we sat for almost an hour.  I had banana gelato and then a crema gelato because Noah got it and it was fantastic.  There I got to put on sunscreen and get ready for the afternoon.  We embarked on a free walking tour about 5:30 and it wasn't as miserably hot then. Plus we got to walk in the shade of buildings most of the time.

On the walking tour we saw churches, works of art by Boromini and Bernini, the Pantheon, obelisks, columns, buildings designed in the baroque style, monuments, and the Trevi Fountain.  The Pantheon was gorgeous and has a huge hole at the top of the dome! (Done on purpose for some symbolic reason I don't remember but was still really cool. Rain comes in when it rains. There's a section marked off on the floor so you don't step there. And the rest of the floor drains there so it slopes a little bit!) It is the largest original dome in Rome (I think) and was really cool to see.  The Trevi Fountain was beautiful.  But as with all of the magnificent places we've been, there was scaffolding so you can't appreciate the whole thing.  So much scaffolding all over Europe. Oh well. Anyways, I thought it was smaller than I was expecting, but that's probably because there were so many people crowded around it.  Noah and I threw our coins in the fountain.  1 coin to come back to Rome, 2 coins to make a wish, and 3 coins to get married to an Italian.  We both threw two coins.  Lots of people around there, including random Indians taking your cameras to take your picture for you without you asking them to.  They returned it and nothing was stolen, but it was weird. Any explanations?

My absolute favorite part of Rome was also introduced to us on the tour: the public fountains.  These fountains still draw water from the Roman Aqueduct system set up 2000 years ago. They are all over the city down little side streets and can be used to fill up bottles, rinse hands, cool down, or drink straight from the faucet. You plug the nozzle with one finger and water shoots out a hole in the top of the tube just like a normal water fountain. So convenient! And refreshing. The water was just so cold and perfect in the hot weather. Not to mention that I really appreciate free water now, so it was super exciting!

We did some souvenir shopping and walked around some more around Piazza Venezia, where we found our first views of the Colosseum.  We enjoyed it from the outside and watched the sun set and headed into the depths of the metro system.  Luckily there was a metro stop right next to the sketchy hotel.  We texted our Asian friend, snuck in to the building behind some other guests, and took the elevator up this time.  There was no one at the front desk, so we just sat on a couch and waited. A few minutes in, Noah called our friend and he in turn called his father and within 5 minutes we were in his little car ready to go.  The hotel was only a few blocks away, but in a much less sketchy part of town, literally 200 feet from the train station. We were the only people staying on our floor, at least the first night, and we got a private bathroom and a queen sized bed, both of which were pluses.  The bathroom didn't have a shower curtain and we had to watch for several minutes as the father who didn't speak English mimed out to us that because there was no curtain, the water from the shower would flood all over if you weren't careful.  He didn't think we understood him, so he called his family member and she translated for us. Not that her English was much better.

We put our stuff down and went to find some dinner.  We only made it about a block or two away where a waiter caught our eye and encouraged us to just sit down instead of keeping on looking.  We got an antipasto plate with prosciutto and salami and cheese because neither of us could fathom eating anything heavier. I know I looked like death, because I sure felt like it.  The waiter was laughing at how tired we were, in a jovial friendly way.  Point is we ate and then stumbled back to our non air conditioned room to sleep. Thus ended quite possibly the longest day of my non-marching-band life.  And as it is 2 am and I am only halfway finished with my story, I shall retire and finish tomorrow. Not that you will know any different because it won't be published until tomorrow, but now you know.

Haha woops. I didn't finish this yesterday. So here I am two days later trying to catch up.

Friday morning, Noah and I woke up and got ready to head to the metro station to start the day at the Colosseum.  I bought some croissants/danishes for breakfast and we walked downstairs to the metro.  Let me preface this with the fact that we bought an unlimited metro pass and museum pass for 30 euros the day before. We bought it for the metro, but also because we could skip the line at the Colosseum, and because several very wise friends suggested it.  Okay back to the present. We got to the metro station and it was all marked off with caution tape and signs. Turns out that there was a Metro strike all day Friday.  Buses, too, although we saw a select handful around town. The strike would be lifted from 5-8pm during rush hour.

Upset that our one full day in Rome now had to be navigated solely by walking, we headed off in the direction of the Colosseum.  We left the hotel about 9:15 and it took two hours for us to get to the Colosseum.  We went in churches and walked around back roads, but at 93 degrees, I wasn't that amused by the walking what should have been a 7 minute metro ride.  I need to enter a side note here and let you know that Noah stopped to get a block of parmesan cheese to eat while we were walking around.  He ate the entire thing by himself.  I personally thought it was strange and definitely had no appetite for that much cheese after walking around, but he was so happy to have it! Just had to share that with you.  Anyways. We decided to hurry up and do the Colosseum before noon and then spend a while cooling down inside during the hottest parts of the day. We skipped the line with our Roma pass (the real line was at least an hour long from the looks of it) and went straight up to the top for the best views.

The Colosseum was awesome! Definitely one of my favorite things about Rome.  Yes, there were lots of people there, but it made it feel more like an actual arena with all the people.  I can't even describe the Colosseum as well as the pictures do. So just go look at them and pretend you had been there with me! :)

We headed out of the Colosseum absolutely famished at noon.  Unfortunately, the area around the Colosseum is not filled with little side streets full of restaurants.  We walked a little bit and found a total of three restaurants, all with a great view of the Colosseum.  I got a menu deal for 12 euros for a drink, pasta cabonara, and ice cream.  It was really good, but I have a question. WHY in the WORLD did Italians create such heavy dishes!?!? Yes, the salads are lighter, but hot pasta and pizza in 90+ degree weather? I don't understand who would come up with that. Gelato, I understand.  That thought bothered me the whole trip, because I was always too hot and exhausted from walking around to want to eat anything heavy like awesome pasta.

We left the restaurant and headed up to Palatino Hill where we walked around for a long time without much shade, even though the map lists it as a nice shady green park. Wrong.  The ruins were awesome, but a) after a while they start to look the same, especially when you are tired and 2) I guess it wasn't what I was expecting.  The whole area and the heat and the buildings honestly made me think I was in Jerusalem.  I knew it was going to be hot, but guess I just never paid attention to what plants were going to be around. And was very dusty.  Again, this is all in my opinion.  Noah had a great time and liked it all a lot, but for me, it was far too sunny and hot to be able to enjoy walking around when public transportation is on strike.

We kind of glanced over the Roman Forum, but decided we wanted to move on and keep walking since we still had a ways to go.  We walked past some very beautiful buildings and fountains and ended up at the Bocca della Verita, the Mouth of Truth. Legend has it that if you tell a lie while your hand is in the mouth of this stone, it will bite off your hand.  A woman was thought to be cheating on her husband and they were going to prove it with the Bocca della Verita.  Well right before she put her hand in, her lover came running up to her dressed as a beggar and kissed her.  She then confidently placed her hand in the mouth and said "I have never kissed anyone except for my husband and that beggar" and avoided her hand being cut off as well as a probable death sentence.  That's the story about that.  We waited in line for that for quite a while, but we got to have fun pretending our hands were getting chopped off. :)

We then walked up the hill to see the Circus Maximus, or Circo Massimo.  It was used as the arena for chariot races and could hold something like 175,000 people, which was way more than the Colosseum.  That was the only important landmark that we saw that really didn't hold up that well.  It basically looked like a gigantic ditch with dirt and weeds. There was definitely a path set so you could see the track, but the sides of the bank of the ditch where people would have sat were just completely dirt and grass. It was really hard to picture much happening there, although I had seen illustrations of it before.

Noah and I crossed the Tiber River to get to a section of Rome called Trastevere (literally "across the Tiber")  We were told this was a great place to eat and/or go out for fun night time activities.  Unfortunately it was 4pm and we were across Rome and wanted to get back to the center of town before the Metro system stopped completely.  We went to a snack shop to go to the bathroom and Noah ordered a coffee and I got the best gelato in the world. Homemade. Yum.  The waiter was a typical older Italian guy and didn't speak any English. He was so sweet and when we left I even got a "Ciao, Bella"!!! It was exciting!

We walked around for a little bit and then headed back across the river to get to the closest metro station (which in reality wasn't that convenient).  We metroed back one stop past our hotel stop so we could walk back and find something to eat.  It was only about 7pm, so places were just getting ready for dinner. We just sat down at an open place and I got a margherita pizza.  The menu made the place seem really cheap, with an entire pizza for 6euros, but Rome had a way of getting you. They automatically serve you bread without you asking and then charge you for it. We didn't completely realize this until the last few stops, and the bread was good then. This place for dinner also tagged on a service fee. Guess that's how they keep their menu prices so low!

I know it's completely lame, but I was back in the hotel room by 8:30.  I was hot, sweaty, sun soaked, exhausted, knee sore, feet sore, and just generally ready to retire.  Noah went out for about another hour while I watched TLC's Four Weddings in Italian and then we both were asleep by 10:30.  Friday night in Rome? So eventful haha.  If the public transportation hadn't been on strike, we would have been in Trastavere checking out a wine bar or something.

Saturday was a better day with much less frustrations. Probably because we were only in Rome for 4 more hours.  We took the metro to the Vatican.  There were so many people around because Friday was the metro strike and Sunday the Vatican is closed, so Saturday was the only day to do it.  Because of the time it would take us to get back to the airport and the fact that the lines were so long, we only were able to do St. Peter's Basilica OR the Sistine Chapel.  We chose St. Peter's because I wanted to see it more and it was free. Can't argue with not spending money!

We had to go through security to get in as well as a dress code check.  No one is allowed to wear shorts or have their shoulders exposed. Plenty of people were being turned away at the door after waiting in line with us.  Thank goodness my friend Katharina warned me before hand so I could wear capris instead of shorts!  St. Peter's square area was absolutely beautiful and huge. I could have stayed there for a long time (in the shade).  And the Basilica.  Wow.  I mean, I know that the Vatican is the head of the Catholic Church and therefore should definitely be the best church in the world, but it was just GORGEOUS. Again this is one of those things that I can't describe all the way, but I doubt the pictures do it justice either.  Everything was just sculpted and crafted to perfection. It made me proud to be Catholic!

After finishing admiring the Basilica, we walked towards Rome again and to Piazza Novona where we had planned to get lunch.  On the way, we found a delightful little restaurant (with air conditioning) where we decided to eat. So glad we did because it was our favorite meal from the whole trip (minus gelato stops)!  Noah had an amazing salad and I had homemade spinach ravioli.  And the bread was fantastic, too. We didn't mind that 3.50euros charge!  We just really enjoyed our meal and left so full we didn't think we'd have room for any food the rest of the day (false).

We rounded the corner and found Piazza Novona and got to see the monuments and fountain there.  We stopped for gelato, of course.  I got Nutella flavored (which was a lot like American moose tracks with nutella instead of fudge) and Noah got hazelnut.We rounded out our time in Rome by passing by the Pantheon and Trevi Fountain again before heading to the metro stop.  Which was another almost 20 minute walk.  There was even a sign down some stairs that said "metro this way" so we walked down and into a sketchy book store.  We kept following signs and ended up above ground, just across the street from where we were. And still 5 minutes walk from the metro. So weird.

We said goodbye to Rome and bought train tickets back to the airport and headed back.  The airport check-in was super easy and we had plenty of time to kill in the terminal before we left.  We got to fly on another wonderful set of Lufthansa flights and I got to sit by the window both times, which I loved. They served us some sort of pumpernickel-sweet bread sandwich with cheese and pink stuff on it (after describing it, Jamie thinks it was pate).  I ate the cheese and pink stuff and Noah ate the bread.  On the next flight we got a cracker and pretzel mix called "happy snacks".  By this point we were pretty delirious from exhaustion, and we were playing with animal crackers and laughing about the German language that we didn't understand every time they announced something. The bus ride back to our apartment was just as entertaining as we basically recapped the entire Rome trip. One of our amazing revelations was that Saturday we used 5 different modes of transportation and none of them was a car. Crazy! (Metro, train, plane, bus, feet) We got home about 11:30pm. And now you're caught up with that trip.

Analysis of Rome: Just as dirty as people have said.
People were nice, but not the nicest I've met anywhere.
Spoke English, but not as well as I expected them to! Especially after coming from Paris where everyone spoke English. Probably doesn't help that we knew absolutely zero Italian...
Monuments, fountains, and ruins were awesome, but after 2 days we felt that we had seen it all and didn't need to see any more.
Food was good, but honestly we have just as good of Italian food in the States. So don't stress yourself out over having to get to Rome to eat some pizza. Go to a local Italian restaurant at home and you will be even more satisfied.
The aqueduct fountains were the best things ever. Just saying.
The end!

OH! also, If you are my friend on Facebook, you probably saw me mention that we were going to get a scooter and scoot around Rome. It would have been very helpful, especially Friday. And I didn't think the drivers were too bad. But we honestly didn't find a single place to rent a scooter and by 2pm on Friday we decided to abort the mission.  Would have loved to do it though! Just so you know. :)

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