Thursday, June 25, 2009

Rome if you want to...and of course you should

My husband and I have lived in two rather historic places together. Our first house was in the countryside on the outskirts of Richmond. You know… the capital of the confederacy. Our particular location was a Civil War buff's dream. We lived smack dab in the middle of dozens of Civil War battlefields. When people found out where we lived they often asked if they could dust off their metal detectors and do some relic hunting on our land (this request always made me smile). This area was also plantation country (picture left) AND a few miles from historic Williamsburg and Jamestown. You couldn't throw a stone around our house without hitting something dubbed "historic". So siree bob. Now we live in Old City Philadelphia… the birthplace of our nation. We live three blocks from the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. Two blocks from where Benjamin Franklin is buried. One block from where he used to live and 1/2 block from Elfreth's alley, which is the oldest residential street in the USA. Our building was probably built in the mid 1800’s and our neighborhood is packed with history, cobblestones...and tourists most days. Unfortunately this no longer impresses me. No. I don’t take it for granted. I’ve just been to Rome, and it’s simply ruined local historic sites for me…but in a good way of course :) So last week when I saw Angels And Demons (set in Rome) with my Dad on Father's Day, and could hardly enjoy the movie without feeling the need to lean over and whisper to my husband, "we've BEEN there!...and there!...oohh, and remember going there!", I decided it was time for me to write about our Rome experience.

We arrived in Rome via an overnight train from Munich. What an experience it and of itself! The hubby and I shared a bottle or two of wine sitting Indian style in our bed in hopes that it would knock us out. It didn’t, but that was ok. The rocking of the train. The smell of the mountainous countryside. The eerie feeling you got when the train pulled into a train station in the middle of nowhere (Switzerland? Italy? Who knew at that point.) in the middle of the pitch black night. It was wonderful. So when we pulled into the Termini train station and looked out the window at more graffiti and filth than we had seen in weeks we were a bit let down. This place was dirty. Actually, most of Rome outside the very old and extremely historic center was pretty dirty. My husband put it best when he said, "Well, they did have two and a half thousand years to make it this way. Not too shabby if you ask me.". And he's right. When a city is that old and has been inhabited with that many people for so long (I think I read 3 million people...all living in pretty tight quarters) it's bound to be a bit funky.

We stayed on the outskirts of Rome at the Sheraton Roma. Good hotel. Nothing magnificent. We found out that most of the hotels (affordable hotels) are on the outskirts of Rome and they all have free shuttles that drop you off steps away from the Forum. The shuttles run like clockwork (amazing for ANYTHING in Italy to run like clockwork). It was great to be able to explore all day and then mosey over to the bus pick up spot (in front of a great pizza night we waited for the next bus because we just had to have pizza there). I know you're probably thinking that if you spend the money to go all the way to Rome you want to sleep in the middle of it all. But I have to say, the price difference is massive and we had no problem commuting into the city. I highly recommend this option.

Where do I begin!? We walked until we could walk no more when we were in Rome (my old boss said that when he was there last he walked his pinkie toenail right off his foot...then he showed us all...charming...thanks Doc). If we were more daring (and I'm talking borderline insane kind of daring) we would have rented scooters. Scooters were EVERYWHERE (picture, right, of me making vroom-vroom noises in front of a classic). But, the drivers were insane! I have never seen people zip around a jam packed city in such a reckless fashion...and wearing such nice clothes in the process (they honestly do dress well in Rome...much to my disappointment...I'm a jeans and t-shirt girl normally...I must have looked like a hot mess to them). But walking is probably the way to go if you can handle it. It lets you take it all in. And it gives you the ability to literally run into the most amazing things along the way. One night we were drunk off a few litres of delicious house wine and decided to try to find our way back to the bus stop without using the map. We had been in town for a few days at this point and along with the liquid courage we had coursing through our veins, this was a recipe for over confidence. Long story not so short we got lost. We were just wandering through this dark alley when all of the sudden we heard a roaring crowd of people. When we emerged from the alley we realized we had just accidentally found Trevi Fountain (picture left). It's arguably the most famous fountain in Rome. If we hadn't been walking aimlessly around the city we would have missed it. And boy-o-boy was it breathtaking at night. I have chills right now remembering it.

Of course you won't spend all of your time wandering aimlessly (just most of it). You'll need a plan. Here are my top 5 must see sights (and yes...they're predictable):

1.) The Forum - This is where ancient Roman civilization developed. It's my favorite place in Rome. I feel like a kid in a bed sheet fort here. You walk through and pretend that all of the structures are still standing, and if you have a good enough imagination, it will transport you. I know it sounds silly, but I could have strolled through the forum, pretending I was in ancient Rome, all day long. It's filled with a old arches, temples, basilicas, residences. It's almost surreal. I can't believe that so many of these structures are still standing. Look at this (picture left). It's the Temple of Saturn. It was built as a monument to the agricultural deity Saturn in 501 BC. 501 BC!!!! I just can't describe to you how cool that is.

2.) Castel Sant'Angelo - This place is what a castle should be, in my mind anyway. I know, Ireland has those beautiful, grand old castles, and Germany has castle after castle lining the riverbanks of the Rhine (and all of them look straight out of a Disney movie), but this one is creepy and cool all together. I think that's why I loved it so much. It was originally built as a mausoleum for a Roman emperor (don't remember which one) and his family. Then it was turned into a fortress and a castle by some popes in 139-ish AD. They also used it as a prison. I think it looks most like a prison to me. The views from the top are amazing. The statue at the top (picture right) looks like it could kick your ass. The inside is dark and ominous. You fear that if left alone you would surely lose your way down the many narrow, winding pathways. It would be the perfect place to have a Halloween party. I just love it.

3.) Vatican City - I'm not a religious person by any means, but I find Vatican City to be fascinating on a bunch of different levels. Did you know that this place isn't part of Italy? It is a sovereign city-state, landlocked inside Rome. It's actually the smallest country in the world with a population of about 900. There is a white line at the edge of St. Peter's Square that divides it from Italy (I'm standing there giving you the "V" for Vatican picture right). Yup. Crazy right! You know what else is crazy? These outfits (picture left). They're the Swiss Guard and they were originally Swiss mercenaries brought in to protect Vatican City. Still, to this day, the recruits must be single, roman catholic, Swiss males. They must also be between 19 and 30 years of age and must be at least 5.7 feet tall (and look good in a Speedo). I have no idea what is up with those outfits. Ironically they're the ones that stop you at the gate if you're dressed inappropriately. I read before we went to Rome that you should pretty much always wear pants and if you have a tank top on, bring a small sweater to cover yourself when you want to go into churches and such. I got the "no bare shoulders, lady" speech from these guys when I tried to sneak in without my sweater on. The rest of it was so-so for me. It's a gaudy, over the top place. The tomb where the Popes are buried was pretty interesting and I was a little taken back by the solemn respect that filled that underground room. Don't even try to see the Sistine Chapel unless you have 2 - 3 hours allotted to stand in line. The line to get in went clear around the back of St. Peter's Basilica and showed no sign of ending. We skipped it and got gelato.

4.) The Pantheon - Pantheon, from the Greek for "every god". I love this place because it was originally built in 27 BC as a temple to all of the gods of ancient Rome. I like that idea. Unfortunately it too was taken over by the Catholic church later on. But I tried to go in there in the spirit of ancient Rome and imagined what it would be like to enter such a grand structure so long ago. The oculus (aka...hole in the ceiling) adds the most amazing light and feel to the structure, and I could only imagine looking up through this sky light in 27 BC and feeling as if the gods were watching me through it. I've never been in anything like this place. I liked it a lot. Picture right of me in front of the's like Where's Waldo right?!

5.) The Colosseum - I will start by saying it is estimated that over 500,000 people and over 1 million animals died in this place from when it was built in 70 AD to when it stopped hosting the ancient games. Talk about a blood bath. How can people get pissed off about violent video games when civilization has seen the likes of the Colosseum games. Some emperor wanted to entertain the entire population of Rome and decided the best way to do it was to build this amazing structure, fill it with sword wielding people and lions, and let them kind of work it out themselves. I don't want to bore you will all of the different types of "games" they organized but at one point they flooded the entire lower level and had a nautical battle. Talk about a water cooler conversation, "Hey Augustus, did you attend the games this weekend?", "Yah, after I threw up from seeing that lion eat that gladiator, and then that lion get beheaded, I called it quits and headed home." Personally, I would have just liked to see the lions roll over and perhaps jump through a hula-hoop.

EAT: No, this isn't the title for the next section. It's an order. Eat. Eat a lot. Drink wine with every meal because hey, you can. Snack all day long (it's a good idea to grab a bit to eat in between your mammoth lunch and your mammoth dinner because the restaurants don't open for dinner until 7:30 at the earliest). Snacking is also a great way to experience the tastes of the city. Grab a piece of pizza. Go to a cheese shop and just ask to try one type of cheese and before you know it the cheesemonger will have given you a veritable culinary tour of Italy (oh, and you can bring cured meats back to the states if you have them vacuum seal it). Taste grappa, then never taste it again because it's gross. And eat gelato. Eat lots of gelato. Stop and grab a beer every once in a while and watch the world go by. And skip breakfast. Honestly. You don't need it and what you get leaves something to be desired. Sleep in a bit. Grab a cup of coffee. Then head in the direction of where you plan on eating lunch. I think we planned just about every day around where we wanted to grab lunch. Go here...please go here: Enoteca Corsi (picture below). This place serves a traditional Italian lunch which pretty much consists of copious amounts of bread, pasta, wine, a small amount of protein and a side of some greens. It's a local favorite and a true off the beaten path destination if you ask me. Do you see the local guy behind me in this picture that looks all sorts of pissed off that we're taking pictures of ourselves eating? Yup. Local hole in the wall for ya. I think you had two options for each course and that is all you needed. If they're only making two of everything, fresh, every day, it's bound to be amazing. I don't remember my whole meal but I do remember what I'm eating in this picture. It's called Pasta Amatriciana. It's basically pasta (mine was pene) in a sauce of fresh tomatoes, herbs, cheese and bacon. It was absolutely amazing. I also read that it's a rather popular Roman pasta dish...I can see why. This is really the only restaurant I would say you simply MUST visit. I think half the fun of traveling is finding your own favorites. But take my advice and try really hard to eat at places that have the menus written out daily...perhaps on a chalk board or even just on the window. If there is a small menu, and a small restaurant packed with people it's almost always a good sign. We ate at a place like this one day and it was owned and run by a husband and wife who were simultaneously cooking our food AND waiting on us. It was just the two of them and the service was slow, but I had the ablsolute best pasta fagioli ever.

GET OUT OF THE CITY: We took a day trip to Anzio, a costal town, accesable via a quick train ride. We just had to swim in the Mediteranian and get of of the city for a day. If you go to Rome I highly recomend this day trip. Look at this town. It's perfect. The beach was empty since we arrived at the very end of the tourist season and the people that were there were all locals. The water was so different than I'm used to. It was thick. I know, bad description, but it was thick and extra salty. I'm sure there's a reason for this but I'm not an oceanographer. I'm just the girl who had the time of her life drinking Peroni on the beach at Anzio with her husband. We were so happy to be out of the hustle and bustle of the city that we completely forgot to follow the "lunch time" "dinner time" rules and missed eating a big seafood feast because we were too busy sunbathing and went looking for food during the almost 5 hours that the sit-down restaurants are closed during the day. Instead we grabbed some AWESOME crispy crust, flatbread like pizza (not pizza even, square, crustless pieces of tomato topped dough) and ate it on a clif overlooking the ocean. Then we finished our meal by stuffing canolis down our throats. Could a more enjoyable day have been had? I honestly don't think so.

EXPECT: Expect a bustling, and yes, dirty, city with poor public transportation. Expect most everyone to speak some amount of English but grazie (thank you) goes a long way. Expect to walk a lot but also expect that walk to be filled with exciting surprises. Expect to run into a lot of not-so-nice locals. I was shocked that people thought Parisians were snotty and rude and that Romans were kind and gregarious. I found the complete opposite to be true. Expect to eat a BIG meal for lunch and not to eat a true "sit-down" meal again until well after 7pm. Also expect those meals to be sparce on meat. Not everyone eats 20 oz slabs of meat at one sitting like Americans do. I don't think I ate more than a few oz of meat each day, but trust me, what you do eat will be delightful. If you're looking for some protein grab a link of cured meat to snack on. It sure hit the spot for us. Expect the longest line at the Leonardo da Vinci (still frequently known by its old name, Fiumicino) airport, you have ever seen. As much as I loved the history of Rome I did not, for one second, miss the slow, almost lazy pace that the Romans excersise. Look at this picture (right). I was told that this airport ALWAYS looks this way. Although we didn't want our trip to end...we did want to get the hell out of that airport.

But when all is said and done... amidst the good and the bad that Rome has to offer... expect to leave Rome feeling as though you have been given a wonderful glimpse into the past, and a new outlook on civilization as we know it.

1 comment:

  1. I love your blog! Your descriptions make me feel like I can almost taste the food and see the sites!