This installment of my travel journal covers Days 5–8 of my 2011 trip to Europe…
Following our adventures in Florence and Lucca, we hopped on a train the next morning for Rome. We arrived in the afternoon and, after settling in at our hotel, walked straight to the Colosseum, which I had wanted to see since I was a kid. It’s every bit as magnificent as I had imagined. Walking around this ancient marvel of engineering, in the very footsteps of the citizens and rulers of the greatest civilization of the ancient world, is an amazing experience. Pictures can’t really do it justice, but here are a few anyway…
In all, I must have taken a good 300 pics of the Colosseum that day alone. My only regrets were that I neglected to take any video and that I never made it back to the Colosseum at night. After our tour of the Colosseum, we ate at a nearby café in its shadow, pulled in by one of the aggressive greeters stationed in front of all of the restaurants. The merchants are very aggressive all over Rome, particularly in the street shops. If you walk away from them they’ll chase you down the street. Anyway, we called it an early night as I was still suffering from some jet lag and lack of sleep. Before bed I took this photo from our balcony:
The next morning we embarked on an all-day walking venture around Rome. First we stopped at the Basilica of St. John Lateran which, I was interested to learn, is the actual official seat of the Pope, not St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. We also took another walk around the Colosseum, where we encountered these dudes:
When the guys in the photo above flagged us down and offered to pose with us, we said, “what the hell?” Little did we know that they would wind up charging us 30 Euros (ten for each centurion) for the privilege of taking pictures with our own cameras—no mention had been made of charging us beforehand. So word to the wise: either avoid these guys or negotiate a fee before letting them take any pictures.
Next, we made our way toward the Roman Forum but we had trouble finding the entrance and wound up walking all over the place, touring some of the other forums and buildings in the area.
After stopping at a café for pizza and a beer, we finally found the Forum’s entrance. The Roman Forum is a sublime experience, especially if you can allow yourself to imagine what it must have been like in its glorious prime: the magnificent buildings, the hustle and bustle of citizens moving to and fro. The self-guided, recorded tour helps transport you to that era by explaining everything that you are seeing. I highly recommend the tour, otherwise you’re just walking around looking at a bunch of pieces of marble and stone.
The tour is so comprehensive that if you actually stopped to listen to every description of every site, you could easily spend an entire day in the Forum and the adjoining Palatine Hill, but we only had the afternoon until they closed, so I had to rush through some things and skip others. At one point, I made my way to the Temple of Venus and Rome, where I had a spectacular view of the Colosseum.
I don’t think people realized that they could go up there because I was the only person around, so I just sat for a while admiring the view, snapping photos, and appreciating that oasis of tranquility in the middle of Italy’s most famous and heavily visited city. I walked inside the temple, where, again, I was completely by myself. It was a nice, quiet place to sit for a few minutes and decompress from the stresses of travel, and would have been a perfect place to eat lunch or do some writing.
Before leaving I grabbed a stone from the ground that was actually a fallen piece of the temple structure and brought it home for my stepfather, who had requested a stone from Italy (I also brought a piece of one of the other forums home for him). I eventually made my way back to the Palatine Hill, where I rejoined my uncle and we continued our tour, which lasted another couple of hours, including a walk through the very underground corridor where Caligula is thought to have been assassinated.
When the Forum complex was getting ready to close for the day, we rushed back to the entrance to retrieve our collateral for the audio tour listening devices (my uncle had left his passport and I my driver’s license), so we didn’t get to complete the tour (I wasn’t able to see the Circus Maximus, though it is little more than a grooved field now anyway).
That night we headed out for dinner at a restaurant called Zodiac, located high on a hill overlooking the entire city. On our way there we could not find a cab so we decided to walk, thinking “how bad can it be?” Well, it turns out that the restaurant is WAY up the hill, and the only way up there is to walk up a steep, dark, winding highway with little-to-no shoulder. Thankfully, we found a cab at the foot of the hill and avoided this arduous climb. We were already so wiped out from an entire day’s worth of walking that I don’t think we would have made it, or, if we had decided to push through, it would have taken us most of the night to even get up there. Even with the cab it took us a long time to get to the top, but we eventually did and, despite feeling somewhat underdressed, we had a great meal while enjoying this spectacular view of The Eternal City:
After dinner we had a cab drop us at the subway stop that would take us back to our hotel only to discover that the subway system had closed at 9pm! Apparently The Eternal City closes early. After some walking we eventually found another cab and made it home.
That night and into the morning we had some heavy rain, which resulted in our subway stop being flooded and closed. We weren’t sure how we were going to get to the Vatican, but we were fortunate to run into some nice Italian men, and a Brazilian woman who spoke both Italian and English, so she was able to translate their instructions for us to find the next subway stop. She then walked with us to the stop. A little side note on subways in Rome: you will often encounter people on the trains begging for money, something to consider if that sort of thing makes you uncomfortable.
Thankfully, the weather cleared up when we made it to the Vatican. Outside the walls I couldn’t help noticing all of the people standing around selling tickets to the museum or offering guided tours. It reminded me of scalpers outside sports stadiums and I made a comment to that effect. One of these men overheard me and took great offense, shouting out, “I’m not a scalper, sir, I help people!” Well okay, then.
We entered the grounds with the intention of visiting St. Peter’s Basilica, only to discover a massive line winding all the way around the circular inner courtyard area. So we went back out to the scalper area and booked one of the Museum/Basilica combo tours that would enable us to bypass most of the lines. It was worth it as the guide, engaging and knowledgeable, added much to the experience. I also met another couple on the tour who live right near me in Central Jersey; small world.
Part of the tour included a visit to the Sistine Chapel, which is kept dark and cold, and where photos are prohibited. In fact, the guy from the aforementioned couple was kicked out of the chapel when he was caught snapping photos. I managed to snap a couple of covert photos by holding the camera at my hip and pointing it at the ceiling. This one didn’t come out too badly considering the lighting conditions and my inability to properly frame the shot:
The chapel was not quite how I’d envisioned it–I had this vision in my head of a tall, grand, domed structure, but it’s actually smaller and more intimate feeling than that. Still, it’s an amazing site when you consider the work that went into painting it. Following the chapel we made our way to St. Peter’s Basilica, the interior of which is pretty awe inspiring regardless of your religious leanings.
After leaving the Vatican we decided to walk along the Tiber toward the Trastevere district of Rome to eat at this restaurant called Meo Pataca, which had been recommended by a Roman native friend of my department manager at work. It was a much longer walk than expected but Trastevere is a nice neighborhood to visit, full of character with its narrow cobblestone streets and medieval houses (I later found out that both Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone grew up in that neighborhood, so it’s pretty cool to know I walked those same streets).
I’m pretty good at reading maps and I have a good sense of direction, but we still had a hard time navigating the maze of streets that make up Trastevere. At certain points we considered giving up and just eating at one of the other restaurants we passed, but I was determined to find Meo Pataca. Finally, we did, but we arrived at a locked door and it looked dead inside. We thought the restaurant no longer existed and almost left, but we decided to walk around the building and look for another entrance. I’m glad we did because we wound up having a fabulous meal at an authentic restaurant frequented by the locals of Rome rather than tourists, well off the beaten path. There was one other group of Americans who found the place and we sat next to them and had a good conversation, but most people were Italians, and little English was spoken by anyone, including the restaurant staff. It was one of the best meals of the trip—and the best atmosphere, complete with a lady singing Italian songs backed by a roving group of acoustic guitarists.
The next day we decided to fit in a few more sites before our train was scheduled to leave, including the famed Spanish Steps, The Trevi Fountain, and the Pantheon, which is really an amazing building with the way the natural light of the sun illuminates the interior courtesy of a hole in the domed ceiling.
After the Pantheon we stopped for some more delicious gelato at a place that had been recommended by the same friend of my manager and then headed back to the train for the long ride back to Florence. We arrived at the villa that night and had dinner with our housemates—one of the few nights when almost everyone in the villa was together. I was exhausted after the Rome trip but there was no rest for the weary, for I needed to pack for my solo trip to Venice the next morning, which I will be covering in the next installment.
- Eurotrip 2011: My Journal, Part 1
- Eurotrip 2011, Part 2: Under The Tuscan Sun
- Eurotrip 2011, Part 4: Ah, Venice
- Eurotrip 2011, Part 5: Dodging a Bullet in Cinque Terre
- Eurotrip 2011, Part 6: Leaning Towers and Haunted Villas
- Eurotrip 2011, Part 7: Kicking Back in Basel
- Eurotrip 2011, Part 8: Long Train Runnin’, Destination Zagreb
- Eurotrip 2011, Part 9: Palace Living (Roman Style) in Split, Croatia
- Eurotrip 2011, Part 10: Chasing Waterfalls in Krka National Park
- Eurotrip 2011, Part 11: Gettin’ Medieval in Dubrovnik
- Eurotrip 2011: The Video