Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Italy Part I: Roma

Wednesday 16 April
We took the train to the airport in Athens, which was uneventful and pretty easy.

Goodbye Greece

We arrived in Rome and waited forever for our bags. We bought bus passes on the plane, but this ended up being a misinformed and bad idea. The flight attendants were completely wrong about the bus and waiting times. We waited for over an hour for the bus that only took us as far as the train station. Then we got TOTALLY ripped off by a taxi. It can be so confusing traveling from country to country!! In Greece, it’s advised that you set a price BEFORE you even get in the taxi, so that’s what Preston did once we arrived in Rome. BUT…in ROME…you need to go by the meter that’s inside the taxi. Lesson learned. In Rome, they also charge you per piece of luggage that you have with you (ridiculous).

We found our hotel easily enough, because they had provided us with very clear directions. Thank goodness since the entrance was down an alley and across a parking lot.

Our room is really cute with a very modern vibe. It’s been recently redecorated. The ‘hotel’ is really more of a B&B that was once an apartment. There still exists a central room with a kitchen and food available all day long. Yes!! It was really thoughtful.

We put our stuff away and headed out into the city. Though our room overlooks the parking lot, the majority of the hotel overlooks the Argentina ruins. This is the place where Caesar was killed. Et tu, Brute!?

Where Caesar met his demise

Our hotel there on the end

We walked to the Piazza Navona-a lively square full of artists, musicians, and hawkers. (These hawker guys sell these rubber things that look like animals…and when they throw them on the ground they go SPLAT!! And make a squealing sound. This got old REALLY fast). The perimeter of the square was all overpriced restaurants. We chose one to enjoy the ambiance.

We had bruschetta, ravioli, risotto, and a bottle of wine. It was pricey-expected for the area, but nothing special. I don’t know if Italy just has a high bar set for food or what…but nothing blew our socks off.

This was bruschetta

It’s very chilly here in Rome. We shivered all through dinner.

We walked back to the hotel at dusk. Rome really has character and it’s one of the most charming cities that I have ever visited.

On the walk back, Preston had some nutella gelato. Ok. O.m.g. THIS blew my socks off. I don’t even like ice cream and this one was one of the best things I’ve EVER tasted. YUM!!

We tucked in with “Game of Thrones” (of course).

Thursday 17 April
We enjoyed sleeping in a bit this morning and then had breakfast in the little kitchen. It was kind of awkward, because the space is just too small for all the people staying here. They also have a man there to serve you, but it’s not really necessary in the tiny kitchen. Mostly we just stared at him and he at us and smiled.

We decided to take the bus over to the Vatican, so we headed across the street to catch the bus. Of course, we had no idea what we were doing. Luckily, we found another American guy who was also headed for the Vatican, so we joined teams to make sure we all arrived where we needed to go.

John has been living in Rome for some time and was a devout Catholic, so he knew a thing or two about the Vatican. We survived the crowded bus and learned an important lesson…to validate your bus ticket. There are little kiosks on the bus where you can validate. Any ticket not validated can catch you a hefty fine. This was another tip from John.

We arrived at the Vatican and walked into the impressive St. Peter’s Square. It was striking.

We attempted to go into St. Peter’s Basilica with our new friend, but it was closed.

Our main goal was to see the Vatican Museums, which house the Sistine Chapel. The problem was…we couldn’t figure out where the heck to go. Even John had no idea. There were absolutely NO signs or directions as to where to locate popular sites.

We bid John adieu so that he could pick up his tickets for Good Friday mass and we tried to find our way somewhere…anywhere. There was a huge line circling through almost the entire square, so we just joined it…thinking that it was the line for the museums. Preston stood in line while I walked around and tried to figure out why people were lined up. As it turned out…these people were lined up to enter St. Peter's...which still didn't open for THREE HOURS. So, we got out of line.

Finally on our way out of the square, we saw an arrow for the museums.

Everywhere around-there are people trying to get you on a tour for the Vatican. A guy approached us and was very kind with lots of instructions as to where we should go, what we should do. He begged us to take his tour and while it was tempting, we told him we’d think about it and walked away. (I learned THAT lesson in Turkey...thank you very much!!)

He followed us and offered us his lowest prices (less than half the initial cost), so we accepted to avoid waiting in two hour line. Mostly, we were just so tired of being confused!!

The tour guy took us to his office, where we paid and joined a tour group entering the Vatican.

Our guide was really good, if not a bit boring at times. Her English wasn’t great, but was good enough and made the tour have a more authentic feel. She really knew her stuff.

We entered the museum ahead of the waiting line. The guide passed out cool audio devices so that we could all hear her no matter where we were (I experimented with this from the bathroom, which was a weird experience :D).

Headset in

She gave us a looonnngg spiel on the Sistine Chapel. All the explaining was done before entering the chapel, since talking is forbidden inside. Michelangelo did the ceiling years after other painters had done the walls. Michelangelo was a sculptor, not a painter, so he mimicked the style of these other artists. Other facts:

-Michelangelo told the story of Man on the ceiling. He started out painting the bodies too small and realized his mistake about a 1/3 of the way through. You can notice the images getting bigger as you make your way across the chapel.

-The Sistine Chapel is much smaller than you’d think and that’s because it was a private chapel.

-Michelangelo, himself, designed an apparatus to paint the ceiling without disrupting church services.

-Apparently, Michelangelo was a real asshole.

-Later, Michelangelo painted one of the walls in the chapel and gave the face of someone that had once opposed him to the Guardian of Hell. This man became upset and complained to the Pope, who said “I have no jurisdiction over Hell”. Ha.

-No photography is allowed in the Sistine Chapel. I had assumed it was to protect the artwork. Well, let me tell you…I assumed wrong!! The REAL reason you cannot photograph the Sistine Chapel is because: years ago when money was needed to restore the place, a Japanese firm put up the funds with the agreement that they would OWN the rights to the artwork!! Isn’t that crazy?! Even the Sistine Chapel has been commercialized. Ridic.

We walked through the SUPER crowded museum. We saw a room full of various gifts from different International Leaders, a model of Vatican city, the post office (being that the Vatican is its own city-state), the Pine cone Courtyard, and another courtyard full of famous statues (that we’d never heard of :P)-namely of Apollo and some guy named Laocoon (?)-still not clear on that one.

I took a ton of pictures of this. I don't know why.

Pine cones are a symbol of fertility (Unknown why there exists this Pine cone Courtyard of the Vatican)

I was cold, of course

We waded slowly through the unbelievable crowd (that’s what we get for being in Rome on Easter weekend!!) in the halls. One hall had amazing tapestries…some of which were optical illusions and changed with your perspective(for example... the rock in the foreground was coming towards you no matter where you stood). The next hall was full of maps of Italy in great detail.

Finally, we came upon the Sistine Chapel after weaving through two more rooms and a staircase.

As I said, it was much smaller than I imagined. Many people were murmuring and the guards were very aggressive-announcing every 5 minutes or so to be SILENT!! ATTENTION!! SILENCE!! And to MOVE THROUGH!! The opted out of attempting a photo...mainly, because I don't enjoy being yelled at :D

It definitely took away from the experience, but it was something to see all the same. We stood for a few moments in SILENCE and enjoyed the magnificent artwork. Pretty good for a guy who wasn’t a painter…even if he was a jerk.

We had about 10 minutes to gawk at the ceiling and then we made our way down the stairs to conclude our tour inside of St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s free to enter, but we came in the back and got to skip that atrocious line in the square.

This church is unreal!! I’ve never seen ANYWHERE so grand as this (Ok, maybe Versailles). It’s actually kind of gross in its grandeur. Personally, I think this wealth could’ve been spent elsewhere…but I can’t say it wasn’t impressive.

We strolled back across the square, through the streets and across the bridge and river. Speaking of…I feel like in SO many cities you KNOW the river. People KNOW the Thames, the Seine, the Bosphorous Strait, the Hudson, the Mississippi. Can ANYONE name the river in Rome? Yeah, didn’t think so.

Lancelot commands the masses!!

 So, we passed over the completely unremarkable river :P and stopped to share a pizza and a cappuccino in a sunlit square. Again, nothing to write home (or in one’s blog) about.

We walked through another square-Campo de Fiori and enjoyed more AH-MAZING gelato. I had crème caramel. NOW THIS. This gelato...this is worth a few postcards of writing, at least ;) Just kidding…but it was melt in your mouth good.

We took a break at the hotel and then walked across the street to the Panthenon with its beautiful open dome. We strolled through the narrow streets over to a fancy shopping district and the Spanish Steps, the widest staircase in Europe and named for the Spanish embassy that sits near the bottom.

We climbed the steps right at sunset and enjoyed the breathtaking views of the city.

Heading back down the steps, we walked along to the wide Piazza del Popolo. Preston was super annoyed with squealing splat of the hawker’s fare. When some of them came up and got right in my face with a bouquet of roses (not the WORST thing to be in your face)…he got really mad. Haha. It is a pretty obnoxious part of visiting Rome. None of the hawkers were Italian.

The entire time this photo was being taken...this man was trying to get Preston to take a bunch of roses. Hehe!!

We walked along a wide boulevard. People were all in the streets. I can’t imagine that it’s easy to drive a car in Rome. I’m not sure if it’s always this crowded or if the city is just MORE crowded, since we unintentionally decided to come to one of the HOLIEST cities on Earth AT EASTER.

We found the Trevi fountain and Preston threw in the obligatory coin to insure our return to Rome. We snapped some photos and made our way back through the winding streets full of people, dining tables, painters, hawkers, children, and squealing fake splat toys.

Rome is really special. I’ve never been anywhere like this. It’s fascinating. Around every turn is some part of history come to life and perfectly melded into the modern world.

We had another sub-par dinner (SO disappointing. Is the bar just TOO high? Does America just have AWESOME Italian food?!) near our hotel.

We enjoyed some cake and tea in the kitchen before bed. Yay for free food!! 

Friday 18 April (Good Friday!!)
We had our awkward breakfast again (smile and stare :P) and then hit the streets to see the Colosseum :D

We stopped first at Il Vittoriano-a giant marble structure in the middle of a busy intersection. We climbed the stairs up into it. The building houses a reunification museum, but that didn’t seem too interesting, so we just used the bathrooms and were on our way.

Turning from Il Vittoriano, we headed down a wide boulevard with the Colosseum at the end. It was a glorious sight and the day was warm and sunny.

We walked along the high wall looking down on the Roman Forum-once the center of life in Ancient Rome.

The Forum

The Colosseum was, of course, insanely crowded. We opted to skip the fee and long lines and just walked along the perimeter. It truly is a grand and amazing structure.

There were many men around dressed as Roman soldiers posing for pictures.
We strolled away from the Colosseum and along the outer wall of Palantino-where Rome was supposedly founded.

We had a lunch of pizza and wine and then walked along the river. We were searching for the Michelangelo designed Piazza del Campidoglio, but we neglected to find it. Instead, we did find a delightful and friendly gelato shop that gave us TONS of tastings and monster sized cones.

This happened.

Back at the hotel, we rested for a bit in the room-working on more trip planning!-before heading out at sunset to finally find the Piazza for which we had been looking. We also stumbled upon an old theater with modern apartments built on top. Another example of the past melding with the present and future in Rome. What an amazing city!!

We crossed the nameless river into the cute little neighborhood of Trastevere, where we had a yummy dinner in a sidewalk trattoria. Despite the hundreds of tiny flies attracted to the birth lights, I think this meal was probably our best(and most cheap!!) in all of Rome.

Unhappy with the flies

We returned to the hotel under the starlit sky with the charming sounds of splat squealing rubber things hitting the sidewalks all around us ;)

Tomorrow we take the train north to Florence!!