Week Fourteen - All roads lead to Rome... 09/28/2010
“Veni, vedi vici.” – translation: “I came, I saw, I conquered.” Gaius Julius Caesar in a six-word letter to Rome on his progress at war circa 60 BC.
Day Ninety-Three September 18th
All roads lead to Rome. As they should. We are up early for the drive, excited to be heading south and looking forward to getting back into an urban environment. We have a quick breakfast then hit the main highway down the Adriatic coast. The drive is beautiful with long curves rounding hillsides that wash into the sea. They are covered with gardens, lush and green. I wish we had a convertible.
Some of the hillsides soon turn to mountains and we need to go through them instead of around. At some point we drive inland and start a series of tunnels that takes us across central Italy and out of the sunshine and then in and out of pockets of rain.
The drive is easy if you ignore the Italians. They can’t drive. I assume they think we can’t drive but that’s not true. We can drive: I learned in New York and drive in LA so I have some perspective on this one. These people never bothered to learn, they just got behind the wheel, punched the clutch and stepped on the gas. If anything or anyone gets in the way they just hit the horn and start yelling.
The trick is to always, and I stress always, assume you are right and the other person is wrong. It doesn’t matter what the issue. If you want to drive on the sidewalk go right ahead, just make sure you yell and honk at anyone that shouts at you, except for the old people, always stop and given them the right of way, they will take it anyway since they believe, actually they know, they deserve it more than you.
The same holds true for parking. Feel free to stop anywhere: middle of the road, sidewalks, in other people’s driveways, in front of hydrants, in handicapped spots. It doesn’t matter as long as you where dark glasses and act like you are in a hurry.
On the highway drive as fast as you can and honk if anyone is going slower than you are. Do not slow down for any reason, the sole exception being if you see red taillights and pass a sign with a picture of a camera and a big red letters on it. This is one of the traffic ticket cameras and everyone seems to know exactly where they are and what the speed needs to be. You can drop from 150k back down to 80K in a matter of seconds only to resume the 150K when the little sign passes by. What a system.
Rome is actually very easy to drive into. It’s not so easy to drive in, but the approach itself is pretty straightforward. One of the hardest things to do is to keep watching the road with all of the sights flying by and the cars coming at you. There are ruins everywhere. We pass the Coliseum, the Forum, statues, fountains, old walls and aquaducts. The kids are like spinning tops as we shout out “Look at that one, and that one, over here, look over there, check that out!”
We found our apartment on Home Away. It is tucked into a little side street somewhere in the historic section of town, in an area with restricted driving access. No cars allowed after 2p. At 2:07p we arrive. Instead of doing the Italian thing and ignoring the restrictions we are good tourists and park along the river. Teri then heads into the maze of small streets to (1) find and ATM to get the rest of the cash we need to pay for the apartment and (2) see how far we need to carry the bags. I wait with the kids who are about to explode with excitement.
Turns out the parking gods took care of us and are only half a block from our building. With a week to explore the city we wanted to be in our own place, with a nice kitchen to take full advantage of the local markets and some room to spread out, lounge around and relax. At this point in the trip we are looking for a home instead of a hotel, even if it is for just a while.
Jill (American) and Stephan (German) are waiting for us when we ring the buzzer. They are incredibly nice people. This is their apartment that they rent out from time to time: it is their home, very much like we do with our place in Malibu.
To give a sense of the impression the apartment makes on us is nearly impossible. You really need to be here. The building is 500+ years old, sitting on a corner of a cobblestone side street across from an elementary school and down the block from a large church. The old wooden door opens into a courtyard with a loin head coming out of the wall, spitting water into a huge basin.
The staircase is grand and the elevator is tiny with doors that you close by hand. The outer door to the apartment opens to a smaller entranceway that has another door opening up into the apartment. All of the doors are ancient.
When you walk in you immediately notice the high ceilings and the sense of space. And that it seems to go on forever. The ceilings are originals, hand painted hundreds of years ago. Since Jill and Stephan are in the art world almost every inch is covered with art of some kind, all of it perfectly placed and situated. Books line all of the walls and huge French windows open onto the street in both front and back. Remember, we have been living in a 7m camper for two months, so at first, we find it hard to even speak.
Our hosts need to run to catch a train to Florence for the weekend so we get a quick download on instructions and then they are off. In a matter of minutes we are all sitting comfortably on down couches just looking at each other and laughing at our good fortune. It is too good to be true.
After we stop wandering around getting use to the space, Teri heads out for a quick shop and then I begin my quest to return the car. For some reason the GPS decided to stop working as I pass the Mausoleo Augusto. I was on Lungtevere Marzio heading towards Lungotevere Augusta and then I think I am supposed to turn onto Via Ferdinandi di Savola or something like that, where I do a quick right and catch Via Princi Clotilde by the Piazza die Popolo. What was that name again?
Instead I am on a bridge going in the wrong direction in what might be a bus lane for oncoming traffic. Vespas come at you at astonishing speeds: they have replaced chariots but its clear the competition remains. I do the only thing I can: I start blowing my horn, hitting my palm on my forehead and shouting at the other cars. When in Rome…
The walk back across the city is a pleasure. It is early evening on a warm Saturday in September. The streets are crowded, the sun is shining low it the sky, dinner tables are being set and shops are opening back up for the evening. In the twenty minutes it takes to find our place the streets come alive. I can’t wait for tomorrow when we can start to explore.
Day Ninety-Four September 19th
Rome has been crumbling forever. The Romans don’t seem to mind too much though: in fact they seem to make the best of it since they really have no choice in the matter. Plus “old” looks good on the city with the really old stuff from BC, mixing with “newly old” stuff from AD, to paint a picture of all things Roman.
The Pantheon is one of these things. Let me say upfront for those that slept through History in their youth that the Pantheon should not be confused with the Parthenon. When you go looking for a bunch of columns on the hill and end up with a dome in the middle of a square it can be very confusing. Not that I would know, just that it may happen to some people.
Anyway the Pantheon has been around for two thousand years and is the largest unreinforced concrete dome ever built. The unreinforced part does cross your mind when you stand underneath it. Another cool thing is that the diameter is the same as the height. The place is impressive even with the crowds. There are so many people that you have to fight for floor space. It’s like being in a mosh pit.
We are in and out in ten minutes. Check off sight number one. Vince is convinced the guys outside dressed as ancient Roman soldiers charging for photos are real. He keeps pointing to and talking about the swords. We have entered the stage of swords and guns and light sabers. Such the boy.
Adele and I are focused on gelato. Lonely Planet has a list of the top five places in the city and we have made it our mission to check them out. The first stop is Gelatoria Giolitti, a personal favorite of several Popes.
The place has an attitude. First off they charge to sit. I can’t stand that. Why charge people to sit at a table if they buy something from you? I still don’t understand it. Then you pay first and head over to the counter where you fight everyone else to get the servers attention to place your order. Think of buying a round at White Horse Tavern in NYC on a Friday afternoon around 5:30p.
I can belly up with the best of them and we manage to get the guys attention but Adele is completely overwhelmed with choices and Teri insists on tasting samples so we end up losing him. Luckily Vince and I placed our orders, a caffe and pistachio cup and a watermelon cone, before he got away. We leave the Chicas to fend for themselves.
I get why Pope John Paul II ordered in at the Vatican. It is superb. And to think it is only 11a and we are eating ice cream. The kids just can’t believe it is so.
Wandering around Piazza Navona and exploring the Pantheon was supposed to take a few hours and be our main sights of the day. We banged them both out in half an hour. Best laid plans. We know from experience that wandering aimlessly in a city with two small children is a mistake. So we decide to have lunch as soon as we finish our gelatos.
It turns out that not one but two of the restaurants recommended by Lonely Planet are closed. Not for good, just for lunch on Sundays. In a strange twist of fate we find another version of the first one, Pizzeria da Baffetto II, tucked away on a small square off Campo de Fiori, with make shift tables jetting out on the street. It is packed and the pizza looks amazing so we grab a table.
They ignore us. I can’t tell if they ignore everyone but for some reason we seem to be invisible. I know when we order that it’s a mistake. The food takes forever. I kid you not we wait almost an hour for three plate size pizzas. The other tables all turn over while we sit and wait and wait and wait.
It is times like these that travel becomes weary. All you want is to eat something and go home and rest but you can’t because you need to eat out and feed the kids and there is not food at the apartment yet and the waiters refuse to see you wave and the pizza takes forever and the guide book is only 50/50 at best and you can’t understand anyone and on it goes. Until suddenly you are all sitting silently in the back of a crowded restaurant, heads down, just trying to get through the next hour. It comes on fast.
Eventually we wind our way back home to nap and rest. By days end we have gone to the store for the basics so we can eat in, talked for a long time to family and friends back in the States, unpacked and settled in.
It is nice to be in a place for more than a day or two. This is our first week in one place since we left Malibu.
Day Ninety-Five September 20th
Monday morning means school. Nothing like reading about the Vatican as part of your class work in the morning then standing in the center of St. Peters at noon.
I grew up with Catholics and know them to be a pretty serious bunch. There were lots of them on Long Island: mostly Italian and Irish, big families with hoards of kids. Growing up Presbyterian I was always jealous that they had a choice to go to Mass on Saturday evening instead of waking up early on Sunday. Especially during the high school years when sleeping in meant everything.
On occasion as a kid I would go with friends to Mass at St. Anthony’s, everyone went to church back then. We would all pile into station wagons with three little ones in the way back, four in the back and the parents up front. People crossed themselves with holy water, priest burned incents, everyone knew all the words and sang along in Latin, we all knelt and prayed and lit candles. It was great fun: so much more pomp and circumstance than our little church across the street. You would think this would be enough prep for the Vatican. Think again.
Standing in the center of St. Peter’s Square, in the shade of an obelisk brought to Rome by Caligula, circled by 284 columns capped with 140 saints, is surreal. It is like nothing else: you come to know sheer unbridled power and wealth.
Then when you walk into the Basilica, into the work of Michelangelo, and stand where Charlemagne was crowned, and by the tomb of St. Peter, and the high alter of the Pope, with its soaring dome and massive statues, it is hard to fathom and understand. It is all so much, so vast and so awesome.
When you walk though the door and see the interior for the first time you skip a beat. I actually stop walking and pull in one of those short quick breaths just to try and settle down and digest what we are looking at. Even the kids stop the constant chatter. We wander through, mostly in silence.
Teri and Adele find a side chapel and send a prayer to those of you in need.
I cannot find words to adequately capture the experience so I must let it pass without putting pen to paper. All I can say is that everyone should come here.
Lunch is at Pizzeria Amalfi a few blocks away. It’s a nice little place, just off the main tourist route. The food is good and it is nice to sit and relax. We are in a neighborhood with wide, tree lined streets and plenty of shops. Adele searches for Roman sandals and running shoes and Vince and I get “football” shirts. He is now an official member of the all red Scudari Ferrari team: I am donning the royal blue of Italia.
We return to clean laundry! Our host Jill volunteered her housekeeper to help us out with a “few Loads.” Little did she know that we needed to wash almost everything we have, she must think we are nuts arriving on vacation with backpacks full of dirty clothes. How good it feels to have clean tee shirts again.
In our continued quest for the best gelato in Rome, Adele and I stop by Gelato Teatro just around the corner from our apartment. It is a tiny place at the end of an alley and comes highly recommended by our hosts. The variety is incredible. Adele orders Ginger and Lemon Cheesecake and I get Caffe and Sicilian Almond. From the first bite we are hooked. This must be what heroin is all about.
When we return Adele volunteers to cook dinner. She is more than excited to have the responsibility and takes to the task with earnest. I must say she is a very good cook at a very young age. With almost nothing to work with she ends up with “primia” of toasted bread covered in arugula and shaved Parmesan cheese, sprinkled with olive oil and a side of tomatoes. Plus a “secondo” of apples and green beans. Not bad for an eight year old, going on twenty-one.
To close out the day I get and email from the Cooking Vacations people letting me know they refuse to refund any money. We now need to decide if we are going to sue them or not to try and re-coup the cost.
Day Ninety-Six September 21st
The fresh market at Campo di Fiori is not to be missed. Or so Teri and Adele tell me upon their return with bags of fresh vegetables, bread, pastas, cheese and olives. Vince and I slept in. After coffee and some schooling we ready to start our day.
Today we explore Ancient Rome. The main events are the Forum, Palatino and the Colosseo. Enough ruins to last a lifetime. The crazy thing about Rome is that you just walk on over. It is like stopping by a friend’s house for a visit.
As a warm up we pass by the impressive Monumento a Vittorio Emmanuele II. I have no idea what it is or why it’s there but “monumento” is certainly appropriate. It towers high up in the air and is seemingly made entirely of white marble. There are carved horses and statues of gods and columns and fountains. The front it gated and there are guards watching out for trouble. It must be on the tour bus circuit because there are thousands of people standing around snapping photos.
Stretching out from there on either side of the Via dei Fori Imperiali sit the big three in all their glory. First up is the Forum. If you come here buy a combo ticket at the Forum instead of the Coliseum, the line is much more manageable.
The Forum was the epicenter of Ancient Rome. Coming in off the street you get the sense that the area has been in continual use pretty much forever. There are buildings built on top of buildings that sit on top of other building and so on and so on. Plus, they keep finding new really old ones whenever someone starts digging.
I was here as a kid. Back home I still have a piece of a column that I brought back with me from that trip. I remember being able to just walk around back then and pick stuff up. Like it was no big deal for a ten year old to walk off with a piece of Caesar’s house. All these years I have wondered if it is real. Being here today I now know it is. My rock looks like all the other pieces lying around. Only now they don’t let you walk off with one.
Adele is fascinated when I tell her the story. And she immediately starts picking up rocks. We already have a small collection tucked into the nooks and crannies of our bags. I have a feeling it will only get heavier as we move on.
The Forum blends into the Palatino. This is one of the wealthy neighborhoods from the olden days. The Caesars all lived here: as did the Senators and wealthy citizens. The ruins are scattered over one of Rome’s seven hills and are impressive even today. It is interesting to see how everything fit together.
There are houses, temples, arenas, baths, areas for grapes and olives, public squares, arches and streets. Everything modern Rome has today, really not much has changed after all these years.
It is fun to walk on ground that people have been covering for so many generations and over so much time. Back home our house is the first that we know of to sit on our land. Sure a few Chumash Indians may have camped on the hillside at some point but it is nothing like this. This is a place of spirits and souls from thousands upon thousands of years. If you listen close enough you can still hear them whisper on the wind and in the rustle of the olive branches.
Lunch is mediocre: another one lost to a bad Lonely Planet recommendation. Their guidebooks are proving to be really hit or miss here in Rome. To make up for it we make a return trip to Gelato Teatro to share our joy with Teri and Vince. Flavors for today are: Raspberry Garden Sage, Tiramisu, Hazelnut, Vanilla with Chocolate Chip, Pistachio, Walnut and Watermelon. If we lived here, this place could become an issue!
Around 5p Teri heads out to get a haircut and the kids and I walk over to a glass bead shop to pick up the fixins for new Italian bracelets. We are already wearing seashells from Mexico and Viking beads from Norway. The addition of a few Italian beads certainly adds some bling.
Adele whips up a tomato, fresh basil, garlic and olive sauce for our pasta while Vince and I string the beads. Teri returns looking fabulously Italian claiming it may be the best haircut she has ever had. We all agree she looks like a movie star.
Life goes on like this in Rome. We add it to the list: not as high up as NYC or Paris, maybe on par with Oslo and certainly ahead of Frankfurt.
Day Ninety-Seven September 22nd
We need a semi-rest day so today get up late, have school and then head off to the Villa Borghese park with reservations at 1p for the Museo e Galleria Borghese.
The park is a bit of a walk from the apartment and we enjoy peeking in shop windows and the warm sunshine of mid-morning. It feels like we are the only tourists out and about as we wander down side streets and snake our way across town. Then we notice a tour bus.
When we turn a corner there is a mound of people scrambling about like ants. Somewhere buried under what appears to be layers of tourists are the famous Spanish Steps. I have no idea why they are famous: after all it is just a few flights of stairs leading to a street like any other.
There are so many people standing around that it is just silly. Most of them are trying to take pictures but you can’t really see the stairs with all the street vendors and people on them. The rest of them are eating ice cream, calling out to each other in various languages and taking up space. Climbing the steps is nearly impossible, especially with the stroller.
We work up an appetite navigating the sea of tourists so we grab hotdogs from a street cart for the kids and head into the park. It is so peaceful compared to the hustle and bustle of the city streets.
The museum sits in the far corner of the park, set in an old Villa, housing the Borghese art collection. Apparently the Cardinal was a ruthless collector back in his day sometime around 1600 and the Villa showcases the fruits of his efforts. It may be one of the best museums we have been to on the trip.
The reservation allows a set number of people in at two hour intervals, plenty of time to take it all in. The artwork sits on two floors, one focuses on sculptures, mosaics and frescos, the other on paintings. Both are equally impressive. With the kids we are through in about an hour. If we were solo we probably would have used the full time allotment.
The museums in Rome are expensive for families. For some reason they do not offer kids a half price rate (or free under five, like other cities). Therefore we must pay full boat of all four of us. If you are a member of the EU the rules are different and kids get in for free. Someone should call the Italian consulate and tell them to stop nickel and diming US families. They would see a lot more family business with a more liberal pricing policy. Not that they need anyone else to visit.
The afternoon is spent wandering around the park, renting bikes, exploring a kids reading room/play area and working off some pent up energy. It is a great place to spend the day.
By 4p or so we are wandering down Via Vittorio Veneto, a high-end hotel and shopping street, sort of like our Rodeo or Fifth Ave, in New York. It is funny to see doormen. We have been out of that world for so long now that it seems foreign and otherworldly.
It reminds me that I have come along way in a short amount of time. A year ago I was on a first name basis with the staff of the Trump International on Columbus Circle. For the past decade, I logged over well over one hundred thousand frequent flyer miles per year and navigated business travel with comfort and privilege. I travelled on a wavelength well above the masses.
Travel was a means to an end, necessary and tolerated. To others, on the surface it was glamorous and exciting but underneath the long flights and constant stress take their toll. I don’t miss that life. Now when I see men in suits getting out of chauffeured limos and rushing into meetings I just stand, pushing the stroller, watching them pass by, and smile. There but for the grace of God go I…
Now that we are officially main lining gelato our stop at Gelato Teatro comes none too soon. We have been discussing today’s flavors since we woke up. Adele gets Lavender Flower and White Peach and I get Pistachio and Pure Chocolate. Wham! All is right with the world.
Dinner is home cooked with local ingredients. Afterwards we find Bilbo Baggins battling giant spiders and wandering off the path. Another excellent day.
Day Ninety-Eight September 23rd
We know fountains. Fountains, oceans, seas, fjords, rivers, rain, Pellegrino, really any water-based thing out there we have intimate first hand knowledge of. The Fontana di Trevi is supposed to be an epicenter, the grand daddy of them all. It is an entire piazza of carved marble dedicated to Neptune.
Every tourist in Rome is here. Actually, I think all of the tourist in Italy may be here. It is so crowded that we can’t even push the stroller. We maneuver around and push our way towards the front elbowing up to the railing. It is fun, sort of like sport.
When you actually see the thing it is impressive. Water spills out everywhere. Legend has it that if you throw a coin in you will return to Rome someday so everyone is tossing coins from all directions. We stand and snap a photo or two then move on. There are way too many people for us.
Teri and the kids are headed to a children’s museum and I am off in the opposite direction to the train station to pickup the tickets to Salerno. Before we split we have lunch in a great little restaurant packed with statues.
The main terminal is a half hour walk and worlds away. The area around it is sort of seedy as you would expect but it is masked by the grandeur of ruins. The homeless and hustlers sit beneath marble statues and ancient aquaducts. Cheap hotels are in five hundred year old buildings.
The line for EuroStar Italia is manageable by Italian standards, lasting only about forty-five minutes. It is a good thing to do without kids. It would feel like an eternity with them in tow. The station is very busy with people coming and going: it’s a healthy mix of tourists and locals seemingly tolerant of each other. The Polizia are there in force in the event they are not.
After a long walk home I find myself in the middle of a religious parade. They entire congregation is marching through the streets behind four pallbearers carrying a bust of some saint or monk. The priest is preaching into a portable microphone that is connected to big speakers held up on poles by parishioners. It looks like a scene from a movie.
The parade lasts forever. They keep walking around the block and then returning to the main square just down from our apartment. This morning the police came and took away all the cars parked there so the church could set up chairs for the outside service. Now people have shown up looking for their cars only to find chairs full of old ladies and several separate arguments flare up around the edges as they come to realize their cars are gone. The whole thing is pretty chaotic. All the while the service continues unabated.
Remember the computer? It is North Carolina. A customs agent emailed us asking for paperwork. They will not release it in the States without proof we bought it there and we don’t owe any kind of import tax. This required printing, signing and scanning documents. A task that is near impossible when you travel off the grid.
The kids return singing the praises of the Children’s Museum and clamoring about gelato. It is that time of day. Today is a mix of milk chocolate, strawberry, coconut, basil and walnut. As regulars our portions are getting a bit bigger each time and the server’s smile that much broader.
Tonight we try a local Neapolitan place around the corner for pizza and pasta. Naples pizza is between the ultra thin Roman crusts and the thicker crusts up north. It’s a good meal in a comfortable atmosphere. Vince spends most of the time running up and down the sidewalk avoiding his dinner and Adele is in heaven with a pizza without cheese!
Day Ninety-Nine September 24th
Today is our last full day in Rome. Our time here went by so fast and we are sad to see it end. It’s raining so there is no need to hurry this morning. Instead we have an extra long school session and begin the process of packing and organizing for the next leg.
Our main sight today is just across the Tiber from our apartment. The Castel Sant’Angelo is a two thousand year old mausoleum built for the emperor Hadrian. It is an imposing structure, made even more so by the rain, that sits just down from the Vatican and promises excellent views of the city.
It is dark and mysterious. To get to the top there is a tunnel/pathway that winds along the outer wall, dimly lit and down right spooky. The kids jump at ghost noises. At the mid point they let you out onto an outer walkway for the first view of the city. It is great fun looking at our apartment and all the places we have seen over the past few days.
Then they take us back inside to tour some really bad paintings of old kings and Popes before we climb a few more flights of stairs to the top section on the roof. Here the view really is incredible.
Me: “Look kids, there’s the Vatican!”
Me: “No the Vatican, see the big dome?”
He then runs around pointing to all the domes of the city.
Vince: “Dad a Mannequin, look, look, lots of mannequins all over the place!”
On the way down we find stacks of cannon balls, suits of armor, swords and pistols. In the mid-point we veer off onto a secret passageway that connects the Vatican city to the Castel. Over the years when ever the Vatican came under attack the Popes would use it to flee to safety.
When we come back over the river we stop in to a shop that I have been walking by all week. The owner sits hand making mosaic tiles. These are modern day works of art based on applying the ancient process to modern interpretation. He has a dark side of the moon album cover next to a replica from Pompeii. We watch him work for a while and he explains the process and the different valuations. The finer the tile pieces the higher the cost. Adele is totally into it.
For dinner there is much confusion since we left the guidebook at home and have no recommendation. We wander around looking for someplace to no avail. In the end, we go back to the same place we went to last night and call it a day.
To end the week on a high note Adele and Teri head over and then bring back one more round of gelato. Today we have caramel, peach and something called trofilino (?), it’s some kind of chocolate mix. If you come to Rome, go out of your way to go to Gelato Teatro, on your first day as it is habit forming, I promise it will not disappoint.
And we really recommend staying in Jill and Stephan’s apartment instead of a hotel. The comfort and freedom it provides can’t be beat. Plus, they are some of the nicest people we have met.
Tomorrow we go south to Ravello, Amalfi, Capri, Pompeii, and our first week with someone meeting us from home! We can’t wait to see our Aunt Denise.