Our European Vacation
I didn’t realize why at the time, but landing at Leonardo da Vinci International Airport in Rome didn’t feel like landing in a major city. Sure, a lot of airports I have traveled through are far from the city center, but most of the time I am able to see a bustling metropolis from the air as we land. In Rome it feels very provincial. It turns out this is because Rome doesn’t have any skyscrapers. In fact, no building can be taller than St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. As for the city itself, it is controlled in how the buildings can look so they all have Earth tone colors which keeps Rome looking … Roman.
Having lived in Tokyo and visited Hong Kong and New York City, my wife and I are accustomed to city traffic and the rush of cars in tight spaces, but Rome seemed to operate on another level. In our short stay in Rome we were witness to one accident and a lot of close calls. As Flavia, our tour guide, pointed out in Rome traffic laws are considered “suggestions.” The one accident we witnessed happened right in front of us as we were walking back to our hotel when one lady rear ended another and got out of the car to apologize. The lady who got rear-ended wasn’t having any of that and we really thought we were going to see a fist fight. It got so bad that the lady who began by apologizing was yelling at the other lady until she just got in her car and drove off. So…I guess she’s just going to pay for the damage herself? Luckily we didn’t have to worry about it, so we went to have some pasta and wine.
My wife and I were not sure how we should engage the Roman traffic. In New York you J-walk. In LA, you drive. In Tokyo you take a train and when you have to cross a street you wait for the light. We had no idea if we crossed in a crosswalk to get to the other side of the roundabout if we’d survive. So as we were approaching one near the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore I saw a nun walking briskly toward the crosswalk. I pointed to her and told my wife to get behind her and do what she does. The stern looking nun just started walking through and it turned out the cars stopped for her, and therefor us too. I was just assuming that the Romans wouldn’t run down a nun, and I guess I was right.
Someone told us that the church Santa Maria Maggiore would be a major attraction if it was in any other Italian city than Rome. We didn’t go inside, and the picture above is actually of the back of the church. It was such a minor attraction to us that we didn’t even bother getting good pictures from the front. (And we weren’t even church-weary yet!)
On the first day of our trip I discovered something important. So here is the first travel tip I can offer, especially for people traveling to Italy and especially for people with sleep apnea. If you forget a part of your CPAP machine at home, you won’t be able to get a replacement part. So don’t forget. I forgot a small connector that attaches the mask to the air tube and went to three different pharmacies and was told that they don’t know anything about CPAPs. There is a longer story about my trials of getting my CPAP to work and how one of our tour mates used some mad MacGyver skills to get me through my trip…but for now, let me just say…don’t forget.
But, having said that, it’s important to point out that even though the pharmacists did not understand how important this “CPAP” thing was to me (My sleep apnea is quite severe) they were very helpful in every way they could be. The concierge at the hotel and especially our tour guide went above and beyond in trying to find a solution to my problem. And in all of their efforts we concluded that Italians have not prioritized Sleep Apnea as a problem they need to deal with. They prioritize wine and pasta. True story.
The first full day in Rome was packed with history, culture, and gelato. In the morning we boarded the bus (about 40 of us in our tour group) driven by a fire cracker bus driver named Mario. We’d all say “bonjourno” and he’d reply “BONJOURNO!!!” The the tour guide would ask him how many espressos he had this morning and he’d happily hold up 4 fingers and say “Quatro!” And we’d all be impressed. As the tour went on I decided to try to keep up, but it wasn’t too hard. The espresso was great and turned into a new favorite way for me to drink my coffee, and after all, we’re from Seattle.
When you go to small towns in the western part of the US you can feel some history, though it feels like the 40s and 50s. When you go to certain places in Seattle you can feel the history of late 19th century early 20th century architecture. New York City has the old 17th century buildings like the church near Ground Zero where they have preserved George Washington‘s ’private pew. And I have been in some areas in Japan that date back thousands of years, but that history feels alien to this American dude. But Rome feels old. Not in a run down sort of way, though there is a story about how they don’t make things like they used to coming up in a section on Florence, but the history of western civilization permeates the Roman streets and piazzas. The first full day in Rome we went to the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. And we did all that before lunch.
The Colosseum is a nick name; it actually has a real name and that is The Flavian Amphitheater. It became named the Colosseum because of a gigantic or “colossal” statue of the emperor Nero. That statue is long gone, but the people continued to call the amphitheater by it’s informal name, Colosseum.
At first it sort of looked small from the outside, but once inside it’s revealed as quite large with a lot of optical illusions that only reveal themselves when you look closely. For example, from high up in the “cheap” seats when you look down into the bottom of the bowl you see lots of “little” passageways where the animals, gladiators and the condemned would be staged. At one time those passages were covered by the floor where all the action happened. But once you get down closer to the floor you can see that those passageways and rooms that were beneath the floor were quite large. Pictures don’t really do it justice, but here’s one anyway.
From there it’s a short walk to the ruins of the Roman Forum. For a political science and history buff like me, this was very exiting. The cradle of republican democracy! It was threatening rain and there were some puddles on the ground but aside from a few sprinkles here and there we got pretty lucky. In fact the weather reports had been calling for rain the whole first week we were there, but thankfully it never came. Well, not never, but more on that in a minute.
It didn’t hit me until later in the week our group would take a side trip to Verona but standing in the Forum and walking on the cobble stones there, we were standing on the same ground as the original Roman Senators and Gladiators over 2000 years ago.
After hanging out at the Forum we had a little time on our own. One of the first things we wanted to try was some carbonara. What we didn’t know was there were many kinds of this dish. The one we were most familiar with was made with spaghetti noodles, but we didn’t know there was another kind. My wife ordered it as carbonara and it came as some kind of penne or zitti type of pasta. It was good, but we learned we were going to have to be specific.
Another instance of this kind of misunderstanding had happened in the morning at breakfast. There were machines in our cafeteria that dispensed different kinds of coffee and she decided she wanted to have a latte. Well, in Italian that just means steamed milk. To get what we in Starbucks land think of as a latte you have to order cafe latte. Then you get some coffee in it.
For lunch we just went back to the hotel to get suggestions from the concierge. He recommended a little place right next to the hotel so we just popped in there for the aforementioned carbonara. I had something else and can’t even remember what it was. What I was really interested in after walking around ancient Rome all morning was a beer. The waiter recommended a beer that they served that he said many people think is too strong. I said, hey that’s right up my ally bring it on. Most of the beer in Italy is of the light pilsner or lager kind, but this one was an Imperial Pilsner at about 7.5%, and it came in a big fancy bottle. When he brought it, it turned out to be a Dogfish Head branded one that was only available in Italy. Score! Very good beer. Overall a nice lunch and we were ready to go for a walk.
After having a nice day with just a hint of sprinkles on our way back from our meander, it started to rain. To get out of the downpour we ducked into one of the little bistros near our hotel. We ordered something that looked good and soon after a couple of people from our tour group showed up and asked if they could sit with us.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is one of the best reasons I can give to go abroad via tour. (The tour we used was Gate One) You meet the nicest people and make connections that you will never forget. We sat and ate dinner with them and had a wonderful time as the rain poured and the thunder cracked. Then when the storm calmed down a bit we went to find a gelato stand. While we were there we bumped into a couple more people from our tour and we all stood around getting to know one another and eating the best gelato we had had up to that point. Right at the apex of that wedge building in the picture above is where we had our gelato. I’m sure that some Rome experts will point out that this is not the best place, but for us, at that moment, it was the best.
The next day, after we had our continental breakfasts and multiple shots of espresso (or hot milk in my wife’s case) we boarded the bus, heard Mario shout “BONJOURNO!!!” and were on our way to The Vatican Museum and St. Peter’s Basilica.
The line was unreasonably long, but after a few years of working for Disney and spending ages in lines for various rides, it wasn’t anything I wasn’t used to.
The line moved a lot faster than it looked like it was going to, because they moved through security in groups and tour groups had their own special line with a reservation system. It looks a little chaotic but everyone is just focused on following their own groups’ tour flags, so no one “becomes part of the permanent exhibit” as our tour guide warned.
The way the tour worked, we had one central tour guide who acted as the over all coordinator. She went with us everywhere, arranged all of the events, helped everyone out individually for various issues that came up, arbitrated any differences that might come up between tourists or hotels. And for each location we had a local tour guide who would take us through museums, churches, walking tours, etc. For Rome our guide was Paolo. He had a great, somewhat dry, sense of humor and he seemed to know everything there was to know about Rome specifically and everything in general. Very knowledgeable and attuned to the group.
The Vatican Museum can be overwhelming. For this reason I am very glad we had a tour guide. He had a ton of knowledge and was able to focus us on the most important stuff, or we’d have been there for weeks.
The long hallways of the museum are covered floor to ceiling and almost every square inch in art work from over the centuries. It is all tastefully done, but ostentatious is a word that feels grossly inadequate to describe its presentation. I’m not an art guy in general, though I do enjoy looking at it. I have a general sense of the stuff and can sort of pick out things that look like they came from the Renaissance, or modern art. This stuff was off the hook. By about half way through the tour of the museum I could see that the group was getting a sensory overload and if we were struck dumb in awe, I think that is the entire point of Vatican City. We are supposed to be impressed.
Then, after going through the Sistine Chapel, where we were not supposed to talk or take pictures, we got in line to go into the big church; Saint Peter’s Basilica. (By the way, in the Sistine Chapel, where we weren’t supposed to talk or take pictures, the main offenders of this rule were the other tour guides who were talking into their microphones to the receivers of all of the people in their tour groups. And despite getting told in just about every language not to talk or take pictures there were lots of people taking pictures which lead to a lot of shouts from the guards of “NO PICTURES!”)
If you only go to one church in Italy; A) how did you get away with that? And B) make sure it’s Saint Peter’s Basilica. The Vatican Museum and all of the overwhelming wealth of pricelessness is just a warm up for the church. When you walk in, the first thing you will see is Michelangelo’s most famous work, the Pieta. It’s guarded behind a bulletproof Plexiglas wall and an ocean of picture takers. (Many of whom are likely going to be disappointed that all they were able to capture was the flash from their camera bouncing off the glass.)
Too much to describe here, so I’ll just post a few pictures.
Following our visit to Vatican City the tour offered an nice little side excursion for people who were still willing. Because it was still early in the trip we decided to go and I’m really glad we did. I could go again and stick pretty much to the contents of this next side trip and be very happy. Italy has this great cultural phenomena called “Piazza” and I really wish we had more of this in the US. The closest thing we have to this is the food court at the mall, which is an absurd comparison, but it’s the best I could come up with. In this little tour we walked to Piazza Novona (which is a large public square but usually more oval) lined with little restaurants, pubs and bistros with a centerpiece statue or fountain. They are great! I can only imagine how much better they would be if they had a better beer selection, but now I’m just picking nits.
After eating lunch, and walking through a couple of these Piazza we found ourselves standing in front of the Pantheon.
I have a small confession to make. It’s going to come up later in a little more detail, but consider this foreshadowing. I was not completely unfamiliar with this location. Sure, it was the first time I had been there, but I felt like I had been there before.
One of the interesting little facts about the Pantheon is that it does not have a cover on top. It has a great dome, but there is no cupola on the top of it. It’s an open space that looks up to the sky and the floors have little drains built in for the rain. The reason they left it this way is so that the Gods could get in. So…you have to leave an opening or the Gods can’t get in. I think the Incredible Hulk would be less than impressed.
Did I mention that I love the Piazzas? I also really love the roadside ristorante like the one in this picture, that is actually on the road.
The Trevi Fountain is crowded. It’s insanely crowded. I should have got a picture to convey how crowded it is, but I was too busy trying to get through the crowd with my wife so we could throw some coins in the water.
It’s a beautiful fountain and if we go back I will want to try to go here early in the morning to get some better pictures. I think I threw the right number of coins in so we should be able to go back. We’ll see.
That is it for Rome. I’ll be back with pictures from Assisi and Florence next.