Europe 2016 — Rome, Italy

Day 15, 30 September 2016

The day out of Levanto was an early morning because of the train tickets we’d booked in Venice. We took a regional train to La Spieza, south of Cinque Terre and then a direct train to Rome. This train was different in that it had booths of 6 seats each. I asked Yuki if she felt like she was going to Hogwarts.

We arrived in Rome and had to walk 2km to the Airbnb apartment. We were surprised that a city steeped in such history would be covered in so much graffiti. It covers a lot of buildings, most train cars, all municipal work vehicles, and any spot like tunnels or under bridges that are easily accessible and discrete. At the same time, the cobblestone streets made it difficult to drag our suitcases and the narrow sidewalks littered with garbage were a constant obstacle course. For all the problems, it is perhaps surprising that the drivers almost always stop for you to cross the road if you step out in front of them. They don’t try to ignore you or speed behind you like in Canada. So at first we were hesitant to cross the road but soon became accustomed to finding a break in traffic and forcing the next car to slow down and stop for us.

We were pleasantly surprised that the Airbnb apartment was actually a one bedroom place and that we got our own room again.

Probably my favourite part of Rome is that there are ruins everywhere. We went out to see one attraction and on our way to finding a subway line we stumbled upon the Piazza di Porta Maggorie. There is a tram station beside the ruins of what use to be Rome’s old city wall where an aqueduct cuts through at 30m high and one of the gates to the city was a tomb to a slave that was freed and became wealthy as a baker.

Further on we walked beside the remains of an aqueduct, one of 11 that use to feed the 1 million inhabitants of ancient Rome. The aqueduct and city walls have openings which have roads going through them. Some of them are the original gates repurposed for roads but others are just large demolitions cut out of the wall.

Our attraction of the day was the Spanish Steps, located in the North East of the city. Photos made it look appealing but when we arrived around dinner time the square was packed with tourists and the stairs had become a de facto public bench. We walked up and read that the stairs were significant for connecting two parts of town at different elevations. Otherwise, there isn’t much to them and we were less impressed.

The top of the Spanish Steps

Surprisingly, we found a family run restaurant with an enthusiastic and very happy greeter and waiter. This fun meal would be an abnormally of our time in Rome where the restaurant was happy, joked around, and cared about the service and food that they served. For the remainder of our time in Rome, we would have difficulty finding good food and service.

Day 16, 1 October 2016

Our day of sight seeing in Rome began later than expected but we took a tram and one of two subway lines to the Colosseum. There are hawkers everywhere trying to get you to join a tour group. They offered entrance in the next few minutes for 30 euros and said that the line was 2hr. In reality, the line was about half an hour and admission without any guide costs 11 Euro. It would seem, however, that tour groups would be the normal for all of Italy. Everywhere we went, we were mobbed by tourist groups, whether formed by a company or a sole person at the entrance. Some of the larger attractions also have self-guided audio tours and many people can be found standing awkwardly around the attraction holding half of a phone up to their ear.

Needless to say, Yuki and I didn’t use any guides. This meant that we didn’t actually learn anything while visiting the historic sites as there aren’t really any display boards. The only learning we did was by reading up on wikipedia after the fact.The tour groups looked slow and the tour guides seemed to drone on and on so it was nice to be able to go at our own pace and wander around instead of being stuck to a set path.

I wasn’t all that impressed by the Eiffel tower in Paris but the Colosseum was massively impressive. Stepping out of the metro station, the scale and size of the Colosseum is enormous. Even in ruin, it is wonderful in shape and form. From the outside, the form of the Colosseum is beautiful, with each successive arch and while deteriorated and broken, it is easy to image how much grandeur there would have been back in ancient Rome.

Entering the Colosseum was also spectacular. It is interesting to note that tickets to events at the Colosseum were free but seating was arranged by social standing with the wealthiest at the lower bowl and the poor, furthest at the top. Each of the arches at the base of the Coliseum was an entrance that lead directly to the intended seats. This eliminated cross contamination between social classes but also was incredibly efficient in moving people in and out of the stadium.

We walked around the lower bowl for photos and peered down into the galleries below the originally wood arena. The signboards said how there use to be mock naval battles but stopped after a renovation. it wasn’t clear if that renovation had to do with adding the basement or a perimeter wall. I cannot imagine how they would be able to flood the arena with a wood floor and not only support the weight of the water but also be waterproof at the same time.

After the Colosseum we had to wander around for a bit to find a place to eat, which was the normal Italian food, and then we sat outside the Basilica di San Pietro for a while because they close for lunch. Of note, there are some religious artifacts, including chains that held Saint Peter and a statue of Moses by Michelangelo. There were also some other tombs adored with skeletons which we found odd and the roof had a nice painting on it.

Then we walked back to the Coliseum to visit the adjacent Roman Forums. The ticket to the Colosseum includes the Roman Forums and Palatine Hill across the street. This is where the Roman government buildings were located and is nearby to a wealthy neighbourhood. What is most impressive about the forums is the height of some of the ruins, indicating that some buildings were huge.

The Forums are mostly ruins now but I was struct by how a much of it is brick. It seems that the romans built predominantly in brick and covered the structures in a concrete paste or marble. I’d known about the romans and concrete before but I didn’t realize that it was used as mortar between bricks and not contemporary concrete with aggregates and moulds. Only certain buildings, or parts of buildings, are constructed from stone.

By the end of the forums we were too tired to walk up Palatine Hill so we planned on coming back the next day because the tickets are valid for two consecutive days.

Day 17, 2 October 2016

The next item on our list of places to visit was Trevi Fountain. We found a shop before the fountain where we bought postcards for 0.4 euro each. We thought this was pretty good because they can be as high as 1 and are usually 0.5 or above but we found another store later that had them for 0.3 euro. Oh well.

The fountain is probably the most photographed in Rome. It was also crowded and so it felt like a lot of the other attractions where we only had enough time to get in, take our photos, and get out. There didn’t seem to be any time to appreciate or enjoy each place, especially with the crowds.

From Trevi fountain we walked to the Pantheon, passing the Piazza Colonna, which is significant because the tall round marble Column of Marcus Aurelius recounts the conquest of the Emperor in relief carvings that spiral up to a statue at the top.

The Pantheon was as large as I’d expected it to be and enormously voluminous inside. Looking at the roof, we knew that the square recesses were to reduce the weight of the roof but we wondered instead why the roof couldn’t be thinner. Like the Colosseum and the Roman Forums, the exterior was all brick. Apparently it used to be faced in marble but over the centuries that was scavenged away.

After the Pantheon we walked to the Piazza Navonna which has another impressive, but smaller fountain. We took a peak inside the Saint Agnese but there was a Sunday service in progress and the space was surprisingly small, although ordinate.

We had our worst lunch lunch afterwards at a restaurant just outside the square. The service was terrible and the food wasn’t that great either. The worst part was that the waiter tried to take 5 euros tip from us and I had to yell at him to get all our money back. For hearing that Paris waiters were snobs, we didn’t have a problem there and found that Italy was generally much worse in the tourist areas but very good in the local parts.

We were going to take the bus back to Palatine Hill but we couldn’t find a place to buy tickets so we decided to cheap out and just walk back. Along the way we stopped at the Piazza Venezia and took photos of the Altare della Patria. This monument is a modern symbol to the city of Rome and has some newer statues.

There are a lot of steps to climb on the way up and the view from the top is okay, but not great. It’s possible to go to the top by elevator but it cost 7 euro and we didn’t think it was worthwhile. In some ways, this building gives an idea to the grandeur of ancient Rome and what it must have been like in the past.

At the edge of the Roman Forums we realized that we’d forgotten yesterday’s tickets so we weren’t able to get back in. Instead we walked around to the Circuit Maximus but I was disappointed to find a sloping field with barely any trace of a race course. The Circuit Maximus use to be the largest chariot race track in the Roman Empire and was also used for many ceremonies and parades. Today, it could be mistaken for an undeveloped site as there’s nothing but a walking path.

Empty field, Circuit Maximus

For dinner we tried to go to Sushi but it was a high class place with a long line up. Instead we went to a take-away shop but it took an hour for them to prepare it. Still, Yuki got her much desired sushi and we have a good dinner at home of the type of food we wanted to eat.

Day 18, 3 October 2016

Yuki’s Dad wanted to visit the Vatican so we went there. It took us a long time to get through security because I picked the wrong line. There was a mass of people that split into four lines. The first two lines had a security checkpoint each but the second two lines funneled into a single checkpoint. We were in the second line and the people around us were quite aggressive to get to the front of each other.

Saint Peter’s Basilica, had been described to us as a lot of dead saints. Like all the other religious sites, it was highly decorated in gold paintings and large but wasn’t that interesting to us. Turns out, there are a lot of dead saints. We considered visiting the Sistine Chapel but it seemed far and likely to have a long line so we walked through the Basilica’s grotto and then went for lunch.

Everyone looked forward to lunch at McDonalds because it is a dependable staple to be the same everywhere in the world. At least, almost the same. The taste was slightly different but it was a welcome relief to all the plain food we’ve been having lately. We never thought that we would be so eager to eat at McDonalds for lunch.

The last place to visit in Rome was the Baths of Caracalla which we discovered was very close to the Circuit Maximus we visited the day before. We had to transfer between the two subway lines at the Rome train station so we also used that opportunity to buy tickets for Yuki’s parents to get to the airport as they would be going alone the next day. As with all things family related, it took a lot of explaining in three different languages to get the message through to her Dad who speaks English and Japanese and her mom who speaks Japanese and Thai. Yuki’s patience seem almost angelic for all the explaining and translating she has to do.

Frustratingly, the Baths closed early on Monday so we walked to them for nothing. Frances, who had visited Rome in August, recommended going to the Pyramide metro station and Eatalia, a department store of restaurants. It turned out to be a station beyond Pyramide so we had a tiresome walk and the building was actually more of an expensive health food store. There were three levels with restaurants but the main business was selling healthy foods and the restaurants looked posh. Dejected, we backtracked to a Ramen restaurant we’d passed walking there and ate a small early dinner because we were all still full on McDonalds for lunch.

The baths from the outside