Monday, February 13, 2012

Italy Trip - 8th Installment

Pictures for this post can be found at:

Well, it's been months since the last entry, but I'm determined to finish blogging about our Italy trip. I plan on printing out the blog entries and a bunch of photos to send to some of the people we met while we were there, or at least Linda. She was so generous to us and I'd like to keep in touch with her. I'll now try to fit our 2 days in Rome in one entry.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011
We headed straight for the Colosseum in the morning to try and beat some of the crowds, deciding to walk instead of taking the metro. The walk was worth it as we approached the Colosseum through a small park which gave us a fantastic view as we came over a small hill (1). There was already a line at 8:30 but, taking a tip from our Rick Steves book, we walked just down the street to the Palatine Hill entrance and bought tickets to both sites there.

The Colosseum was spectacular (2-13). Near as I could tell, it was for all intents and purposes and modern stadium, built without the advantages of power tools, cranes, and modern mathematics and materials knowledge. It was easy to get lost in the achievement of its construction and forget what took place there. We elected to pass on getting our picture with the Roman Soldiers outside (14). I could have spent all morning just marveling that it could have been constructed 2000 years ago, but Ali hadn't had her coffee yet and it was beginning to show. So we walked around the block to a small cafe before.

By this time we were getting hungry. The hotel required cash payment, which of course we hadn't had enough of when we checked in the night before, so they were holding Ali's passport for ransom. We hopped the metro back to Termini station to find an ATM and settle up with the hotel. By the time we retrieved her passport we were both getting hungry. We selected a recommendation from Rick Steves then spent 30 min. or more walking around looking for it before accepting help from a friendly English-speaking local. I continued to feel smaller and smaller that I only speak 1 language. Lunch was mediocre, but priced as excellent.

Following lunch we walked back toward the Colosseum to continue our tour of the ancient sites. Just next to the Colosseum was the Arch of Constantine (I think, already starting to forget my monuments) (15). Of more interest to me was the Arch of Titus (16-17), which was erected to commemorate the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70. The Roman Empire is fascinating by itself, but I find it particularly interesting where it intersects early Christianity.

Palatine hill is the large hill (imagine that) next to the Colosseum where the important politicos had their homes. It was also a hub for outdoor markets and trade. We walked up to the top of the hill (18) in the uncomfortable heat if a typical Italian summer, taking a photo here and there of the endless ruins.

Back at the bottom of the hill we started a free Rick Steves audio tour for the Roman forum we had downloaded to our iPods. The tour led us to a monstrous courthouse built by Constantine, if I remember correctly (19-21). The sheer scale of the building was enough to equal the Colosseum in its impressiveness. Most of the building was gone but enough was left to understand the scale. The building consisted of three large chambers under archways on each side of the main space. In the middle picture, if you squint hard, you can see me standing under one of the archways. The archway must have been 70-80ft high or more (google it). In the first picture you can see the remains of the supports that held up the larger arches, long gone, over the main space. Apparently one of the chambers is in bad shape structurally as there was a large cabling system supporting it. That must have been an interesting engineering challenge. Continuing our Roman Forum tour, slowly due to the heat, we saw many more ruins that began to all look the same (22-24). Cliche or not, there's something obscenely cool about walking on the same road that Caesars walked on.

After a thorough beating from the Roman heat, we walked back to our apartment to rest and plan for the evening. Sure was nice not having to think about where we were staying that night. But we did have to worry about where we were going to stay Thursday night since we were leaving Rome the next day. Since we were supposed to fly out of Milan on Friday we decided to take the night train on Wed. night to a small town on Lake Como (north of Milan) called Varenna. We would stay Thursday night there and take an early train on Friday back into Milan. It took a couple hours to find a room in Varenna due to the spotty internet service at the apartment, but eventually we succeeded.

After getting our last train and hotel reservations set we headed back out to Campo de Fiori, a popular square for night life, to try the Aperitivio, the Italian equivalent of Happy Hour (25). Basically, you buy a drink and they have all kinds of appetizers that are first come first serve. I found it completely forgettable, but admittedly we were in tourist central and a place popular with locals may have been much better. We killed some time before dusk because we wanted to do Rick Steves' night walk across Rome, which started at Campo de Fiori.

The night walk was extremely pleasant. Temperatures cooled off and were pleasant, and there was no shortage of people to watch and monuments to see (26-29). Ali found her favorite gelato of the trip, a mix of mint and baccio from Tre Scalini in Piazza Navona. Trevi Fountain, though a relatively recent creation, was spectacular at night.

After walking several miles during the heat of the day and then probably several more after dinner we were looking forward to a short metro ride back to the apartment. But alas, we missed the last train by just a few minutes. So another mile or two hike back to the apartment and it was almost midnight. Needless to say we were exhausted. But I can't imagine going to Italy and not seeing Rome. I think we experienced it in all its hot, crowded glory.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011
After just one day of sightseeing in Rome we were ready to leave. But we decided to make an attempt at seeing the Vatican since we had the entire day before catching the night train. We slept in late and I was the last one of about 6 or 7 in the apartment to shower. After teasing me with some hot water, the heater gave out and I was left in the cold. Not so bad since that was the first time in a week I had been anything colder than uncomfortably warm.

We bought tickets for the Vatican online for right after lunch and set out for another Rick Steves recommendation for lunch near the Vatican. It was mostly forgettable. According to our guide book, "buffet" in Italian means you get one plate of a modest amount. Although the pasta buffet looked good, it was hard for Ali to sample everything with just one trip. We observed a local guide with his tour group at a nearby table and sure enough, only saw them get one plate. I, however, had the Chef's choice pizza (30). I think it's joke on tourists: peas on a pizza? It was different, which sometimes is good.

Right after lunch we walked a couple blocks to the Vatican. We had paid the extra $12 for the reserved entry time tickets, not knowing how bad lines would be. There were no ticket lines, so waste of $12. The Vatican museum is a massive complex loaded with sculptures, art, pottery, tapestries, and on and on (31-35). But the highlight of the tour is the Sistine Chapel. In true Catholic form I suppose, you can't just waltz right into the Sistine, check it off your Roman experience list, and move on. You must follow the church approved path through the museum. You can the 3 million other tourists they allowed in.

It is no exaggeration to say it was like being in a herd of cattle. It was literally shoulder to shoulder for much of the long, hot walk. There was no air conditioning so while it might have been pleasant if the building was empty, the hoard of biological heaters moving through with us made quite uncomfortable. Nearly everyone seemed to be part of a tour group, as you could watch large groups of people, all wearing wireless headsets, following a guide with a personalized miniature flag sticking up over the crowd. The tour guides were clearly taking the shortest route to the Sistine, as occasionally smaller rooms would jut off from the main corridors and would be nearly empty. We used these to get a break from the crowds. I'm not sure how long it took us to walk through the museum or how far it was, but we nearly bailed out.

I'm glad we didn't. The Sistine Chapel was worth the effort. When we finally got there we turned on our audio tour on our iPods and squeezed toward the center of the chapel to gaze. No photographs allowed for this part. As you might expect, there were several guards stationed in the Chapel. There primary function seemed to be to "shush" the crowd. I'm not joking. Every 30 seconds or so the white noise from the crowd inside the Chapel would swell to some disrespectful level and elicit a loud "sshhhh" from the chief guard. But the Sistine Chapel was indeed magnificent, even for an uncultured, art ignorant engineer like me.

After finishing our audio tour we exited the Chapel and sat down near the gift shop for a needed rest. If there's any mundane article of Western civilization you would like to have with the Pope's picture on it you could probably find it there. I wonder, when the Cardinals are debating the election of the next Pope, do the official Vatican coffee mug makers have to produce mugs with different pictures on them so they'll be read to go no matter who gets elected? You know, like when the winning sports team has their World Championship hats on the moment the clock reaches 0. Anyways, the plan for the evening was to stop by St. Peter's Cathedral and then head back to Piazza Navona (where the picture of the little girl getting her portrait drawn was taken) for dinner. After dinner we would head to the train station to catch the night train to Varenna.

I enjoyed St. Peter's much more than the Vatican Museum (36-43). The art, architecture, and historical significance was no less brilliant, just much less crowded and much cooler. True to Rick Steve's observations in the travel book, it was great to arrive late in the afternoon to witness the spectacular lighting effects of the afternoon sun coming in through the windows. We meandered through the Cathedral for some time, observing the Catholic faithful, some of whom no doubt were on pilgrimages of sorts. It's a tradition to take a picture touching the St. Peter's foot so I had to do it, though Ali thought it might be kind of sacrilegious (44). What were they going to do, excommunicate me?

We walked back to Piazza Navona for dinner, for something with goat cheese more specifically as Ali had had a dish with goat cheese at a restaurant in Ft. Worth and really enjoyed it. The way the tourist restaurants operate is to post their menus near the outside seating, wait for you to pause to look, then send their friendliest English-speaking waiter over to convince you to sit down. As she scanned a menu for goat cheese the waiter pounced. She told him what she was looking for and he basically said they don't use goat cheese in Rome. By now she was done with Rome so she ceded the restaurant decision making to me and we headed towards the Pantheon. I picked another tourist restaurant in what would have been the shadow of the Pantheon if the sun were up. Food was forgettable, but the Pantheon was lit up for the nightlife and the atmosphere was nice. Ali even managed to have a disagreement over a 2 Euro charge on our bill. Guess who won? She was right, but I probably would have let it go.

We barely caught the last metro train of the night back to the central train station where we had an hour or two wait before the night train to Milan. We had paid a little extra to get a private sleeping cabin so it would be just the two of us. After a mix up with our assigned cabin and a little anxiety that we weren't going to get what we paid for, the train started moving and no one was banging on our door wanting in. The cabin was small as you might expect (45), but it turned out to be quite comfortable and a very pleasant way to spend the night. After a long two days in Rome we crashed pretty quickly and slept the entire way to Milan. The train was not cheap, but definitely cheaper than a hotel room plus the normal train fare to Milan.

Next up:
Varenna: our "last" full day in Italy
Getting home