Monday, May 2, 2011

Italy Part 2 - First Day in Rome

Before I even begin talking about our trip, I have to introduce you to Rick Steves. His guidebooks are the reason we had such an awesome, hassle-free vacation. I used the books to get a sense of the cities we would be visiting, to understand the neighborhoods where we might want to pick hotels, to choose the most important sights to see, and, most valuably, we used the information in the guides while we were at the sights to help us understand what was important. We didn’t need to spend a whole day at the Vatican Museum because Rick Steves gave us a sense of what we would want to see and what was a waste of time. He offers audio tours that you can download for free, but we preferred the books because they allowed us to edit our sightseeing even further. We’d skim through his chapter on, say, the Borghese Gallery, and we’d know which rooms to focus on. Then, while there, we’d take out the book and read his descriptions of individual works of art, or whatever captured our interest. We found that his understanding of the history, the art, and the culture of each place was excellent. I’ll refer to Rick Steves often during these reports as if he were there in person, advising us. That’s how it felt to us – like we had a good friend and expert along with us on the trip.

I also want you to know that I'm writing these memoirs for myself and my family, really. I want to cement in my mind all the things that we found most important. The same goes for the photos. We don't take many photos of the sights themselves. We buy postcards for that. We try to take pictures of things that are more unique to our own experience: the street performers, Sam chasing pigeons, or the huge plate of pasta with ragu that Sam seemed to order at every meal. So, I'm not sure how interesting this will be to anyone but us. Read on if you wish...

We departed from Dulles at about 6 in the evening, and flew through Amsterdam. The flight there was about 8 hours, and then we had another 2 hour flight to Rome. None of us slept much on the plane, but, despite tossing and turning for hours, Sam did a fine job. I think she handled the flight better than I did. For some reason, I didn’t sleep at all. So my fears of a long flight with Sam were completely unfounded. I still don’t understand why parents are so hesitant to fly with kids. Yes, we only have one, but for the most part, flying with her has been an exciting and joyful experience. I guess it just depends on the child’s temperament. And having said that, yes, I am prepared for two, completely different children. At least, in theory, I’m prepared.

[caption id="attachment_4486" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="Our Little Travel Expert"][/caption]

We did the smart thing and paid five extra Euros (about $7.50) for the hotel to send their shuttle to pick us up. It was nice to be met at the airport and have confidence that we were going to get to our hotel without getting lost, which I’ve read can be a problem with these tiny hotels. (From now on, I’ll just convert Euros to approximate amount in dollars so you don’t have to do the math.)

We stayed in the Imperial Suites Navona, just north of Piazza Navona, right in the heart of Rome. I can’t say enough good things about this hotel. Here is the little street where it was located:














So cool! Our room was modern and comfortable, even if tiny (which is to be expected in Rome). The staff was so friendly and helpful and everything was easy. Breakfast was served in our room every day at the time of our choosing and they actually offered eggs and meat, which saved us from having to go out for breakfast each day.

I didn’t plan it this way, but staying so close to one of the piazzas, or squares, was a really good thing. We found out how wonderful it was right after checking in. We were starving and went to the first restaurant in sight – less than a block from the hotel. We had the most delicious cappuccino, pizza, and gelato, and our jet lag seemed to disappear. After a quick trip back to the hotel to unpack, we set out for the Pantheon. On the way, we walked through Piazza Navona:

We didn’t know what to expect, but we found a huge, gaudy Bernini fountain, street performers, tons of restaurants, street vendors, lots of people, interesting buildings, and our first taste of the City of Rome. What we were to learn is that, just about anywhere you go in Rome, you will find history, art, ruins, or something unexpected. But Piazza Navona was particularly good for Samantha. On our first walk through the square, she found one of her favorite things of the entire vacation, the white statue lady:

Sam fell in love with this mime, and worked up enough courage to go to her and shake her hand, which is saying something. Sam is typically afraid of people in costumes. But this woman was really good at her craft, and she read Sam like a book and got her to feel comfortable. She was rewarded with a Euro in her hat from Sam, which was another new experience. We were thrilled that Sam was already having a good time. There were other mimes in the square, but none as good as the white statue lady. Sam looked for her every time we passed through Piazza Navona for the rest of our stay. This is what I mean when I say that our travels are even more enjoyable with our daughter along. I would never have paid so much attention to a mime without Sam there, but little events like this made the trip so much richer.

The Pantheon was one of my favorite sights in Rome. I’ve never stood in such an old building. It was breathtaking to think that it was built in 120AD. The dome was built of concrete, a material lost during the Dark Ages. The strength of concrete is one of the reasons so many structures from ancient Rome remain standing today. The dome with its oculus (the opening at the top) was beautiful in its own right, as was the floor of the building, which has been repaired, but which I believe retains its original design. There were a lot of statues inside the Pantheon but I wasn’t very interested in them. Adam was excited to see the tomb of Raphael inside, and we both loved the inscription on his sarcophagus:  “Here lies Raphael, by whom the mother of all things (Nature) feared to be overcome while he was living, and while he was dying, herself to die.”

Sam was mostly bored, but we didn’t stay long. We walked around the outside and Rick Steves pointed out how the Pantheon actually sits at a much lower level than the current street level of Rome, as do all of the ruins and ancient structures. I’m sure I’d heard this idea before – that modern Rome is built upon the ruins of ancient Rome – but to see the ruins in person, in such a concrete way, made the history so much more real. It’s exciting to walk around the modern streets of Rome and wonder what lies beneath. The Pantheon was awesome!

We made a quick stop in a church nearby: the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, considered the only Gothic church in Rome. We didn’t really know what it was until we went in. It was just close by and we had a little extra time. Inside, we found a Michelangelo statue: Christ the Redeemer. And then we found out that this is where Galileo recanted, but then whispered “And yet it moves.” This is what I’m talking about – in Rome, you really can just stumble upon the most amazing things!

In the square in front of the Pantheon, Sam got her first taste of chasing pigeons, which quickly became one of her favorite activities in Italy.

We also saw a bunch of soldiers or policemen marching around with real big guns. I’m not sure what that was about, but it was clearly a ritual, not a practical exercise:

We walked through the city streets and just took in all of the shops, the street performers, and the buzz of the city. In some ways, Rome could be New York. But then again, maybe not.

We popped our heads inside another church. It looked like nothing on the outside, but it was beautiful inside. I don’t even remember which one it was, but it wasn’t important. It was just so cool that these things were everywhere. Sam was getting bored though, so we moved on.

We had to get used to the Roman traffic. Sometimes it was hard to tell where the sidewalk ended and the street began. We normally don’t make Sam hold our hands walking around, so it was very stressful to keep a close eye on her. I experimented with many methods of walking through the city and we never found anything that worked well for us. If I had to do it again, I would have started the trip with a special rule for Sam that she always hold our hands while walking somewhere. But as it was, we just struggled with keeping her safe and keeping her walking in the right direction.

Since we had eaten a late lunch, we opted for a dinner of appetizers right on Piazza Navona. I ate prosciutto with melon, some strange kind of seafood with suckers and tentacles, and a glass of Chianti. Not exactly pregnancy-approved food! I was unable to escape eating some lunch meat throughout the rest of the trip – sometimes that is the only kind of meat you can get – but I deliberately drank a cappuccino and a glass of wine every day, and that was totally worth it. But I have to say, this first day’s coffee and wine were probably the best of the whole trip.

I haven’t mentioned it because it is so completely normal, but both the meals so far were al fresco, as were almost all of our meals throughout the trip. The food on the piazzas is never quite as good as elsewhere, and it costs more, but the atmosphere, especially at Piazza Navona, was worth it. Sam spent much of the dinner yelling, “Pigeon, come!” and we were able to allow her to leave the table when she was done to wander about the square and chase pigeons or just look around. She made a lot of friends this way.

And that was our first day in Rome. And it was only a half day, really. And we were jet-lagged and a bit disoriented. And it was cloudy and a bit cold. I’m sure I won’t write as much as this for every day we were in Italy. But our first day was really very special – one of the best of the whole trip.

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