Monday, May 23, 2011

Italy Part 3 - Three More Days in Rome

(Be sure to read Part 1 and Part 2 if you haven't already.)

Our first night in Italy, we did not sleep well. We had barely slept on the flight and we had muscled through a long day, so you think we’d have slept like babies, but we all woke up around midnight (which makes no sense since that would have been around 6pm our time). I woke up because I was hungry. And so began one of the major quests on our vacation: my constant search for food. Luckily, we had some leftover pizza in the fridge, so I pulled out a couple of pieces and ate them in the bathroom so I wouldn’t disturb Adam or Sammy.

Unfortunately, Sam woke up soon after and spent the next two hours screaming at the top of her lungs. Adam had to take her out of the hotel room three times. It was really awful. But when it was over, it was over, and our trip continued.

Friday morning we didn’t have any reservations, so we slept until 9, and that seemed to be enough for all of us to get by. The hotel served breakfast in our room, which was awesome. They actually served eggs and some meat along with the usual breads and sweets, so I was able to have a real meal.  The coffee was not so great, though, so when we headed out, we got cappuccinos to go at the nearest shop. Ahhh, excellent!

This day held the worst weather of the entire trip: it was cloudy all day. We were planning on a lot of outdoor walking, so we worried about rain, but it never came. Our first stop was Largo Argentina, which is just a square block of ruins. We went there, not for the ruins, but for the cats. For some reason, somebody started a cat sanctuary there, so there are hundreds of cats roaming about the ruins. Sam was very excited, but a bit disappointed to learn that she could not feed or pet them. Still, we probably spent 45 minutes there, just trying to spot cats behind columns and on top of huge stones. It was fun.

Next, we headed towards the Colloseum, but we ran into the Monument to Emmanuel on the way. This is an enormous, 20th Century monument to the first king of unified Italy. I know nothing about the man or that part of Italy’s history. The monument was pretty ugly, mostly because it just seemed so out of place. This is modern, political Rome. And in front, there are cheesy Roman gladiators who try to take tourists for fifty Euro tips (about $75) for a photo. Rick Steves warned us about them, so when I told one “no tip,” this is what I got:

I don’t think we ever got a bad attitude from anyone in Rome, which is one of the reasons I loved it. The people were all wonderful.  (And we did give him one Euro.)

Maybe the most interesting thing about the Monument is the statue of a man on a horse in front. I don’t know who it represents, but it is amazing just because of how huge it is. Nearby is Trajan’s Column. We didn’t walk up to it, but Adam told me a bit about Trajan and that was interesting. We inadvertently walked up near the top of the Monument building looking for restrooms (my other continuous quest) but the line was so long I gave up. We did get a nice view of the city from up there, though. But I was getting hungry. It was time to go.

Then we got lost for the first time. We didn’t know we were lost for quite a while, but we should have known because there weren’t any good restaurants around which means we were off the beaten, tourist path. The only food we could find was exactly what Rick Steves warned us about: a place that had big, gaudy pictures of food in the windows, which means that they have frozen dinners that they microwave for you. But we had to eat, and eat we did. It was no worse than any average diner in the U.S. Sam spent lunch watching a movie on my iPad, which became our go-to method for keeping her happy when she was fed up with whatever thing we were doing.

So we headed back out, fortified for the moment. After much walking, we finally realized that we had no idea where we were. There were no street signs, and nobody else walking around could speak English, or if they could, they were lost too. In front of us was a huge, grassy pit. By huge, I mean it was about three blocks long and one block wide, and about two stories deep. In fact, it looked a lot like Chicago’s Midway in Hyde Park. For some reason, we didn’t recognize this as any kind of landmark, which was a bit dense of us. But as soon as we found someone who told us where we were on the map, we realized that it was the remains of Circus Maximus, the ancient Roman chariot racing stadium. Again, I’m telling you: in Rome, you can’t help but stumble upon the most amazing things! We hadn’t planned to see this sight, but it was actually kind of cool to look at it and imagine those chariot races. Here's a ten second video of what it looks like. (You'll have to click the link because Wordpress is not allowing me to embed videos for some reason.)

Before heading back towards the Colloseum, we found a street vendor and got Sam a gelato. A you can see, she was happy.

The Colloseum was cool, but it really is just ruins, and you have to use your imagination for it to be interesting at all. I was a bit surprised at how much of it is left. I’m sure I’ve seen pictures of it, but the image in my head was more along the lines of the ruins found in ancient Greece – just a few columns and rocky ground. I’m glad I went there in person to see it. There are a lot of statues and artifacts in the hallways, but we didn’t spend time looking at them. We just walked up the stairs (so many stairs!) and looked out over the stadium and contemplated what went on there. We read what Rick Steves had to say, and that helped bring it to life. Sam was fascinated by the fact that there were dungeons down there. “Is it dark? Is that where they put bad guys? Is it scary down there? Are we going to go down there?” Apparently, you can go down there on tours, but we didn’t have time for that.

The Arch of Constantine nearby was also neat to see, but really, it was just reviewing the history that made it so.

Looking at the photo of it, I see more detail than I noticed in person, which doesn’t surprise me because by this time, we were all beat. We cabbed it back to the hotel (with Sam totally passed out in her travel vest), and we snacked and rested. Sam watched some Italian cartoons on the TV and the language barrier didn’t seem to bother her at all. I had fun trying to translate.

We weren’t up for too much activity after all that walking, so we decided to go to an annex of the National Museum of Rome which was right next to our hotel.  It was pretty boring, as museums in Rome go, but we saw more statues. Sam noted that there were a lot of penises on display. Then she found a friend, a little girl named Violet, and they raced around the courtyard of the museum for a while. There always seemed to be something to amuse her.

We decided to do at least one splurge dinner, so we headed for one of Rick Steves’ favorite restaurants, near the Pantheon.  On the way, we passed through Piazza Navona (of course) and the square in front of the Pantheon, where there was a clown. Clowns are people in costumes so Sam is typically afraid of them, but this guy was good, just like the white statue lady. He knew how to make Sam comfortable, and he teased her in clown ways and twisted her a poodle balloon. We all loved him.

Just walking the streets of Rome was exciting and beautiful. I loved seeing all the old buildings with such beautiful shops and restaurants inside. The atmosphere of the whole city is so incredibly different than anything I've ever experienced before. I took this picture just because I loved the way the street looked:

Dinner was not all that great. It was good, but nothing special. Rick let us down! I was beginning to think that Italian food was not really my thing. But we did have a lovely time at dinner. Sam tried her first sip of wine. She actually seemed to like it a bit!

On the way home, we used the balloon to make Sam walk faster. It was hard to get her to keep going after all the walking that day, but if I teased her by shaking the balloon in front of her and then plucking it out of her reach as she grabbed for it, she went crazy with giggles and kept up with us. This may seem like a totally insignificant thing to report about a vacation, but it was family fun. We were all feeling good and we had had another great day in Rome. I don’t want to forget that fun walk home.


We slept much better that night and woke up early on Saturday, ready to hit Vatican City. The weather had cleared up and it was a beautiful day. After five minutes in the cab, I realized that I had forgotten the voucher for the tickets I had pre-purchased so we had to turn back, but we had plenty of time and it worked out fine. When the cab pulled up near Vatican Museum, we saw the mile-long line, but we were able to skip it entirely because of those pre-paid tickets. Thanks, Rick!

We decided to tour the Pinacoteca (painting gallery) first. I have in my notes that Adam was impressed by a Leonardo daVinci painting, but I don’t recall anything about it. In fact, I don’t recall much of this at all. We didn’t feel that we could take too much time on anything because Sam would get bored or I would get hungry, so we just breezed through. We’ve taken Sam to art museums before and she does very well for a four-year-old, but she’s used to going just for an hour or two at a time, and only one time every few months. So she did much better with the outdoor activities than she did in museums. Still, what I do remember is how impressed I was with the building itself, and just the sheer scope of how much art was in it. Instead of trying to take in a lot of paintings, or even using Luc Travers’ method of being very selective and viewing one or two works in detail, I just enjoyed the richness of all that surrounded me. Sure, it was all collected and compiled through the force or fraud of the Church, but that doesn’t change the fact of what it is – probably the most amazing collection of art, anywhere.

We had a snack and coffee before heading to the rest of the Museum. The cafeteria food was truly disgusting. I think this was the only bad food I had in all of Italy. But wait, we weren’t in Italy, were we? No. Okay then.

The rest of the Museum was amazing, for the same reasons I’ve already stated. It was beautiful and there was so much art. Sam enjoyed seeing the real mummy on display. She is currently quite fascinated by death. And there was even a mummy of a cat – what could be more cool? Adam and I had time to take note of the Apollo Belvedere, and we both enjoyed the hall full of ancient maps. I love maps. At one point, Sammy was being silly and she exclaimed loudly, “Jesus Christ!” (one of her favorite phrases which she picked up from someone in our household, I suppose, wink wink). Adam and I found that hilarious and I told her, “Don’t worry, we’ll see him later,” thinking of the Pieta in St. Peter’s.

So far, we hadn’t seen anything that really moved us. But then we made it to the School of Athens. We have the print in our house, but it is small and faded. I had no idea how much I would love the original. It was huge and it was bright and clean and beautiful. By this time, Sam had fallen asleep on Adam’s shoulder, so we had time to stand and look at it for about ten minutes. Rick Steves helped us to identify many of the figures, but both Adam and I just couldn’t take our eyes off of Aristotle and Plato, in their poses that encapsulate the entire history of the Western World. For the first time, I could see their expressions – it was clear that they were in conflict, disagreeing, maybe even in the middle of an argument, but that they respected one another. Both Adam and I were brought to tears looking at it. And all of this took place in a hot room packed with people, pushing and shoving, and very loud. And it didn’t bother me one bit. That’s saying something. School of Athens was another highlight of the whole trip. We bought a new print for our home.

The finale was the Sistine Chapel. We got lucky and found a place to sit. Sam woke up. We stayed about ten minutes. It was so different than I had expected. The ceiling has been recently restored and I have no idea how accurate it is, but the colors and clarity were amazing. I didn’t try to look at every aspect of the painting, but just tried to take in the Chapel as a whole. It was so neat to be in the place where the Popes are elected, so full of history. And the ceiling makes the whole place feel magical. The contrast in sense of life between Michelangelo and the mostly earlier works we had just seen in the Museum was astounding. It was a whole new world.

But, by now, the crowds were starting to get to me. We tried to use Rick Steves’ trick of exiting the Chapel through a back door to get straight to St. Peters’, but it was closed, so we had to retrace our route back to the front of the Museum. It’s a long walk. We ate more disgusting cafeteria food, which was mostly bread and didn’t do much to satisfy my hunger. My pizza smelled like dog. I forced it down. Sam had gelato. She was happy. Sam made another friend and they ran around a bit.

Then we had to figure out how to get over to St. Peters’. This is when we began to learn that Italians (even Italians who live in Vatican City) are the worst direction-givers on the planet. No matter what you are looking for, the answer is, “it’s right over there,” with a vague hand gesture. We had to ask about three people how to get out of the building and headed in the right direction. But we did make it. And the walk there was cool because you walk outside the Vatican wall. It really is like a fortress. But then we arrived and saw the line to get into St. Peters'. There was no way to avoid this one, and we were totally exhausted. So we decided to skip it. I was hugely disappointed because Michelangelo’s Pieta was one of the most important things I wanted to see, and of course the cathedral itself is really a don’t-miss as well. But, we made the right decision. We hung out in St. Peters’ Square for a while, and that alone was pretty cool. Again, so much history. Easter was about a week away and we imagined the crowds that would be in this spot. Sam chased more pigeons and fed them crackers. She treated them like dogs, “Here, pigeon. Pigeon, come!” It was really cute.

After taking a cab home, we all slept for three and a half hours. Wow. We were wiped out!

That night, we tried to do Rick Steves’ “night walk across Rome” which includes sights like the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain. But by the time we got to the starting point – Campo de Fiori – we were ready for dinner, and by the time we finished dinner, we were ready to go home. We ate right on the square with all of the night life streaming by us. Rick Steves told us that a lot of young locals come here after dark, and we noticed that Romans really love their tiny, designer dogs. There were small dogs everywhere! We actually had a wonderful meal this night – huge portions of salmon and lamb. The food situation was looking up. We met an older couple who admired us for bringing our daughter along, as they had done with their own children years ago. They warned us that Sam would always have the travel lust now.

Best of all, we saw our favorite clown again. He made Sam another balloon.

Then we got gelato on the way home and called it a night. I read a book called Dinosaur-Rumpus to Sam that night. Since she likes to count everything, I asked her how many horns on the triceratops. She counted, “One, two, three. Three penises!” Think we saw enough naked statues?

Sunday, we had early reservations at the Borghese Gallery. Talk about amazing collections of art! This was a private home filled with another mind-blowing collection of sculpture and paintings. Cardinal Borghese sported that title because his cousin was the Pope; but he himself was more of a humanist. I enjoyed the fact that he had so many rooms filled with art, but relegated the prayer room to a tiny, dark closet. Again, I was impressed most by the collection as a whole, and by the beautiful building with its frescos and arches and grandeur.

This is the point in the trip where my memory starts to get fuzzy, and I know the reason why. This is when Sam tired of going to museums and art galleries, and of walking around in general. She was tired this morning and started being very mean to us and misbehaving. I can’t blame her, but it didn’t change the fact that it was very difficult. I think Adam and I had to take turns viewing the Gallery, which was a real bummer. It’s not the same unless you see it with the one you love. But, we did the best we could.

Afterwards, we decided to rest in the park where the Gallery was located: Borghese Gardens. We sat under a tree and had a snack, and just enjoyed the beautiful day, and Sam watched a movie on the iPad.

Then we went in search of lunch. On the way, we found some bumper cars. Sam had been wanting to try bumper cars for a while, so this was a big hit. We managed to get a short video of the end of the adventure, when she crashed and banged her knees, but really, I promise, she loved it! (Again, you'll need to click over to see it.)

We couldn’t find a decent lunch in the park so we headed out and ended up in a ritzy area of the city, with big hotels and expensive shops on a wide, tree-lined street. It reminded me a bit of Michigan Avenue in Chicago. We actually ate hamburgers at an “American” restaurant, and it was good to eat a big slab of cow.

We were all feeling better, so we decided to walk to the Spanish Steps. The walk itself was interesting, and mostly downhill, which was wonderful. Walking really is the best way to see Rome, and if you go without children, I think you could do all of the popular things except the Vatican without taking any cabs or buses. But if you do have children, don’t count on a stroller to solve that problem. The sidewalks (where there are any) are narrow and often rough cobblestone, and there are not always elevators available. There were times during our trip that I longed for a stroller, but really, I think it would have been more of a hassle to have to lug it around. Luckily, Adam was able to carry Sam quite a bit, and that worked for our little family of three.

We came to the Spanish Steps from behind, so we were at the top. The view was beautiful, and we enjoyed going down the steps and not having to go back up.

Sam slid down the steps on her bottom. I'm not sure why. (And I had to throw those pants away afterwards.)

I liked the whole feel of the place and could have hung out there, but it was time for a nap. We cabbed it to the hotel.

The afternoon was reserved for The Forum.

We got a quick cappuccino and gelato for Sam and took another cab there. Adam really loved seeing the ruins, imagining all that had gone on there. I liked to see the actual Senate building, but I was hoping to see something that would resemble what I see in the movies – you know – the scenes of the soldiers returning to the city from battle, entering the gates and arriving at the center of the city where the senators are gathered on the steps of some official building and the crowds are cheering. Well, that’s what I had in my head, anyway. It was hard to recreate anything like that from what we saw. Rick Steves pointed out things like where the Vestal Virgins were, and what this column meant and what that building was for, but it was all very abstract.

Also, most of my attention was on keeping Sam in sight. She was enjoying playing “hot lava rocks” on the ancient stones that still paved the paths. There were a lot of people there, but I wanted to let her blow off some steam while we were outdoors, so I mostly just enjoyed watching her. Of course, she found a cat and she took an excellent photo of it.

She also took a few photos of Adam and me which aren’t too bad.

She met some Italian kids her age and I helped her to understand that she could communicate with them using the little bit of Italian she knew (Mi chiamo Sammy. Come si chiama?) and by using body and sign language. Sammy invited the kids to play by making a “come here” motion with her hand and then showing them how to jump on the rocks. That was quite fun – watching them all struggle and then understand each other.

We had one of our few dinners indoors that night, our final night in Rome. We wanted to reduce the stimulation and have some quiet, and we got lucky and had a really nice dinner. From here on out, the food started getting better. Adam and I learned how to order and share so that we each got some kind of pasta and some kind of meat. Sam watched Scooby Doo for about the fourth time on the iPad. Adam ordered tiramisu for dessert, and I ordered custard because I hate tiramisu. But, it turns out that real, Italian tiramisu is mostly custard, instead of that wet cake crap you get in the United States. I loved it! Who knew!

On the way home, we stopped off one more time at Largo Argentina to see the cats, and we walked through Piazza Navona one last time. We had a bath and went to bed. In the morning, we would pick up our rental car and leave Rome. I think anyone could stay for a month in Rome and never want for something to do or see. But we were tired and ready to go. We packed quite a bit into those few days, especially considering we had Sam with us.

I loved Rome. I loved the contrast of the old with the new. I loved the people. I loved the fact that it is a real, modern city, bustling with activity, sitting on top of all of that history, so much of which still shows. Our hotel room was actually an interesting little metaphor for the city: old on the outside, but modern and stylish on the inside. But that only applies to the structures of Rome. The people are the opposite: modern and stylish on the outside, but old-fashioned (in the best way) on the inside. I’ve never been any place like Rome, and I suspect there aren’t many places like it anywhere. I imagine Istanbul and Bejing might have that combination of old and new. Regardless, Rome is a special place, and my visit there exceeded my expectations by far.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like you had a great time, I'm glad you enjoyed your time in Europe :)

    I've never been to Italy, and I only live in Britain! I should check it out someday