Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Day 13: Our final day in Rome

Well..it is hard to believe, but our stay in Italy was quickly coming to an end.  It was our fourth day in Rome, and we had made no definite plans for this day.  It was really nice to have this flexibility.  This gave us the freedom to revisit any missed sights or explore some new areas depending on how we felt on our last day in Rome.  We felt that we had seen most of what we wanted to see the past three days in the city, so we thought we would venture out past the city's walls and explore the ancient Appian Way (Via Antica Appia). 
The road was built in 312 B.C. and was one of the earliest and strategically most important Roman roads of the ancient republic.  The Appian Way made it all the way to the port city of Brindisi on Italy's southeast coast, 560 km from Rome (about 350 miles). It is named after a censor who recognized the need for a road to aid in his travels and this would eventually lead the way for advancements in transportation, communication, and military strategy throughout southern Italy. Near Rome the road was lined with tombs; the ruins of many can still be seen today. Since it was forbidden to bury the dead in the city proper, many were buried along the roads leading out of Rome. Important people built tombs for themselves or for their whole family. Sometimes these tombs were as large as a house. The Via Appia was lined with such monuments, and many of them are still visible today.

In order to get here, we walked to the Colosseo stop to hop on the Metro (covered by our Roma Pass) and traveled south for two stops, getting off at Piramide.  (Later, we learned we could have simply walked south toward the Circus Maximus and hopped on the 118 bus without even taking the Metro, but it was a good experience for us anyway.) 

Many of you have probably heard about the pickpockets in Italy and Rome's public transportation is probably the biggest pickpocket breeding ground. In regards to our personal affects, we were extremely cautious everywhere we went in Italy. Sam never carried a wallet or anything in his pockets. We did buy a money belt, but it was just too hot to wear it. I had my cross-body bag referred to in this earlier post on packing, that included many zippers and pockets,convenient for hiding things away. However, I never put anything of importance in the outer pockets.  In fact, we left our passports and anything that was not absolutely necessary in our hotel safe.  I had a small zipper-style coin purse where I brought a copy of our passports, some cash, and one credit card at a time.  I then placed this small coin purse in a zippered pocket within the zippered purse. We kept our iphones safe within this purse as well. I almost always had my hand over the opening of the purse no matter what we were doing.  This just became second-nature.  Another word of advice is to not set down your purse or bag anywhere- even when dining.  I often ate with it in my lap, which was not a big deal.   I really never let it leave my body if we were out and often had to double-check that everything was zipped up after each use.  

The Metro, in particular, was a bit shady in terms of pickpockets.  I wasn't really scared on the Metro or anything like that, but you could tell that there were people that were planted there to try and take your money- and I am sure this was not the only place.  However, since we were educated about this and felt prepared, it wasn't that big of a deal.  When we entered the Metro, we stood in the middle and held onto those vertical metal bars.  Standing directly in the doorway, strategically placed so that we would have to push by them- were two women holding a baby. They had several blankets over the arms, large bags, and baggy clothing. This was my first clue.  I had read that pickpockets will often carry babies in order to appear innocent and then use the baby and extra layers to hide wallets that they lift.  There were not that many people on the train, but one of these women kept falling into me, intentionally brushed up against me- and then when she got really desperate- she actually sneezed on me without covering!  She was expecting me to take my hand off of my purse in all of these situations, and probably to her disappointment, I never did. 

Before we left for our vacation, we watched this video, which was very fascinating.  It delves into the  gypsies and pickpockets in Italy, and it is very helpful!  If you are going to Italy, watch it!  

Anyway, after our adventure on the Metro, we got off at the Piramide (Ostiense) stop and waited for the 118 bus that would carry us down the Appian Way. While at Piramide, we caught a glimpse of this monument, the Pyramid of Cestius. The pyramid was built about 18 BC12 BC as a tomb for Gaius Cestius. 
€ 8,00 each and were taken underground for about a 30 minute guided tour, seeing only a portion of the miles of underground graves. This cemetery is named after the martyr St. Sebastian, who is buried here. But there are thousands of others who were buried here, and there are even underground chapels and mausoleums that look like something straight out of Indiana Jones. For a time, both St. Peter and St. Paul were buried here before they were relocated. After the underground tour, we toured the chapel above. It was very fascinating! For more information about San Sebastiano Catacombs here
The Tomb of Saint Sebastian
The Chapel of Saint Sebastian
From here we walked further down the Appian Way, eventually trading in cobblestones for the large pavers that make up the original road!  Along the way, we encountered several tombs- some small and some larger than mansions! 

Another tomb...
Eventually we stopped for lunch at the Cafe Appia Antica, recommended by Rick Steve's  We sat outside and ate some fresh sandwiches and split some eggplant parmesan.  See the full review here.
Pork Sandwich
Tomato and Mozzarella Sandwich
Eggplant Parmesan
Cafe Appia Antica
After we finished our lunch, we rented bikes at this same establishment at a rate of €4 per bike per hour. The ladies working here were very accommodating, as we didn't bring any documents- license or passport- in exchange for the bikes.  However, they were nice enough to take our copies and let us go on our way.  The bikes were somewhat rickety and worn, but were satisfactory for some tooling around for an hour.  With those huge pavers, some better shocks would have been appreciated!

Actually, we quickly learned that cobblestones were ok to ride on, but the pavers most definitely were not!  As we continued down the road, other bikers had created a dirt path off to the side of the road, which made the road much more smooth and enjoyable.  We passed many more tombs along the way.  
The ancient road- showing the switch from cobblestone to the original pavers
After riding for about an hour, we decided we had enough of the bumpiness and decided to return our bikes to the cafe. We walked back down to the bus stop in front of San Sebastiano and hopped back on the 118 bus to take us back into the city.  It is here where we eventually recognized one of the stops that was very close to the Colosseum and our apartment, so we decided to hop off and walk the rest of the way, rather than backtrack and get back on the Metro.  

We made one more quick stop at the market around the corner to stock up on cheap water, juice, and snacks for the airport the following day.  

After resting for awhile, we cleaned up and headed out to dinner close by- only about 100 meters away!  I found Naumachia on Trip Advisor, and we were lucky that it was so close!  We had walked past it several times, but did not realize it was so highly recommended. We were immediately greeted by an energetic server who took us to a table in the back. He tried very hard to speak English and make us feel comfortable. This place was fantastic!  Very good food and wonderful service unlike I had anywhere in Italy!  Our server was not only helpful and attentive, but funny as well.  Here we shared a large bottle of their house white wine , and when we asked for another small bottle, he gave it to us for free! We started with an appetizer of friend ricotta cheese laced with honey.  This was so good! Sam also ordered one more delicious fried zucchini flower filled with mozzarella and anchovy. We both ordered a pasta, and they came homemade! I had fettucine with a tomato sauce. Sam had a pasta with pecorino cheese, parmesan, salt, and pepper, and it was to die for!  We had not really tried any desserts in Italy (except for gelato of course) so we decided to split a piece of tiramisu.  HEAVENLY! It was delicate and light, but perfectly sweet. See the full review here
Fried ricotta with honey! 

Sam's delicious pasta!
Fettucine Pomodoro
After dinner, we walked the short distance to our apartment and went to sleep, ready to wake up early and head to the airport.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Day 12: Off to the Vatican!

On Thursday, we took time getting out of bed and laid there for quite awhile.  We ate our bananas for breakfast that we bought the day before at the market.  We had already made online reservations several weeks prior to visit the Vatican at 12:30 pm.  I wasn't sure if this was a great time or not, as I heard that the lines for the Vatican can be crazy long, but I did know that this would avoid the busy tourist groups and cruise ship clutter that frequent the Vatican in the morning.

I had done some research- using our very unreliable Rome Pass map and on the internet and thought I had found a bus that would take us to the back of the Vatican by the museum.  This bus was supposed to stop at Colosseo according to my map, so I urged Sam to leave by 11 am since the Vatican was sort of far away, and I had no idea how long this bus ride would take.  However, when we got to the Colosseo stop. of course the bus we wanted was not listed.  This was frustrating and caused some tension so we kept walking up the Via del Corso, with hopes that we would eventually see the number we wanted.  However, by the time we had already walked down to the Piazza Venezia, we still had not passed a single stop with that number listed (and it WAS listed for several stops on our Roma Pass map!).  Here we stopped and looked at the map and decided to start heading west.  We decided that we would just walk, as time was getting short and we did not want to waste it waiting for a bus that we were not sure would get us where we wanted to go.  In retrospect, this is one of the times we should have used the Metro (also covered by our Roma Pass).  It is not a very extensive system, but we could have hopped on the blue line at Colosseo heading north and then switched to the red line at Termini and taken it all the way out to the Vatican.  This would have been our best bet.  Oh well, we continued to walk...quickly.  we finally saw the angels adorning the bridge leading to the Castel Sant'angelo so I knew we were getting close.  However, little did I know that once you cross the bridge and are walking up the road that leads to St. Peter's you still have to walk a pretty far jaunt behind St. Peter's to get to the museum entrance.  And I wasn't sure of what I was going to find when I got there.  I have heard horror stories of lines that take hours- even for those with reservations.  However, once we arrived, I was incredibly surprised to discover there was absolutely NO line! I guess 12:30 (actually about 12:40 by the time we arrived) on a Thursday is a good time to go!  We walked right in. 

The Vatican Museum displays works from the immense collection built up by the Roman Catholic Church throughout the centuries. It is rumored that many pieces were acquired as Christianity spread throughout the world and artwork was "confiscated".   The Vatican Museums include sculpture, many tapestries, paintings, but it also includes many, many ornate chapels and rooms commissioned to various artists.  
Within the Vatican Museum
"The Nile"- one of my favorites that we saw! 
One of the most famous sites here is the Sistine Chapel painted by Michelangelo.  Unfortunately, pictures are not allowed in this area, but I found these photos online.  We listed to Rick Steves audio tour as we gawked at the masterpiece from below.  We were lucky enough to get a seat on a bench and chilled there for about a half hour or so while we listened to the story painted by the great artist. It is a fascinating story, and you may want to read about it here

After we were done in the Sistine Chapel, we exited through the back door on the left rather than continuing through the small amount of exhibits and rooms left in the museum.  Sneaking out this back door (and this was really NOT a big deal- almost everyone was doing it.) is a big time saver, as you can directly enter St. Peter's Basilica from behind rather than waiting in line again out in front of the church.  After we exited, we saw a sign that pointed to an area where you could go to the top of the cupola at St. Peter's so we decided to do this next.  They give you two options.  1) Walk all 320 stairs for 6 Euros or 2) Pay 7 Euros to take an elevator about a third of the way up.  We chose option number 2 and it was still a lot of stairs!  Once we arrived at the top there was some spectacular views!  However, Sam and I agreed that we enjoyed the dome in Florence a tad bit better- just seemed older and more interesting. 

The view of St. Peter's Square from the top of the cupola!

After descending from the top of St. Peter's cupola, we entered Michelangelo's church itself. St. Peter's was actually built atop the supposed crucifixion and burial site of St. Peter, apostle to Jesus. Read more about the history and significance of St. Peter's and the Vatican here.  It really is amazing.  Unfortunately they were preparing for a 5:00 mass so part of the church was roped off so we were not able to actually get close to Bernini's magnificent altar, but we did get some good pictures.  Once again, we listened to a Rick Steve's audio tour inside the basilica, which pointed out some very interesting details.  

We also were able to see Michelangelo's La Pieta.  It is a beautiful and very moving piece of artwork- now behind plexiglass thanks to  a man who came after it with a hammer sometime back.
La Pieta
After that we ventured outside in St. Peter's Square for a bit... 
St. Peter's Basilica 
From the Vatican, we hopped on a bus (randomly) that we simply knew was headed down the street of the west bank of the Tiber River.  We were headed for Trastevere. This is a more hip neighborhood filled with fun pubs and restaurants, fresh art, and a younger crowd.  I enjoyed the feel of this neighborhood and would consider staying here if we ever return.  It could also be convenient depending on where you stay- all you would have to do is simply cross a bridge (and there are several) to get to several destinations including the Capitoline Hill (The Colosseum and the Forum), close to the Piazza Navona, or the Vatican. We departed the bus when we were close to our destination.   We were headed for Dar Poeta, a restaurant recommended by our friends Abby and Dogan who were here the previous week.  We eventually found it and went in for an early dinner around 6 pm (18:00). It is tucked back in a small alcove off of the street and was a little challenging to find.  Apparently there is usually a line at this place late at night, but we walked right in. We sat down inside where it was cool, although they do have a small area for outdoor seating.  This place specializes in pizza.  We started with one of the many choices of non-traditional bruschetta and ordered one with beans and hot sauce.  This was tasty and different.  Sam ordered the Dar Poeta pizza- their specialty- laced with mozzarella, zucchini slices, olives, sausage, and olive oil.  This was the best!  I ordered a bufala pizza made with buffalo mozzarella cheese, but it had very little taste and flavor.  See my review here
Bean and hot sauce bruschetta
The Bufala Pizza
The scrumptious Dar Poeta Pizza
We continued to walk along the Tiber River and crossed the Ponte Palotino bridge that led us directly to the Circus Maximus and then a short jaunt past Palatine Hill, behind the Colosseum and to our apartment. It was a quiet and enjoyable walk. We relaxed for the rest of the night and laid low. 
A View of the Tiber River from Trastevere

Day 11: When in Rome...

When in Rome...do as the tourists do!  

Today was an exciting day filled with fun touristy activities! I would finally get to fulfill one of my dreams and enter that towering Colosseum practically calling my name from our window! Thanks to our newly acquired Roma Passes, we felt confident that we could zip thought the line pretty quickly the without waiting in line for hours.  However, we still awoke fairly early and walked a block to the entrance of the Colosseo  arriving at 8:30 am in order to avoid some of the afternoon heat.  There is absolutely NO shade in the Colosseum or the Roman Forum and very little on Palatine Hill. We showed our Roma Passes and went in a separate entrance. We were surprised to see that there wasn't even a security check, as was expected.  Waiting time: 0 minutes.  We pitied the very long line that still waited within the outside wall of the Colosseum.  
Immediately we hooked up our iphones to Rick Steves free audio guide tour (free on itunes) and listened as we toured the ancient monument. It was humorous because we passed several tour groups that I am sure people paid good money for that were practically mimicking what Rick Steves' voice was saying into my ear. We learned many interesting facts while we wandered the premises- awestruck. It was beautiful, but not as big as they make it look in the movies. 

The elliptical building is immense, measuring 188m by 156m and reaching a height of more than 48 meter (159 ft). The Colosseum could hold about 55,000 spectators.  The Colosseum was once covered with an enormous awning known as the velarium that protected the spectators from the sun. Emperors used the Colosseum to entertain the public with free games that were a symbol of prestige and power. They were a way for an emperor to increase his popularity.  Games were held for a whole day or even several days in a row and often included displays of exotic animals and ended with fights to the death between animals and gladiators. These fighters were usually slaves, prisoners of war or condemned criminals. Interestingly, the southern side of the Colosseum fell to an earthquake in 847. Parts of the building - including the marble facade - were removed and used for the construction of later monuments, including the St. Peter's Basilica.

After we left the Colosseum, we walked around the corner toward Palatine Hill.  There was hardly anyone here and it is obviously not as popular. The hill is the centermost of the seven hills that make up Rome. The hill has a strong link to Roman mythology. It is believed that on Palatine Hill, the twins Romulus and Remus were found in the cave by a she-wolf that raised them. Ultimately, this is where Romulus decided to build the city. Therefore, it is here when the foundation of Rome began. It was eventually the fashionable place to live due to the glorious views from atop the hill. Augustus, Cicero, and Marc Antony (Marcus Antonius) all had homes on the hill. Later, emperors built their domains here and, at one point, the entire hill was covered with imperial palaces.  It also includes the remains of the Circus Maximus (Remember Ben Hur?) and the very first Botanical Garden of Rome. 
The original huts of Romulus and Remus
Continual excavation on Palatine Hill
As we spent hours exploring the fairly large area, the temperature continued to rise.  It was so HOT!  Be sure to wear your sunscreen and bring lots of water to explore this area! There really is hardly any shade except on Palatine Hill where there are a few trees.  A path leads directly from Palatine Hill to the Roman Forum.  Again we listened to the Rick Steves audio tour on our iphones.  This was particularly helpful to make sense of the many ruins. Without it or a guide, the area would really just resemble a mess of knocked down walls and rocks.  A tour or guide of some sort really made it come alive. 
The Arch of Titus
The forum dates back to as early as the 7th century B.C. The Roman Forum began as a market place, but became the economic, political, and religious hub, town square, and center of all Rome.   On the northern end of the Forum near the Capitoline Hill are some of the oldest ruins of the Forum including marble remnants from the Basilica Aemilia; the Curia, where Roman senators assembled; and the Rostra, a platform on which early orators gave speeches, were built in the 5th century B.C. It also includes the Triumphant Arch of Constantine, the Via Sacra, the Temple of Venus and Rome, the gigantic shell of what is left of the Basilica of Maxentius, the Temple of Julius Ceasar, and much more. 
Did I mention that it was very, very hot? 
We left the forum and ventured across Via del Corso in search of a restaurant recommended by our Trip Advisor app. However, once we found it, we discovered it had since shut down.  Getting a bit cranky from heat, thirst, and hunger, we made our way back to the other side of the Colosseum and toward our apartment to cool down.  Along the way, we stopped at a snack bar for a quick lunch since we very hungry and thirsty.  We sat inside to take advantage of the air-conditioning.  The service was something to be desired, but not horrible. (I learned that very few places check back with you to see how your food is after you receive it.)  I chose the tourist menu that included a margherita pizza, a cold beverage and an espresso (which Sam wanted). Sam chose the canneloni con carne.  When the food arrived, it was all very mediocre.  It was fine, and we were hungry, but definitely not what you would expect to eat while in Italy.  The margherita pizza was actually very similar to a frozen cheese pizza and we joked that the canneloni tasted remarkably like Chef Boy'ardee!  
Canneloni con Carne- Chef Boy'ardee Style 
Our frozen cheese pizza
After we ate, we stopped by the local grocery store near our apartment and stocked up on some food and water for our place.  Aside from several bottles of water, we bought bananas, Italian brand potato sticks (they sounded good), fruit juice, and what we thought were peanut butter wafers, but they turned out to be hazelnut, which is much more popular there than in the states. 
Now it was nap time and time to refresh!
A couple hours later (and when the temperatures started to drop), we took off in search of the Pantheon. We desperately tried to figure out the bus schedule and stops, but we found this to be very difficult!  The map that came with the Roma Pass listed bus stops, marked with the bus numbers that supposedly stopped at each stop.  However, 8 times out of 10, when we would go to that stop and review the buses numbers that stopped there, it completely contradicted with our Roma Pass map.  After several failed attempts during the week (Read about trying to get to the Vatican by bus here...), we kind of gave up on the Rome bus system.  We found it very frustrating.  We were able to walk everywhere. Even if they were long walks, they were doable. Later we heard that you can buy a more reliable Rome bus map at the tabachi for about €6.  If we knew this, it would have been very helpful.  In other words, do not rely on the free map with the Roma Pass to plan your bus route. It is not helpful.  
The mini electric bus #117
However, this time we were lucky and found a very small electric bus (#117) that would eventually take us to a stop near the Pantheon. It was tiny!  It probably only fit about 10 people comfortably, but was small enough it could travel the small back alleys of Rome (and it did)!  It traveled a very round-about way.  From the Colosseum it drove up past the Spanish Steps and to the Piazza Popolo, which was very interesting!  It then traveled back down the Via del Corso toward the Trevi and the Pantheon.  We hopped off a few blocks too early and made our way along Via del Corso. Then we started to cut over to the Pantheon, following our map. Easier said than done!  *I forgot to mention that the Pantheon also closed at 7:00 pm (19:00) and it was now 6:00 pm (18:00), so we were trying to hurry. We got so lost and turned around! All of those tiny streets get very confusing especially when you are surrounded by buildings and cannot get any sort of bearing on what direction you are headed. I knew we had to be close, but every turn we took seemed to get us more turned around. The Pantheon is hidden back in a neighborhood and among many buildings, as most things in Italy are.  It is not like you can see where it is from the main road. We finally asked directions from a cop busy smoking (as everyone in Italy does) and writing parking tickets.  He directed us there, and as we expected, we were only one or two turns away.  Later, after leaving the Pantheon, we immediately recognized where we took one wrong turn when we were only about 500 yards away.  Regardless, the maze of small Roman roads was a fun and interesting adventure as long as you have had a nap and the temps are cooling. 
We finally found the Pantheon! We didn't spend much time admiring the outside, but went ahead in to make sure we would get to spend some time inside before it closed for the evening.  Admission to the Pantheon is free. Again we did a free Rick Steves audio tour. The engineering and age of this building were inspiring, and this was one of Sam's favorite stops. 
The Roman Pantheon is the most preserved and influential building of ancient Rome. It is a temple dedicated to all the gods of pagan Rome. As the brick stamps on the side of the building reveal it was built and dedicated between A.D 118 and 125. The original use of the Pantheon is somewhat unknown, except that it was classified as a temple. It is unknown as to how the people worshipped in the building, because the structure of the temple is so different from other traditional Roman temples. Probably one of the most fascinating features of the Pantheon is the architecture. The structure of the Pantheon is comprised of a series of intersecting arches and the dome itself is supported by a series of arches that run horizontally round. Romans had perfected the use of arches which helped sustain the weight of their huge projects. The oculus- an open hole in the ceiling- was never covered and rain falls into the interior and runs off the slightly convex floor. It supplies light to the entire building, as there are no other windows and it is a whopping 30 feet in diameter! The Pantheon now serves as a tomb for several Italian kings, as well as the artist Raphael. We then left to admire the outside of the building.  We loved this architectural masterpiece! 
The dome and oculus
Raphael's Tomb
The Pantheon at night
We then made our way (successfully) over to the Piazza Navona.  It was very pretty!  Once a stadium and then transformed to a marketplace, this piazza was abuzz with artists and salesmen selling their wares. We found it a bit touristy, however, and some of the vendors were quite pushy! We learned that at one time this entire piazza would be flooded every August to create a swimming hole for locals. We especially like the Fountain of Four Rivers by Bernini. The four men sculpted on the fountain represent four major rivers of the four continents through which papal authority had spread: the Nile representing Africa, the Danube representing Europe, the Ganges representing Asia, and the Platte representing the Americas. Learn more about the fountain here
The Fountain of Four Rivers
We heeded the many warnings not to eat on the Piazza Navona due to jacked up prices and lower quality food. After exploring this area, we ventured a few blocks west toward the Vatican and the Tiber River in search of Old Bear, a restaurant recommended on Trip Advisor.  See my review here. We found it fairly easily and decided to sit outside.  In retrospect, I wish we had decided to sit inside because it was cramped outside and the decor inside was beautiful. It is surprisingly lodge-like and woody.
We started with the bruschetta, but then the waitress also brought out a basket of bread. Combined, they already took up our tiny little table.  We bought a pitcher of sangria, which was tasty, but strong!  Sam ordered the steamed mussels and clams, which he was not crazy about, while I had a satisfying dish of chicken with spicy sauce served with rosemary potatoes. It was all very good, but we were very full. 
We then walked to peek in the Tiber River and got some great evening shots of Castello Sant'angelo and the Vatican, which we would be visiting the following morning. 
The Vatican at night...
On our way back toward Piazza Navona, we spotted Grom, a well-known chain for gelato.  We had heard good things so decided to stop in for a sweet treat.  There was a bit of a line, but worth the wait!  I saw something that I interpreted to be almond- one of my favorites and ordered that, but the girl kept thinking I was saying "mint".  When I corrected here, she let me know that the almond was not gelato, but actually flavored ice.  As much as I love almond, almond-flavored ice did not sound appetizing so I just let her pick a flavor for me.  She gave me a combination of chocolate and crema and it had graham cracker chunks in it that were so good!  Sam had a combination of chocolate chip (Straciatellaand coffee and it was also delicious!
We ended up walking past the Pantheon again as we ate our gelato, filled up at 
the public fountain in the square (There are several drinking fountains placed all 
over the city and the water is just fine to drink.). As we were heading back 
toward Via Del Corso, we heard music and followed it to the Church of Sant'Ignazio
where there was a giant military symphony taking place- taking over the tiny square! 
It was beautiful!  We stayed and enjoyed the music for awhile, and then caught a 
random bus by luck that took us straight to our place! 
The symphony and opera we stumbled upon on our way home... 
Later that night we sat on our balcony and enjoyed the view of ancient Rome and 
then laid in the cool air of our apartment while watching silly dog and cat videos 
on our iphones...