Greece 2024 Travelogue!

European Adventure: Roman Holiday

I think I can say that I hit the ground running in Rome, but it wasn’t without some awkward moments to begin with. Arriving into the train station and finding the metro area was painless, and thankfully I’d been warned about the unpleasantness to come.

When you reach the subway ticket machines in Rome you’re instantly struck by A: a long line and B: lots of shouting. Each machine has someone standing next to it, usually of a gypsy looking persuasion, who tries to choose the options on the machine for you. You basically have to instantly and forcefully wave them off or they’ll do the work for you (despite the machines having an English button) and demand payment for their efforts. I quickly bypassed the gauntlet as I’d been told the machines downstairs are usually free of them, but I guess because it was a Friday afternoon every machine was “staffed.” I pushed in,  quickly got my ticket and headed for the train keeping a careful hand near my wallet since Roma Termini has a terrible rep for pickpockets and few things make you stick out as a tourist like a giant backpack (though at least you look poorer and a poorer target than the Americans distracted and pulling 8 wheelie bags.) Thankfully I quickly arrived at my amazing little hotel. Double bed with ensuite bathroom and A/C for 58 euro a night and only about five minutes from the Vatican museum. Unfortunately it’s also a small place so I had to wait 20 minutes or so for someone to be back to open the door. Once in though I happily threw everything into the closet, grabbed my rome specific guidebook I’d grabbed from the bookshare in Florence and headed out for the ancient city.

A metro ride later I popped out above ground and boom, there was the Flavian Ampitheatre. Following the advice in the guidebook I grabbed a pass for the sites from the Tabbacheria in the metro station and crossed the road, getting to skip the sizable line as a result. The amphitheatre (or Colloseum as it’s broadly known after the giant statue that used to stand near the spot) was probably the thing I most wanted to see in Rome, but I didn’t mind doing it first. The place just feels ancient and gets into your blood. It’s hard to look anywhere into or out of the Colloseum without seeing something amazing. The structure itself stretches far overhead even in its current battered form and it’s easy for the mind’s eye to reconstruct it to the full shape. As you climb upwards there are displays of the statues that used to line it and demonstrations of how the hoists ran to pop up animals, combatants or pieces of scenery for shows. Apparently the originally floor substructure was wood and could be disassembled to flood the place and have naval battle shows. The higher vantage points let you see most of the later permanent stone substructure and also have terrific views out at the arch of Constantine and the Roman Forum/Palatine hill area. Apparently the long term plans are to open up the tunnels to the public. It would be neat to see it up close. Basically everything that you see in Gladiator with the pop open tiger cages and the like is possible, though probably on the tamer end of what they could do.

I probably spent more time than most people in the Colloseum, but I was really enjoying it despite the annoying tour groups being pushy. Since it was still relatively early I headed over to the Roman forum next, exploring the grounds thoroughly and again trying to imagine what it looked like in the past. The sheer volume of ruins from various roman eras somewhat threatens to overwhelm you as you explore. The massive arches of the basilica are particularly impressive when you consider that it would cover a sizable chunk of the forum if in one piece today. More than anything there was just a feeling of history. Pretty much anything in sight was at least 1800 years old and filled with stories. The tiny area where Julius Caesar’s corpse was burned, the roman senate buildings, Caligula’s palace above, all these places from the stories I’ve read since childhood. Of course it’s more of a visual thing than anything, see the photo album on facebook for more.

After exploring a bit of Palatine hill (until they got ready to kick us out) I headed up the street and passed the Vittoria Emanuel II or wedding cake monument that many Romans (rightly) feel looks kind of stupid and out of place near the ancient roman ruins. On the other side was Trajan’s column then on a few streets over to probably my second most anticipated sight: The Pantheon. Originally a pagan temple to all the gods of Rome, it has been coopted like so many other things by the Catholic church. I’m really not sure how you make a giant pagan temple into a cathedral simply by slapping a few crosses on it, but I supposed I should be thankfully they didn’t tear it down. Built by Hadrian it was the largest dome in the world for over 1000 years until Il Duomo in Florence I believe. It was massively influential on the St. Peter’s dome (and other domes in the Vatican) and is a marvel of architectural skill. Basically half of a giant sphere perfectly nested its base, it has an opening called the oculus at the top that lets in the only light (and rain when it comes.) It also once had bronze statues including what was supposedly an amazing imperial eagle on the pediment, but one of the popes melted it down for doors and cannons and various fittings for St. Peter’s. Way to go yet again papacy.

Since I’d read about a tasty sounding pasta place near the Pantheon I hunted it down and had a delicious meal before heading onward to the Fountain of Trevi. I’d heard it was busy at night, I suppose it makes sense that Friday night is the busiest. Approaching the square I heard the noise of the crowd but was still blown away by the number of people enjoying the fountain and the people watching. The fountain itself is quite impressive as well, the contrast of the figures with the unfinished stone really makes it pop. It really was incredibly packed though so I found a place to toss in a coin (legend has it this will bring you back to Rome) and headed onward to the Spanish steps. I’ve got to say, I really don’t see what the fuss is about the steps, they’re nice and all but basically just a mass of people sitting on a stairway… It’s also one of the new hotspots for gypsy pickpockets. Since I was exhausted and it was just before 9 with the A-line of the metro shutting down I hopped aboard and back to my hotel.

The next day was Vatican day since everything there would be shut down Sunday. I walked south from my hotel and got in the line that snaked round the Vatican wall but thankfully didn’t look too crazy. It wasn’t and within about 30 minutes I was inside the museum and my last new country for the trip. The museum was on and off great, certain parts were fantastic but far too packed with people all pushing towards the Sistine chapel, other parts seemed to be roped off just because the Saturday crowds were too large to risk people crowding through them. The entire Egyptian area was closed off to my disgust. Highlights were definitely the Etruscan section, by far the best collection of their artifacts I’ve ever seen and really neat in showing the base for a lot of Roman art (most of what wasn’t influenced by the Greeks was Etruscan instead essentially.) Because it took a slight detour off the main route it was also mercifully less crowded. Unfortunately the massive crowds combined with the markedly worse air conditioning that characterizes Italian museums meant that everyone was basically a giant puddle by the time we got to the Sistine chapel. The last approach to the chapel is an unending hallway of glitz and glamour and lets you know where the collection plate money has been going for the last two millennia. I’m glossing over a lot of this but this post is already turning into a “first I saw this, then that” type thing and that’s kind of boring. Suffice it to say I saw some lovely paintings and sculpture. The Sistine Chapel itself really is incredible and if I had one suggestion for friends visiting Rome it’s to prepare for it before you go into the room. Read up on the orientation and structure of the ceiling to get the most out of it because even on a slow day I’m sure it’s full of people all staring upward and elbowing you in the spleen. The relentless calls of no photo, no video (why? If you don’t use a flash?) and SHHHH, silencio get incredibly annoying as well. Personally I think a large hum of conversation about the ceiling is far preferable to someone shouting every 20 seconds for contemplation but they didn’t ask me.

Unfortunately the shortcut from the Chapel to St. Peter’s was closed that day, but I decided to go see what the line for the Basilica looked like regardless. Again it wasn’t too bad (I think everyone had just gotten into the museum ahead of me since I did sleep in a bit) and I went to have a look. Every single guidebook mentions the dress code for the Vatican (covered shoulders and knees, pants for gentleman and at the very least a long skirt for women) yet there were still people being turned away at the checkpoint. I mean seriously, you couldn’t have at least done a web search on where you were going? Imagine turning back at that point on summer days when you waited in line for 2.5 hours in the blazing hot 38 degree weather. The church itself is incredibly vast and ridiculous inside and truly seems to be a monument to the avarice of the papacy over the centuries. Little wonder that the funding of the place by papal indulgence was one of the causative factors of the Reformation. It must have represented everything that the reformers thought was wrong with the Roman church. It’s truly ridiculous inside, gorgeous but so over the top as a place of worship that it makes the palaces of even the most deluded emperors and kings look drab by comparison. Walking back to my hotel for a shower I stopped randomly at a delicious looking gelataria and later found it listed in both guidebooks as a top pick for quality and massive portions.

My last day in Rome was a little harder to plan. It was unfortunately Sunday which meant a large number of the religious sites as well as many restaurants and stores would be closed. I decided to do a bit of a walking/museum tour and started at the Piazza de Popolo before heading southwards. I ended up passing the Spanish steps and fountain of trevi again as well as the fashionable shopping area between before heading over closer to the train station. Thankfully the National Museum of Rome wasn’t and I was able to check out a wonderful collection, mostly of sculptures that had once been scattered around smaller museums but were now consolidated here.

After the museum I visited a few smaller piazza, hit the Pantheon to see the light shining in it properly instead of the dusk of my first visit then headed south to see the sacred area with some of the oldest ruins in Rome. The south end of the area is now a cat sanctuary of all things so as you watch the ruins there will be at least 5 cats in view most of the time. After I’d been past it the previous night I realized that behind the Vittorio Emmanuel II monument was the Michelangelo designed plaza of the Capitoline so I backtracked to see the reproduction of the Marcus Aurelius cavalry statue now housed in the museum. Sadly by this point I was fairly museum saturated and I knew I wouldn’t get much out of it in the hour or so remaining til closing so I skipped this one and just enjoyed the view over the forum.

Rome has a reputation as a city of petty crime. I’ve loved the city since setting foot in it but I have to say it’s entirely deserved. The terrible crap at the metro machines, pickpockets everywhere and scam artists galore mean that anytime you’re anywhere remotely touristy you’ll feel like the other 25% of the people in sight are trying to rob you blind. Even the restaurant annoyances that plague Italy come to a new level in Rome. While most places in the country will refuse to serve you tap water and insist you buy a bottle at 2 or 3 euro, many places in Rome sell you tap water at 2 or 3 euro a bottle. In addition you’d best be prepared to pay a large cover charge, even if not sitting on the patio. One Dutch couple I talked to the other night mentioned a restaurant they’d been to where any tourists that sat down were immediately brought multiple 8 dollar plates of antipasti and everyone pretended not to understand English when they tried to say they didn’t want them, of course the moment they tried to leave without paying for them English was spoken by all. Tales abound as well of scam cabs that will take you to different hotels than you asked for, miles from the metro or other cabs. Locals that “help” you then ask you to buy them a drink in a bar in return and when you get the check it’s for 100euro or more. And gypsies that will trip and drop a baby into your arms and as you grab it your pockets are rifled. Though I dismissed a lot of these at first as rumours a check of reputable travel sites on the net backs many of them up. Common sense saves you from most of these scams of course, but there is definitely a large section of the Roman population that sees visitors as prey rather than guests. Sitting in the Piazza Navona later on I saw more than a few of these lovely people, mostly pickpockets. While sitting by the fountain there I managed to scare off one guy eying a Canadian woman with MS’s purse by talking to her while staring directly at him. Given that I was probably a foot taller than him he decided not to take the chance that I was with her and went looking for other targets. Luckily she was meeting friends a bit later so I just told her to keep her bag turned inward and tight to her for the time being.

By this point I’d walked across most of the ancient city and back and was getting close to calling it a day. Most things were closing down early for Sunday so I walked back via the Vatican by crossing the bridge to the Castel Sant’angelo a building that started life as Hadrian’s tomb before being converted into a last bastion of defense for the papacy in times of invasion. It’s a squat, imposing little castle approached by a pedestrian bridge lined with Angels sculpted by Bernini. It was closing for the day as I approached so I simply snapped a few photos. From there I took the long path up towards St. Peter’s in the distance and realized that unfortunately this route would take me past the “Old Bridge” gelateria again so I was forced to get another double scoop. It was a lot busier this time but still worth the wait, I’m fairly sure that much gelato other places I’d been in Europe would be in the five euro range.

As I write this I’ve been out for my last meal, I’ve said my goodbyes to Rome and Europe and I’m packing my bag for the last time. I won’t miss living out of a backpack and kind of hope not to be doing it for a while. As much fun as I’ve had I’m definitely hitting the “time to go home” point as I think it’s time to process all that I’ve seen and file it all permanently away in the memory before it becomes a blur. I will miss discovering new places and things, but I’ve certainly had a proper introduction to the rest of Europe now and I definitely have a list of places to visit again and near misses that I would like to correct. It’s going to be weird being surrounded by people speaking English again, of being able to turn the tv on and hear english on every channel (indeed of being able to see a tv more than once a week or so.) I miss my dogs (oh, and family,) friends,  good thai food and affordable rum and cokes. I miss being able to stretch out on a queen sized bed every night and not having to worry about hot water or squeezing under a shower tap designed for a midget. In short, it’s been a great time and it will be great to be home. See you all soon.