16-19 October, 2010
Saturday. left home early to catch the 4am bus to Stansted. still managed to squeeze in a full breakfast at the airport and finished (i did not exactly finished my meal) after boarding time started. had to run half of the way to the gates. thank goodness for online check-ins. flew Ryanair to Ciampino (2.5H). and from there took the Terravision bus to Termini station, central Rome (under an hour travel, booked online).
We were at the Termini before noon and had time to kill before we check in at the hotel. Looked for maps. No freebies here. But we discovered the Tourist information booths outside the station too late. Found an AA guidebook worth £6.50 that was selling for €13. We’ve seen a few hop-on hop-off buses and decided to give that a go. We took the ‘Rome open tour’ which seemed to be a bad choice as it was always full and not that frequent. Ticket sellers will approach you as soon as you line up, they have IDs, but i was still afraid that they’d sell me dodgy tickets or run off with my money. Got on the 2nd bus which was full, but we managed to find seats upstairs. The open bus tours won’t pass by the Spanish Steps and the Pantheon, but I thought it was a good way to get around when you have time to kill or your feet get too achy. You also get earphones to let you listen to running commentaries on various attractions (multiple languages), though some earphone slots don’t work. €20/24 hours.
We got off at Navona and walked to Campo dei Fiori to find lunch. Campo dei Fiori has a market selling various goods in the mornings and they were packing up already around the time we got there. We settled in a small trattoria. Got a bottle of house white and quickly got into the Italian way of eating – primi, secondi, desserts. we ruined it by not finishing with an espresso. but we just have no more space. Food and service was great (Ristorante Grotte Teatro, via del Biscione 73). Prices looked cheap enough (€7 for a bottle of house wine), but they did quickly add up. i thought my €4/100g seabass was so cheap, but a smallish seabass was around 400g.
We walked to the hotel (the idea that the whole of Rome is walkable is such an exaggeration). Probably took more than an hour, and the rain poured. Me in my all-weather, but heeled boots. the husband in more comfortable, but-not-great-in-rain shoes. We arrived at the hotel all wet, tired and disheveled.
But on the way, before it started to rain, we found this small leather gloves shop – Alberta Gloves Factory, featured in the Lonely Planet (Corso Vittorio Emanuele, 18/a). And run by this lovely, lovely 80+ year old woman who hailed from Czechoslovakia. She speaks very few words in English and much of our conversation was trying to understand in context what each other was saying. She was mighty proud of the quality of her gloves, made with leather she had sourced from way back in the 70’s. They were fine gloves, some very unique leather and superb craftmanship in classic designs. The husband got 2 pairs (they were expensive). I wasn’t really into leather gloves as I need far more warmth, so even though I wanted to buy, I just don’t need one.
We stayed at the Hotel Corallo, a few streets from the Termini station. Far enough to be away from the noise and dodgy people that the main station attracts, but still quite central and with a number of restaurants in the area. There is a metro station a couple of streets away (that I just discovered on our very last day. nearer than Termini). hotels in Rome are expensive. This one is €100/night and no stars at that. It had some bad reviews but I wasn’t paying any more than that price. Turns out it wasn’t as bad as I expected. Decent-sized room, with tiny balcony (which we didn’t use as it was cold already in October), clean, ensuite with shower (you do end up with the whole floor getting wet after a shower), high ceilings, facing the inner courtyard (not as quiet as we’d hope). The walls are quite thin that I can hear people peeing in the next room and the seats being moved in the breakfast room upstairs. There is a hostel in the same building, but each floor has a secured entrance. don’t be caught in this building when an earthquake happens as the stairs seemed to be held up by dodgy support beams. they don’t speak English at all at the reception, but that didn’t seem to be much of a problem.
we found dinner in one of the restaurants by the Trevi fountain. I told the husband about throwing in a coin to ensure that we’ll return to Rome. we both laughed and wondered if we want to go back. The Trevi fountain is a great work of art and is very grand. People flock to it till late and you’ll hardly get a chance for a good photo op over here. There are places to sit around the fountain and people would watch the waters like it was some sort of theatre. It can be mesmerising.
Sunday. Italian breakfasts are almost always pastries and cappucino. met a Filipina who worked part time at the hotel and a couple of her friends who lived in the same building. We took the hop-on hop-off bus again and did the full round trip. Being a Sunday, St. Peter’s Basilica (Vatican) was crowded and I content myself knowing that the Pope is somewhere out there officiating the mass.
We finally got off at the Colosseo. Queued to get in and decided to take a guided tour to skip the lines (we took the tour offered at the Colosseo). A magnificent structure. too bad we missed the art installation (where the colosseum looked like it was burning). and it was great to learn about how it had transformed from a palatial residence to a gladiator ring and then stripped bare for its building materials to be reused elsewhere and later became a warehouse.
With my feet aching badly, we walked a bit further round the other side to try to find the Bocca della Verita (the Mouth of Truth, which myth says that if you put your hand in its mouth, it will bite it off if you are lying). You’d be familiar with the story if you have seen Audrey Hepburn’s ‘Roman Holiday’. We found it behind a fence right outside the Church that housed St. Valentine’s remains. People are waiting in line to get their picture taken. €0.50 offering per person. We’ve lit a few candles as well for St. Valentine inside the church.
Took the Metro to find dinner somewhere nearer our hotel. If you want a day pass (unlimited use on the metro, bus, tram), they are called 24-hour tickets. But that is a VERY misleading name. It is valid only until midnight, and NOT for a full 24 hours. I bought the tickets at 7pm, checking the message on the machine that it says 24 hours, hoping to use it the next day. And I got duped. when you validate it at the doors, it stamped the card saying valid until 23:59 of the same day.
Monday was Vatican day. Booked online and was glad I did when we saw the lines circling the Vatican walls. If you didn’t book online, get a tour (more expensive, but at least you’ll not be wasting time queuing all day with no guarantees if you will get in). We got ourselves an audio guide instead so we can see everything at our own pace. We ended up seeing every single room, photographing countless statues. We contented ourselves with not using flash most of the time esp. at paintings and more sensitive art (after all we’d want the future generations to be able to see it as well. i don’t understand why for some people, everything is a photo opportunity and use flash indiscriminately). Stood in the middle of the Sistine chapel (no pictures allowed), necks aching to see the story of Christianity thru art by Michaelangelo on the ceilings. We breathed the stale air of these ancient rooms. Walked on priceless mosaics salvaged from various ruins. Such a rich collection of art, funded throughout the ages by the Church’s followers, some donated, gifted. Though they never said the word – a lot of these were most likely looted by the Popes from excavations in Egypt and other Christian territories.
If you had to eat at the Vatican museums, go to the self service cafeterias. You’ll end up wasting your time at the restaurant at the square garden (the one with the big acorn flanked by 2 peacock bronze statues). 2 untrained waiters on a very busy lunch time had people waiting for at least half an hour just to get a menu (i think there were only 2 copies). the waitress was keeping her head down as she shuffled between tables and you have to call out to get her attention. At the cashier, several people are making complaints and threatening to make a scene because of the lousy service. The poor staff are overworked. I don’t blame them, I blame the Vatican.
We came away with a guide book and a few rosaries (sold at inflated prices).
The museum was closing and we made our way to St. Peter’s Basilica. Hardly any queues at this time, another set of bag x-rays and fences, but for free, and we were in. The La Pieta is inside the Basilica. I did get goosebumps when I was here, just because. I was a bit taken aback by the sight of the offertory boxes. This is the Vatican after all, and we had just been to see the very lavish and priceless collections that illustrates how rich the Catholic Church is. Maybe it’s not the way others see it, but asking me for a handout is a bit scandalous. We were here until the bells rang signalling closing time (before 7pm).
Walked to the Metro and made our way to the Spanish Steps. Nothing really amazing here. But this area is a popular nightspot for the locals. So, plenty of good restaurants. finally found an Italian red wine I liked – a Sicilian Syrah.
Tuesday. Had breakfast. The Filipina working here was worried of typhoon Juan battering the Philippines. Her family, including her kids were badly affected by Ondoy last year and were anxious even though they’ve moved to higher ground now. Checked out and the guy at the reception says ‘no credit card, machine broken’, like they were expecting us to just whip out €300 in cash. So off went Al to find a cash machine.
We made our way to via Nazionale to find leather goods. I got a Borbonese bag, not all leather as the saleslady made me believe, but still quality work nonetheless. I complained about them at the Borbonese website. Wasn’t really supposed to get a bag as I bought a cheap 100% leather bag from Camden the previous week (but it committed suicide on this trip, after only 3 uses). Al got his much longed for leather jacket. We had lunch in the side streets, had gelati while waiting for alterations on the jacket. We took the Metro to Pyramide for a very quick sightseeing and headed back to Termini to catch the Terravision bus to Ciampino (took the wrong exit at the station and were off running again until we found the bus stop). Getting on the Terravision bus from Termini is chaotic. There was a line and the staff did try her best to keep people in line, but people still jumped the queue and just rushed for the door.
Rome was not love at first sight for us. This is our 3rd time in Italy and having seen similar structures in Athens as well, we didn’t get the chance to be awed by it all. That made me feel guilty as being surrounded by the works of the Renaissance masters deserve much more appreciation than I was giving it. The food and the wine were good, but not as great as in Venice and Florence where every meal in any restaurant was an experience. We had 4 days here, it was not enough to see everything. We didn’t see the Pantheon nor walked a bit more closely to the Roman Forum. I didn’t get to try the #116 mini-bus. I did not get a picture of the countless fountains that seems to be in every corner. I couldn’t get myself to drink in the water fountains in fear of getting cooties (they say the water here is the secret ingredient to how great the food is).
Still I think a lot of what i read are exaggerations. The locals don’t dress like they’ve just stepped out of the catwalk everytime. There’s plenty of t-shirts and jeans and sneakers here. Don’t try to walk everywhere, take the Metro, you’ll wear yourself out. Food is a bit hit and miss. Go to where the locals go. Even though a cappuccino in the afternoons is frowned upon, no one will begrudge you that if that is what you want. There are thieves and pickpockets here, but I was expecting throngs of gypsies in the subway and at Termini when it truth there’s only a few.