Can you say you've been to Italy if you haven't been to Rome?
I didn't think so.
We had been to Italy several times: Venice more than once, Florence, Milan, Lake Como, Tuscany, Bologna, but we had never been to Rome. So for our biennial trip to Europe we decided that we needed to see Rome and throw in Sorrento, Naples and the Amalfi Coast for good measure.
After doing the requisite homework and bookings (I tell Hubby where I want to go and he does the work. I recognize his need to control and I let him - that's why we've been married for 31 years!) about four months in advance and the necessary planning "Baby Boomer Style," we were ready to go.
Tip #1: If you want your first choice of accommodations in popular destinations, especially if you are using popular guidebooks such as those by Rick Steves, I recommend starting your planning at least six months in advance and even a year early if you can. We discovered many recommended hotels in Rome and on the Amalfi Coast were already booked. BTW, we have had good luck with www.booking.com.
We were scheduled to fly out on a Wednesday. Seattle to London. London to Rome with a two-hour layover in London.
Tip #2: If you can't afford Business Class, pay the extra amount for Premium Economy. You get extra leg-room, a teeny-tiny bit wider seat and if you even have a prayer of getting upgraded to Business, you need to have this seat (you have no prayer with a cheap, non-refundable seat).
We even paid extra to guarantee our seat. British Airways has the annoying practice of not allowing you to book your seat ahead of time unless you pay $35 extra. We did that going over; not coming back.
Tip #3: If you can't book your seat ahead of time or if you don't like your seat, check in exactly 24 hours before departure. That is your best chance of getting a good seat because that is when airlines release the seats they have been holding for their frequent flyers and people who are willing to pay.
So we had our Premium Economy tickets and our seat assignments that we paid extra for, the dogs' babysitter was booked, the neighbors were going to watch our house and all of those little details I outlined in my recent post "Planning a Trip - Baby Boomer Style!" were taken care of....
But then you know what they say about "the best laid plans?"
On the Monday before our Wednesday departure, Hubby received a text from British Airways saying that our flight from London to Rome was canceled because of a fire at the Rome airport. We knew about the fire but it had been a week earlier so we were not concerned. We should have been. What started as a two-hour layover in London was now a six hour layover.
Tip #4: Avoid connecting flights whenever possible.
After an uneventful flight (my favorite kind) to London, getting us to London in the middle of the night our time, we strategized on how to fill our time. I always have tons of content on my IPad so I can keep busy. I load up my IPad with magazines available to download from my library's website (Zinio) and TV shows that I downloaded using my TIVO app (nothing like watching "The View" in an airport in London!).
Tip #5: Plan for delays by making sure you have things to occupy you such as talking books, IBooks, magazines, etc. Check your local public library's website for books, music and magazines you can download to your mobile device.
However much as I like reading and watching TV, it can get old after six hours, so we decided to check out the lounges to see if we could get in, even if we had to pay. After all, it wasn't OUR fault our flight was canceled and we were PREMIUM ECONOMY people!
So off we went to investigate.
British Airways has three lounges at Heathrow Airport, one for First Class people and then the other two for varying degrees of frequent flyer status. We thought by trying the lowest rung we would do better so we went up to the desk, flashed our biggest smiles and told our tale of woe.
"But we will pay. Don't you have a day pass?"
Nope. Sorry. (Now piss off).
Let's just say the class system is alive and well in England.
So we resorted to Plan B.
When we finally arrived in Rome, tired but well-oiled, it was almost midnight on Thursday. We had been traveling for almost 24 hours and seen two sunsets.
Now let me just say, that good old Rick Steves is constantly warning us about taxi drivers overcharging us in some European cities. We had already been stung in Prague so you would think someone whose name starts with "H" and ends with "ubby" would know better, but as we staggered out of the Rome airport, what do I see? Hubby heading for an unmarked van. A total stranger in an unmarked van offered to drive him to our hotel for 45 euro. Now we already knew that the going rate was about 48 euro, but no way am I getting into an unmarked van in a strange city at almost midnight even if he offered to drive us for free. I mean, he could drive us out into the middle of nowhere, relieve us of our luggage and our lives and who would know? I dragged my feet and tried to tactfully reason with Hubby until the driver threw up his hands and pointed to a white cab sitting nearby.
Tip #6: Avoid unmarked vans in Rome no matter how cheap and go for white cabs with meters only. (And we were still over-charged!)
We had warned the hotel - Hotel Suisse - we would be late and there was someone waiting for us, which was nice.
Our hotel was one of those classic Italian buildings where you enter a big wooden door into a courtyard. It had once been a villa and the hotel occupied the third floor. The room was small, dark and spartan (though it had a great bath), but we were exhausted and I thought it would be OK.
If you have read my post "The Perfect Hotel Room," you know that I am very fussy about where I stay when traveling in the U.S. However, I don't apply those standards when traveling in Europe, because one, I don't want to be an "Ugly American," and two, I want to experience Europe, not the U.S. However, Hubby could tell I was a bit disappointed so the next day he asked if we could be moved and the hotel accommodated us and put us in a much better room with three windows overlooking a lovely green courtyard (the bathroom wasn't as good as the first one but I didn't want to push it).
Our hotel was nicely situated on a quiet street near the Spanish Steps with breakfast included, served on a tray in our room.
In most cases, the Italian breakfast is mostly rolls and pastries with fruit and cappuccino. Ah, the cappuccino. I have fallen in love. Each morning we sat at our window eating our breakfast and drinking our cappuccinos, watching the Italian life going on in the apartments across the courtyard.
Tip #7: No matter how much you love cappuccino, never order it after 11am. In Italy, it is a breakfast drink only and you will be marked as a tourist and possibly ridiculed should you ask for it any other time.
We got up relatively early the next day, happy to discover our jet lag had already been resolved with that 24 hour travel "day," so off we went to discover the Spanish Steps.
We planned three days in Rome.
On Day 1 we would explore our neighborhood (The Spanish Steps and the Via Del Corso - shopping!) and the Vatican City.
Day 2 The Borghese Gallery and a "Heart of Rome" walk in the evening.
Day 3 The Colosseum, Forum, Palatine Hill and the Monti Neighborhood.
Ah, the hopes and dreams of newbies. Little did we know what awaited us.
Let me give you a nice illustration using the Spanish Steps.
Crowds, crowds and more crowds.
And with a strong dollar, more Americans than I have ever encountered in Europe in all of the 20+ years I have been going over there. If I wanted to hang out with Americans I would have stayed home. And it was MAY! It wasn't even summer yet. School wasn't even out yet!
Tip #8: Forget May as a good time to see Europe. It's not.
At the foot of the Spanish Steps is the Via Del Corso, one of the premiere shopping districts.
And here is the closest I will ever get to wearing real Prada or Fendi!
Next stop - Vatican City
When we arrived, the line to get into St. Peter's Basilica was miles long so we decided to go to the museum first.
The museum was a 30 minute walk around the other side of St. Peters. I had bought our ticket online before we left so we knew we would be able to get into the short line for that. On the way we were constantly and aggressively approached by representatives of tour groups, offering you a way to "skip the line" into the Basilica.
We might have fallen for that as it was only about 16 euro, but we had a tip from a Rick Steves guidebook that when we got to the Sistine Chapel, there is a door used by those tour groups to go directly into the Basilica. If the door was open, all you had to do was insinuate yourself into one of the tour groups and in you go. And it worked, saving us a 30 minute walk to get into line to see the Basilica and 16 euro. Unfortunately, most others didn't have that tip because it looks like they all fell for the "skip the line" routine and signed up for the tour groups. You would not believe the number of tour groups we had to bob and weave through in the museum to get to that door. It was like being crowded onto a narrow conveyor belt.
When we finally got to the Sistine Chapel, we were all herded into the center of the room and it was so crowded, when I looked up to try to see Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam," I felt dizzy. It was almost impossible to take in all of the detail of that ceiling and appreciate Michelangelo's accomplishment being crammed into that small space butt cheek to butt cheek with a thousand other tourists. So I guess I will have to go to the library and look at it again in a book. I also have to say that the Sistene Chapel is a very small room. I was expecting something much more.
Not being a big fan of medieval sculpture and religious art (though I do love the ornate ceilings),
it wasn't difficult for me to get through the Vatican museum quickly and get the heck out of there, so it was a relief to get into St. Peter's Basilica where, by this time, the crowds had thinned and we could reflect on what we were seeing.
The famous Pieta.
But my plans to climb the Dome? Yet another line so forget it. And did I say it was really hot?
Tip #9: If you want to see the Vatican Museum, buy your tickets online before you go and to avoid lines into the Basilica, remember that "secret door" I told you about (in the back right hand corner).
On our way back from the Vatican, we stopped at a sidewalk café and while sitting there a guy pulled up yelling "Water," in Italian. His car was on fire. He ran into the restaurant with a little teacup hoping for water. The restaurant staff tried to help, but then his engine blew up! The Romans sitting next to us said "Welcome to Rome!"
Back to the room to freshen up. As Hubby is quick to point out, I have a two hour limit where I either need to go back to the room or stop for food and drink.
Tip #10: We of a certain age find that breaking up the sightseeing with a little rest back at the hotel room works well. That or a glass of wine!
In the evening we took Rick Steves' advice and ate at the Antica Enoteca near our hotel. Great food, but we were surrounded by local guys watching a European basketball playoff on TV, hooting and hollering. Just like home.
Then we took an evening stroll to the Pantheon,
the Trevi Fountain and Piazza Navona. It was a huge disappointment that the Trevi was under reconstruction and there was nothing to see. I mean, I had seen the movie "Three Coins in a Fountain" as a little girl and it represented all that was romantic about Rome. I wanted to throw my coin in. But wouldn't you know, it was surrounded by tourists taking pictures of it, even though there was no water and it was surrounded by wire fencing!
I was not only put off by the crowds but by the constant, relentless hawking of selfie sticks, scarves and other "souvenirs" by street vendors and guys just walking around. If you stopped for a moment and acted confused, there was someone there saying "You buy?" And the restaurants were doing it too. Waiters standing out in front of the restaurants shoving menus in your face.
I noticed a jazz club next door to our hotel so I suggested to Hubby that we end the evening with a drink in the bar. Before I knew it, the guy at the bar said to hubby, "Want to hear some jazz?" and Hubby and he were heading up the stairs as I was mumbling "Is there a cover?" Too late. We were jammed into the small upstairs club with a 15 euro cover. It included one drink so Hubby, in his inimitable way rationalized, "I pay that much for a cocktail back at home!"
Not the point.
All I had really wanted to do was sit at the bar downstairs. I realized I had to watch Hubby every minute.
Tip #11: Nothing is for free - even advice (see train station experience below). If it sounds too good to be true...you know the drill. If something is offered, always ask the price or what the deal is before committing yourself. That goes for restaurants, sellers, taxis and jazz clubs.
We started the day by riding the Metro down to the train station to get our tickets for Naples.
Omg. The Rome train station.
What a mess. You had to get a number and then get in line to even buy a ticket. A nice couple from the UK came up to us and gave us their number (they had been in line for an hour), because they had figured out how to use the ticket machines. We thought, if they can do it, we can.
Now here comes the "even information is not free" thing.
If you look confused at the train station, in a flash someone is beside you asking you if you need help with the machine or advice on what to do. If you fall for it, they will "help" you and then hit you up for money in a most aggressive way.
Fortunately, we were hip to this scam because Hubby had fallen for it in Milan on another trip. So putting our "don't even come near me" faces on, we tried to get a ticket using the machines. We figured it out, but Hubby noticed that the prices were way higher than what he remembered when he was looking online.
So I had the bright idea to go to the Information Desk (I ain't a librarian for nothing). Guess what? Take another number. Fortunately, that line was not as long as the ticket line, so we finally got to talk to a real live person and discovered we were right. The online tickets WERE cheaper. Buy the tickets online, get a Pdf file sent to your email and print them out. Worked great except the woman at our hotel did not know how to print the pdf for us. Sigh. Eventually another staff person came on board who did know.
Tip #12: Do as much online as you can to avoid standing in line.
Riding the Metro was easy but it was another mess of sorts. Every car jam-packed at all hours of the day and night. Strange that a big city like Rome only has two lines - A & B. Nothing like the ease of riding the Paris Metro or the London Underground.
Tickets to Naples sorted, we headed to our next stop.
The Borghese Gallery which stands on a large piece of park-like property was next on our agenda. You could spend an entire day there. Rome does not have a lot of parks so this is a nice oasis. I hate to say it, but I probably could have done without seeing that. As I said, I am not a huge fan of early art, but I enjoyed the building itself, the ceilings and the gardens.
They limit the number of people who can go in at any time so the experience was much more pleasant than the Vatican Museum. We had made our reservation at home before we left so this was not a problem. I noted that for walk-ins they were making reservations for seven days hence so make sure you do it several weeks before you plan to arrive.
Then we walked back down the famous Via Veneto
where we stopped at an outdoor café for lunch. I ordered a bottle of Pinot Grigio but when the waitress came back she tried to sell me a different bottle. I was surprised I wasn't more skeptical. I just thought she was trying to get rid of something that wasn't selling, but then I realized it was probably a more expensive bottle. Upselling was rampant. I declined.
We wanted to explore the Monti neighborhood, so in the evening we took the Metro once again and had happy hour and cicchetti at a charming little place in a lovely little alleyway. For a glass of wine and an extra 3 euros, you could fill up a plate with a selection of delicious hors d'oeuvres.
Tip #13: Don't be a slave to the guidebooks. Sometimes you just happen upon something that looks inviting. If so, go for it. This little place was a highlight and turns out it was so popular that by 7:30 our table was reserved for a young couple who were sitting opposite us in a doorway waiting for the table (see the woman in black? That was our table). It's spontaneous moments like that that make memorable vacations.
It was all about the Colosseum.
And once again, I was accosted by an aggressive seller, this time a Gladiator. Guys in gladiator garb are everywhere around the Colosseum so you can get your picture taken with a gladiator -- for a price, of course. As I crossed a bridge on my way to the Colosseum, one of those guys grabbed my hand and wouldn't let go! Geez, already.
And, would you believe this?! Guess what was also going on the day we decided to see the Colosseum? A Susan B. Koman Race for The Cure event was going on, can you believe it? So in addition to the usual crowds at the Colosseum, we had to dodge hundreds of runners and walkers wearing pink. It was a total zoo!
And wouldn't you know, despite the fact that we had the Roma Pass Card, which lets you skip the lines and gives you discounts on the sights (I recommend it), everyone else had it too so the line to skip the line was hours long. We went up to the door and asked which line to get in and the ticket taker said, forget it, go see something else. So we did. We went to Palatine Hill and the Forum.
When we returned to the Colosseum, the guy who advised us was right (so, I guess, some advice is free in Rome). The crowds had thinned out, we went right in and saw it in all of its glory. But before that we had to take some cheesy pictures of ourselves giving thumbs up and down. We were tourists, after all.
After dealing with all of the crowds at the Colosseum, we found a little alley that led into a quiet neighborhood and a lovely little bistro where we had lunch. Delicious and cheap food and wine.
That evening we did a passeggiata with the locals to the Piazza del Popolo and went to find where Gregory Peck lived in the movie "Roman Holiday."
And that was Rome. Sigh.
And it wasn't easy. I blamed it in part on being older, but I think that we just were not used to "touring," as in "doing the sights." We have gotten used to returning to favorite places such as London and Paris, where we have already done the touristy stuff and now can just stroll and enjoy. Getting back in line in a strange city was not easy.
What I liked about Rome:
1. The food and wine
Even a bad plate of pasta beats a great plate of pasta here in the U.S.
And it's all cheap. We would have a starter, a salad and a main plus a bottle of wine and we never spent over 60 euro.
2. The antiquity
To stand among the ruins of a civilization that accomplished so much thousands of years ago and walk on streets that you knew people walked on thousands of years ago was awe-inspiring.
Once you get away from the crowds and the touristy stuff, Rome is a great city to just walk around in.
5. The Trastevere neighborhood
When we returned to Rome (after Naples, Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast - stay tuned) and spent our last night before heading home, we stayed in the Trastevere and it was worlds apart from the "touristy" part of Rome. Yes, there were lots of people still, but it was more attuned to strolling, wandering and just hanging out, which is what we really like to do when we travel.
We like to hang with the locals.
What I didn't like about Rome:
1. Too many Americans. Too crowded in general.
2. Too hot, even in May.
3. Too much aggressive street selling, upselling and scamming.
4. The Metro - only two lines and always crowded
Here's the bottom line:
As Rick Steves says in his guidebook:
"Rome is magnificent and brutal at the same time. It's a showcase of Western civilization, with astonishingly ancient sights and a modern vibrancy. But if you're careless, you'll be run down or pickpocketed. And with the wrong attitude, you'll be frustrated by the kind of chaos that only an Italian can understand...Rome is a magnificent tangled forest. If your hotel provides a comfortable refuge, if you pace yourself; if you accept--and even partake in -- the siesta plan; if you're well-organized for sightseeing; and if you protect yourself and your valuables with extra caution and discretion, you'll love it."
The verdict for me is still out on the "love" part, but I am glad I went. But be advised. If you are of a certain age and this is your first time, take advice from the gladiators and gird your loins!
(and stay-tuned...next Tuesday it's all about Naples and Sorrento in Pt. 2 of "Rosy the Reviewer Does Italy!")
Thanks for Reading!
See you Friday
for my review of the new movie
"Mad Max: Fury Road"
The Week in Reviews
(What to See or Read and What to Avoid)
and the latest on
My 1001 Movies I Must See Before
I Die Project."