Summer 2017: Rome

Ah, Roma! The Eternal City. Twinned with Paris because “Only Paris is worthy of Rome; only Rome is worthy of Paris”. Ange and I have been there four times each and so I’m interested in which attractions we end up seeing – we each make a list and see where the overlaps are. We definitely want to try and see something that neither of us has seen.

Day One

Ange has never been to the Forum, so we decide to go to both the Coliseum and Forum together as they’re both on the same ticket. She also hasn’t done the castle near the Vatican, connected by a “secret” passage (Castel Sant’Angelo). We do the maths and as long as we use the public transport seven times in the two days, the Roma Pass will be beneficial. So! Into Termini on the Metro, then get the 48hour Roma Pass.

We take the metro to the Coliseum and the lines are winding their way across the open areas outside the building, the tourists in line boiling under the noon day sun. Yes, by getting up late, we’ve managed to time our visit for the hottest part of the day. No point fretting though, and so we head towards the entrances.

We run the gauntlet of hawkers selling hats, water and selfie sticks along with earnest Americans asking if we need guides and approach the Coliseum. Like an enormous stone/flesh hybrid octopus, queues of people writhe around in the sun seeking admittance. The group line has a swarming mass of humanity wending its way from its entrance.

We’re heading towards the individual entrance and a guy with a Roma Pass badge points us back to the group entrance instead. We head back and I notice that the crowds are around the group entrance and beside it is a sign saying Roma Pass – with maybe one or two people in the queue.

We quickly head over there and go straight in. The tour groups have their own queues inside also and like magic the Roma Pass gets us straight in. I keep expecting someone to stop us – tell us we’re in the wrong place or otherwise bar our progress, as its never been this easy to gain entry on any of the other times I’ve been, but before I know it we’re climbing the stairs into the sun.

It takes a second to start the app with the Rick Steves audio guide and then we begin wandering around the Coliseum looking like a pair of Siamese twins joined at the ears. Rick Steve’s guide is good value with equal parts entertainment and education and we startle a few tourists with our synchronised laughter at a witty bon mot that only we can hear.

Afterwards we pause outside the Coliseum in the shade to have a rest and end up watching a heated discussion between a street vendor and a pair of tourists. One of the tourists has made the error of showing interest in a selfie stick and brought up the price which the street trader has decided indicates that they have decided to buy and have begun the negotiation process. As you’d expect, the difference in cultural interpretation of the same conversation means that all parties are left frustrated and angry. The street vendor stalks off openly swearing at them.

We head to the Forum. There’s a lengthy line waiting to go in, so I tell Ange about the alternate entry and we head left instead and wander a few hundred metres where there is no line and go straight in. Ange has never been before for numerous reasons, not least being the lack of context behind what she would see.

We’d downloaded another Rick Steves free audioguide (by all means find another free audioguide – this post isn’t an advert for Rick Steves) so that we would both have some insight into what we were seeing. Again we’re sharing headphones plugged into Ange’s iPhone and navigating the crowds, periodically laughing out loud. The sun is brutal, and there’s very little shade, but its still very enjoyable and educational.

We’d originally planned on getting to the Church of St Clement as it was in the neighbourhood and promised a journey through the ages as the top level was Renaissance, the middle level Medieval and the bottom level Ancient Roman. Instead the late night and glaring sun combine to call a premature end to the evening and we head back for a swim at the hotel and an early dinner.

Day Two

We start off a little earlier and head to the Aventine Hill. The hill overlooks the river and beyond to the Vatican, and a little way along the hill is a little known Roman landmark. A keyhole in the door of the Knights Templar’s walled garden looks across to St Peters, perfectly framed. Almost impossible to take a half way decent photo though – the contrast of the darkness of the surrounds and the brightness of the sun on the dome of St Peters Cathedral makes for difficult photography! Ange had managed to nail it on a previous visit though.

After the Keyhole, we head to the Mouth of Truth. As soon as we see the queues we decide to carry on instead and head across the river towards the Vatican. By the time we arrive it is getting close to lunchtime so we stop off at a restaurant overlooking the less visited south side of St Peters and enjoy some pasta (a deconstructed lasagne for me and ravioli for Ange). I get changed into jeans despite the hot sun because I’d been told that the dress code for St Peters was no shorts or tank tops. We’re only heading up to the Cupola but still, I don’t want to be turned away.

Images of Vienna and the Opera replay in my head. And then we head off to queue. The line wends across the square and we bake as we wait 45 minutes to get into the Vatican. The ticket office comes with another 20 minute wait and then we have a choice; €5 for a ticket that allows you to climb 500 steps to the top of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. Or an additional €2 which allows you to use the lift to avoid the first 200 steps and which deposits you at the gallery level for views down inside the Cathedral, then a further 300 steps up to the cage to the top and views out across Rome.

I mutter darkly as I notice other people in shorts but decide to do the climb anyway, jeans and all. The ticket office has signs saying “no discounts for the Roma Pass” which proves to be true, and “Exact Change Only” which proves to be not. The 300 steps don’t bother us – we’d done more at both the Salt Mines and at the Grotta in Trieste. Even the narrowness of the path – just wide enough for my shoulders in parts, doesn’t cause too much of a problem.

Before we know it we pop out onto the cage at the top of the dome and we purvey Rome in every direction. It’s worth the price of admission and the effort to get up there and we drink in the vista in every direction, taking a lot of photos and then it’s time for us to head back down.

We head towards Castel Sant’angelo and buy a disgustingly overpriced Gelato on the way. The gelato is good though! Ange had gotten a recommendation for Goose, a local restaurant where she had been staying nearby, so we make a booking for later that night.

The last time I had been to Castel Sant’angelo, they’d had a brilliant exhibition on the creation of the modern Italian state. That, the views from the top and the castle itself had made that trip well worthwhile. I only realised that the exhibition was temporary after Ange and I walk through empty room after empty room.

Still, with the Roma Pass we only paid the concession rate. I expected that to be the €7.50 up on the price list but we somehow ended up paying €10 for the two of us. There’s a cafe at the top offering great views under leafy canopies and doesn’t price gouge which we appreciated, though it did take a little while to get attention as the poor waiters were rushed off their feet as they were inundated with patrons.

After our ice tea and cake we decide to find a park to snooze under a tree while we waited for our reservation to come around. We were heading back towards St Peters when we noticed a traffic jam. But instead of horns blaring there were the sounds of marching bands. Looking around we see that we’d stumbled across a parade of bands all dressed in medieval or regional costume heading up to the square in front of St Peters.

Seven different groups go past and then the police let the traffic resume its flow. We follow the bands up the street and watch them take turns performing before some of them disburse and some march off. One of the band members catches Ange taking photos of her group wearing bright yellow tights and with a grin and a pose suggests it’s because their group has the sexy legs. The crowds lining the route and taking photos applaud each group as they leave the square and it’s a very convivial atmosphere.

Surprised at the serendipity, we move on to the restaurant which has maybe a third of its tables indicating that they are reserved. We settle in and I have the scalloped veal while Ange has the shrimp spaghetti.

I think she chose better than I did, and I may or may not have thought I was getting scallops. Lol! Either way, I think that we had let the recommendation raise our expectations too high because we both felt underwhelmed.

Our hotel was out in the suburbs and put a free shuttle bus on from the local metro station, so we had a fixed time we needed to get away from the city, but we still had one more thing in Ange’s gastronomic checklist: tiramisu from Pompi. Ange is not a fan of the coffee in tiramisu, but at Pompi they have many different flavours, so across town we dash.

The metro station we use to get close to Pompi is right beside the Spanish steps (there are about three metro stops in the whole city that are anywhere near attractions) so we grab a hurried photo before heading to Pompi.

After selecting the desserts we want we decide to head back and eat them on the Spanish steps. A security guard explains that’s not allowed so we eat them while sitting at the fountain instead. While we enjoy the deliciousness, we marvel at the tourists enjoying the balmy evening and taking selfies.

Everywhere you look are selfie sticks, pouting lips and boyfriends looking bored as they take yet another shot of their beloved in some “I cant believe i’m here” pose. The tiramisu is delicious and afterwards we decide to succumb to the prevailing trend and take some selfies before catching the metro, meeting the hotel shuttle and retiring for the evening.

Day Three

We get the hotel shuttle to the regional train station at Capannelle. We’re heading south to the papal summer palace, now no longer used due to embarrassment at the ostentatious displays of luxury. We notice two things: there’s no ticket machine, and yet people are still validating tickets.

We figure that they’ve bought their tickets beforehand, and so naturally we’re concerned that we wont be able to buy tickets on-board. I’ve got both an Amex as well as a Visa card so figure we should be alright. But the conductor doesn’t take cash, and with an Italian shrug says we’ll have to buy two tickets for the return trip.

The train to Castle Gondolfo is modern and comfortable and doesn’t take long at all to get there. The station is perched halfway up the hill overlooking the lake, offering exquisite views over the water. We take some photos and then walk up to township perched at the top of the hill. It seems a shame not to drink in as much of the view as possible so we find a restaurant overlooking the lake and have lunch.

The township consists of tourist shops, restaurants and fashion shops, and tourists with moped helmets carried over the elbow mingle with locals in their Sunday best, having just finished church and now beginning socialising and dining.

We make our way up to the castle, it sits on a square with a church which has just divulged its contents into the town, but nobody seems to be near the castle entrance and the large doors seem suspiciously closed. Upon closer inspection we find that there is a sign with opening hours on it: on Sundays its closed. Bugger!!

Without seeing the castle, we decide to head down to the beach where we saw pedalo boats: but how to get there? Google maps says that it will take an hour to walk there and the sun is relentless so we rule that out. There is a bus stop but that doesn’t seem to be running either. We don’t just want to spend our time in Gandolfo, so we decide that taxi might be the best way down the hill.

I have Über on my phone but have never tried it so we open that, enter the details and see if there’s anyone around. The only driver within half an hour decides that the €10 is not worth the trouble to get to us, so we decide getting a local taxi will be the only viable option. A quick chat with a waiter having a smoke outside his restaurant later, we have a local taxi pick us up and drop us off at the bottom of the hill where the pedalos are. The trip isn’t cheap tho (€20) and we’re left wondering if the walk wouldn’t have been a better bet.

We rock up to a guy manning a hut on the beach and make enquiries on the pedalo situation. He’s balding with white hair and patchy beard, which stand out against his leathered skin. His English is not the best but Ange’s Italian works fine. €8 per hour apparently, but: small catch – none available for an hour. I guess all his pedalos have just gone out.

We arrange for him to hold one for us and wander next door to see if they have any available immediately. a pair of bikini clad sun-worshippers explain that the price is the same and that they do in fact have one available.Their English is also as good as my Italian, so I’m thankful for Ange’s abilities in that regard to get us through.

And away we go! The pedalo is easy enough to pedal and we decide to cross to the other side of the lake to check out some buoys we’d seen from Gandolfo. As we get closer we can see another pedalo has had the same idea and as we get closer still we can see that my idea that it was some sort of fishery is very wrong.

There’s a building on the shore nearby which turns out to be a kayak club and the buoys are in fact lanes for racing. Nearby is a net for kayak basketball as well. We’re enjoynig the sun and decide to copy one of the other pedalos and attach our mooring rope to our life preserver and slip that over a buoy to keep us anchored. I then go off the pedalo and into the water for a swim.

You know the feeling when you get in a cold pool and you know you’ll get used to the temperature but until then there’s an uncomfortable period of adjustment? Well it feels nothing like that. It feels like it the lake needs another 4-5 degrees of warmth to even get close to that temperature. It answers the question of why the only people in the water swimming were children close to the shore!

I beach myself on the pedalo and we sunbathe for a while before deciding to head back. We leave it a bit long though and get stung with an extra €2 for bringing the boat back late. Oh well!

We decide to ring our hotel to see if their restaurant is open. There are 2 hours between trains so we need to know if we should eat before heading back or hustle to catch the next train back. Eventually Ange’s Italian overcomes the confusion of the receptionist and the look on Ange’s face as she asks “quando?” over and over is priceless!

We have 30 mins  to get back up the hill to the station and Google Maps says it’s possible, but we can’t dilly dally. Though there’s always time for an ice cream! There are markets on the footpaths overlooking the beaches which prove a challenge. We end up avoiding the pedestrian crowds by forging a path along the road instead. There’s a country lane heading up to the station from the water front and we blast our calves on the steepness, puffing and pausing for a sip of water or a brief glimpse back across the lake as we get higher.

We arrive with five minutes to spare and board the train back to our station with quite a few of the same faces that we saw on the way in. Rather than ring the hotel for a pick up form the train station, we decide to walk back. The traffic isn’t bad and it only takes fifteen minutes. We would have been waiting about the same period if we’d got the shuttle to pick us up instead. We arrive in time to get a swim in the hotel pool before the restaurant opens.

Day Four

I have a list of attractions within walking distance of each other I usually try to tick off whenever I come to Rome:

  1. Coliseum
  2. Forum and Palatine Hill
  3. Pantheon
  4. Trevi Fountain
  5. Spanish Steps
  6. Vatican

I don’t always get to them all, but seeing as we’re only missing the Pantheon and Trevi Fountain, we decide to complete the set.

But first we drop off Ange’s bags at her hostel, and then have lunch at Donkey Punch. Ange had tried to eat at it on her previous stay at the hostel but had trouble getting served. It’s one of those “too cool” places and I have the mistaken impression it’s a hamburger joint. It’s more of a sandwich place, each sandwich named after a musician or band. It’s alright, but I wouldn’t rush back. Especially with the attitude around service.

But we’re more interested in the last two items on our list: The Trevi Fountain and the Pantheon.

The Trevi fountain has a tradition that if you throw a coin into it, you’ll return to Rome. If you throw two in you’ll get married and if you throw three coins then you’ll get married to an Italian. Ange and I only throw one each. The fountain reopened in November 2015 after a lengthy renovation and looks great. The crowds are considerable though it’s easier to get close to the water around the edges.

The Pantheon is a favourite of mine. It’s small, but perfectly formed and has a hole in the roof which lets the sunlight in. I find it impossible to capture what makes it special in photos. Today it is even more poignant as it’s the farewell point for the Rome leg of our trip. When I next see Ange it will be in Sicily, for the start of our Cruise around the Western Mediterranean.

Would I Go Back?

Rome, like Paris, London and New York, is one of those cities which rewards repeat visits. It’s one of those cities I will definitely keep returning to.