Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Roman Holiday Part 2: Rome Wasn't Built In A Day...

Full title: Roman Holiday Part 2: Rome Wasn't Built In A Day, But I Saw It In An Afternoon.

Okay, so where did I leave off? Oh yes, I got off of the Metro and was staring at the Colosseo. I walked down the street along side the Colosseo and noticed that the line to get in was still mad long even though it was mid-afternoon. The guide book had said the line thinned out in the afternoon! If the guide book was lying about this, what other untruths had it been feeding me as I planned my trip? Hmm... this was cause for concern.

So after you walk east of the Colosseo you get to an intersection and then street name changes (they do that A LOT in Rome) and it becomes Via Labicana where my hotel is located. Somewhat inconveniently, you can't cross on the North side of the street here , which is the side of the street where my hotel is located. I mean you technically could if you wanted to be run down by traffic, but otherwise you need to cross south and then east and then north again to be on the appropriate side of the street. I mention it only because I must've crossed this way 15 times over the course of my trip. The cars generally stop for people who wander into the street. It must be a traffic law, since everyone wanders everywhere there - much worse than Manhattan where people generally stick to the sidewalks. But this one intersection seemed to have an all bets are off attitude about it, and I stuck to the pedestrian crosswalks.

I get to my hotel, the Mercure Delta Colosseo, which is a tall white building with two giant palm trees flanking the entryway. I'm all sweaty and gross from the insane heat outside, and I check in. The reception lady lets me know my room is paid in advance (hooray!) and that if I want to order room service or anything during my stay that will just be put on my credit card. I smile politely and take my key card for the room, knowing the likelihood of me ordering room service is only slightly better than me choosing to swim back home across the Atlantic. Room service is a couple frills higher than my no frills mentality.

(the Mercure Roma Delta Colosseo)

I've been in European hotels before so I was expecting a small room, especially as a single occupant, so I was not surprised at what awaited me when I got upstairs. To be fair, there was enough room for my bed, a desk, a TV which sat atop a fridge unit and a wardrobe - with enough floor space for me to walk between these things. Oddly, I couldn't turn on any of the lights or the TV unless I placed my key card in this little holster mounted on the wall above my bed. I had a nice big window that looked on the palm trees in front of the hotel. The bathroom was also spacious enough: overall money well-spent.

So now I'm in my room and super-excited and I don't know exactly what to do next. I want to run outside and explore, but I also know I really need to take a shower and change my clothes before I go anywhere.and I also need to call my dad and let him know I arrived safely because he worries. I opt to try and figure out calling home first, but Italy is a little weird. You can't just use a calling card, you have to buy an Italian phone card to access the phones and THEN you can use an international calling card. I try to use a landline at the hotel, but that attempt failed. I tried my own cell phone to see if I got any type of roaming service, but again nothing. My room had a wifi signal, so I decide to just plug in my computer and send an email to Suki at work, and my sisters at home, and ask them all to tell my Dad I got there okay. I set up my laptop at the desk and plug the computer cord into my travel plug and then into the socket. When the computer turns on I see that the battery is not charging and the converter plug is not working. I go to look at the packaging for my "European Converter" and there is a note in italics at the bottom that says "NOTE: Does not fit electrical sockets in Italy or Switzerland." Crappola. Really? How did I not see that when i was BUYING my "universal to Continental Europe" converter? Italy is listed as a country it works for, but just in the opposite direction, it changes Italian plugs into Euro Plugs, not the other way around. This means that throughout my stay I have no way to charge my phone, my camera, my ipod or my computers. I take it as a sign that I'm supposed to leave technology behind for the duration of my trip, and be frugal with my use of the camera battery (which I'm thanking my lucky stars i fully charged before leaving home.) My laptop battery lasts all of 15 minutes on its own, so i quickly sign in to the wifi, and send the email while I have enough juice left to do it. Once that's out of the way, I double check the weather forecast online. The internet confirms for me that it's actually 83 degrees outside this afternoon in Rome and super sunny. It threatens rain for the rest of the weekend. This makes me even more anxious to get outside and see as much as I can see while the weather is good. But showering first is essential. So I close up my laptop and stick it in the room safe inside the wardrobe where it will sit for the remainder of my time in Rome. I unpack my toiletries, jump in the shower, get sweet smelling and clean and then get new (lighter) clothes on. Refreshed and ready to go, I head outside to see some ancient stuff!

On my way out, I stop at the concierge desk to ask what time is sunset, just so I know how much daylight I’m working with to sight see. He tells me it will be between 6:30 and 7pm. That give me a little over three hours. I zip outside and head back toward Colosseo. The weather is BEAUTIFUL. Oh, why can’t the forecast be nice for the whole weekend? I detour up by the Baths of Trajan and the Domus Aurea to snap some photos. I’ve decided I like ruins. I’m sure if you go on multi-city tours where all there is to see are ruins, they must all blend together, but over the course of my little trip I never got bored of seeing ruins.

(Look how pretty! Rome is gonna be fun!)

As I headed back downhill toward Colosseo, I had a decision to make. One admission ticket gets you into the Colosseo, the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. My dilemma was that if I tried to see all three in the amount of daylight I had left, at least one of three was going to be shortchanged. I really wanted to see Colosseo the most, but Roman Forum and Palantine Hill are connected to each other, so it made most sense to see them first. But I resolved to ask the ticket window clerk to see if my admission ticket to all three places is only good for one day.

As I round the side of the Colosseo that runs along via di S. Gregorio, I encounter three staples of Roma that I will see throughout my weekend; Gladiators, Snack Bars and Gypsies. Here are my quick thoughts on all three:

Gladiators: There are these dudes in Gladiator costumes standing outside all the major attractions in Roma. Not just the Colosseo, but all over. They stand around and invite tourists to take pictures with them, and then after the unsuspecting tourist poses with them, the gladiators demand money from them. I had been warned of this scenario and kept my distance (there are better things to take pictures of then some dudes in outfits you can by at Ricky’s) but I saw firsthand a couple people get hustled. HARD. We’re not talking a couple bucks, these dudes wanted 10 euros! Outrageous. Nice work if you can get it, I guess.

Portable Snack Bars : They are kinda like large hot dog stands that cater to tourists. They are overpriced and the food looks gross but they are stationed all around the major attractions and tourists flock to them. Seriously, lazy-asses, walk half a block down the street and get some delicious snacks or pastries or gelati from an actual snack bar for a fraction of the cost. I had investigated one of these portable snack bars as I walked by the Arch of Constantine, just to see their really gelati options and they were selling them starting at 4.50 euro for the smallest size! Get the eff out of here! I’m from New York, buddy, and I know a tourist trap when I see one. I would rather wait a little longer to taste delicious gelati than patronize one of those rip off snack bars.

Gypsies: OMG, I LOVED the gypsies! I know, that’s a weird reaction to a homeless and somewhat reviled ethnic group with a reputation for thieving, but the ones I saw were dramatically awesome. They were not travelling in packs while I was there. They were just scattered around the street sort of like performance artists and they’d be prostrate on the ground with this little cup or can about a foot away from their outstretched hand as if they were too ashamed of their plight to even TOUCH it. It was so over-the-top. The native Romans didn’t look twice at them and in truth the gypsies tried to simultaneously make their presence known by shrinking away out of site. It's a little hard to describe, but I found it fascinating. I’ve known other travelers who had problems with gypsy muggings in Rome, but no Gypsy ever bothered me and none of them shouted crazy things on the Metro or anything, so they were okay in my book.

After walking the wrong way up part of Palatine Hill (It’s nice that they have a bathroom at the dead end so people don’t have to despair that they have a long way to go before they correct course) I finally found the proper entrance and asked the lady at the ticket booth how long I had to use the ticket. Turns out since I was buying the ticket rather late in the afternoon, I would also be able to enter the following day as well. Awesome! Colosseo would be seen sometime on Saturday. Into the labyrinth of the Palatine Hill I go!

Palatine Hill is very beautiful. It’s apparently the spot where Romulus killed Remus a couple thousand years ago and founded Rome. It’s also the spot where Emperors and Ancient Roman big shots built their tricked out palaces. Nowadays, it’s all archaeological awesomeness and you can just wander around and see the great views and marvel at how BIG they made everything. Seriously, modern day Romans are all really short. Why did their ancestors need such gigantic structural homes?

It would help to take a guided tour of Palatine because almost nothing is marked, so you don’t really know what you’re looking at. But I find that you can eavesdrop on any of the big tours that are going around if you really must know more about the ruins around you but want to travel your own path. There’s always some dude or lady b.s.’ing there way through the sites speaking to English-speaking tourists. You can pick your favorite accent to listen in on as well. On Palatine there was this male tour guide with a great Scottish accent and this lady with a delightfully deep- voiced French accent. Personally, I liked to just take in the scenery on Palatine. I didn’t find not knowing what each wall of each structure and belonged to lessened the enjoyment of the experience (geez, how many negatives did I just use in that sentence to get around to saying I thought the place was cool?)

So I skip around Emperor Palpatine’s Hill (many sites in Rome are perfect for silly nicknames) for an hour or so and it’s amazing, but I can see the Roman Forum down the hill below me and I want to get to it. This takes some doing because even though there are signs that say "Foro Romano" most of those signs are missing arrows so you know exactly which path to take down the hill. There are many dead ends and I might have taken all of them in my journey down the Hill. I am very happy that I wore comfortable sneakers on this trip. The marble you climb over all throughout Rome is not very forgiving on the feet. I thought that being in the prime of Marathon training during my visit would give me an advantage, and it probably did considering how far I walked each day, but my feet certainly hurt going around Palantine Hill and the Forum.

The Forum is pretty amazing, especially as the sun starts to go down. It looks a little like a back lot for “ancient set pieces” because everything is really right on top of each other and there’s a lot of small broken slabs of things scattered all over the place. You’ve got your Temple of Saturn, Arch of Septimius Severus (Snape!) , Temple of Julius Caesar, Temple of Castor and Pollux, Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, Arch of Titus and the list goes on and on. It’s at this point that I almost feel like I’m not REALLY in Rome, but that I’m in Epcot Center or something. Isn’t that weird? That’s my point of reference. The feeling reminds me of walking through Times Square and hearing tourists say “It looks just like in VEGAS!” That always struck me as an odd thing for people to say, but now having been to Rome, I sort of understand where they’re coming from. When you've seen a replica so many times, sometimes it's hard for your brain to take in you're seeing the real thing.

I do about two good loops around the Roman Forum, take lots of pictures, look at several maps so I figure out what exactly I’m looking at (The Forum has a much better system of identifying things than the Hill does.) Then I walk back out toward the entrance facing the Colosseo and get attacked by mosquitoes. Mosquitoes? No one warned me about Roman mosquitoes. Maybe they weren’t mosquitoes but they they were bugs and they flew and they bit me as I was leaving and I had two itchy welts on my arm for the rest of the night. Boo-urns to that.

I head down the road from the Hill to go see the Circus Maximus. It’s past 6:30 at this point, but twilight is holding strong - still a lot of light in the sky. Circus Maximus is where they used to have the Chariot Races in ancient olden times. I gotta say Circus Maximus has seen better millennia, even more so than some of the other places I’d seen earlier that afternoon. One area that has really cool structures in it is unfortunately over run with giant weeds and partitioned off from the rest of the circus with giant metal fences and spray painted plywood. It just looks like an abandoned construction site, which it might very well be. At least there is about 80% of the Circus that looks lovely and green and you can walk across it and run around it. I saw several people jogging the loop and made a mental note that if I had the time and energy on the morning before I left, I’d come down here and get a few miles of running in.

After the Circus, I walked around the Piazza Bocca d. Verita, (remember this for my Day Three entry) and took some pictures of a lovely fountain and walked down by the waters of the Tiber River. I walk up to Teatro di Marcello, and as the sun really starts to disappear, I walk around some more beautiful ruins along Via di Monte Caprino, Capitoline Hill, Vittoriano, and Via Dei Formi Imperiali. It was right around Vittoriano that I had my first gelati. It was a mixture of chocolate and a flavor I’m pretty sure was called pistachio de bronte. I don’t know what that means but I like to think that it’s a pistachio flavor the Bronte Sisters invented together. Anyway, the gelati was huge and delicious and only cost 2 euros (so shove it, snack bar stand!) and I messily ate it as I wandered further into the darkened streets of Rome.

My last main goal of the night was to get to Trevi Fountain, since the guide book told me I should see the fountain at night. Only problem is I don’t really know where the hell I’m walking and it’s dark and all the street names are carved into buildings high above street level. I have a map in my Frommer’s book and everyone else was walking around with maps, but I’m content just to wander in what I know is the general direction of the fountain. I overshoot heading north and then again going east and the south again. In fact, I walk in a complete square around the fountain without ever seeing it until I’m mostly back where I started. Finally, after taking some dubious looking alleyways I turn and see the fountain. It’s beautiful! And totally overcrowded with people. Seriously, it’s the most congested place I’ve seen in Rome. It’s an interesting sort of atmosphere though. Sometimes you can be in a crowded place and everybody is uncomfortable and you desperately want just a little bit of personal space, but the vibe at the fountain was very chill. Everyone was just like “yeah, I’m at the fountain and we’re sitting on top of each other. Hey, where should we go for dinner?” I chill at the fountain for a little bit and it’s a warm night still, the temperature is still prolly in the low 70’s with the sun gone, so I bask in the glow and humming of the fountain water and the crowd. Eventually I realize that my stomach is pretty much empty because I haven’t eaten a full meal since dinner on the plane ride, which was, like, yesterday. So it’s time to find a pizza place. I want pizza. I go a couple roads away from the fountain and find a nice little restaurant. They won’t give me a street side table because I am by myself. Discrimination! So I go inside and downstairs to this little annex room in the basement. There is another room where other people are eating, but I get seated in this section all by myself. It is time for me to use my basic Italian restaurant language skills. The conversation goes something like this. (Italian denoted in brackets):

Waiter: [Good evening. What can I get you?]

Owen: [Yes. Good evening. pizza margherita and House Red Wine] Quarter pint.

Waiter: [Thank you.]

Then later:

Owen: [Excuse me. Water also?]

Waiter: [Water, yes. Water blah-blah-blah words-I-don’t-get.]

Owen: [Yes.]

Waiter: Bottle?

Owen: [Yes.]

Now I don’t really know what kind or water I’m getting. I know it’s coming in bottle. I’m really hoping it’s not tonic water which I do not want. I want regular water. But I made an extra effort to pretend like I knew what the waiter was saying to me, so I really don’t know what I agreed to. He brings me back a regular bottle of water though, which tasted delicious and cost the same as the wine so it was worth it.

When the pizza comes, I wonder if I’m going to be able to eat the whole thing. It’s large and there’s only me, but I’m kinda starving, so I chow down. As I’m wolfing down my third pizza wedge, I think to myself, this is the weirdest thing I’ve ever done. I’m in the basement of a restaurant in Rome, eating a whole pizza, badly pretending I understand Italian. I’m all alone, no one really knows where I am. It doesn’t seem real. Maybe once I go back to my hotel and go to sleep and wake up still in Rome the experience will register as real to me? Right now I’m having a great time, but it’s a bit surreal. The flat bread pizza was delicious by the way. I ate the whole thing.

I finish dinner and head back out into the streets. I have to find my way back to a main road and then walk back toward the Colosseo so I can get my bearings and get back to my hotel. On my way I stop for another gelati (why not? don't judge me. there are like 6 more gelati stops in this story) and this time I get my favorite flavor – mint chocolate chip!! Although this mint chocolate chip is really mint gelato with "after eight" chocolate dripped into it and swirled around. It was SO GOOD. There was no need to mash in another flavor with this one. I took my time with this cone, savoring every lick. Mmm… Gelati is offered pretty much everywhere in Rome. And people eat it at any time of the day. I really appreciate this. It's the right approach to enjoying gelati in a civilized society.

So with mint chocolate chip in hand, I head back for what is like a half hour walk to my hotel. I get lost along the way once or twice, but again no harm comes my way. Eventually I reach the Colosseo (all lit up for nightime and looking lovely) and then from there it’s a straight shot back to my hotel. I stop off at the computer in the hotel lounge and check my email quick and again the weather forecast. Suki talked to my dad so that was taken care of (thanks Sukes!) The weathermen are still are predicting rain all day on Saturday. I’m scheduled to go see the Vatican museums tomorrow at noon, so I’m not really concerned about it raining most of the day, I’m just hoping I get a window of nice weather where I can go explore the Colosseo. I head back upstairs to my room watch some CNN international (lots on Afghanistan and Pakistan and not so much about Tea Party protesters. I liked it.) I get myself organized for a potentially early morning start, set my TV to wake me up (ah, technology) and collapse into sleep very quickly. It has been a full day and there’s a lot more on my plate to see tomorrow!

Coming in Part 3: The Colosseo as my Architectual Soul Mate, and Vatican City - My Home, Sweet Swinging-Home!

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