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Highlights of Rome – Where to Stay

Well, I said I would start from Malaga, but I changed my mind. We’re going to be in Rome today.

Rome was…a very large European city with some once-in-a-lifetime kind of sights. But make no mistake. It is a large city. It has incredibly bad, loud and dangerous traffic. It smells of diesel and city. Prices of many things, including restaurants, are beyond expensive. I was very lucky to find the website of The Church of Santa Susanna. Most of the things I am highlighting and recommending here, I found there first.

IMG_2740st_peters_basillicaPlace to stay: Through the Santa Susanna website, we found a listing of convents. The convents are not cheap, but by comparison to hotels in equivalent locations, they are a fabulous deal. We stayed at Santa Spirito not quite a block from St. Peter’s square. Yeah. Couldn’t beat the location or the price. We had a triple room for about 35 euros per person.

As with most hotels in Italy, the convent included breakfast, but don’t be fooled. No one eats breakfast in Italy so breakfast consists of coffee and a roll (in our case a hard roll with butter or Nutella to help it down). We also had a choice of tea. This is not a complaint, just the reality of the customs in Rome. Never mind breakfast; the convent was FABULOUS. Spotlessly clean, friendly nuns (though a bit stern sometimes), and a very homey feel. Couldn’t beat the location. The room had three very nice twin beds and wonderful arched windows that opened almost into St. Peter’s square. The bathroom was quite large with both an Italian style toilet and an American style toilet (standard toilet). The shower was…okay, tiny. Dad dropped the soap and mentioned later how he thought he might never get himself out of the shower once he squished himself down to pick it up. The next time he dropped it, he used shampoo to finish showering. I laughed myself silly.

Just for the complete record, the convents are cash-only. This may mean an instant stop at an ATM upon arrival, but we received excellent exchange rates and low fees from both the airport ATM and an ATM near the grocery where we picked up a few snacks. If you do intend to use your ATM card, you must have a 4 digit pin, and in Italy there is a limit of withdrawing about 250 euros per day per bank account. Carry a back-up bank/atm card from A SEPARATE BANK ACCOUNT. My father’s ATM card/bank did not work at the first machine for unknown reasons. My bankcard did. This type of work/not work on various cards happened in different places in Europe. I would travel with no less than three separate bank cards if possible (they must be linked to different accounts as the limits will apply to a single account.) ATMs are known as Bankomats in Italy. We generally got good exchange rates, although on at least two machines in Spain there was a 2.5 percent fee accessed on top of an unknown exchange rate (in both cases, the machines had a message of this fact.)

Posted: October 17, 2009
Filed in Europe, Italy

Rome – Food, Taxis and Distance

One of the good things about Rome and the sites is that most of the good stuff is within about a two mile circle. The problem with this is that all the food within that two mile plus radius is…geared towards non-returning tourists. In other words, the food is overpriced and not all that spectacular. Generally, when in such an area, I get recommendations and go outside the tourist area, but that wasn’t possible with our limited mobility (Parents only had so much walking in them per day).

The following gallery starts at the Vatican (which is next to St. Peter’s) and goes down to the Coliseum area. Not necessarily in the order in which we traveled, but it covers the distance! I’ll have individual posts on the Vatican, the ruins, the Coliseum and the Pantheon with more pictures later. Click on the pictures for a larger image.

As you can see, we saved our walking for the various tourist sites that we wanted to visit rather than walking to restaurants. In general, when we tried food along this tourist route, it was average and overpriced. Desserts were quite good and worth sampling, although expensive. I recommend eating outside the general tourist area if you can find someone with recommendations. Take a bus or metro as close as you can get and then enjoy any gems you might find!

The one time we tried to go to a recommended restaurant, we tried to take a cab. We went to a taxi stand, as advised, asked about the price and got in. Only…the driver did not turn on the meter. I asked him to turn on the meter. He said, “Flat 20 euro price.” Uh-oh. I knew we were being “taken for a ride.” I made the best of it. I asked him to take us from the Coliseum area to the recommended restaurant rather than the hotel (the restaurant was further away). We ended up in a dead-end alley where he dropped us off and pointed. He claimed the building to the north was the Vatican. Uhm…

Not much to be done but get out and look around. Luckily we had been in Rome long enough for me to quickly get my bearings, (I heartily recommend the MapEasy’s Guidemap to Rome). Unfortunately we ended up having to walk back to the hotel (which wasn’t that far, but the parents were already quite tired.) In retrospect, I probably should have gotten out and NOT paid the guy. What could he have done? He never turned the meter on. But I wasn’t thinking that fast on my feet, and I guess at that point, I just wanted away. Not that he was really a suspicious or mean character. He kept up a running conversation of friendly chatter the whole time that he took us to our “not destination” and left us high and dry.

In case you taxi drivers out there are wondering, yes, it made a difference. We did not take another cab in Rome. There were at least two opportunities when we might have, including to the restaurant that night. One guy made his 20 euros, but in the long run, it cost others business. Although it was not dangerous or even scary, it left us with very bad feelings concerning Rome and taxis in general. We did use a taxi in Spain and had one good experience and one questionable one. I’m sure from reading other blogs that mine is not the only cautionary tale.

How to get around such situations? I highly recommend hiring a private driver. For our airport and cruise port transportation, we hired Tony Mancini, a professional driver in Rome (tel: 3394584206 email: I contacted Tony (who came recommended by Santo Susanna church) before we left. He was reliable, expert and professional. He answered numerous questions for me before the trip. He also managed to find another driver for some fellow travelers who, at the last minute, found themselves without a ride from Rome to the cruise ship port.

Obviously I’m adding my name to those that “highly recommend” Tony and his driving services. Rates? Better or comparable to a taxi–but with far better service, reliability and peace of mind. Tony also helps put together wedding services; from photos, flowers, cakes to catering. Simply put, the man makes it happen.

We learned from our experience. We ended up hiring a driver while in Spain when we wanted to get outside the Malaga area and explore. If you know of places you’d like to go before your trip, and public transportation is too complicated–or you just want peace of mind and the security of being looked after very well–look for private drivers. Some may be too expensive, but Tony was very reasonable–and cheaper than the transfer rate the cruise was charging for transportation from the Rome airport to the cruise port. I fretted about the expense at first, because a private driver is more expensive than a train, but Tony did door-to-door service, answered questions, offered additional help and was trustworthy and reliable. Hard to put a price on that, especially when his services were very reasonable. Tony made sure our last transfer was smooth, efficient and friendly. He is the kind of person you hope to meet when you’re traveling. Thanks, Tony.

Posted: October 19, 2009
Filed in Europe, Italy

Rome – Pantheon

We almost didn’t go see the Pantheon–time and energy being the main reasons. But dad had enough energy on Saturday afternoon so he and I took a bus to the area and walked around the “piazza” or plazas in the area. We were surprised by the dearth of unique souvenirs  Little did we know that it would only get worse as we traveled up the coast.  Your basic t-shirts and jackets were available, along with cheap Chinese plastic replicas of various monuments.   There was some leather in Rome (Florence is better known for leather works) but nothing remotely reasonable in price.  The quality of the leather did appear high and the t-shirts and jackets were quite nice with a large variety. They ran anywhere from 15 dollars up.

Anyway, on to the fountains and the Pantheon:

We didn’t eat near this particular piazza, although we did share a gelato. It ran about five dollars per scoop at the place we chose (which we were told was one of the oldest/first in the area). This area looked like it might be a bit nicer place to eat than some; the piazzas didn’t have much car traffic (traffic ran along the outer streets, but not right through). I don’t imagine prices were that great. In general at the places we did eat dinner, it cost us about 60 dollars for three people–no wine, but usually a water or soft drink. That price wouldn’t be bad, but for the most part the meals were not of such high quality that 60 dollars was a good value.

The street performers here were only occasional and stayed perfectly frozen until someone put a bit of money in the bucket. Then they might move just an arm or tilt their head in thanks–all in a nearly frozen, statue manner. In Barcelona the street actors lined the Rambas (main shopping street) and instead of standing perfectly still, there were those that did little acts, those that stood still, and some that moved around–making you keep a close eye on your wallet.

Posted: October 27, 2009
Filed in Europe, Italy

Rome – The SCAVI Tour

The SCAVI tour is a very informative tour of the catacombs beneath St. Peter’s Basilica. It would have helped to take the SCAVI tour before going inside the basilica as some of the structures in the basilica are explained during the tour. (There is a massive…gilded shrine near the front of St. Peter’s Basilica. I thought it somewhat gaudy when we saw it and wondered why in the world they plopped such a giant structure right in the middle of the front half of the church.)

The tour must be set up and paid for a few months beforehand. It’s in high demand and the tour consists of a guide and about 12 people at a time. The catacombs are narrow, dim and thoroughly amazing.

Here’s the link to Santa Susanna’s page where I first found the info: SCAVI info I’m listing that link rather than the email because the email may change; hopefully Santa Susanna will keep up with such a change if it occurs. If you don’t find an email address there, you can leave me a message in the comments or send me an email and I’ll try to help!

NOTE: You must pay by credit card in advance, at least that was the case when I emailed! Do not miss your tour. Check in with the SCAVI office when you get to Rome so that they know you will be attending. Make sure you understand the time you need to be there, where to show up and what to wear (no shorts, no sleeveless, comfortable walking shoes). They run numerous tours through there every day except Sundays and holidays and demand is very high–with very small groups, not everyone is going to get to go. Try to schedule the tour so that if you have an airline delay in arriving, it will not interfere with the tour (one lady had such huge delays she missed both her days in Rome, but do the best you can.)

The tour was the highlight of our Rome trip. It’s not just that there is a lot of Catholic history, it’s also because it was a pagan burial ground. It is also quite likely where St. Peter was buried. It’s…spiritual. You do not have to be Catholic to feel the weight of humanity; the pagans and their rituals, the Christians trying to preserve themselves, their history, their beliefs. It touched me more because the area was a necropolis of pagans first, because in the end, we are all the same. We grieve, we hope, we pray there is something better on the other side. There’s just something sacred about burial and goodbyes, something untouchable that touches.

If you go to Rome, do your level best to take this tour. It’s worth it.

Posted: October 25, 2009
Filed in Europe, Italy

The Coliseum

I wasn’t that excited about visiting the Coliseum because a few friends had told me it wasn’t that spectacular. I can thank them for lowering my expectations because I really enjoyed it. 🙂

The Coliseum does need to do something about organizing the lines. The counters (five or so) are at the end of two long lines–which become a jammed mess of people as two lines turn into a crowd pushing their way to the front of the windows. The lines in our case were only about 1/2 hour long, but that wasn’t a pleasant half hour. When you do get to the window and pay–you have to fight back out through the other people waiting. There’s no aisle for those that paid to get over to the line that lets you in. How long have they been doing this?? I mean the viewing of the ruin, not the sports arena for killing animals and humans. You’d think they might have a better method.

The price was between 15 and 20 euros–I honestly do not remember because I shouted “three adults” and handed over a credit card. Whether it was 15 or 20, it was a bit on the pricey side compared to the Vatican. Supposedly the ticket works to let you in some other place(s), but I only heard that after we returned stateside. I don’t recall the tickets having any such info printed on them.

We didn’t sign up for one of the “tours” that are hawked outside the Coliseum. These tours cost about 7 to 10 euros extra, but they are interesting. I know this because we stood at the back of two different groups and listened in. Without the tour or the audio–you’ll be lost. There was one informative sign inside the Coliseum that I saw. It described a bit about the weapons/armor. The rest of the history, you’d have to guess. Luckily the tour guides didn’t care who was standing where, so we got a bit of a free education.

The history is quite interesting, as was the technology. The maze that was under the wooden/sand flooring held animals, props and elevators. The elevators were used to lift the animals (or stage-set scenery, such as palm trees) through several trap doors onto the arena floor. The spectators (and the contestants) didn’t know which trap door might open–or what it might reveal! One small section of the arena floor has been restored, as has a section of the seating area. This allows you to see what it might have looked like. The guides point out where the senator seats were located (they had seats for life so their names were carved into the stone) and where the emperor sat. The guides talked about the “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” that the emperor gave to a contestant. Apparently it is thought that a thumbs up didn’t mean “let the guy live” it meant, “kill him quickly with mercy.” Thumbs down…well that was bad news indeed. Bloodthirsty lot.

It’s actually impossible to imagine the pain and death that took place here. Despite the many tourists and the hundreds of thousands of people that have been through there since, the place is filled with shadowy ghosts. How could it not be?

The stones remember. They crumble and sift one painful grain at a time. The spectators…played their political games in the stands, thinking they were better, smarter or at least luckier than the poor animals and people that provided entertainment. They yelled, ate and celebrated. In the end, all that is left of any of of them is an etched surface and a haunted echo.

Many of the missing pieces of the Coliseum were not worn away by time–they were “harvested” by generations after the Coliseum fell into disuse. Stores were built inside at one time; other pieces were hauled away for later projects. The “disuse” was for typical reasons–money. The politics behind building and maintaining the arena tired with time and there simply wasn’t money in the coffers to continue the decadence of putting on shows. The idea of a politician putting on a show to gain favor with the businessmen and people isn’t really new; it was just more disgusting and inhumane back then.

Next time someone offers you free tickets to a game, you can know that it’s a traditional of earning favor that has gone on a long time. Hopefully whatever players you watch get to live.

Posted: October 21, 2009
Filed in Europe, Italy

The Vatican

Ah, the Vatican. Most people assume they are going to see the famous Sistine Chapel, but the Vatican tour is a very large museum that deserves at least half a day. It’s rather more organized and pristine than I like in a museum. I prefer the chock-full-to-the-rafters of the London British Museum or the London Victoria and Albert, but it is the Vatican after all. I would strongly advise some reading up on what there is to see before you go because there isn’t much info about it at the museum itself (some displays have descriptions but not all. Large rooms, such as the map room or tapestry room didn’t. Many statues did not even have a tag. Some displays had English, others were in Italian or Latin.)

In order to get a map of the place, I had to purchase the radio tour. If you don’t have the map, there are two corridors which are easily missed because they are side doors that require coming back to the main flow.

The Vatican excels in providing a few samples of some great stuff (rather than a lot of this and that ordered by, say, time-frame). They also excel in LARGE samples–large tapestries, large maps, large paintings in great halls. It’s all quite fascinating and worth the wandering, although as I’ve said in other posts and comments…the sheer number of people around you takes away a bit from the experience. It’s an orderly crowd, although I hear at the height of tourist season the guards will make sure the crowds keep moving forward, which might mean you don’t get to stay in a particular room as long as you might like (especially the Sistine Chapel.) Though I didn’t post a picture, the Vatican had one of the best preserved human mummies I’ve seen.

The mosaics in the second-to-last picture are made from tiny pieces of various colored tile, all put carefully in place to form a picture. Delicate work.

There are no pictures of the Sistine Chapel because they are not allowed, and the guard was standing next to me a large part of the time I was staring at the main painting behind the altar. :>) The Sistine is smaller than it appears on t.v. or magazines. It’s really an almost quaint chapel–it is not a grand basilica. The pictures on the walls and ceiling? Yeah, they are a wow. I read some of the history of the various paintings before going, so I enjoyed picking out the “face” of the Pope’s Master of Ceremonies, Biagio. Apparently Michelangelo didn’t like Biagio due to disparaging comments Biagio made about the painting so Michelangelo made Biagio a devil in the main painting. This sort of thing really adds personality to the whole thing (along with the fact that the flayed skin being held by St. Bartholomew is a self portrait by Michelangelo. Guess he felt pretty overworked by the whole gig.)

It’s a very nice museum, although more written information would have made it more accessible.

Posted: October 20, 2009
Filed in Europe, Italy, Travel