Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Rome Ho-Ho's

No, it's not a delicious chocolate snack with a creamy's a Hop-On, Hop-Off (HO-HO) bus that tours around just about any major tourist destination city.  We took advantage of this option in Rome and it was a great way to see the major sights.

Of course, we had already covered several on foot our first day....but having a gorgeous day and an open-top double decker bus to take you around the city was a treat.

After seeing the Trevi fountain being cleaned - a highlight to be sure - we wandered around a bit until we located one of the bright green signs indicating our bus stop.

But first - after Caffe Lattes and some serious early morning walking, Laura and I were on a quest for a bathroom.  Laura had read that the best thing to do is look for a McDonald's.  We jokingly (but not so much) realized this is our cultural contribution to Europe.  You know....Egypt gives Rome a few dozen incredibly sculpted obelisks, and we provide Mickey-D's.  And the signs for McDonald's are almost as ubiquitous as the obelisks and fountains. 

So we found one at the foot of the Spanish Steps.  And apparently, this McDonald's is quite famous.  It was the first in Rome and spawned the Slow Food Movement.  And I can't argue.  Whether I was a native Italian or a tourist, I would much prefer the fresh food and leisurely dining that is so fitting to the Italian culture...with one exception.  They really need to embrace the To-Go cup.  For coffee, tea, soda, really is a necessity. 

But if you HAVE to have a McDonald's, wouldn't you like to cop a squat with your Big Mac in a setting like this?  This place was two stories of gorgeous, beautifully lit, and inspired design.  The bathrooms were perfect...although take a euro in with you...most are coin access.

 And this was the order counter.  Filled with fresh pastries!

Once we had managed our bladder issues, we headed back to the nearest Ho-Ho stop and picked up a bus.  Here's Laura marveling at the architecture.

We saw the Spanish Steps (again) and the famous Bernini sculpture that graces the Piazza di Spagna.   Strangely enough, every picture of these steps on the internet is crammed with people.  I guess our early morning starts really did allow us to avoid some crowds!

I loved this building which reminded me of the flat iron building in NYC.

Our next stop was definitely a highlight.  This is the Piazza Venezia.  This site inspired me to take a new look at some of our own historic government buildings.  We just don't take the time to appreciate the grace and grandeur of these functional structures.

Next up...the Coliseum and other amazing sites.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves

As we prepared for our trip to Italy there was almost uniformly a two part response from friends.

Part 1.  "How will so enjoy it...don't miss X, Y, Z..."

Part 2.  "....but watch out for the gypsies...."

And then some tale of woe would ensue of them or someone they know being scammed, bamboozled, pick-pocketed, or in other way shapes or forms robbed blind on their vacation.  I found myself, a person who typically ignores the email warning about rapes in parking lots, and new phishing internet scams, and directions to shred all my important identification, becoming quite paranoid about it all.  I determined to leave my favorite "fit it all" bag at home because it didn't have a zipper enclosure, and because it couldn't be worn with a strap across the body.  I toyed with getting us both money belts, but settled instead on a passport carrier and an inexpensive multi-pocketed messenger bag with a long cross-body strap (you'll see me wearing that in about every picture).

Contrary to all the warnings, however, we found 99% of the places we went to felt very safe and secure (perhaps to our own naivete or luck) and I soon loosed the death grip on my bag and Hubby's camera equipment.  We did, however, have a couple of rather conniving individuals take us for what we were...happy travelers...too happy to fight them for justice.

The first came almost immediately in our first hour of Rome.  Hubby was busily snapping the first of his 1200+ photos as our driver/tour guide waited at the top of the Spanish Steps.  Such a beautiful day, we were all thrilled to be there and I wandered a little away from Hubby to view the many gorgeous patio spaces that overlooked the steep rise of steps.  When I turned back around I noticed Hubby in rather close proximity to a swarthy gentleman who had been hawking wares in the square.  I then noticed Hubby reaching in his pocket and giving the man 5 euros...why?  Well not for any rare keepsake, but because the man had grasped Hubby's wrist and tied a half completed string bracelet onto his wrist and then insisted on payment.

Hubby was just too nice to argue...and after laughing "with" him (he was less than amused at first...) over the fiasco...less than one hour out of the airport...I was glad he hadn't.  I was sure it would have been contentious and drawn a crowd, and after all, now we have our own gypsy tale to warn future travelers about.  By the time we sat at our first meal in Italy a short time later, he was finally laughing as he sawed away at the strings.

Our second chance to be fingered as marks came from a cab driver.  To be honest, since we walked so much and cabbed so little, I'm trying to remember exactly where we were taking the cab to/from...but regardless, Laura handed a 20 Euro bill to John (seated in front) for the fare.  When we stopped, the fare was about 15 or 16 Euros so John handed the driver a bill.  The driver then insisted that John had only handed him a 5 and gave it back requesting full we exited the cab we realized he had palmed the 20 and that none of us had really been sure enough that the bill John handed over was the 20 Laura had passed forward to argue it....another lesson learned.  And again, good moods prevailed and we shrugged it off as a necessary tax on our trip.

Our last encounter was at the only point of stress in our trip.  And here I have a word of warning not about gypsies but about bureaucrats.  Our first rail trip from Rome to Florence was a bit rushed....some car service issues, some traffic, and some confusion on our part on the procedure.  Needless to say, if you purchase the Eurrail pass, just know one thing the website, the packet, and the paperwork does not tell you.  You must get to the train station a good hour or more before your FIRST train trip because you must go get on line at the ticket window ... a very long line... just for them to rubber stamp the date on the paper.  By the time we realized this our train was about to leave the station.  A local gentleman seemed to read the panic on our faces as we stood at the end of the track and encouraged us to follow him.  Having already dealt with two gypsy scams...we were quite skeptical.  I can still hear Laura's voice ringing in my ear, "I am NOT going to follow this guy...we don't know where he is taking us..." but our semi-trusting natures were still in force, so we held firmly to our bags, luggage, and money and followed him quickly up the platform.  Where the man, ever so kindly, managed to explain the situation to the conductor, get us on the right train and the right car of the train, and happily go his way never having asked anything of us.  He only said, "Prego, Buon Viaggio".

So fellow travelers to Italy, my lesson is this.  Experience the place you go to with all of its quirks, its seedy underbellies, as well as its incredible beauty and grace.  Don't be foolish, but don't be afraid either.  Let yourself be a fellow human.  Maybe you'll take home a few less euros and a few rueful laughs.  But you may also allow yourself to meet a kind stranger at the train station.

"Grazie Amico Mio", you can say.

"Prego.  Buon Viaggio."  will be the reply.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Roma Day Two, Early AM Wanderings

With the alarm buzzing and dawn barely breaking, we climbed out of bed and started what was soon to become our AM ritual.  We gathered maps, cameras, water bottles, and guidebooks....put on comfy shoes and layered our clothes for an early AM to late PM weather variability...and headed to the nearest pastisserie.  Croissants, pastries, and cafe latte was to become our morning routine while in Italy.

As we sat over the warm milk and coffee and broke apart the sticky pastries, we charted out where we wanted to go and how (we thought) to get there.  We always started out marching along with confidence....

 ...and then had to start referring to GPS...

...and maps....

...and maps again...

...but if there is one thing I (re)learned in's not always about the fact it's almost always about the journey!  Take a look at just a few of the sights we saw along our early AM walk.

And that's a really good thing.  Because when your destination is the Trevi Fountain on a Monday morning, you need to have enjoyed the zig-zag alley walk when you get to the Trevi....

...and find it is cleaning day.

And all this by about 9AM on Day Two. 

Up next HO-HO Tours.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Roma Day One, Part Two

So we checked in to our apartment.  A young stud was our welcoming agent...who proceeded to want to hear much more about Chicago and New York than to tell us about Rome.  He is obviously like most home town folks...they don't see the romance in their own city and think the glamour is all in other places.  Meanwhile...let's talk about glamour.  THIS was our living room.

And let's talk quaint, picturesque, and romantic....

Room with a view.

Straight across the way...when I first looked out there was a gentleman in the window who greeted me with a friendly, "Buon Giorno!"

And here is a typical rooftop view - antennaes in all kinds of configurations!

After settling in, and a short post-luncheon nap.  We headed out again to try and figure out how to walk the streets the driver had escorted us on.  With lots of winding twists and turns, we eventually found ourselves (surprisingly) in the Piazza Navona.  One of the most beautiful piazza's in all of Rome.

This is the Fountain of the Four Rivers (circa 1647ish). Do you recognize it? Did you see the movie, Angels and Demons? This is the fountain that Tom Hanks jumps in to save the Cardinal.

Laura and I pose.

 John and Laura take a turn .

The Piazza is full of gypsies, street performers, trattorias, and tourists.  We were so happy that weather was gorgeous while we were there and this is the first of almost every meal being eaten outside.    We ate at Tucci's...just one of several restaurants with outside seating and atmosphere.  I think we picked it because there was a wonderful singer/guitar player performing in front of it.  We tipped her at least twice! 

Happy travelers getting food and wine and great service from the staff at Tucci. 

Typical night street view.
A narrow street, sidewalk diners, a church in the distance. So gorgeous.

We were back at the apartment and tucked up in bed pretty early.  Day two was going to be the big Hop On Hop Off Bus Tour day and Carl wanted an early start to the day...."Let's see the Trevi Fountain before any tourists get up!" 

Day Two: Alarm Clock set for 6AM!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Ah, Roma

We've been a little distracted with our bumpy re-entry into home life, but I'm now feeling the need to share some of our travel stories.  Our trip to Italy was divided into three distinct parts - Rome, Florence, and Venice.  Many travel and tour agencies call this "the Big Three" and I would have to agree.  And yet it only whets the appetite (quite literally) for more Italy in our future.

Flights, etc.
For the first time, we flew Al Italia.  This was a new experience as it feels like you have immediately arrived in the foreign country.  All service and announcements are offered in the Italian style and primarily in the Italian language.  Even while you are still on the ground in Newark NJ.  I enjoyed Al Italia with the exception of one thing.  Their website.  I am very used to manipulating the U.S. Airlines including jumping on line at the exact 24-hour advance point when you can grab an exit aisle.  With Al Italia it wouldn't let me do any seat assignments at all and when I called they don't release the exit rows until you get to the airport.  Somehow though....we lucked out.  And given our height (Hubby at 6'3"+, me at 5'10"...this was a huge benefit!

Because of this, plus some Tylenol PM and a little wine, I slept almost the entire flight.

Rome Airport.
Our first interface with Italian bureaucracy and disorganization came at the passport check-in in Rome.  We followed the hordes (several flights arriving at once) and zig-zagged through multiple corridors with our carry-on luggage.  Suddently we came around a corner and BAM!  Wall to wall people.  Hot stinky tired people.  No organized serpentine lines.  No line attendants with directions.  Just a wall of people all shuffling and trying to figure out how to get through as quickly as possible.  Eventually (1 hour +) we were through. 

Please don't take any of this as complaining.  It is what it is...and I was so happy to have had leg room, sleep and to be on vacation, I was fine with it.  But it is a warning.  If you are headed to Rome...plan on at least 2 hours to get off the plane and out of the airport.

The First Views.
We had arranged to meet our friends at the Airport.  We counted on being able to text one another's cells.  Perfect plan, except Laura's Blackberry crapped out.  So...we eventually found one another and found the car service we had hired for a 1 hour tour of Rome on the way to our rental apartment.

This was a GREAT way to get our feet wet.  There are other options to get into town on your own..for example there is an express train that runs to the downtown Rome train station every half hour.  It is perfectly viable and anyone can point you in the right direction, but if you want to have a little guidance...this was a great way to go.  Our guide stopped frequently to show our flight addled brains some sites like this:

A famous church (unfortunately I didn't absorb which one!) 

One of many obelisks
(apparently the Roman's really ransacked Egypt!)

All of that in one quick hour.  And then, since we were still early for our apartment check-in - our Italia gastro-adventure began.  (Thanks Laura and John for the laugh on this one.)

So - to give you perspective...this picture was taken at 2PM local Rome time, on our first day. We've seen multiple sites but are still hauling our luggage with us, and we'd barely begun our activities. 

Stay tuned for more.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Another year gone by

I wonder where 
the years have 
gone, but never 
how else I 
could have 
spent them.

October 1989

October 2010
Happy 21st wedding anniversary my love.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Coins in a Fountain

Ah, the beauty of the Trevi Fountain.

One of the most touristy things to do in Rome is also sweet and romantic, even amongst hordes of others doing the same thing.  It is throwing a coin in the Trevi Fountain.  They say if you throw a coin (right hand over left shoulder) into the fountain you will one day return to Rome.

So sweet.

So, of course, we did our own unique way.

Our friends were a little more graceful...but they got to watch us first.

At least no one fell in. 
And the gelato we got afterwards was delish.