Rome 2014

posted by : Jon Kroupa on 04/06/2014
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The Purchase:

I don't normally buy airline tickets. I have a long history of flying standby. However, back to September of 2013, when United was having their fare issues on their website, I received an anonymous tip that flights might be purchased for cheap. After looking around for a lot of destinations, I found a flight to Rome for $689. According to the breakdown, the fare was $51, with $638 in various fees, taxes, and a $516 international surcharge. $689 is not much more than a US Airways buddy pass will cost internationally, and this was a confirmed seat, so I jumped on it.

Day One:

We arrived in Rome at seven in the morning. After going through customs (which required no form but had only two stations operating for all non-EU citizens) we took the express train to Termini Station. The train ride was thirty minutes. Looking around on the car I noticed a few things. One, I was the only person wearing a short sleeve shirt. I noticed a number of people who were either wearing a sweater and a jacket, or two jackets. Two, women wore little to no jewelry. It seemed that only the tourist women were wearing wedding rings. Three, everyone looks suspicious when you have been briefed by friends and family about the constant threat of pickpockets in Italy.

We checked into our Bed & Breakfast at around 9:00am. It looked clean enough. The cleaning woman initially took us up and checked us in. About 30 minutes later the owner showed up and ran my credit card. We put our stuff in our room, packed my day backpack, locked our room, and headed out. When we left the cleaning woman and owner were still there.

We heading south towards the Coliseum, and ended up running into the Roman Forum, which is just west of it. We chose the wrong direction to look for an entrance, and ended up walking around the entire Roman Forum area before finally gaining entry. Here we saw arches, pillars, and more pillars. At one point near the house of Augustus there was a long line. We couldn’t quite tell what the line was for. Eventually we tired of waiting, because the line wasn’t moving, and moved on. We’ll never know what we missed at the end of that line, but I suspect it was something like when Bart and Lisa went to Duff Gardens.

After the Forum we headed to the Coliseum. Much of the tall part of the exterior is currently covered in scaffolding. Not really sure why, I don’t think they are trying to make any repairs. The interior is exactly as I had seen it depicted in movies like Jumper. Basically it is the broken shell of a facility that has been around for nearly 2000 years.

After this we were quite hungry (and tired) so we stopped into a pizza shop. I ordered a pizza with meat while Meagan ordered a four-cheese pizza. There was only one other patron in the place, and elderly man with a dog. Every time the waitress walked by, the dog would bark in a horribly loud bark that reverberated around the walls. The old man did basically nothing to quiet his dog. We almost walked out, but the old man was at the end of his meal and left a few minutes later. Not before the dog has barked with its piercing bark at least a dozen more times though. Our pizzas arrived and immediately there was some regret staying. Meagan’s pizza was extremely bitter and not tasty. My pizza had large circles of sliced meat that had giant globs of fat in them.

After our meal we headed back up to our hotel to rest. The B&B is essentially a condo inside an apartment building. To enter you needed a key to the external door, to cross through a courtyard, climb 4 flights of stairs (or take the tiny elevator) and go through another door to gain entry. As we were crossing through the courtyard Meagan saw her backpack on the ground. We examined it, and it was indeed hers, and it was full of miscellaneous clothes. Our hearts completely sank. Obviously we had been robbed. We grabbed the backpack and a couple of other bags with it and began the gloomy walk up four flights of stairs to our room.

We opened the door there were two men inside wearing regular clothes. They immediately identified themselves as policemen, also I was skeptical. They informed us that the B&B had been broken into and our room (and the other rooms) also broken into and robbed. They said the people were caught in the act, and that we needed to identify which items were ours and to file a police report, then we would get our items back. The things that were taken from us were an iPad, a netbook, a backpack, makeup case, and one of my shirts (Meagan was slightly offended that one of my pieces of clothing was taken, while her clothes were left behind). I was carrying our passports in my pocket, our camera in my backpack, and Meagan was wearing her wedding ring. The police explained that two Gypsy women had opened the B&B door by sliding some plastic against the latch between the wall and the door. I mentioned before that we had left before the owner left. That means the owner or the cleaning lady was the one who forgot to deadbolt the entry door (or more likely is in the habit of never doing it). If the deadbolt had been in place they wouldn’t have been able to do that. Once they got inside they used a screwdriver wedged into the door frame to push the door against the opposite frame to clear the bolt from the wall. They damaged most of the doors in the B&B to get into each one.

Eventually more policemen arrived, and we were then instructed that we needed to go to the police station in order to get our iPad back (this was the only item deemed valuable enough to warrant a police report). We were escorted outside, still by sketchy looking policemen (one was wearing camouflage pants and a hoody), and then taken to an unmarked car. I was still entertaining the idea that this was some elaborate scam, and that maybe these men were going to take us to our death or rob us. They drove us a short distance and we did in fact go to a police station. We then had wait for about an hour while they typed up a report, intermittently questioning us with another policeman who spoke English, but would leave the room every couple of minutes. We asked the police if we should change hotels. They said that basically all of Rome had Gypsies and that it was inevitable that everyone gets robbed by them. We were told we were lucky in that it happened on our first day and they were caught. Towards the end the B&B owner showed up. He looked very sad and genuinely sorry that this had happened. He said this is the first time since he has run his place that Gypsies had ever gone up to the fourth floor, and that now that it had happened, it was done. The inevitable robbing by Gypsies had taken place, and now there was nothing to fear.

After the police report was file we were given directions how to walk back to the B&B. We were driven there, and it was only about half a mile, but apparently now it was not convenient for them to drive us back. So we walked back, in the rain. When we got back we repacked our suitcases (that had been completely tossed in the search for valuables) and then looked online for hotel alternatives. The owner came back and told us again we didn’t have anything to fear, that we were lucky, and to enjoy our stay in Rome. From this I decided he wasn’t likely to give us a refund if we left. Also in talking to the police they said pretty much everywhere in the downtown part of Rome has the same problems. We were also super exhausted, so decided to at least stay the night. We barricaded ourselves in our room and went to sleep.

Day Two:

The next morning we spoke to the other people staying there (who were Dutch) and asked them to make sure to always deadbolt the entry door. I had chocolate Rice Crispies for breakfast, and Meagan had a packaged chocolate croissant. The refrigerator had five cartons of milk in it. Three were dated Feb 03 2014, the other two were dated Sep 07 2014. Since it was almost March, I opened one of the September cartons and used that. Later in the day when we returned, I noticed my open carton had been moved to the back, and the February cartons had been moved prominently to the front. I was already staying in a place that had been robbed, I wasn’t about to drink expired milk. I subsequently continued to use the newer milk, despite what the owner or cleaning lady thought.

We took the metro to Vatican City. We walked up to get into line for the museum, but were persuaded to buy a tour pass instead, in order to circumvent the lines. We were pretty early, so we probably wouldn’t have had to wait in line for very long for the museum. But our tour pass allowed us to go straight from the Sistine Chapel into St. Peter’s Basilica. Without it we would have to had exited the museum and wait in line to get into the basilica later. I opted for the line jump, even though it was more expensive than the regular passes. We got in line around 8:00am, but our tour group didn’t start until 9:30am. So we walked over to St. Peter’s Square to see the outside in the early morning. We also stopped into a pastry shop and got some cannolis. These ended up being the best pastry I had on the trip.

Back at the museum, we waited for twenty minutes or so for our tour to start. Eventually the tour guide came out and then spoke for fifteen or twenty minutes about the history of Vatican City, Rome, and architecture. He kept saying that as soon as we got inside he would stop talking, because art should be seen, and not spoken about. This was a promise he failed to keep. It took another thirty or so minutes before we actually got into the museum. We were given radios so we could hear the guide clearly, though they had a very short range. The guide stopped at specific works, and then would talk and talk and talk, all the while promising that he was going to stop talking soon. We wandered away from the group at our own pace. We only kept tabs on him because he was going to lead us into St. Peter’s Basilica after the Sistine Chapel. It turns out you don’t need a tour guide though. At the back of the chapel there are two doors. One is the left, which leads back into the museum for non-tour groups. The other has a little sign that says “tour groups only” and leads into St. Peter’s Basilica. This door is not guarded. A normal tourist coming in could easily go through that door and save themselves from waiting in line later. We enter St. Peter’s Basilica and touched the worn foot of his statue, as is tradition. We took a lot of pictures. We brought our nice camera, and were paranoid of theft, even more so after the first day, but we decided that if we asked people to take our picture who had a camera as nice as ours, then we probably didn’t have as much to fear. This system worked well for us.

We got back from the Vatican around 3:30pm pretty exhausted, and decided to take a nap. Four hours later we woke up surprised that the afternoon had gotten away from us. We went out to eat and found a place very near our B&B which had the best lasagna we found in Rome. We subsequently went back to that place two more times. We walked down to Trevi fountain, to see it at night. We came back and I tried to sleep, I woke up at 3:30am and wasn’t really able to get back to sleep. It reminded me of Japan.

Day Three:

On the third day we took a trip to Assisi. It was about a two hour train ride from Rome. When we arrived at the train station we decided to walk up to the city instead of paying for a taxi. It ended up being around 1.5 miles.

In the city we saw the Basilica of Saint Francesco, which the city of San Francesco is named for. We also poked our heads into a few more churches. On top of the hill is a castle (Rocca Maggiore). This was Meagan's first castle. She liked it, but said it was very windy. Incidentally, all castles are windy, because they are always built at the top of hills. After the castle we stopped in a restaurant and had some very good food there. We also stopped into a pastry shop and I bought a wedge of fudge. Unfortunately I didn't know that it had coffee beans in it. I then spent the next 20 minutes tearing the fudge apart and picking out the coffee beans so that I didn't have to toss the whole thing.

We walked back down to the train station and bought our return tickets. We had about 30 minutes so we walked around to see another basilica. I was worried about missing our train (which I ultimately shouldn't have been) so we raced back to the train station. It then promptly began to rain. The train arrived, but then sat at the stop for at least 15 minutes before departing for Rome.

Day Four:

On this day both Meagan and I were feeling sick. We tried to sleep in, and then wandered around Rome. We visited a few museums, the Pantheon, the Spanish Steps (which are just steps), and the large park which is above the Spanish Steps.

Near the Pantheon Meagan saw a woman painting stylized scenes of the coliseum, she liked them so much we ended up buying two of them.

For me, the Pantheon was very impressive. That they made a domed ceiling with poured concrete was just amazing. Although it is odd to me that it was later turned into a church, on the plus side, it probably helped immensely in preserving the building.

Since we were sick this day we stopped a lot to rest. We also called the day early and returned to our room to sleep. I suspect we ate at Meagan's favorite lasagna place that night, although I don't quite remember.

Day Five:

This was our final full day of the trip, and it was a Sunday. Meagan asked to come to Rome to specifically see some sculptures by an artist named Bernini. Unfortunately I failed in this because I discovered that day the museum that has the works sells a finite number of tickets each day, and you have to book them days in advance. We walked to the museum anyways, hoping, but they said they were sold out until Wednesday. This was disappointing. It is at a place called Galleria Borghese, and if you want to go there, make sure to buy tickets in advance. It is at the top of the park above the Spanish Steps.

Hoping to make up for the sad turn of events I directed us into a random museum and bought tickets. The girl inside said I had to use the ticket machine, which only accepted 50 cent Euros. I only have a 50 Euro note, and she said I needed to use the change machine. I didn't realize the change machine only gave 50 cent Euros, and ended up getting 100 heavy coins. The museum was awful, with confusing painted string displays and was very short. At the exit was cash register (which the first girl failed to mention) so I was thankfully able to trade 80 50 cent coins back for cash.

We walked back down towards the Pantheon when it started to rain. We ducked into a restaurant to eat, but decide the price was too high and the service too poor. So we went to another restaurant, and again were turned off by the service, and finally settled on a third one. Unfortunately the food we received was mediocre.

Churches are open on Sundays when they aren't normally during the week. We went into a church with three large paintings by Caravaggio. He is famous for his use of light and shadows in his works (I learned this from Meagan). We also went into another church which had a ceiling painted so that it creates an optical illusion of depth. The painting appears to be 3D, and to jut out from the ceiling and wrap around the supports of the building.

Final Morning:

Monday morning we woke up and took the express train back to the airport. We arrived and were confused because terminal 5 was not to be found. Finally a policeman told us we needed to take a bus to that terminal. We arrived, went through security, and then were directed to a large hanger. From here we were told we needed to take another bus back to the main terminal area. Not really sure why this was. Back at the main terminal we had a good hour or more wait, so we wandered around looking at shops. We bought greasy "Mediterranean" and spent our remaining coins on chocolate. Also in the terminal was a pigeon. No one seems to mind this bird as it wandered around from section to section. No one seemed to be making any sort of effort to capture it or lure it outside.

The flight from Rome to Washington D.C. was uneventful. In Dulles we learned that 80% of the flights going out of D.C. had been canceled that day. We managed to get out on our flight and arrived in O'Hara airport in Chicago. This airport is considered to be the worst airport in America for delays. As we waited for our flight the status kept changing, and eventually they announced that the new flight departure was going to be 11:45pm (instead of the original 6:30pm departure). I knew there was another flight that was already 3 hours delayed that was leaving soon, so Meagan and I hightailed it there and were able to get on the flight as standbys (we paid for our actual flights). Then, as we sat waiting on the plan, they announced it was overweight, and they needed to pull six people. I have long feared I would be pulled from a flight after receiving a standby ticket. Incredibly they pulled six people who were not us, including several United employees. We managed to get home about an hour later than originally planned.

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ChasTura ChasTura : May 21st, 21:51

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