Friday, November 30, and Saturday, December 1, 2012: Rome, Italy
After a long, but thankfully uneventful, 12 hour flight from San Francisco to Rome (via Frankfurt), we have arrived in the capital of Italy! We will spend the next two days revisiting some of our favorite sights before heading an hour up the coast to board the Pacific Princess cruise ship on Sunday in the port town of Civitavecchia.
Arriving into Fiumincino airport, we grabbed our bags and headed for the “Leonardo Express”, an express train that runs twice an hour between the airport and Termini station in central Rome. It was an easy process to make our way from the airport baggage claim area to the train. Two 14 Euro tickets later, we were on board and began the non-stop 24 mile ride into the city.
From Rome’s central station, Termini, we switched from Train to the Rome Metro and headed northeast on the new B1 line to the St. Agnese/Annibiliano stop. It was a short walk (less than 10 minutes) to our hotel, the Relais 6, for two nights in a standard double room. Upon entry into the lobby, we were greeted warmly by the desk clerk, and check-in took less than 3 minutes. This boutique hotel contains approx. 40 rooms (and apartments!) on 4 floors in a residential neighborhood. Up the small, but efficient, lift to the 3rd floor was our room (306), with its cathedral ceilings, massive king bed, and beautiful dark wood furniture on the southwest side of the building. Once we figured out how to open the metal rolling shutters that completely separated us from the outside world, we were rewarded with a small balcony that overlooked the neighbor’s small citrus garden which afforded us a free “citrus air freshener of lemon, lime, and orange” for the duration of our stay.
After dropping our bags, we quickly headed back out into the neighborhood in search of food and to do our best to fight a 9 hour bout of jet lag that was quickly starting to overtake us in the early afternoon. In this heavily residential neighborhood, there were a few restaurants to choose from, though, we found ourselves right smack in the middle of the bridge between the lunch and the dinner periods, where all of the locations we were looking at were CLOSED (lunch ends around 3:30pm, with the restaurants re-opening at 7:00pm for dinner). We elected instead to seek out a local market and pick up some picnic items and to have them back in our room. On our way back though, we found the first of what would be a once-a-day ritual in Rome, the nearby Gelateria, where Natalie enjoyed an amazingly rich and dark chocolate, and Darin a Peanut Butter and Banana (trust me on this) gelato for less than 4 Euro for the both of us (Seriously, Baskin Robbins… It’s time to up your game!)
We got back to the hotel, it was nearly dark (and it was only 4:30pm), so we headed up to the roof, where we enjoyed a few minutes on the rooftop terrace/lounge, where tables and lounge chairs, along with a rooftop gym were available for hotel guests. We got to view even more of this quiet and peaceful neighborhood before heading back downstairs to our room to enjoy a picnic dinner.
Once dinner was done, a couple of long, hot showers later, and we were done, and settled off to sleep around 7pm.
Jet lag was still lingering a bit the next morning, but we decided to tackle our sightseeing as there was a break in the overnight downpours. Before we could do that though, we headed downstairs to enjoy the complimentary breakfast buffet offered by the hotel. Though many European hotels generally present a meager offering of some pastries and juice, the Relais 6 set themselves apart by presenting a breakfast room that sat about 25 and dedicated about a third of the room to a spread that included 4 different juices, 4 different cereals, about a dozen different bread/pastry options, yogurt, fresh fruit (I swear it came from the garden next door…), hard boiled eggs, scrambled eggs with cheese, and a cheese and chilled meats platter. It was far more than we could have expected and we left generously stuffed and ready to enjoy the day.
We took a slightly different (and ultimately more direct) route back to the metro and picked up a BIG ticket (one price for unlimited rides for the day = 6 Euro) and boarded the next train into the city center. Trains run regularly every 5-7 minutes in the commute hours, about once every 10 minutes otherwise, so the wait was short, and we made our way to the Coloseo station to start our day.
Arriving at Coloseo station, we rode the escalators up to street level, and the partly cloudy skies we had boarded with just a few miles away at the hotel had degraded to dark gray clouds and a raging downpour, so we switched over to our “rain gear” and pulled out the umbrella. It was amazing how quickly the vendors instantly had umbrellas in all shapes and sizes for purchase! We headed to the Coloseum and we’re pleased to be able to skip the ever increasing queue for tickets and walked right in as we head booked tickets online in advance.
Darin had read online about a unique tour at the Coloseum where you could explore areas of the site that are off-limits to visitors called “The Underground Tour”. The tickets were only a few Euro above standard tickets and included a 90 minute guided tour and access to the lower level of the Coloseum and to the upper third floor of the site, above the grounds and with great views of the surrounding city and the Vatican.
We picked up our tickets at 10am for our 12noon tour, and along with the tour entry, we also received tickets to enter the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill, located just across the piazza from the Coloseum. We headed over to the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill first to avoid the crowds and walked the grounds, admiring the sites and the ruins at these sites, representing the center of leadership during the early periods in Roman history. We unfortunately fought a steady downpour of cold, windy rain while here, but still enjoyed ourselves and most of the site to ourselves.
We spent about 90 minutes here and just as the rain was letting up, we made our way back over to the Coloseum for our tour and grabbed some pictures on the outside, as well as the Arch of Constantine located nearby on our way in.
We met up with our guide right at noon at the required meeting place and she introduced herself as Valentina, an Art History student in Rome. Our little group of 12 made our way into the Coloseum, working our way past checkpoint after checkpoint and through a number of locked gates that it seemed only Valentina had the key… Valentina was incredibly knowledgeable as she introduced us to the history of the site, recent discoveries made by historians, and presented us to the lower level of the site, where the gladiators prepared for their matches and the animals (including lions, tigers, and bears!) were kept on site.
Once we finished seeing the understage we then headed up to the 3rd level, again working our way through locked gates and up staircases that were roped off. We arrived at the upper level just as the sun began to break through and it afforded us some amazing views of the nearby sites, central Rome, and the Vatican! Valentina did a fantastic job and it was well worth the 22 Euro ticket to all three venues! We were welcome to stay at any of the sites as long as we wanted and the ticket could even be used over the course of two days if one wanted to spread out the visit.
From here, we headed back to the Metro as we had more to see and made our way back to Termini and transferred to the A line (there are only 2 Metro lines in Rome, so it really is easy to get around…) and headed to Trevi Fountain. There we enjoyed the piazza with a slightly less chaotic crowd than normal as the rain kept all but the diehards away. So we enjoyed the fountains, took pictures, and, as the sun began to dry things out, we grabbed a Gelato (Natalie – Mint Chocolate Chip, Darin – Chocolate Nutella). We enjoyed our treat as we walked a short 10 minutes through the twisting pedestrian alleyways (they were well marked and loaded with shops) to our next stop of the day, Piazza de Spagna, or the Spanish Steps.
This high end shopping district features Prada and Gucci amongst others, but we enjoyed the Steps and the holiday decorations that hang between the buildings in this area of the city. We finished off our Gelato and enjoyed some people watching as we slowly made our way back into the Metro to head to our last and final stop of the day, St. Pietro (St. Peters Square and Vatican City).
Upon arrival (just 4 minutes later), we returned to the surface from the underground metro and made our way south to the Piazza just north of St. Peter’s and ducked into Renovatio, a restaurant that features gluten-free Italian cooking and enjoyed a wonderful meal of Pizza Quattro Formagio and Gnocchi Margarhita. Service was responsive and the food was amazing, along with surprisingly affordable, given how close we were to the Vatican! Our server even finished off the meal for us with a couple of complimentary glasses of Limoncello and we toasted to another great journey!
It was late into the afternoon and darkness was slowly beginning to descend over the city, as we made our way to St. Peter’s Square to see the Basilica lit up at night. There was construction taking place in the square, so the scaffolding blocked some of the view. But we were surprised to see two things: (1) a circus (we both looked at eachother and decided not to comment as we didn’t want to get struck down in the middle of St. Peter’s Square) and (2) a massive line of at least two to three thousand people circled in a massive spiral around the square. They were all there to celebrate the first Vespers of Advent in the Holy season, which the Pope was presiding over. There were so many priests and nuns from all over the world, as well as tour groups. Each and every person had to queue and work their way through security before entering the Basilica. The line began to move at 4pm, the service was at 5:30pm, and it was clear that there was no possible way to get everyone through in time, but the mood was one of excitement amongst all of the people. The most interesting observation was seeing the nuns in line praying the Rosary while the priests in line were all taking pictures with their high-end Canon and Nikon cameras.
From here, we made our way back to the Metro and to our hotel. It gave us a chance to relax and pack up for the trip to the ship the next morning, grab a long, hot, shower from the cool and rainy conditions and get ready for two full port days to start our trip in Naples and Palermo!