Friday, January 01, 2010

Mediterranean Adventures - Part 3 (Rome)

I started out the second day in Rome on the wrong foot. I went downstairs prior to 8am to call the airline (for our luggage that vanished into thin air). On my way back, I couldn’t seem to open the door for the corridor leading to all of the rooms on our floor. At first I thought maybe I had the wrong floor since there were personal apartments as well as hotel rooms on each floor (it was an old apartment building that you could tell the hotel just bought out any of the available rooms). In my morning haze stupor, I wandered up and down the five floors double checking my sanity (we were on the 3rd floor right?). Finally when I was convinced I had the right floor, I tried the door again and it wouldn’t budge. I went back to the concierge to get the key, and sure enough he was NOWHERE to be found (like he hid in a closet to avoid me since we were the annoying American girls who kept bothering him to call the damn airline). I started to pound on the locked 100lb solid wood door… and I continued to pound for 10 minutes straight! Right when I was about to start kicking (both my hands hurt from the pounding), a bleary eyed British guy opened the door (while only in his boxers) from the inside. Apparently between the hours of midnight and 10am, they bank vault lock the door to protect guests. I embarrassingly apologized as he shuffled back to his room (crazy Yank woman).

We headed out to find saline solution for Dana’s contacts. She couldn’t bring it in her carry-on suitcase because the manufacturers have yet to produce a 3oz bottle. Of course the majority of our stuff (clothing and general hygiene) was in the lost checked bag, or as we started to refer to is as “the other bag”. Don’t worry, I have an umbrella…in the other bag. Where is my toothpaste, I know, in the other bag. Yeah that phrase soon became our crutch.

You may have heard about the European universal vacation time as the month of August. We arrived August 28 and figured since it was towards the end of the month, the Romans would be back in town. So wrong. Everything functional like grocery stores or drug stores were closed. Plus it was a Sunday so that made matters worse. We passed two pharmacies (both closed) before stopping in the train station (Stazione Termini) which houses an array of shops. The station was a maze, so we went into Foot Locker to get directions. Unfortunately, no one in Foot Locker spoke English… what next, they only speak Italian at Famous Dave’s BBQ or The Gap. Later we stopped at the Best Western Hotel thinking the concierge could help. She gave us a look like we were white trash because it turns out, the Best Western is a 4 star hotel…WTF. When did Italy turn into bizzaro world?

We finally stumbled into a pharmacy that had saline solution (in bulk…like always). There was also a grocery store inside the station that I was able to pop into and grab a snack. The old woman in front of me in line bought some groceries including a carton of eggs. Well she literally took one step away from the cashier and accidently dropped her eggs. They smashed open on the ground and after a moment of stunned silence the old woman looked at the cashier and motioned to the broken eggs. I don’t speak Italian, but I think the cashier’s response was something along the line of “sucks for you…next”.

We made a quick stop in an internet café and we found out Italian keyboards are NOT the same as American. Sure the letters are the same, but the outlying keys like return, semi-colon, shift, etc. are not. We didn’t have enough time to write and then go back and correct the messages, so Dana wrote “don’t worry, I’m not retarded…just typing on an Italian keyboard”. I for one couldn’t find the apostrophe so my messages came out all proper with no contractions.

The day was still relatively young and we had another full day of sightseeing planned for us. Unfortunately we found out the hard way that a 24hr subway pass actually means “yeah there are 24hrs in a day, so you can use this pass for one day…starting at 12:01 and ending at midnight”. No worries we still go our 4-euros worth out of it.

First stop was the Vatican. We took in St. Peter’s Square and the Vatican Swiss Guards in their silly uniforms. Luckily we had “modest” clothing and were able to enter St. Peter’s Basilica. Some tourists in hot pants and tank tops were denied. I guess God isn’t interested in your cleavage. We viewed Michelangelo’s Pieta, Bernini’s Baldacchino (alter), and the gorgeous church interior. Eventually we found the entrance to the crypt were all of the past Popes were buried (including Peter). Unfortunately cameras were banned, as well as stopping in line, although some Chinese men broke all the rules with their damn cell phones.

In a side chapel, Dana and I decided it was only fitting that we say a prayer. Dana prayed for her family, I prayed for our luggage. Seriously, I asked for divine intervention in order to get my shampoo.

We walked around the walled city and into the Vatican museum entrance. First there was no line (absolutely none) which seemed strange because A) it was the Vatican and B) it was a Sunday (of all days to go see a church…THE church). We walked right in and right past the ticket booth. No one was manning the ticket booth, so Dana and I just walked by. Actually we did the nervous panic of “are we really going to sneak into the Vatican without paying…I mean God will know”. A guard (funny uniform, tee hee) suddenly stopped us and I thought the gig was up. Turns out, Dana just needed to put on her cardigan…for modesty reasons…because the paintings would be offended with her tank top. Another tourist later told us that the last Sunday of the month is always free (yeah, we totally didn’t know that but at least it was exciting to think we cheated the church out of our admission).

I hardly remember much of the Vatican museum because we spent the majority of our time in a giant line leading towards the Sistine Chapel. Note, the Vatican isn’t air conditioned and EVERYONE wants to go see the Sistine Chapel. We were packed like cattle in one giant three-four person wide line that snaked in an out of galleries. Oh God the heat, the smell, the sweat. A woman actually fainted while we were walking. Eventually we made it into the Sistine Chapel, which of course didn’t allow any pictures…or talking…or standing still. The hall was full of guards whose one job was to “shush” as loud as possible every ten seconds. Seriously, there was more shushing than actual whispers, which sadly was not the experience I had hoped to take away from the landmark place.

Once we emerged, we searched for the Vatican post office which is known to have some of the best mail service in all of Europe. As an excellent souvenir, Dana and I both sent ourselves post cards. I talked about the smell and sweat of the Sistine Chapel. Dana was chipper writing something like “nothing like being homeless and finding out your boyfriend was cheating on you with a hooker and then the airline looses your bags. Awesome year, I think I’ll start drinking”. Trust me, it is a long story.

Lunch was a tiny café near the Vatican along Via Borgo Angelico. At first the hostess tried to seat us at a table with an Italian family that didn’t speak any English. We were able to convince her to seat us at a two person table (yeah, crazy that two girls wouldn’t want to join a family for lunch) where we dined on spaghetti and lasagna.

Fans of the movie ‘Angels and Demons’ will recognize our next landmark, the Castel Saint Angelo. This old fortress used to protect Vatican City and house the mistresses and bastard children of the more unscrupulous popes. The Castel housed the crypt for the ancient emperors of Rome. Rafael designed the angel that used to be on top of the dome (now it is in the castle courtyard). The maze of staircases and corridors had us running in circles but eventually we reached the top and were rewarded with an awesome view of Rome and the Vatican.

We crossed the Angel Bridge (Ponte Sant’ Angelo) and got lost in west Rome.

One wrong turn took us to Campo de Flori which was recommended by my tour book, so it was a happy surprise. Like many of the open air plazas, this one was devoid of diners because of the lack of natives.

Next was the Piazza Navona which used to be the site of chariot races. It also is home to the Four Rivers Fountain. The four figures represent the four major rivers at the time, the Nile, the Ganges, the Danube, and the della Plata. The figure of the Nile is shrouded because at the time they didn’t know where the origin was.

All this walking took its toll on Dana’s feet. She developed a blister and we stopped to pick up a band aid. Apparently in Italy, you don’t buy pre-cut bandages. They come as a two foot long roll that you cut to fit your size. I got a gelato while she tried to tear and eventually bite the bandage. The gelato vender took pity on her and gave her some scissors.

Our path took a detour into the St. Louis de Francias church where Caravaggio painted one of the side chapels.

The next stop was the awe inspiring Pantheon. Being an architecture nerd (well and history nerd, and science nerd) I adore this building. I doubt any of the pictures I took really captured the sheer size and wonder of the building. Raphael is entombed here.

On our journey, we shopped for souvenirs. I found a Ferrari t-shirt for my niece that cracked me up. See the Romans are obsessed with Ferrari. Seriously, everyone had a Ferrari shirt, hat, jacket, pants, etc. They are also obsessed with the penis. Okay, pictures of the penis were EVERYWHERE. Most were pictures of The David’s penis on a pair of boxer shorts. They had penises on clothing, magnets, calendars, and my favorite, the apron.

After a rest (since we walked across all of freaking Rome), we headed out to dinner at an authentic place off of Viale del Policlinico near Porta Pia. We knew it was authentic because the patrons were locals and the staff didn’t speak English. Actually first we passed several places that we thought were restaurants (because they were packed with people on a Sunday night), but they were actually bars in the midst of happy hour…at 9pm! We started with a cheese plate that was only 3 Euros but could have fed an army. It was piles of the excellent aged cheese that had the most amazing texture. When the old man waiter came by to take it away, we had barely made a dent in it. I tried to convey to him that the cheese was amazing but too much for two girls to eat…although he probably thought I was pregnant because of all the smiles and belly pats. The meal was so good and soooo cheap. I think cheese, entrées, dessert, and wine for two added up to a total of 37 euros.

We were truly off the beaten path because we were so lost. Our hotel was near the Turkish embassy which was under constant guard of Italian soldiers. In fact, we chatted with those soldiers earlier in the day on our quest to find a pharmacy. Therefore, I was excited to see a couple of men in fatigues armed with automatic weapons. Unfortunately they were not guarding the Turkish embassy…it was the Russian one. Sure enough, the two men (mid 20’s and beyond buff…truly Italian stallions) were more than willing to give us directions. One literally was like [turns to other soldier] “here, take this… [gigantic AK-47 ish gun] …so I can hold the map”.

I wondered if those embassies really needed the security. I'm sure all of the soldiers were eager to head over to our location in the city. Check out this classy place right next to our hotel.


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