"When you come to a fork in the road, take it." - Yogi Berra
"Namo! Namo!" yelled our guide, speeding us along. He was so frenetic, he had to shorten the Italian "andiamo", let's go. We were on a tour to Hadrian's Villa, and when we just made it to one of the most picturesque spots - the Egyptian pool, complete with a stone crocodile - he commanded, "Take no more than seven German minutes to enjoy!" What had happened to the languid La Dolce Vita? Had the government fallen, and a new Il Duce taken over, determined to get the trains running on time? (We found out later that was not true!) Or, perhaps it had nothing more to do than the tour bus being 45 minutes late, and our guide determined to be back by 8 pm. Roma remains Roman-tic. In a short few days we experienced annoying rail strikes, treacherous taxis, two-bit hustlers, and high-class cheats. Every day an adventure, every corner a turning point. We were determined to see it all, walking in the steps of Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in their Roman Holiday.
Cab Follies. It began at the airport. No sooner had we cleared customs than an officious fellow came up and offered us to get into town for a mere 70 euros, rather than the exorbitant taxis. As we tried to sort this out, the fellow spirited us towards his van, a trail of wheelie bags in tow. Although it can be hard to break the momentum of so much clothing on wheels, I got the family retargeted and off we went to the taxis - which normally cost only 50 euros. An even cheaper option of unlicensed limos beckoned for a mere 45 euros, but my son, the practical one, said better to take our chances with the official cabs.
Our taxi driver was a killer. She took off and never slowed down, even while gabbing on the cellphone. At any traffic slowdown, she quickly jinked to a side street or jibed around traffic. Sitting in the front, I admired her style - more aiming then driving. Sitting in the back, my family came close to losing their lunches. A mere 43 euros to the hotel, before all those extras brought it to 55, with tip (10%, or rounding up). We saved 15 euros! Given that a Dollar is only worth 75c compared to the Euro, these little savings began to add up.
Our daughters (college age) flew in the next morning, and were not so lucky. I had clued them in by SMS to avoid the scam artists and take a cab, which should cost around 55 - 60 euros given morning traffic. They are pretty good about these things, but they got a cab driver who became frustrated by the traffic and simply dumped them somewhere on the outskirts of Rome, far from the hotel, claiming car trouble - and demanding 79 euros after quickly turning off the meter. They saw 79 flash by on the meter, but didn't know if it was the fare or something else. What to do? After a brief yelling match, they spotted a nearby cab, paid and rushed to the new driver, who drove them the rest of the way to the hotel and charged them the meter. Welcome to Rome! I told them next time to use more arm motions when yelling in Rome.
Our first evening we went across the Tiber to the now fashionable Trastevere district, and ate al fresco in the piazza in front of one of the oldest Santa Maria churches. Entertainment abounded around the fountain, and the food was good. The menu had to be a good one, because we found that practically all the ristorantes in all the piazzas had the same menu. Maybe Our Lady of the Piazza likes the same dishes night after night.
We had a minor cab adventure on the way home. Empty cabs were few and far between. Rather than catch a cruising cab, it is easier to find a cab stand. Best to know where they are. We wandered a bit until we came to a collection of ancient Roman temples now taken over by cats. The temples stood at the base of Pompeii's Theater, an enormous structure now lost to other buildings. The modern buildings still follow the outline of the Theater, with a curved part in the roads near the Campo dei Fiori (one of those piazzas that every back-packin' student eventually finds in Rome, where, besides Our Lady of the Piazza food, one can also find the ubiquitous pizza margherita places).
Many roads and buildings in Rome track the ancient structures; the Piazza Navonna, for example, is built over the hippodrome (horse track) of Domitian, one of the 'bad' emperors. Pompeii's Theater was build by The Great One himself, and held Senate meetings after the Senate Building was burnt in 52 BC by followers of Clodius, a Caesarian, after he was killed in a rumble with Milo, a Pompeiian. A few years later, Caesar defeated Pompeii in the field of battle, and became the undisputed First Man in Rome. Ironic then that while he was rebuilding the Senate House, he was killed at a Senate meeting in Pompeii's Theater, at the foot of a statue of Pompeii. The Great One looked on. This was likely to be the last Senate meeting for Caesar in a while, as he was about to leave with an army to conquer what is now Iraq. Would history have been different today if Rome had conquered Iraq? Unlikely; Trajan, one of the 'good' emperors, took it 150 years later, but subsequent emperors gave it back as not worth the trouble. History might have been remarkably different, however, if Caesar had escaped the Ides of March, as the conspirators were incredibly incompetent and were quickly dispatched by Caesarians. The Empire followed, and Republican Virtue gave way to quisling slaves and obsequious courtiers. Where once the Emperor was simply Princeps (First Citizen), or Imperator (General), he became Dominus Noster (Lord & Master). Where once free citizens stood tall, now they bowed low and kissed the rings of Imperial legates and prefects, a style that was passed on to the Catholic Church.
After admiring the many cats, we went to the taxi stand and cabbed to our hotel, without any notable disasters.
Hotel Hoops. Rome caught the popular imagination in the '50s, with Roman Holiday and Fellini's La Dolce Vita. The jet set has long left the prime street of those times, the Via Veneto, but the grand hotels remain. We stayed at the Excelsior, now a Westin. Up the street is another grand old hotel, now the Marriott, and around the corner is the venerable Eden, with one of the most spectacular views of Rome from the upper restaurant. The in crowd prefers the nearby Hassler at the top of the Spanish Steps - and above the prime shopping area. A former Medici residence, it is the most prestigious hotel location in Rome. But not the most convenient. The hotel with the best location is the Minerva, near the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, the Piazza Navonna, and the ancient Forum. Once a Holiday Inn, it desperately needs refurbishing. But it makes the most of Tourist Rome within a short walk.
We liked our hotel, but again the Roman Way intervened. Our first rooms were not those which we had scrupulously reserved. After a bit of negotiating and dramatic arm movements, the hotel graciously upgraded us to even better rooms. The staff is friendly and helpful, the rooms quiet, the beds firm and the showers hot. Just avoid the bar, ONice. There a Coke cost 8 euros. Oddly, or maybe by design, the World Cup was not shown on satellite TV in the rooms, so we had to repair to the bar to watch the US get crushed 3-0 by the Czechs. Oh, and avoid room service. A very good hamburger ran 28 euros. I shudder to think how much more the fries were. I ate out; some of our group with tired feet and too much Namo! Namo! ate in one night.
The other disconcerting hotel experiences involved the conciergii. They have been there 25 or more years. We asked three straight nights for dinner recommendations, and three straight nights we ended up at Our Lady of the Piazza places - same menu, same limited selection. Our kids rebelled, and returned to french fries and margherita pizza. Their favorite dinner was at a Chinese restaurant off the top of the Via Veneto. Remarkable that a city of its stature has such a limited culinary choice. Of course, we preferred al fresco dining, which limits the choices a bit. Our favorite piazzic place is called Quirinale, and it stands on the tourist walk from the Piazza Navonna to the Spanish Steps. The tourist walk goes by the Pantheon and the Trevi Fountain, and the people show more variety than the piazzic restaurants. The Quirinale is just before the Trevi Fountain, and near the best gelati place in Rome - the Cremery.
Scooter Stories. Instead of cabs or walking, there is always the scooter. Watch Roman Holiday, and you will get an urge to scoot. The problem with scooters is where to park them. Parking is a mystery in Rome. One scoots down an alley, until it is blocked by a car. Then just park. Cars and scooters circle a fountain, then begin stopping. Soon a parking lot of sorts forms. Scooters seem to flock together, parked in long rows. Do they get tickets? Are they towed? Who knows?
Even more fun is scooting through one of the central junctions in Rome - at the end of the Via Del Corso in front of the Piazza Venezia. There is no traffic light. Cars, scooters, buses and cabs just enter, pause, and shoot through. All roads seem to lead to this intersection. A test of manhood for novice scooter drivers? At least it is well lit. It is right in front of the atrocious monument built to celebrate Italian unification, known to locals as The Typewriter. The Typewriter overshadows the historic Capitoline, one of the legendary seven hills of Rome, and shadows an exquisite piazza designed by Michelangelo that now houses the Capitoline museums, holding some of the best Classical artifacts. At night it is so well lit that it is eerily circled by birds, feeding on the bugs drawn to the spotlights. Perhaps eventually they will poop it into oblivion.
Misguided Tours. We took our first foray into Ancient Rome on our second day, starting at the Capitoline Museums. A new wing has opened, showcasing the famous equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, the last of the 'good' emperors. Below the outstretched arm of the Emperor are parts of the Temple of Jupiter, a very large structure that once towered over the Forum. This temple would have rivaled the Parthenon in Athens for magisterium and gravitas had it not been stripped of marble, allowed to crumble and then sink into the mud. Worth the visit.
We then wandered down into the Forum, and paused by the rebuilt Curia, the Senate House. As we struggled on the broken pavement amidst waves of tourists (it seems everyone came to Rome this week - we kept bumping into people we knew), we were hustled by a tour guide who said she had been hosting impromptu tours for over 30 years. She kinda looked it - a lot of mileage on her. But to take the tour we had to get out of the sun and struggle back across broken paving stones to the shade under the Arch of Septimius Severus, one of the 'pretty good' emperors, who followed Commodus, one of the 'bad' emperors, the son of Marcus Aurelius, one of the 'good' emperors. Severus was followed by an evil son of his own, Caracalla, who killed his brother after dad died up in York holding off Picts and other proto-Scots in Celtic plaid and no undergarments. Scary, that. At least Caracalla built baths that are one of the must-see ruins today. After Severus, few of the Emperors lasted long enough to leave a much of legacy other than incompetence, cruelty and cheapening the currency, until Diocletian took over and divided the empire. We declined the guide, and she sauntered on to other victims.
We left the Forum under Titus's arch. Severus' arch at one end, Titus' at the other. Titus was the son of Vespasian, and like his dad is one of the 'better' emperors. (His younger brother is Domitian, said to be one of the bad ones, but he may be more a Jimmy Carter, a micro-manager type of emperor.) Titus suppressed the Jewish Rebellion, and on his arch a trophy menorah commemorates the victory. His father Vespasian built the Colosseum on a lake in the backyard of Nero's Domus Aurus (Golden House), the house Nero built after the Great Fire of Rome, to much disdain. A colossal bronze statue of Nero used to stand by the Colosseum. The Colossus has fallen, the Domus Aurus is slowly being dug out of the mud and rubble, but the Colosseum stands supreme.
Before Gladiator, about 400,000 visitors came to the Colosseum annually. After the movie, this jumped to 4 million. When the tour guide said this, we felt an urge to see the movie again. Yes, we got sucked into a tour. Lines were long and we thought the extra charge was worth avoiding the long wait in the sun. Little did we know that another Roman hustle awaited. The ticket was supposed to be good for the next morning to see the Colosseum and the Palantine. (The Forum remains free.) When we showed up the next day for the Palatine, we were told the ticket was no good. We had to buy it again. At least it had gotten us into the Colosseum.
A little travel advice. There is a ticket booth next to the entry to the Palatine. The tour guide of the Forum told us of it. She may be one of the 'pretty good' tour guides. Lines are much shorter there than at the Colosseum. Go there. But they do not take American Express. Or Visa for that matter. Avoiding the lines is priceless. Bring cash.
Our Colosseum tour guide also gave us really bad advice for visiting the Vatican Museum, which is also known as Purgatory for the lines. He is one of the 'bad' tour guides. "Go at 1pm" he said. "Everyone is at lunch." But, we objected, on Wednesday morning the Pope (when in town) gives a presentment (remember the kissing the rings thing, above? it is a 'presentment' not a meet & greet). Wouldn't it be better to sneak in when everyone else is prostrated before the Pope? No, he assured us. Well, several years ago we went to Rome and avoided purgatory by showing up during a presentment - I would urge y'all to do the same. The guide's advice was wretched. After the presentment the tourists in great waves surge to the museum entrance, and lines stretch until the Second Coming.
Instead we arranged a tour of Hadrian's Villa, and with a "Namo! Namo!" off we went. Delightful experience. Even if shortened.
Train Travails. Emboldened by our foray outside the pomerium of Roma, we planned our trip to Pompeii. By tour? Not in a bus full of blue haired ladies! By private tour? The six of us would have stressed the private van. By car? A decent possibility, although my family was loathe to have me try driving in Rome, a city where traffic signals are discretionary and there are no rules of the road. By train! the concierge urged us. A fast Eurostar to Naples, a short train to Pompeii, no problema! And off we went! With great exclamation!
And just as we were pulling into Napoli, a random rail strike! The train stopped, we sat for a while, then backtracked to a prior stop, got into buses, and eventually made it to the train station. Maddening! Did they know this would happen when they sold the ticket?
We went to the Eurostar lounge for advice, and they said to go to the ticket counter. Another purgatory for an hour. And just as we got to the front, the clerk closed the booth! Ten minute break, despite a panicked line of distressed tourists and irritated Italians. The kids were starving and bailed out for a bite at McDonald's, which they have outgrown. My son mentioned that he had forgotten how the temptation for a Mickey D's is followed by a stomach ache. Karma. Better the repetitive menu of an Our Lady of the Piazza place!
We finally got to the front of the ticket line, and were told no problema, don't worry, no need to reschedule the return - the trains might not even be running! We went back to the Eurostar lounge, and a new set of customer care personnel said, don't worry, no need to change reservations for the returns. A peculiar Italian trait, that - we also found that the conciergii gave different and contrary advice depending upon whom you approached.
Maybe the lesson of La Dolce Vita is that it doesn't matter which choice you make, as long as you make one.
But our train to Pompeii wasn't running either. Rent a car? Hire a cab? Find a local tour? Take the subway! We got on the circumvesuviano line, a local, and rambled a bunch of stops to Pompeii Scavi. Getting off the train was like stopping at a tourist trap on Route 66. Delightful in its own retro way. Lots of well trod food stands, fresh orange drink, guidebooks, posters, parking lots, motels, statues of Romans. A short walk, then up the hill, and into Pompeii.
My son had taken a Roman Art course recently, and proved an excellent tour guide. He had studied Pompeii in his course, and we got a good education. Ruts in the roads from many, many carts. High curbs with stepping stones to cross (to avoid the horse manure). Some buildings retained their insides, their frescoes, their tiled floors. Many little eateries with marble counters and cooking pots. Taverns around the brothel, which was closed. The taverns remained open, but a bit dry. Pompeii has been much improved since I first visited as a backpacking Canadian 30 years ago (in those days of Vietnam we were all "Canadian"). Parts are closed that used to be open. A wonderful theater complex at the bottom of the hill. Good views from the forum. A must-see. And yes, a gauntlet of guides at the entrance.
We returned to our clattering subway, and made it back to Naples to see if the trains were running. We had missed our Eurostar reserved train and were plunked on a high speed train, not a Eurostar, and without reserved seats, but people were cool about it and we had a nice trip back.
Advice: the train works to get there, but I recommend a private tour from Naples to Pompeii, Vesuvius and if you have time the surrounding area. Also, you can get much better prices by buying the tickets on the Internet. An SMS is sent to your cellphone, and the conductor has a wireless gizmo to check and confirm. An e-ticket well in advance of anything in the US.
Shopping Mauls. Italy is the center of design and fashion, and my girls were not to be denied their hunt for those special boutiques. The Rodeo Drive of Rome is the Via Condotti, from the bottom of the Spanish Steps to the Via Del Corso. The surrounding alleys and streets form a great shopping triangle. We walked it all.
The crowds on the Spanish Steps were at times impressive, filling up the first level and spilling into the piazza below. The color orange stood out in the shirts, dresses and accessories. In the Canali and Armani stores, the male models had orange ties. In the Gucci and Mogdalini stores, the female models showcased orange outfits. In the Dior store, on the most expensive spot in the area, the highlighted sunglasses had orange framing, tastefully done, if you like orange. The racier women had hint of orange underwear beneath their low slung jeans, or their spaghetti strapped tops. A few of them sported shag haircuts - is it the '70s again?
The nicest street for boutiques is the Via Fratinna, two blocks south of the main drag. While our girls hunted for outfits, the boys hunted for fine Italian leather. In Florence, the Papini store near the Ponte Vecchio has the finest leather goods in the world. In Milan the leather clothes near the Duomo are unbelievable. Sadly, in Rome the Italian leather is being pushed out by Chinese knock offs. We took a side trip to a recommended leather store near the Piazza Della Republica, then walked the Via Nazionale, both in another part of town, and one not nearly as nice as the Via Condotti area. Sigh, nothing exceptional. We ventured back to Alfieri, at the very start of the Via Del Corso near the Piazza del Popolo. A great place to buy Milanese designed leather clothes, but no belts, no wallets - the owner said she could no longer compete on accessories. But she steered us to a find - Deccio, a little leather boutique on the Via Del Corso near the Via Condotti, to the north of the Grand Plaza Hotel. Go there.
Globalization means that one can usually find the same goods in the US, so finding the exceptional is a hunt. Rome is not the center of Italian fashion, Milan is, Florence is the center of jewelry. Better buys can be found near the sources, not in Rome. For us, the journey was its own reward, and the girls found things here and there. And we found new wallets in Deccio.
Still, even shopping had its Roman moments. I almost bought a belt and wallet on the Via Nazionale, but at the counter they had put my wallet in a box with a higher price. Maybe an honest mistake? I walked. The stores provide a VAT refund at the airport, but the VAT stand was closed as we left - Sunday! I'll mail it in. I hope it won't get hung up in a mail strike.
Roman Holiday. We still had to relive the classic moments of the movie. We went to the Piazza Navonna for Tartufo - a chocolate concoction. We admired the fountain, a paean to the four rivers. Like much of the Renaissance, a bit of the wild interspersed with order. Not in the movie, but it steeled us for the journey ahead. We took in the Pantheon, a fabulous place, brought down a bit by the tumultuous tides of tourists. We took the tourist walk to the Trevi Fountain, and, put off by the tourist hordes, came back at night. Beautiful, but still crowded. Again, a bit of wild with order - the building it is built in is orderly, but when it comes down to the waters, its columns break into wild rock and rushing brook. Neptune calming the waters! A coin toss over the shoulder, wishes whispered between my son and his wonderful girlfriend, and off to the Spanish Steps, then a scooter through the Piazza Venezia (ok, we took a cab, but imagined a scooter) to the Bocca della Verita - the Mouth of Truth. A manhole cover from Ancient Rome - and proving the Romans knew the answer to the question, why is a manhole cover round? - with a face of a god and an open mouth, now propped up in front of another Santa Maria church, which runs the tourist trade. Gregory Peck stuck his hand in, and professed his love to Audrey Hepburn. Legend says, if it is a lie, the mouth will bite the hand off. He pulled it out, and his hand was gone! Audrey gasped! A practical joke (his hand was in his sleeve), but it was caught on film, and her gasp was real. Fortunately, my son returned with his hand intact. Then to the Colosseum, past the Forum, and off to the Tiber.
We ended our holiday on the Isolo Tiberina, the Tiber Island, where we watched the USA vs. Italia World Cup match in the open air. A hastily constructed projector and screen surrounded by al fresco dining. One gets to the island by crossing footbridges that were built 2000 years ago. Behind us were the remains of another Roman era bridge, a bit gone to pasture with trees and plants growing pastorally on it. (Apparently that is how all the ruins looked 100 years ago before they got spruced up for the tides of tourists.) The crowd was rowdy, the game a tie, and we escaped with our lives. We wandered over to the cab stand near the Temples of Cats, and headed back to the Via Veneto.
If the legend of the Trevi Fountain is correct, we will return. Of course, the legend arose from another movie of Rome, Three Coins in a Fountain, but that doesn't spoil the fun. I will put my hand in the Bocca della Verita anytime to speak the truth of it.
PS - answer to manhole question: it is the only shape that won't fall in.