24 May 2004 3:50 Baltimore time/8:50 Paris time
With a few small exceptions, our trip has gone smoothly so far. We were able to get just about everything accomplished at the house before we left (interrupted briefly by a scare when Jen's passport turned up missing), got to BWI, and then made it to JFK on time. Of the three airports we've been through in the last 24 hours, I'd have to rate JFK one of the dingiest, or at least the Delta wing of JFK. From the small dual-engine commuter jet, Delta had us board a bus on the hot tarmac and transfer via a spooky terminal back door. We waited for two hours in The Lounge That Time Forgot, listening to Airport CNN, and finally boarded our flight.
Jen, who has been cursed with the world's most sensitive inner ear, seemed to be impervious to all the listed side effects of Scopolomine, save the drymouth, but I think maybe the first wait on the tarmac to deplane with no A/C did a number on her stomach. Or, perhaps it was the sushi we ate Sunday night after going to see Shrek 2. (Sunday was the Day Of Not Thinking Or Talking, after having dealt with and talked to everybody in the world for the entire week of the wedding.) She looked a little green for a while in new York, but rallied and soon was traveling better than I've ever seen her.
The over-water leg of our trip got off to an ominous start, as we taxied out in a big 767 onto the runway...behind seventeen other planes stacked in line, waiting for great big thunderheads in the west to blow over. After creeping along the jetway for two hours, we took off into gray stormclouds and searched for clearer air.
Settling into a fast tailwind, we made friends with our seatmate Andre, a large, quirky fellow, who told us that he had worked as a truck driver in SoCal for thirty years and recently bought himself a small farmhouse in Tours to retire in. His running commentary, as well as that of the vacationing couple in front of us (and the two sick, squalling babies a few rows ahead) kept the six-hour flight interesting. By the fourth hour, after Paycheck was over, my ass felt like somebody had shot it out of a cannon. I have to compliment the overseas crews on Delta, though-those planes are crammed as full as they can get, but the stews never broke a sweat or stopped smiling. I think there was a stew handing me a beverage, pillow, or snack every fifteen minutes of the flight.
Even though our speed was aided by the jetstream, we arrived at Charles De Gaulle an hour late for our connecting flight to Rome. Taxiing from one side of the airport to the other, we all stared out the cabin window at the collapsed wing of the terminalthe one we would have disembarked at normally. We stopped next to a pair of buses, and a friendly Air France employee in suit and yellow vest shepherded us gently into the terminal, through ticketing, passport, and security, to a magnificent section of vaulted glass. (the whole terminal was new, arranged with glass tubes and bustling with vans, baggage carts, and small cars. I appreciated the organization and space-age efficiency of the design compared to JFK, which was typically uninspired, boxy American design. Then again, JFK hasn't collapsed.) We walked up to the boarding gate just as they began filling the plane-an older but sturdy 737, circa 1982and found that our seats were apart, but were able to change once we realized the flight was not full.
Looking out over the neatly manicured fields of France, we ate for the third time in 13 hours, and it was the best meal yet: a cinnamon-raisin bun, fresh yogurt, and a chocolate croissant, washed down with strong French coffee. Yay, strong Eurpoean coffee. Somewhere over the Alps Jen dozed off next to the window, and from what the captain told us in his french-accented English, we could see Corsica from the other side of the plane if we chose. (I couldn't because I had the line for the bathroom right next to my seat.)
My ears are now popping, and we're beginning our descent into Rome, to our next leg of this adventure. Until later-
7:38PM Baltimore time/1:38 Rome
Well, I went and jinxed the trip. We arrived in Rome at Fumociello airport and waited around for our luggage...and waited, and waited. It turned out that Jen's luggage, and that of the other folks who traveled with us from New York, was still in Paris waiting for a connecting flight to Rome. Somehow, though, my luggage had made it on to another flight, and was in Rome. We left our hotel informaton with a typically Italian desk agentread: disinterestedand found the other terminal to claim my bag. Talking my way through a security checkpoint manned by a burly Carabineri, I followed a friendly Alitalia desk agent back into a storage room to locate my duffel bag. Walking to the desk through clouds of cigarette smoke, I signed a bunch of forms in Italian (I think I'm going to be drafted into the Italian Army, but I'm not sure) and we were on our way.
The transfer to the hotel was smooth, if not quick. The driver pushed the creaky bus along the Motostrada at terrific speeds150kph is something like 300 mph, right?and navigated the cluttered streets of Rome with fearless confidence. Through his broken English, we got our first tour of the city, passing by many of the monuments we came to see later, through crowds of people and motorbikes. We reached the Palace hotel, and after tipping the driver with greenbacksall I hadwe checked in and passed out on the big king bed for about six hours until our stomachs woke us up at 5:30 (our time).
(Addendum): Our room was a huge suite set off to the side of the building, overlooking an alley (which featured a nightclub called the CICA-CICA-BOOM and a neon sign that flashed the words LAP...DANCE...LAP...DANCE) which was a blessing in disguise, because the noise from the street was minimized. The central room was huge, with vaulted cielings and a cap molding around the edge at about 10 feet off the ground. Spying something resting on the ledge above the bed (and thinking of surreptitious spycams), I made a makeshift ladder out of side furniture and climbed up to find...a stuffed toy frog. We decided he was good mojo and I stuck him on a loop of my messenger bag to follow us around Rome for the rest of the trip.
I got on the phone and dialled about seven numbers to reach Room Service, and ordered some food (after first calling the front desk, bar, and concierge service, respectively.) While watching Training Day in Italian, we made our plans for Wednesday, unpacked, and then our food arrived: two plates for each of us-whoops. Signing a bill for somewhere around 78 Euros, we sat down on the edge of the bed and devoured the mealveal medallions in sage sauce with potatoes, and a round pasta in a light tomato sauce. Jen was so hungry she even ate zucchini, which is a big deal for her.
It's now 2AM local time, and I'm going to sign off to try and get some rest for tomorrow's scheduled tour of the Vatican. until later-
Wednesday (time unknown)
Whoops. Woken at 7am by a call from the front desk-our tourbus is downstairs waiting for us to go to the Vatican, and us not having changed or showered. Throwing on our clothes, we run down to the bus and hop on, without breakfast, water (dammit) or Euros. The bus takes us to a waypoint at the Piazza Del Escolina, where we board another bus and head off to the Vatican. The tour operator converses with people in English, Spanish, French, German and Italian. We are groggy, but impressed. We arrive at the gates of St. Peter's to wander through a souvenir shop before entering the square. Stupidly, I have worn shorts, and this may be a problem for getting in to the audience (Pope don't like the bare legs, belly shirts, or uncovered arms. Stupid American!), but the Carabineri and Swiss Guards wave me past with a disinterested look. Later, we find out that you can buy paper pants to wear over your shorts for five bucks; this means you will look like a derelict hospital worker while visiting the Pope. We find seats up in the center section, one section off the center, and settle down for an hour and a half wait under a clear Italian sky with no breakfast or water. Our time is passed talking to a lovely Scottish couple next to us, Harry McLaughlin, and his wife, who tell us about their stay and make recommendations for things to see. Harry gives us some candy, which keeps us alive for another few hours, and we are grateful.
Soon they drive the Pope in on his Popemobile, and he does a circuit around the faithful like the Rolling Stones entering Madison Square Garden. They drive him up onto the dais and seat him in front of the crowd, and get the thing started. he gives his blessing and talks for a while in Latin (observation: The pope sounds like Don Corleone in the Godfather), and then the priests of various languages get up and name-check some of the groups in the audience, who yell back excitedly. French, then English, then German, then Spanish-the Spanish start singing him songs, and the Pope looks surprised, and Harry leans into Jen and says, "We're gonna be here all bloody day, aren't we?" Soon, it's over, and Jen and I have our wedding rings blessed, and we go on our way. Staggering around the east side of the Vatican wall, we find a bancomat, get some damned Euros, find a sandwich stand and order some nasty baloney and cheese sandwiches on hard dry bread with Gatorade...for 20 Euros. Choking down the first food we've had in 12 hours (on very confused stomachs), Jen comments on how rotten the expensive meal is, and I helpfully point out that we're in the Catholic Disneyland-things will be expensive on this side of the Tiber.
Heading back to the hotel, we immediately hit the shower, which takes some figuring out at first. It's old-school, which means it's a tub with no curtain-they expect you're going to take a bath European-style, not shower like dumb Americans. We flood the floor trying to clean ourselves off, and then lay down for another nap, which lasts five hours.
Waking hungry, we wander down to the first outdoor cafe we find and settle in for a meal of pasta and wine, which could not have come sooner. The outside air is dry and cool, and we enjoy the atmosphere of the day. After dinner, we wander down through the streets to the west of our hotel until we reach the Spanish Steps, which are as beautiful as we had heard. The various levels are covered in Rome's teenagers, who are sitting and talking among each other in knots, playing guitar and singing, or scoping each other (and the tourists) out. Among the crowds, men with roses eagerly shove stems into Jen's hand, hoping she will take it (and I will pay.) She has to resort to a loud and firm No after several polite attempts to demur the "gift". We continue down to the Trevi Fountain, which is covered in people and swarmed by even more sidewalk vendors. Kids sit idly on the edge of the railing, talking, looking, and sipping wine out of a paper bag (Americans.) We gaze upon the fountain and marvel at it; Jen notices there is a Bennetton store directly across from it. Despite this ominous sign, Rome is absolutely beauriful by night, and as we return to our hotel, we are both excited to explore it further in the morning.
(Addendum): About 12:30 pm, we got a quiet knock on the door from an apologetic man, who wheeled in Jen's suitcase! It had been through the ringer and back, but returned to us like a champ. Hooray clean clothes!
We got up half-heartedly to walk back to the Vatican to see the Museumsomething everybody we talked to told us was incredible. We picked up some "American Breakfast" at a cafe further down the Via Veneto, which came to us as watery eggs, light cappucinno, warmed slabs of ham, and large, dry toast with jam. Who cares? We devoured the meal and paid the measly 20 euros, happy to be on our way with some breakfast in our stomachs.
Making our way across the Tiber river, we followed our path from the previous day and then walked around the eastern Vatican wall to the north side, where the museum entrance is located. Inside, the air was heated by swarms of tour groups queuing up to enter. Renting two headsets, we followed the path to the Sistine Chapel, stopping to look at the exhibits along the way, including some papal chambers, mosaic work, a hall of frescoed world maps, and the papal chapeau locker room. (Inside joke.)
The Sistine chapel is entered from a side door and up some stairs, and you walk out under the wall fresco featuring the Last Judgement, so the full effect is sort of blunted. However, looking up to the ceiling is just breathtaking. The chapel is larger than you think, and the colors are vibrantit's been cleaned expertly so that you can see all the detail from down below. We listened to the tour guide as well as we could over the throngs of jabbering tourists-knots of people yelling at each other, taking flash pictures, and leaning on the walls in direct violation of the posted rules. Every five minutes a bell rings and the guards tell people to shut up, which lasts for about 30 seconds. Jen and I were moved as we listened to the narration, and as I knelt down to reach my water, I realized that one of the missing baggage couples from our flight was standing in front of us-a funny coincidence.
That was the first time art ever made me sick to my stomach and I'm not sure if it was due to the hot air, sheer mass of people, or simply looking up so much, but I'd like to think it was because the experience was simply that good.
Outside the Sistine Chapel, we paused to catch our breath, and then found ourselves back in another section of the museum, full of priceless ancient paintings, frescoes and tapestries featuring the Holy Trinity and the apostles-and perhaps one of the most famous, Rafael's Transfiguration. Sitting on some of the wooden chairs, we contemplated the difference between that piece and the two flanking it, which were painted years before.
Outside the museum, we walked back around to the front of the Vatican and entered the front of the basilica to tour St. Peter's. We first got on line to travel to the top of the dome, choosing to take the elevator instead of climbing the steps (GOOD MOVE.) As it was, there were 350 steps to the top of the dome from the elevator; they are windy twisty corridors which disorient and confuse, until you break out onto the gallery inside the dome, looking down on the central floor of the basilica. What at first is frightening and vertigo-inducing gives way to awe-inspiring as you realize just how far below the marble floor is. From there, you continue up even narrower corridors which begin to lean to the side until you reach spiral staircases; just when you think you can't go on you feel the Roman breeze in your hair and you reach the top of the outside dome. The view from St. Peter's is predictably breathtaking- the Palantine Hill, the basilica square, the Tiber river and all of Rome is spread out before you as if on a map. We stood and took pictures for a few minutes, awestruck, and then walked back down to the roof level to buy a postcard for Father Whatley (our officiant) to mail it from the Vatican.
At the bottom of the elevator, we turned right and entered the main doors of the basilica just in time for mass; The main floor was empty save the tourists, and we stood awestruck at the sheer size and space of the church. Walking up the east side, we paused at the central canopy to study the carving detail and coloring. Jen watched as mass was given and the organ played; I walked the floor and took pictures like a dumb tourist until we found an entrance to the tombs below the central floor, and we walked below to view the remains of scores of popes on display. The exit took us back out the east side of the basilica, so we retraced our steps to get back inside, walking over the carved Vatican symbols in red marble. As we entered, mass was ending, and we paused to shoot more pictures of the afternoon light entering the church from the back. we walked forward to view the altar and side naves, which were open for confession to the nuns on one side and the rest of the congregation on the other.
Again, this was an emotional moment, and I'm not a very religious personsimply being inside the basilica and experiencing the sheer size and magnitude of the building, and all its ornamentation, you get a sense of the devotion and dedication people have for their faith. It's something I can't write well enough to descibe to you here.
leaving the basilica, we retraced our steps and began looking for the unnamed restauraunt that Father Whatley had recommended to us on our rehearsal night. unable to find it, we go lost heading north in a maze of side streets, stopping to help an english speaking teenager find the Piazza Navona on a map. Unwittingly, we followed him to find the Piazza, a long narrow square centered around a series of three fountains and flanked by outdoor cafes. Picking one out, we sat a row behind the front and ordered dinner: Starting with a mozzarella and tomato appetizer, Jen had an eggplant dish while I ordered a tortellinni in cream sauce. The night grew colder, we moved our table closer to a heater while the square filled with visitors and couples, and a gypsy duo began to serenade the other patrons as we paid our check and left.
On our way home, we walked up the via de condotti to the base of the Spanish Steps, and wandered through the back alleys behind our hotel to get home, safe and sated.
We had more plans for Fridayto be at the Hotel at 2:30 to take a bus on the Ancient Rome tour, the details of which I did not have. We woke late, and wandered down to what we were now calling "our" cafe, the first one down the Via Veneto with outdoor seats, and ordered the "American breakfast", which turns out to be much better than the place down the road. The eggs are still runny, but the cappucino is better, the OJ colder, there's yogurt, the toast is not brick-hard, and the bacon is cooked another 30 seconds longer. While we're there, we make friends with Polly, the manager's Jack Russell, a sweet little dog with a territorial boundary issue (when motorcyclists pass by, she runs out and barks.) The miniature terrier is the Official Dog of Rome, as far as we're able to tell; there seem to be a majority of them out walking each day.
Returning back to the hotel, we laid back down and napped for a few more hours (there was a loud neigbor next to us the previous evening, keeping us up late until 4am) until 2:15, when we woke to get ready for the tour. On the bus ride over, we found ourselves with more English speaking folks, and our tour guide was the Italian Anthony Hopkins: a dapper Italian gent in suit jacket and white walking hat, speaking heavily accented English. He led us through the Constantine Arch, past the Coliseum and down into the ruins of the Forum for a brief overview, and then we boarded a bus for St. Paul's Basilica, the second-largest church in the world.
St. Paul's is almost as immense as St. Peter's, and is situated outside the walls of Rome to the south, off the Appian Way. Surrounded by 50's era apartment blocks, it's a separate part of the Vatican (there are several) and is foreign soil. The front of the building is faced with a gorgeous gold and tile mosaiac, and fronted with a large square. After a brief rest stop in the gift shop for bathrooms, we followed Mssr. Hopkins inside and again, the size and space of the building overwhelmed us. At one point in 1823, the roof of the basilica caught fire and collapsed, destroying much of the structure-except for the canopy sheltering St. Paul's remains in the center of the floor. Through the back of the basilica, there is a benedictine abbey with an outdoor piazza, surrounded by serpentine wooden columns inlaid with more mosaic.
We stopped again at the Spanish Steps to admire the beautiful Roman sunset over the hills and through the trees. For dinner, we wandered through the secion of town below the Spanish Steps and found the Restaurant Alla Rampa, an out-of-the-way cafe on the south side of the plaza in view of the obelisk. We were lucky enough to beat the rush towards dinnertime; we got excellent seats close to the edge (but safely inside-our chilly night at Piazza Navono taught us about the May evenings in Rome) and began a wonderful meal with a bottle of the house Red wine, followed by a tomato-herb and cheese appetizer; Jen ordered a veal parmesan while I had a delicious plate of ravioli. When we asked our waiter which dessert he recommended, he said he could not do that, becaue he liked them all. We settled on an immense plate of tiramisu for Jen and chocolate cake fo me. Wandering home through the now-familiar section of town, we found quiet side streets and couples returning to their hotels from dinner.
As we got closer to the Piazza Barberini, we heard a loud commotion and found that the whole area was filled with bicyclists protesting in some kind of Critical-Mass type formation. Draped with banners, carrying signs, and playing cowbells, they tied up traffic in the circle for a full five minutes and then held their bikes aloft in truimph.
We decided to wander back down to the ruins to explore them further ourselves. Strolling down the via de Fora imperiale to see first the Trajan Forum (from the back) and then the Roman Forum from across the street. Picking the first big landmark to visit, we queued up behind a long line of people at the Colosseum and waited for five minutes, until an young woman offered an english-speaking tour for ten euros apiece. Interested, we followed her to a knot of other people around a surfer-dude who had already begun his shpeil. After showing us some of the outside highlights, the tour guide (Paolo) took us inside past the long lines at the ticket counter and immediately inside. From there, we walked around the outer perimeter and listened to the tour.
Once that tour was over, we followed Paolo outside to the Arc of Constantine to find another guide, Tony, who was giving the Forum tour. Tony was a bald British man dressed in black, who started by taking us into the Forum and going into greater detail than Anthony Hopkins had. At the end of his tour, we followed him up to the Palatine Hill to overlook the entirety of the Forum and most of the historic district of Rome. From there, Jen and I explored the Palatine Hill and museum on our own, finishing off with an overview of the Circus Maximus from the edge of the hill. Stopping off to say hello to a scruffy-looking Roman cat, we climbed the hill to the Piazza Del Campidoglio, exploring the statuary and steps designed by Michelangelo.
For dinner, we took a long way back home, wandering up underneath the President's house and into a warren of side streets south of the Trevi Fountain; there we found what turned out to be the culinary high point of our stay: the Ristorante Scanderbeg, a tiny establishment in a side alley where the ambiance was just right. Our dinner started with a bottle of their house red, and we enjoyed their salad and an appetizer of bruschetta, followed by a veal saltimboca for Jen and a tortellini in pomodoro-brandy cream sauce. The dessert was the topper, however-Jen's torte was warm and filled with luscious dark chocolate, while my tiramisu was more liquor-ific than the previous evening's, but not as good. With heavy hearts, we left the restaurant, and wandered home arm in arm on a brisk Rome spring eveningwith a bottle of the house red to go.
We woke late (later and later as the days went by) and got breakfast on the run to meet up with another tour guide from the same outfit, who promised to show us the Catacombs. Walking back down to the Constantine Arch, we waited by the wall on an unusually hot day and met Brooke, a California native who was organizing and leading the tour. We also met with a fellow tourist from the previous day's tour, an Indian-flavored brit traveling alone named Gavinda, whose face lit up when Jen greeted him. Our group turned out to be rather small, so we all got to know each other pretty well as the day progressed. For 35 Euros, we started out by touring the Circus Maximus, walking its length (and suffering the dumb-ass questions of a pair of idiot Manhattan boys playing hooky from their parents); at the northwest end we stopped in to the St. Maria De Cosmedin, an old building converted to a church and thus saved the fate of many other demolished buildings. Inside, the floor is covered in elegant tile mosaic and purple marble, and the basic structure has not been altered since the 1200's. Off to one side, a seperate altar features a portrait of Mary and Jesus rumored to grant miracles (but closed of to the public on our visit.) Outside, the Mouth of Truth is hidden by a long line of Asian tourists who apparently have seen Roman Holiday quite a bit and are retracing Audrey Hepburn's steps. In a pinch for time, we bypassed this attraction to board a bus for our main destination: the Catacombs.
A short bus ride out of the southern reaches of Rome and into the fields of Italy, past the Roman Baths on our right, and we pulled into a nondescript driveway filled with the familiar sight of tour buses and a lunch wagon. Brooke handed us off to the local guide, who took us downstairs into the basilica of the church, from which entry to the catacombs is reached. After a short intorduction in passable Eng-Ita-Germish, we followed her past a wall of marble shards and down into the tunnels. Quickly, the walls got tighter and the air tempaerature dropped; the humidity rose, and we were surrounded by hundreds of chambers carved out of the clay walls. here the early Christians buried their dead behind slabs of marble or clay, and the tour guide told us the tunnels went on in four levels for 14 kilometers. Unfortunately now the bones have disintegrated and the frescoes are long since gone, but the tour was fascinating none the less. Not a place for the faint of heart or claustrophobic persuasion.
Reboarding the bus, Brooke took us to our final destination, the San Pietro in Vincoli (Church of St.Peter In Chains), still another stop we hadn't heard about or considered. Nestled up a small hill from the Colosseum, the church is fronted by large iron gates topped with a chained design. Inside, the familiar layout of the old-school Catholic church; a cross-based floorplan, with a central altar and recessed reliquary featuring the namesake chains.
Off to the left side of the altar was an artisitc masterpiece I had forgotten all about and did not realize was present: Michelangelo's Moses, part of a never-finished series of sculptures for the tomb of Pope Julius II.
As we prepared to leave the church, it began to rain outside, and we sat out in the front courtyard to wait it out. After about fifteen minutes of serious rain (and a few booming claps of thunder), the rain slowed, and we said our goodbyes to the other folks in the tour. Heading north through the drizzle, we looked for a new place to eat, making it almost to the Spanish Steps before ducking inside a warm, dry, (and somewhat gaudy) restaurant where the older waiter looked sadly at his scraggledy patrons and sighed. We were soon joined by a family at the table next to us, and we struck up a conversationthey were an Australian expat couple vacationing over the weekend with their 6-month-old baby.
Jen and I started with a salad appetizer of artichoke hearts, rocket (can anybody tell me what Rocket is?) in a balsamic viniagrette with parmesan. Jen chose for her main course a lamb with garlic potatoes, and I had gnocchi in gorgonzola sauce. The meal was tasty without being exceptional, and only when I tipped the waiter did I get a smile out of him. But, then again, the Cafe Scanderbeg was a tough act to follow.
This morning we decided to check out the Museums up on the Piazza Del Campidoglio, where the city has a whole range of artifacts from the Forum excavations on display. Instead of walking straight down south, we wandered north to look at the Piazza Del Popolo, stopping to sit on the edge of the fountain in the warm spring air. Continuing south down the Via Del Ripetta, we passed Augustus' Mausoleum, a large round brick structure set next to the river. It's a little worn-down, but we recognized it from our explorations on Thursday, when we approached it from a different angle and crossed the Tiber on the nearby Ponte Cavour. Further South, we finally happened upon a bakery, where we bought a bag of coconut macaroons (delicious), then found a dairy, where we bought some cheese (a tasty gorgonzola), and then some peasant bread and a bottle of wine. The bakery was staffed by a woman and a large boxer mix, who barked randomly at patrons and passers-by, but who gave us the nod before returning to his nap.
Stopping across the piazza for a quick gelato and a drink of water, we stood at the counter and were able to successfully order what we wante from a harried looking kid in track pants (but still wearing a 3/4 work coat, god bless the Italians for always looking professional) and enjoyed our midmorning treat. Behind us, we found the first Roma phonebook we'd seen and took some pictures of the Brizzi page for Todd; Jen looked up the number of an ol pen pal and wrote it down for future contact. After some intense discussion, the cashier and the other waiter were able to figure out just what to charge us, and we were again on our way. (It's cheaper—much cheaper—to stand at a counter as opposed to sitting down; the same food is roughtly 50% more expensive before the tip. The counters are also prevalent throughout cafes in Central Rome—a welcome way to save money.)
Climbing the steps to the Piazza, we looked for the ticket office, stopping to look through the marriage notices posted in ornate iron cases outside. As it turned out, the museum was closed for Banker's Holiday (I believe), so we shot some pictures of the Piazza and then continued back down to the Forum. I had wanted to shoot a picture of our feet on the Appian Way, so we walked down the hill and took some more shots from different angles, then got us standing on the oldest paved road in civilization. There's something incredible about the thought of all that history under our feetmany times during our trip, we were rendered mute by the experience; I can describe it and show you pictures, but never capture the whole feeling of the place.
We stopped to look at a gecko crawling over some of the ruins that Jen found, then back through the Arch of Titus and up onto the Settimio to get a cold drink of water from the fountain (and to wait until everybody cleared away to get a picture of it.) Heading back down the stairs in the Piazza, we circled around the front of the Vittoriano and stopped to dip our fingers in the fountainit was getting hot in the sunshine. The Vittoriano is an impressive public structure but not all that historic; it was built in the late 1800's and used to honor the Italian military (insert jokes here.) It's big, and majestic, and odly hollow. Inside there are boring displays of Italian military history, bored carabineri and Italian Army soldiers, and public restrooms in the thrd sub-basement. (this was the only reason we decided to enter the building in the first place.)
On our way back up the Corso, we came upon an enclosed plaza which had been frescoed from floor to ceilinga six-story building. After shooting about three rolls of film, Jen sat down on the side of the courtyard in the afternoon light, and I started shooting pictures of her while the light held; I was able to get one of my favorite pictures of her which I've linked here.
We took our time heading back to the hotel, and decided that we would eat our wine, cheese, and bread after a candlelight soak in our tub (thanks, Todd & Heather!), which was the perfect way to end a beautiful day.
Today we had plans to return for a final visit to the Vatican for rosary beadsone set for Jen's Mom and one for my dental hygenist, who had purchased a set for me to place outside the back porch on the day of the wedding (for good weather.) We also wanted to make one last attempt at finding the restuarant Father Whatley had told us about on our rehearsal night; apparently there is (or was) an outdoor restaurant somewhere within spitting distance of the Vatican walls where, seated in the proper place, one could watch the sun set over the basilica dome. We really wanted to see this.
Exploring the west wall, we followed it around, up the hill, and under the Via Porta Cavalleggeri to a somewhat seedier neighborhood, and stopped after about a quarter-mile. There just didn't seem to be any restaurants matching the description we were given. So we returned back to the basilica square, where we took some more pictures, and then we decided to head back across the river.
Addendum: Along the way, we found and stopped at a design-ish shop in the middle of a square to look at some funny objets d' art in the window. One of the things that struck Jen's eye was a stylized piggy bank painted like a prison convict. One thing that struck my eye was a Buddha Bank, a fun addition to our hall entryway (and something I paid much more than $14 for in Rome.)
Our customs list for the trip so far:
Realizing this was our last day to wander the streets of Rome, we took our time getting back, exploring the streets near the Piazza Navono and stopping at a quiet cafe for an afternoon drink. Jen had a wine while i finally sampled a Peroni, which tunred out to be a light, refreshing beerperfect for the afternoon. I'm going to let an excerpt from Jen tell the story from here:
"Bill and I stopped at a little cafe to figure out where we were going next. As we were sitting there, this strange little tableau played out wherein an old monk (looking strangely like Sting), a 20ish woman and a guy in a breastplate, carrying a poorly wrapped sword and wearing the worst overcoat I've ever seen (looking strangely like Jake Gyllenhaal) were filmed repeatedly walking past our cafe. We created our own little stories about what exactly was going on, and I have to say that the majority of them involved some cheesy, over-involved story about a gladiator sent through time to guard some religious relic--and to romance the young girl--which the monk had to help him find. It was all very amusing.
And then they packed up and walked back through what appeared to be a door in the side of this church. That is, until we saw a Vespa drive through it.
Our curiosity getting the better of us, we walked through the door and found ourselves in an alley which was blocked off by several white vans with an official Roma seal on it. We tried to see what was going on but gave up, walking all the way around the alley toward what we'd hoped would be our dinner destination. However, we discovered that there were more people crowding around this area as well.
Again, being nosey Americans, we wandered down to see what the crowd was yelling and gawking at. We found about 20 crazed paparazzi up on this plaza, shooting away. There were people shrilly squealing and all manner of mayhem as carabinieri pushed back the crowds. Bill and I kept looking at one another sarcastically guessing at what was going on: an Italian soap opera being filmed on location? a murder of someone locally famous? the mafia don having a pinata party?
We stood there for a while longer, straining to see what was going on. I felt like I was going blind trying to see what it was I was looking at. And then there was a moment of silence in the crowd...my eyes focused....
My stomach fell.
That was right about the moment I blurted out
I don't even like Brad Pitt, so I have no idea what the hell the stomach drop was about. But the moment I picked him out of the crowd, Bill's camera came up and he started shooting away asking WHATISHEDOINGHERE?
I don't know why we were acting like children, when neither of us think he's all that great. It was just weird the way the crowd was acting, the paparazzi...
Ok, Bill secretly has a thing for Brad Pitt."
Anyhow, we left the square and continued on our way. Before we realized where we were, we walked out into an open Piazza and found ourselves in front of the Pantheonone of the ancient buildings we wanted to see but still hadn't. Again, fortune was with us. The Pantheon is a huge, round building fronted by imposing columns, and filled with beautifully carved marble. The dome is a huge stone structure with a hole in the center, called an Oculus, which lets light in and fills the place with a warm glow. We circled the exhibits inside, and I was amazed to realize that the body of Raphael lies inside a lighted tomb in one of the seven recesses.
Leaving the Rotunda, we were excited to choose from one of the main outdoor restaurants that circle the Piazza della Rotonda, (name to follow) and we settled on one that gave us a warm view of both the Pantheon and the obelisk. Selecting a bottle of house red from the menu in broken English, the waiter looked puzzled and returned with a glass. We made our selections and settled in for a lovely brisk spring evening, watching the sun set and the lights come up.
We started with the first 'first course' of the whole trip (the Italians organize meals starting with antipasta, then pasta (first course), then meat (second course), then about thirty courses after that) which was a delicious "Chef's pasta"—some of the best pasta I've ever had—followed by Jen's disappointing Veal Milanese and my dish (which I can't remember right now.) We finished off our dinner with some desserts that turned out to be a disappointment as well—a tasteless chocolate cake for me and another tasteless dessert for Jen. If the ambiance hadn't been so beautiful, we would have been let down, but because the setting was so beautiful we let it slide (and I wound up tipping the waiter on top of the service charge. Stupid American.)
We left the Piazza after being cursed at by an inebriated Italian bum (he missed, but later spit on a garbage can) and strolled our way back to the Spanish Steps for our final climb up the stairs. Up along the wall of the Villa Borghese we came upon a woman feeding stray cats through a set of ornate iron bars; I stopped to try to get photos of the scene but even with the shutter wide open the skittish cats moved around too much. We made our way back to the hotel and began packing for our return trip.
Jen made me finally ask the front desk to call the taxi service to confirm our pickup in the morning, and while I was there I scheduled a wakeup call. Regretfully, we laid down at about 1:30AM, and for me, at least, sleep was hard to find.
Just as I was settling off into some comfortable REM's, the front desk woke us on time. Hurriedly showering and packing, we cleaned up the room and got ready for the airport. Our van arrived on time, and after leaving ten Euros for the chambermaid—sorry about that flooding problem, but you folks really need to install shower curtains—we were packed in the front seat and ready to go. The taxi driver took us on a circuitous route of Rome; after picking up several other couples in the same Via Veneto area we wound up traveling north past the Vatican and then west to the Motostrada. Again, this driver was daring and nonchalant about doing 180kph while adjusting his tie; overall the trip went well and we wound up being the first dropoff.
Our checkin at Fumicello was a lot better than our arrival—the process went reasonably well, if a little lax on the security. (They were not concerned with my laptop, camera, or iPod like the Americans or French were.) We boarded a short-hop 727 for the flight into Paris and settled into our seats on the left side of the plane, three rows off the galley. A short wait on the tarmac, and we said goodbye to the fields and valleys of Italy.
2 June 2004 - 5:19PM Baltimore time, 11:20 Paris time
(This was written in Paris in an attempt to catch up on writing; Entries for the last three or four days hadn't been written yet. I'm including it here verbatim.)
Much has happened since we've been over here in Europe; we got way behind in our writing and journal-keeping while we've been here, but it's been incredible. Right now I'm writing this on my laptop while laying in a bunk bed outside Paris; we're in a traveler's hotel staying overnight so that we can catch a new flight to Cincinatti, Ohio and then back to Baltimore from Paris. Landing here, we had about 45 minutes to reach our connecting flight-normally, not a problem until you have a plane returning to the gate and hence a bomb scare in the terminal, in which case there are angry-looking French military folks with loaded automatic weapons yelling at you to get back from the police tape.
Once that whole thing got sorted out, we went about rescheduling our flight to New York, which had since left. The alternate flights were overbooked in the hour and a half it took for somebody at either Air France or Delta to understand what was happening; we took the next best thing and decided to stay overnight in France and wait for a new flight instead of staying at a fleabag motel in Queens. (There's something to be said for the hospitality of the Europeans when you decide to find a hotel in their country as opposed to your own.) However, the passport officals in France are a bored, surly lot, and they can't seem to stamp straight (or use enough ink.)
By this point we were hungry, so we wandered Terminal 2C to find some food, and settled on an upscale cafeteria-style restaurant for food. Jen had more success with her French than I did, and we sat next to a jetway window to feast on our meal. Then, it was outside to wait in the chilly French breeze for a courtesy van to the hotel.
After doing about five loops around Charles De Gaulle picking up people, we drove out into the middle of nowhere to our hotel: the Etap, a bargain at 35 Euros a night. We understood why it was so affordable when we got in the room: it looks like a demonstrator IKEA child's room, complete with bunk bed. We started laughing, calling it Der Kinder Room, and laid down to read and nap for the afternoon. Relatively quiet and comfortable, it's a decent waystation on our return journey, if not the romantic stopover in Paris we had joked about earlier. (Luckily, we didn't choose to stay at the companion Formula One hotel next door; it turns out that the difference 6 € makes is the use of a communal bathroom.)
Rising from our nap at 7pm, We wandered down the plaza to a french chain restaurant, which turned out to be sort of a Gaullic verison of a Bennigan's. complete with "antique" French farm items nailed to the wall. After about ten minutes staring at the odd items on the menu, a Quebeqois couple next to us offered to translate, and we wound up keeping company with them throughout most of our meal. Jen's food turned out to be a duck and fig shish kebob, and my meal began with a round pile of sour-cream-like cheese, then a chewy rare steak with pommes frites, ending with a cup of chilled flan and coffee. Our friendly couple was replaced with a pair of Australian women, who chatted with us about travel and tennis (and the fortunate luck that we didn't stay in the neighboring Formula One hotel, a sister of the Etap, where the difference in lodging, besides a lower price, is the common bathroom).
Our review of the Benningan's food was middling to poor, and we returned to Der Kinder Room to read, sleep, and contemplate the German version of The People's Court.
Morning came quickly again, and our attempts to program the goofy 'clock' were sucessful. we showered and changed back into yesterday's clothes quickly, and hit the front desk to check out. Etap has a strange European-style breakfast arrangement where they set up bread, coffee, OJ, and jam in circular tables outside the reception area, and we helped ourselves to some basic food groups before our journey.
Arriving back at CDG, we checked in, went through security, and found our gate pretty easily. Possibly because of the terminal collapse, they have this funny arrangement where they put you on a scissors-bus (a bus on a hydraulic lift, so that the entire passenger section hovers 30 feet off the ground) and cart you out to your plane. We boarded a big Airbus and took our seats (middle row, four rows off the back galley) to wait for takeoff. The flight back to the USA was uneventful, if not long as hell—it seemed like the flight over went a lot quicker to me. Fortunately the in-flight entertainment system featured several movies, so we were able to watch Big Fish, Open Range, Calendar Girls, and reruns of Happy Days. I didn't sleep so much on this flight, but it was reasonably comfortable, and the food was decent. (There was a lot less of it, though—it seemed like the Delta stews were feeding us every fifteen minutes as compared to the Air France crews.)
We got in to Cincinnatti a little behind schedule, but with time to make Customs and checkin. The passport official waved us through, and asked Jen if she was traveling alone, to which she replied, "no, I'm with my husband," which was strange. After waiting a while for the carousel to start up, we watched as everybody retrieved their luggage and got on line. There were no more bags coming off the carousel, and it began to look evident that they had dorked up our luggage again. The Customs guy waved us through (even though I was carrying a bottle of Italian wine in my bag) and we headed upstairs to find our next flight.
more of the story to come. stay tuned!