Sunday, February 19, 2006

Italy: A Lazy Tour of Rome

Having decided to visit Rome for the long President's Day weekend, I boarded my Saturday morning El Al flight. It wasn't a terribly early flight, but I was dead tired from Friday night, and I went to sleep as soon as I took my seat.

I was sitting on the aisle, and the overhead storage bins were directly overhead. (Funny how that works.)

I mention this because as I was completely sacked out, a grossly inconsiderate young Israeli woman started fishing around in the bin above me and dropped her guidebook, the corner of which struck me on my forehead right at my hairline and drew blood. As I was in a coma at the time, I didn't see this coming and I flailed a bit at my abrupt wake-up call.

Accidents happen, and I understand this. This young lady's reaction, however, was completely unacceptable. Did she apologize to me like any decent human being would? No, she didn't. Did she show any concern whatsoever? Nope.

What she did do was start laughing as she walked back to her seat.

I was livid. I pondered a number of options for retaliation, but there was nothing to be done and I knew it. I went back to sleep.

About three and a half hours later, we landed in Rome.

At the airport, I caught the Leonardo Express, and in about 40 minutes I was downtown.

I had booked one of Embassy Rome's visitor apartments which were in an area called Grazioli in the north of the city. From the train station, the walk to the apartment was less than an hour.

Grazioli was far enough out that it did not show up on any of the maps in my guidebook. This was annoying, but I had fortunately realized this shortcoming before my trip and printed a map from the internet.

By the time I had decided to go to Rome, I didn't have time to order a guidebook over the internet. I went to a bookstore in Tel Aviv and bought the only Italy tour book that was in stock which was Fodor's. At several points during my trip, I found myself wishing that I was traveling with my usual Lonely Planet.

Anyhow, I reached the apartment around 2:00 and chucked my things inside. Then I started walking south, toward all the famous Roman sites.

The temperature was straddling the line between chilly and comfortable. I was wearing a t-shirt and a wool coat, and I was a little too hot. I decided to keep the coat, though, since it would surely get colder in the evening.

Of the main touristy things, I decided to start with the Spanish Steps which were the closest attraction to me. As I left Grazioli, I asked a few Italians if I was going in the right direction. They were no help. Instead of pointing the way for me, they just kept telling me to take the bus because it was too far to walk.

I figured things out on my own, though, and before long, I reached Villa Borghese, Rome's main park. There were people walking, jogging, and hanging out. There were also 4-person bicycles for rent, and a few groups of teenage boys were racing down stairs on these. This clearly wasn't what these bikes were designed for, but it was amusing all the same.

Just past the park, I came to the Spanish Steps. There was a good crowd of people lounging around, but I took a few photos and moved on.

Next up was the Column of Marcus Aurelius, a 100-foot tall carved column honoring Marcus Aurelius's military victories.

From the column, it was a few blocks walk to the famous Trevi Fountain. Like the millions of other tourists there, I tossed a coin into the water. For that, I am obligated to return to Rome some day.

While I was at Trevi, I asked an Italian guy to take my picture. He was happy to help out. In the photo he took, I am large and in focus on the right half of the frame, and the fountain is out of focus in the background to the left. As I think back on all the crappy photos that other people have taken for me while I have been traveling, this guy's photo easily ranks among the most artistic. Only in Italy...

At Trevi Fountain, I had my first fat gladiator sighting. There were two jokers standing around dressed like gladiators, ready to pose for photos with tourists for a fee. With their black sweat pants and sneakers, I didn't think they were authentic enough to justify paying five Euros for a shot. Others must have been thinking the same thing because these guys weren't exactly being overrun with customers.

Before I left the piazza, I stopped for my first gelato. I had read once that gelato is richer than ice cream because ice cream has air pumped into it and gelato doesn't. While the gelato was intensely flavored and possibly more dense than ice cream, it definitely wasn't richer. It was still quite nice, though, and I probably stopped for gelato at least five times a day for the rest of my visit. The strawberry was the bomb.

From Trevi, I walked a few minutes to the Pantheon, a beautifully preserved ancient domed building that is lit by a hole cut in the center of the dome.

After the Pantheon, I went to the Piazza Navona with its famous fountains. There were a ton of caricaturists on hand.

The rest of the afternoon, I wandered around without any specific plan. In between gelatos, I also stopped for dinner. For my first meal in Italy, I ordered a 3-course meal from a tourist menu in a small restaurant. It cost 12 Euros. Unfortunately, the tortellini I received was possibly the worst I ever had. It was doughy and flavorless. Neither of the other two courses was very exciting either.

At this point you may be asking yourself where I get off criticizing Italian food that was made by an Italian in Italy. And it's a valid question. As I see it, though, there are two good possible explanations. First, it is possible that the tortellini was perfect and authentic, and I was unsatisfied because I was comparing it with an unauthentic American version I had tried before. Or, it is possible that the chef, knowing that I was a tourist (by virtue of me ordering from the tourist menu), served me a bunch of crap that he would have never served to an Italian customer. I obviously think that my dining experience fell victim to the second scenario, but I could be wrong.

In any case, I decided then not to order any more tourist meals from any more tourist menus.

Night had fallen by the time I finished dinner, so as I walked back to Grazioli, I got to see all of the sites I had visited earlier in a new light – or darkness as it were.

Back at the apartment I watched a few hours of mindless television and called it a night.

The next morning, I rolled out of bed at around 9:00 and headed south again. First on the agenda was the Vatican.

Not really inclined to repeat the long walk from the day before, I caught a bus this time. I sat next to a nun (one of several on the bus), and we both rode along minding our own business like people do on a bus. As we passed by the Vittorio Emanuele II Monument, though, my seatmate sprang to life. She grabbed my arm to alert me to the mountain of carved marble outside the window. I was already staring at the monument, but it was still nice of the nun to point it out.

At the Vatican, I soon learned that I wouldn't be seeing the Sistine Chapel on my visit. As it turned out, of the three days I would be in Rome, only on my first day, the day that had already passed, was it possible for me to see it due to its limited hours.

Back in Tel Aviv, my good friend Anne, who had served in Rome, had told me to go to the Sistine Chapel first for this very reason. From 1,400 miles away, I could hear a faint “I told you so” on the wind.

I wasn't too broken up about it, though. After all, I did throw a coin in the fountain, so I can just see the Chapel on my next visit.

St. Peter's Basilica was open for business, in any case, so I popped in for a look. By “popped in” I mean that I stood in a massive line for hours waiting to get security-checked and admitted.

It was worth the wait, though, and the Church was something to behold. There were heaps of grand sculptures and paintings, but Michelangelo's Pieta still stood out among them.

On my way out of St. Peter's, I was scolded by a Swiss guard in his court jester suit for going toward a corridor that I wasn't allowed to enter. It was an honest mistake, though, and they could have marked it better if you ask me.

Besides missing the Sistine Chapel, I also didn't reserve a spot at a Papal Audience which must be done in advance. So no blessing from the Pope for me this time.

Before I left the Vatican, I sent my mom a postcard.

Then I walked around.

With the average Italian spending a quarter of his or her income on clothing, there seem to be shops everywhere. Just near the Vatican, though, there was a particularly retail-dense district.

When in Rome I decided to shop as the Romans did.

I browsed my way down the block and found a pair of pants that I liked in a small shop.

The pants were unfinished, so the tailor in the shop told me to try them on so that he could measure and hem them before I left the country in two days.

As instructed, I tried the pants on, and this guy turned out to be as handsy as the infamous tailor at British Suiting in Islamabad. For sizing up a hem, he sure took a lot of crotch and seat measurements.

In the end, I told him to forget about the tailoring because I didn't have time. Besides all the pawing during the fitting, his tailoring wasn't cheap. The hemming was expensive enough, and if I had allowed him to make all the other adjustments he was suggesting, the alterations would have cost well more than the pants themselves.

I bought the pants as they were with the intention of getting them hemmed later. Of course, more than a year has passed as I am writing this, and the pants still aren't finished. They look fine, though, when I roll up the ends into cuffs.

After my foray into Italian shopping, I picked back up with the sight-seeing.

I wandered around the ancient Forum until I was struck with a powerful hunger that could only be satisfied with gelato. Luckily there was a gelato stand a stone's throw away for just such an emergency.

As the guy built my cone we had some chit chat. Then I noticed a police chopper flying overhead.

Then I turned around and there was a phalanx of riot police marching down the street. I had missed it all happening, but the road was also closed now, and there were numerous cop cars and motorcycles cruising around, as well as some of those little police tanks.

“Hot dog!” I thought. “Something's about to happen!”

And soon enough, the reason for all the security was revealed. There was a pro-Palestinian march underway.

I took a place on an island in the middle of the street with two other tourists, so I had a good view of the proceedings.

As the marchers passed by shouting and waving their Arafat banners, we all snapped pictures.

Then in short order a woman approached us, yelling, “No photographs!”

I continued taking pictures until she came close enough to actually put her hand in front of my camera.

“No photos!” she repeated.

“Fine,” I responded. There was an implied “whatever...” in my tone.

Then the lady started to walk away.

She wasn't more than two steps away before another shutter click penetrated the sounds of shouting.

She wheeled around all angry-like and started fussing, “Who did that? Who did that?”

One of the two guys standing next to me actually had the same camera as I did, but he was quick to dime me out.

The photo-shy demonstrator got back in my face and repeated nice and slowly, “What don't you understand? I said, 'No pictures'.”

So I told her that, at her request, I hadn't photographed her, but that I had every intention of photographing the march. Then I waved her away, and she actually left.

I'm a pretty tough talker when there is a wall of cops twenty feet away.

I was perfectly within my rights, though.

I didn't get into a whole thing with her about it, but I'm pretty sure that the point of a public demonstration is to be seen. Why else would they be marching down the main tourist street in one of the premier tourist cities in the world. The Colosseum was just half a block away, for heaven sake. Of course there would be people with cameras, and, of course they would be taking pictures of the spectacle.

Along with the marchers and flag-wavers and speech-makers, there were vendors working the crowd. Many of them were hawking a selection of tasteless t-shirts, perfect for that special extremist in your life.

Once the commotion passed, I walked down to have a look at the Colosseum. I was too late to tour the inside, so I contented myself with looking at the outside.

There were more fat gladiators lurking about, but this time, I thought that one had a good enough costume to justify paying for a photo. I paid him five Euros and told him what I wanted for the photo. I wanted for us to be sitting next to each other on a bench, totally ignoring the camera. There was to be no smiling, no looking at the camera; just sitting there with blank expressions – like we were two Joes who happened to be sitting next to each other on the subway or something.

The gladiator supposedly understood my vision for the photo, and we were all set. I grabbed a passer-by to actually take the photo, and the gladiator and I took our seats.

The lady snapped a shot of us, and the gladiator told her to take a second one for me, on the house.

This seemed like a nice gesture at the time, but as soon as I reviewed the photos, I hated them both. The gladiator apparently hadn't understood the plan at all. Here is what we ended up with: I was sitting on one side, looking indifferent, like we had discussed. The gladiator, however, was sitting on the other side, cheesing it up, looking right in the camera, and giving thumbs-up. He had made a mockery of the whole project, and I was left with no choice but to delete the photos. My faith in costumed human-props-for-hire was shaken to the core, I'm sorry to say.

From the photo shoot, I checked out a church honoring Saint Sebastian, the Italian lad who is almost always portrayed with his body riddled by arrows – a most martyrific pose.

Near the church, there was a silhouette artist who was quite impressive. He could cut any shape out of paper, free form, in only a couple of minutes.

I didn't get a silhouette made, but I did buy a pastel drawing of the Colosseum that an old man produced while I watched. I obviously liked it, but when I later showed my good friend Ambra (an Italian) back in Tel Aviv, she acted like she thought it was tacky. What a kidder!

With my drawing in hand, I walked back to the apartment on a purposely meandering route. The walk wasn't the greatest, though, because the entire time it was raining.

That evening, I poked around Grazioli but didn't find anything terribly interesting to get into. The rain didn't help matters.

The next day, my last full one in Italy, I started by touring Castel Sant'Angelo in the morning.

Then I checked out the Vittorio Emanuele Monument, which included the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. As I walked around the monument, I noticed a few young girls who seemed to be dressed as princesses. I wasn't sure, though, if they were in costume or if they were just wearing frilly dresses. After a minute or two, though, I decided that they were definitely in costume. The young boys in Batman and Spiderman suits left little room for doubt.

I didn't make any effort to uncover the reason for the costumes, so if you know why children in Italy would be dressing-up in mid-February, let me know.

After the Vittorio, I went back to the Colosseum to tour the inside. Then I finished my touring at Santa Maria della Concezione, a church decorated with the bones of 4,000 Capuchin monks. There were several signs posted around the church to alert visitors to the fact that photography was prohibited, and I was truly amazed at the number of tourists who were apparently illiterate.

I finished at the church in early evening and found a restaurant for dinner. It was my final dinner in Rome, and I decided to splurge. I ordered myself a bottle of wine as well as something from every category on the menu. I don't know how many courses I ended up eating that night, but I left with a full stomach and a light wallet. Everything tasted good, though, so it was a nice way to end things.

The next morning, I packed my things, paid the usage fee for the apartment, and trekked down to the train station to catch the Leonardo back to the airport.

By the time I got to the train station, I was on schedule to be at the airport about two and a half hours before my flight, which was good. As I had done when I had arrived, I walked over to one of the ticket sales machines and attempted to purchase a ticket with my MasterCard. It had worked the first time, and I had foolishly assumed it would work again. I was wrong.

I tried every machine at the depot, and my card was rejected each time. To make matters worse, I didn't have any cash on me. I didn't think that I would need it.

None of the shops or restaurants around the station was able to give me cash off my credit card, so I was forced to wait for the sales office at the train station to open.

The office opened late, but my credit card thankfully worked and I was soon on my way.

I wasn't in the clear yet, though. The train ride that was supposed to take 30 minutes took more than an hour. I was experiencing the unreliable Italian rail system that I had heard so much about.

When I finally reached the airport, I sprinted through the terminal and got to the check-in counter only 30 minutes before take-off. Check-in was actually closed at this point, but the man at the counter took pity on me and allowed me to start the process.

As I mentioned earlier, I was flying El Al. This meant that check-in started with a security interview.

Arriving so late for the flight was a red flag itself, so the agent was already a bit suspicious of me. It didn't help things when I answered an early question incorrectly.

When he asked me where I had purchased my ticket, I told him that I had bought it in Tel Aviv. In the computer, however, it showed that I had purchased it in Haifa. I tried to explain that the reason for this discrepancy was that I had purchased the ticket in Tel Aviv from a travel agent who was headquartered in Haifa. Unfortunately, though, I couldn't for the life of me remember the name of the travel agent. It looked like I was making up the story as I went along.

For all my fumbling around, though, I managed to pass the security check. Then I got my boarding pass, and when I reached the gate, I boarded immediately.

And it was smooth sailing from there. No one dropped any books on my head or anything!

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