The Trip to Italy Episode 1: Lost in Rome

Faithful blog readers (hi Judy!), I have a confession to make: I’m not as worldly as this blog makes me sound. (That’s the vibe you’re getting from my posts, right? Not neurotic, indecisive, and generally inept? Good, good.) I have barely traveled out of these United States. Frankly, I’ve been bragging about a 2-week trip to Australia from 9 years ago to cover up an embarrassing dearth of visits abroad. I’m assuming the 2 hours the Dudley family spent on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls doesn’t count. What about the World Showcase at Disney’s Epcot Center? Because I spent 40 minutes waiting in line to ride the “Maelstrom” log flume at the Norway Pavilion in 1990. (Don’t try to find it there; it’s been replaced by “Frozen Ever After.”)

Imagine my surprise, then, when my lovely wife Jen was asked to be the matron of honor at a wedding in Treviso, a midsized city in northern Italy, less than an hour from Venice. After several months of me doing research and updating Jen on my progress (“There’s too much to do! I can’t figure anything out! The gelato places alone will take us months to sift through!”), Jen made the command decision that we’d sign up for a tour with a travel group. There was a 9-day, “Heart of Italy” tour that would take us from Rome to Florence with stops in Tuscany and the Cinque Terre in between, and we’d have to figure out how to get to the wedding site after that.

We took a direct flight from Chicago to Rome. We left on a Monday afternoon and touched down at 9 in the morning on a Tuesday; it was a 9-hour flight with a 7-hour time zone difference. (I’m not saying we time-traveled, but did we just time-travel?!?) We spent a lot of time in the months before the trip learning the most basic of Italian, but you never know what words or phrases you’re going to need until you’re there. Example: How do you say, “Where’s the freaking exit to this airport?” The airport in Rome goes by three names: Rome, Leonardo da Vinci, and Fiumicino; that’s your introduction to how confusing the country can be. When we disembarked from the plane, we followed the rest of the passengers out of the international terminal, past security, and down this narrow, windowless corridor to a T-stop at another corridor. Since there was a bathroom there, we stopped while everyone else turned left and went…somewhere; we didn’t pay attention. After the bathroom, Jen wanted to sit down and have a chocolate bar. (It was 9 in the morning and we had just eaten a breakfast on the plane, but there’s never a bad time for chocolate.) So we spent 15 minutes eating and resting.

Did I mention that we always travel light, so we only had three carry-on bags for the whole trip, wedding clothes included? So there we sat with our bags and our chocolate, when an older American couple walked by, the wife berating the husband, “There’s got to be a way to get out of this airport!” After we finished, we went to the left like everyone else did, and we couldn’t find anyone. Anywhere. No passengers, no workers, a janitor or two but that was it. We came upon these trains that looked like they went far away, but the signs were unclear. So we stood there and waited. And waited. A train came and went, but no one got off of it. So we waited some more. I said to Jen, “Well, we’ve done it: we have failed at traveling. We are going to be stuck in this airport like Tom Hanks in that movie ‘The Terminal’.” She said, “Calm down; we are getting on the next train regardless of where it goes.” And of course, as anyone who travels knows, the train took us from the international terminal to the rest of the airport, where we hustled through security and took a bus to Rome. Whew! Otherwise, this would have been a short, sad blog post.

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View from Castle Sant’Angelo of Tiber River and St. Peter’s Basilica. In front of St. Peter’s and just outside the entrance to the head of the Roman Catholic church is a massive blue 4-story ad for the Samsung Galaxy. Welcome to the Vatican!

Our neighbors had visited Rome a month before we did, and they suggested that we go to the Castel Sant’Angelo for great city views. We dropped our bags at our hotel, near the entrance to the Vatican Museums, and walked the half mile over to the castle. Built around the year 130 AD, it was originally the tomb for the emperor Hadrian. Subsequently, it’s been a fortress, a castle, and now a museum. It’s right on the banks of the Tiber River. Jen noticed a nice bridge with Baroque statues on it (the Pons Aelius, also originally built in the 100s but with the statue additions in the 1500s) that was heading east toward the city center, so we walked across it and kept walking through Rome’s winding streets.

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The Altar to the Fatherland, also known as the “Wedding Cake.” There were soldiers and guards all around it; anytime someone went to sit on a portion of it, a guard would start blowing their whistle repeatedly while another would yell something in Italian, presumably, “Get off the cake!” or something similar.

Our neighbor had warned us that it’s easy to get lost in Rome, so we should take taxis or the subway (called the Metro). Oh, come on! Did he think we were two rubes who couldn’t even find their way out of an airport? So we promptly got lost. Seriously lost. Lots of stopping and consulting a map, staring at my phone, which never seemed to work, and wandering aimlessly. We didn’t even know how to ask where we were in Italian. We did, however, walk with purpose. That was something a friend told us, to avoid pickpockets and thieves: walk with purpose! (Also, to avoid pickpockets, I bought a money belt that went around my waist and tucked under my pants, so I kept hundreds of euros in my groin area at all times.) We walked with purpose in circles around the same buildings. Honestly, until we got home from the whole trip and did some research on the city, I couldn’t figure out where we had gone. Turns out we were in the Capitoline Hill area; we walked by the original Circus Maximus (very cool), the Theatre of Marcellus, and the 20th-century structure the Altar of the Fatherland, or the Victor Emmanuel monument, honoring the first king of a united Italy. Its nickname is the Birthday Cake because it’s the only bright white monument in an area of the city where all the buildings are brown.

Eventually, we found our way to the Baths of Diocletian, which was high on my list of must-sees. It’s the largest of the imperial baths, and one of the last still standing, built around 300 AD. The enormity of it is hard to explain, and a portion of it was converted into a church designed by Michelangelo in the 16th century. Frankly, we were underwhelmed. The main building is like a large, empty warehouse with a few statues scattered about, and a section of the original mosaic floor was protected under plexiglass. It was hard to imagine what it was like when in use. I kept saying, “Where’s the really cool part by Michelangelo?” but we couldn’t find it. We went home disappointed. Later on the trip, I mentioned this to some people in our tour group, and they were like, “You had to go around the block to a different entrance.” So we went back, and it was definitely a highlight.

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It’s difficult to snap a few photos and do justice to the enormity of the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri, which, as massive as it is, is housed in only one portion of the incredibly huge Baths of Diocletian complex.

IMG_7778The second day of the trip was the official start of the tour. If you’ve never done a group tour, you have to get used to being shepherded around like cattle. When we went out on the city streets or into museums, we were required to wear these listening devices with earbuds so that we could hear our guide at all times. We’d be walking in a neighborhood, and our guide would be giving a running commentary: “That church building over there has a Giotto painting in it; there’s a great gelato place two blocks down. Now we are going to cross the street, so everyone crowd together. The car that took out the last four stragglers of our group is a 1984 Fiat Fiorino.” Etc. I thought I wouldn’t like being on a tour, but it took a lot of guesswork and stress out of the trip. We just showed up in the hotel lobby in the ┬ámorning, and the rest of the day was laid out for us. All breakfasts and half our dinners were included; the rest of the time, we were on our own for meals.

Jen and I were acquainted with a couple on the trip who was also going to our friend’s wedding; they signed up for the tour based on our recommendation. We made the mistake of trusting their restaurant choices the first few times we were on our own for meals. They invited us out to dinner to a restaurant near our hotel that had really high Yelp reviews. We were thinking, great, an authentic Italian restaurant, not one aimed at tourists. When we got there, the name of the restaurant was “Spaghetti.” Yes, “Spaghetti.” You couldn’t have chosen a more ridiculous name for a restaurant in the whole country, unless you were looking to attract American tourists: “I wish there was a place to eat that was bland and had food that I would recognize as watered-down Italian-American fare. Hey, wait a minute, look at that neon sign…”

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Villa Borghese, built in the 1600s by Borghese family, houses an extensive collection of art and painted ceilings. The park itself is massive; yes, we got lost trying to find our way around it.

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One of the ceilings in the Villa Borghese gallery. Note two things: (1) the edges of the painted ceiling look like statues that hang over onto the wall, and (2) I just shaved my nose hairs, thank goodness.

Was it the worst meal I’ve had? No. But we got a little spoiled on this trip by our tour guide’s choices for restaurants. After a day full of walking around Rome seeing amazing sights (Villa Borghese, an amazing museum in a massive park; Catacombs of Priscilla, an underground labyrinth of burial chambers with frescoes, including the first depiction of the Madonna and child in the history of art; the Spanish Steps; the Trevi Fountain; the Pantheon, built in 126 AD by the emperor Hadrian; and the amazing Piazza Navona), our guide took us to this tiny little family-owned restaurant hidden away on a dead-end street. The meal’s courses kept coming at us, and the red and white wines kept being replenished. (I don’t drink, so it was wasted on me.) Dessert was tiramisu. I’m not a fan of tiramisu, and I don’t like the flavor of coffee. This extra-large piece was placed in front of us, and I picked up my fork and said, “Well, I’ll try just one little piece; it’s not like I’m going to enjoy it or any–OH MY GOD! This is the best thing I’ve ever eaten!” Yes, it was that good. It slipped down my throat like nothing I’ve ever had; there was less a coffee flavor and more of a strong dark-chocolate taste. I was ready to finish off Jen’s piece because she also dislikes coffee and hates cakes, but she ate her own piece all by herself and didn’t save any for me. What a jerk!

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Me in Vatican City. They refused to stamp my passport. They had all sorts of excuses, like “only the papal authorities can authorize that,” and “you must request an extended-stay visa to obtain the stamp,” and “sir, this is a gift shop.”

The next day was a tour of the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica. (Vatican City is another country altogether! Strange, it looked just like Italy.) When you walk in the neighborhood around the Vatican, there are all these people trying to sell tourists on “special” tours of the Vatican (or of any touristy sites). They try talking to you in whatever language they think you speak; they usually know several languages. For some odd reason, they kept guessing that Jen and I were Spaniards and would sidle up to us speaking Spanish. In a restaurant, too, a waiter spoke to us in Spanish, so we had to ask him if he spoke English. Why the confusion? We’re not sure. Was it because we weren’t dressed like slobs? (To fit all our clothes in carry-ons, we went dressy-casual.) Because we were skinny? Because we weren’t belligerent? Coincidentally, at the wedding, we met a Spaniard. He was taller and handsomer than me, he had an operatic voice, and his beard had its own Twitter account (probably). Other than that, sure, we could have been twinsies.

After our Vatican visit, we had the night to ourselves (i.e., they weren’t providing dinner for us), so Jen and I headed out for some sightseeing on our own. This was when we actually found the Michelangelo-designed portion of the Baths of Diocletian that was turned into a church (official name: Santa Maria degli Angeli), and we wandered into the National Museum of Rome, which had some amazing statuary, plus a whole wing devoted to a 2000-year-old home found preserved in mud along the Tiber River; the walls were sliced off and reconstructed in the museum, so you could walk into, say, a girl’s bedroom with its birds and flowers on the wall and see what it was like to live in the time of the Roman emperors.

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The Piazza Navona. This fountain is the Fontana del Moro, or Fountain of the Moor. The center statue is of a Moor wrestling with a dolphin. Sometimes we’d be listening to our guide and think, “Fascinating. Wait, did he say ‘a Moor wrestling with a dolphin’?!?”

That evening, we went to a restaurant in the Sallustiano neighborhood. The restaurant, recommended in our guidebook, was memorable but not for how good the food was. Jen ordered “potato-crusted salmon,” wondering aloud how exactly the crust would be formed with potatoes. When the waiter (who thought we were Spaniards and began the meal with a torrent of Spanish words we couldn’t follow) presented the dish with a flourish, we both burst out laughing: a more accurate term for the dish would have been “potato chip-encrusted salmon.” And the potato chips weren’t even crumbled: there were about 15 of them placed on top of the fish. Ponderous.

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The infamous potato chip-encrusted salmon dish.

Instead of taking the Metro home, we decided to take an evening stroll. Two things about walking at night in Italy: (1) everyone eats dinner later than in the States, so there are a lot of people on the streets at night, and (2) crime is much less common than in the States, so the safety/comfort level is higher. Anyway, after about 10 minutes of walking (with purpose!), we passed through the Piazza Barberini, with its Bernini-designed fountain, and saw a Metro stop. “Should we take it?” Jen asked. “No,” I said, “even though we’ve gotten lost in Rome during the day, I’m feeling confident about our sense of direction now.” So on we walked. And walked. After 30 more minutes, I was like, “Where in Jupiter’s name are we?!?” The streets are so winding, and there’s no grid system; you want to go west, so you take a narrow street that curves southwest, then it dead-ends onto a street that heads northwest, then you come to a crossroad, and you’re not sure if it’s north-south or east-west (or which direction left and right will take you anyway).

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How to look like a Spaniard in Europe: (1) dress more nicely than if you were washing your car in your driveway; (2) wear stylish shoes (even if they are New Balance); (3) dangle a strawberry from your belt.

To compound matters, I drank a lot of “acqua naturale” (bottled water) at the restaurant, and I had to pee really badly. Here’s a fun fact about Italy: they don’t have free restrooms, unless you pay to get in somewhere, such as a museum or restaurant. Everyone told me to be prepared to pay a euro at a public restroom or buy something to eat or drink at a restaurant in order to pee. Also, don’t just walk into a hotel and ask to use their restroom. Well, this was an emergency. Now it was dark, we were exhausted and lost, and I had to go to the bathroom. We came upon this ancient wall. “Is this the old city wall that we saw near the Villa Borghese?” Jen asked. “Or is it the old wall near the Vatican?” I said, “I don’t know, but I’m thinking of peeing on it.” Jen said, “Absolutely not! I do not want to see you get arrested for public urination in another country!” So I held it. We walked on (well, I skipped and danced along; you know how it is when you need to pee). We followed the wall one way and then another for a while before abandoning that idea. We had earlier walked along an S-curved road for a bit and passed some ritzy hotels; I suggested that we head back that way. After an hour of trudging through Rome, on the way past one of the hotels, I made the command decision to bolt inside and ask to use their bathroom. (It was either that or the dumpster in their alley.) I think the concierge thought I was a hotel guest (or a Spaniard), so she ushered me down a flight of stairs and to this exclusive, richly detailed private restroom. When I came out, she asked if there was anything else I needed assistance with, and I said, “Can you point me to the nearest Metro stop?” “Sure,” she said, “just go down this S-curve and you will come to the nearest stop, which is–” I interrupted, “Don’t tell me: the Piazza Barberini stop.”

Here’s the thing about the Roman Metro: It’s fairly efficient and clean, but there aren’t many branches of it. Apparently, when you spend 5000 years building a city on top of itself, you’re not going to have an easy time tunneling through the previous versions of the city when it comes time to build a subway. But it was convenient for our purposes. We fell into this pattern where we would walk to a Metro station, Jen would purchase tickets with coins at the ticket kiosk, then she’d hold them until we got to the entry gates, then give me a ticket just before we entered. Anyway, one time she bought tickets, then we rode two long escalators deep into the bowels of the station to get to the gates. When we got there, she pulled the tickets out of her pocket, handed me one, and used hers first. I went to use mine, and it got rejected; the gate wouldn’t open. I tried again: nothing. She tried to walk back and reach over the gate to me, but, as was common throughout Rome, there were two members of the Italian army standing next to her with semi-automatic weapons. They told her (in Italian) that she couldn’t approach the gates. She explained (in broken Italian) that I was her husband. They pointed to another ticket kiosk behind me. Luckily, I had a few coins in my pocket (and hundreds of euros near my groin, of course), so I bought another ticket, which worked. While we were sitting on the subway train, Jen pulled a bunch of used tickets out of her pocket, and one unused one. “Oh,” she said, “it dawned on me that I gave you an expired ticket. That is funny.” I said, “Hilarious. I’m sure the army snipers with their itchy trigger fingers found it just as humorous.”

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The Colosseum. Note the earbuds we were forced to wear throughout our walking tours. Right then, our guide was saying something like, “In order to respect local customs and historical-site rules, please do not take selfies on the floor of the Colosseum.” Or something like that, I wasn’t really listening.

On our last day in Rome, we did a tour of the Colosseum and the Roman Forum area. We were one of the select groups allowed to process through the gladiator’s entrance. Then we found out that, for the most part, the gladiators were more like professional wrestlers and that they didn’t really battle to the death. That was a buzzkill. Anyway, it was neat. Then, after I used the free restroom (several times, to be safe), we were herded onto a touring bus and rolled out of Rome, headed for the hills of Tuscany. That’ll be covered in my next blog post (spoiler alert: we get lost there, too).

Amazing: I made it through this whole retelling without once resorting to a cheap “when in Rome” joke. I’m not saying that three paragraphs about my peeing issues was a step up from that type of humor, but still…