Saturday, 1 September 2018
My hotel in Rome was Hotel Dei Consoli. It is a privately family owned boutique hotel. In fact, I got the opportunity to meet the owner.
Roman Street Food
After washing up in my room, I hit the streets for some Roman street food. I was starving. My destination was Trappizino, a new chain in Italy. Trappizino is like taking a pizza and turning it inside out. It is a pocket of pizza dough filled with all sorts of goodness like cheese and tomato sauce and pepperoni. Thankfully, it is only a five-minute walk from my hotel. I chose a chicken version. If I had the opportunity to order again, I would order one with tomato sauce and cheese. The chicken version did not have sauce.
I tried to use my broken Italian with the staff and was instructed to walk a way down the counter. There, one of the guys rang me up and gave me a receipt. I then took the receipt and walked back to tell the sandwich maker what I wanted to eat. I’ve got to say it was tasty. Tasty and affordable? I’ll take it. My trappizino cost €4.00.
Now that I’ve fed, it’s time to explore Roma. Back I go to the Metro. The subway is €1.50 a trip and doesn’t have to worry about traffic lights and vehicle congestion. I use public transportation daily in my life in Philly. I’ve used subways in NYC, Paris, DC, London, Copenhagen, Stockholm. If I can navigate the London tube, I can handle Rome’s 2 subway lines. They all use the same principles. I emerge from the Cavour metro stop.
I have a confession to make. I belong to a cult. The cult of Rick Steves. I done drank the Kool-Aid. There are certain principles of philosophy that we in the cult believe in when it comes to travel. Joining a Rick Steves tour puts you in a category of traveler as opposed to tourist. When on a Rick Steves tour, the hotels are independently run, non-chain affairs. Boutique hotels have character, if not charm. You will not be staying in a cookie cutter corporate entity like a Marriott or a Holiday Inn. The location is a critical factor in the choice of hotel. The hotels used by Rick Steves are located near the sights you will be exploring. Other tour companies will use hotels on the outskirts of town. Choosing a location that’s closer to the action saves you time to do the things you want to be doing as opposed to commuting.
The Hotel Dei Consoli definitely had character. Just what the doctor ordered. Since I was a solo traveler, my room was tiny, but my bed was a nice, large, queen size bed. I was totally prepared for a twin, so this was a nice benefit. The furnishings of a hotel used by a Rick Steves tour provide character. When I entered my hotel room I was thrilled. No sterile, boring corporate décor for me, no sir. In fact, my bathroom included a bidet. I’ve had a bidet in a hotel room before. Rarely, but it has happened. This time, however, I used the bidet. A bidet looks like something akin to a toilet except it is designed to clean those bits that are below the waist. I found the experience to be civilized. It made me feel fresh. Why don’t American homes have bidets?
The front entrance to the Hotel Dei Consoli
What I saw when I looked out of my window at the Hotel Dei Consoli
The front entrance to the Hotel Dei Consoli
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Introduction to Rome
My destination was the Capitoline Museum. In trying to find the museum, there were several times that I zigged when I should have zagged. I was super close to my target, yet it evaded me for what seemed like an eternity. In hindsight, it turns out I passed the museum a couple of times. It is tucked away in a little nook next to the Victor Emmanuel II monument. Every day, multiple times a day, I would encounter street performers in Rome. At home in Philly, we have the same thing but there is a vast difference in quality. In Philadelphia, I more than likely would want to shoot the performer because they are so lousy. Here, in Rome, I can enjoy it. On my way I encountered an odd musical group performing out on the street. What made them odd was the types of instruments. 10 clarinets, a saxophone and an accordion. Definitely entertaining, but quite the amateur hour. At least it made my hunt for the museum more enjoyable and palatable. This hunt for the museum was a big wow moment for me. All around me was incredible beauty and layers upon layers of history. This was the moment when I really felt like I was in Rome. New York might be the Big Apple, but Roma is a slice of lasagna; just layer after layer of history surrounding me.
The Capitoline Museum was a sculpture museum. Sculpture is my favorite medium of fine art. You are able you get to explore a subject in 360°. Often, I feel like sculpture seems more alive. Much of the sculpture was secular in nature. Historical figures were immortalized in marble or plaster. Since I enjoy history, it was especially gratifying to see busts of Homer. Other subjects were rooted in Greek or Roman mythology. Once I had my fill, I discovered a wedding was taking place in the wing of the museum. The attendees were all dressed sharp and I assume if you are having your wedding ceremony at this museum you must have some serious cash. You are in a whole other tax bracket.
After my time at the Capitoline Museum I walked through the streets of Rome. There I discovered the Casa Romana Dell’Ara Coeli. How it has survived all these centuries is a miracle. While most of it has not, what little remains is super cool.
The Vittorio Emmanuel II monument gets a lot of mocking. It has a number of nicknames, the most popular seems to be “the wedding cake”. I love it! I have a natural penchant towards “over the top”. This design scale is humongous.
As part of my information that I received about my tour I was told what popular sights our group would not visit. I figured if I was visiting Rome, I should see the Spanish Steps. My thinking was it would provide good people watching. Just like at home in Rittenhouse Square, I got the opportunity to wind down and check out the world around me. It was a stop and smell the roses kind of moment. I typically fail to remember to do just that. Besides the people I discovered when I reached the top of the steps it was magic hour. The sun was setting over the Roman horizon. It happened so quickly!!
Dining Al Fresco
Ok, Roma, time to show off what you do best. Time to eat! Today is all about street food. Not too far from the Spanish Steps is a little take out place that makes homemade pasta, called Pastificio ditta Guerra dal 1918. Most of what they sell is pasta for you to take home to make yourself. But they also had about 3 types of prepared pasta dishes for you to take out. In my mind I figured 1 etto would be not enough food to eat for dinner. So I asked for due etti. Oh Mamma Mia! So much food! What was I thinking?! Well, my room at the hotel has a fridge. Guess I’ll be having cold leftover pasta sometime in the near future. (P.S. that's exactly what I did in the middle of the night when I couldn't sleep due to jet lag.)The pasta had a simple tomato sauce. The dish was nothing outstanding but definitely fit the bill. Plus, it was very affordable. I took my plastic containers in a white paper bag and chowed down on the steps of Basilica dei SS Ambrogio e Carlo. As I relaxed and devoured as much pasta as I could, a troupe of old school break dancers performed in front of me. Dinner and a show!
Once dinner is over, guess what time it is…Gelato time! I grabbed a cup of the house specialty at Il Gelato di San Crispino, the honey flavor along with a scoop of caramel. It was just what the doctor ordered. The honey flavor was incredible. If you go here, I highly recommend getting it. Truly a special treat to start my adventures in Italia. Frequently in Rome at gelaterias you see huge mounds of gelato in bright colors to attract consumers. Not this place. No sign of gelato at all. Just metal pots with metal lids. This place prides itself on quality gelato and doesn’t need garish displays.
Photo Gallery: Roma di Notte
More Classic Rome
Trevi Fountain was nearby. I thought I would check it out. What a mob scene! At least 10 rows of people went back from the fountain. I can not handle large crowds. They get on my last nerve. I could only stay for a few minutes and then it was time to head back to the hotel.
Once back at the hotel I laundered my dirty clothes and used my hand Rick Steves laundry rope to hang dry overnight.
What an amazing introduction to Roma and Italia. Tomorrow starts day one with my Rick Steves Heart of Italy tour.
This app allows you to track your spending so you will be able to stick to a budget and therefore save money. Enter your expenses as they happen. I started with my total budget for the vacation as the income. You can categorize your spending which allows you to see what are you spending your money on.
App of the Day
Sunday, 2 September 2018
Rome at Dawn
Ugh! Jet lag just beats me up and I have a horrible time trying to sleep. Eventually, I just gave up trying to sleep and went down a rabbit hole watching YouTube videos on my phone, and then I tried journaling for a bit. Finally, I decided to take advantage of my sleeplessness and get some pictures of the neighborhood with the dawn light. Too bad it is so overcast. Please, rain, please go away! It was so quiet in the city in the hour of the rising sun. Hardly anyone was out and about. In wandering I was able to walk around Castel Sant’Angelo and approach San Pietro Basilica. I don’t know if the Pope was having sleep issues too. I did not see him waving at me from a window.
The sun rises and I head back to the hotel to have breakfast up on the terrace of the hotel at 7 am. A nice, big spread was provided with all sorts of goodies. I had a plate of salumi and cheese, fruit juice with vitamins, banana yogurt, a cup of tea, and an incredible slice of chocolate cake. Hey, I’m on vacation! For me, that means doing things and eating things I wouldn’t normally have. The buffet was quite extensive and should satisfy any American. I was just expecting some pastry and coffee which is what a typical Roman breakfast from what I understand. Having breakfast on the terrace was great and I loved the view. There was even a part that you could see the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in the near distance. While I was enjoying my meal other guests of the hotel wandered in. At one table I noticed a Rick Steves Italy 2018 guidebook sitting out. So I introduced myself since this couple MUST be a part of my tour group. And they were! Linda and Bud were a great duo to meet at first. Also, it helped to only have to remember two names as opposed to twenty. They were really nice and we exchanged notes about our flights, arrivals, and what we had done so far. I had to leave because I had already booked a tour.
Enjoying breakfast on the terrace of Hotel Dei Consoli
Photo Gallery: Rome at Dawn
Bike Tour of the Appian Way
Once I finished my breakfast, I took the subway to the Coloseo stop. Before leaving home, I had booked a bike tour of the Appian Way with Top Bike. Top Bike is about a five minute walk from the subway. When I emerged from underground and reached the surface, I got the WOW moment of seeing the Colosseum. It is huge! More about the Colosseum later. I was the first to arrive and got outfitted with an electronic assist bike, helmet, and a bottle of water. I even got there before my guide. While waiting I was soon joined by a nice couple. Our ten-person group was rounded out by a family of five with three young boys all under the age of 9 and their grandfather. My tour guide was Alessandro who was a friendly guy in his twenties. I kind of felt like using an electronic assist bike was cheating. Most of the time I had it on the lowest setting. However, it did come in handy when I had to cross a city street quickly before the traffic light changed or if we stopped to hear Alessandro discuss historical background on a site and to start up again on a steep incline. Biking is a great way to see a destination. You learn about a place and get exercise and fresh air. I think we all worked up a sweat since it was in the mid-80’s and sunny.
Along the way we encountered numerous burial mounds, mausoleums, and graves. It was as if the famous families of Rome were using the Appian Way to promote themselves. We discovered one of the last remaining aqueducts. They supplied Rome with a constant source of fresh water and allowed for regular bathing in addition to fresh water to drink. You could see that over time different types of stones have been used to create the road as we biked along. The Appian Way is like the first super highway. It runs from Rome to Brindisi in basically a straight line for some 350 miles. It started in 312 BC and accommodated all kinds of traffic of carts, pedestrians, and animal powered vehicles.
I absolutely LOVED the tour. My tour guide was knowledgeable and friendly. He was a font of information. I felt like he had so much to share and just not enough time to share it all. He was patient, and most importantly clearly concerned about our safety. The three boys had a great time. They didn’t care so much about the history, but definitely got a kick out of biking in Italy. If you like being active, then this is a MUST DO event and it was in the top 5 things that I enjoyed as part of my adventure. It just blows me away that I am travelling down a road that people have used for thousands of years. I only had four hours for this tour. If you can spare six hours you get to visit underground mass catacombs and have a bit of a wine break. My tour included Caffarella Park, a preserved strip of countryside, Aurelian Walls, Tomb of Caecilia Metella, and the aqueduct park.
Photo Gallery of the Appian Way Bike Tour
Once the bike tour was over, I wandered around taking some photographs. A great vantage point to get shots of the Colosseum was Parco del Colle Oppio. It has a bit of elevation from the streets that surround the Colosseum. I had a bit of time before meeting my Rick Steves tour, so I got some great pictures and then stopped to get my gelato of the day. Today’s gelato stop was Gelateria dell’Angeleto. I enjoyed la crema with dark chocolate fondente. I could get used to living like this very quickly. Delicioso!
Heart of Italy Tour Begins
I was the first person up on the terrace of the hotel for our tour meeting. I surprised my tour guide, Elena. I greeted her in Italian. Soon my other tour mate filed in and we all sat at small four top tables. Next to sit down at my table was Cherie and John. We hit it off immediately. Cherie and I are chatterboxes and we were excited. It was great getting to know each other. Finally, Debbie sat with us and the conversation flowed. Elena started our meeting by going around the room and introducing ourselves and answering the questions “Why a Rick Steves tour?” and “Why Heart of Italy?”. Our group consisted of many longtime Europe Through the Back Door followers and viewers. A good number had been on a Rick Steves tour before, including myself. Once introductions were finished, we had a snack and beverage break during which Elena took our pictures. She later distributed a sheet with our pictures and our names. I found this to be so helpful to try and learn people’s names without having to wear nametags. We also received an audio system that hangs on a lanyard that you wear on your neck. It comes with ear buds, but I used my own since they are more comfortable. This is so we can hear what our tour guide is saying as we travel in noisy environments. So incredibly helpful!
Our tour begins! We divide up into smaller groups. Elena has ordered a fleet of taxi cabs to take us to the Pantheon. Elena gave each group an envelope of cash to pay for the cab ride. At the Pantheon we were going to use the Rick Steves’ app that has a guided tour of the Pantheon on it. I had trouble downloading the app at the hotel terrace. But I did have a split wire that I could use to plug in two sets of ear buds. So Cherie and I were tied together via wires and her phone. The temple/church was utterly amazing!
Pantheon Photo Gallery
By now, I, like everyone else was ready for dinner. Half of the lunches/dinners on a Rick Steves tour are done as a group and is arranged ahead of time by our guide. Elena chose Origano which is a short walk away from the Pantheon. Dinner started with antipasti filled with salumi, mozzarella, and provolone. I had something like a fried artichoke appetizer with a salad and cantaloupe wrapped with prosciutto. I’m not picky about wine so I was perfectly happy with a bottle of Umbrian Azzera Biancospino Grechetto. There was no shortage of pasta. I had both rigatoni in a tomato sauce and a spaghetti in a cream sauce. Dessert was a tiramisu. I told everyone that I am going to recommend to the Rick Steves company that following dinners they should have wheelbarrows waiting outside the restaurant to wheel us to our next destination. It was a lot of yummy food and I made a pig out of myself. That’s what I do on vacation. I don’t understand people who get something like a spa menu when on a vacation. What fun is that!? The first dinner was probably the time when our tour group really became a jovial, fun loving traveling family. There was lots of laughter and the wine was flowing.
Origano Photo Gallery
.Tom, Linda, and Elena stroll along as we take the Heart of Rome walking tour
Bud devours his gelato
The next best thing to getting carted off by a wheelbarrow must be to walk it off. This is exactly what we did. We did Elena’s version of the Rick Steves’ Heart of Rome walk. Highlights included Piazza Navona, the 4 rivers fountain, the Trevi Fountain, and the Spanish Steps. Thankfully on this evening there were far fewer crowds which made for a far more enjoyable experience for us. Elena poured an encyclopedia of knowledge into our willing ears.
When Elena suggested we stop into one of her favorite gelaterias I didn’t argue. Somehow I squeezed in a cone of tiramisu and chocolato flavors into my tummy. I believe Valentino was at the top of my list of gelato shops during this trip. As you will discover I had a lot of gelato. Since I was having a gelato a day, I thought it would be fun to find what was my favorite gelato shop in Italy. But mid-way through I realized to do it the right way I really should have had the same flavors each time for quality control. I guess for you, my gentle readers, I will make the sacrifice and revisit Italy to find the best gelateria in all of Italy.
My gelato cone. Obviously I could not wait to enjoy my sweet treat before taking this photo
Rick Steves Tour Guides
The role of a guide is a make it or break it proposition. They either can make it a once in a lifetime experience or they can ruin it for you. The quality of the guides at Rick Steves is stellar. My suspicion is he can attract top quality guides by paying them what they are worth with a decent salary. They do not get kickbacks from shopping excursions and the like and do not receive tip money. My lead guide for this experience was everything I wanted in a guide. Elena was chock full of information. What’s it like to grow up in Italy? What’s the educational system like? You learn about more than just who designed the Trevi fountain. She was warm, friendly, charming, and sweet. You would love for her to be a member of your family. Plus, she added humor into the mix. Of course, I felt it helped that she grew up in Venice and lives there today. There were things that she did for our group that I’m not quite sure how she did it. Next time I decide to go to Italy I’m calling up the Rick Steves tour office and finding out when she is leading tours and I’m setting my tour dates around her schedule so I can be on tour with her. She’s that good.
Elena, tour guide extraordinaire
Who knows a place better than its residents? This app offers a community for locals to share their opinions and recommendations on where to eat, drink, and play. Travelers can now experience a city like a local. It helped with my pre-planning for Rome and Florence.
App of the Day.
As the saying goes, if you toss a coin over your shoulder into the Trevi Fountain you are assured a return to Rome. Once the Heart of Rome walk was over it was time to call it a day and try and see if I could overcome the effects of jet lag.
Monday, 3 September 2018
Today is the day that my Rick Steves Heart of Italy tour begins. At the beginning of each day of the tour, my tour guide, Elena, posts a sheet in the hotel’s reception area that outlines our schedule for the day. It includes what we need to have on our person and what we need to be prepared for. She encouraged our group to each take a picture of the sheet each day so if we needed our memory to be jogged, we had it as a reference. Just as she posted it for me, I am going to share an image of the daily sheet for each day. Well, until I got distracted and forgot to take the picture at the end of the tour. But anyway, here you are.
After enjoying a leisurely breakfast at the hotel terrace, our group gathered to walk with Elena to meet our first local guide, Ilaria. In addition to our lead guide, Rick Steves tours employ local guides who have expertise in a destination. If you’ve lived most of your life in the city of Rome, it makes sense that you would know things that our guide from Venezia would not. Also, different personalities of guides add another layer of experience. Ilaria, our local guide was excellent at gauging at how much information our little tribe could handle. Too much and my eyes glaze over and my mind wanders elsewhere. We met her outside of Vatican City. She was our guide for the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel, and the Vatican Basilica. My favorite part of her talk was how she broke down the paintings of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. It was early in the morning when we arrived at Vatican City. We were among the first groups to queue up for entry. Even still, we waited I’d say 20 minutes for entry. While there, Ilaria entertained me with commentary about Rome. For example, she explained there is less smoking in Rome these days. Why? Because Romans love their cell phones. They would need three hands to smoke. One hand to hold the phone, one hand to gesture, and the third to hold the phone. Today we only received greatest hits of Vatican City. There is so much to take in. And so many people. This place attracts five million people a year. I think I would need a week to see all that I would want to see. At one point we all sat on benches in a park while she broke down the paintings of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel.
Ilaria, my local guide to Vatican City
Sitting on benches outside of the Vatican Museum
I wished I could have had further discussions about the Sistine Chapel. I just didn’t think it was appropriate to take up group time for me talking in depth with our local guide. I had seen a Ted Talk in which an art historian posited an interesting alternative viewpoint about the ceiling that puts a different spin on the relationship between god, man, and woman. Specifically, the panel of Adam and God as the spark is about to be imparted. Who is in God’s other arm? Eve. She’s not an after thought. She’s part of the plan. Eve has always been in his mind. Look at how intimate she is with God that her hand curls around his arm. So this representation of the human drama was always about men and women so much so that the dead center of the ceiling is the creation of woman, not Adam. When you see them together in Eden, they fall together. Since the Catholic church in my lifetime hasn’t been the most egalitarian when it comes to its treatment of women, I thought this interpretation of the Sistine Chapel ceiling was compelling.
The dome of St. Peter's Basilica
Nothing can prepare you for how immense San Pietro’s Basilica is. So crazy! There are markings on the floor that show you where inside the basilica would major cathedrals from around the world would fit inside San Pietro’s. Because we got to Vatican City so early it was not terribly crowded.
Photos of the Vatican Museum
After Ilaria and Elena finished taking us around we all had free time to explore Rome on our own. For me, it was time to hit the heights. If there was a high vantage point, I wanted to go up. First on my agenda was to climb the dome of the basilica and see Rome from the top. On my way, I ran into my friends from home, David and Channing. They were about to enter the basilica. Even though we knew we both were in Italy at the same time, it still was incredible for me to see someone from home. We chatted for a few minutes and discussed seeing each other later. San Pietro’s dome does have an elevator. I took it part way. It was a great decision not because of the physical demands of climbing that many stairs. It was because of the nature of the stairway. The stairway was slanted so the whole time your body is leaning and climbing at the same time. I felt rather absurd. Atop the dome, the vantage point to see Vatican City and the city of Rome beyond is incredible. And there is still more artwork up on that roof!