All Roads Lead to Rome

Trip Start Oct 20, 2012
Trip End Nov 02, 2012

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Flag of Italy  , Lazio,
Sunday, October 21, 2012

After more than a year and a half of saving and planning and almost twenty-four hours of traveling, we flew into Rome on Sunday, October 21st. Well...technically we flew into Fiumicino and took a short train ride into Rome.  But the point is that we arrived!  Siamo arrivati!

The Leonardo Express dumped us out into the sprawling Roma Termini, Rome's central train and transportation hub. Over the span of our four days in Rome, we ended up spending a lot of time in this place, and I don't think we ever saw the exterior of it. I couldn't identify this building in a lineup if my life depended on it. In addition to being a national and international train station, the Termini also functions as the central subway hub, where the red and blue lines of the Roma Metro intersect. From the time we stepped off the airport train and the time we stepped on the metro line, we were there for about two hours, standing in one line or another, trying to sort out our train passes and tickets for our trip and winding our way through three or four levels of hallways and escalators to find the right train. We traveled light, relatively speaking. Each of us carried a backpacking style backpack along with a messenger style carry-on bag. The size and weight of one's luggage ceases to matter after awhile--when standing in line for what feels like eternity, anyone would end up sore, tired, and cranky. If they can figure out a better system to help travelers with information, then this place would be phenomenal. Let's just call this the DMV-like portion of our Italian experience.

Eventually, we made our way down to the subway level and hopped our first metro train out to our hotel in the Numidio Quadrato. Our hotel, the Rome City Guest House, was located just a short walk from the subway stop in a largely residential area of the city. For anyone wanting to visit Rome without spending a fortune while still enjoying the necessities, I highly recommend this hotel. The room was great, the balcony was nice, and they served a delicious continental breakfast daily. The biggest draw, though, was the staff. They were amazing!  I heard the front desk staff speak at least four different languages one day, switching from one to another fairly fluidly depending on the nationality of the guest. Any question I had, they answered, and if requested, they would make reservations and phone calls for you--anything you needed.  

We only had a few hours of daytime left at this point, but there was one thing on our tourist agenda for the afternoon:  the Via Appia Antica aka the Appian Way. After getting directions from our front desk clerk, we headed out into the wilds of Rome.

On first sight, visitors might think Rome looks a little gritty or dirty, but I think that impression is a little misleading. We found the city to be fairly clean, for the most part. However, there's graffiti everywhere, and I mean that literally. I'm pretty certain that if you stood still for more than five minutes, you'd end up covered in graffiti, too. Some of it is the normal 'tagging' you see in a lot of American cities, but there is also some fantastic artwork to be found lurking around in the guise of mere graffiti. My theory:  this might just be the modern outlet for the age-old Italian artistic creativity. If Raphael or Michelangelo were alive today, who is to say that they wouldn't have started with cans of spray paint in their hands rather than brushes or chisels?

Logistical tip:  if you ever plan to visit Rome, make use of their subway system, the metro.  Currently it only has two lines, the A (red) and B (blue). I believe there is a C line under construction. Do not try the buses. Let me repeat that:  DO NOT RIDE THE BUS. You will get nowhere fast. We used the metro to make our way to San Giovanni in Laterano, where we were told we'd find the bus to take us to the Via Appia Antica. Once arriving in the piazza, we ran into a few issues. Problem #1:  what does a bus stop look like in Rome? It sure doesn't look like a bus stop in Little Rock, Arkansas. Problem #2:  unless you have been told explicitly what bus number you need and where it goes, you will never end up in the right spot. Problem #3 (which we discovered later):  it can sometimes take 45 minutes before a bus with room for passengers will come along even if you do find the right bus and the right spot.  

Eventually, the bus dropped us off at the beginning of the Via Appia Antica, and we began our walk on the ancient road. Shortly into our walk, starving and tired, we hesitated when we passed in front of a small trattoria tucked away next to another building. We were coasting on fumes at this point, so we took a chance and stepped inside. What do you get when you throw two green Americans into a local restaurant (read: all locals, no tourists) armed with only a handful of Italian words and up against a staff that spoke about as much English? Awkwardness. That's what you get. Awkwardness. The food was amazing--don't get me wrong. We split a bowl of wild boar pasta and basket of bread, and I would gladly do it again. But when you can't even understand the greetings they extend your way when you walk in the door AND you have difficulties ordering water correctly, you know you're in trouble (FYI - non gassata...that's how you order water). Trying this place on our third or fourth day wouldn't have presented any of these problems. A local restaurant was slightly ambitious for our first foray into the world of Italian dining, but it was tasty, handy, and served as a valuable learning experience.  

No longer on empty, we continued our walk along the Appian Way. Just walking the road itself was fascinating, passing houses hidden behind stone walls, catching glimpses of hidden pastures and acreage, and trying not to sprain an ankle on the uneven cobblestone road. Built in the 4th century BCE as an efficient way for Roman troops to move throughout the empire, the Appian Way ultimately helped the Romans increase the power, size, and influence of their empire in the world. Originally, Romans cremated their dead, keeping the remains in pots or urns. In the 2nd century CE, as Christianity and Judaism began to overtake the pagan beliefs, cultural norms began to shift from cremation towards the burial of unburned remains. However, according to Roman law, no burials were allowed within the city walls. Enter:  the catacombs. Lining the modern Via Appia Antica are churches and their catacombs, and they are a huge draw for tourists, including ourselves.  

Our intention had been to tour the Catacombe di San Callisto (Catacombs of Saint Callixtus), but, of course, we walked up just as the last tour of the day was leaving. So...scratch that one. Instead, we wandered through the church grounds and gardens, enjoying the peculiar feeling of being out in the middle of nowhere while actually standing in one of the busiest cities in the world. It's amazing what some green space will do!  With exhaustion and jet lag creeping back in, we found our way to the bus stop (had to ask a police officer where it was), waited for 45 minutes, and made it back to San Giovanni in Laterano. Before walking back to the metro stop, we ducked in to a gelateria for our first taste of the infamous gelato. Note:  it's just as good as everyone says it is. Enjoying our cones, we strolled back through the Porta San Giovanni, under the Aurelian Wall, and alighted a red line train to the hotel. We were in bed and fast asleep by 7:30 p.m., and not a minute too soon as far as I was concerned.

Lessons learned today:

  • Only ride a Roman bus if you have a few hours to kill or if you do not care where you end up. Just walk or use the metro. It's easier, faster, and most likely safer.
  • Eat gelato every day. You'll walk so much that it can't possibly make a difference to your physique.
  • Meal time in Italy and meal time in America are two very different experiences. Be ready to settle in for the long haul, and do not expect waitstaff to hover.  
  • Get used to seeing old stuff. It's everywhere, and it's just as awesome as you think it will be. And don't be surprised if it doesn't feel real to see it with your own eyes!
  • Doors are tricky.
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