Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Colisseum at Night, and Adventures in Pickpocketing.

April 15th - Terminal 5, Rome Airport to Hotel

We left Newcastle on time and made our second journey through Terminal 5. There was a bit of concern that we may have a long delay in security in the terminal, but once we landed, we headed through a few doors and suddenly there was one desk to check our tickets. Walk up the escalators, and there was the glory of Terminal 5. We found some snacks upstairs at Boots Pharmacy (which took us some time to get up to the second floor because apparently the escalators near there only wanted to go down), and then resumed our "Let's Watch the TV for our Gate" game from the previous week. At least we were able to sit down on some comfy chairs and watch a little TV.

The flight gate was posted, and soon enough we were off to Rome. I have to hand it to British Airways because they simply are efficient at getting people on and off planes. They actually had three check in points to get on the flight, which made getting to the plane easy. What was hard to understand was the desert playset near the gate for kids to play on, as they have foam cacti standing up, and some hills and mounds to climb. Apparently, the folks in Britain have never seen an actual desert to know that kids may not want to play with cacti. We also saw at least 2 different tour groups on our flight, as the members all had bright neck lanyards with their names on them and all of them reading very large maps of Rome. I saw this and kept thinking gee, why don't they just label themselves tourists right now??

The flight was uneventful, and the snack was even pretty good. I especially liked the milk and biscuit that BA gave you with the meal. I didn't realize that Rome's airport was so far out of town until we were near landing, and you saw a beach near one of the landing strips. We landed and soon wandered off to find the immigration station and collect our things. As we approached the line, we saw people getting grilled with questions. Seriously, the couple in front of us were there almost 7 minutes answering various questions about where they were staying, what they were doing. So girl asked me for my passport and she said, "Just follow me up." She walked up to the booth when it was our turn, said Hi and smiled really big, and flashed a bit of cleavage. I've never seen passports stamped so fast in my entire life. No questions, no comments, just stamp and go.

We collected the luggage and soon headed to catch the train to Rome. The airport at Rome is considerably louder than Heathrow, but I liked the fact that there were signs everywhere so you couldn't get too lost. We found the airport train station, paid for our tickets, and headed to the platform for the next train. Each airport train was an express into the downtown core, so there were no stops between to worry about. Once the train arrived, we hurried to find a spot to sit, stow our bags, and relax.

The train suddenly got filled up, and soon people were standing in the aisle, trying to find any available spot to stow their gear. The fact that it was very humid there didn't help things as the train went from nice and comfortable to stuffy and crowded. I was listening to the various conversation, trying to pick up a little Italian and it was a bit difficult with the background noise. Studying Spanish, I was expecting similar speech patterns and emphasis, but really it wasn't the same. However, the more intense conversations were loud and got louder as we moved along, so after a while, I was picking up words here and there. Rome is really spread out, reminding me a lot of Seattle to the north. There's also graffiti everywhere, and some of it is rather impressive. I could see some of these folks taking their work to a museum, it's that good. You also saw billboards everywhere, it was almost as if every open space needed to be filled with something.

We pulled into the station, and soon were off to find our hotel. We had planned a route before we left the train, so it wouldn't be necessary to pull out a map while walking. A few blocks down, take a left and keep walking. Well, the street the hotel was on actually had three names - Via Torino, Via Napoleon III and Via Principe Eugenio. It took us a few minutes and some great directional skills by girl to realize this as we tried to find our hotel because it was a lot farther than we thought. The hotel didn't have a sign on the outside, we were simply trying to find a specific address and then contact the innkeeper to let us in. We had already spoken to him by phone on the train, to notify him we were running late. His English was Ok, but a bit spotty during the call. We finally found the place, we were buzzed in and walked up a windy flight of stairs to Momi.

It's essentially a flat that has been subdivided into three hotel rooms, with a small kitchen common area and the innkeeper's room. Alessandro met us at the door, and led us to our room. As is custom there, you can view the room first before agreeing to stay there, so we looked around and it was very close to the pictures we'd seen online. Alessandro pointed out some of the features of the hotel, gave us a map with some great recommendations, and our muddled English and Italian meshed pretty well. We paid for the room, and settled in for a bit before heading out on exploration.

Girl had been to Rome before, so she knew the basic layout of things. After unpacking a bit and checking out the room, we ventured out for the Colosseum. Rome doesn't have many straight roads, so we moved back and forth until we hit a major road that started moving west. And then suddenly as the sun was starting to set a bit, I got a look at the Colosseum from afar. Girl looked at me and smiled, saying "Blew your mind, huh?" Yup, it wasn't anything like I expected, and even the pictures don't do it justice.

To think that people were at this point over 3000 years before you, and this thing is still standing is amazing to consider. It was truly wonderful to see, but then we encountered some of the local merchants there. Ok, merchant isn't the right word, but there are sidewalk vendors everywhere at the key sites trying to sell you little overpriced trinkets. I was warned to keep my hands in my pocket and wallet hidden, so I was prepared to face them with a strong NO and kept walking. We saw the Arch De Tito, and then headed up towards Via Cavour, which apparently has a lot of shops and restaurants about. We found a little market/deli a few blocks up, and decided to give it a try. The pizza looked great, and most of the customers were speaking Italian. My mangled attempt to ask for pizza in Italian was met with a smile and some simple English phrases. We grabbed some water, limoncello (lemon liquor), pizza, and headed back to our hotel. We did overshoot our road a bit, because as I also learned after the fact is that Rome puts their street signs on the side of buildings and Torino wasn't as well marked as we thought. As we settled in with our pizza at the room, it was still warm and very tasty. Just cheese, sauce, a bit of meat and bread, but somehow it just tastes better here. We looked about on TV for the weather for tomorrow, and went to bed ready to tackle things for the next day.

April 16th - Sights, Sights and More Sights

One of the rules about our hotel was breakfast was from 8 AM to 10 AM, and that you needed to leave the room at 10:30 AM for cleaning. Breakfasts in Italy consist of some fruit, pastries, and coffee, and our hotel had all of that included with the price. What I had noticed the previous night and girl had explained is that people eat breakfast, places are open for lunch, and then a lot of places close for a few hours in the afternoon for siesta, then reopen for dinner and stay open late. Loading up on food, we decide to hit some of the major sights of Rome in a walking path past the Colosseum, then up to the Pantheon and sights near there.

The Colosseum was even more impressive in the day, and the annoyance of the vendors was compounded by people asking me if I spoke English and wanted a tour. As much as we tried to walk in a straight line, it was difficult with piles of people standing about, cobblestones not being all that flat so you moved a bit back and forth, and the avoidance of people wanting money or to give you a tour. I got a little headache from all this attention, but following the simple rule of saying NO and using some Frogger moves, we negotiated through traffic and headed to the Pantheon.

To think this was the hub of commerce so many years ago was mind boggling, and it's as busy now as it was then. The only downside to the Pantheon was the McDonalds 50 yards from the entrance. Apparently, they have to be everywhere, and the crowd in the restaurant was mostly tourists looking for some familiar food. We went inside the Pantheon, and saw the chapel inside. Simply amazing stuff to see, especially the artwork around the altar. We sat for a bit and just gazed at the art. Soon it was off to Trevi Fountain, which was crazy busy with vendors and tourists, but it was a sight to behold. The water drops felt pretty good on a day that was getting pretty warm, and the statues near the water were dazzling. Then it was off to the Spanish Steps for some pictures and a bit of a rest but no climbing, and then finally to the Piazza Del Popolo. Each place was amazing to see, although the vendors were everywhere and simply annoying.

We sat at the Piazza for a bit to take in some sun and just chill. One thing we noticed about the Italians was that even on a very nice sunny day in the 80's, many of them were in jackets and scarves. We stood out a bit away from the natives because of this, but since we had maps hidden and my camera was in my pocket most of the time, we didn't look like traditional tourists. But since we stood out, we became a target for a female pickpocket. I was sitting next to girl when suddenly I saw another gal with a jacket and large bag sit to my left and then move close to me. I wondered what she was up to, and as I got up to move, I felt her hand touch my back right pocket on my jeans while she was putting on her jacket. She apologized for touching me, but I figured out she was looking for my wallet, which was conveniently hidden in my front pocket. However, if she wanted kleenex, hey, I was ready there. Girl and I had been fighting a bit of a cold leaving England, mostly from lack of sleep and feeling a bit dehydrated, so I was blowing my nose a lot in this drier climate. After the pickpocket failed at getting something from me, she immediately moved next to girl, and we got up and left to find food. I was impressed that I had foiled the pickpocket's attempt to get monies, mostly because I was paying attention. Well, at least at that point anyway.

Rome doesn't have a lot of public toilets, so it soon became an adventure to find a place to go, but we found a cafeteria that had public toilets after some searching. The food, however, looked horrible, so we instead went back to the same market from the previous night to try more of their wares. We found the most amazing sandwiches available, relatively cheaply, so we grabbed them on the run with some water, and headed back to our hotel. Overall, the day was about 7 miles of walking, but I thought we had broken it up pretty well with stops and such. I could tell that my feet were hurting a bit, and I could tell that girl's feet were starting to bug her too, as she found some band aids to take care of a few blisters. But hey, we saw some amazing stuff and this was only really day one in Rome. As we tried to find some TV that was remotely understandable, we ate and chilled. Apparently, Italians love game shows and American shows dubbed in Italian. I can now say that I've seen Walker Texas Ranger in Italian, and it makes a lot more sense in Italian than it ever did over here.

Next time - Seeing the Forum Up Close, and Visiting the Pope's House.

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