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Circling the Adriatic Italy: Walking Rome

We got up relatively early on our first full day in Rome and tooled back through the Mercato de Campo di Fiori, where we discovered porchetta for the first time. For the uninitiated, porchetta is a roasted roll of pork containing layers of fat and skin and generous flavorings of wild herbs. Served on fresh focaccia bread, it's like an umami explosion. We also took a look inside one of the most famous norcinerias in Rome, Antica Norcineria Viola. Aside from having every conceivable type of ham and pork sausage ever invented, they have an enormous selection of beautiful truffles. If it was possible to buy a bottle of the smell inside the place, I would have bought a case. Here's more about Antica Norcineria Viola

We then joined the stream of tourists strolling over to the Coliseum, which truthfully can be enjoyed just as well from the outside as the inside. However, the tickets for the Coliseum and the Forum are sold as a package, so we went in the Coliseum and confirmed that it looks on the inside pretty much as one would expect.

The Forum is a much more pleasant experience than the Coliseum, if one isn't an aficionado of Roman architecture. It's a short walk through a grassy open area with ancient buildings in various stages of ruination. Cleo found it to be a good place to jump out of the stroller and stretch her legs.

After the Forum, we walked back towards the Fontana di Trevi via Piazza Venezia, which took us past some beautiful buildings and monuments. Unfortunately the fountain itself was a major disappointment. The entire structure was surrounded by walls of Plexiglas due to an ongoing renovation. Between the Plexiglas and the enormous crowds of people, it wasn't even possible to get a decent picture of the fountain. It was a shame, because I had been in Rome twenty years earlier and remembered the scene as having been quite peaceful and beautiful.

We did a little shopping (traveling with two babies results in intimate familiarity with supermarkets and convenience stores around the world) and then made our way to the Spanish Steps, another tourist favorite filled with vendors of every conceivable form of crap. After that we headed to the Pantheon to decide where to have dinner. After enjoying an operatic serenade from a quite talented amateur in front of the Pantheon, I reviewed all my resources and could only find one of my listed restaurants close by which of course wasn't taking walk ins. I called around (an unlocked phone and SIM card are indispensable) and eventually found a recommended spot on the way back to the apartment that could seat us. I'll make a brief note here to say that when you go to cities like Paris, Rome or Venice you need to decide in advance if you are going to sightsee or if you're going to eat. If you're planning to eat, there are very few decent restaurants in the central, touristy areas and you will need to reserve those days in advance. Those reservations will severely restrict your sightseeing. The other option is to pick restaurants out of the center, but that will require some form of transportation. Since we had the two babies, we knew we'd be sacrificing cuisine for our freedom to roam the city at our own pace. As expected, Rome and Venice provided our stomachs with little to remember. Fortunately, we did a good job of avoiding total garbage after our first night. If you want a headstart on finding decent restaurants in Rome, perhaps try here or here.

Dinner was pleasant, although I've forgotten both the name of the restaurant and what we ate. I do remember it seemed to be a family-owned place and the waitress was very warm and friendly to the kids, although Cleo kept attempting to slip out the front door into the busy cobblestone street. After dinner, we felt some renewed energy and crossed the Tiber, where I got very disoriented despite my GPS and we eventually ended up in front of a very large building which appeared to be some kind of palace or museum.
Do you know this building?

That's right, it was the Vatican! Believe it or not, I didn't figure this out until the next day. We made our way back across the river and got some gelato at Campo di Fiori, and then back to the apartment and bed.

We started our second day armed with a list of produce markets and farmer's markets scattered around Rome, with the goal of browsing as many as possible. After another breakfast in Mercato de Campo di Fiori, we struck out for a supposedly awesome weekend market at the Circo Massimo, which we unfortunately were unable to find. I don't know if it was discontinued, or if I just got my signals crossed, but those things happen. Fortunately, our next stop was the Testaccio market which had the reputation of being the most gritty, local market in Rome with a specialty in organ meat, one of Mei Ling's favorites. It was quite a long way to the market, but we had plenty of energy and enjoyed the walk.

The market itself was pleasant enough but not very atmospheric, which was not surprising as the very old market had been moved to modern new digs just a couple of years previously. There were some interesting stalls although there didn't seem to be much food preparation on the grounds. On the way out,we saw the famous giant painting of a leaping wolf on the side of an apartment building. Here's more about the Testaccio market and Rome's food markets in general.

Our next stop was the beautiful neighborhood of Trastevere, another fairly long walk. Once there we stumbled onto another outdoor market as well as a wedding at a beautiful church. After meandering through narrow, lovely streets we found a place to have a decent lunch. Trastevere was the most peaceful and pretty neighborhood we encountered in Rome, and would probably be my choice for a pied a terre should we find ourselves there again.

After lunch we made our way over to the Vatican, basically because I felt we had to even though Mei Ling wasn't too enthusiastic about it. Of course, it was mobbed with tourists taking selfies and a number of offbeat characters seeking attention. We got on the long line for St. Peter's Basilica, which gave me some time to review my notes and figure out that we weren't going to see the Sistine Chapel that way. The Chapel is actually incorporated into the Vatican Museum, and that definitely wasn't going to happen. Fine, there's no shortage of pictures of the Sistine Chapel I can look at any time I want (I still haven't). Mei Ling enjoyed pointing out to me the number of tourists in shorts and tanktops after I had stressed these were verboten in the Vatican. I had the last laugh however when the guards at the Basilica denied entry to a girl in shorts (after she had already bought her ticket). The Basilica was impressive, of course, and quite loud on the inside from hundreds of echoing conversations. This was fortunate as Cleo decided to have a tantrum once we got inside, and no one noticed.
The Vatican. Cleo seems to be getting religion in the last photo.

From the Vatican we headed north and then east for quite a long walk outside of the tourist center, appreciating a more modern side of Rome. This path eventually took us back across the Tiber and to the Piazza del Popolo, another landmark that was already starting to fill up with tourists and some locals getting ready for the evening stroll down the Via del Corso.

Instead of heading down Via del Corso immediately, we walked up a winding road towards Pincian Hill, which overlooks the Piazza.

Pincian Hill is next to the Borghese Gardens, home of one of Rome's best known museums. We spent about half an hour at the outskirts of the Borghese Gardens, but decided against a full exploration as it was getting late.

Finally, it was time to take the promenade down the Via del Corso and slowly make our way back to Campo de Fiori. We were too exhausted to hunt for a restaurant so we self-catered from one of the late night delis in the square and had a very messy dinner at home. Just like that, we were done with the first stop on our trip, except of course for the joy of picking up our rental car the next morning. I'll close this post with a couple more pictures of my beautiful wife and the beautiful river Tiber.

Posted by zzlangerhans 18:24 Archived in Italy Tagged rome vatican coliseum forum trevi borghese testaccio trastavere popolo Comments (0)

Circling the Adriatic Italy: Rome arrival

I should make it clear early on what motivates us to travel, and what our priorities are when discovering a new country or culture. We're mainly into experiencing the modern life of the places we go, which means markets, restaurants, street festivals, and lots and lots of walking. What we aren't particularly into is monuments, landmarks, and museums. It seems a lot of people have a checklist of famous places wherever they go - they run down the list, take a picture in front of each landmark, and then feel like they've accomplished something even though that's what thousands of tourists have done before and thousands will do after. We're more focused on those unique experiences that only happen when we merge into the ambient scene and try to live like locals. Of course, I still feel compelled to see some of the more famous spots but I'm getting better at ignoring the vast majority of the semi-obligatory attractions, especially the museums. After all, I don't really know or care that much about classic art or archaeology and I never go to museums in the cities I've lived in, so why force myself to do that when I travel? It doesn't really make sense.

I bring this up because Rome is a classic example of the dichotomy between our kind of traveling and sightseeing. While the city is a sightseers paradise, the sheer density of tourists in the center of the city obscures whatever real modern Roman culture may survive there. For us, it was a challenge to find the things we like which are awesome produce markets, delicious food, and authentic street life. In the end, I think we enjoyed ourselves because we managed our expectations and didn't build Rome up to be some kind of cultural epiphany. We had our first jetlagged evening then two full days of walking, and that ended up being just right for us.

The Rome airport is actually in Fiumicino, about an hour to the east with traffic. We didn't get much sleep on the plane despite flying a redeye (our daughter Cleo doesn't really sleep on planes) but fortunately I had researched the complex airport taxi issues in advance. Despite consistent information I had received that I should be able to get a taxi to the city center for €48, we found this almost impossible. Several official-looking and very confusing signs were posted at the taxi stand that listed different potential prices. There seemed to be a number of airport employees at the taxi stand whose only job description seemed to be to convince us we actually had to pay €70 for the taxi. Just when I was about to give up and pay the jacked up price, one of the white Roma Capitale taxis stopped in front of us and agreed to take us to the center for €48. Of course, when we got to the destination he tried to explain we actually owed him more but I pretended not to understand and bundled everyone into the apartment. Our Airbnb hosts were super friendly and helpful and seemed shocked that anyone would have attempted to charge us more than €48 for the taxi ride, which they believed to be a strictly-enforced standard. So, our first experience of Italy was a little frenetic which actually was good preparation for the next couple of weeks.

The babies were thrilled to arrive in Rome.

Airbnb is always our first choice in the US and Europe, especially if we're staying more than one day. We've had great experiences and we typically get two bedroom places for much lower cost than we would in a hotel, especially in large cities. There's also the added convenience of a kitchen and sometimes laundry facilities, as well as the occasional helpful host. I'll qualify that by saying that we had many more logistical problems with Airbnb hosts in Italy than we had in other countries, although things usually worked out for us. The main problem we had in Italy was that many hosts didn't update their calendars so that apartments which appeared to be available actually were not available. Eventually we realized we had to send out multiple requests simultaneously to find an apartment that was really available. In Rome and especially in Venice, it seemed like there were hosts with multiple listings who were playing bait and switch games. They would promise you one location with the plan to inform you on arrival that there was a problem with that apartment and they would need to "upgrade" you to another apartment which was generally lower quality and in a worse location. Fortunately, we figured out how to spot these games and managed to avoid them. Airbnb worked much more smoothly in the other countries we visited on this trip.
The kids getting settled in Rome

We had decided to stay in Campo de Fiori for the central location as well as the proximity to the Mercato di Campo de Fiori. I think this was the right decision, although the area itself wasn't as lively as the area around the Piazza del Popolo and the Spanish Steps. Trastavere would have been a decent place to stay as well. Despite our sleep deprivation, we unpacked the necessities and then took a quick swing through the Mercato. The market was on the small side but had an impressive variety of colorful and fresh-appearing produce.
Mercato di Campo de Fiori

After getting an SIM card for Italy, we checked out Piazza Navona which was pretty but touristy, with street performers.

Piazza Navona

Regretfully, the sleepless and exhausted family grabbed dinner at a local restaurant Pierluigi which had been recommended by our hosts. I had assembled quite a list of restaurants from Lonely Planet, TripAdvisor, and Chowhound but in my exhaustion decided to chuck all that aside and go with the local recommendation. Ouch. Pierluigi ended up being our first and worst meal of the entire month-long trip with inedible food and incredibly obnoxious attempts to jack up the bill, such as a seven euro microscopic bottle of lemon soda and a whisper from the waiter that service was not included on the check. In general, it proved to be extremely difficult to get decent food both in Rome and Venice, but Pierluigi was in its own realm of awfulness.
Pierluigi in happier times (before we ate there)

After dinner we weren't capable of anything other than crashing at our apartment.

Posted by zzlangerhans 15:39 Archived in Italy Tagged rome Comments (0)

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