Trip Report (aka Essay). May 1 - 9, 2006. Weather: perfect. Each day mid 70's and partly sunny. One brief shower Friday afternoon for 10 minutes. Apologies for the rambling length.
A little background first. My wife and I are architects. This is my second trip (first was 13 years ago while wondering Europe after a Mid East study abroad trip during college), but a first for my wife. We're in our mid 30's and early 40's - you're guess which I am... Our trip was rather quickly arranged in early April and therefore our hotel selection and research was limited. Amazing though, the resources available here and on the web compared to even our last trip abroad (Istanbul in '99). We dusted off our arch history books to study and brought Rick Steves' Rome book as well as a helpful laminated phrase "map" for reference. I found Ricks book to be very detailed and the Tours section particularly helpful. Comments are my opinion - your experiences, goals and observations may vary.
Our flight was an overnighter on NWA/KLM to Amsterdam with a 3 hour layover in Schipol. I like that airport - in particular for the Heineken on tap and the comfy public lounge areas. You gotta look, but the best is a bunch of reclining chairs behind a red plexiglass screen on the second level next to a Heineken/Segafredo bar. Equipment was an A330, which is a nice plane, but we were landlocked in the 4 seat middle. Nightmare with a catatonic 100 yr old Romanian guy on the left (he held his ticket in his hand and didn't blink the whole trip) and an angry Euro-hippy on the right. Flight from Amsterdam to Rome (FCO) was an oversold 737 - loads of Italians returning from the holiday weekend. FCO is about as charming as a Greyhound station.
We arrived around 4:30 in the afternoon and sought out our Romeshuttlelimo guy. Sign with our name. He was 15 minutes late, but spoke a bit of English and was pleasant enough. Late '90's Mercedes sedan. Drove about 95 mph in no particular lane - fun and fast.
We stayed the first half of the week at Relais Banchi Vecchi - on Via Banchi Vecchi near where the street Y's into Corso Vittorio Emanuele. A note about this place - their website and TA description lists the 115 Via Banchi Vecchi address, but the actual door to the B&B is on the side street Via de Pavone and through a gate. Only my confirmation email had these instructions and it took my weary brain a few minutes to remember it. Also, you have to pay in full in cash on arrival. Knowing this, I got my Euros in Schipol, when I had the time. There are 6 rooms and we were on the top floor, on the alley side. Noisy from the no-name restaurant til about midnight and a little traffic from Corso V E, but a really great room. No neighbor noise, large room, great bed and a stylish marble bathroom. We never saw the owner again, but someone brought our breakfast each morning. We missed all but one because we were out before the "breakfast time". Keep this in mind when she asks you when you want breakfast. Think duration of stay, not your first sleep-in morning. You get your own key for your room, the main door and the alley gate.
There's a nice old man with a small coffee bar on the main floor. He's friendly and enthusiastic, but we had most of our morning cappuccino's a block over at Bar Guilia at 84 Via Guilia. Great old place buzzing with locals and run by real pros. Each cappa is served with a heart shaped dollop of foam. This and other coffee shops were on my radar via recommendations at Coffeegeek.com. The sweet commercial machines makes my little Gaggia Classic seem anemic.
Day one (Monday) was the arrival day and we dropped our bags and headed out. We were near Campo di Fiori so we checked out that area and headed over to Piazza Navona. We had a few drinks at a nice little ($$) outdoor (drinking) cafe in the tangle area west of P. Navona. This was kind of my favorite area because of the variety of restaurants and enotecas (wine bars). We didn't eat and grabbed a few bedroom-Peroni's at the grocery store around the corner (on Corso V E) from the B&B. Monday was a holiday and the streets were full of strolling Italians. Excellent laid back street life in contrast to the daytime hustle.
Day two (Tuesday) - no jet lag! Big day - we hit it hard. Breakfast in the room. Very nice. I love the light breakfast - yogurt, croissant, fruit, juice and coffee. We're currently in our Rome breakfast fad at home, which is funny because we did (and still do) the same thing after Istanbul (the best breakfasts ever!). First we re-hit all the big sights - Campo for the market, Navonna and Pantheon. Holy cr@p there's a lot of tourists about. Monday was Italy Labor Day and I think (never confirmed) that its a big travel week for Italians and Italian school kids. Tons of school groups and lots of Italian and European tourists. The Pantheon is our favorite space in Rome. In tradition, I pulled Anne aside and produced a surprise necklace. I proposed in Hagia Sophia - the greatest building - in Istanbul in '99, so its become tradition to give her a rare treat in our favorite buildings. Espresso at Tazza d' Oro - a must!
We made it to the Spanish Steps and made our first dining mistake. The little square, Piazza Mignanelli, with two restaurants in the upper left corner. We picked the one on the right. Very ordinary and touristy. No complaints on the pizza and insalata mista, but I was really adamant about avoiding obviously touristy spots and blew it on the first try. No offense, but when I travel to visit a different culture, I have no interest in talking to, or even hearing, other Americans. Travel is cultural immersion therapy.
The Spanish Steps seemed different than my last visit. 13 years ago it felt like a youthful hangout - wine on the steps and a lively atmosphere. This time it was swarmed with people, but seemed sterile. We took a U-turn and walked over to the Vatican. Since I never heard back on my reservation request, we assumed our position at the back of the cue. 2 blocks down on Via di Porta Angelica with 45 minutes until the supposed entry cutoff. The line moved fast and we just squeaked in. I felt like steer in a stockyard. We were herded through the museum like blood cells through the vascular system - wide busy hallways and clogged restrictions. Not much art viewing since closing was minutes away so we were ultimately ejected into the Sistine Chapel. I was amazed by the cleaning job - the colors (purple - go figure), composition and people who couldn't comprehend the "NO PHOTOS" signs. Only the guys in suits screaming at the photo poachers could cut the mood. An inspiring room and I could have spent hours there - alone.
After the Sistine Chapel we saw the Basilica. I didn't remember how huge the space is. The baldacchino and the altar are incredible. Next was a trip to the top of the dome. Again we just squeaked in before the line was cut off. We were able to take our time going up and loitering at the cupola. A great way to absorb the scale of the interior is to go to the top and look out over the city. Stpetersbasilica.org has a great floorplan showing every bit and altar. I was disappointed that the square (ah Bernini) was filled with chairs for the Wednesday mass. It has a fascinating scale when you're not pushed to the side. I needed to spend more time here (Basilica) but we were wiped. This was intentionally a big day so that we could do fewer and fewer things as the week (and our legs) wore on. If I had the time, I'd spend a whole day here.
Dinner Tuesday night was in the Piazza del Fico area (two blocks west of Navona) I mentioned earlier at a little place called Francesco. Very cheap, no frills place that I had been admiring for the abundance of local Italians in patronage. Always packed inside and out with simple, inelegant alley-side tables. Menu in Italian and no English from the waiter. I think I had a sashimi salmon antipasti and a carbonara pasta dish. Anne had an arrabbita sauced pasta. We has a cheap bottle of Pinot Grigio. We're not wine connoisseurs, but most bottles were from '05 and tasted very young. Carafe wine even more so. The waiter bought us a couple shots of Limoncello. I loved the atmosphere in this place and the food was cheap and homemade. Afterward we stopped at a wine bar (next door to the Spanish restaurant - see Wednesday dinner) and had a few glasses of Amarone. Nice atmosphere and a great wine list in this place.
Anne's vegetarian and never had any trouble navigating the menu or selecting something vegetarian. 9 of 10 pasta dishes were typically veggi. In most dining experiences, the portions were so large that the antipasti and primo was all we could eat.
Day three (Wednesday). 9am Forum and Coloseum tour with Angel Tours. We had a very pleasant Irish tourguide named Jennifer (I think). The tour was brisk (but not short) and a bit basic but this tour company isn't known to be scholastic. Like most have said, it was worth it to avoid the Coloseum lines. My only gripe was that while they advertise small, private groups of 8 to 15 people, ours had 21. Also, our Sandisk camera card died during the tour (lost all photos to this point) so make sure you always bring and extra (we did). It's always fascinating to me to imagine what the city and Forum was like and would be like had it not been customary to abandon and recycle ancestral structures.
After the tour we walked through Palantine Hill (yawn) and over to Trastevere. Very different place over here. Lots of street punks (and their dogs), graffiti and poo (not the Mr. Hanky kind). Not as charming an area. We lunched at an unmemorable pizza place (very good pizza, but brusk service and tight tables) on Via della Scala. Right after we discovered Gelateria alla Scala - yum! That night, after a short nap, we went back to Via del Fico/Via del Fossa. Tired of Italian (gasp) we tried the Spanish restaurant. I say "the" cuz I can't remember the name, and there is only one Spanish restaurant. It was good, not great and the menu was misleading (intentionally?) regarding the price of the paella - which had to be ordered for two. Appetizers were really good though and we could have done without the paella. Early to bed because Thursday was train to Florence.
Day four (Thursday). Up at the crack. Train was departed at 7:30 - no time for coffee (!!). We grabbed a taxi at the nearest stand on Vittorio Emanuele and got to Termini with about 10 minutes to spare. I had booked the ticketless tickets from Trenitalia ahead of time, booted someone from my seat and settled in a the windows (facing one another). The ES train was nice and fast. The attendant/conductor took one look at my email receipt, shook his finger and said "no", but never returned to give us a hard time. Maybe it was early and he didn't want to deal with the ticket hassle. On the way back, the nice lady attendant took down the reservation code and printed and validated a ticket. Seemed like kind of a new technology thing that they're slow to embrace.
We arrived at 9am, promptly sought our a coffee, then headed via Piazza San Lorenzo market to the Duomo. For some reason there was a line to enter the church (it was closed for a mass I think) but the cupola access had no line whatsoever. We walked right in and up, and up, and up to the top. Great view without the crowds of St. Peters. Afterward we headed to the Galleria Accademia for our 10:30 reservation. There was a two block line for the non-res and about 30 people in the res line. We waited in the reservation line for about 10 minutes - without it moving - and then decided to head directly in and to the ticket booth. No problems. The gallery is nicely limited to the number of people allowed in and it was a really cool to spend as long as we wanted in the presence of David - without the bustle of huge groups. The rest of the day was spent visiting the various Santa churches as well as the Ponte Vecchio. We had a long lunch at an outdoor place in Piazza Santo Spirito (so-so) and headed back to the train to Rome. Having been to Florence before, I was fine with just a day trip. There were fewer crowds, which was nice, but I like the pace of Rome.
That night, back in Rome, we hiked over to Le mani in pasta. Kind of an SOB to find because the street it is on changes names a 100 yards from Viale Trastevere and I didn't have a map. Bought one and eventually we found it. The place was packed, but fortunately after about 15 minutes of waiting outside we got a table (by the door). I took the view of the kitchen - which was really cool to watch. It felt like the movie Big Night (from the early '90's). Our waiter was a Cuban guy and we had him order for us - he was great. I had a seafood antipasti - various types of mussels, prawns and thinly sliced fish (Anne had a salad). As an entree I had pan fried sea bass on roasted potatoes and Anne had a great fava bean pasta. Fantastic meal and a great time.
Day five (Friday). Moving day. We couldn't stay the whole trip at the Relais Banchi Vecchi, so we chose to experience the opposite. We reserved a room at the Victoria Hotel on via Campania, just off Borghese park and Piazzale del Brasile. Fancy place on the other side of town. While the service was excellent (5 star bartender!) and room very nice (cool Philips flat screen tv and a nice marble bath), the place is noisy and full of Americans. I should have known better, but this area is full of 70's era western hotels and seems to be the home base for every anglo tourist group in town. Walls are paper thin and the self-closing steel doors shake your fillings loose while waking you at 6:00am. Via Veneto is a pretty miserable street to walk (diners under glass! - a very panoptic phenomena) and we missed the scale and charm of the Campo/Navona area.
After our move we checked out the pedestrian streets around the Spanish Steps as well as via del Corso and the churches at Piazza del Popolo (only one is open). The headed to Villa Borghese for our appointment. Waited in line about 20 minutes as people ahead tried to talk their way in without a reservation. I'd been here before but love the Bernini sculptures and the spaces of the villa. It's a great gallery with a nice combination of sculpture, paintings and architecture.
That night we at the Gusto wine bar. Very hip place with a really nice combination of modernism and classical infrastructure. Service was ambivalent - which was par for our dining experiences. Cheap wine prices and tasty (albeit, greasy) starters of battered, deep fried artichokes and fried shrimp. I had a bolognese pasta dish which was very good. We had a nice time - the place is full of Italians - but if dining outside at the wine bar, be prepared for clouds of cigarette smoke. [Love the no smoking indoors law by the way. If Rome and NY can do it, and not go bankrupt, the bars in Minneapolis need to stop whining]. This was a very rich meal and I paid for it.
Day six (Saturday). Bussed over to Villa Farnesina. Nice old villa with amazing ceiling murals. We enjoyed imagining what the house was like in its day. Afterward, we ambled north, did some shopping on and around Via del Corso and stocked up on provisions at the underground grocery store at Paizzale del Brasile. Had a nap in the park, snacked in the room and watched soccer. Still wasn't feeling well after too much wine and Gusto Friday night.
Day seven (Sunday). Last full day. We took the Metro and bus to the Sunday market at Porta Portese. We found very little of the junk interesting and considered it a big waste of time. Kind of wished I packed a bag of everything I've donated to Goodwill over the past 20 years - I'd have made a killing. If I only had a use for a worn out pair of shoes or an eastern European rotary dial phone... Walked back hitting Campidoglio (cool) and Vittorio Emanuele II monument on the way to more shopping on Corso and a walk through the park. That night we were beat and made our last dining mistake. We tried to stray off Veneto, but inadvertently wandered into the back door of a sleazy Veneto restaurant (Ciao Bella or something like that). Packed with @mericans trying to "out trip story" one another. The food was junk and the service terrible. The lead waiter had a schtick where he kept blaming the other waiter and making excuses for the gaffes.
Monday morning our car to the airport was waiting outside and we headed home. All in all, a fantastic trip. Anne loved it, and everything worked perfectly. We saw everything we planned on and had no problems whatsoever. The weather was perfect each day - lower 70's and partly sunny. Language was never a problem. We knew enough to initiate conversations, but that usually got us a response in Italian (naturally), at which point we had to plead ignorance. Got used to saying "mi dispiace, parla l'inglese? It was an exhausting trip, keeping pace in the city and walking as much as we did. We're fairly athletic, but relied more and more on public transport as our legs wore down.
Sorry for the length of this report - I hope it doesn't violate protocol. Feels kind of cathartic and actually helps cement the trip in my crummy memory.