Traveling from Amalfi to Rome was the first time that we learned that sometimes google lies. Google is that friend that acts like they know everything, even when they are wrong (I may or may not also be this friend on occasion). The locals told us that we should travel west to Sorrento in order to reach Rome- but we listened to google, which said going east to Salerno was an hour faster.
Salerno was beautiful, but buying a bus or a train ticket was an exercise in frustration. In Italy, you cannot buy tickets on the bus or train. Travelers are supposed to visit the local tobacco shop (Tabacci), which may or may not sell tickets depending on the size of the shop and it’s vicinity to a bus stop. Usually they had a large blue sign with a “T” out front. We visited each Tabacci we passed by, but none of them sold bus tickets. Eventually we just kept walking, hoping to come across someone who sold tickets. We passed a petrol station, walked through a residential area, and into an old downtown praying someone would just take our money so we could ride the bus.
Each person we harassed sent us in a new direction-probably due to the language barrier. I very quickly learned the Italian words for bus stop (fermata), ticket (bigletti), and the correct way to say Rome (Roma). Finally, we got on a bus illegally.The bus driver was not amused when I tried a ticket from Amalfi in the validation machine, which made a crunching beep sound as it spit my ticket out, it’s red light glaring evilly at the stupid Americanos.
The train station did not have a ticket machine either. Surely, I thought, the universe could not hate us this much. I tried to buy a ticket online, but the website was also in Italian. We again boarded the train illegally, and quickly got off at the next stop before the attendant realized that we didn’t have tickets. Thankfully, this station had a machine and a coffee shop, and we were able to buy the appropriate ticket (which was to Naples, then to Rome).
The train station in Rome and Naples (Napoli) was like an airport- hundreds of people wheeling their luggage around, talking on their phones, and generally looking like they knew what they were doing. The air of competence was intimidating. Despite all the pitfalls of public transport in a foreign city, we made it to our Airbnb. My first impression of Rome wasn’t the best- broken glass, trash, and graffiti littered every street and alleyway, and scooters would regularly jump the curb on the sidewalk to get around traffic, zipping past pedestrians. The buildings felt strangely dangerous, although the people themselves seemed friendly enough.
Grocery Shopping in Rome
Rome was the first city where we had a kitchen, so we decided to buy groceries. Normally we are in and out of a grocery store, but instead we spent nearly two hours trying to decide what to eat for 2 days. Milk was pricey, and sold by the liter, but at least the cereal was (somewhat) recognizable. We avoided the milk that was stocked on the shelves, and hoped that what was in the coolers was actually milk (it was). Sometimes even the familiar brands, like Fanta, were vastly different from their American counterparts (it tasted like watered down, carbonated orange juice, rather than soda). Lunch meat was sold in tiny vacuum sealed packets with only 4-6 slices inside. Provolone cheese tasted much more… Provoloney. Pre-sliced cheese was rare. The sliced white bread seemed stale, like no one ever bought it, but they stocked it because they had to. We quickly learned to buy the bakery bread when it was available. Wine was cheap- even a 3 euro bottle of wine was way better than a $50 bottle of wine purchased in the States. Each room we rented in Italy and France was stocked with a bottle opener- sometimes with 2 or 3. Tourists must be pretty predictable. Rome was the first city where I discovered pre-packaged chocolate croissants (which I then hunted for and compared in every city afterward). This was also my first experience with Italian lines ie: there aren’t any. Everyone creates a giant mass and whoever gets to the counter first gets served. Cutting is pretty common when there is a line. European grocery stores generally charge for plastic bags and expect you to bag your own food, so I used my hippie purse to carry the purchases back to our airbnb.
Sightseeing- The Colosseum and the Roman Forum
The next day, our first stop was the Colosseum and the Roman Forum (told you-tourists are predictable). Walking around Rome was surreal; Modern day people and cars just swirling around ruins that were thousands of years old. You could immediately tell who the locals were- heads down, unimpressed by the history surrounding them on a daily basis.
We deftly avoided the Gladiators and vendors outside the Colosseum and checked out the lines- which snaked around the concrete plaza and were visible between the ancient arches. Multiple people stopped us and asked us if we were interested in the “skip the line” tour. For 27 euros per person, we could join a guided tour which would allow us to bypass the mass of people at both the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. My husband, always the penny pincher, was not interested, but I insisted that we were in Rome and therefore we had to see the Colosseum. We flagged down a salesman (who spoke English with a midwestern accent, despite being born in Italy. His mom was an expat from Oklahoma, and he had never been to the United States), purchased the tour, and met our tour guide, Hugo. My best quotes of the trip come from Hugo, and include such gems as…
“The mother of idiots is constantly pregnant, and sends all her children here”
“Sometimes politeness just does not serve” (which might be Italy’s motto)
We also learned a lot about the Colosseum, such as
-It was build of travertine, bricks, and concrete (not marble, as I ignorantly assumed) -Only 30% of the Colosseum is original because it was recycled for other buildings throughout Rome (Hugo said that’s a nicer way to say stolen)
-The Colosseum was built by Jewish slaves
-It is the only “Great World Wonder” in Europe
– It’s real name is Amphitheatrum Flavium- we call it the Colosseum because there was once a Colossus statue outside, which has been lost to history.
After exploring the (crowded) Colosseum, we exited to meet with Christian, our tour guide for the Roman Forum. He was probably in his late 20’s, incredibly tall, with a mouth incongruously full of braces. He sat under a tree and compared himself sarcastically to Socrates as he explained the Roman Forum to us. We learned some interesting things from him about the Forum as well as Rome in general, such as…
-Aqueducts worked through gravity to bring water to the city, which was then pumped into the baths, or Spas. These spas stand for Sanus per Aquam, or health through water.
-Due to its resources and water, Rome was the first city to reach a million people. This did not happen in history again until Victorian London.
-A basilica is an architectural term, not a term for a church. We associate basilicas with churches because that was the form that was used for major buildings at the time, and churches are mostly what survived.
After our fascinating tour, we wandered around Rome a bit and ate at the Roma Beer Company in Campo Dei Fiori Piazza. I was under the impression that they made their own beer, which they did not- but the food and the beers that we did try were excellent.
Sightseeing- The Pantheon
We walked from the Forum, so we came around the back of the Pantheon, the immense dome looming in the skyline among more modern buildings. We passed a number of buskers, graffito (good, bad, and ugly) and the Vittoriano, an immense white building that Romans call “the wedding cake”.
One of my favorite buskers
The Pantheon is this surprisingly large structure with Roman columns on the front and the domed room to the back. In the square there’s a fountain with a large obelisk rising from it. We took a few photos in front of the building, where Joel joked that the pictures were more like “finding Waldo”-there were so many people in the square that it was impossible to tell exactly who you were taking a picture of. We stood in line and entered the building. I was surprised to see church services in session. I had not done much research on the Pantheon prior to our trip, but much of what I did know centered on the Roman history of it. I guess I was expecting a Roman restoration, and I felt a stab of melancholy that Christianity had taken over this, too. Although after listening to the information on Rick Steve’s Audio Europe App, about it, I guess Christianity is the only reason the building survived in the condition that it did. Many other buildings that did not find a Christian purpose were demolished (like the 30% of the Colosseum). The oculus remains open rain or shine- when it rains, there is a ancient drain underneath for the water, and when the sun shines, it creates a beam of light that circles the sanctuary as the day goes on. It’s so immense that it completely lights the entire structure, with no interior lighting needed at all. The statues inside are beautiful and detailed, like much of the statuary in Europe.
As we walked back, we came across another gorgeous church (there’s no end of them in Europe). Services were being held there as well, but tourists were allowed to wander around silently. The dome behind the altar was the most interesting part- it’s actually flat, but the artist painted it so that it would like a dome.
By the time we got back to our airbnb, we figured we had walked 12-15 km. Our legs were cramping so badly that we promised to go easy the next day. We attempted to visit the Vatican, but once we ended up in St. Peter’s square and saw the lines, we turned right back around to relax in our room. There were skip the line tours available (36 euro/person), however we were on a tight budget and decided it wasn’t worth it when we were still so sore from the previous day.
Planning a trip? Some recommendations…
-Download Rick Steve’s Audio Europe app and create a playlist of the audio tours for all the attractions you plan to see. Be sure to download them before you travel- much of the available wifi and especially the 2g data available for free on my phone was not fast enough to download any of the tours, and I missed out!
-Budget for “Skip the line” tours. They are generally worth it, and have great information and great tour guides- while they seem pricey, it’s way better than standing in line or missing out.
-Save money by staying somewhere with a kitchen. We calculated that we saved a considerable amount of money by buying groceries, rather than eating out for every meal. We also made sandwiches to take with us while we were traveling or out and about.
-Carry a water bottle! The fountains in Rome flow with potable water, and you’ll see people regularly fill their bottles from them. Water can be anywhere from 1 euro to 5 in restaurants and in Tabacci, so it saves a lot of money to carry a reusable one.