Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Our Roman holiday

It does feel like a vacation because we’re doing the tourist thing. That’s pretty rare for us. We’ve decided to stay here in Ostia for a whole week, and we’re not sure if we’ll manage the boat chores we have on the list because we’re too busy playing. The commute to the city and back also takes a big chunk of each day, and getting Internet is time-consuming, too.

Although they have wireless Internet in the marina, the service uses PayPal to handle payment, and PayPal keeps putting fraud alerts on John’s account (due to the international travel, we assume). In the past, that’s been painful, but John has been able to work through it. This time they want to talk to him at our home number. Well, we use my mom’s number for our home number for banks and credit cards, so that’s a bit of a problem. John tried to give them our Spanish cell phone number, but the form wouldn’t allow the international number (wrong format, different number of numbers, or something). He tried to file a trouble report with PayPal, but without Internet couldn’t figure out how to do it. I tried to complain to the wireless vendor, but I couldn’t do that without an Italian address and phone number. Bottom line: we don’t have Internet and we’re hating PayPal.

Enough grousing. On to the good bits. Our first day here we rested a bit and then went into the city later in the afternoon—partly as a trial run on the bus-train-subway and partly because we couldn’t wait. We discovered that it’s much farther than we thought. Since it only costs one euro to get there, we thought it was close. Unlike San Francisco, Amsterdam and Copenhagen, other cities with which we’re familiar, there’s no distance charge. The single euro covers everything within the Roman transportation system. There is a time limit of 75 minutes, and that’s about how long it takes us to get anywhere in the city from here. We bought week tickets for unlimited travel for €16 each, so transportation is cheap.

Our meal that first night was also reasonably priced at less than €50 for the two of us including antipasto, main dish, dessert and wine. It was also quite tasty. John had the osso buco and I had saltimbocca, both Roman style, and we shared a mixed antipasto and tiramisu. It was delicious! If that was just an ordinary tourist restaurant, which it seemed to be, the Romans definitely eat well.

The next day we found the Internet café here in the marina in the morning and went back to the city in the afternoon. We decided to start our sightseeing with the Colosseum. As we were headed to the entrance, we were hustled to buy a tour package including the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, and the Forum. Since the entrance fees alone, before audio tour, were €12 each and the tour was €18 and could be spread over two days (although they prefer you to do it in one), we decided to go for it. Our group at the Colosseum was mostly Americans, and we were a little uneasy since we got neither a ticket nor a receipt for the fees, so we asked someone else about it. They said they’d been told it was common and legitimate, so we shrugged and hoped for the best. We had to meet Fez (the hustler) at noon the next day to get set up for the second part of the tour.

The Colosseum is pretty indescribable. Either you’ve seen it, or you really can’t imagine it. It’s both bigger and smaller than it seems in the movies and on TV. The outside and the structure itself feel massive. The floor of the arena seems relatively small. It’s hard to picture chariot races occurring there, although I suppose they could, but there’s plenty of room for gladiators to fight wild animals and each other. Did you know that our word arena comes from the Latin for sand? At least, that’s what our guide said. I was surprised that it was mostly brick (although I suppose I should have known that) and that it had been covered with concrete, which I had thought was a more modern material. (I also learned that it’s the Colosseum, not Coliseum, and I’ve passed that on to MS Word’s spell-checker.) We were glad we split the tour since when it was time for the group to assemble for the second part, we weren’t finished exploring the Colosseum on our own.

John at the Colosseum

Yesterday we left the boat at 10 a.m. to be sure to be on time for our appointment with Fez and the second part of the tour. Since we managed to complete the commute in just over an hour, we were early and decided to go for coffee and a pastry. The only place at the Colosseum entry level was at the metro stop itself, and it seemed expensive for the bus station kind of fare it was, so we went up a level to a café called Squisito-Cook. The guys there were nice, and a customer helped them with their English, so we had two medium-sized cappuccinos, a palmier (for me) and a chocolate croissant (for John). The cappuccinos were actually pretty big, and the pastries were very good, and we speculated about how much it would cost since the prices weren’t posted and we’d forgotten to ask. Eight to 12 euros we guessed, thinking that 12 was high. Ah, no. We forgot to add in the view of the Colosseum and Palatine Hill, which brought the total to €20! That’s the most expensive coffee and donut we’ve ever had.

Back at the entrance to the Colosseum we learned that Fez wouldn’t be there that day. That had us concerned, but no worries: Mike from Scotland remembered us and set us up with a guide (Elaine, a blond from Canada and Scotland) who had a tour group meeting soon. Never mind that it was a different company. Apparently the hustlers and guides cooperate a bit whether management likes it or not. That’s very nice for the tourists.

Elaine was a terrific guide (she’s with Romaround Tours; ask for the blond Canadian woman), and we’re very glad we got her tour. She was full of stories as she led us up and over the hill. She was so good, in fact, that we were considering joining her today for her St. Peters and Sistine Chapel tour. The price of €45 each for a three-hour tour of places that our guide book (purchased at the Colosseum bookstore) says cost just €14 to enter was too steep, though. We spent another couple of hours wandering around the Palatine Hill, visiting the museum, and poking around the Forum until we decided walk past the Vittoriano to see Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps before we caught the metro to start the journey back to the boat.

Emperor’s private arena

Forum looking toward Palatine Hill

The fountain and steps were crowded—very crowded—and it was hot, so we didn’t linger. We did make a stop at Gelateria San Crispino (Via della Panetteria, 42), which many (including our guide book) say has the best ice cream in Rome. We certainly wouldn’t argue with that assessment although I plan to keep checking. I was disappointed that the Spanish Steps weren’t lined with flowers as in the photo in the book, but that was three more must-see places that we could check off the list. It was only 4 o’clock, but we decided we should make an early day of it since we needed to visit the grocery store on the way home, so we headed for the Metro.

Shirlee in front of Trevi Fountain

The Spanish Steps sans flowers with tourists

This was Metro A, and we needed Metro B to get to the Lido train, but I knew where to transfer (Termini), so no problem. Standing room only in the Metro, but only two or three stops to the transfer. Why aren’t the doors closing? After what seemed a long time, but was probably only a few minutes, there was an announcement. I caught something about technical problem, but no one was abandoning the car. I asked the young man with longish hair and a guitar case if he could tell us what they’d said. I had guessed right and asked if they said how long the delay would be. They hadn’t. After a few more minutes, the musician left to take the bus, and I asked but he couldn’t tell us which bus would get us to the other Metro. (Transportation maps rarely include buses when there are trams and subways.) Then there was another announcement, and everyone started leaving. We sat for a moment in another car before a nice man told us that the delay was indefinite and we should get a bus. He didn’t know which bus either.

Figuring the buses would be jammed at the Piazza di Spagna, we took the exit less traveled to the Villa Borghese (a fourth place to check off). We still didn’t know which bus, but when we exited the Villa Borghese on Via Veneto, I knew the general direction and we caught a bus going downhill. Lucky for us, a fare-checker boarded the bus too, and we asked her for advice.

Lots of buses stop at the Piazza Barberini, where the fare-checker had told us to catch the 492. Comparing the listed stops of the various offerings with the names of the Metro stops on my map, I thought the 175 would be a better option. Wow! I haven’t seen a bus so jammed full since Moldova. They were actually pushing people into the bus in order to get the doors closed. While we awaited the next 175, the crowd at the bus stop didn’t seem to be shrinking, so I revisited the signs and the map until we decided to get on the next bus that looked like it had any room at all. The buses were all coming from upstream of the subway problem and were pretty full when they got to us. Finally, we squeezed onto one, and some more people shoved their way in after us until you didn’t need to hang on to something because the crowd would hold you up anyway. John asked a woman in business attire if it was always like this, and she said, yes, it was normal. I told her that I thought Rome was beautiful anyway.

Begging a ride on an overly full bus

It was closer to 9 than to 8 o’clock when we got home (poor puppy), and almost all of that time we were standing. The metros, trains, and buses were all standing-room-only. So we’re taking it easy today. Headed to the Internet café where I can post this and then maybe to Ostia Antica, a well-preserved Roman town that our guide Elaine recommended as an uncrowded, shady alternative to a long trip to Pompeii. The Christian sights in Rome can wait another day for us.

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