It was up at the crack to catch the very early tube to Heathrow. 5.00 am it was, and only the mice were stirring. Our enthusiasm was slightly dampened by a combination of the ungodly hour and the panic-causing fire delay on the Piccadilly Line that was to take us to the airport.
Oh my Buddha Heathrow is huge. We were in terminal two and that is at least twice as big as Auckland airport and Heathrow has four terminals with a fifth being built. Our flight to Rome was made in two legs. We flew first to Zurich, which Justine finally got to see (or be it from the window of the airport) after missing going there last time because of her appointment with the big white porcelain telephone at Perry's place.
Flying over the Alps and nothern Italy was fantastic. There wasn't a cloud in the sky and I could see everything below literally with a birdseye view from my window seat. Italy itself looks brown and barren from so high up with an amazingly uniform dispersal of terracotta-roofed towns dotting the landscape. Almost the whole of the western coast looks like it comprises of great beaches interrupted at regular intervals by small coastal towns. As we drew closer to Rome the terracotta roofs grew denser and denser until just about all we could see were buildings.
We landed without a hitch and made our way easily through customs. Then it was on the Leonardo express to Rome's Termini station in the centre of the city. Holy Shit batman talk about crowded public transport. From Termini station we had to take the Metro Line A out to a suburban station then take the bus 892 to our hotel 8 km out of central Rome. Well f*** me me days if you think it was that simple. First of all the metro only has two lines (A&B) one runs North to South the other runs East to West (loosely speaking). But for something so simple you'd think it would be easy to navigate ... na-aah. There are almost no signs directing you where to go and what signs there are, are in Italian (funny that). It took us half an hour to find the correct line we were supposed to take and another half an hour purchasing tickets and navigating our way down to the train platform. Everything on the metro is a lot dirtier than London but dirt doesn't faze us anymore after travelling through Asia.
As we got on the jamb-packed train we were very conscious about not exposing our valuables to prospective thieves after hearing all the stories about people getting pick-pocketed. A gypsy family got on the train right next to us at one of the stops along the way making Justine and I very nervous. I know we were making judgements about people that we had never encountered before, but stories were all we could go on. As I contemplated my own attitudes about common generalisations of gypsies, they were unceremoniously hauled off the train at the next stop for not paying by large armed security guards. Oh well, I guess generalisations do sometimes exist for one reason or another.
We got off the metro at our stop and dragged our bags out onto the street ready to catch bus #892 to the hotel, but wait ... there was no bus #892 that ran from this stop. Oh shit. We got directions to the bus stop we needed, which was about 400m up the road and around the corner. It was at this bus stop that we came across another group of gypsies (and not for the last time this day) who were scavenging through public dumpsters looking for things they could use or sell (the ultimate in recycling).
The bus finally turned up 15 minutes later. I pulled out my euro coin to give to the driver, but he just looked at it and waved us on ... sweet! Further on down the line we literally bumped into our 3rd gypsy family as all 5 of them crammed onto the bus next to us. They all wore old dirty clothes and smelled a bit ..... pheww.
From my observations of the gypsies (or Roma as they are sometimes known) from the little contact I have had so far, they seem to be non-threatening contented sort of people who are quite happy with the lot they have been given and don't appear to have fallen into the violent crime path that a lot of other underpriviledged, discrminated-against minorities do elsewhere. I could be wrong though ... what would I know?
The bus finally pulled up outside the Melia Roma Aurelia Antica Hotel 3 hours after we left the aiport.
The hotel is really nice and the staff are very friendly and helpful. As with most countries in the EU these days, a large percentage of the younger generation speak at least three languages (one of them is of course English). This makes it pretty easy to travel around. It kind of makes you feel stupid in a way though. The europeans can easily switch from one language to the next, while us kiwis stuggle to learn the few common phrases necessary when ordering food. I guess when you don't have to learn them ... you don't.
Once settled, we headed straight back into town on one of the free shuttle buses laid on by the hotel. The bus only goes to one of two stops at hourly intervals. Our stop was Barberini, not far fom the Spanish Steps. Everyone piled off the bus and shot off in all directions leaving us to wander the streets looking for some sort of eatery. It was at about this stage that things started to go a bit pear shaped for us. We both hit the wall as a whole day travelling was catching up on us. Finding something to eat was proving to be more difficult than expected with no food markets or even pizzerias to be found, we were forced to buy a couple of dodgy looking pizza breads from a pie cart at the top of the Spanish Steps for an exorbitant price, and to top it off, they tasted disgusting so we had to throw them away. Our hungry search extended into the night until we finally came full circle and ended up near Barberini where we bought a pizza from a small pizzeria. Rather disappointing, but hey ... a pizza in Rome on our first night ... it had to be done!
We waited around the area for the next hotel pick us up at 9.30 pm only to find that the bus was too over crowded and we couldn't get on. The hotel guests were getting a little shirty and I think the driver was getting a little scared so he decided to let people stand in the aisle as long as nobody told anyone at the hotel. Of course we were last to get on and there wasn't enough room in the aisle even for us. I wasn't happy with the situation at all so got off the bus with an angry Justine in tow. Shit! We'd have to use the public transport system that took us so long the first time. We headed off down to the metro, but hello, it was closed. It took 20 minutes of swearing at, and blaming each other in our exhausted state before we found out from a fellow traveller that there were metro replacements bus services that run instead of the metro. The first replacement bus was jamb-packed and we couldn't get on. Our teethers were being stretched to the limit. Luckily another bus came straight after that one and wasn't nearly as full. As the bus manoeuvred its way through the traffic, stopping intermitantly, we had no idea when to get out as none of the stops were clearly signposted. Justine noticed the number 982 at one of the bus stops so we quickly jumped off, but just as the bus took off we realised we wanted the 892. I nearly cried.
There we were, miles from anything familiar, late at night on our first day in Rome. Could it get any worse. Right about now your'e probably expecting me to say "yes it can" but you'd be wrong because a minute later another of the replacement buses came along and picked us up and dropped us off at the correct stop for us to get the #892 to our hotel, which incidentally came by shortly afterwards. The journey was a lot shorter too because there were far less stops, and what's more we didn't even pay. Ha ha. All well that ends well. I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.
We woke early to get the 8.00 am bus into Rome. Justine didn't sleep very well, but I was a lot more refreshed. Our first destination was the Vatican Museum and by all accounts the queue can be quite long, however, nothing could have prepared us for the exact extent of this queue. We made our way from the stop at Ottaviano down the road to the walls of the Vatican city where we saw people gathered in what could have been loosely described as a line. This must be the queue we thought. Luckily for us it was. In less than 10 minutes the line behind us stretched back for over 200 metres (four or five abreast). Looking up ahead, the queue looked as though it was probably 100-150 metres so at the rate we were moving, we should be at the entrance in about 20 minutes.
Guided tour touts were hawking the crowds promising to bypass the queue, which they said was 1 1/2 hours long. No way! They wanted to charge 40 euros when the entrance ticket is only 12 euros. "Ha" we scoffed. We'd be at the gates long before you say we will. Ten minutes later, as we reached where we thought the gates were, we saw to our horror that the queue turned the corner and disappeared into the distance a further 200m up the road. Oh my buddha! I have never seen, let alone been part of, a queue so huge. Even Bejing's Forbidden Palace comes in runner-up position. Trust us to come during Easter.
As it would happen the line moved rather rapidly as we got closer to the entrance. The closer we got, the cheaper the postcards got too (2 euros to 1 euro). As you enter the Vatican you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd just arrived at Heathrow airport. X-ray baggage scanners and armed security guards greet you before you even get to the ticket counter. Once you've navigated through to the actual museum you are immediately swept up in a wave of humanity. The halls were relatively small for the quantities of people pushing to get in. There is no time to stop and take photos as the sheer mass of people behind you pushes you on. It's just like being at Eden Park when the full time whistle blows and everyone clamours to be the first out the gate to miss the inevitable traffic jambs. I lost Justine several times in the melee and it doesn't help with her being hobbit (you know the ones with the hairy feet). Despite all that, the frescoes and decorations were incredible. The amount of wealth the church has built up over the centuries just blows your mind. Works by masters such as Raphael, Benini and Michelangelo festoon the place. All the rooms lead to the magnificent climax that is the Sistine Chapel. A seminal pieces of work that Michelangelo himself considered a disappointing pastime that took him away from his love of sculpture. In the hallways and rooms leading up to the chapel you are bombarded by notices reminding you that there is to be no photographs taken and you must conduct yourself in silence when in the chapel. The rules are broadcast in every language imaginable and yet as you push your way into the crowded place, so many people blatantly flout the rules. Flashes and clicks abound as uniformed guards strut around the chapel eminating a loud "shhhhhh" trying to quieten the unruly crowd. What is it with tourists and their lack of manners? Surely some social rules are universal i.e. respect the wishes of the tangata whenua.
Once we'd had enough of the milling throngs and generous helpings of scultpture, we made our way out of the Vatican and headed for St Peters Square. Wow. Big.
Next up we head off down Via della Conciliazione to the impressive circular fortress of Castel Sant Angelo. It used to be the mausoleum of Emperor Hadrian, but was once again converted by one of the popes into a fortess. Great views from the top.
By the time we were done with the castle, we were pretty hot and tired. My feet were killing me. Having a cushy office job was making me soft. So we negotiated our way down the Tiber river that runs next to the castle. We managed to find some shade before all of the African street hawkers knocked off for the day and came past us dragging all their fake wares. Most of the street hawkers are in Italy illegally and are trying to raise the money to make it to the promised land, England, where their dreamed-of riches are to be made. Most of them are of African origin, but there are also east asians and central asians amongst them trying to scratch a living. Italy is full of itinerant imigrants, but the authorities don't appear to give much of a damn as long as the don't cause any trouble or put any drain on the government's coffers.
It was back on the shuttle bus at 6.00 p.m., which was almost empty, and back to the hotel. As we pulled in, a small smokey grey cat was waiting for us outside the entrance. She was very small and kind of manky, but she was very friendly and the bus driver would always go and get a little meat from the restaurant for her to eat. Justine took a shine to her and gave her the name Principessa after the woman in the Roberto Benigni movie "Life is beautiful". Everytime we came back and left again, she was there to greet us.
We were, at one stage, wondering how a hotel that size could survive so far out of the city - the reason became apparent when I asked how much they charged for the in-room movies - 16 euros, and the small drinks in the min-bar were 6.5 euros. In the morning we decided to have breakfast in the restaurant. Bloody 10.50 euros for a couple of croissants and a filtered coffee. Rip off bastards!
Today was the day of the Colloseum and the Roman Forum. We arrived from the Metro at station Collosseo, emerging to the impressive sight of the Colloseum luming above us. Unfortunately there was bit of construction work going on with scaffolding blocking parts of the structure. We were tossing up whether or not to go inside as the line to get in was only small at this time of the morning. We were glad we did on two fronts; first of all, the interior was much more impressive than the exterior and secondly, when we came out a couple of hours later the line to get in was massive. Definitely pays to go early to the major sights.
After the Colloseum we meandered through the fantastic ruins of the Roman Forum just a short walk away. I can only imagine the sort of wealth that the empire had accumulated to create such lavish residences. Although only ruins remained, excavations have revealed the types of lifestyles the Roman aristocracy lived.
With sore feet and a massive headache, we went in search for food. We found it down a small street. It turned out to be the best food find of the trip. Only 4 euros for a bowl of pasta and a couple more for fruit salad saw us satiated for the afternoon. By this time my Italian had improved enough for me to be pretty confident in ordering our meals and after all, that is all you really need isn't it?
After lunch we shuffled on up to the Pantheon, the most preserved Roman structure in the world. Again, pretty impressive albeit a little worse for wear after 2000 years. The interior, however, is very well preserved as it is now, and has been for the last 1500 years, a Catholic church. By now every piazza in the city was packed. Small restaurants abound and are all vigorously patronised. The rest of the afternoon was spent wandering the small cobbled streets trying to avoid the miniature cars ripping in amongst pedestrians. Late afternoon we ended up in the famous Piazza Navona, a beautiful piazza with artists, buskers and hawkers all showing their wares. Justine and I had our first gelato here. A love affair had just begun. We hung out people watching for a couple of hours before we headed off in search of Fontana di Trevi.
It was no problem finding Fontana di Trevi, all we needed to do was follow the stream of people. When we got there, the piazza surrounding the fountain was so packed we couldn't even see it and it is definitely not a small fountain. When we finally fought our way to the front of the mob, it was well worth it. What a magnificent piece of Benini sculpture.
Dusk was drawing in and my head was about to explode so we decided to head back to the hotel after grabbing another disappointing Roman pizza. It is such a shame that there are so many tourist pizzerias around the centre of Rome, people's perceptions of Italian pizza can easily be distorted.
The next morning, Easter Sunday, had us queueing to get on the shuttle bus. There wasn't enough room so the kids had to sit on their parents knees. Fair-a-bloody-nough too. Some people are so rude they will put bags on seats next to them saving it for someone that is late. If you are late getting ready you should miss out ... end of story!
We thought about going to see the Pope's address at St Peters Square, but we wisely decided it would be too packed to bear. 80,000 people managed to cram themselves into the square that day. The Capitioline museum was our destination instead. Once again we had to put all our things through the scanners only to have it go off, but the guy manning it just let us through without checking to see what had set it off. Once in, we were confronted with the largest array of sculptures I had ever seen. That is one thing Rome has in abundance. Many of the great sculptors were Italian such as Michelangelo and Benini. There were lots of masterpieces in the museum - too many to mention. Near the rear of the museum a part of the ancient Jupiter Temple has been incorporated into the building. The Jupiter Temple was built on the sight of the museum over 2000 years ago, just as Rome was beginning to flourish. That is another thing I love about Rome, many of the current buildings have incorporated ancient Roman buildings into their structures giving them a distinctive and deliberate hybrid look.
We navigated our way to the top floor where the museum's café opens out onto a terrace overlooking the city. Fantastic views that are on a par with those of Castel sant Angelo. Three hours was enough for us in the museum as my feet were starting to get sore again. The museum had been relatively quiet I guess because of the gathering in St Peters square but it was once again time to join the throngs of people on the streets of Rome.
The rest of the day was spent wandering the parts of the central city that we hadn't been, checking out the quaint streets and less frequented piazzas. Feeling hungry, as usual, we went in search of one of the eateries that Perry had recommended to us, none of which we could find. Purely by accident we chose a place that we liked the look of, which just happened to be the Taverna del Coppelle ... well what do you know, it was one Perry had recommended. The food was nice and it was reasonably priced ... good choice Perry.
We finished the day by heading up to the Piazza del Popollo and sat in the Villa Borghese park and watched the locals relaxing as the Romans do by playing soccer and riding around in pedal cars. Some rose sellers came up to us a couple of times but gave up on us after a few "no grazies" and a stern ignoring from Justine. An exhibition of Leonardo Di Vinci's drawings was open as we made our way back to the shuttle bus, but we neither had the time nor the energy to go and have a look, although I would of loved to.
Back at the hotel our little friend was faithfully waiting for the bus to arrive as she did every day.