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Thanksgiving in Rome  

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Wednesday, November 22

Having landed we made our way to the baggage claim area. This included taking a small tram car from the international terminal to the main terminal (very similar to the set-up at Gatwick in England). I was sure that our baggage had not made it to the plane. After all, we had barely made it and that was only by running from one end of the terminal to the other. I was congratulating myself for having carried all my luggage on the plane. But miracles do happen and all of our baggage arrived with us. 

We made our way through passport control and following the "No Declaration" line we found ourselves out in the main lobby. We were suppose to look for someone with a billboard with our names. We had arrived an hour early so I wasn't sure if the person meeting us would be there. I looked around and didn't see anyone. Pat (my mother), Alan, and I decided to find an ATM and get some money. I soon found myself with 500,000 lira. The ATM was very easy to use with English as a language option. Pat and Alan both had difficulty drawing more than 100,000 lira. Why this was we never found out. Later during the day they tried an ATM from a different bank and were able to make a larger withdrawal. Once again I found myself getting a great exchange rate that was very close if not the same as the bank exchange rate with no commissions or fees. I withdrew money 3 times and received the following rates (2261.73; 2276.87; 2276.61). We found ATMs everywhere throughout the city. There appeared to be additional ATMs installed in special "tourist information booths" for the Millennium / Jubilee Celebrations.

After joining the others I started looking at the documentation and realized that there were two different company names for the transfer company that would be taking us to the hotel. After looking around again I spotted a man with the sign for our transfer company. Sure enough, he had our names on a sheet. He told us to wait and he would get the van. A few minutes later I saw him talking with two other tourist and then he walked off with them following him. We were all unsure as to whether we should follow him or not. I insisted that we shouldn't as he had told me to wait. We waited, and waited, and waited, and waited, and then waited some more. Finally, after about 30 minutes I started thinking I should have followed him and was getting ready to call the company when he reappeared. It seems that he had to go a long way to get the van and had brought it to the outside of the terminal so we wouldn't have as far to walk.

Our van driver was a young 20-something Italian lady who drove 80 miles an hour while talking continually on a cell phone (I think this is a law in Italy). The van was a seven passenger and we all "just fit" with our luggage. It took about 40 minutes to get to the hotel. On the way we saw the Tiber, the Colosseum, and the Circus Maximus. Our driver pointed these out to us (the first two we sort of knew) and the third one we managed to figure out through a combination of Italian, English, and pantomime (more pantomime than anything).

We were staying at the Hotel Napoleon. We had three rooms with Alan and me sharing one, Sallie and Jody another, and Pat and Margaret the third. We were on the same floor and just a few doors apart. The GoToday.Com package had several hotel options at different prices. I had chosen the Napoleon for two reasons: 1) it was located near the metro and 2) it included a full breakfast buffet. The Napoleon was $50 more per person than the lowest cost hotel but it was well worth the upgrade. 

Let me say everything about the hotel here so I don't have to keep bringing it up later in the journal. To say the hotel is close to the metro is an understatement. You walk out the front door, across the sidewalk, and down to the metro. This made it very easy to make a quick stop at the hotel during the day. 

The breakfast buffet was also great. The buffet consisted of: eggs (fried and boiled - delicious, I ate a large plate every morning); cold slices of ham and some other meat (both good); a selection of bread and sweet rolls; selection of cereals; large selection of fresh fruit (delicious plums and pears - I ate peel and all); orange juice; the best tasting grapefruit juice ever; selection of cheese; hot chocolate; all varieties of coffee and tea; cola (if asked for); and many other things I have forgotten. Regardless, the food was very good and after filling up each day I wasn't hungry again until late in the afternoon.

Our rooms were almost identical. Sallie and Jody had a tub and shower in there bathroom. Each room had twin beds, a small t.v., bathroom (shower, bidet, toilet), large wardrobe, smaller writing desk, and a mini-bar. The mini-bar prices were actually reasonable with colas costing about $1. We also purchased large bottles of water from the bar several times for just $1. Calls from the room cost about $.30 each. 

The rooms had large windows that we would leave open at night to cool the room. Our rooms faced away from the street so it was reasonably quite (we were usually too tired to be awoken anyway). I left cameras in the room and other valuables without any problems. The staff of the hotel were all very friendly and helpful. I would highly recommend this hotel to anyone. You can check out there website at www.napoleon.it or www.venere.it/roma/napoleon. The pictures on their website are exactly what you will find when you arrive.

We were able to quickly check-in. Only two rooms were ready but this was fine. Sallie and Alan both wanted to take a short nap. So after cleaning ourselves up a bit, Jody, Margaret, Pat and myself (John) took off to take a walk and see what we could find. I pulled out my Rick Steves Rome 2000 book and my City Guide Laminated Map. Rick's book was invaluable. I finally made the "sacrifice" and actually ripped out the sections that we were going to see each day. His books are put together in such a way that pages come out easily. This allowed me to tuck 20 pages into my back pocket instead of carrying around the entire book. I also relied heavily on the laminated map. We used it to walk all over Rome and with the exception of one wrong turn (my fault) never had a problem. There are also many free street maps that you can find once arriving in Rome. However, I love maps so I don't mind buying them ahead of time.

We left the hotel which was located on Piazza Vittorio Emanuele. We headed down Via Emanuele Filiberto and soon arrived at San Giovanni in Laterano. It took us some time to figure out what we were actually seeing. The first "church" we saw was the Scala Santa. This "church" is primarily a building which houses a flight of stairs. The stairs are supposedly the stairs from Pontius Pilate's Palace in Jerusalem which Jesus ascended before his crucifixion. There are suppose to be the blood stains of Jesus on the stairs. Whether they are there or not is debatable. (Actually, one book states the stairs came from the Lateran Palace). What isn't debatable are the hundreds or thousands of people who climb the stairs daily on their knees while praying. The building also houses the Pope's private chapel. The only thing I found odd was that the Scala Santa leads to a gift shop (err... money changers in the temple?). There are also gift shops on the top of St. Peter's Basilica where you can buy a very nice shot glass which has a picture of the Vatican.

Outside of the Scala Santa I decided to buy a bottle of water to break one of my larger bills. This was the only time on the trip that I experienced the "slow count." The water was 4000 lira and I handed the man a 50000 bill. He handed me 6 1000 lira bills and then turned his back. I carefully counted my change and then asked for the remaining 40000 lira. He made some excuse that he was getting the extra change and a few moments later it was handed over. It was plain that he had wanted me to walk away with a $25 dollar bottle of water. While not exactly dishonest it is definitely not ethical (I guess the church grounds on which he was selling the water didn't influence him much). So do be careful and count you change, but don't be paranoid.

We next toured San Giovanni. This is a very large cathedral and claims to be the oldest Christian church in existence (although the original buildings have long since disappeared). The church is very beautiful on the inside. I was surprised at the "emptiness" of the Roman cathedrals. Having visited England and Ireland where the churches are full of tombs, statues, etc., the churches in Rome seem to be vast hollow shells in comparison. I am not saying this as a negative, just as a comparison. It is also very hard to tell the age of the building from its façade. Many "modern" facades cover ancient buildings while many ancient facades contain modern buildings which have been placed inside. I don't know enough about architecture to really know what I am talking about here - so take all of this with a grain of salt.

We tried to exit the building using the same door that we entered but were politely pointed to another exit. It seems that we had entered through the "Holy Door" which was symbolic of entering into Christ. It seems you cannot exit out of Christ. The pope had declared 2000 to be a Holy Year and a Jubilee Year. The Jubilee Year can be traced to the Jewish faith where every 50 years all debts were to be cancelled and lands returned to the original families. At some point in history the pope took up this idea to celebrate a "holy year" in the Catholic Church. Originally it was every 50 years, then got moved down to every 25 years (still the official interval), with special holy years being declared by the whims of various popes. 

This year the "Holy Year" coincides with the year 2000 making it a big time "Holy Year". The pope also started a movement to get the governments of the world to forgive 3rd world debt (similar to the original Jubilee Year). I think this would be a good thing if the governments of the world took this action. Several countries have agreed to do this. Anyway, the door that we entered the church was the "Holy Door" that is opened only every 25 years and then bricked-up by the pope (personally I can't see the pope laying bricks) till the next holy year. The other doors to the church are monstrous 50-foot brass thingies which I believed were once part of the Roman Forum (I may be confusing this with the doors to St. Peter's - go look it up yourself).

All over Rome we saw thousands of "Jubilee Volunteers" wearing blue vest. They are there to help visitors to Rome. Unfortunately, we never found any who spoke English so they weren't much help to us.

We headed back to the hotel to get Sallie and Alan. I had reservations for the Borghese Gallery at 5 p.m. tonight so we planned to walk in that direction seeing what there was to see on the way. We also wanted to find some place to eat lunch.

We found a small restaurant (more of a lunch counter) just across from Santa Maria Maggiore. We ate in the restaurant and the prices were reasonable. The lasagna had a tomato sauce that tasted like canned spaghetti. This wasn't a good first impression for Italian cuisine.

After lunch we entered Santa Maria Maggiore through another of the "Holy Doors". Once again we used Rick Steves book as a guide to show ourselves around the church. It was about 3 p.m. as we left the church and continued heading towards the Borghese Gallery. On the way we passed the National Opera house. 

One hint, as you are facing the building the ticket office is on the left hand side. We, of course, entered the office on the right hand side of the building. After much gesturing the man behind the desk convinced us to go to the other office. Once there we had to somehow figure out how to: a) see what was playing, b) find out if seats were available, c) decide if we wanted to purchase the tickets (and at what price), d) do all of this when none of us spoke Italian and no one there spoke English.

Luckily, one lady in the ticket office spoke Spanish so Sallie was able to communicate with her. We quickly discovered that Aida and West Side Story tickets were available. Tickets for Aida were in the $60 range (the only ones that were left) and West Side Story tickets were in the $30 range. We decided on West Side Story. The lady at the ticket office then said that we could all purchase student tickets for half-price (now I'm 34 and hardly a student) - except for my mother who had to pay full price - so go figure. So, I plumped down my Credit Card and we soon walked away with tickets to see West Side Story at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday night. The show was at a different theater so we would have to figure out where it was later.

After walking another 20 minutes we found ourselves at the huge Borghese Park. A group of old men were "lawn bowling." I am not sure of the actual name of the game they were playing. A few minutes later found us at the Borghese Gallery.

The Borghese Gallery is located in a large white mansion located in the park. To visit the Gallery you must have reservations (although on the day we were there I would think you could walk up and get tickets - but don't count on it). You can make reservations over the internet for free. The cost of tickets is in the $6 to $8 dollar range. We purchased our tickets but weren't allowed to enter until 5 p.m. even with almost no one there - so they are sticklers on this ticket/reservation thing.

We looked around the gift shop and purchased some snacks. One thing to note, at many places there is a method to purchasing food: 1) look around and decide what you like, 2) look at the price board on the wall to find out the cost, 3) pay the cashier who gives you a slip of paper, and 4) give the paper to the person at the snack bar who will prepare your order. This actually makes sense as it keeps the hands of the person fixing the food from handling all that filthy money. I had a ham and cheese sandwich (delicious) and a bottle of water for about $2.50. Margaret and Jody ordered some delicious looking desserts.

Back outside we were sitting on benches waiting to enter the gallery when a "tour tram" arrived. This was a small tractor pulling four carts with benches. I asked and found that it was only $1.25 to take a 15-minute tour of the park. What the heck. We all hopped on and we went to see the park - 15 minutes later we were back having seen the park.

At 5 p.m. we lined-up with about 50 other people to get in the door. I did find out that our tickets were good for 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. This meant we could enter at anytime during those two hours but had to leave by seven. I can imagine at times that the gallery could be extremely crowded. While we were there we had some rooms to ourselves. There are actually two sections to the gallery. The main floor which is primarily sculpture and the upper floor (which you enter through the basement) which is mostly paintings. There are CD-guides you can rent but we choose to just use the RSB (Rick Steve's Book).

If going to Rome this is one museum that shouldn't be missed. The building itself is very beautiful with gilded walls and painted ceilings. The sculptures are amazing. It is difficult to believe that something so lifelike (delicate, flowing, layered, etc.) is made of stone. 

After being truly impressed with our own artistic deficiencies, we made our way to the upper gallery. To get there you exit the main gallery and return to the gift shop in the basement. Follow the signs to the back of the building and find the spiral staircase. You then see a sign saying you can only spend 30 minutes in the upper gallery. Once again I am sure this is a crowd control measure. I would think it would take about 30 minutes to visit the various rooms on a crowded day. The spiral staircase (there is also an elevator) goes and goes and goes and goes. Several hundred stairs later (very slight exaggeration) you find yourself at the top. We walked from room to room being ignorantly unimpressed by the multitude of masterworks that surrounded us.

Having completed touring the museum we exited at 6 p.m. finding that it was quite dark already. The night was cool but not cold. Looking at the map we decided that the closest Metro Station was the one located next to the Spanish Steps so we headed in that direction. After walking a few hundred yards I saw a police officer and asked for directions. He pointed and said a metro station was just across the street.

Now my map didn't show a metro station but I figured that the officer knew what he was talking about. We crossed the street (and beneath an ancient Roman aqueduct) and found a set of stairs with the words metro. Now, according to my map there wasn't a metro station anywhere close. So Sallie, Alan, and Jody descended to do some reconnaissance. A few minutes later they returned saying that stairs just kept going down and tunnels went off in several directions. I am sure that there is a way to get to a Metro station but which one and how far I have no idea.

Instead, we decided (and fortunately) to walk down Via Veneto to the Barberini Metro Stop. At the time we had no idea of the significance of the street. We just found it to be a pleasant street with nice restaurants and shops. I later learned that many years ago it was "the street" where the rich and famous came to see and be seen. What we did find was the Hard Rock Café. Twenty minutes later we were on our way again with several "Hard Rock Café - Rome" items.

At the bottom of Via Veneto we found the Barberini Metro Station. Not sure what to do we approached a ticket machine an proceeded to look confused. A old man came up and started showing us how to purchase a ticket. I was a little wary at first but then decided the most I could loose would be three or four dollars. But he was honest and we soon had our tickets.

Actually, purchasing tickets is very simple. This is going by memory but to purchase a ticket: 1) punch the button for the language you need, 2) insert money - the machines takes bills and gives change (but will only give 4000 in change - this can cause a problem if you need a 3000 ticket and only have 10000, the machine won't sell you the ticket), 3) choose the type of ticket you want: single ride ticket good for 75 minutes from time stamped, daily ticket, or weekly ticket, 4) collect your ticket and change.

The tickets for the Metro System work on an interesting principal. After you purchase your ticket there is a machine that you place it in for it to be time stamped. Single tickets are good for only 75 minutes. Daily and Weekly tickets are good for amazingly enough, a day or a week. Once you stamp your ticket you can put it in your wallet and do not need it again. You can get on any bus or Metro without ever showing your ticket. To ensure honesty there are inspectors who will randomly ask to see your ticket. Failure to produce a valid ticket results in a hefty $50 fine (I was later told that the inspectors come out in force towards the end of each month). But tickets are extremely cheap. An all day ticket cost less than three dollars. This first ticket we bought we didn't know you had to get it time stamped. Luckily, no one asked to see our ticket. Once on a very crowded bus, we were unable to get to the stamp machine at the back so we just wrote the current time/date on the ticket, not official but acceptable.

The Metro in Rome is limited but extremely fast, relatively clean, and definitely saves the shoe leather. With out hotel being right beside a Metro stop there were several times we went back to the hotel to drop off purchases, change clothes, or just to take a short rest. And like any big city, there are times when the trains are sardine-can packed and times when they are nearly empty. During "rush hours" we sometimes let two or three trains go by before we found one that wasn't jammed with people. And you will often find that the cars farthest from the stairs have the least people.

The stop in front of our hotel was the Emanuele Metro Stop. Unfortunately, this first time we rode the metro we exited on the opposite side of the square from our hotel. The street looked almost the same and it took us some time to discover (and after asking a police officer) that our hotel was on the other side. By this time we were all very tired (having arrived that day, with very little sleep, and walking across Rome) and making our way to the other side of the square was almost more than we could take.

We were back in our rooms by 8:00 p.m. I was totally exhausted. I feel on the bed and was asleep by 8:01. I'm not sure how late everyone else stayed awake but I believe everyone was in bed early. I did wake-up about 1 a.m. and couldn't get back to sleep until about 2:30. So I pulled out my books and started planning what we would do the next day.

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