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Thanksgiving in Rome  

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Back in May, my mother, brother, and I went to England for an 18-day trip. When we returned I told my sister how much I enjoyed the trip and would love to go back for a week. In July she called and asked if I would be interested in going to London over the Thanksgiving holiday. We could take advantage of one of the GoToday.Com specials and the trip would only cost about $800. Also, since it was over Thanksgiving we could do the trip while only using two or three days of vacation time.

This sounded wonderful and I immediately began planning the trip. As I looked at the specials from GoToday.Com I noticed that a “Paris-London” trip they were offering during the summer. This greatly interested me and I hoped they would offer the same trip during the fall. Unfortunately, they did not. I also noticed that they were offering a week in Rome for just $100 more than a week in London.

Having just returned from London I was more interested in seeing Rome (not that I wasn’t eager to return to London). So I called my sister and proposed that we go to Rome instead. She was agreeable with this idea so I started planning.

First we had to figure out who all was going. Initially it would be my sister, her husband, a family friend, and myself. After some convincing my brother and mother, also decided to go. In late August I made our reservations with GoToday.Com. The cost per person was $828. This included airfare from Birmingham, Alabama, 6 nights lodging, and transfers to and from the airport in Rome.

I live in Madison, Wisconsin while the rest of the group was leaving from Birmingham, Alabama. I decided to fly down to Alabama a couple of days early so that we could all travel as a group. This also gave me a chance to visit some with my grandmother at Thanksgiving. This extra ticket cost me $220 on United Airlines.

As I was doing research on Rome I found mention of the Necropolis beneath St. Peter’s Basilica. I sent off an email requesting a reservation for 6 people and received a prompt reply. I also made reservations online for the Borghese Gallery. And finally, I contacted Scala Reale as recommended in Rick Steves book to arrange for tours while we were in Rome. I will write more on each of these below.

As time approached I made two purchases for items to take on this trip. First, I purchased a carry-on bag (the kind with wheels and a handle). I was determined that this would be my only piece of luggage. After carefully packing it several times I was able to pack everything into this carry-on. I also took along a smaller bag in which I had kept my cameras and a few other items. I figured if I had more items than I could pack coming back I would get a box to pack the additional items in.

I also purchased a digital video camera. I had been looking at these cameras for the last couple of years but could not justify the cost. The camera I wanted was a palm-size JVC. These are very small and will actually fit into a pants/jacket pocket. A few weeks before leaving I walked into a store and saw an “open box” camera on sale for half-price. After looking it over I decided to splurge. I called the salesman over and said I would like to buy the camera. He said, “Great, let me get you one out of the back. Follow me.”

I was thinking I would buy the one on display but I followed him into the back where he brought out a brand new camera in an unopened box. The camera also included a 3-Year replacement warranty. He explained that they were trying to get rid of last years models. The current model included a flash to take still photos and a “memory stick” to store them on. This was no loss to me as I already own a digital camera. The model I bought also has the ability to take low resolution digital stills but stores them on the tape itself. I was very pleased with the performance of this camera. Not only is it very portable (weighs only 1 pound), the picture quality is very good and I am able to dump the video into my computer, edit it, and then burn up to 1 hour of great quality video onto a CD or send it back out to a VHS player. For those of you more interested in this please drop me a line.

As the trip approached I believe everyone became excited. My brother and sister took a 6 week Italian class at a local college. While my sister speaks Spanish fluently and my brother knows some Spanish, they both felt the Italian class was helpful. There were times in Rome where they were able to use a combination of Italian and Spanish. While this making things a little easier we got along fine just using English and a few Italian phrases (hello, goodbye, restroom, etc.). Don’t let the language be a barrier. You will get along just fine.

Sunday, November 19

I arrived at the airport at 5 p.m. for my 6 p.m. flight. I had packed the night before so I was able to enjoy church and go out to lunch with friends without any last minute headaches. Once arriving at the airport I found that my flight to Chicago would be late (no surprise – they are always late). We departed about 30 minutes after we were scheduled. I was a little concern about making my connection to Birmingham. At the worst I figured the airline would put me in a hotel for the night and fly me own down the next day.

I will say that United (actually United Express operated by Air Wisconsin) has greatly improved their customer service. Before we boarded, we were kept well inform of the status of the plane (when it left Chicago, when it was close to Madison, when it landed, etc.). The gate attendants were also proactive in rescheduling those who would miss their connections. On board, we had the greatest flight attendant ever. At the end of our flight she actually got a round of applause from the passengers (many of whom were missing flights or having to go on rescheduled connections). She managed this by her wonderful sense of humor. I won’t try to repeat her jokes here but can only say you will be fortunate if you ever find yourself on a flight crewed by Deann Braxton. I also wrote United commending her for her job performance.

We arrived at Chicago just minutes before my next flight was to depart. United Express uses the “B Terminal” at O’Hare. These are smaller jets that park away from the terminal and require you walk into the building. Realizing that my connection would be nearby I was hoping I could still make my flight. As soon as I got into the terminal I spotted the gate from which my connection would be leaving. The gate attendant informed my that my connection had just arrived and that they would begin boarding in the next few minutes. A few minutes later I found myself back on the exact same plane, the same seat, and the same flight crew including Deann. How fortunate could I be? We arrived in Birmingham only 30 minutes later than scheduled.

Monday, November 20

I didn’t do much today except visit with my grandmother. I did deliver two 20-pound frozen turkeys I brought from Wisconsin in a checked bag. I can’t help but wonder what the security people thought when they saw those go through the scanner.

Tuesday, November 21

We left for the airport at 10 a.m. with our flight out departing at noon. My uncle drove us to the airport in my mother’s van and my older sister (who wasn’t going on the trip) followed in her truck with all the luggage.

At the airport we met Margaret (my sister’s friend) who was going to Rome with us. Everyone but my sister was able to quickly get their baggage checked and their boarding passes. I had decided to take my bags as a carry-on because we only had a 45-minute layover in Philadelphia. I wanted to make sure that my clothes made it to Rome with me.

Leaving my brother-in-law (Jody) and my sister to finish checking-in, the rest of us went through security and proceeded to the gate. A few minutes later Jody ask me to go back to the ticket agent with him. It seemed that my sister forgot to have her name changed on her passport after she got married. So the name on the ticket didn’t match the name on her passport. She left every other form of identification at home so could not “prove” that she was the person on the ticket. After a few tense minutes, including a call to Rome by the ticket agent, they agreed to reticket her using her maiden name.

Back at the gate we discovered that our flight was delayed. Our original flight schedule was: 12 noon departure from Birmingham to Charlotte arriving at 1:30 p.m.; 3:15 flight from Charlotte to Philadelphia arriving at 4:45 p.m.; 5:55 p.m. departure from Philadelphia arriving Rome at 9:00 a.m. the following day. However, before we left we discovered that our Charlotte-Philadelphia flight had been changed to a departure of 3:45 arriving at 5:15 leaving only a 30 minute layover.

Now our first flight to Charlotte was delayed. This delay had been caused by someone getting through security in Charlotte and the entire airport being shut down while a search was made. A 9:15 flight to Charlotte was still waiting to depart. Our 12:00 flight left 30 minutes late (but still departed before the 9:15 flight). We arrived in Charlotte around 2 p.m. with plenty of time to make our connection.

Our plane for Philadelphia was sitting at the gate so we hoped our next flight would be on time. As we were waiting Jody, Margaret, and Alan purchased pizzas for lunch and I purchased a grilled chicken sandwich. We boarded on schedule and it seemed all the passengers were on board, but we didn’t move. Finally, 45 minutes after our scheduled departure time we pushed back from the gate. At this point we were all very worried about making our connection to Rome. No reason was ever given to us as to why this flight was so delayed.

As we were getting closer to Philadelphia it seemed more likely than not that we would miss our connection. Sallie asked a flight attendant if they would be able to call the Rome flight and inform them that 6 passengers were just arriving and could they hold the plane a few minutes. She was rather rudely informed that there was nothing they could do and the we would just have to run for it and it was up to us if we made the connection.

At the Philadelphia airport it was close to three-quarters of a mile from where our Charlotte flight landed and our Rome flight was to depart. We decided for Margaret and Alan (my brother) to take off running and see if they could get to the plane and have them hold it till the rest of us arrived. As soon as we could get off the plane they started running and the rest of us were walking as fast as we could with our baggage. Right at the end my sister “hailed” a passenger cart to assist our mother the last two hundred yards.

We made our flight, barely. If it weren’t for Margaret and Alan running, I doubt we would have made it. As soon as we sat down the doors were shut and the plane pushed-off from the terminal. The pilot then had the audacity to come over the speaker and announce that we would be arriving in Rome an hour early! This was the only flight of the day that was departing on-time and would be arriving an hour early. There was no reason why they couldn’t have held this plane 15 – 30 minutes when they realized that passengers were coming on inbound flights that had been delayed.

In fact, the plane was only about two-thirds full and there were many empty seats. It seemed that someone was sitting in our seats so the flight attendant just told us to take the two bulkhead seats (Pat and myself). I didn’t argue. I love the bulkhead seats for the extra leg room they provide and not having someone reclining into your lap. The unfortunate part of the bulkhead seats is that you are unable to stretch your legs out in front of you. My knees begin to hurt if I can’t stretch out so several times during the night I had to stand and walk the aisle. But this is a minor inconvenience and I would always prefer the bulkhead.

We flew on one of the new A303 (I believe) planes that USAir has in their fleet. The best thing about the flight was the interactive personal entertainment centers for each seat. As we were in a bulkhead seat we had a small screen (about 5 inches) that swung-up on a metal arm from beneath our seat. Other seats had the small screen in the back of the seat in front (where the in-flight phones use to be located). Attached to your armrest is a remote control device connected by a retractable wire (there is a remote on one side and a phone on the other). The remote device allowed you a choice of about 10 movies, 30 television shows, and many, many, albums. You could start, rewind, fast forward, and pause each of these whenever you wanted. I believe the shows/music are stored digitally on a hard-drive/dvd platform (just guessing) and the operating system is windows based (I know this for sure because I saw the windows logo pop up at one point). This was awesome and made the flight much more enjoyable. I had seen most of the movies listed so I choose “Where The Heart Is” starring Natalie Portman and Ashley Judd. The only addition I would like to see is a position chart on screen (GPS) showing what the plane was flying over.

During the movie, dinner was served. I had chicken and rice. I also added a couple of miniature whiskies to my collection. After dinner and the movie I leaned back and managed to get several hours of sleep. A couple of times during the night I gazed out my window at the crystal clear stars. Orion’s Belt was prominent as well as Jupiter crossing the sky. At one point I saw a meteor.

The sun begin to rise about 6:30 Rome time. Looking out the window we could see the tops of mountains rising through the clouds. We were soon over flying down the coast towards Rome. The land we were flying over had a “tropical look.” By that I mean it reminded me of the landscape in parts of south Florida.

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.

Thursday, November 23.

This morning we had a 9 a.m. tour reservation to visit the Necropolis beneath St. Peter’s Basilica so we wanted to leave the hotel by 8 a.m. So after a huge breakfast (see description above) we were on our way. It only took about 15 minutes to go from the Emanuele metro stop to the Ottaviano Metro Stop. From there it was a 15 minute walk to St. Peter’s.

We arrived at St. Peter’s square with only a few people about. The top of the dome was still hidden in the morning mist. I asked for directions to the Excavations Office in the baggage-check room. To get to the excavations office you enter the Vatican through the far left gate (facing St. Peters) and ask the Swiss Guards for directions. We then quickly entered St. Peter’s to take a quick peep before the crowds arrived.

About 8:30 a.m. I asked one of the Swiss Guards how to get to the Excavation Office. He said it was just inside the gate and to return at 9 a.m. and he would let us in. We visited the gift shop, post office, and rest rooms (all on the left hand side of the square when facing the basilica). I also set off in search of a water fountain. I finally found one above the baggage-check office. It was a very large fountain that had twenty-spouts pouring water into a basin. I wasn’t sure if this was drinkable, but what the heck, it tasted good. I drank from it several other times although I never saw anyone else taking a drink.

Promptly at 9 a.m. we entered Vatican City. I had walked just out of sight of the Swiss Guards when a Police Officer called me over and asked what I was doing. After assuring him I wasn’t trying to steal the Pope-Mobile, we found the Excavations Office where we promptly waited. About ten minutes later the office opened and I picked-up the tickets I had reserved several months in advance.

To get tickets to tour the necropolis, it is absolutely essential to reserve as far in advance as possible. It is my understanding that very few groups are allowed through each day and these are limited to 10 people each. Later in the day I was talking with another lady who had tried reserving tickets in early October and had been unable to obtain them. I started in mid-September. You can reserve tickets through the internet. Be sure to state the exact date(s) you will be in Rome, the age of the people, and the number of tickets you need. They will then email you back a confirmation and directions on how you can pay. I was able to send a personal check (which took about 6 weeks to clear my bank). Tickets are only $8 each.

To me this was probably the most interesting part of St. Peter’s. Our English-speaking guide first took us into a room and gave us some history about the site, the first church, and the current church. We then descended 20 – 30 feet into an area that was excavated in the 1930-40s. It was interesting to note that as we passed into each new section, doors shut behind us sealing in a carefully controlled climate.

The part of the Necropolis that you can visit is essentially a long street between ancient buildings. Imagine if you found yourself in a 3-foot wide brick-paved street between brick buildings that were 15-20 feet high. The “ceiling” is actually the floor of the crypt in St. Peters. These buildings are actually family crypts. It was customary during Roman days for families to visit the dead and eat a meal on the roof of the crypt – essentially they are small houses. Most of the tombs are pagan with only a couple having Christian symbols. At the end of this street you can look through a small opening and see the “hole” where Peter is thought to have been buried. I say hole because that is all that you see – the hole under the “tombstone” which was excavated when they were looking for a body. The tombstone is actually a small stone table of which you can only see half, the rest is still buried in the ground. And although you cannot see them, there are bones thought to be those of the Apostle. The Roman Catholic Church officially admits that it is not positive that this is the body of Peter or that this is the actual site.

It is however based upon church tradition and our guide make a good case for the possibility. I might get some or all of this wrong and certainly not in the detail in which our guide went. It seems that Constantine built the original church outside the city and on top of an ancient cemetery. Why? He must have had a reason to build there and the reason was this was the location of Peter’s tomb. He leveled the hill by cutting off one end and piling it on the other. In the process he packed the crypts he found with dirt and used them as part of the foundation for his church. He also must have guaranteed the families of the dead that the tombs would not be violated as many valuable artifacts were found in the excavation (otherwise the workmen would have made off with them). The church was built so that the very center would be above the tomb that tradition said was Peter’s (and even today the top of the dome is in a direct line with this tomb). Peter was buried just 50 yards from the site where it is believed he was crucified up-side down. And St. Peter’s square was originally an ancient race course.

It was also a little claustrophobic to think of the huge church sitting above your head. Our guide also made mentioned that of the many tens of thousands of people who visit the church each day only a few know of the necropolis beneath their feet and even fewer ever get to visit. I highly recommend taking this tour if you can – this was one of the most impressive places we visited in Rome.

The tour ended in the crypt and we spent only a little time looking at the graves of the previous popes. We went back inside the church (through yet another holy door). It was a little more crowded by now but still not very bad. Using the RSB we self-guided our way about. St. Peter’s is big like the Super Dome is big. It is so big that you can’t really grasp how big it is. And while it was built to impress those ungrateful protestants with the might of the church, it was also built in such a way to mask its huge size and make it seem more “personal”. Once again I was struck by the emptiness of the church. Now, there are many mosaics and statues, but they are not overwhelming. There is only one true painting in the church. All the other paintings are actually mosaics. And the most impress statue must be Michelangelo’s Pieta.

We next wanted to climb the dome. Well, I wanted to and convinced everyone else to come along. We paid the $5 fee (including using the elevator to bypass the first two hundred stairs). Exiting the elevator you find yourself on the roof of the church (complete with rest rooms, gift shop, and water fountain). Just 50 stairs up and through a door you find yourself on the inside of the church at the base of the dome. At this point you can look down upon Bernini’s bronze Baldaquin and get a great bird’s eye view of the church.

Exiting through another door you start to climb, and climb, and climb, and climb, and climb, and….pass out. The stairs are actually very interesting - some are normal stairs going back and forth , then spiral stairs, then stairs going inward (towards the center of the dome). All the time the outward wall is curving inward which at places gives the whole place the skewed aspect of a carnival fun house. Eventually, just as you think you are going to die, you find yourself outside and very high.

All I can say is climb the dome. It might take you a while (if you get out of breath just stop and rest). From the top you have an incredible view of the Vatican, of Rome, and even the snow-topped mountains in the distance (at least they were snow topped in November). We snapped pictures and videos, looked for and found the Colosseum, and took a few minutes to rest. The day was gorgeous with blue skies and the temperature in the mid-sixties.

After climbing down, using the roof rest rooms, and one last look into the church, we headed back to the metro and to find a place to eat. We promptly fell for one of the oldest blunders know to man, “Never start a land war in Asia.” No, actually, we sat down outside a café and got to pay $5 for a coke and $8 for pizza. Normally you could get a Coke and pizza for $4 total! But we were too tired to complain.

It was now about 1:30 and we had until 3 p.m. until we met our guide from Scala Reale for a 2-hour “Introductory” walk to Rome (as if we hadn’t already walked all over Rome). We hopped the subway back to Via Veneto with the hope of visiting the San Maria Conzione.

On the way to the subway a man selling purses saw Margaret and called out, “Blondie, I have a special price just for you.” This was hilarious. For the remainder of the trip Margaret was known as “Blondie”.

I had come across this church mentioned in the guidebook as I was doing my planning at 1 a.m. that morning. This is a church that has 5 or 6 rooms completely decorated with human bones. Unfortunately, it was closed until 5 p.m., just liked it mentioned in the guide book. Funny, I missed that part. Fortunately, the church is right beside the metro so we hopped back on and went back to the hotel to relax, freshen-up, and drop-off assorted items.

About 2:40 p.m. we got back on the metro and went to the Spagna Metro Stop. We were to meet our guide in the area. We had made reservations for tours with a group known as Scala Reale (www.scalareale.com) as recommended in the RSB. For more information check out their web site. To book tours with them you must pay a $20 fee to join their organization. I believe this fee has something to do with them not being an Italian company. For this fee, they provide a 2-hour introductory walk to Rome.

We were to meet our guide, Jenny, at the Piazza Colonna. We quickly found where to meet and started to window shop as we waited for our guide. One store was a dealer ship for the “Smart Car”. The “Smart Car” is probably the cutest cars since the original VW Bug. They are very small, just 2.5 meters in length, and come in an amazing array of colors. I would definitely love to have one back in the states. The store was closed but we decided to stop by later in the evening when they would be opened.

Jenny, our guide showed up promptly at 3:00 p.m. Our group consisted of 10 people – the six of us and two other couples. This was a very relaxed and laid back tour that focused mostly on the Rome of today. Jenny is a film student and has lived in Rome the last five years. She shared with us what it is like to live in Rome. She doesn’t drive and had only just purchased a scooter a few months before. Our tour went through many small streets and back alleyways, past the Mausoleo di Augusto, and ended in the Piazza d. Popolo.

Via Del Corso is the main road leading across Rome from the piazza and Via Babuino leads to the Spanish Steps. These two roads are connected by many cross streets. This is the prime shopping area of Rome. In this area you can buy just about anything. Some stores are bargain basements while others you can’t even afford to look through the windows. We spent some time window shopping as we made our way back to the Smart Car store. By this time the store was opened. This is the only car dealership in the world that I have ever seen people come in to take pictures of the car.

They also sold “Hot Wheel” versions of the car in several different sizes. Sallie and Jody bought one as a Christmas present for Jody’s father. The toy they bought cost about $20. The real car cost around $10000.

We then shopped our way to the Spanish Steps where a large group of “soccer hooligans” were merrily singing something at the top of their lungs. The streets were full of people out having a good time. We spent about 30 minutes looking for a gelato place that Jenny had recommended. We never found it and finally settled for gelato from one of the thousands of other gelato places.

Afterwards we made our way down to see the Trevi Fountain. It was crowded around the fountain but not too bad. This was the only site where I had people constantly trying to sell me various items. I also now know where all the coins are in Italy, at the bottom of fountains.

By this time we were tired and decided to head back to the hotel. The plan was to walk to the Barberini Metro Stop. Somewhere (actually on V. Scuderie) I made a right instead of heading straight. We found ourselves walking through a half-mile tunnel beneath the Giardini del Quirinale and emerging on the Via Nationale. It was at this point that I realized the mistake. We didn’t want to retrace our steps through the auto-exhaust filled tunnel so we headed for the Repubblica Metro Stop.

This actually turned out to be a mixed-blessing. While we were all very tired and this additional walking wasn’t exactly what we wanted, we did get to meet Roberto and I got the pleasure of someone trying to pick-pocket me. We were waiting for a train in the Metro when we met Roberto. Roberto is a Colonel in the Italian Air Force and looks, strangely enough, like Steve Martin. We had a great conversation, took some photos, and exchanged email. While we were talking we allowed three trains to pass by as they were all too full to get on.

 Finally, a train arrived that had just enough room for us to board. Roberto warned us to watch out for pick-pockets. Now, I always keep one hand on my wallet in any situation that is crowded. As I was stepping onto the train I felt a hand slip into my pocket and quickly pull out. I turned around to see a small girl jumping out of the closing doors and running down the platform. This is a typical M.O. for these pick-pockets. They wait till just before the door closes and try to grab your wallet and get off the train. If I hadn’t had my hand on my wallet it is very likely that she would have succeeded. My advice is to use common sense but don’t be overly paranoid. Yes, at the worst you might lose your money but it is very unlikely that you will be physically injured. A money belt can keep your valuables safe. I had sewn a large pocket into my jacket where I was able to keep my camera, passport, etc. This pocket had buttons and could not be easily accessed.

With this little bit of excitement we made our way back to the hotel. On one corner of the square was a small rustic trattoria. These are small take-out / eat-in places that can be found all over Rome with excellent food and very cheap prices. There is usually a selection of pizza, lasagna, different meats, desserts, etc. We stopped and bought dinner to take back to the hotel. I purchased a large slice of eggplant pizza, two “spanish rice” filled fried dumplings, and a 1 liter Sprite for about $4. Back at the hotel we each went to our own rooms to eat.

Once again I believe I was asleep before 9 p.m. I must be getting old! Alan and I did spend a little time watching the Italian version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire”. We felt fairly smart as we were able to figure out the questions in Italian and get the correct answers. I woke-up again at 1 a.m. and was unable to get back to sleep for the next hour. I spent the time looking through guide books and planning what we do for the remainder of the trip.

Friday, November 24

I woke-up this morning without having to worry about what we were going to do – the reason was we had an 8-hour walking tour with Scala Reale. But I had forgotten what we were suppose to be touring today. After breakfast we gathered in the hotel lobby to wait for Gregory. Promptly at 9 a.m. he walked through the door.

He asked if there was anything in particular we would like to see and suggested we start our tour at Santa Maria Maggiore. I let him know we had already been there and he quickly changed plans. I did suggest that we would like to visit St. Peter in Chains and San Clemente.

Let me give you a little background on Gregory. He has lived in Rome for five years. He originally came to Rome with a friend who was flunking out of college and came for a summer of intense Latin. Gregory (not Greg mind you) came along and decided to stay. I believe he must be an art student although I don’t remember if he ever told us. What I do know is that when it comes to art he is an expert! I learned as much in this single day as I did in a semester of Art Appreciation in college. And Gregory is very passionate on the subject. He almost literally dragged us from one site to the next so that we could get in as much as possible. He also would criticize (and rightfully) people taking pictures of paintings with a flash.

What do I think of Gregory’s performance as a guide: Positive) He is very passionate, knows his stuff, friendly, patient, pleasant, seems to enjoy his work; Negative) Needed to communicate itinerary for the day and in his eagerness tended to “drag” you along. Overall, I would highly recommend Gregory as a guide and wouldn’t hesitate to make use of his services again.

Personally, I don’t see why people try to take a picture of a picture: 1) the pictures you take don’t come out that well, 2) using a flash is very destructive, 3) its much cheaper and you get a much better picture by buying either postcards or a book of photos. I purchased several books of photos for less than the price of getting two rolls of film developed.

So what did we see today?

St Peter in Chains and Michelangelo’s Moses - The main reason I wanted to visit this church was to see the carving of Moses by Michelangelo. Be sure to have some coins to turn on the lights (many places have coin-operated devices that will light up the paintings/statues for 5 to 10 minutes). Moses has horns! This was due to a mistranslation of the Hebrew text in the 16 century. In the Bible it states that Moses face shown with beams of light when he descended from the mountain. I believe the word “beam” was mistranslated as “horn”. The church also contains two sets of chains which supposedly held Peter and Paul while in prison.

Baths of Titus – We walked past these on our way to St. Clemente.

St. Clemente – The most interesting part of this church is the basements. There are actually three buildings built atop one another. The sub basement is a Roman “Mithra” worship site. Mithra was a “secret” religion that was very popular among the military. The next level up contains the remains of an early Christian Church. The walls are covered with ancient frescos. One of the frescos includes the earliest know writings of the Italian language. The writing is on part of the Fresco that would have been covered over by the floor and thus would not have been seen by the ancient worshippers. It was obviously put there by the workmen knowing that no-one would ever see what they wrote. The fresco shows two men carrying a large stone column (workmen). In comic bubbles above their heads one is saying to the other, “Pick the damn thing up, its heavy.” The other man replies, “Shut up, you S.O.B.” Wouldn’t that make you proud of your language?

Exiting St. Clemente we found that it had started raining very heavily. Gregory said wait a few moments and a Pakistani man would come by and sell you an umbrella. Sure enough, a few minutes later here he came. Gregory, Jody, and Margaret all purchased umbrellas after haggling with the man for a few minutes. Pat and Sallie both had panchos they had brought along. Alan and I both had waterproof jackets with hoods so we were set.

We waited on the street for 10 minutes for a taxi but none passed that were available. Finally, Gregory suggest that we walked to the Colosseum a few blocks away and get a taxi at the taxi stand. We took two taxis from the Colosseum to the Pantheon. The cost of our taxi (with 3 people) was less than $5.

We toured the Pantheon and were all very impressed with this marvelous building. In fact, it is probably the most impressive building in Rome. We also saw the grave of Rafael.

Afterwards, we walked a few blocks to the Church of St. Ignaisius, the founder of the Jesuits. The church contains a magnificent false dome.

It was approaching 12:30 and Gregory hurried us along to the church of San Luigi dei Francesi which contains paintings of St. Matthew by Caravaggio. Not knowing our schedule Sallie, Jody, Margaret, and Alan stopped to buy gelato. Pat and I continued on with Gregory as the church was about to close. The two of us were able to see the paintings while the rest of the group stayed outside and ate their ice cream.

Our next stop was in the Piazza Navona with the Fountain of Four Rivers. The Piazza was originally a race course and still retains the shape. Gregory explained the history of the fountain and the church that it faces – it seems that one was built by Bernini and the other by Barmini and that neither man really liked the other.

There was also a man wrapped in a skin tight gold suit with an Egyptian mask standing on a box in the square. In front of him was a box in which you could throw a coin. If you placed a coin in the box he would very slowly bow – other than this he never moved. Gregory rightly stated that the man knew that Italian boys would gladly throw in money to see something this foolish. Jody, being the big Italian (sarcasm), threw in a coin and we were rewarded with a bow.

It was now time for lunch and Gregory took us to a small restaurant nearby. The food was very good and very reasonable. Sallie ordered a potato pasta dish and I ordered a large salad and we split the two dishes. Alan had a spinach-filled ravioli with pumpkin sauce. This tasted good (very sweet) but I don’t think I would order it myself. Jody ordered a steak (beef, not horse – which was on the menu) and Pat and Margaret each had pasta.

After lunch Gregory pointed out a talking stone. In ancient Rome there were several stones scatter around the city on which people were free to place messages. The stones were dedicated to themes such as politics or religion. The one we saw was a “religious” stone and had several pro and con messages concerning the Roman Catholic Church.

We then got two taxies to take us to the Vatican Museum. I had read how at times it took 2+ hours just to get inside the museum due to the crowds. We walked right in, purchased tickets, and were on our way. The museum is huge and you could easily spend a whole day seeing all the exhibits. Gregory, being an art expert, concentrated on the works of art. He did skip the Egyptian exhibit with the mummies which I would have enjoyed seeing. What he did cover he covered in detail. I could write pages about the paintings, tapestries, sculptures, maps, engravings, etc. that we saw and he explained – but I won’t.

The main reason that everyone goes to the Vatican Museum is to see the Sistine Chapel – but take your time and enjoy the museum. Outside the chapel are posters showing the paintings. Gregory used one of these to explain everything in great detail. Inside the Sistine Chapel you are not suppose to talk – but everyone whispers and occasionally a voice over a loud speaker reminds everyone in 142 languages (seemingly) to shut their traps..

A restoration of the paintings was completed recently and they now look as if just painted. Soot had blackened the paintings over the centuries has been carefully removed leaving behind the brilliant colors. Gregory informed us that art historians are re-evaluating Michelangelo’s use of color based upon what has been reveled. Two small sections were left covered in soot to show how it looked formerly. The difference is astounding. The soot turned the brilliant paintings into dim, black drawings.

The chapel was fairly crowded with people – probably the most crowded place on the trip. Along the walls are benches where you may sit and stare upwards. We all sat and stared. After twenty minutes of staring and beginning to get a neck cramp (plus the place was about to close) we left. We exited the Chapel right next to the ticket booth to climb the dome of St. Peter’s. We had already thoroughly toured St. Peter’s on our own but Gregory had a few items he wanted to show us.

As we were entering St. Peter’s Sallie and I were goofing off which resulted in a Gregory rebuking us. Once inside we took another look at the Pieta. Alan and I stopped to take a picture and lost the rest of the group. The church was fairly crowded and we couldn’t spot them anywhere. We walked to the center of the church and were headed back to the front doors before we finally found them.

After showing us a few other items in the Church our 8-hour tour was finished. Outside, we paid Gregory for the day, and parted ways. It had been raining all day and was still drizzling steadily. We walked across the square and spent some time in a large book shop / souvenir shop. I purchased a book of pictures showing Rome and a “Then and Now” Book. This book has pictures with plastic overlays. The overlays show how Rome looked 2000 years ago and the picture shows the same site today.

We were all very tired by this time and thought about getting a taxi back to the hotel instead of trudging to the Metro. There was long line at the Taxi stand and we decided not to wait. We completely figured out the Metro by this time and soon found ourselves back at the hotel.

After a short rest, during which a thunderstorm came through, we went to the pizza place on the corner to buy supper. Tonight we bought pizza, rice balls, stuffed tomatoes with rice), water, etc. and brought the food back to hotel and ate in the large lobby. Afterwards, we played Spades for several hours with Sallie and Margaret vs. Jody and John.

Saturday, November 25

Yesterday was art, today is ruins – Roman Ruins that is. Today we are scheduled to spend 4 hours with Richard from Scala Reale visiting various ruins around Rome. Richard was an excellent guide who had just finished his dissertation with Stanford. He spent time explaining the sites we visited, suggested places to get good photos, volunteered to take pictures of our group, read us sections of ancient histories describing the sites we were viewing, and realized that it is nice to sit and relax occasionally.

We left the hotel at 9 a.m. for the 10 minute walk to the Colosseum. I had planned, but forgotten, to ask Gregory if he knew where the theater was in which we would be watching West Side Story. I was going to ask Richard when Sallie spotted the theater just two blocks from the hotel.

We spent the next four hours touring the Colosseum, the Arch of Constantine, the Arch of Titus, the Palatine Hill, the Circus Maximus, and the Roman Forum. The day was beautiful with blue skies and the temperature in the mid-sixties. The day before had been wet, but we were inside for most of the day. Today we were outside and we couldn’t have ordered a more perfect day.

We took a city bus back to the hotel. Richard recommended a small restaurant where we could eat lunch. He also drew a map to a gelato stand near our hotel. We had the Turistico Menu for lunch. It cost $10 each and included wine, a starter, a main dish, and a salad. We each ordered different items. I had a dish of meat balls and pasta. Pat had pasta with a wonderful garlic flavor.

After lunch we went back to the hotel and dropped off a few items before going to find the gelato. Hopefully we would have better luck this time. We almost didn’t find the store. We first went down the wrong street before realizing we should be over one more block. When we got to the correct street we went in the wrong direction for several blocks. We did pass a grocery store and it was interesting looking around inside. Heading back the correct way we finally found our gelato. The place was actually a factory where they made gelato. There was a very large counter with dozens of flavors.

After consuming huge amounts of gelato I waddled back to the hotel. We had two hours until the play started at 6:30 that night. I promptly took a nap. At 6 p.m. we gathered in the lobby dressed for the play. At the theater we found our seats on the left near the back, but with a good view.

What can I say about the play? Not much – to put it nicely it was terrible. I had seen West Side Story on t.v. years ago and knew the basic story – I also knew a little bit of the music. Now, what about this production? Let me just make a list:

Pro: 1. The singing was very good. 2. Parts of the play were innovative.

Cons: 1. The acting was terrible. It almost seemed as if the actors were making up their dialogue as they went along. 2. The play had been “modernized” but not in a good way. The dialogue was laced with profanity. Above the stage was a screen on which the Italian translation of the English dialogue was projected. It was interesting to note that none of the profanity was translated into the Italian. 3. Call me a prude but I don’t expect to see nudity in a production of West Side Story. 4. Parts of the innovation just didn’t work.

All in all I was extremely disappointed with the play and extremely glad when it was over. I was also grateful that I had only paid $12 for the ticket and that we hadn’t purchased the much more expensive tickets for Aida which was produced by the same company.

After the play Alan and I went to the ATM to withdraw some money. We planned on getting some food from the local pizza place but every restaurant we could find was already closed. I finally purchased two sandwiches and a bottle of water from the bar in the hotel ($4). We then played Spades for the next several hours. It was the usual teams and we decided the loser had to buy lunch the next day. Sallie and Margaret had a nice free lunch the next day at Hard Rock Café.

Sunday, November 26

Today was completely free for us to do whatever we wanted. We decided to go to the Catacombs along the Appian Way. To get there we followed the directions given in the RSB and arrived with no problems. We purchased an all day metro/bus pass to get around. We took the metro from our hotel to the Ponte Lungo stop. The bus stop was just outside the station. I asked the driver if this was the way to the Appian Way and he assured me that it was.

Twenty minutes later we found ourselves standing on the road by which Paul entered Rome. It was slightly raining as we started down the road to the catacombs. On the way we passed the large tomb of Caecilia Metella.

It only cost about two dollars to enter so we decided to look around. To me the most interesting part of the building is in the basement. Here you can see an ancient outflow of Lava. There are also very clean restrooms in the basement, just be careful, as the doors are hard to open and you can get stuck inside.

Continuing down the road we first came to the Catacombs of St. Sebastian which were closed for the day. Another half mile down the road we found the Catacombs of St. Callistus. I noticed a bus stop so I guess it is possible to take a bus directly to the Catacombs. There was a reasonable crowd but not too bad. After purchasing our tickets we waited about 15 minutes until the English Speaking Tour was called.

Our guide was an elderly man from Spain who gave an excellent presentation. The funniest thing he told us was, “The catacombs are 60 degrees, both summer and winter. And they are 120 feet deep, both summer and winter.”

I was completely surprised by the catacombs. I didn’t know what to expect but what I found wasn’t what I was expecting. I guess I have watched too many Indiana Jones films. I expected the catacombs to be narrow, small passages that you had to stoop and walk sideways to get through. What I found was a virtual underground city. Many of the passageways were 5 feet (or more across). In many places the ceiling was 30 feet or more above our heads. There were over twelve miles of passages on three different levels. We were allowed to only see two levels. I won’t go into the history of the catacombs here. I will greatly encourage anyone visiting Rome to take the time to visit one of the Catacombs surrounding the city.

As we emerged from beneath the earth we found that a storm had passed over. We could also hear a worship service nearby and the singing of familiar praise songs in Italian. We walked back down the Appian Way and proceeded in the opposite direction from the bus stop for some distance. Finally, having seen all we wished, we returned to the bus stop to await the next bus. None of us knew how often the bus stopped.

Next to the stop was a small snack shop where we purchased colas and pastries. Soon the bus returned and we head back to the metro. On the metro a young boy was playing a flute and asking for money. Jody gave him 10000 Lira. We made a quick stop at the hotel before heading to Via Veneto to eat lunch at the Hard Rock Café. As we exited the metro we were caught in a heavy downpour. We were saved by one of the omnipresent umbrella salesman.

The prices at Hard Rock were actually very reasonable – no more expensive than a T.G.I. or Chili’s back home. Hard Rock is o.k. but I don’t see the big thrill of it myself. We did drop a good bit of money in the gift shop buying presents for people back home.

After lunch we stopped at the bone church (San Maria Conzione - see description above). It was then back on the metro and to Spagna Stop so we could spend the rest of the day shopping. We spent the next several hours wandering the streets throwing money at things we didn’t really need. I managed to purchase $40 worth of chocolates to take back to family and friends (they will be lucky if they can pry any chocolate from my hands). The streets were packed with people – tourist and locals alike. It was fun just to people watch. We did stop in McDonald’s to take advantage of the facilities – and to gape at the full-service bar.

We shopped till we could shop no more, then headed back to the hotel. Another round of cards finished off the day before we headed to bed.

Monday, November 27

Today we would be going to Pompeii. I had arranged for a driver and a van through Scala Reale for $60 per person. Yes, I know you can go on the train for cheaper, but I had my reasons for doing it this way: 1) convenience; 2) we were on a tight time schedule and I didn’t want something like a train strike from stopping us; 3) cheaper than a “tour” bus.

Our driver arrived at the hotel a few minutes after 8 a.m. Monday morning. The skies were a brilliant blue and it promised to be a great day. We slowly made our way out of Rome – the traffic coming into the city was bumper to bumper.

The road we traveled on (at times over 100 mph) was a very modern highway. We were travelling in a very nice van with two seats in the front, three bucket seats in the middle, and two bucket seats in the back. Our driver was named Max, a young twenty-something. Going and returning Max stopped at a truck stop so we could get snacks, walk around, and use the toilets. He even purchased a bag of candy for us to snack on. Max knew the way to a good tip is through chocolate.

The drive to Pompeii gave us a chance to see some of the country outside of Rome – limited to what you could see from the highway. Most of the way seemed to be in a valley between two mountain ranges. Scattered on the sides of these hills were small villages.

Actually, our plan was to first go to the Archeological Museum in Naples. This museum contains many artifacts (especially frescos) from Pompeii. We saw very little of Naples but what we did see is not encouraging. It seems to be just an extremely large town with little character.

Max dropped us off right in front of the museum at 11 p.m. The museum is housed in a very large building. The entrance fee was about $8 and you could rent a cd-guide for an extra fee. We just used the RSB. It seemed that nearly half of the museum was closed for renovation. This proved Richard right when he said you could never tell what you would be able to see. Even with parts of the museum closed, it was definitely worth seeing.

The frescos are amazingly bright and detailed. It was interesting to note on a painting of a man riding a horse that the harnesses of two millennium ago are exactly the same as today. I also noticed that the Romans had mastered perspective and depth in painting, an art lost until the 14th century (if I remember my art appreciation correctly). My favorite item in the museum was a small metal statue of a leaping pig.

We finished the museum in an hour and were soon on the 30 minute journey across town to Pompeii. Looming over Pompeii and Naples is Mount Vesuvius. If the mountain blew today millions of people would die. With that lovely thought we had to decide where to eat lunch. Max suggested a restaurant just down the hill from the entrance to Pompeii. This sounded fine to us and we asked Max to join us.

The restaurant was large and nice, but empty. This mainly had to do with the fact that we were there during the off-season. I imagine during the summer that the place is packed. We let Max order and had a very interesting lunch. We started with a wide variety of dishes as starters. These included: bread, brushetta (tomato on bread), anchovies, octopus with tomato sauce and bread, crab, squid, shrimp, potato balls, seaweed balls, ham and mozzarella cheese. Our main course was spaghetti with sauce and parmesian cheese.

Now, I don’t think any of us would have ordered some of these dishes, but it was an interesting cultural experience. This also turned out to be the most expensive meal on our trip costing about $22 each. As I had been wanting to go out somewhere and try a variety of “Italian” dishes this worked out well.

I mentioned to Max that this was the most expensive meal yet on the trip – and he was shocked. I believe he thought all “tourist” were rich and that most of the places the people he chauffeured wanted to go to were much more expensive. It was interesting talking with Max about the different customs between Italy and America. I did learn that you don’t eat bread with pasta!

After lunch we went to Pompeii. We purchased our tickets – there is an ATM machine right beside the ticket booth. We also decided to hire a guide to show us around. I wanted a guide because we only had about 2.5 hours and I didn’t want to get lost. Don’t laugh, Pompeii is four square miles.

Our guide did a great job of showing us the most interesting areas of Pompeii. I would like to return one day and spend more time thoroughly exploring the site. I would also like to be able to go to the top of Vesuvius and see the crater.

What a great day to visit Pompeii. The temperature was in the mid-sixties and the sky was cloudless. There were very few people and many parts of the city we had to ourselves. We did pass, but didn’t enter, a large snack shop / gift shop that has been built inside the city.

The city itself is incredible. The people in Pompeii had running water, flush toilets, sliding doors, one-way streets, fast food, and ways to heat and cool their houses. And while I had heard that the city was preserved – it is hard to believe just how well it is preserved. Probably the most famous, and deservedly so, part of Pompeii, are the people of Pompeii.

When the volcano erupted, ash covered the city to a depth of 30 feet. “No Lava in Pompeii, just ash” as our Guide told us 40 to 50 times. The people of Pompeii actually died of asphyxiation. The explosion sucked the oxygen out of the air. They were then buried so quickly that some were still in a sitting position when found. The ash hardened around their bodies. After their bodies decayed it left a cavity. As the site was excavated plaster would be poured into these cavities resulting in a perfect cast of the victims. Many of these cast reveal the people covering their eyes and mouth with their hands to protect themselves from the ash.

Our time in Pompeii went by quickly and the Sun was going down as we left. Outside the gates we stopped at a souvenir stand. I purchased a lava necklace for Beth, some postcards, and a “Then and Now” book of Pompeii.

Max was waiting for us in the van across the street. It was dark as we left Naples behind and headed back to Rome. I think everyone (except Max) fell asleep on the way back. We stopped once at the truck stop. We were back at the hotel a little after seven.

Alan and I wanted to do some shopping but I first had to go to the ATM. Afterwards, we stopped at a hat store. Alan and I each purchased a hat. I also bought a hat for a friend back home. As we were entering the hotel Pat came out and ask me to go shopping with her. There are many stores around the square and just a few doors down from the hotel we found a large department store. Pat purchased a little girls outfit for Sheila’s collection. I bought a small stuffed moose to give to a friend at work.

Back at the hotel I spent some time packing my bags. I put all of my clothes in a large bag and used my carry-on to hold all the gifts I had purchased. This was the most I have ever purchased on any trip.

Later, we walked down to the small pizza place at the end of the block and purchased dinner. We carried the food back to the hotel to eat. Afterwards, Sallie, Margaret, Jody, and I played Spades for a couple of hours before going to bed.

Tuesday, November 28

It was time to return home. We were packed and waiting in the lobby at 8 a.m. for the van to the airport. As we left the town we passed the Colosseum and crossed over the Tiber. Check-in went smoothly, almost. Everyone else quickly checked-in and got their boarding pass. Margaret and I were in a different line. The lady behind the counter had absolutely no idea what she was doing. Each time she had to enter something into the computer she had to get a supervisor to help her. It took nearly 30 minutes for Margaret and I to get our boarding passes.

Once through security it was time to spend the lira I had left over. I purchased shirts for Paige and Clint and a calendar for myself. We then hopped the tram out to the International Terminal. Sallie, Jody, and Alan had staked out seats for us at the gate. Boarding started on schedule and Alan once again got taken aside to be searched by a man carrying a large machine gun. This happens to Alan everytime we travel.

The plane was only three-quarters full and I two seats to myself (aisle and window). We flew north along the coast and the view was incredible. I could see roads encircling the islands we passed over and each of the tiny villages. On the ocean I could see fleets of fishing vessels. We eventually climbed above a level of clouds and the view of the ground disappeared.

We had a decent meal and I watched one movie and part of another. The first movie was about a group of ballet students in New York. The second movie was “Small Time Crooks” This is a Woody Allen movie that quickly had me snoring. I managed to sleep four or five hours. The flight back was nearly two hours longer than the flight over.

We arrived in Philadelphia with nearly three hours before our connection to Birmingham. This time we didn’t have to run. After finding our gate, Margaret, Alan, Jody, and I went to find somewhere to eat. Margaret wanted Burger King after seeing someone walk by with a bag – twenty minutes and a mile later we finally found a Whopper.

Back at the gate we pulled out the cards and played Spades as we waited for our flight. The flight back to Birmingham was uneventful and I slept most of the way. Margaret’s father was waiting for her when we landed. Sheila and Aunt Peggy arrived just as we were collecting our luggage. Back at the house we spent an hour talking about our trip.

Wednesday, November 29

I was up at 4 a.m., back at the airport at 5 a.m., with a 6 a.m. departure for Chicago. Of course I forgot to call and see if the plane was on time. My flight was delayed until an 8:30 departure. This would mean that I would miss my 10:30 flight to Madison so they rebooked me on a noon flight arriving into Madison at 12:50.

I purchased breakfast from McDonalds, a USA Today to see if we had a president yet, and Michael Crichton’s new book “Timeline”. I quickly read through the USA Today and then spotted the current Discover Magazine that someone had left on a seat. So I grabbed it and it kept me occupied until about halfway to Chicago.

We boarded at 8:30 and as the flight wasn’t very full I headed towards the back and grabbed two seats. Just as I got comfortable a family arrived and insisted I had their seats (which I did). Why they just didn’t sit in one of the 30 empty seats around us I will never know. Anyway, I got up and moved to another seat.

After we landed in Chicago the flight attendant asked if the “passenger to Madison” would identify himself to the agent who would meet the plane. At the bottom of the stairs was a customer service agent who was to escort me directly across the tarmac to the Madison flight that was waiting for me. They even made sure that my checked baggage made it onto the same flight. I walked onto the second plane, grabbed a seat, and they immediately begin shutting the doors. It seems that they had waited on just me (even though I had been rebooked for a later flight). Once again, despite the delays, I am extremely pleased with the customer service of United Express – Air Wisconsin. I arrived in Madison and had the additional pleasure of seeing my luggage as the first two bags through the carousel.

A friend of mine was waiting to drive me home. This had been a terrific trip. One day I would like to return to Italy to see the rest of the country.

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