Saturday, January 14, 2012

Roma: Highlights and Disappointments

San Giovanni in Laterano
Churches - The churches in Rome are as varied and plentiful as in Paris and everyone has a favourite.  My favourite is St John's in Lateran, with St. Peter's in second, and Santa Maria in Aracoeli rounding out the top three.

The churches are free to enter.  If you like what you see, please leave an offering to help maintain the site for others.

The Spanish Steps - If you need to rest your feet and are anywhere near the Spanish Steps you should tough it out until you get there.  The Spanish Steps provide you with an excellent perch for people watching, a sunny spot for rejuvenating, and relative peace for contemplation.  I enjoyed it often and always with some wine and salami.

If you need something besides wine to drink, the water spewing from Bernini's boat at the base of the steps (not that Bernini but his father) is said to have the sweetest drinking water of Rome.  I thought it was okay.

Colosseum - It is everything you think it'll be and more.  I didn't go inside the Colosseum, so I can't speak to the virtue of that aspect, but the exterior is overwhelming.

If you can get to the hill at the back, by the Arch of Constantine, there's a couple of spots to perch and people watch (another spot I enjoyed often, usually with wine and salami).

Piazza Monti
Piazzas and Fountains - I had seen maps of Rome and, after observing the lack of green space, assumed the absence of parks would be a bad thing.  On the contrary, though there are lovely parks, mostly outside the city walls, the plethora of piazzas more than make up for the lack of lawn within the city walls.

Additionally, the art of every single fountain, the larger ones being located in the piazzas, is breathtaking.  What was originally just a way to get running water to the people became something else entirely when it was decided to create art for something so practical.

Vatican City - Not a place I expected to be impressed with so it makes it even more surprising that it's one of my favourite spots.  St. Peter's is beyond impressive (don't miss the Papal Tombs, they're a bit tricky to find) and the Vatican Museum is akin to the Louvre.  After you visit the Pope's Apartments and the Sistine Chapel (in that order), don't miss the contemporary arts section (seriously, it can be easily missed).  This section was almost completely devoid of other admirers, leaving us alone with Salvador Dali, Vincent van Gogh, Francis Bacon, Otto Dix, Paul Gauguin, Paul Klee, and Max Ernst (among others).  We kept pinching ourselves when we would turn a corner and come face to face with another masterpiece; completely unexpected and amazing.

Lido di Ostia, last sunset of 2011
Beach - The easiest beach to get to from Rome, Lido di Ostia is beautiful.  The beach is long and wide and the sand is lovely.  We whiled away many hours on this beach, even forgoing the much-hyped Ostia Antica for some wine drinking whilst ensconced in sand and the sounds of crashing waves.

Cheap Travel - Everyone I talked to about Rome before I left had mentioned that train travel is cheap in Italy, but I didn't actually believe any of them since my idea of cheap is entirely different than most anyone's.  However, in this instance, I should have trusted them.

It cost less than €6 for a return ticket to Tivoli, less than €4 for a return ticket to Castel Gandolfo, and €2 for a return ticket to the beach.  Had I expected travel to be so cheap I would've researched other day trips, perhaps even forgoing 25 days in Rome, opting instead for a few days exploring other areas of Italy.  Lesson learned.

Pantheon - Yes, the Pantheon is a church but it is also so much more than that and really is in a class of its own.  It's amazing.

Borghese Gallery
Borghese Museum and Gallery - This is one of those 'must-sees' but for €15 for two hours (each ticket comes with a two hour window with mandatory departure) and only one breathtaking piece, Bernini's Pluto and Proserpina, it's not worth it.  Bernini's Apollo and Daphne and Canova's Pauline Bonaparte do deserve honourable mentions, and I'm glad I saw them while I was there, but three pieces and a small palazzo do not justify more than I paid for the Louvre.  I want my money back.

If you insist on going, buy your ticket at the museum.  Contrary to all reports, you don't have to buy the ticket online and you'll save €3 if you buy it in person (you will most likely be buying for a future date, however).

The crowd at Trevi Fountain
Crowds - I was not prepared for the crowds.  I expected Christmas and New Year's to be low season but, obviously, I didn't take into consideration the number of religious tourists.  Apparently, Rome is big with the pilgrims during this time of year; something to do with the Pope and a Christmas message, I think.  Regardless, from 26 Dec to 6 Jan I was surrounded by people, ass to cheek.  I was not mentally prepared for that.

Additionally, one cannot go anywhere in Rome without being accosted by myriad aggressive street vendors. There are a few legitimate kiosks, and I strongly encourage you to patronise these, but the (mostly) men with the pashminas, scarves, glass cubes, tripods, and sunglasses were the bane of my days in Rome and may be the reason I was so disenchanted so quickly with the city.

If you're not sure if the vendor you're dealing with is legitimate, wait until a police car rolls around.  If the guy doesn't run, he's good to deal with.  If you can't find him, it's because he ran far and fast while you were pondering that purchase because the penalty seems to be pretty terrifying and definitely not worth the €2 you were going to pay for that scarf.

Admission Fees - The only thing free in Rome are the churches and that seems to be in some sort of limbo since the 'Offerta' signs are pretty egregious.  Some churches are completely dark unless you put money into a machine which then produces light (I'm looking at you, Popolo).

Vittorio Emanuele II Monument
The aforementioned Borghese Gallery was €15, the Colosseum was €12 (I think, I didn't partake), Ostia Antica had an admission fee (I bypassed it in favour of a free day at the beach), everything recommended in Tivoli costs (which leaves nothing free to do in the entire town but sit in the piazza), and none of the museums are free.

The Vittorio Emanuele II monument is free and the Vatican Museums are worth every penny but everything else just makes you feel dirty.  The only place in the entire city where I felt clean was in Vatican City.  St. Peter's doesn't whore itself for your €0.50 and even has a free exhibition about Gaudi's Sagrada Família which was interesting.

Food - The only street food kiosks are located at the tourist sites, making them extremely expensive. There are no cheap rotisserie chickens (€3 in Paris, £4 in London), no cheap falafel stands.  Besides the tourist sites, there is no street food.

Pizza is cheap, usually sold by the etto (I may have seen some tourist shops selling them by the slice, though).  Panini can be cheap if purchased away from the kiosks and tourist sites.  That's about it for variety.

Vino della casa, or table wine, was typically €4 for a half litre but rarely seen (I had expected every restaurant to have table wine).  Chinese food is available and cheaper than Italian, Indian food is available but much more expensive.

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