Thursday, March 12, 2009

Rome - the long version

This is a long one! We have been wanting to go to Rome since before we arrived in Europe. It has been 4 years now and when I happened to see the EasyJet price I figured no time like the present. So I bought 4 tickets, one way, to Rome. No place to stay and no way to get back. I felt so spontaneous, so adventurous, so reckless. I booked a hotel the next day and our return tickets by train a week or so later.

We arrived at the Ciampono airport in the late afternoon and easily found a shuttle bus to take us to the main train station. Michael fell asleep during the 40 minute ride, but Chris, Lucas, and I were glued to the windows checking out all the sights. Our hotel was supposed to be right at the metro stop. Alas I foolishly concluded that the building numbers would be synchronized on both sides. As the number on the other side of the road was about 100 off from what we were looking for I thought perhaps we were off by one metro stop. We walked back only to realize that on the even-numbered side we had grossly missed our building (a military complex between the two stops precluded any interim building number information). Tired and frustrated we walked back to the original metro stop and found the hotel right at the metro exit across the street from where we had originally exited. Arghh!

We checked in and were pleasantly surprised by our 2-star quadruple. The room was very clean and massive when compared to the 3-star doubles we had in Paris and in Madrid. We got a recommendation of a nice, cheap place to eat close by and had pizza for dinner. We then strolled over to take a look at the Vatican under an impressive full-moon. The boys enjoyed running around St. Peter's square and made up games incorporating the many different patterns in the square's architecture. Geeks.

The next morning we went back to the Vatican intending to take the tour there since Lucas wanted to start with the Sistine chapel. A Japanese tour guide was taken with our boys and came over to chat with them. She told us that the pope would be giving some sort of reception and as a result the Vatican would be shut down around noon, it would be best to come back the next day. Luckily it also turned out that Lucas REALLY meant the colosseum when he said the Sistine chapel, a mistake that he still makes. Not sure what the origin or implication of that name substitution is.

Leaving the metro at the Colosseo stop is breathtaking. Leaving the modern confines of mass transit, before your eyes can adjust to the outside light, you are struck by this immense wonder of the ancient world. I guess we were pretty early as we were not assaulted on our way to the entrance by people hawking tours as we were every other time we tried to approach the Colosseum. Nonetheless as we paused at the entrance, making sure we were in the correct ticket line we were approached to join a tour. For this tour the kids were reasonably cooperative and were mostly quiet.

The tour continued after lunch at the forum. Over lunch, the intermittent rain and hail started to pick up. We bought a quick lunch to go and went to the rendez-vous point. After standing in the wind and rain for 10 minutes we were told there would be a 20 minute delay. For 10 minutes I had already been trying to cajole Lucas into a good mood, it was a lost cause now. We huddled under a colossal arch and munched on sandwiches and pastries while Lucas became a broken record of wanting to go back to the hotel (where the front desk had a beckoning candy dish). The tour started and the guide was fabulous, at least the bits that I heard. Chris and I took turns standing with Lucas several meters away so that the incessant whining wouldn't annoy any of the other tourists. After 40 minutes the tour was done and Lucas's mood change was almost instantaneous. Lucas and Michael enjoyed running around and playing "fight" game, a game that persisted the rest of the trip and to this day. The rain gave way to some pretty strong hail at one point, it was surreal being in the middle of these ancient Roman ruins, hail pelting down, and nary another tourist in sight (wimps). I kept trying to imagine what kind of crowds would have been pressing around us if we were there in the summer time. As we checked out the rest of the forum the boys had fun jumping between rocks while streams of rainwater ran down from the surrounding hills and collected into nice large puddles. Inevitably we had a fall. Michael fell in a huge puddle and soaked his pants. Trying to travel light I of course didn't have a change of clothes with us. We left the forum in search of either a café for some soul-warming hot chocolate or a children's clothing store for some leg-warming new pants. We found the hot chocolate first.
Next stop was the basilica of St. Clemente which was quite pretty in its own right, but had a special hidden secret. Down into the basement there were many early medieval wall paintings left over from the first basilica, burned to the ground by the nasty Normans. It felt very Angels and Demons-ish with all the little hidden rooms and corridors beneath the innocent looking sanctuary. Then we descended even further and there was the remains of a second century Mithraic temple.

We went off in search of some dinner. Apparently the restaurant we chose is well-known among the Japanese tourists as we were the only non-Japanese customers. After dinner (the boys had pizza again) we went back to the Colosseum to see it lit up at night. We walked, the boys ran, all the way around the perimeter. This time it was Lucas who tried to jump over a puddle and failed. The puddle was much deeper than it appeared and Lucas's only pair of footwear were completely soaked. Ugh. We went back to the hotel for the night.

We decided to stick with the tour company of the day before and joined their Vatican tour. First we inquired about the closest supermercato where we bought some lunch supplies and 2 bags of candy. Again it was a lot of waiting around for all the stragglers to arrive before the tour began (why are we always the losers who are on time, or even early??). Luckily it was sunny out and our meeting place had ample running room. The tour was to use a receiver and earphones so we didn't worry so much about the children's chatter, everyone had volume control if necessary. Michael took off his headset after a few short minutes. Lucas was off and on his and the tour guide was pretty careful with her descriptions to be more PG. The tour was great, but there were several sessions of standing around for 20 minutes of explanations that got tiring for the boys and for the pregnant lady. Thankfully the candies did the trick and with each hint of a whine, every start of boredom induced fooling around, another lollipop made an appearance. We made it through the whole 3 hour tour with not a single tantrum! The Sistine chapel was neat. I had read many reviews that it was a little disappointing so my expectations were a little lowered, and I did find it smaller than I anticipated. On the other hand, our tour guide did such an awesome job of telling us little things to look for that it felt very special.

We ate our packed lunch in St. Peter's square while the boys chased pigeons. We then made our way down the r
oad to the Castel Sant'Angleo. Originally a mausoleum for roman emporer Hadrian, also a fortress and finally a papal castle, it is a huge building. It was described as a good place for the kids to burn off some energy running up the wide ramps to the different levels. Michael enjoyed playing "king of the castle" and both boys were obsessed with play fighting for the duration of our time in there. Perhaps some of the aura of the history of the place was influencing them (disregarding the fact that they had been, were, and continue to play fight no matter where they are). We had a nice snack up there and then headed off across the Ponte Sant'Angelo in search of the Piazza Navona. Lucas began complaining that his legs hurt and we were worried that perhaps his little feet might be sore after a day of walking in those puddle-drenched shoes. He rested with Michael on a bench near one of the "funny" Bernini fountains while Chris and I inspected the sights. We next stopped briefly at the Pantheon before deciding to find a place to eat. As we were deep in the tourist section we accepted the first persistent invitation..... to a pizzeria of course.

We were seated next to a table of women on vacation from Britain. They were having a hoot and with mild coaxing from Chris, Lucas was soon at their table regaling them with stories. With only minor amounts of whining we were on the road again to stop at the Trevi fountain. The boys loved that. They loved mostly that we threw money into the fountain, something they have never before witnessed. Legend says that throwing money into the Trevi fountain ensures a return trip to Rome, so I call it an investment in my children's future. It also happens to be one of the big things the boys tell people about our trip, so it apparently made a big impression.

Our last day I planned to take the tram to the Villa Borghese, a nice big green space with lots of room for running around. Lucas had been wanting to take the tram since we arrived (he is a little transportation obsessed) and I thought it would be a nice way to start off the last day. Alas, this was the first day that instead of a tram it was an overcrowded bus, full of preteen students on some outing. We got to the park and had a little trouble navigating it, it was so huge. I was looking for either the Biopark (zoo) or the Ludoteque (children's space). Eventually we found the Ludoteque (closed until the afternoon) with a small playground. We let the kids play for a while before heading ba
ck to see some final sights in the downtown region. It was nice exploring without having to hold hands or worry about them toppling over some ancient artifacts for a while and we found a really cool statue of the devil and Faust behind the likeness of Goethe. We walked over to the Spanish steps and took a break in front of the fountain. I suspect the steps are more impressive when not viewed in the middle of winter. We then wandered over to the mausoleum of Augustus, closed for repairs, but kind of cool nonetheless. Lucas ran to see a fountain and managed to sink his foot into it. I don't know what it is about travel and kids getting soakers! We slowly (all of us were foot-sore by now) made our way over to the Altare della Patria, or the National Monument of Victor Emmanuel II, an ostentatious building of white marble as only the Italians could do. For his passion for European diplomacy strategy games, Chris needed a picture of himself in front of this pompous erection. We then made our way to the train station obscenely early for our night train, but we were all exhausted and finished with Rome.
Whenever we told people our intention to book two beds on the night train to share between the four of us the reaction was that it would be far too crowded for that. We were therefore pleasantly surprised by the amount of room in our little double (two single beds, no other passengers in our room). Lucas and Chris were up top and Michael and I snuggled into the bottom bunk. Until about 1am. I had heard Lucas coughing away and started to fear he was going to get sick. Sure enough he sat up and said he was going to barf. I quickly grabbed a plastic bag out of the trash while Chris quickly lowered Lucas to the floor and we completely contained an impressive amount of waste within the thankfully hole-less bag. We gave Lucas a chewable Gravol. To be on the safe side Lucas stayed down on the bottom bunk, but sleeping with the two boys, an overactive pregnancy bladder, and the fear of a repeat vomit performance kept me from getting much more sleep.
Rome was great, the train was an interesting experience and I would do it again. The boys were most impressed with the Colosseum, the Trevi fountain, and living at a hotel, the hotel candy dish gets an honourable mention.