While Will was off touring Budapest and Vienna, I made a stop in Rome to visit some old friends and to explore one of the most magnificent cities in the world. I split with Will at the airport in Barcelona before boarding a couple of quick flights to get me into Rome. Unfortunately the time I could spend in Rome was limited, but I thought that I would be ok because I was in good hands with my friends who after living in Rome for some time now have become expert tour guides of the city.
Before I start flying through the week and sharing with you over a hundred pictures of Rome, let me quickly introduce a few of the new characters that I will be talking about in this post (aka. my friends in Rome). When I was a baby my family had a few au pairs (defined by Wikipedia as – “a domestic assistant working for, and living as part of, a host family.”) from Europe living with us and helping to raise my brother and I while my mom was working. They would come for six months to one year and live with us and when one went home we would find another to welcome to the family. That was around 20-25 years ago and amazingly we still keep in touch with a few of our au pairs which is a lot of fun now that they are grown and have families of their own.
In Rome I was lucky enough to have one of our au pairs, Valerie, who we knew as French, but who has lived in Rome for some time now and raises her family there, to host me for the few days that I was there. She has two high school aged daughters who I’ve got to see grow up since they were babies as our families have met up every couple of years since we first met Valerie a quarter century ago. Usually I see Valerie and the girls in the states, so I was thrilled to be able to come to their home and see how they live in Rome.
On my first day in Rome I was picked up at the airport by Valerie and introduced to my tour guide for the week – her 16 year old daughter Marion. Marion qualified as the most eligible tour guide in the family because her parents were both busy at work and her little sister was out of town for most of my stay in Rome. Although normally one might be skeptical about how well a young adult could guide a stranger through one of the most historical and complicated cities in the world, as it turns out, Marion really knows her stuff and made an excellent tour guide for the week. I was joking with her at the end of the week that she needs to start giving paid tours of the city to make some extra money for shopping.
Alright, we’re now five paragraphs into this one and I haven’t shared any pictures or described anything in Rome yet. If you’re still awake and with me – I’m shocked – but appreciative of your focus. So once I dropped off my bags at Valerie’s condo , Marion and I set off for a quick lunch before making our way down to the Vatican and our first sight of the grand tour she had carefully planned, St. Peters Basilica. Our lunch consisted of a Caprese Salad to start, I took Ravioli for my main and Marion went with the Risotto. Everything was delicious, but the food only continued to get even better as the week went on.
By the time we made it to the Vatican, it was already approaching late afternoon and you could see that a lot of the tourists in the area were tired and everyone was starting to wrap up their tourist activities for the day. That was good for us because that meant the line to get inside St. Peters Basilica wasn’t as long as one might expect in August. After briefly checking out St. Peters Square, which is the huge public space in front of St. Peters Basilica, Marion and I got in line for the “Climbing the Cupola” tour. This incredible experience involves walking up 320 steps to the dome that is the crown of the Basilica. On your way up you get an amazing view from the gallery inside of the dome looking down into the Basilica. Once you reach the top you actually go outside on a 360 degree balcony at the top of the Cupola where you receive breathtaking views of all of Rome. It is very crowded at the top, but understandably considering how small the space is and how popular of an attraction climbing the cupola is. This experience was my favorite of everything I did while I was in Rome and it is 100% a must do on any first visit to Rome.
After finishing our climb down from the cupola we exited straight into St. Peters Basilica and were able to walk around. The inside of the Basilica is almost beyond words and it is one of the top 10 most impressive buildings I have ever walked through in my life. I remember when Will and I were walking through the Mezquita de Cordoba in Granada, Spain; I was overly impressed with the scale of the building and the intricate detail of the design. However, Will really wasn’t. We talked about it for a while and the conclusion we came to was that Will had seen more churches in Europe than I had, including St. Peters, and he swore that I would understand once I got to Rome and stepped foot into St. Peters. Well, Will was right and it proved again that everything is relative. Take a 10 year old boy from the corn fields in Ohio on a trip to Cincinnati and he will be blown away by the downtown skyline. Then take that same boy after to Manhattan to see the most famous skyline in the world and instantly Cincinnati will become less grand in his mind without any physical change to the city’s skyline.
Once we were done exploring the basilica we made our way back out to St. Peters Square and tried to soak it all in one more time and hopefully commit the amazing and powerful views to memory. Instantly this area had become one of the top places I had been in the world and I was so happy to finally be in Rome after dreaming of visiting for so many years.
That evening Valerie made reservations at one of her favorite restaurants in Rome and one of her good friends from Melbourne joined us for the night. Wow, was the food incredible and the relaxed outdoor ambiance was a great setting to catch up with old friends. We talked a lot about travel and about my time in Melbourne while sharing an endless number of laughs. I was really enjoying my time in Rome and it was great to be in such good company.
On the second morning and my first full day in Rome, Marion and I set our alarms and woke up early (to Valerie’s surprise!) and made our way to the Vatican Museums early in the morning. The August tourist crowds in Rome can be overwhelming so you have to be smart and plan your day strategically to make sure you don’t waste all of your precious time standing in boring lines. Even with our planning I think we had to wait in line for over an hour to get into the Vatican Museums, but when we saw the line was over double the size a couple of hours later when we walked out of the Museums we were happy that we got there early.
According to my “Top Tourist Site Bible” – www.hillmanwonders.com – the Vatican Museums are one of the top 200 places to see in the world, but Mr. Hillman doesn’t think they are worthy of a top 100 ranking. There are at least five museums that he thinks are more impressive – The Metropolitan Museum (New York), The Egyptian Museum (Cairo), The Louvre (Paris), The British Museum (London) and The Hermitage Museum (St. Petersburg). I’ve been to three of the top five museums in the world according to Hillman and I can say with confidence that I believe the Vatican Museums deserve to be right up there with that group. Every room you enter is absolutely stunning and it is my favorite museum in the world. Some might argue that it’s collection is not diverse enough to be compared to the Mett or the British Museum, which both contain pieces from all over the world and spread across thousands of year, and while I definitely agree with the factuality of that statement, for me a lot of the pieces in both of those Museums are not impressive and a lot of the rooms are boring to walk through. Looking at porcelain pots from thousands of years ago doesn’t do anything for me. Looking at rooms that are filled with hundreds of statues and others that have intricate oil paintings that cover every square inch of the room beyond the floor is impressive for me. Further more, if you want to discount the Vatican because of the diversity of it’s collection, than the Egyptian Museum needs to fall as well. Lastly the Egyptian Museum doesn’t have air conditioning and you sweat like a pig when you walk through it!
So now that we have established that I love the Vatican Museums, I’ll let you skim through all of the pictures below to let you form an opinion. This place is truly amazing and somewhere I definitely will walk through on every return visit I make to Rome for the rest of my life.
After we finished with the Vatican Museums, Marion planned out a route through the city that would take us by all of her favorite sites and ultimately would end at the Coliseum on the other side of town late in the afternoon. The Coliseum is quite far from the Vatican so we made the first part of our journey by bus before continuing on by foot the rest of the day. I don’t know remember the names of everything we passed by, but I did my best to label all of the pictures below. On this several hour long walk (more like a slow stroll) we passed by the famous Trevi fountain, several Egyptian obelisks, The Pantheon, The Forum, a massive war memorial and countless other impressive buildings. The tight alley walkways and frequent public squares you find while walking through the streets of Rome scream old Europe. I love walking through cities and European cities are some of the best to just casually stroll through because of the impressive architecture and the popular street cafes that are great for people watching.
Our walk ended at the Coliseum late in the afternoon. Luckily the usually horrendously long line to go inside had died off and we were able to make our way inside after waiting less than thirty minutes. The inside isn’t quite as impressive of what you expect after watching the movie Gladiator a few times, but if you shut your eyes and use your imagination you can really feel the place come alive. A tour of the Coliseum ranks behind all things Vatican for me, but if you have the time I wouldn’t advise against it.
We ended our phenomenal day of touring with another delicious meal that Valerie organized for us. She found a great restaurant right next to the Trevi Fountain, which shocked me because I figured all of the places around the Trevi Fountain would be tourist traps with overpriced poor quality food. I went with the Pumpkin Ravioli for my main and wow was I impressed. I’m not a food critic so my vocabulary is not loaded up with all of the necessary adjectives to colorfully describe what I was tasting, but in the land of amazing food (aka. Italy) this was the best food that I tasted all week. After dinner we joined the horde of tourists outside the Trevi fountain trying to take extremely difficult night shots of what is possibly the most beautiful fountain in the world. It was a perfect end to a perfect day. I was already in love with Rome and I was thrilled that I had such great company to show me around the city.
The following morning we set our alarms early once again and met up with Marion’s dad Pascal outside of the city for breakfast. The plan for the day was to travel by car along the Tiber River leading from Rome out to the coast. Once there we were going to explore the old coastal town of Ostia Antica which today is one of the most impressive remaining Roman ruins in Italy. According to Hillman, Ostia Antica is one of the top 200-1000 sites in the world to visit. I agree with him on where he put Ostia Antica on the list, but due to its massive size I think it belongs much closer to 200 than 1000. It makes a really great day trip from Rome if you have an extra day and have already seen all of the major attractions in the city.
Pascal was my official tour guide for the day. This would be his 15th time taking a group on a tour of Ostia Antica, however it would be his first time doing so in English. Previously all of his tours were either in French or Italian. It was impressive to me that he was able to speak in three languages alone, but as we progressed through his three hour tour of the ruins it became quickly apparent to me how much research he had done on the area. He was extremely knowledgeable and perhaps the best tour guide I had in ten months traveling the world. It was slightly humorous that he was a family friend and not a professional tour guide.
I think the pictures I’ve included with this blog do a great job of detailing out Ostia Antica for you so I’m not going to say much more about the place. One thing you might not be able to grasp from the pictures alone is the scale of the place. To put it in perspective, Pascal has given 15 three-hour long walking tours of the area and he is quick to admit that he has still only scratched the surface of the place. It is absolutely HUGE and if you were really interested in history, you could easily spend a week checking out the city. I don’t recommend that, but you could.
Once we made our way back into the city after Ostia Antica Pascal treated Marion and I to a delicious lunch before dropping us back at her mom’s condo. The food in Italy was quickly cementing itself as some of the best in the world. As I sit here writing this, I’m really struggling to come up with any other country that I have traveled to that can compete. If you go to Italy – EAT!
We spent the evening relaxing at the condo with some Italian pizza and some nice Italian wine. Valerie had big plans for us for Saturday and we wanted to make sure we were all well rested.
On Saturday morning we set our alarms (again…haha!) and packed up the car to make a two-hour drive south to the coastal town of Sperlonga. Valerie wanted to show me an old coastal join and the beautiful surrounding beaches. Just two hours outside of the city it made a very convenient and easy day trip. The water was clean and at a perfect temperature for swimming and the views of the beach and the city were incredible. One notable item from our day at the beach was the absolutely ludicrous amount we were charged to rent three chairs and an umbrella on the beach for the day. I was used to spending a couple of dollars to rent this setup in Brasil and a few other places, but in Italy on this Saturday we had to fork up around $50 for the same thing. I guess going to the beach is a luxury!
The entire beach experience was incredible and it makes me want to plan a longer trip to explore several Italian coastal towns. Italy has so much to explore and I only got a small taste of it on my trip there. I am dying to go back!
We returned from the beach pretty late at night and again we just relaxed at the condo because we were all very tired from the long day at the beach.
On my last full day in Rome we all decided to catch up on our sleep and so nobody set alarms the previous evening. When I did wake up fully rested I was thrilled to see Valerie was in the kitchen cooking up one of my favorite foods in the world and one that she introduced to our family 20 years ago when she was living with us in the states – CREPES! If there ever was a guaranteed way to make me happy, cooking up crepes for breakfast is it. We enjoyed our crepes and cleaned up before making our way in the car to the coast to pick up Marion’s sister Julie off of a ferry from her 2-week holiday in Sardegna. I was bummed about only getting to see Julie for one day while I was in Rome, but I guess spending time for one day together beats not seeing each other at all. She entered the car bearing lots of gifts for the family from Sardegna and she even brought me a cool pair of typical Italian style sunglasses that you’ll see me wearing in our pictures of Turkey on the blog.
Our last day was pretty quiet outside of picking up Julie off of the ferry. For dinner that night the four of us headed into the city for one last time and had another terrific meal before walking around a few popular areas of the city and taking in Rome at night. In August the city is very lively at night and a lot of fun to walk around and soak up the energy. Specifically we spent most of our walk strolling along the Tiber River with a few thousand other pedestrians. I’d found another great spot in Rome and I couldn’t help but leave with the feeling that there are an endless number of hidden places to explore in the city. I think next time I’ll have to stay for a month!
We rounded out our evening with Gellato before heading home to start packing my bags. As you can tell from my tone in this post, I really loved Rome. It is easily one of my favorite cities in the world and somewhere that is a slam dunk recommendation to anyone looking to travel overseas. I was so fortunate to have such an amazing family to take me in for a few days. Without them I wouldn’t have seen near as much as I did or eaten nearly as well. Thank you so much Valerie, Marion, Julie and Pascal for going out of your way to make my first time in Italy so memorable and fun. It’s on the top of my list of places I want to return to soon and I can’t wait to see you when I do!
My short time in Italy was over and it was time to focus on the last country I would be spending a lot of time in on the trip – Turkey. My journey to Istanbul, Turkey from Rome was not exactly direct. I took a flight to Budapest, Hungary to meet up with Will and stay one night at a hostel in the city before waking up early the following morning and flying with him direct to Istanbul. With only two weeks left on the trip, I could really start to feel that I was not far away from waking up in a bed in the US and the dream that I had been living in for the last year was about to end.