Saturday, March 9, 2013

Passport Update: A pasta/pizza tour through Rome

We knew this trip would include an excessive amount of calories, so when planning our trip to Rome, we adopted the mantra/mission, "Get fat and don't care."  This would prove handy to remind ourselves throughout the trip when the thought of eating yet another pizza would make me feel slightly guilty (and slightly ill).  No guilt!  We are here to get fat -- and get fat is exactly what we did.

We took a break from veganism for our trip since we knew avoiding eggs and dairy would be nearly impossible (we were right).  And we didn't want to miss out on all of the wonderful culinary delights Rome had to offer -- including their delicious pastries.  However, going off of our vegan lifestyle meant that I felt bloated and gross for 3 days.  It was a major switch to go from eating tons of veggies every day to eating nothing but
pasta and cheese for all of our meals.  One night, all three of us requested nothing but roasted vegetables and a salad.  We needed a detox in the middle of our trip!

We were so happy to have Sam along with us on the trip -- well it was really her trip since we were there to celebrate her big 30th birthday together.  The airfare was the same to go to Rome or Stockholm and let's face it, Rome doesn't have any snow this time of year so it was the big winner.

I have a gazillion stories from our trip but I'll try to keep it to just the highlights.  I won't get into how Sam and I were "trapped" in a restaurant for hours because one of the waiters wanted us to stay until he got off work at midnight to take us out for drinks OR how 4 bottles of wine just "disappeared" one night which led to Jon sketching out nonsensical things on his "whiteboard" (the wall of the apartment).  While those are entertaining stories, they are best not kept in a permanent record.  I'll stick to the main events.

We made sure to hit up all of the major sites: Trevi fountain, the Spanish Steps, Pantheon, delicious restaurants outside Vatican City, St. Peter's Square, St. Peter's Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, Vatican museum, Colosseum, Forum, Villa Borghese Park, Pompeii, gelato, gelato and more gelato.  Basically everything you go to Rome to see, we saw.  I'm glad that we had a week because we didn't have to rush our schedules at all and we could let Calvin set the pace -- usually a very slow pace for a <2 year old's legs and/or attention span.

All of the history of the city is overwhelming at times.  It's difficult to comprehend that at one point, the Colosseum once served as a homeless shelter of sorts -- well they squatted there in the 1800s.  It was kind of looted by the Popes and destroyed over the years by an earthquake but it's still impressive to see in person.  We signed up for a walking tour of the Colosseum and Forum and I wish we had more time to just wander.  I really like to let my mind get into the history of everything and I wanted to imagine gladiators fighting wild beasts from Africa for money, babes and glory, but we were rushed a little by the group.

We did NOT plan our trip at all to coincide with Pope Benedict's resignation - we were just lucky that way.  We received his last Sunday Papal blessing and wisely timed our tour of the Vatican museum to occur during his Wednesday audience with the public.  This meant there were ZERO lines for the Vatican Museum (almost unheard of) and the entire place was fairly vacant.  Jon had been to the museum when he was a teenager and described a completely different experience than what we had this time around.  The Sistine Chapel was beautiful and impressive, as you might expect, but I had the hardest time imagining actual church events happening there.  Sure there is an altar and everything, but it just felt more like a museum than a church.  Maybe that was just due to the atmosphere of all of the tourists looking upwards and trying to sneak pictures on their cell phones.

One of my favorite days was our trip to Naples/Pompeii.  Naples is nothing to see for itself (it was kind of scary actually) but we had the most delicious margherita pizza and pastries (sfogliatella riccia) ever.  Go to Da Pellone for the pizza and Pasticceria Attansasio for the pastry.  Then get out of Naples and don't look back!  We headed on a local train to Pompeii and while I didn't want to sit on the seats, I also didn't want to stand for 40 minutes.  Necessary evils...

We had a guide meet us at Pompeii and I can't say enough positive things about her.  She was wonderful and really helped us understand the spirit of the people and the city when it was alive and bustling before Mt. Vesuvius erupted and buried their city. Her website is here: and she was as amazing as all of those reviews say.  We had a wonderful 3 hour tour of the city and got to see the major highlights.  The amphitheater was a better preserved version of the Colosseum so it was good to see it and have some idea as to what the Colosseum stairs used to look like.  In short, everything was beautiful.  The columns were covered in plaster and then marble.  Colorful red frescoes used to cover all of the walls and the mosaic tile floors were a stunning tribute to skilled slavery.  For a city that was founded in the 7th or 6th century BC, it is difficult to comprehend what life was like.  You can still see the cart tracks grooved into the streets from where the Roman chariots delivered goods to the stores.  Italians liked to eat back then too and there is no shortage of fast food store fronts.  Many of the frescoes and plaster casts of the people of Pompeii are actually in the British Museum in London and in the Naples National Archeological Museum so sadly, we didn't get to see them.

Another one of my favorite days was a relaxed picnic day at the Villa Borghese Park.  They weren't accepting reservations for the Villa itself on that day, so we decided to enjoy the elusive sunshine and relax on the grass.  We happened to set up our blanket next to a "Romeo and Juliet" bench, apparently, because every couple who sat there ended up in a passionate embrace (or four) throughout the afternoon.  I don't know if it was that bench specifically or if we were just plain lucky but it was entertaining to say the least.

Jon's favorite day was our last day, when we wandered through Trastavere, admiring the cute little piazzas and narrow alleyways, through the antique district, across the Ponte Sant'Angelo, and into the Jewish ghetto for fried artichokes.  Jon and Calvin spent their afternoon driving cars on old doors in the alley while Sam and I chatted and laughed over 1 liter of wine and delicious food.

I really loved watching Calvin interact with his new surroundings.  We were walking through the Vatican museum and Calvin looked out the window and started waving enthusiastically.  He was waving at a construction worker on some scaffolding outside the window.  The worker laughed and waved back.  It was one of those moments that he'll never remember, but that I'll cherish forever.
He drove his cars everywhere -- the Vatican museum floor, on ancient Pompeii ruins, bus windows, coffee cups, on dirty graffiti-filled trains and throughout our cute apartment.  Those cars were our lifesavers since as long as he had them in his hands, he was distracted from boredom, tantrums and exhaustion.

Not to burst your bubble, but if you are traveling with babies, Rome is not very stroller friendly.  The curbs are high and they don't ramp down to the street like they do in other cities for wheel chairs, bikes and strollers.  There are also a lot of stairs and cobblestones so our little umbrella stroller got beaten up quite a bit.  Calvin was jostled around but that worked to our benefit as it put him to sleep.  And while the streets aren't really kid-friendly, the people are!  Everyone on the bus, museum and cafes absolutely LOVED Calvin.  They talked to him, gave him little presents and doted on him wonderfully.  The Italians we met were very warm and friendly, which made us feel welcome even when we had a bit of a language barrier.

We stayed a bit outside of Vatican City and had to take a bus to get into the heart of the city.  The only thing about relying on the buses is that the workers don't strike on any one specific day, but just do a horrible job all of the time.  This means that the bus was frequently 50+ mins late and by the time it arrived, so many people had congregated at the bus stop that you had to squeeze on.  At one point, I had the stroller folded up, sitting on the tops of my feet, while Jon, Sam and Calvin were squeezed into the back of the bus.  It was a nightmare really and not a relaxing way to enjoy the city.  Rome is not very walkable either -- we couldn't just walk from our apartment to the city as sidewalks just disappear and you are left at the mercy/driving skills of crazy Italian drivers to not hit you while you walk in the street.  Though there were downsides, seeing the beautiful architecture, art, and history of Rome was an amazing experience.  Going just for the food alone would also be a worthwhile trip!

  • Vatican Museum 
    • Get the audio guide. Nothing is well marked or described and unless you are an art history major or expert in Catholicism,  a lot of the art will be impressive but meaningless to you without the background.
    • Not stroller friendly - maybe park it in the coat closet if you can. We had to carry it up/down stairs while Calvin just walked around.  It was a hassle.
  • Papal Blessings - these happen on Sunday at the stroke of 11am on the dot
    • Get there an hour in advance and bring some drinks/pizza with you for snacking while you wait
    • Try not to stand behind anyone with large signs - they will block your view
  • Spanish Steps
    • Climb to the top - the view of Rome is spectacular
    • While at the top, grab a gelato and head back down to relax on the stairs and watch people near the fountain
  • Trevi fountain
    • Take a picture and walk on
    • The most annoying street vendors are near the Spanish Steps and Trevi fountain - they totally ruin the ambience and the crowds are killer
  • Ferrari Store
    • Don't take a picture of anything OTHER than the Ferrari car in the store front.  I got scolded for taking a picture of Calvin touching the Ferrari horse on the desk of the cashier
  • Naples/Pompeii
    • if you have a day trip available, take a trip to Pompeii and book a tour guide -- definitely worth the time and money
    • Don't bring a stroller - the streets were created before strollers were invented so you will not find it stroller friendly in the slightest.  Calvin slept in the Ergo carrier just fine (like the old days!)
Like all family vacations, there is bound to be some stress and bumps along the road but fortunately we had great company, excellent food and plentiful wine.  Enjoy the history, language and unique culinary creations that each new city has to offer.

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