Saturday, June 19, 2010

A Very Belated Spring Break Travel Post: Rome, Part 2

LAST TIME: We had just met up with our tour guide (in this blog, her name is spelled Illyria) and our driver Roberto. Our first stop: Castel Sant Angeleo.

Illyria told us to wait on the bridge, and she returned right away with tickets for all of us. She flashed her badge at the entrance gate and whisked us past everyone else in line.

She was an amazing tour guide, with an amazing Italian accent. She had something to say about everything we walked past, and whenever a large group of people would get in our way, she would say, “So much drama!” (except it sounded better than than because it was in a heavy accent). Whenever she deemed something unimportant, or that we were done looking at it, we would hear, “Alora, we don’t care”, as she shuffled us on to something new. The Castel Sant Angelo was really great, and our tour ended on the roof. Illyria points in the distance, and says, “You see how a crowd is gathering over there in Saint Peter’s square? It’s because the Pope will be appearing out of his window in 15 minutes. Maybe if we move quickly we can get there.” I knew the Pope was going to be there, because in trying to decide our Rome schedule, the five of us had agreed that since none of us had an intense need to be blessed by the Pope, we might as well go on Monday, when he wouldn’t be appearing out of his window and when perhaps the crowds would be smaller. And when she said that maybe we could get there, I assumed she had meant Maybe by the time we climb all the way down from Castel Sant Angelo and fight the traffic that it will take to get towards St. Peter’s, we’ll see the crowd.

Except that somehow there must have been a space-time continuem thing that happened right then, because within those fifteen minutes we had somehow: reached the bottom of Castel Sant Angelo, found Roberto in his van among the crowd at the bottom, hopped in, beat traffic, pulled up almost as close to the actual Basilica as possible, were pushed out of the van by Illyria who dragged us to the front of the crowd at St. Peter’s square, and caught our breathes at the exact moment that the Pope appeared in the window. It was kind of amazing timing, and I still don’t know how it happened.

It was kind of cool to see him in person, just because St. Peter’s square was the last place I actually thought I’d be at that particular moment. There were a LOT of people, and he read his blessing in a whole bunch of languages (not Hebrew though, hmmmm….). We couldn’t understand his Italian, obviously, but when Candy and I heard him say something about Cappucinos, we were sure that he was encouraging us to drink more coffee while in Rome.

So, that was pretty amazing, to put it mildly, and we were all still kind of shocked to have just been a part of that little adventure, when we loaded back into the van for our tour of the Forum and Palatine Hill.

Illyria was really enthusiastic about everything, especially about a particular kind of marble on the ground that was her favorite kind, which she spat on and rubbed for us so that that we could see the true color. Her information on the Forum was really interesting, and my favorite part came near Caesar’s cremation spot, where she was telling us about how Caesar’s assassins thought things would be awesome when he was dead, except that they didn’t realize that maybe the Roman people actually LIKED him, except that she described it in her heavy Italian accent as “Houston, we have a problem!”.

After the Forum, the tour was over (she had stayed with us an extra hour longer than she was originally supposed to), and told us that she had no doubt that we were hungry. We thanked her a lot, and then went across the street to sit down for the first time all morning and eat. It was a more amazing morning than I ever could have hoped for. We had little bit of time before we had agreed to meet Roberto (he was going to drive us back to Monica’s Aunt’s house), so we explored near the Capitoline for a little bit.

We met Roberto in his van back at the Piazza Navona, and his wife was with him. He asked us if we wanted to see a surprise before he drove us back, so we of course said yes and he drove us up a few hills into a more residential area. He parked and we got out of the van, while he pointed out the nearby Church where he and his wife had been married many decades before, but that wasn’t the surprise. He led us to a building where a long line of people were standing. Every ten seconds, one of them would look through a keyhole and then move. It was very strange. It turned out that the keyhole offered a perfect (though tiny!) view of the dome of St. Peter’s! It was really cool, and really nice of him to drive us up there for the end of an already amazing tour.

Monica’s Aunt lives not-far outside of the City part of Rome, and after going to the trouble of arranging this amazing tour for us, she still wanted to have all of us over for pizza. As I said in the last post, she’s the Egyptian Consul in Italy (i.e. second onto the Egyptian ambassador). Basically, Monica’s family were the nicest people ever. Her aunt introduced us to her three sons as soon we got inside, but apologized because the 4-year-old was apparently extremely shy, so he wasn’t there to meet us at the door. Soon after, we followed Monica into a bedroom, where she and another cousin we each crouched on either side of the bed, because the shy one was actually hiding underneath. It was really funny to watch, because as they tried to lure him out, things like, “I can feel a leg!” were shouted between them. So cute.

Her aunt served us pizza and drinks and we all sat out on their balcony, where she asked us about our day, and then told us stories about being a Consul. She’s responsible for all 64,000 legal Egyptians living in Italy, in addition to three times of the number of Egyptians living there illegally. Because of geography, Italy is the gateway from Egypt into the rest of Europe, which is why there are so many Egyptians who come over. We also got to hear about why we shouldn’t go to Sicily (the police have no power), about the time when some Egyptian ships sunk off the coast of Italy and how TV channels in Egypt broadcast her work cell phone and how much of a nightmare that was in the midst of trying to deal with the disaster, and about how the time when George Clooney came to Egypt and he had personally chosen her to be his guide. She was incredibly warm and made sure that we used their internet while we were there so that we could talk to our parents if we needed to, and made sure we ate a lot of chocolate. Around 7 something, we all piled into her car because she wanted to drop us off in the Trestevere for a few hours, which, again, was super nice of her.

The Trestevere was really cute, with a lot of little restaurant and coffee bars. I had been with my parents the last time, but this time we stayed on a different side of the river. We got gelato (mmmm), and then decided to go to a bar to get coffee. We ordered four cappuccinos (we were in Rome, after all, so we had to splurge!), and were absolutely SHOCKED when the total bill was only 4 euros. As we walked out, we were all kind of buzzing just from that, since in France a SINGLE cappuccino is 4 Euros. Apparently Pope Benedict had blessed our coffee after all!

We were all in a good mood after that, we walked along the Tiber for a little and then returned to the area where we had been before. At one point, Jackie suddenly started talking excitedly to the group of three people walking in our direction, and it turned out that she had recognized one of them because more than 2 years earlier, he studied abroad at Berkeley and had been in a history class with her. SMALL WORLD. At first he didn’t say anything, except, “Jackie? No, it’s not possible!”. It was kind of an amazing occurrence, especially because while he WAS Italian, he wasn’t even FROM Rome. He and his friends just happened to be there. I think the best way to describe this particular day had been one high after another (i.e. amazing surprise guided tour, amazing Pope sighting, amazing get-together with the Egyptian Consul of Italy, amazingly cheap cappuccino, amazing run in with someone Jackie thought she would never ever see again). It was pretty awesome day. Daniel and Jackie made plans to get together the next day, and the Monica’s aunt picked us up. She insisted on driving us back to our hostel, and Jackie and Valerie and I went to bed still on a high from the day’s events.

The next morning was Monday, our last full day in the city. We had originally planned on going to St. Peter’s and the Vatican extra early, but Illyria told us that everyone did that, so we decided to go later in the afternoon instead. Jackie an Valerie and I met Monica and Candy around 9:30, and we got kind of lost going to Santa Maria Della Vittoria (I wanted to see the St. Theresa statue again) and then to the Capuchin monk church, but we eventually found them and it was good. Earlier, I had been complaining about the first time that my parents went to Rome, and about how they got really into Jewish-style fried artichokes, and about how it seemed like for a whole year after that, that was all we ate at home. Except that my friends thought that fried artichokes sounded good, so we ended up making plans to go to the Jewish ghetto for lunch that day before we went to Vatican City. We ended up in the Jewish district right before lunchtime, and nothing was open so we went into another bar and ordered cappuccinos. This time: only ninety centimes.

We apparently still had the Pope’s luck following us. We looked at a few menus and eventually chose a restaurant at random, because they all looked pretty much the same, and because I couldn’t actually remember which restaurant I had eating at with my parents two years earlier. But the one that we chose ended up being really good (mmmm, pruscuitto and artichoke pizza…NOT very kosher).

I went up to the register to pay, and as I did, gasped audibly because on the wall next to the register was a signed picture of Ray Stevenson, i.e. TITUS PULLO FROM HBO’S ROME, i.e. MY FAMILY’S FAVORITE THING EVERY AND ONE OF OUR FAVORITE CHARACTERS. And I was especially excited to see it because it’s not like he’s super famous or anything, so it’s not like I see a photograph of him in every restaurant, you know? Anyway, apparently the waiter who was standing by heard me, because he goes (heavy Italian accent and all), “I know him! He’s a personal friend!” To which a choked a little said, “Really???”, to which HE replied, “Yes! He and his wife live upstairs! They have two beautiful boys!”. Then he asked me if I had a message to send him, and I really WANTED to say something like “Thirteen!”, but I was afraid that maybe for some reason the waiter wouldn’t catch my reference (it’s something that comes up in the show a lot, for those of you who have never seen it), and that he would think I was crazy or something, so my eyes got really watery and I just said, “Just tell him I’m really happy!” (i.e. something that didn’t really make sense but definitely described my feelings). I don’t remember what happened right after that because I was still so excited that we HAPPENED to choose that restaurant, but eventually we ended up in Vatican City.

The good news was that the walk along the Vatican’s walls took longer than the walk to get in to the building (continuing on our theme of nothing having a real line during our entire trip). I don’t really need to go on about the Vatican because I’ve been before, and because it kind of goes without saying that it’s Pretty Cool. I took a lot of pictures of the ceilings.

Valerie and Jackie and I accidentally got separated from Candy and Monica, but it worked out because we needed to walk to the front anyway in order to find Jackie’s coat which we were hoping was still in the bathroom where she had accidentally left it (it was). This meant that we had to backtrack back along the wall in order to get to the Basilica to meet Monica and Candy, so the three of us decided that a reward was in order because of the hot weather (i.e. gelato). There was a place across from the Vatican walls that had been recommended to Jackie, and for the amazing price of 2 Euros, we got three HUGE scoops of three flavors, AND whipped cream (to put it in perspective, ordering gelato in France met a third as much gelato for the same price, and nothing on top, because for some reason the French are especially stingy with their whipped cream). So basically, we were very happy.

We eventually met Monica and Candy in front of St. Peter’s (they had climbed the dome while they waited for us), and went inside. I don’t really need to describe St. Peter’s for the same reasons that I don’t need to describe the Vatican. But again, Pretty Awesome.

It was really hot when we got back outside, and we were really excited about our new Gelato find, so we took Monica and Candy and went again. Then the five of us headed back to the city, hung around for a bit, and eventually Monica and Candy when back to Monica’s aunt’s house. That left me, Jackie and Valerie, and our plan was to eat dinner with Daniel, his friend and his girlfriend, who were both in town with him. Eventually the three of them found us, which meant that we got to eat in a REAL Italian restaurant with REAL Italians! The day just kept on getting better.

Afterwards, the three of them walked us to our Metro stop, and even though no one was the least but drunk, the two boys REALLY wanted to sing. We told them that if they wanted us to sing with them, it would obviously have to be songs in English since we didn’t know Italian, so the two of them started singing the first song in English that came to their minds: Camptown Races.

It was a long walk, so there ended up being a lot of time for this kind of ridiculousness. Daniel’s friend REALLY wanted me and Valerie to sing with him, but we told him that we only really knew musicals…….so he began to loudly belt Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita with his accent and we strode down the street at 10 something at night. This was definitely NOT the kind of behavior I expected from young Italian men, to say the least. He kept suggesting different pop arts that we could sing together, but Valerie and I had to keep reminding him that we unfortunately only really knew music from the theater. He goes, "Ah, King Lear!", and we said, "Yeah! But it doesn't have any music in it...", to which he started singing 'The Circle of Life', at which Valerie and I broke out laughing hysterically and told him that he probably meant The Lion King. He was kind of embarrassed at his mistake, but it totally made our night.

We eventually said our goodbyes, got on the metro, and caught the bus back to our hostel exactly as it took off. The entire day had been an amazing whirlwind, and I was really devastated to be leaving Rome and my friends in the morning.

NEXT TIME: Almost not getting out of the hostel OR Italy, Kayla Epstein!, LONDON, and enough coffee to make up for what I was missing out on in France.

Nun with gelato :)

Friday, June 4, 2010

A Very Belated Spring Break Travel Post: Rome, Part 1

Okay, ROME. I feel as though I've already recounted this story to everyone, but I have to remind myself that unless I've seen you in person, I haven't had a chance to do so! This is going to be split into multiple parts because it is so epic.

Last time: PARIS. We turned our taxi around and backtracked through Montmartre at 4:45 in the morning to pick up Monica’s cell phone, which she had accidentally left under the pillow of our hostel (Luckily for Monica, she is completely charming and impossible to be upset at).

The taxi pulled up back to Le Village hostel and Jackie & I stayed in the car to practice our French with the driver (correction, Jackie practiced our French; I stayed silent while worrying that maybe we were supposed to have reserved a spot of the airport bus ahead of time and that if that was the case, all of our Spring Breaks were going to be ruined and would be my fault). Candy and Monica came back more than a few minutes later, out of breath and telling us that when they got back to the lobby to ask for the key to our room, our already-disgruntled receptionist ignored them for a few minutes because he was slow dancing with another guest. France.

We re-zoomed through the streets, and not long after ended up near La Defense and Port Maillot, where we were supposed to catch the bus. We found it after wandering around for a while (it was dark). We were fine on time, LUCKILY, and hopped on the next available bus where we each fell asleep promptly and woke up an hour later when we reached the Beauvais Airport.

Let me tell you something about European airports: Unlike American airports, who have caught on to the fact that its captive audiences MUST pay three times as much for the things they are selling, European airports seem to think that they should charge LESS than the normal price for things. It’s very bizarre and I like it. Except maybe that was just a sign that Bordeaux was an expensive city to be living in the first place, hmmmm….

Our Ryan Air flight was fine, and Jackie and I caught the bus to our hostel while Monica and Candy waited for Monica’s aunt. The Tiber Hostel and Camping was an excellent choice.

The rooms were nice (I chose to ignore the suspiciously large bloodstain on the underside of the mattress above me that I had to look at from my own bunk), there was an (underpriced!) store with everything we would ever have needed, and the LARGE cappuccino in the restaurant was only 1 Euro 80! (i.e. 2 Euros LESS than anywhere in France). Our hostel was outside of the main part of the city, however, but it was easy enough (and cheap) to get into town. After settling in, Jackie and I took the Metro and ended up near Santa Maria Del Poppolo, which I was super excited about because we had talked about it in the Baroque Rome Art History class I had taken my sophomore year. And it was nice being in that area because I hadn’t made it there when I visited Rome with my family last time.

Jackie and I had our first hint of how amazing Rome was going to be when we ordered sandwiches at a little restaurant and the people there were actually nice to us (like, they were smiling and everything!). It was amazing how fast my mood changed once Jackie and I started walking around. It was like I was mistaken about loving France -- because the happiness I felt as soon as we reached Rome was unlike anything I had felt for the previous four months...kind of like even though I thought that I loved France, I was actually mistaken. Obviously, I DID love France, and I wouldn't trade my experiences there for the world, but I can't deny that I simply felt more at home in Rome in those four days than I had in my entire stay in France. To say it more simply, I was definitely glad I had made it to Rome during my Spring Break travels.

A few hours later we found Jackie and Monica at Piazza Navona. It was a really great day, even though it was miserably humid. We went to the Pantheon and ate gelato, threw coins in the Trevi, etc. We had already decided to save some things to do for when Valerie would be with us the next day, but around 5:30 we ended up at the Colossuem. Our goal was to (obviously) pay as little as possible for everything during our trip, especially because we were the lucky owners of student IDs for a school in the European Union (which makes all the difference). I was doubtful about being able to save money in Rome, however, because my research hadn’t turned up any evidence of free entry for students (i.e. at the Vatican, even if you have proof that you’re a legitimate Catholic priest you only get a small discount). So when we reached the oddly empty ticket line at the Coliseum and Jackie turned back to us to tell us it was free, I definitely did NOT believe it. It turns out that our Rome trip magically landed on the last two days of Rome’s Cultural Week, so entrance to all of the important stuff was free! I still can’t explain the fact that nothing we tried to see during the week had a line…..

So that was pretty cool. We ran around the coliseum for a while and had gelato, and then Jackie and I caught the train and the shuttle back to Tiber Camping, where I was unable to buy a towel from the store because it was closed (to my disappointment. I wasn’t going to have time to shower in the morning, and I was feeling all of the effects of having been traveling since 4AM that morning in extreme humidity). But Jackie and I ordered cheap hot chocolates which partially made up for how disgusting I felt and probably smelled.

Valerie arrived around 1AM that night from Paris, and in the morning the three of us took the Rome Nord train to the end of it’s line, and then took another train to meet Monica and Candy at the Piazza Navona. Monica and Candy were staying with Monica’s aunt, who, according to Monica “works for the government”. Except that Monica is SUPER modest, and it turned out that her aunt is the Egyptian CONSUL in Italy (i.e. second to the AMBASSADOR). Her aunt was amazing and set us up with a very generous private tour, led by an amazing Italian woman named something that sounded like Illyria, and a driver named Roberto. Our first stop was the Castel Sante Angeleo, where Illria flashed her official tour guide badge and whisked us past the line…….

Gelato Number 3: Melon, Orange & Coconut :)

Next time: Important Catholics, even more gelato, and real Italians....