When in Rome… Literally

Date posted: October 20, 2011

*This is part 2 in a series of blogs about my trip to Italy and our experiences there, including CouchSurfing. To learn what CouchSurfing is and how we came to know it, see part 1 here.

[dc]I[/dc] check my email a few days after sending out a hosting request to a couple who live near Rome and am excited to find a response! I open the note, as my stomach flips a bit. “Ciao!” it begins, followed by a “yes,” they’d love to host us! How cool is this? We email back and forth periodically, finalizing details of our arrival day and time, transportation, and how many days we’d be staying, through which we get to know each other a bit. We’re psyched that they’re willing to do this. We loved their profile on the website, and they look very sweet in their pictures. It’s official. We’re diving fully into CouchSurfing!

Viva la Roma! Despite flying to London on a red eye with little to no success with sleeping, and waiting several hours for our flight to Rome, we’re surprisingly awake upon arrival. Our excitement is our fuel.sights of Rome

We grab our bags, flag a taxi, make sure our bible for the next two weeks (a MUST have, if traveling to Italy),  Rick Steves’ Italy 2011 with map, is handy, and off we go to our inn for the night, L’albergo Al Porticciolo. We choose a place not too far from the airport so we can just rest and prepare for our first full day of seeing the sights.

We walk in to find a sweet, old man working the desk. “Buon giorno,” I say, proud of my use of Italian. “Ah, bellissima!” he says, excitedly. We both smile. I continue with the little Italian I’ve learned “Prenotazione per una notte.” (Reservation for one night). “Ah, sí,” he responds. And off he goes, talking a mile a minute. We stand, baffled, and I pull out my next best line: “Mi dispiace, non capisco.” (I’m sorry, I don’t understand).

We quickly learn that he speaks absolutely no English and neither do any of the waiters in the attached restaurant. This freaks us out a bit, being our first night and all, but it’s pretty amazing what hand gestures can do for communication. We get ourselves checked in, make dinner reservations for 8 PM, and settle into our lovely room. Boy, am I thankful for all those games of charades growing up!

After an unexpectedly fancy, but delicious dinner (minus the chef’s gift of potatoes and raw squid to start us off. Yes, I tried it. It tasted like nothing, but it was tough to get over the texture thing), we head back to our room where I brush up on some more Italian, and Missy does a bee-line for the huge bathtub. A short while later, we settle into our ridiculously comfy bed.

“So, what’s our plan for tomorrow?” I ask. Missy did all the research and reading of the sights while I handled the logistics of the trip — transportation, lodging, etc. Yeah, we’re a pretty good team.

“Tomorrow is the Coliseum, the Roman Forum, and Palantine Hill… once we figure out how to get there,” she says with a smirk.

The next morning we learn, through hand gestures again, that we should take a cab back to the airport to get a train that will take us to Termini station in Rome — the hub. Despite the taxi driver really wanting to drive us to Termini station (can’t imagine how much that would’ve cost), we insist on a ride only to the airport (yup, hand gestures again — picture me, pretending to fly like an airplane).

“I’m excited to meet our CouchSurfing hosts tonight,” I say on our train ride to Termini. “They’re picking us up at the train station near their house.”

“I hope it’s not weird,” Missy says. Understandable concern, as this is our first experience being hosted.our first day in Rome

After dumping our luggage at the bag drop in the train station, we spend a full (and HOT) day in Rome, blown away by the architecture and history. With the Rick Steves’ free audio tours we downloaded to our phones, we learn a ton about each of the sights — in a fun, accessible way — so not like a stuffy tour guide. We officially love Rick, and we come to love him more and more with each leg of the trip.

As we walk down a busy, city street in Rome, we turn a corner, and there it is — the Roman Coliseum. Whoa! It’s enormously grand and spectacular. Strange to see such a site amongst this busy urban-ness. How can something so old still be standing? The architecture and engineering of it is mind-boggling. From our audio tour, we learn so much about the history of this place. The events that went on here were way more barbaric than I had known.

In this area, we also visit the ruins of the Roman Forum and Palantine Hill, taking walks through beautiful gardens, hiking a bit, and trying to wrap our minds around what we are feasting our eyes on. Palantine Hill is one of the most ancient parts of Rome. We’ve seen these sites so often in movies and history books that it’s hard to really have it sink in that we are here.

We visit everything on our agenda in a leisurely way, seeing a lot, but not feeling rushed — until we need to catch the train to our hosts’ home.

Although we get to the station in plenty of time, we end up standing on the wrong platform and miss our train. Signage is not Italy’s strong suit. No big deal. There’s another train in 20 minutes. Yeah, we miss that, too. Big station + crappy signs = frustrated Kerri and Missy.

We feel terrible because the next train won’t get us to our hosts’ area until 9 PM. They’ve made dinner for us and are waiting to eat. Fortunately, families eat late in Italy, but probably not this late when you have a 1-year-old! We offer to take a cab from the station to their home so they don’t have to pick us up, and Ilaria just laughs. “No taxi will come out here. Besides, it would be very expensive.” OK, maybe their house is a bit more remote than we thought, though we knew ahead of time that they lived 30 minutes outside of Rome proper.

We finally arrive at their train station and wait to be picked up. I pull out my photo of Ilaria and Luca and wonder if we’ll recognize them. It doesn’t help that it’s pitch dark and the train station isn’t well lit.

Ilaria pulls up with her neighbor, Claudio. We apologize profusely for our delay, and she is so gracious. She hugs us both and says, “Is OK. Is OK.”

On the ride to her house, we learn that Luca was in a car accident. He’s fine, but the car isn’t. It’s in the shop and will be for a while, so rides to and from the train station will be tricky. Of course that’s fine with us, as we didn’t expect to be chauffeured around, until we learn how far they live from the station, that is. Now this could be a bit of a problem.Claudio, Federico, Luca, and Emma

We put that issue aside as we pull up to their home. Luca, Ilaria’s husband, and their daughter, Emma, along with Claudio’s wife and their son, Federico, are sitting outside at the table with food at the ready. What a beautiful setting! We immediately feel welcome, and even more so, like they’re really happy to have us. We’re shown to our room — a private guest room on the third floor — drop our bags, freshen up a bit, and head down to join them for dinner.

Oh, man, can Luca cook! He makes us incredible pasta dishes — not even sure what’s in it other than grapes — but it’s out of this world! He serves two different pasta dishes and both are delectable. Combine that with the delicious wine, bread, and great company, and we are in heaven! After the main course, Luca brings out a platter of fresh cut cantaloupe wrapped in prosciutto. Yum!

The conversation flows easily, even though half of the guests don’t speak the other’s language. Those who do, translate, and then there are always those hand gestures. 🙂 I play peek-a-boo with Emma, who has the brightest smile that shines in her eyes.

As the night winds down, we say goodbye to the neighbors, and Luca takes Emma off to bed. Mis and I stay up chatting with Ilaria, and the phone rings. Claudio’s wife is calling to give us the bus schedule to Rome. How sweet is she? We feel better knowing we have a transportation plan for the next day, and we head upstairs to go to bed. We open up the shutters in our room, and the soft air comes flowing in. What a beautiful night, in all sorts of ways. Yup, we’re liking this CouchSurfing thing.

We wake the next morning, get dressed, pack our daypack and venture downstairs. Luca is in the kitchen. “Cappucino?” he asks. I think he’s about to fall on the floor when I respond. “No, thank you. We don’t drink coffee.” The most puzzled of all puzzled looks comes across his face. “No caffé?” “No thanks. I’ll just have some water.”

“WATER? In the morning? No, no. Cappuccino. I make it. No problem.”

It takes some persistence to get Luca to believe that we really don’t drink coffee and we’re not just saying it so he doesn’t have to make it. “OK,” he says, still not totally convinced. He gets us a couple glasses of water. “Here’s your… water,” he says with raised eyebrows.

We spend a little time with the family, and then we’re off for our second day in Rome. We get ready to walk to the bus stop when Claudio comes by and offers us a ride. Everyone is so kind! We take him up on it since it’s ridiculously hot out. We stop at a bar/market on the way, and I assume Claudio needs something. No, apparently this is where we buy the bus tickets. Sure, bus tickets at the market…

We settle into our seats on the bus and are on our way, having no idea the “creative” maneuvering our driver would be doing. This bus is taking hairpin turns like nobody’s business, beeping in advance to let oncoming cars know to stop. We drive down roads that are carved out of mountains, barely fitting between the stone walls on either side. It’s exciting, but also a bit frightening, so we’re relieved to see the highway up ahead.

The bus drops us at a metro station somewhere in Rome, and now we have to figure out how to get to the destinations for the day — the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel. We look around for some help. “Let’s go ask him,” Missy says, pointing to the bartender. Yup, you read that right — the bartender. At the bar. In the bus/metro station. I guess you’ll never know when you’ll want some vino.

Not being morning people has certainly worked in our favor today! We get to the Vatican Museum and find that the line to enter isn’t very long. We had heard lots of stories of people waiting two hours to get in, but we’re inside in just 20 minutes. The journey through the museum is four miles long and ends at the Sistine Chapel. The artwork is breathtaking and still vivid after so many years. They take exceptional care to keep the pieces in the very best condition.

Upon entering the Sistine Chapel, I’m immediately hit by the powerful energy in the room (Remember, I’m a sensitive sponge!). Even with the room being filled with visitors, the feeling is palpable enough to overcome the chatter, shuffling, and oohs and aahs. I stand, in awe, and marvel at the artwork around me. I snap one photo before learning, quite emphatically, that there are NO photos allowed! At least I got a pretty significant shot:

Also, periodically, the security guards would proclaim, “Silencio!” A man near me begins to videotape the entire chapel while chatting to his wife, and it takes about four seconds before there’s a guard on either side of him escorting him out. OK, silence and no photos. Got it! They mean business.

We wind up our day in St. Peter’s Square, marveling at the beauty of the obelisk and the outside of the Basilica. We’ll be venturing inside the next day. After enjoying a gelato (yum!), we make our way back the metro and the bus station to return to our hosts’ home. Tonight is pizza night, and Luca and Ilaria have invited over several friends and neighbors to join us.

Luca’s homemade pizza is on the table when we arrive, so we sit right down and dig in. Hands down, it’s the BEST pizza we’ve ever had. We don’t even know what he put on it, but it doesn’t matter. It’s delicious. The wine is plentiful, the pizzas — all different kinds — keep coming out of the kitchen, and chatter in Italian and English go on all around. One of Ilaria’s friends, who speaks English, is excited to have us there so she can keep in practice. We chat with her for much of the evening and are impressed with how great her English is, American accent and all. For those guests who don’t speak English, we’re still able to chat with hand gestures (again!), and with the helpful assistance of the Google Translate app.

I sit back and take a mental snapshot. This is exactly the type of “Livin’ Like a Local” we were hoping for when we discovered CouchSurfing. We’re sitting among our hosts, their friends, enjoying regional cuisine and wine, with conversations flowing and laughter echoing through the night. As I look around, I feel overwhelmingly fortunate and blessed. And very much like a local.

The evening wraps up, and we retire with smiles plastered on our faces. This is our last evening with our Rome hosts, and we’re sad to say goodbye, but we know we’ve made lifelong friends. After another great night’s sleep, we wake up, pack up our things, and head downstairs. Ilaria is in the kitchen. “Buon giorno! Cappu… Um, I mean, water?” We all laugh. “Yes, water, please.”

We spend time exchanging contact information — Facebook, Skype, emails — I play a few more peek-a-boo games with Emma, and we’re off. Walking to the bus station, luggage in tow (thankful for wheelie bags!), we’re both beaming. What a great time and a great experience staying with our new friends! “I’m so glad we did that,” Missy says. “It was better than I ever could have imagined. A definite highlight so far.” I totally agree.

When we get to Rome, we visit St. Peter’s Basilica, the Trevi Fountain, and the Spanish Steps (had to hit the steps, since contestants went there on The Amazing Race, one of our favorite shows!). St. Peter’s Basilica is glorious, in the truest sense of the word. It is enormous, yet doesn’t feel anywhere near as vast as it is; it’s ornate, beautiful, moving, and powerful. Thanks to our handy audio tour, we learn that the Basilica is the size of six football fields and that the bronze canopy in front of the main alter, which looks about 20-25 feet tall, isthe beauty of the basilica actually seven stories high! The interior was intentionally designed to feel more intimate than it is, and they certainly succeeded. Looking up at the Latin words running around the perimeter, I’d guess them to be about two feet high. They’re each seven feet! (click the photo for a better view).

It so happens, by no planning on our part, that we find ourselves in St. Peter’s on 9/11/11 — the 10-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the US. It’s surreal to be so far from home on this day. To honor those lost and those who continue to suffer, I take a few quiet moments to kneel in prayer in this magnificent building. Despite the 4,000-mile separation, this helps me feel connected to my loved ones back home and the memories of that horrific day. I feel sad and grateful at the same time.

We finish up our Basilica tour, or so I thought, when Missy says, “Let’s climb to the top of the dome!” I look at her puzzled. “What exactly does that entail?”

“Well, we take an elevator to the roof, and then climb the stairs to the top of the cupola.”

“Oh, OK, I bet the view will be incredible!”

“I’m sure it will be!” Mis says. “And, taking the elevator means we only have to climb 323 stairs instead of, like, 500.”

“Wait, whoa, what? 323 stairs? Do you see what I’m wearing?”

There’s a pretty strict dress code to enter the Basilica — no shorts above the knee and no tank tops. So, on this 90-degree, high-humidity day, I’m in linen pants, a short sleeve shirt and sandals — sandals that aren’t meant for climbing 323 stairs.

Being as great as she is, Missy takes it in stride. “OK, no biggie. We can just take the elevator to the roof and look from there.”

I pause. “Really? You know I can’t turn down a challenge like this. Let’s do it.”

Away we go… elevator and then climbing, climbing, and climbing. With each flight the spiral of the staircase gets narrower, the stairs smaller, and the areas to rest, fewer. Everyone in front of us and behind us is panting as much as we are. It’s freakin’ hot out, imagine the temperature inside a cupola!

open arms of St. Peter'sAs we finally reach the last flight of stairs, they are so small, we have to put our feet on them sideways. And there’s no room for a railing, so you have to grab onto a thick rope hanging down to get up and out. A little scary, but we did it! Check out the view. This photo is looking down on St. Peter’s Square from the top. I love how the shadow of the cupola was captured in the photo. And a fun, little tidbit for ya: See the shape of St. Peter’s “Square”? It’s meant to represent open arms.

We look around for a good, long while, amazed by the view, cooling off in the breeze, and preparing ourselves for the descent. This experience and the feeling of accomplishment is worth every single step.

We venture down, which goes much faster than the climb up, and stop at a viewing balcony inside the Basilica. Wow. Now this gives us a sense of the enormity of the place. The people down on the floor look tiny! As we walk around the balcony, we see that a mass is going on, and suddenly, the choir bursts into song. Instant chills! The beauty of their voices reverberating in this magnificent building is nothing short of astounding. I stand frozen and captivated. And I thought the view from the cupola was impactful…

After leaving St. Peter’s, we stop to sit in the square once again to process the beauty we just witnessed. We attempt conversation, but all that comes out are, “I just… Wow.” “Yeah, wow.”

Next up? The Trevi Fountain. Of course, we have to toss a coin in so we’re guaranteed to come back.

The Trevi FountainAs with every other place we’ve visited in Rome, the fountain is gorgeous. The place is abuzz with visitors kissing, making wishes, enjoying gelato, and snapping photos. We arrive at dusk — a beautiful time of day to visit this spot. We join the festivities and make our wish, toss our coin, and enjoy our gelato. It’s nice to just sit and relax after our experiences (physical and spiritual) at St. Peter’s — and surrounded by such beauty still.

small shower stallFinally, we take a swing by the Spanish Steps, relax for a bit there, and then head off to our last-minute hotel room in the heart of Rome. We’re off to Venice bright and early in the morning, so we give ourselves the gift of a cab ride back to the room, looking forward to a nice, refreshing shower, and a good night’s sleep.

We check in and head up to our room. It sure is cozy (read, “small”), but we don’t care. It’s quaint, clean, and convenient. Missy calls the first shower, and opens the bathroom door to reveal the smallest stall we have ever seen; it’s clearly not made for curvy Americans. It’s all good. It does the job. After we’re all cleaned up, we get ourselves organized for our train ride to Venice, setting the alarm nice and early so we can grab breakfast beforehand. Or so I thought…

To read Part 3 in my Adventures In Italy blog series: Lido and Venice, click here.

 

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