Three Days In Rome

The Colosseum in Rome, Italy

If you have a limited amount of time, you can see the main highlights of Rome in three days.  This will give you a good introduction to the city.  Here are my picks for things to do in Rome.

Day One

Most American flights arrive in the morning to Leonardo Da Vinci Airport in Rome.  Catch a ride to your hotel, eat a light lunch, and take a nap.  In the late afternoon, wander the narrow backstreets of old Rome in the area by the Campo de’ Fiori.  Stop for excellent traditional thin crust pizza at the tiny Pizzeria da Bafetto (on the corner of Via Sora at Vial del Governo Vecchio 114). Take a leisurely stroll around the Piazza Navona, Rome’s most interesting night scene.  Check out the art for sale by local artists.

strolling the Piazza Navona at dusk
Strolling the Piazza Navona at dusk on a summer evening

Next, walk over to the 1,900 year old Pantheon.  At night the inside is closed, but the view of the building lit up in the dark is mesmerizing.   Stop for a chocolate hazelnut gelato in one of the many gelaterias near the square.  Keep walking these streets if you aren’t tired; else go to bed.  It will be a busy day tomorrow.

A view of the Pantheon in Rome, Italy at night
The Pantheon at night

Day Two

In the morning put on your comfortable walking shoes and take the metro or a taxi to the Colosseum.  Originally called the Flavian Ampitheater and built in 80 AD, the stadium was an arena for spectator sports in Roman times.  It’s an impressive structure.  Afterwards grab a sandwich and a drink from a food stand. Next door is the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill.   The Forum is ancient Rome’s birthplace and civic center between the seven hills of Rome.  Today it is mostly ruins, but it is easy to image what happened here so many centuries ago.  Stand in the spot where Julius Caesar was murdered!  The Palatine Hill is where the Emperor’s palaces were.

The Colosseum in Rome, Italy
The Colosseum

After seeing those sights, you will be ready for a snack and a rest.

fresh fruit stand in ROme
A healthy snack for the tired traveller

Next, walk most of the length of the Via del Corso, the main shopping street of Rome. Look for leather jackets, handbags, and briefcases, or whatever fashions catch your eye. Take a right at Via Condotti to the Spanish Steps.  Climb the steps for a view of the surrounding area.

By this time, your feet will probably hurt.  Maybe instead of walking, you can ride a Vespa.  But watch out for the crazy Roman traffic!

the blue Vespa
The best way to get around Rome - a Vespa!

Sit outside to eat dinner at a café in one of the side streets near the Trevi Fountain.  After dinner, sit by the fountain to see the sculptures and watch the people of the world walk by.  Try to guess which country they are from.

Day Three

This morning go to the Vatican City.  Sign up ahead of time on the Vatican’s website for a guided tour of the Vatican Museum in English. You’ll be able to avoid the long ticket line, but not the crowds you will encounter inside.  The Museum tour includes a few minutes in the Sistine Chapel, and concludes with a tour of St. Peter’s Basilica.  The end of the tour deposits you in St. Peter’s Square.

One of the ceilings in the Vatican Museum
An example of a ceiling in the Vatican Museum

If you still have the energy for more walking, take a taxi to the Villa Borghese Gardens.  It is a large park perfect for strolling or napping on the grass in the shade of a large tree.  When you are refreshed, if you are an art lover, visit the Borghese Gallery.  Next, walk down the Via Veneto, through the old Roman wall.  If you have been traveling for a while, you may be tired of the pasta and pizza menus and crave some American food. In that case, go to the Hard Rock Café on Via Veneto, just before the Piazza Bernini.


The Case of the Missing Suitcase and Vase

Flowers to brighten a girl's attitude

“Buongiorno!” said the passport control officer with a smile.  “Welcome to Italia!”

Roma sign
All roads lead to Rome, except when I am driving

We passed through to the baggage claim area to meet the rest of our party. Everyone was accounted for, but we were missing two suitcases.  We were to drive three hours from Rome north to a small village in Umbria, and I didn’t want to have to make the return journey to Leonardo Da Vinci Airport to pick up the suitcases.  I would do it if I had to, but maybe the airline would send them to us later in the day.

“Go to the baggage claim desk and fill out a delayed baggage report.  With luck we’ll have the bags later today when another flight comes in,” I sagely advised.

Unfortunately, the suitcases were owned by two members of our party, a middle aged mother and her twenty-something daughter.  They had never been outside of the US before, and had rarely flown.  They were apprehensive about making the trip at all, but it was a small destination wedding of a close family member so in the end they committed to the trip.  They had to run to make a connection in the US for the flight to Rome, and their bags didn’t make it.  All they had with them were their handbags and the clothes on their back.  The start of this trip was not going well for them.

They dutifully traipsed over to the lost baggage desk where the clerks speak some form of English, Esperanto, or pig Latin.

“Si, Senora, we send bag to you tomorrow, when next flight comes,” said the harried clerk.

It was a Monday.  The wedding was on Saturday.  No problem.  The suitcases will be delivered on Tuesday.  Another twenty-four hours in the same clothes isn’t preferable, but when traveling one must be flexible.

The drive to Umbria was beautiful, except for the three wrong turns and getting lost in the ancient streets of Perugia.  Traffic signage is definitely confusing in Italy.  At least to me.  (For more of my Italian driving misadventures, read CDW, what’s that?) We eventually made it to our bed and breakfast hotel.  The B&B was a renovated monastery complete with a small chapel.  The owners, a British couple in their 70s, had spent the last 20 years furnishing it as a fancy Italian country villa.

villa in Umbria, Italy
A villa in Umbria

The next day I figured that the bags would arrive by mid-afternoon.  I reassured the two women that by dinner time they could change into fresh clothes.  However,  the afternoon passed by with no delivery.  They were becoming a little distraught, especially the daughter.

I asked Julia, the B&B desk clerk, to call the airline in Rome and find out what had happened.

“I am told that they will be delivered on Wednesday,” said Julia.

“Grazie,” I said.  “Thanks for checking.”

I asked the women if they wanted to go shop for some new clothes.  We went to a town and shopped, but they bought nothing.  Apparently they didn’t like the styles.  They didn’t want to buy something they would never wear again once their bags arrived the next day.

On Wednesday, no bags arrived. This was getting annoying, and I wasn’t the one in the same clothes I put on Sunday morning.  The weather was hot and humid every day.

I called the airline in the US.  After 45 minutes of multiple phone prompts, call disconnections, and being putting on hold twice, I finally got to talk to a live human being.  The polite customer service representative told me that according to the all-knowing computer, the bags were indeed in Rome, had arrived on Tuesday’s flight, and that I would have to check with the lost baggage desk in Rome to find out any more information.

I asked Julia to call Rome again and complain loudly while waving her hands like a true Italian, even though she was Russian and that probably doesn’t work over the phone. She found out that the suitcases had been handed off to a courier service to be driven to Umbria and that they would arrive on Thursday.

The mother put on a fake smile and tried to muddle through this turn of events.  The daughter was upset.  After more shopping excursions, they still bought no new clothes.  Even I was tired of seeing them in the same clothes.

On Thursday morning, a white van pulled up in the driveway.  We all cheered!  The arrival of the missing suitcases was heralded like World Series champions.  However, the driver got out carrying one suitcase, set it down, and drove away.  It was the mother’s suitcase.

The daughter burst into tears.  The wedding was now 48 hours away and she had no dress to wear.  She went to her room to be alone.

Just then another white van pulled into the driveway.  Hallelujah!  The arrival of the daughter’s suitcase!  Why did the courier send the two suitcases in two separate vans all the way from Rome?  They were reported on the same lost baggage form.  Was it a good example of Italian efficiency?

But the driver of the second van did not carry any luggage.  He delivered flowers.  The daughter’s new boyfriend back in the US, missing the new love of his life so terribly that he desired to win her heart forever, had ordered a bouquet of flowers as a nice surprise.

Flowers to brighten a girl's attitude
Fresh flowers to lighten the mood

I went to tell her of the delivery and cheer her up.  I heard muffled weeping as I approached her door.  I knocked softly.

“I have some good news and some bad news.  Which do you want to hear first?”

“aarrgghhh, boooo hooo….”

“OK, then.  The bad news is that another van pulled up after you left and it didn’t have your suitcase.  The good news is that someone sent you flowers.”

When the daughter went down to the living room, a beautiful bouquet of flowers was displayed in an exquisite painted ceramic vase on a table by the window.  I don’t know anything about ceramics, but the vase looked very old and very expensive.  Julia had arranged the flowers perfectly.

The flowers changed her attitude in a heartbeat.  She was beaming, despite being in the same clothes now for five days.

Late Thursday night we were driving back from dinner when my mobile phone rang.  It was someone from the courier service.

“We have found your missing suitcase!” said a spunky young Italian woman on the phone.

“Great!” I said.  “When will it be delivered?  Can we get it Friday morning?”

“When are you leaving Italy?” she said in response, ignoring my question.

“On Sunday we are leaving the place we are staying to go back to Rome.”

“Not on Sunday, we deliver on Monday,” she said.

“No, that’s no good.” I said.  “We won’t be here anymore to receive the suitcase, the owner of the suitcase flies back to the US on Monday, and on Saturday we have a wedding. We must have that suitcase tomorrow! Her dress is in it!”

“OK. I talk to my supervisor to send it urgent tomorrow.”

“Grazie,” I said.  “Ciao!”

Friday came and went.  No deliveries of any kind.  The daughter finally bought a dress and shoes in Siena to wear to the wedding.

We had a wonderful wedding ceremony on Saturday.  Everything proceeded as planned.  The daughter wasn’t thrilled to be wearing the new dress instead of the lost one, but at least it was clean.  We heard nothing from the courier service.

On Sunday we were packing up the cars to drive back to Rome.  There would be no deliveries on Sunday, because everything is closed.  I noticed the daughter putting a vase into the backseat of the car.

“I didn’t know you bought a vase, did you get that in Siena or Cortona?” I asked.

“It came with the flowers.  It’s from my boyfriend,” she said.

“Wow, that’s nice.”  My mind was on fourteen different things since I was trying to get nine people loaded and ready to go.  I didn’t give it another thought.

The ride back to Rome was uneventful, except for the wrong turn when the Autostrada suddenly ended in a corn field.  At the airport, the lost baggage desk had no further information about the missing suitcase.  They wouldn’t give us the telephone number of the courier service.

The mother and daughter left for their flight to the US, the daughter clutching the vase as they went through the security gates.  We were staying a few more days in Rome.

I heard later that the mother and daughter were detained and interrogated by US customs officials in Chicago.  The officials wanted to know more about the vase, such as where it was purchased and how much it cost.  Something about import duties I would think.  Or maybe it was smuggling of antiquities.  I’m sure they missed their flight to Seattle.  I don’t think they will travel overseas again anytime soon.

I never heard what happened to the daughter’s suitcase.  Maybe it is in a gigantic pile of luggage in a warehouse somewhere in an industrial area outside Rome with all of the other missing suitcases, Elvis, and the alien’s body from Area 51.

And if I get an inquiry from a certain bed and breakfast hotel in Umbria about a stolen antique vase, I know what to tell them.

p.s. I have since learned that the owner of the missing suitcase never put a name and address tag on the bag.  That might explain a lot 🙂

The Grand Tour of Europe

The Grand Tour of Europe

From the 17th through the 19th centuries, many upper class British young men traveled a traditional path through Europe called the Grand Tour.  The Grand Tour served as an educational rite of passage whereby the traveler learned about culture, history, architecture, and the arts. The traveler became knowledgeable about classical antiquity and the Renaissance, and was usually accompanied by a learned guide.

The Grand Tour of Europe
The Traditional Grand Tour of Europe

The itinerary for the British traveler started in Dover, England, crossed the English Channel to France or Belgium, and then continued down through the middle of Europe to Italy. Finishing in either Rome or Naples, the traveler might take a ship back to England.  Grand Tours lasted from several months to several years.

Grand Tours are a thing of the past.  The days of the landed gentry wandering the capitals of Europe seeking knowledge and life experiences are long gone. Instead, today we have gap years, study abroad programs, hippie trails, and sabbaticals.

I’m fortunate to work for a company that offers an eight week sabbatical after every seven years of service.  Add in three weeks of vacation and I don’t have to sit in a little grey cube staring at a computer screen for almost three months.  My sabbatical is fast approaching.  I have looked forward to it for at least a couple of years now.  I’m going to make the most of it.

I can’t do the Grand Tour.  There is not enough time and money.  But I can try to do some portions of it.  In reverse.  I’m starting in Rome, Italy.  My plan is to detour first to Greece, Turkey, and Israel.  After returning to Rome, my Grand Tour will take me to Milan, Lake Como, the Berner Oberland, Dusseldorf, Berlin, Krakow, Budapest, Vienna, Prague, London, Bath, and the Cotswolds.

I invite you to follow along.

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Surviving the Vatican Line

St. Peter's Basilica

The line followed the contours of the buildings around one side of the great square.  Metal barriers four feet high ensured that people stayed in line.  It was late afternoon.  There was only an hour left to tour the Vatican Museum and see the Sistine Chapel.  I didn’t think we were going to make it.  The line was too long and moving too slowly.  At least we would get in to see St. Peter’s Basilica.

St. Peter's Basilica
St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

Long lines and crowds are a given if you visit Rome in the summer.  We were there in early September.  The peak crowds of August had dissipated but there were still large numbers of tourists in the city.  We had done fairly well at the Colisseum, only waiting about ten minutes.  It was a different story at the Vatican.

We passed through the gate at the start of the line.  There was no one there.  I got an excited feeling like I was at the amusement park and there was no line for the giant rollercoaster.  That meant I could race through the empty waiting lanes to the front of the non-line and jump on the rollercoaster right away.  And come back and do it again.

We walked through the empty lanes, zigzagging our way along the edges of buildings.  As we came around a corner we finally caught up to the real end of the line.

“Hey, I expected a much longer line.  We’ll be inside in no time.” I said confidently.  My family knows how much I hate waiting in line.

Tourists have evolved many line waiting strategies.  Some people tell jokes or stories to their companions.  Some read a guide book to learn about what they are about to see. Today, many people play games or watch videos on their smart phones.  We decided to watch the tourists around us and make up stories about who they were and where they were from.

There was a couple behind us.  They were clearly American college students.  They had the requisite backpacks and t-shirts with “Harvard” written across the front.  The guy had long curly hair, a scruffy beard, and baggy board shorts and flip-flops.  The girl had nice legs and exhibited them below tiny shorts from Victoria’s Secret with the work “Pink” across her butt.  The girl was chattering non-stop in a southern accent about Rome, the wine they had drunk, where they were going next, and how limoncello was such a great desert.

We didn’t have to guess where they were from or what their story was.  She was telling everyone within earshot.  We weren’t eavesdropping; that would be impolite.

The line was barely moving.  I couldn’t tell what was up ahead or what the hold-up was.  I tried to have a good time anyway.  I wasn’t stuck in a little grey cube staring at a computer screen.  I was enjoying a sunny afternoon in a beautiful city and about to see magnificent works of art.

St. Peter's Basilica
The dome of St. Peter's Basilica

The line inched forward.  The whole time we were subjected to the American girl’s monologue about her European vacation.  The guy played a game on his phone and grunted from time to time.  He had heard it all before.

As we got closer I saw that there was a metal detector gate that each visitor had to pass through.  Each visitor was also getting scanned with a metal detector wand by a security guard.  No wonder it took so long for thousands of tourists to pass through here.  It was reasonable and appropriate precaution to be sure.

Before we could pass through the metal detector we were inspected by the fashion police.  A matronly looking older woman was checking the clothes of each person wanting to get in.

It was a warm day.  I had on baggy cargo shorts and a button-down short-sleeve shirt.  She waved me through.

She objected to the attire of my other companions.  My wife was wearing a skirt whose hem was just slightly above the knee.  My 18 year old daughter and her friend both had on sun dresses with spaghetti straps and that also came above the knee.  The woman screeched in Italian and pointed to a sign above the gate that described the required dress code.  For women, shoulders must be covered and skirts or pants must cover the knees.  They couldn’t go in.

“You go in and we’ll wait back there,” said my wife.  The girls were disappointed.

My wife and the two girls left to walk all the way back through the line to the starting point.

I passed through the metal detector gate and was being scanned by the security guard when the American college students reached the hemline inspector.  The guy was waved through.  His board shorts were morally appropriate.

Of course the girl was stopped.  The hemline inspector shook her head and made a “tsk, tsk” sound.  She pointed to the back of the line.  The American girl was mad.

“That’s the second day in a row that she wouldn’t let me in!” she said as she stomped away.

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