Travel slowly, staying in vacation rentals (villas, farms, cottages, apartments)
Report 824: Laurie & Daniel Take the Folks to Rome
By Daniel from New York, Spring 2005
Trip Description: Eight terrific days (well, OK, maybe one day I'd like to forget) in Rome with my wife and parents.
Destinations: Countries - Italy; Regions/Cities - Florence, Rome
Categories: Hotels/B&Bs; Art Trip; Day Tours; Foodie Trip; Sightseeing; Independent Travel; 3-4 people
Page 1 of 8: Happy Birthday! - First Impressions
Roman Kitty at Torre Argentina
Day Zero - April 20, 2005 - Happy Birthday!
I could not think of a better way to spend my birthday than setting off on a journey to a new place. Although, the truth is that this was not my first trip to Rome. That happened back in the summer of 1985 during my "grand tour". Ronald Reagan was president, the incredibly strong dollar meant that working class folks were shopping at Gucci, and most of my travel planning was done not through the Internet, but with the help of a book called Let's Go Europe!
So, ready for a shocker? I HATED Rome during that first trip. It was the last stop on a long journey so my cash was running out, it was hotter than Hades (I think I was there in July or August), and the city simply didn't "open up" to me the way that Paris and Madrid had (London was a bust on that trip too, BTW). So here I was heading back to a place that I didn't care for 20 years ago with full knowledge that THIS time, I was going to enjoy it a lot more. How did I know? Well, I'd had 20 years to learn a little more about history, food, travelling - and for this reason, Rome had been calling my name for a few years now. In fact, this trip had originally been planned for the spring of 2003, but we had to cancel at the time because my mother (who was supposed to come with us along with my father) got ill and couldn't make it. Now get THIS, the same bloody thing happened in 2004! Mom got sick and the trip was canceled once again (BTW, it's not like we stayed home during these cancellations, my wife and I just enjoyed "booby prize" trips to France instead, hoping to save Rome for Mom & Pops).
So as the saying goes, the third time was the charm, and as the four of us flew over the Atlantic, the cancellations of years past seemed far away. We even enjoyed the flight a little, as Laurie (my wife) and I chatted and shared some wine with my folks. I suppose I may have enjoyed the flight a tad more than everyone else, as I managed to spill an entire glass of red wine into my dad's lap. Suddenly, we were all trying to mop up Pops, and likewise douse his pants with seltzer water to get out the wine. A helpful stewardess came over with a small bottle of white wine and told us that we should be dousing Pops with that instead to get the stain out. My mother, who was uncomfortable with the attention we were starting to get from other passengers, suggested that we might move this stain removal operation to a lavatory. So I went into one of those large, handicap friendly ones with my dad (who's in his 70s) to try and help him out. The white wine only succeeded in making him smell like the basement of a liquor store. As we both exited the lavatory, my father paused in front of a man who'd been waiting to use it and said "this is not what it looks like."
The rest of the flight was free of incident, and we landed in Rome at around 8:00 AM or so the next day.
Day One - April 21, 2005 - First Impressions
I had arranged with our hotel, the Albergo Del Senato, for a car to pick us up at the airport. As the time passed during the ride into the city, I kept wondering when I would start seeing things that would look like ROME. Finally, when we got off the highway and started to penetrate the city, a few things started looking familiar and I began to get excited. The small, winding streets taking us to the Del Senato, and the effortless manner in which the driver navigated them, reminded me of a cab ride in Toledo, Spain several years ago.
When we arrived at the hotel and checked in, I immediately knew that I had made the right decision in canceling the two apartments I had originally booked in Trastevere. I'll explain. I had been wanting to do the vacation rental thing for years now, and so back in January, when I began putting together the trip, I found what I thought was the perfect setup: two small, duplex penthouses with a large shared terrace that were in a charming (if not the most central) neighborhood. Although the apartments were on the fourth American floor (i.e. three flights up), I allowed myself to be seduced by thoughts of wine on the terrace with Laurie at sunset and the extra space we would have (not to mention the fact that we would be saving $1,600 per couple versus staying at the Del Senato).
It's kind of a long story, so I'll just say that I got an email from the owner of the apartments, about five days before we were supposed to leave, that caused me to pause and question whether this particular situation was a nightmare in the making. First of all, I had to bear in mind that if this turned out to be a bad situation, I would have the added stress of going through it not only with Laurie, but with my two mid-70s parents in tow as well. And, excuse me, but what the hell was I thinking when I thought that my mother, who hates walking even one block more than she has to, would be cool with climbing up three flights of stairs at least once or twice a day?! So I switched to Plan B after consulting with my dad, and went with our back-up reservation at the Del Senato. Even though I would not book an apartment with that agency again, the owner did return my deposit back to me promptly (which was obviously the correct thing to do as he had changed the terms of the agreement).
Back to the Del Senato. At check-in we were told that our rooms were not ready (it was early, so no shocker there) so they said that we could go into the breakfast room and partake of the buffet. I thought that was a nice PR move, as it didn't cost them much to offer the extra breakfast, but to us tired travelers it was priceless to just sit down for a moment and have a cup of coffee with a pastry or whatever. Although I may have forgotten an item or two, the buffet consisted mainly of OJ, dry cereals, granola, yogurts, pastries, fresh fruit and fruit salad, a large torte of some kind, rolls, ham, Swiss cheese, and scrambled eggs. Perfectly acceptable, I thought, for a "breakfast included" type of buffet. There was an attendant there that would take one's order for regular coffee (served with hot milk which I appreciated), cappuccino, tea, etc.
After a while we went back to the front desk where we were given the "keys" to our rooms (they're actually electronic sensor type things that also keep the room's electricity activated - you sorta plug the sensor in right after opening the door to your room). Mom and Dad's room, number 407, was great. Nice sized corner room (the side of the building closest to the Pantheon) with a big bathroom. Our room, number 405, was just OK. The room itself was a lot smaller than my parents' room (same price of 250 euro/night, BTW), the bathroom was smaller and it was right in front of the elevator (not horrifically noisy, but still). I made a mental note to myself to see if I could get the room switched.
Mom and Dad were beat, so they wisely decided to crash for a few hours. I, on the other hand, just wanted to dive right on into Rome and not waste another second! My poor, bleary-eyed wife bravely feigned enthusiasm for the nice long walk that I suggested. I love her so much.
On the way out I asked the front desk person if she knew of a good dry cleaner that was nearby (I was holding two pairs of pants stained with red wine). She said that the hotel could take care of it, and I shouldn't worry. She then put out her hand for the pants. Just then, I had that moment that we've all had at one time or another during our travels, where we have to decide if we're the type of person who wants to save a few bucks by searching for a dry cleaner on our first day in Rome, OR if we're the type of person who allows good fortune to turn the stained pants into someone else's problem. I relinquished the pants.
Off we were! It felt great to finally be walking on the streets that I only knew from distant memory, and from my Streetwise map. Before long, we were at the Torre Argentina looking at all the cats. Although we knew that we could go down and visit the area where they took care of the cats, we decided to save that for another day.
Just then, my eyes caught the magic word painted on a window: gelato. It was at a place on via d. Botteghe Oscure called Caffe dei Ginnasi. We both ordered enormous cones with multiple flavors (I'm partial to creamy/caramel anything, while Laurie likes fruit flavors). This was merely the first of many gelato samplings on this trip, but one would think that from way we savored that stuff we were never going to have gelato again. Anyway, cones in hand we passed the huge V. Emanuele II monument. I think it was just a little after this that we happened upon a small Monet exhibit that was taking place. Can't remember the name of the gallery, in fact, it may have just been a government building and not necessarily a gallery (if anyone wants to guess at the location, it is the building to the right of the big Botero hand that you can barely see the corner of in one of the photographs in the "Day One" photo album link on the right). It was a small exhibit, with only two paintings, Waterlilies & Japanese Bridge, and several photographs that were on loan from the Musee Marmottan in Paris. Like the gelato, it was a pleasant, and unexpected treat.
We continued along via Nazionale all the way to Piazza della Republica, then darted over to the train station where we bought our tickets for the Eurostar to Florence for our day trip there during the upcoming week. Afterward, as we came back toward the piazza, I realized how great the weather was: low to mid 70s and lots of sun. Actually, that pretty much describes the weather the entire time we were there (it got down to about the mid 50s at night). Doesn't get much better than that.
After a visit to S. Maria d. Angeli, we stopped at the St. Regis Grand for a drink (the St. Regis in New York is one of my favorite places and my Amex bill confirms that I'm there much too often.) It was fine, I guess. However, the place was a bit dark inside, the property overall did not feel as "grand" as I thought it would, and the cocktails were just OK (our subsequent fancy schmancy cocktails later in the trip would be much nicer). After our drink, we decided to head back to the Del Senato. This time we walked along via 20 Settembre back which eventually took us past the Quirinale.
Back at the hotel, I put my ear to the door to my parents room and heard nothing. Clearly, they were still snoozing. It was about 2:00PM or so, and strangely enough I actually started to feel like I was "hitting a wall" myself so I did something that I've never done on a trip to Europe which was to take a nap on the first day.
I felt like I just closed my eyes and opened them again, and it was suddenly 5:00PM! I woke Laurie up and quickly called my folks because Roy, our guide, was coming to the hotel at 5:30. We all managed to get ourselves downstairs and found Roy waiting for us. Originally, we had wanted to start our orientation tour with him right away, have some dinner in the middle (I was hoping to be first in line at Da Baffeto, but it was not to be), and then tour around some more. However, since my mother had slept through lunch, she was feeling a little lightheaded and requested that we get something to eat right away and close by if possible (note to the reader: that last sentence is what we call "foreshadowing").
So we just went right into Pantheon Bar which is a cafe located in the same building as the Del Senato (it's just to the right of the entrance as you're exiting the hotel). We got a table inside. It was a simple yet pleasant cafe. Sandwiches, some pastas, etc. Reasonable prices as I recall. Roy immediately, and thankfully, took over. As he spoke with our waiter, I realized that not only did Roy speak fluent Italian, but he also behaved like a Roman as he spoke. Lots of emotion and use of the hands. Yep, Roy had definitely gone native.
Let me tell you how Roy came to be our guide. Back in 2003, when you'll recall I said that we were first supposed to do this trip, I mentioned to a former coworker that I was looking for a private guide for Rome. He gave me Roy's email, and as luck would have it, Roy was in New York (where he grew up) that week and he agreed to have a cup of coffee with me to talk about our upcoming trip. During this initial meeting, Roy managed to paint a clear picture of how the trip should be paced (keeping my folks in mind) and what we should do. His enthusiasm for his adopted city was infectious, and I knew I had found the perfect person to make Rome really "bloom" for our family. Now, after two years and two cancellations, I could hardly believe we were actually here with him. BTW, Roy's business is called Jewish Roman Tours, but before you go thinking that this is a tour service for Jews only, let me tell you that this is not the case. There are many tour services in Rome, and in order to stand out you've really got to have a specialty, or have great word-of-mouth. Roy has both. We are not Jewish, and therefore Roy did not really emphasize the history of Roman Jewry during our time together (although I have to say that what Roy did mention was absolutely fascinating, and next time we do a tour with him I actually WANT to do his tour of the Ghetto).
After our quick dinner, Roy commenced the first, and most inspired, passeggiata of our trip. We did a great orientation walk around the Pigna neighborhood, which was "our" neighborhood for the duration of our trip. First off, we did a long stop at the Pantheon where Roy really made it come to life with tales of its design and what materials had been stripped away from it for use at the Vatican. We also saw Borromini's La Sapienza with it's funky Tower of Babel design.
Roy knew about Laurie's interest in theater, and so he made sure to show us a curved building that had been inspired by a famous theater in Paris (forget the name of it right now). Speaking of theaters, Roy did this very theatrical thing a couple of times which was to have us stop for a moment and then he'd give us the background on something, and then that "something" (like Piazza Navona or the dramatically lit Trevi Fountain) would be suddenly revealed as we came around a corner. I know that may sound cheesy, but I swear to you that it wasn't. After Roy talked about the three fountains at P. Navona, we watched Marcel, one of the street performers there that does this whole show with finger puppets. Mom was getting kind of cold and so Roy helped her buy a scarf right there in the piazza.
We had two rest breaks during our evening stroll. One was at a terrific gelato place called Da Quinto (on v.d. Tor Millina - just west of P. Navona). The lady there, Simona, made us all huge cones with several flavors each. My father's eyes bugged out when I handed him one of the cones. He claimed that there was no way that he was going to be able to finish it, and yet somehow he managed. The second stop was a coffee place called Sant'Eustachio where I had the best espresso that I've ever had in my life. The foam was so thick that I had to eat the last of it with a spoon. Incredibly delicious coffee. Their secret technique is kept from the public's eye via a metal screen. Gotta love the intrigue.
I couldn't believe my eyes when I looked at my watch and realized that it was 10:00PM! The tour with Roy had been such a pleasure for all of us, that the time just flew by. I know that I've left out many of the sights that we visited that night (like Hadrian's Temple, multiple fountains, etc.) but as this page has already grown to ridiculous lengths, I think it's OK if I move on. Anyway, Roy walked us back to our hotel where we discussed our plans for the days to follow, and said our goodnights.
It was the best first day in Rome that I could have imagined, and we were all excited about the things we would be doing in the coming days. Just as I was getting ready for bed, I noticed that the two pairs of pants that I had handed over earlier in the day were now hanging on a hook by the bathroom - perfectly pressed with not a trace of wine. Bravissimo!
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