Chapter One – There’s No Place Like Rome

P1000032Chapter One – There’s No Place Like Rome

Friends, Acquaintances, Fellow Travelers: Lend me your ears (well, in this case your eyes). I come to praise Rome, not to bury it, although at times it nearly buried me.

 Tracy and I had visited Rome on two different occasions earlier this decade, but those stays had been relatively short in length.  So, just as the two of us did in 2006 when we ensconced ourselves in Paris for a week, we thought it would be fun and exciting to spend a similar amount of time exploring the Eternal City in the days leading up to Christmas 2009.  We wanted to see what we had missed on those previous visits. And boy, had we missed a lot!

P1000250Of course, a Maitaitom and Tracy trip always seems to include its fair share of high drama and low comedy, and this vacation certainly embodied enough of both genres (with even more drama after we arrived home).  This trip report even includes a miracle (which includes a huge assist by a friend) that makes the “Magic Cream” episode in 2006 pale in comparison.

I suspect that those of you who love Rome and those of you that despise it will disagree with me on some, if not many, points.  Unlike most places we have visited in our travels, I have quite a few mixed emotions about Rome, but I am certainly glad we had the opportunity to experience everything the city threw our way.




One of the main reasons I don’t blog on a trip is that I believe it is too easy to get caught up in the emotion of the moment, which can skew one’s viewpoint (well, at least mine) either too positively or negatively about a place or event.



At the end of the day, there is always vino to be sipped, and I tend to make too many spelling errors after a carafe or two.  Plus, it’s hard to write down anything of significant meaning while covered in a plethora of bird poo (an event that takes “embarrassing” to a new level).  Instead, I like to reflect upon the places we travel, and Rome is a prime example of a city that took a lot of reflecting on my part.

Hopefully, my massive missive will give you a good glimpse of Rome and provide an important cautionary tale of not letting one’s guard down while traveling, no matter where you are.

P1000192In any event, grab a chair, open a bottle or three, and I hope you enjoy Rome For The Holidays featuring your two intrepid travelers.

Act I: Debits, Delays, Detours, Decisions and Deicing or
All Roads Really Do Lead To Rome

As trips go, I believe I outdid myself in becoming an idiot earlier than on any trip we had ever previously embarked upon (and that’s saying something). On the evening before our flight, Tracy said, “Why don’t you clean out your wallet and just bring your debit card along with your credit cards?” I guess she didn’t think an oversized George Costanza wallet was conducive for traveling overseas.

“Credit Cards? Check!” I said.

“Debit card?  Crap, where’s my debit card?”  Yes, in all the pre-trip planning I had not noticed my debit card had gone missing, probably lurking somewhere in the great abyss known as my desk.  After thoroughly checking my desk drawers (ok, I tossed everything on the floor in one last frantic attempt to find it), it was determined to be MIA.

Fortunately, after calling the 800-number on the card, we were told it had not been used since the Carter administration (as you can see, I am not the banker in the family). The bad news, I had no debit card, so we only had one to take on the trip. We always like to have a back up, just in case one of the “Bank In The Boxes” gets hungry and eats our card.

Bad news greeted us at LAX when we arrived at the Air France gate. Our 12:35 p.m. flight to Paris had been delayed until 1:55 thanks to unusually bad weather in Paris.  Even with a San Diego State education, I immediately realized our 90-minute layover time at CDG was now gone, and we would miss our connecting Alitalia Flight to Rome, unless, of course, it happened to be delayed, too.

My new friend, Carlos (the Air France guy at the gate), kept telling me that since Alitalia had not put the Paris to Rome flight up on its computer, we couldn’t get a boarding pass for our next flight segment, but as I boarded the plane, he said he would keep looking for me until we took off. Carlos did not lie. Moments before takeoff, there was Carlos standing at our seats with boarding passes in hand, however since there was no chance we could make our original connection, he had kindly booked us on the next Paris to Rome flight; which was only about 90 minutes later than our original.

No problem, we thought. We would call our hotel in Rome (that had scheduled a driver to meet us) and give them information regarding our new arrival time in Rome.

I have never subscribed to the premise that the French do not have a keen sense of humor. Shortly before our plane landed in Paris, I asked the Air France purser if we would have enough time to catch our new connecting flight to Rome. I told him it would be on Alitalia.

He feigned crying, wiped his eyes and gave me a look that said, “Why the hell are you flying them?” Then he patted me on the back and said, “I think you’ll make it.”

Upon landing in Paris, we rushed to the nearest monitor to see how much time we had to make our flight. The Alitalia flights to Rome up on the big board looked much like NBC’s Fall Schedule of new television shows…they were all cancelled.

I turned to Tracy and whispered, “We’ll always have Paris.” It seems attempts at comedy after an 11-hour flight fall upon deaf ears.

While most passengers heading toward Rome were flooding the Air France information desk, Tracy used her Amazing Race knowledge and said, “We’re flying Alitalia. Let’s try that desk first.” Good call. We were second in line at the Alitalia desk and quickly given two pieces of paper for an Alitalia flight that was supposed to take off at 5 p.m. Tracy and I were told to go to the nearby Air France guy who was standing near a computer. He would print out a boarding pass for us.

He in turn told us there was a flight leaving in 15 minutes and did we want that one? In a Sarah Palin moment we said, “You betcha,” and, coincidentally with the snow falling outside, the landscape looked very similar to Russia.

P1000023We rushed through security, zipped over to our gate, where they were telling passengers that our flight was delayed indefinitely due to inclement weather.  When I looked up on the board, the flight number looked vaguely familiar.  Sure enough, this was the original flight we had scheduled three weeks ago that had been delayed.   First the flight was delayed until two o’clock. Then it was three. Then it was not going to take off to at least five, if at all. We called the hotel and said to cancel the driver. “We’ll be there when we get there.” While Tracy read and tried to stay awake, I loaded up on double espressos and cappuccinos in a feeble attempt to stay coherent.

P1000024The snow actually stopped for about two hours and everyone sitting around kept wondering why we weren’t taking off. I hadn’t seen this many glum faces since I went to a San Diego Padres’ game last summer.

Then, at exactly 4 p.m., a voice boomed over the intercom that boarding would commence immediately for our flight to Rome. It was as if we had all sat on a collective tack. Suddenly, 175 weary bodies leaped from their seats, got quickly in the queue and looked longingly at our ride to Rome.

That’s when the blizzard started. I didn’t know what Alitalia’s immediate plans were to deal with this blanket of white stuff, but this was the kind of weather that Santa puts Rudolph on his Red-Nose-Alert speed dial.

Once inside our Alitalia plane, I really thought we had traveled back in time to the 1970s. The seats were covered in green cloth. I half expected Kermit the Frog to be my seatmate. I was surprised they didn’t have shag carpeting.

As we sat there, looking outside (it was hard to look inside what with all that green cloth staring us in the face), the snow kept coming down harder and harder, and the wings were icing up pretty good. Being from California, we had only a faint knowledge of deicing procedures, but I was pretty damned sure this plane needed to have it done.  A brave flyer I am not, so it’s a safe bet I looked like William Shatner in that Twilight Zone episode when he saw the Gremlin messing with the engines on the wing.

Gremlins-020BThe captain told us that we would slowly taxi, get deiced (thank God) and then off to Rome we would go. When he said, “slowly taxi,” he wasn’t kidding. From our gate to the deicing station, we taxied for the better part of an hour (55 minutes to be exact). “Geez, I hope they take the chains off this thing,” I thought. After ten to 15 minutes of deicing (a procedure similar to one of those gas station car washes), we moved out on to the runway, and the steward came to sit next to me for takeoff (we had moved to exit rows since they were available). I think my face might have rivaled the seats for the color green at this moment.

P1000026The engines revved like I have never heard engines rev, and we moved quickly (very, very quickly) down the runway. It seemed like we had only gone about 50 yards when the plane made a sharp ascent upward. Ground control to Major Tom.

The steward, sensing my feeling of imminent doom, told me they rev the engines harder in this weather to keep the wings from icing up again. I forget if that made me feel better or if I just passed out. Yes, I am glad I live in California.

Safely on the ground in Rome (thank you Alitalia), we immediately caught a taxi to our home for the next eight nights, the Hotel San Francesco in Trastevere. The fare was 50€, which I guess was a flat fee since our driver would not accept even a nominal tip.

The hotel lobby was very nice, and we caught a quick glimpse of the charming breakfast room where we would get our motors started for the next seven days. We were assigned Room 406, which I was told was located on the quieter side of the hotel. I will give a more detailed account of the hotel later in the report, but the first impression was less than stellar. The floor was covered with; well we don’t know exactly what the floor was covered with. In any event, it was clean, but the room had very little space to lay anything out.

The shower was your typical European death shower, where a broken hip is just one misstep away. It had the ever-popular “Shower On A Stick” that pointed out directly toward the bathroom guaranteeing a flood with any wayward spraying. Tracy’s yoga lessons gave her a definite advantage over me in contorting to fit the uniquely small space, but we adapted nicely throughout the week and no bones were broken in our daily effort at good hygiene.

The lighting in the bathroom was poor, but after about 18 hours of flying and waiting it was best not to see our countenances in any light that evening. The bags under my eyes were now as large as our carry-on luggage.

Note: Once again, this why I do not blog. After spending eight nights at the Hotel San Francesco, our thoughts on this hotel are much better than our first impressions.

After cleaning up, we wandered down to a place called Ristorante de Cencia, which looked charming on the inside. As we entered, the good news was that everyone inside was speaking Italian, so for the first time we really felt like we were on vacation. The bad news; we ate there.

P1000027The food was, for lack of a better term, uninspiring. Tracy ordered a vegetable soup that ultimately made a can Campbell’s Soup look good. I had an “ok” Garbanzo bean and pasta soup. My veal scaloppini was woeful, while Tracy had Rigatoni with bacon, peppers and Pecorino cheese that she deemed “passable.” We weren’t too disappointed because we were so tired we probably could not have appreciated a really good meal, plus, what the hell, “We were finally in Rome!”

For the rest of the trip, I had made restaurant reservations before we departed for a few of our nights and had a pretty good idea of the other establishments we wanted to dine while we were in Rome. Our reviews of these restaurants might surprise some.

It was quite chilly walking back to the Hotel San Francesco, but as we wound past Santa Maria in Trastevere we both had a warm feeling. It felt great back to be back in Roma. Settling into our bed I leaned over, gave Tracy a kiss and before either of us could say “buona notte,” we were sound asleep, our first full day roaming in Rome looming ahead.

Act II: Bad Forecast, Nice Spread, Big Balls, Via Giulia Childs Play, Numb Skulls, Where’s That Damned Enoteca, Just Look For The Elephant, Hunky Doria, Don’t Meow For Me Argentina and Taking It On The Lamb Chops

 During our quick death showers the night before, we had tuned in to CNN International to find out the forecast for the following day. That nasty graphic showing dark clouds and rain appeared on the screen, so it should come as no surprise that when we awoke on Friday morning the skies were clear with bright sunshine.

P1000028Surviving another shower that included immediately pulling the shower handle away from your body as intermittent spurts of scalding, hot water came bursting out (a fun game that we played all week in an attempt to escape second degree burns), we made our way downstairs (96 stairs to be exact) to the breakfast room that was filled with delicious goodies perfect for two weary travelers.

P1000029Cereal, bread, jams, cheeses, meats, pastries, cold pizza (just like college), juices and cappuccinos made for a nice breakfast.  Then it was off to one of the most famous Rome monuments that I had always wanted to visit, the Castel Sant’Angelo.

P1000032I was interested in learning about its sordid and fascinating history, but alas when we picked up our Roma Pass at the entrance, we were told the bookshop people had all booked out and there were no audio guides available to avail ourselves of this knowledge.

So we toured the grounds and made our way through various rooms following signs to the terrace and came upon the stairway that would take us to the top to check out those great views we had heard so much about.

P1000033And great, they were. It looked like we could reach out and touch St. Peter’s. What a fantastic day (although I was still pretty bummed about the lack of audio guides)!

P1000036After wandering the premises for about 45 minutes…

P1000034…we happened upon the cute restaurant/bar that has outdoor seating that overlooks the Vatican.

P1000038We walked around some more taking in vista after vista when out of the blue I swore I heard Tracy utter a phrase that sort of shocked me.

P1000039“Wow, what big balls!” she exclaimed. Before I could answer, “Why, thank you,” she added, “Look at all those cannon balls down there.”  It was time to move on.P1000031Exiting the structure, we walked across the famed Ponte Sant’Angelo, a bridge that dates back to the 130s AD. I was glad it was not as crowded as a day back in 1450, when during a Jubilee, the bridge gave way under the weight of all the pilgrims and many of them drowned in the Tiber.

Now it was time for our mini-Renaissance walk down the Via Giulia. We strolled through the Piazza Sant’Angelo where Beatrice Cenci and other family members were beheaded in 1599. It was a much calmer scene on this morning.

Our first stop when we reached the via Giulia, which was an early example of Renaissance Rome urban (not Pope Urban) planning, was the Chiesa di San Giovanni dei Fiorentini. Michelangelo had actually presented a design to build the Florentine church, but his design didn’t make the final cut.

As we stepped inside the church, we immediately heard the voices of dozens of little children singing a rousing chorus of Jingle Bells. It was beginning to feel a lot like Christmas. There was also a cool nativity scene, one of only a handful we witnessed in our week in Rome (most churches keep them behind curtains until Christmas Eve services).

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Back on the via Giulia, in about a block, we detoured one street over to see if we could get in to see the Chiesa di San Biagio and perhaps see an interesting, if macabre, reminder of the martyred St. Biagio; a portion of his throat.  The church was closed.

The via Giulia was designed to be the straightest, longest and widest street in Rome, and artists like Raphael once lived on it. The street is now home to a number of antique shops, but fortunately we contained ourselves to window-shopping as we passed by these shops, various palazzos and other buildings. We then happened upon an open church door, and when church doors are open, Maitaitom and Tracy go in.

P1000047We quickly found out that this was no ordinary church. We had stepped in to Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Morte (Saint Mary Of The Prayer and Death).  This was a spot where monks collected and buried indigents (yes, they were also dead).  I read somewhere that during the Renaissance, the underground chambers were filled with bodies that eventually were transferred to barges that carried the corpses away (well, most of the corpse anyway).

P1000046There was a room under the church, supposedly not open to the public, which contained decorated skulls. I guess because we still looked like death after the previous day’s epic travel schedule, as we were about to pass by a closed door, a nun came over and opened it, and we descended down the stairs.

P1000045Sure enough, there were numbers of painted human skulls arranged in interesting patterns stuck inside nooks in this fairly large room. It was cold down there, not that anyone residing in it was complaining, so we made our way upstairs, left a small donation and exited the church. Two seconds after we walked out the door, the nun bolted the door behind us, making no bones about it that the church was now closed.

P1000048From the via Giulia, we wound ourselves through the Campo di Fiore (lots of produce stands surrounding the statue of Giordano Bruno, who had been burned at the stake here many centuries ago) and over to the Piazza Navona.

I remembered the Piazza Navona as incredibly striking on our first visit, thanks to its lovely fountains. On this day, the piazza looked more like an oversized flea market on speed. I tried to keep my eyes on the beautiful fountains, but was distracted by all the crap being sold at the myriad of booths lining the piazza.

P1000052Truth be told, I know many people love Christmas markets and market days in various towns, but whether here or in small towns dotting Italy, France and other European countries, they have no appeal to me and hold little, if any, charm.

P1000049I’ve never been much of a trinket guy. At least the carousel in the center was cute.

P1000051We ducked into Sant’Agnes in Agone, and then made our way toward the Pantheon for our obligatory visit that we make each time we visit Rome.

P1000053This building never ceases to amaze us. But while being amazed, we also had hunger pangs that superseded our quest to learn more Roman history.

My plans for the day had gone perfectly up to this point, but, of course, that quickly changed. For some reason, I thought that the Enoteca Cul de Sac was near the Pantheon, but after asking a bunch of people, I surmised I must be wrong. Now, we were really hungry.

Nearby we stepped in to a little restaurant called Trattoria Antonio al Pantheon. When we arrived a little past 1 p.m. there were not many people inside. By the time we ordered, the place was packed, and we were the only English-speaking patrons to be found.

The owner (at least he acted like the owner) was carving prosciutto by hand in the middle of the room, and it looked great. We started with a glass of Prosecco, but this was no ordinary glass of the bubbly. The waitress opened the bottle and poured two huge servings into over-sized red wine glasses (always dangerous for jet-lagged tourists).

P1000054 Tracy opted for an appetizer of zucchini blossoms filled with ricotta and anchovies (quite tasty), which was followed with a grilled eggplant. I had always been averse to eating eggplant, but one taste opened my eyes to what I have been missing all these years. It was very good.

It was zuppa for me; a fagioli that had white beans and tube pasta, which was good, and then ravioli filled with Pecorino and fresh tomatoes. It was much better than the previous night’s meal. Lunch cost: 41€.  Although the Prosecco made us a little tired, it was time for these Prosecco-laden California tourists to see some more of Rome. Next stop: Santa Maria sopra Minerva. For some odd reason, I just couldn’t find it, although I knew by the map that the church had to be very close to where we were standing. As it turned out, it was closer than I thought (perhaps the Prosecco was taking effect).

After walking by the church twice, Tracy pointed directly behind me and said, “See that elephant. The church is right behind it.”

“Elephant,” I answered. “How many glasses did you have?”

P1000086Well I’ll be damned.  Behind a statue of an elephant carrying an obelisk designed by Bernini was the Santa Maria sopra Minerva. This is the only Gothic church in Rome and it has a magnificent ceiling slightly reminiscent of Sainte Chapelle in Paris.

P1000055Inside, under the altar, are the remains of St. Catherine of Siena (except her head, which headed straight to Siena).

P1000056The church also contains the tomb of Fra Angelico and an original Michelangelo statue of Christ carrying a small cross. Tracy lit a candle for a friend’s mother who had recently passed away.

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We scooted out the back door of the church and headed for our next destination, the Galleria Doria Pamphilj (no photography indoors, so indoor photos are from website).  It contains a large art collection of paintings, furniture and statuary that is housed in state rooms inside the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj.  This all started back in the 16th century.

homeThis had never been on our radar, but thanks to the Fodor’s travel board members who have visited here and included it on their trip reports, it became a high priority.

r085eoWe loved our audio guide tour of this residence, but sadly the private apartments were not open, because some of the family was staying there during the Christmas holidays.  We would have happily supplied the wine if they’d invited us in.

After the Doria Pamphilj, we ducked into one more nearby church, the Chiesa del Gesú, which had once been the most powerful church in the Jesuit order.  We started our hike back to Trastevere, saw the huge Christmas tree in front of Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II, the famous (or infamous to some) “Wedding Cake” building.

P1000061…and soon found ourselves at the Largo di Torre Argentina. Every time I see it, I almost forget this area has historical significance, because we always seem to focus more on the abundance of cats that call this historical area home at the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary.

The kitties were out and about on this beautiful afternoon, frolicking in the ruins, but it all gives one pause to think. Spay and Neuter! It also made us miss our cats (shown below shortly before their vacation), who were probably at that moment laughing with all the other cats at The Cat Hotel, knowing we were paying almost as much for their lodging as we were for our own (wait, it was more!).  Plus, they probably had a better meal the previous evening, too.

DSC06318In about ten minutes or so we were back in Trastevere and stopped in the Church Of Santa Maria in Trastevere where it was time for more Christmas carols. The kids were singing and proud parents wielding camcorders and cameras were busy chronicling the event for posterity.

P1000063By now we were pooped. Back at the hotel, we turned on CNN and saw snow was still falling heavily on Paris. Our friends, one a fellow Fodorite, were flying in to Paris on this afternoon, and we wondered whether they had made it.  Little did we know at the time how integral their trip to Paris would play in the drama that unfolded at the end of our trip (God, I love foreshadowing).

That night we had dinner reservations at a Fodorite favorite, Ditirambo (photo from their website), which is not another Sylvester Stallone sequel.  Located just off Campo Fiore, we arrived for our 8 p.m. reservations and were seated in a little alcove in between the two rooms with a perfect view of all that was happening at the restaurant. Once again no English was spoken by any of the patrons that we heard, and the restaurant filled quickly and was packed by 8:30.

Ditirambo3I wish I could say the meal was impeccable, but it was not, although it got off to a good start. Once again we started with a refreshing glass of Prosecco, although not the gallon jug size that we had downed at lunch. Tracy’s appetizer of crispy fried potatoes with sheep cheese and black truffles was delicious, albeit a tad cold. I also enjoyed my appetizer that consisted of a mousse of pears and Gorgonzola drizzled with balsamic that was served with sliced fresh pears.

Tracy’s dinner was very good. She had a pork chop wrapped in crispy bacon (the ultimate in pigging out, I guess) with a side of cinnamon applesauce for dipping. The applesauce complemented her pork dish perfectly.

My main course on this night was off the mark. I ordered baby lamb chops with rosemary. The dish was not only overcooked but contained virtually no lamb. There were lots of chops, however. “Maybe the lamb took it on the lam,” I said sheepishly. Fortunately, when dipped in Tracy’s applesauce, the flavor was somewhat better, but it was a disappointing meal to say the least. Not to mention, I was still starving. Dinner, Prosecco and a nice bottle of red wine from the Piedmonte region cost 83€.

We skipped dessert at Ditirambo, and on the way back to our hotel we stopped in Trastevere at a place where I had eaten one of my greatest desserts (twice) back in 2005.

On that trip in 2005, the Enoteca Trastevere served up a dish called Il Saraceno, a dessert of frozen chocolate interspersed with cinnamon and some sort of hot, candied peppers (perhaps Red Hots). I had dreamed of this dish for years.  Unfortunately for me, the people working at Enoteca Trastevere had never heard of this bizarre dessert, but I was consoled by a huge piece of chocolate cake that contained pears. That and some Vin Santo put a nice exclamation point on the day.

Departing the enoteca, we found out the weather prognosticators had been just a little early with their predictions of the wet stuff. It started raining pretty heavily, and we, in our eternal (well, it is the Eternal City) optimism, had not brought our umbrellas.  We were going to make a mad dash for the hotel (about a ten-minute walk), when over to the side of the alley we spied an umbrella that had been tossed because it was broken.  Although broken, it was not unusable, and it kept us dry for our walk back to the Hotel San Francesco.

We gently laid it down near our hotel, hoping it would give someone else in need a chance to stay out of the rain.  A long first day was now in the books.

Overnight the skies opened up and it poured. Awaking about 3 a.m., I was greeted with a sky show of lightening and some loud claps of thunder. Quickly, I got back to sleep because there would be no rest for the weary coming up in only a few hours.  Little did I know at that moment, but within 18 hours I would find my new favorite dessert of all time (yes it is true, when it comes to my favorite desserts, I do have serious commitment issues).

Next: Act III: History Comes Alive, Finally Finding Cul De Sac, The Church That’s Always Closed, Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head, More Churches, They Should Serve A Caesar Salad Here, The Zabaione Zone and The Deep Freeze

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