eating my way around the world

“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” --St. Augustine

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Location: Chicago, IL, United States

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12 June 2005

4 June 2005 :: Rome

Sometime in the wee hours of the morning, I was awoken by a commotion on the train. Katie unlocked our cabin door to find out what was going on. It seems that somehow, someone had opened a locked cabin door and stolen my tourmate Michelle's purse, including her wallet, all her cash, credit cards, and her digital camera along with every photo she'd taken on the trip. The doors lock from the inside by turning a knob. Outside, there's a square-shaped key that one could insert to unlock and slide open the door.

In a different cabin, one of the Wood brothers had €200 (over $260) stolen from his wallet. Both cabins were filled with fellow tourmates - no strangers. We figure someone knocked on the doors in the middle of the night, and not getting an answer, keyed open the door and took whatever they wanted. Welcome to Italy. Michelle and her boyfriend Mike had to take off for the police station the minute we disembarked at Termini station in Rome, guaranteeing they'd blow any shot of seeing the Musei Vaticani (Vatican Museums) on this trip.

The rest of us met up with Bianca, a Contiki employee who made sure we knew wasn't a "tour manager" like Joey had been, which basically meant she'd direct us to the hotel, give us a few moments of assistance here and there, and basically, do nothing else to help us. After a guy tried to scam us on a quote for a taxi ride to the hotel, we got a reasonably priced driver, and headed to the hotel as fast as we could. The train had put us in Rome more than half an hour late - around 10:30am, and the last visitors enter the Vatican Museums at 12:20pm.

By the time we arrived to the Torre Rosa Park Hotel, it was nearly 11:30am, and everyone that did have a room ready was depositing their bags in their rooms, while the rest were stowing theirs in storage. I tossed mine in the room and ran back to the lobby to wait for the others. A couple people were dillydallying, which put me in drill-sergeant mode (*chop-chop* "Move your asses! Let's go! Let's GO!"). Time was ticking away.

The group of us trotted down the street beside a wall as cars zoomed by and somehow managed to get on a bus with only a few minutes' wait. (This will prove to be an almost miraculous occurrence, given our future experiences with the Rome bus system.) Dropped off a few blocks later, we all ran into the nearest metro station and pushed our way onto the train. It was just past noon. Inexplicably, instead of directing us to get off at the nearer Cipro Musei Vaticani station, Bianca told us to stay on the metro and get off one stop further - at Ottaviano San Pietro. Not only did this cost us an extra 3-5 minutes' ride, we had that much father to walk back to the Vatican Museums entrance.

The second the train doors opened, we all ran up the stairs en masse out of the station and proceeded to run at full speed down the street in the stifling noon-time heat. June in Rome is no joke, and we were all pouring sweat and gasping for air by the time we made it to the Vatican entrance - something that felt like ten blocks later. Bad news. The line was long. Insanely long. Like, wrap around the building for five blocks long.

We all groaned and began running around the corner of the building in search of the line's end. Once we found it and stepped into line, it was 12:16am. Four minutes to go - to reach the Vatican Museum doors blocks away - before these same doors slammed shut in our faces. The line was moving - not briskly - but steadily. We had enough time to send a couple of people (me among them) across the street to a gelateria to buy our first of many refreshing, sorbet-like cones of delight. Now back in the line and enjoying an ice-cold strawberry gelato cone, I approached a corner and got one block closer to the doors.

Like pilgrims that had just spotted the Statue of Liberty for the first time, we came within sight of the massive doors and out hopes were lifted. It was nearly 12:25pm by everyone's watches, but people were still streaming in. Maybe the Italian tradition of being late was not such a bad thing afterall! Having just finished a delicious cone of gelato, things were looking up.

Then it came - the line, which had been steadily moving inside the Vatican Museums, just broke in half and dispersed. Confused, we looked around to Bianca, who said they had just closed all entries for the day. She went up to the doors to talk to the guards, but returned and said that was it - we had missed the Vatican Museums. In a panic, I pleaded, "So what is that - what all did we miss??" She replied, "The Sistine Chapel."

Now, realizing that tomorrow was Sunday when the Vatican Museums would be closed to visitors, and that we were leaving first thing Monday morning, it could only have been divine intervention that kept me from dropping the loudest of all F bombs right there, just 30 yards away from the capitol of Catholicism. When faced with such soul-crushing disappointment, the only thing you can do (short of trashing the immediate area and flogging one's tour escort to death) is go get something to eat.

We were standing in the baking heat, had just spent 15 hours on a train, and none of us had had a proper shower since Paris the morning before, so we were all pretty sedate walking off to find a place to eat. While walking, I noticed my water bottle had come open in my new purse (purchased in England) and subsequently melted the bag of candy I'd bought in Paris. Nice. Not only was I heartbroken about missing the Sistine Chapel, sweating like a pig, tired and hungry, now my hands were sticky and the inside of my new bag (and everything in it) was covered in sloshing wet stickiness. Nothing a panini can't fix, right? Right???

While the 8 or 9 of us were settling on a restaurant, Audrey had concocted a plan to get into the Sistine Chapel anyway. Taking advantage of real tears of disappointment, she had pleaded with the Swiss Guards at the door, telling them she'd just been inside and had left her passport inside. They let her in - the only one of our group to get in. The rest of us ordered and sat down to eat. I didn't see any Orangina :( but I ordered a Fanta red soda (Fanta Fanta Don't you want a . . . never mind) and a large panini filled with pepperoni, capicolla and melted provolone. I ate like a starving man rescued from the desert.

After lunch, we back to the Citta del Vaticano to make the best of the situation. We were already there, so might as well see St. Peter's Square and St. Peter's Basilica.

One thing Rome and Houston have in common - and that's weather. Most of us managed to stay together while pushing through the sweating throng, but somehow Joey (the perpetually late and/or missing Wood brother, not our departed Aussie tour guide) managed to get separated from us. This has been a constant theme throughout the tour. Once we got in the shade, we spotted him and all was well.

Somehow, we ended up in a line to the side of the Basilica. After spending so much time in the line, we discovered it was a line to climb to the top of St. Peter's Dome. Mind you, this is the tallest free-standing dome in the world. We must have been crazy. Anyhoo, just as we were deciding who wanted to stay and who wanted to split off and see the Basilica only, the line just stopped moving. For about 45 minutes, we did nothing but lean on the wall, sweat and moan & bitch. Finally, it got moving again. We'd cooled off a little so maybe this was a blessing in disguise. Divine intervention? Oh, and God bless the Vatican - they took U.S. dollars at the gate, so I conserved my rapidly dwindling euros.

Finally we started to climb the dome. Now, after my monumental climbs at Notre Dame, Sainte-Chappelle and Sacre-Coeur, I thought nothing could kill me, but this one came close. Halfway up, I wondered what my mom would think if I died at the Vatican. At long last, we emerged into the sunlight, and saw Rome and Vatican City laid out at our feet.

This should give you an idea of how wide (?) the winding staircases are. They seemed a lot narrower on the way up . . .

After reaching the bottom, we trudged off to enter St. Peter's Basilica. The wussy, non-dome-climbing faction of our group was waiting for us at the obelisk in the center of the Square, but they'd just have to wait a little longer. St. Peter's Basilica is truly awe-inspiring inside. My only regret (OK, my latest regret) is that it was so full of people during a service that I didn't get to explore much further than the fringes. It somewhat escaped me that The Pietà, Michelangelo's famed sculpture of the Virgin Mary holding the slain Jesus, was inside. I didn't go look for it. A big oversight on my part.

Finally, it was time to leave and rejoin the group. Those Swiss Guards sure are flashy dressers.

Reunited with the group, we discovered they'd survived the outdoor heat by drinking out of the ancient stone fountains, still fed by the Roman aqueducts. They didn't appear to be suffering from amoebic dysentery, so the rest of us filled out water bottles and off we went. While looking for the Capuchin Monk tomb, we somehow mucked up our sense of direction, went up a very steep hill once, determined we were going the wrong way, came back down, went up the adjacent street (also a quite steep hill), determined that was the wrong way, then went back up the original hill. All to find the Palazzo Barberini, which is, to this day, I'm still not sure exactly what.

Reminiscent of London, my knees and ankle joints seem to be grinding bone on bone, and the bottoms of my feet are on fire. We did happen to stumble on the Capuchin Monk tomb - after many wrong turns. Too bad no pictures were allowed inside, for the place is truly spooky. Decorated in the skeletal remains of monks from centuries past, one can't help but feel insignificant standing among their skulls and reading the inscription, "What you are now, we once were. What we are now, you will one day be."

Thankfully, the turned-around street signs didn't mess us up too badly - we ran into a few straggling tourmates on the street - the intrepid Wood brothers as well as Mike and Michelle and were pointed in the right direction towards Trevi Fountain. Despite losing all of Michelle's money and credit cards and spending the morning IM-ing her family in the States to cancel everything, Mike and Michelle had managed to hit up Fendi - with his cards.

Now two purses heavier (and no doubt many hundred euros poorer) Mike and Michelle were once again destitute, as his credit card company - not knowing he was traveling - saw the major credit purchases at Rome's Fendi store and large cash transfers & withdrawals on his debit account, and cut off all his cards. So, between the both of them, they now had zero functioning cards and about €10 in cash. Hours after saying they'd reactivated the card, they were still without money. (We'll find out later that the bank reactivated the wrong cards.)

Trevi Fountain was commissioned by Pope Clement XII in 1762 and was made famous in the 1960 film La Dolce Vita, but is fed by aqueducts in place since early Roman times. Legend has it that if you toss a coin into the fountain, your return to Rome is guaranteed.

After the Trevi Fountain, we decided it was getting late. We all kind of wanted to go back to the hotel for a shower and a break before dinner. Our rooms were in a couple of buildings set off from the main hotel building and in back of a lovely outdoor restaurant.

When I finally checked out my bathroom, I discovered I had the handicapped room (no comments from the peanut gallery), so my shower area was essentially the entire bathroom. There was no stall, no tub, no curtain, just a plastic tubular chair and a corner of the tiled room where I was to stand (hover?) over this chair. Even so, this was one of the best showers of my life - washing off 36 hours of train and Rome sweat & grime. I put on fresh clothes and ventured down to dinner, my feet protesting every step of the way.

Dinner, like all things Italian, seemed to be running late, so I (being the designated demanding diva of the group) wandered into the dining room at 10 past eight and asked when it was that we'd be eating. They seated us immediately. Dinner was a wonderful surprise, as hotel food goes.

The waiters kept fresh bread and butter on the tables, the wine flowed, and the first course arrived - a bowtie pasta with a light sauce filled with salmon chips. This course was followed by a grilled skin-on fish course with a side of lemon and spaghetti. The wine continued to flow. Dessert was a delicious chocolate cake with a layer of raspberry filling. I waddled off to bed and passed out before my head hit the pillow.

Today's Lessons:
1. Nothing in Italy runs on time.
2. Apparently, it costs more to eat inside than outside. Given the heat, I can understand this.
3. Italy also doesn't believe in free drink refills. Boooo.
4. In a pinch, your map of Rome can be used as a nice combination hat/sunshade.
5. It's either pronounced "gelato" or "gelati" - we have no idea which. One may be plural, but since you can't eat just one - it's irrelevant.

Gelati count: 2

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Anonymous Heather said...

Maria, I've been reading your blog about London/Paris/Rome. I'm going on the same tour June 8-18. I have the same dilemma in Rome. I arrive on a Saturday by train. I'm a little worried now that the Vatican Museum/Sistine Chapel might be impossible to get to in time. Was there any other way to get in? I've read about guided tours offered on Vatican websites. They mentioned 10:30am, 12pm, and 2pm, making it sound like these times are offered Mon-Sat. Since the museum is supposed to close at 1345 on the Saturday I'm there, is it really possible that there could be a 2pm tour?

Any advice you could offer on this problem would be much appreciated!

Thank you for posting this blog. . .it's been really helpful so far!

If you'd like, you can email me at

4/15/2007 4:47 PM  

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