41. Rome Part II // Vatican City // Italy

We had failed to visit the Vatican upon our first visit to Rome. Considering we had to pass back through it from Naples to make our way up to Florence, we booked two nights for our “stopover.” We returned by train late in the evening and checked into our room not too far from the station, delighted we no longer had the cloud of immenent Naples stabbing looming over our heads. Unlike our first enchanting night in Rome, it seemed our second visit was to be slightly less enjoyable and we first discovered this when we were charged extra to be provided with wifi. We felt a little stung, so swung the ledger back in our favour by nobbing a bottle of sunscreen from the bathroom (this has proven very prudent now that we are in the scorching Balinese heat.) With only two nights to try and recapture the memory of our first visit, we ducked out in search of some dinner. But again, it was still Sunday and everything was closed!!! We walked several kilometres to a number of potential gems but gave up after the third one was shut. Instead, we waddled into the horrible tourist zone where of course every restaurant was open, spruikers dazzled you with their generic menus and rotten wine was used to bait you in. First night back in Rome was very sub par.

The silverlining from this was it motivated Elisha to spend that night compiling a self-guided walking food tour for the next morning. We began the day with a quick espresso from Lant Eustach, another establishment featured in Eat, Pray, Love. The suit rush was already over thankfully so we were able to drink our espresso over several moments instead of the standard 3 second timeframe you might otherwise be granted.

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There is a market in the Piazza Navona most mornings and we took a second to explore all the produce and pastas on display there.

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A mozzarella bar was nearby and we stopped in there afterwards for a mozzarella, basil, rocket and smoked ham sandwich.

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Any meal deserves dessert and we paid a visit to Grom for some gelato just around the corner.

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A little walk away and we were back in the old jewish quarters where an old bakery sorted us out with some sour cherry cheesecake.

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And by that time, it was then lunchtime. We had no guide for this but were looking for something on our way to the Vatican when we stumbled on Hostaria, a small family restaurant whose menu was all hand written on a tiny piece of scrapbook paper in Italian. Charming to say the least, a handful of Italians were midway through their minestrone soups, dipping their broken bread in and sipping from a small glass of wine at their tables. We just love how the Italians treat food. Their entire life revolves around eating and they take time out of their busy days to sit and enjoy and treat themselves to good food and good wine. It’s quite different to our world back home where, although people claim they love food, they are always in and out and eating on the run and substituting quality for quantity. After seeing us make a feeble attempt at reading the menu, a waiter did approach us and helped us select a cherry tomatoes and pesto pasta, as well as a rabbit dish. It was a lovely meal and a really cool and intimate experience in an otherwise tourist driven market. Having said that, I’m pretty certain they could still tell we were tourists and prime for a tablecloth robbery or something similar. To our surprise, the waiter also brought out two plates of rich, chocolate cake with a spoonful of wipped cream on the side. And not to our surprise, our total bill seemed to be noticeably more to what we’d expected, presumably because we had been billed for this “generous” freebie.

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The world’s longest line of people exists outside of the Vatican and, to avoid this, you can purchase tickets online for an extra 4 euros each. We managed to head to a designated area where we could collect our tickets and walk right in. I really wasn’t sure what to expect from the Vatican. The crowds had mostly thrown me from ever wanting to be inside and I get really angry whenever I see a mammoth construction of opulence that has mostly been created through the exploitation of religion. But it seemed wrong to go to Rome and not throw more money to an organised religious establishment. Inside, the Vatican is a bit whatever, whatever. Lots of ornate sculptures, lots of gold, lots of paintings and detailed artwork. There’s such a complex exhibition of human achievements and intricate detail that its hard to know where to direct your focus and to really be awestruck by what it is you’re looking at. For me, it was too much awesomeness to take in and it was easy to find yourself rushing through – otherwise you’d be there for 78 years looking at each and every piece. What I did really like however was the Ancient Egyptian section. I had not expected that. I’d seen so many ancient things in Italy and now I was staring at mummified Egyptians and heiroglyphic texts from 4,000 years ago!!! Again, it was that moment of seeing something that you were familiar with from text books but then, there it was right before you. Based on that alone, I was really glad I’d visited the Vatican. Among a billion other impressive things to see, the obvious ones are the Sistine Chapel where Michaelangelo’s David is painted on the ceiling and a few rooms before that where Raphael’s artwork is presented. Being an avid fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles since childhood, I will admit I got goosebumps hearing my favourite Ninja Turtle’s names being mentioned. On top of that, knowing the turtles only had three fingers made all the brushwork that much more impressive. We’d had enough for one day so didn’t bother joining a slow-moving line to enter St Peter’s Basilica. Instead, we sat out the front and listened to an audio guide where we learnt a lot of incredible trivia but that has since slipped my mind.

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It was our last night in Rome and we had planned to treat ourselves to one expensive meal to finish the city off with. We thought we’d go home first to freshen up and made our way to a bus stop. The transport isn’t the easiest to understand without some local knowledge but we worked out the number 60 could get us closest to home. So we sat, and waited. And waited. And waited. Was it coming? We’d seen a 60 pass in the other direction so knew they existed. We ended up waiting an entire hour before it eventually pulled up at the top of the platform. We were fairly disgruntled at this point already but I can’t express to you enough just how much I will pull a knife on that driver if I ever meet him after, to our complete astonishment, he drove away within seconds and we were stuck at the bottom of the platform trying to get through the people to catch it!! Unbelievalbe. I let out a few expletives in the general direction of Rome and we angrily chose to grab a drink and mutter how much we were hating Rome the second time around.

Dinner, when we finally got there, was at Da Danilo and we were seated downstairs in a dimly lit room. We selected a starting plate of assorted items, one last carbonara and a braised beef orriccette, as well as a “you only live once” bottle of expensive Chianti. All in all, it was really good but the price point seemed to manage to rub the taste buds raw before the food even arrived.

The last thing we were left to see in Rome were the Spanish Steps. We managed to walk to these late in the night where a few cleaners were sweeping the mounds of rubbish collected throughout the day and several groups of teenages huddled with grampa’s cough medicine. We walked down them, got to the bottom and then walked back up. Not quite the shrill you’d get on the Tower of Terror but then again, they are just steps. Probably from the Spanish.

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We got up early the next morning and grabbed breakfast on the run (because sometimes you do just have to eat on the run – for example, when you are late for your train.) One of the things I do like about Italy and most of Western Europe are trains. I felt like Sheldon Cooper as I arrived in the station and boarded our train heading to Florence direct. Bye Bye Rome. Mostly good. Sometimes bad. But probably time to leave. Although all roads lead to Rome, it was nice to know some train tracks lead you back out of it again.

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39. Rome // Italy

In no way will words be able to convey just how much we loved Rome. Maybe think of Noah and Allie on the Notebook or Jack and Rose on the Titanic? But I’ll try. And will fail. So please just remember as you read my feeble attempts at trying to portray that love, that whatever level you feel it is at, multiply it ten fold. Let’s begin.

We loved Rome! A lot! I never thought I’d say it but Saigon has been relegated from the top of the podium of our travels to second place. It’s true! Maybe it was because of the rotten month we’d had previously, or because of much lower expectations than what we had had in Istanbul. Whatever it was – it BLEW US AWAY!

Our Easyjet flight from Athens landed in Rome mid-afternoon. A City-Sightseeer commercial was looping every 30 seconds above the bag-collections conveyorbelt wth an image of the colosseum. This lead me to believe that Rome would be very similar to Athens. A city that draws people for its one or two ancient attractions but has little else to offer. How wrong I was to be! But this was good as it greatly lowered my expectations.

We had to catch a train from the airport to Trastavere station where our Air BnB was, and I think the train was a nice metaphor for Italy. It was excessively glamorous, spacious and expensive. Which was nice but I would have been just as happy to pay a third of the price and catch a cagey bone-rattler with metal seats.

We were running our brief experiences so far through our mental filters, as you do when you first enter a city, to try and work out what to make of it. We had to walk just over a kilometre from the station to our Air BnB which again gave us another foray of information to register. The work day had come to an end and office workers raced past on little Italian mopeds. People ran quickly back towards the station, reminding us that we both needed a serious wardrobe cleanup and urgent haircuts. A man entered an apartment with two bottles of wine for dinner. A pizzeria. The smells of baking dough. A wine shop. Glasses clinking. Ok. Ok. It’s coming. Those feelings. They’re rising. Rising. Overwhelming us. Until finally – hearts throbbing and romanticised by everything around us, we looked at each other and exclaimed “We’re in Italy!!!”

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We were to meet a guy who was of course called Mario who was to check us in. We found the big green door to this monstrous complex and got buzzed in. Unsure of which level we had to go up to, we clambered into this incredibly tiny (“What is this? A house for ants??”) elevator, figuring we could just go up to each floor until we found him. It was just as we were about to press the button for level one that Mario emerged from another door, looked at us confused, laughed and said to follow him. We awkwardly shuffled our way with our backpacks out of the lift and followed him out a door, across a courtyard, through another door, up two flights of steps, into another door which was for the actual BnB and then into another door which was to be our room. That’s right – we needed about five keys to get in and out each morning!

Mario was the opposite of Mussolini and was infectiously friendly. Of particular importance, he pulled out a map of the area and, using all his years of local knowledge, circled the best place to go for a pizza, for gelati, for a wine, for pasta, for a walk, for everything. Sadly, he advised that the Trevi Fountain was under renovation and we would be unable to emulate the scene where Julia Roberts waltzed past on a crisp Spring evening with a giant smile on her face (well, I guess we could but it would just mean there would be steel pipes and scaffolding everywhere.) Elisha has always been drawn to the Italian’s relationship with food because they just simply get it. And it was reassuring to hear Mario recommend a pizzeria because he believed the type of flour they used was lighter and wouldn’t leave you feeling full, or another restaurant because he knew they changed their oil daily whereas some other places only did it once a week. The details for quality!

We wasted absolutely zero time getting back out and, even though it was around about 9pm at this point, headed out in Trastavere to one of Mario’s pasta recommendations. We were not even one or two streets in before we were completely paralysed with awe. These old, old laneways. Some latin up on a wall. The sound of Italian conversations everywhere. Bars. People milling about, spilling onto the streets from crowded bars. Wine. Wine. Wine. I’ve talked to some people who describe their experience of Rome similar to ours of Istanbul. That it’s too busy, full of tourists and nothing is authentic. As such, I think we were really lucky to have our first moments in Rome what they were. Trastavere was an absolute gem to be in (founded by the Jewish community many centuries prior when they had been banished from the city side of the river and forced to make home there) and we would have been just as happy to have aimlessly walked around in that moment even if we were to find that the restaurant was closed.

But it wasn’t. And moments later, with a smile you could not wipe from our faces even if you were to use WD40, we were seated in this small and simple restaurant, our eyes scrolling through a list of various pastas and pizza. We love the Italians idea that food should be fresh and simple and find it a shame that places like Dominos have entered our world and turned it into a load as much onto the pizza as you can even though it all tastes like rubber. We ordered two simple pastas, spaghetti with tomatoes, oil and chili, and penne with pancetta and peas, and a pizza with tomatoes and prosciutto. Sharing a carafe of vino rosso, we sprinkled some parmesan over our plates, looked at each other again and exclaimed “We’re in Italy!”

Even though we had been told the Trevi Fountain was under renovation, it was still our closest landmark. Hell. The night was beautiful and we were still buzzing like two climaxing bees so we loaded a rough map on our phone and took off. I can’t articulate how beautiful Trastavere is, but we ensured we walked really slowly through its tight laneways and across its cobbled stones back towards the river. Rome just continued to amaze us. At one point, we made an innocuous left turn around a corner and found ourselves standing before a gigantic cathedral with large letters in latin sculptured across the top and ornate artwork accentuating the edges. We were awestruck! What was this building of ancient significance? We loaded the map, zoomed in – nothing. Zoomed in more – still nothing! What the hank? This was one of the greatest things we had seen in months and it was apparently so insignificant it wasn’t even on the map! We were to learn this would happen quite a lot in Rome. The buildings are so detailed and enormous. Considering they are also in stiff competition with things like the Colosseum, Piazza Navona and Starbucks, they just don’t seem to get a look at online. For the sake of it not having a name to us ignorant country folk from down under, let’s call it the 8th Wonder of the Random World. Filled with wonder at the random 8th Wonder of the Random World that we had just seen, we continued on to the Trevi Fountain. We proceeded along another tight, cobbled pathway and passed a street performer who was painting these incredible stencils of the Colosseum under the moonlight. Our eyes were darting at everything left, right and centre, unable to take it all in. It was not hard to miss the fountain though as, true to my concerns, massive metal scaffolding appeared out of nowhere. But using my limited imagination to remove these abberations, this feature certainly put the previously marvelled at 8th Wonder of the Random World into rather small perspective. Everything was so ornate. And impressive. Even without the water (which is usually crucial when the word “fountain” appears in your title) it was hard to ignore the true splendour of this attraction.

We had planned to go home after this but we were now completely mesmerised by the spell Rome had cast over us, like one of the characters in the 50 Shades of Grey saga. Piazza Navona popped up from the map as another near attraction from where we were standing. It was also sort of on the way home and so we decided to also check it out on this Night of Nights. Piazza Navona has always been special to us as it was the name of one of the Italian restaurants we used to frequent just around the corner from us in South Yarra. Until it went bankrupt that was and was sold to some stinky fat man who renamed it Cappriccio, continued with the exact same menu but marked everything up by 20 per cent . . . and then that went bankrupt too. On our way there, we passed some loud ecclesstial music coming from – where was it coming from? We looked up at the three story building beside us but could see nothing, even though that’s where it seemed to be. We investigated down a side street but that lead no where either. Next thing we passed a guy who seemed to be on the same quest. He was looking up, scratching his head. Where was this beautiful music coming from. He looked at us utterly confused. If he had just come from the opposite direction and couldn’t tell, then no one knew. We threw our arms up and shrugged, leaving each other bewildered. We soon left these orcestral sounds and found our way in the expanse known as Piazza Navona. This big open area is ringed by restaurants and filled with fountains and sculptures. We found a little place to sit around the fountain with all the horse head sculptures and pensively watched all the other people who seemed to be doing the exact same thing as us – nothing.

It was nearing midnight but we were now well and truely suffering from a severe case of wondawe (the feeling you get when wonder and awe collide.) We never wanted this night to end and so pulled out our phone to see what else was in walking distance. The Pantheon! Fantastic. I already knew a fair bit about this place from my Instagram hiccup. And that knowledge was that it was not spelt Pantenon. Another friend had also humiliated me on Facebook so I was keen to grab a photo in front of the Pantheon to rub it in, just one day later, that I could in fact go to another world landmark just to take a photo if I wanted to. We arrived from the back of it and were amazed to see the recognisable dome that essentially became the design for almost all churches built this way. As we emerged from the street, we were greeted by all the Roman columns (different to Greek columns in that they are one solid piece of marble) that form the entrance. Another marvelous fountain features just outside of this and once again we were left feeling overwhelmed by all this history.

It was now past midnight. We had seen the Trevi Fountain, Piazza Navona, the Pantheon and of course the 8th Wonder of the Random World. Could we leave the Colosseum until tomorrow? Hell no! It was 3 kilometres away and our feet were a little tired but we convinced ourselves we could do it. The streets were surprisingly quiet at this time (sleeping perhaps?) which romanticised the moment even more. Alone almost every step of the journey, we spent the next half hour walking along streets we had never seen before, past buildings that over and over again blew us away but failed to be noted on the map, and around monuments that seemed to pop up like the boils on Job’s back after Satan was given permission from God to torment him in any which way he liked.

When the Colosseum first came into view, my heart skipped a bit. Surely the most iconic and historical landmark from the Roman Empire stood before us. We joined a small contingent of other late-night wanderers and stood silenty, taking in and admiring this spectacular construction. An amazing piece. It still stands to the fourth level in some small parts, scaffolding continues to hold up and repair others. The fact it stands smack bang in the middle of modern day Rome is humurous. Generic roads head straight towards it before bending around and continuing on their way. We’d ticked off most of Rome’s landmarks in that night alone, but we knew there was still a lot more to see and do the next day so at 2am we finally made our way back to bed to get some rest.

The Air BnB put on one spectacular breakfast the next morning and we got chatting to a couple staying there from Texas. After telling us they’d been on a Segway tour the day before, we agreed never to talk to them again. But after finishing some melon and prosciutto, we did follow in their footsteps and headed across to the Vatican. They of course paid for a cab. We of course decided to walk the 4kms. Vatican City is a confusing place. There are mills of people scrambled all over the place, appearing to be doing something but upon closer inspection not doing anything at all. Are they in a line? Are they taking pictures? Which part of all these buildings is actually the Vatican? Vatican City is it’s own country essentially, running completely separately to Italy even though it’s plonked right in the very heart of Rome. We were a little overwhelmed by all the people and weren’t sure where we were to go exactly to get in. Eventually, we found some spruikers advertising tours, selling the fact we could skip the lines if we paid them absorbidant amounts of money. As we walked away, they quickly dropped the price and we grabbed a pamphlet. However, Rome had allured us so much the night before, we just didn’t see how being around this many people was in the remotest way fun. So we bailed. And thought we’d come back early the next day and try and beat the rush.

Instead, we followed a recommendation and went for lunch at a place called “La Proscuitteria.” If it was ever possible to cry over your food, then this was it. And we know this because we did. Perhaps it was more a reflection of other circumstances, such as the horrible month just gone by or because we’d been reminded as to why we had sold everything for moments just like this, but it all culminated into a flurry of emotions as we worked our way through small portions of richly flavoured prosciutto, honeys, nuts, freshly baked breads, olives, truffle dip, melons, grapes, cured meats, bresciola and washed it all done with a perfectly matched glass of Chianti. If you are ever in the city – that is the one thing you must do! Way before you do any of the tourist things! It was one of the most incredible dining experiences of our life and something we will never be able to replicate anywhere else in the world again.

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We followed this decadent moment with desert. And that came in the form of gelato 2kms away. A fair walk but we had again been advised to ignore all others and only eat at “Come II Latte.” We were not disappointed. Simply supurb.

Full of calories, we thought we’d try and tick of the Pantheon and Colosseum that afternoon. We walked to the Pantheon where you can enter and sit inside for free. We had previously downloaded a Rick Steves audio guide so sat huddled together on a pew as we learned about the history of the church. Some key points were the dome design. This was the first building that featured the dome roof and was the model used for any others built after it. The tomb of the artist Raphael sits inside. The columns out the front are of Roman design. These differ to Greek columns in that they are solid columns of marble, whereas the Greeks built their columns from many parts of sculptured marble.

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We headed back to the Colosseum but arrived a little too late to warrant paying the entry fee. Somehow we were now going to have to try and fit in both the Vatican City AND the Colosseum the next morning before we left for Naples. Fat chance of that. As it was nearing dinner time, we walked the 3kms back to Trastavere where we attempted to find a decent place to eat without the use of our phones. Tough task. We meandered for quite some time and were getting quite disgruntled by everything appearing as a tourist trap. Eventually, we gave in and entered a crowded place called “Da Enzo.” This could have went either way but thank the Roman gods it was a winner. The carbonara was incredible. Made from actual egg yolks and the most crispy but juicy portions of fleck, it has to be the best carbonara I’ve ever enjoyed.

Following that, we said goodnight to Rome and tried to work out how we were going to plan the next morning. We weren’t going to be able to fit in both Vatican City and the Colosseum so we settled on this – Doing the Colosseum and coming back to Rome to do Vatican City after Naples! So after a very food and wine driven day (because what else is there to do in Italy really?) we dozed off, counting pigs instead of sheep and those pigs were turning into prosciutto and landing in our hungry mouths.

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After another crazy good breakfast, we checked out and walked the 3kms to the Colosseum for the third time in three days. This time we did pay the fee to enter in and wowsers – standing within the Colosseum! Goosebumps anyone? It’s essentially just a shell now, with eroded shapes that used to be seating and dusty walls that used to be elaborately decorated. The interesting thing to learn was that the Colosseum was nothing spectacular in its day – it was just a city necessity, like modern day overpasses. Regardless, it was inspiring. Designed so well that 50,000 occupants could evacuate within 15 minutes. We imagined the arena full, people cheering as two Gladiators battled before Caesar. We imagined ourselves as two of them – Clintosaurus and Elishious Maximus. It was also interesting to find it oval shaped inside instead of the perfectly round shape that I’d previously assumed. Another Rick Steves audioguide filled in all the blanks for us and helped to create a world we’d otherwise be blindly making up – rubbish like “I think Caesar probably sat at the very top” (when in fact he sat on his throne at the bottom) and “Did you know this is where the Olympics were held?” (when they obviously hadn’t.)

Knowing we’d be back again in four days time, we weren’t too upset to say farewell. We still had Vatican City to do and an abundance of food to eat in the meantime. We walked the 3kms back from the Colosseum (I think we’d now clocked close to 50kms walking in 3 days?) to collect our bags and jumped on a bus to the main terminal (which, knowing our luck, probably wasn’t too far from the Colosseum.) We boarded a train and left Rome for Naples where the pasta would be replaced by pizza and our safety would be replaced by the mafia.