Author’s Note: This blog is #7 of nine detailing my trip to Rwanda and Italy in 2020. See links below for the rest of the series. “Winning A Trip to Rwanda” features a more comprehensive introduction.
At the risk of offending everyone everywhere I won’t call Rome a dump.
Let’s just say I was less than impressed.
Rome, of course, was quickly written on our list of cities to see on this side trip to Italy from our main adventure into Rwanda. When planning, we toyed with packing up nearly every day and spending a night in different cities around Italy. Thankfully we left that idea on the table and made Florence the centerpiece and figured out day trips from there.
We took the speed train to Rome – a most fascinating way to travel. At top speeds of 250 km/h (or about 155 mph for you Americans) it felt more like 80 mph (or about 128 km/h for you Europeans). It took roughly 90 minutes to get to Rome and we initially missed our departure because I cut it too close and booked a train about five minutes out. Won’t make that mistake again as I totally pulled off the classic movie scene by frantically looking around for the correct train, found it, then knocked on the window only to get the head shake from an employee. Within seconds, the train left and so did my 100 euros (or about $120!).
Thankfully, we got on a new train without extra cost and were soon riding in luxury to Rome. We booked the ticket for Rome Termini, the primary station but onboard we learned of Rome Tiburtina, a first stop in Rome and a place the onboard TV – that displayed ads, travel times and other advertisements – indicated by photo, that the Colosseum was there.
Should we get off at Rome Tiburtina?
Florence to Rome Tiburtina or Rome Termini?
When booking on Trenitalia, the preferred train service in Italy as I was told, you cannot pick your seats (as far as I could tell) and when purchased as a couple you don’t sit side by side. Instead, they assume (I assume), you want to sit in front of each other. So my wife and I had seatmates. Our seatmates spoke Italian throughout the trip as my wife and I spoke English. And since neither one of us has an outgoing personality we didn’t attempt an awkward conversation engagement with the locals.
Then my wife’s seatmate sneezed and she said “Bless you.” He said “Thanks.” English! “Speak English?” I said. “Yes,” he said.
Thank the Lord.
Which stop is best for the Colosseum? As it turns out the first Rome stop, Rome Tiburtina, would drop us way outside the city. He said get off at Termini station and grab the B line subway. Real easy. Five minutes. And after some initial small bumps in the road featuring a not so friendly polizia officer, then a rather friendly local in the subway station, we figured out our plight and got on the correct B line subway train to see the Colosseum.
Yep, took about five minutes.
As we emerged from the subway station the grand ‘ole Colosseum stood loud, proud and tall. It was magnificent and pretty shocking to see this ancient ruin live in person rather than in history books or on TV. And it looked just like it does in history books or on TV.
In fairness to Rome, our plan did not include tours or visiting for more than one day. We fully realize you cannot do Rome in a day nor do I think you can do it in two days. But it was crowded and based on the number of people roaming around I wonder what the “busy season” looks like.
Then the peddlers showed up. Everywhere. Selling their wares. STOP! It’s like Disneyland meets Costco. We circled the Colosseum, fended off everyone selling trinkets and selfie sticks to upgraded tour packages until we decided on some sort of plan to get the most of Rome. We noticed the hop on / hop off bus tour and headed for their tent.
Many of these hop on / hop off bus companies exist and we settled on Big Bus. I assume they all pretty much offer the same thing as they all stopped at the same signposts around the city. The hop on / hop off bus tour doesn’t rank a 10 out of 10, however, I’d suggest this course of action when visiting Rome. I’d also suggest spending at least two days there and buying the two day or more bus pass.
At any rate, after purchasing we bought some water so we could use the bathroom (more on that in a later post) and headed for the first stop. But we got stopped by an African selling items from Africa. My wife told the man we were just in Africa which resulted in the rehashing of our Rwanda trip the week before. He was a very pleasant man, excited we went to Africa, shook my hand multiple times and gave us some (handmade? I’m not sure) bracelets. He then politely asked for money for his family and my wife said sorry “We have nothing on us.” We do carry mostly credit cards and did have some euros but did not want to pay for something we didn’t want. He politely declined our offer to return his items and wished us well.
This minor interruption, which resulted in us missing our bus and then waiting another 15 minutes or so for the next one, actually saved us quite a bit of grief. The Africans were everywhere selling stuff from Africa. We got approached at least half a dozen more times and as soon as they saw our bracelets said “Hakuna-matata” with a big grin and left us alone. I actually began holding up my wrist almost like a superpower as I saw them approaching. It worked!
But it didn’t work as a defense against everyone else trying to get us to drop cash on worthless knickknacks and souvenirs.
The hop on / hop off bus ride included a set of ear pods to listen to the history of Rome as we ventured around the city. We got off at the stop nearest the Vatican and headed straight for St. Peters Basilica. An impressive monument to say the least. We got approached several times from people up-selling line skipping tour packages and, had we done our homework, might have already had these booked. The line to get into St. Peters Basilica for free was at least an hour (in the sun) and honestly I have no idea if we actually saw the Vatican. It was somewhere back there behind a big wall. I guess the Pope doesn’t want any unauthorized people entering his country. Hmmmm…
We did see the Swiss Guards so that was a highlight.
As you read this you might think a mere 30 minutes has passed but the one big fault of the hop on / hop off bus includes not only waiting on its arrival but it sits for at least five minutes at every stop. So, we’re past noon by now and looking for a place to eat.
I know what you’re thinking and I was thinking it too. But we could use the bathroom there and order something not on American menus. Not so fast.
We got swindled. Sort of. In additional to the regular peddlers, the restaurants also send their army out to get your money. Some guy got our attention and escorted us to his grandmother’s restaurant called Borgo Pio 92 and indeed an elderly woman came out as we fell for the shtick and sat down. Others were eating so it wasn’t like some sketchy hole in the wall. Don’t misunderstand, this wasn’t a seedy place or even hard to find, it was on a main street and honestly was exactly what I wanted to do instead of McDonald’s.
Authentic Italian food from a local.
We shared a half bottle of Chianti, two bowls of pasta and added some meatballs. Plus we got to use the bathroom. What finally convinced me we got taken – as much as you can get taken when actually being fed – was the waiter “fixing” the bill at 45 euros and asked whether we’d tip the staff and suggested 5 euros.
OK, ok, ok. You see, Italy doesn’t require tipping like American’s practically demand (despite their now inflated salaries in most major cities – but I digress) and this was the only place that pushed a tip during our entire trip to Italy. I gave in.
My wife said her Bolognese was good but hardly the best and my spaghetti with bacon and tomato sauce could have come from Spaghetti Factory. Not sure if that’s a compliment to the American chain or a dig at the independent Italian restaurant in the heart of Rome.
Afterwards, we headed to the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain. That was a lengthy trip by foot even after taking the bus to the next stop. We also stopped to get gelato. If you haven’t guessed by now, I hate wasting money and hate just as much not getting the most out of my money. I should have asked but I also don’t like coming across as a cheapskate and my wife wanted to eat gelato on the Spanish Steps just as she had seen in the movies. We got our gelato. 24 euros. For you Americans that’s about $30 for two cones of ice cream. A total rip off.
And about a minute after sitting on the Spanish Steps with our gelato the polizia informed us sitting was not allowed.
Yes, we did throw a coin over our heads at Trevi Fountain.
By now we were finished with Rome. Our feet hurt, we felt overwhelmed with not only everything to see in Rome but everything we didn’t experience. Six hours was just the tip of the iceberg but after saying “NO!” for the umpteenth time to a street peddler we wanted Florence.
Hopefully I haven’t lost you as a very interesting experience occurred.
We took the train back and again had seatmates. As my wife and I debriefed we both felt a bit of a letdown about Rome because it didn’t seem new or overly AH-MAZE-ING to us. We had already been there. Or had we?
OK, now listen – we struck up a conversation with our seatmates who were from Rome and we shared traveling experiences. The gentleman told us when he visited New York City for the first time he wasn’t enthralled by it all that much. Because he had already seen it on TV or the internet or wherever. Point is, he said it felt like he had already been in New York.
That’s how we felt! And we all agreed that you desensitize yourself to points of interest by various means. For us, Las Vegas and Epcott Center offer benign but somewhat significant introductions to Italy and Rome. In fact, my brother-in-law remarked the Trevia Fountain was “Las Vegas” after my wife sent him a photo. See, he doesn’t need to come to Rome now.
Tips for Visiting Rome
At any rate, here are my tips to navigating Rome:
- Have Patience
Bring lots of patience for everything. Long lines, crowds, peddlers peddling.
- Bring Money and lots of it
You can spend a day in Rome without spending much but expect to simply walk around the city. Therefore, deal with the premium pricing on just about everything and if you want to skip long lines be willing to pay to skip those lines.
Don’t expect free water either. You don’t get a glass of water complimentary like you do in the United States at a restaurant. You pay for bottled water. It also costs between 50 cents and 1 euro to use a public bathroom, otherwise expect to buy something (like bottled water) to use the facilities even though the law requires merchants to allow the public to use their toilet without paying for something (so we were told).
- Spend More than a Day
You can’t possibly see everything Rome has to offer in a day. If you really enjoy seeing ancient ruins and structures that have stood for 1,000 years and more, then spend several days here. If one ruin looks like every other ruin and a tour is more of a nice to have than a must-have then by all means skirt around town. Grab some photos of the main points and get the heck out of dodge, I mean Rome.
Start from the beginning: