Sunday, August 21, 2011

Tales from the TRIP - Day 5

For our first full day in Rome, we decided to take advantage of one of the many "Hop On, Hop Off" bus tours, so we checked at the front desk for a recommendation. We were directed to pass through Saint Peter's Square and continue down Via della Conciliazione to catch the GLT bus line. Almost all of these buses are double-decker buses - doesn't that sound like fun? Well, don't be fooled. In July, in Rome, the top deck of those buses is about 110 degrees Fahrenheit. The buses are equipped with headphone jacks and the cost of the daily ticket includes earbuds - unfortunately it doesn't always include jacks that WORK. We switched seats multiple times and failed to find any two seats where both jacks worked.

The other thing they neglected to mention is that the buses don't stop "AT" the sights, they stop "NEAR" the sights (see previous European definition of "near"). We got off at the first stop, wanting to see the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore - which looked interesting as the bus drove past. After strolling through a bunch of shops down the several blocks back to the church, we realized if we wanted to see anything else, we needed to hoof it back to the bus stop to catch the next ride. Once we got back on the bus, we once again couldn't hear any of the sight-seeing information, so we missed getting off at the next stop to see the Trevi Fountain. By the time we reached the Coliseum, we had decided that we needed to move downstairs before we melted. The traffic was so heavy, with mostly buses and motorcycles or mopeds, that we were just sure we were about to see a fatality at least a dozen times from our bird's eye view!

The bus was packed by this time, so we asked a couple who had come up to the top floor if there were any seats below. They said there were, so we gave up our seats and maneuvered carefully down the circular stairs to the main level only to find that the guide had let additional people on the bus and there were no seats. We tried to tell her if there weren't seats that we needed to get off because we didn't want to be lurching through traffic standing up, but it was too late. After a minor difference of opinion with the guide, we managed to hang on tight and then exited as soon as the bus stopped...only to discover we were at the Circus Maximus. Now, when you are back in the US and hear Circus Maximus, it sounds very interesting - but what it actually looks like is an abandoned railroad bed. There are hills on either side of a rectangular field and a raised area down the middle of the field that looks like a railroad bed minus the rails and ties. There are a couple of places where stone steps lead up the hill, but that is about it. Oh, and garbage. There were bags of garbage and lots of loose garbage everywhere. Until we checked our map of the city, we thought maybe they dropped us off at the local landfill (note to self: don't get into minor confrontations with the tour guide).

 The only real point of interest at the bus stop was a small cart selling drinks and gelato, so we went to get something to cool off. In truth, the stop also had a good view of the real Caesar's Palace, Palatine Hill. We learned later that Circo Massimo (Circus Maximus) is actually where many Christians lost their lives under Nero. The aristocracy would watch the 'games' from the comfort of their palace overlooking the field. But back to our gelato. As we were enjoying our break, an American currently living in Tokyo - but visiting Italy - approached and we chatted just long enough to miss the next bus! Realizing we needed to wait closer to the stop, we did just that, and watched as about ten buses from other tours came by (four from one company) before our bus arrived - so here is your helpful tip for seeing Rome: Buy a ticket on the Big, Red Bus! They had 3 to 1 more buses than the other tour groups and looked like nicer buses - and were 4 Euro (aobut $6) cheaper than the one we bought.

We still hadn't had lunch and it was mid-afternoon, so when our bus arrived we decided to see the rest of Rome from the bus. I think we ended up standing most of the way due to it being so crowded - and a note to the under 30 crowd: when you see a 70-year-old woman standing up on a crowded bus, get your baggy-pants-covered tail up out of that seat and let her sit down!

We drooped back to the hotel and collapsed for a much needed rest before our tour group was to rendesvous in the lobby for dinner. The group was an interesting and diverse collection - it reminded me a little of The Amazing Race. We had two mother-son teams, both of the sons named Michael; a mother-in-law/daughter-in-law team that got along amazingly well; two friends who had just completed their Master's degrees in Library Science together; several couples of varying ages; one newlywed couple who were expecting; and two larger families which included the parents, their grown-up kids and any related in-laws. We had people from as distant as Washington State, Florida, Kansas, New Jersey, and Texas. I was amazed how well the whole group seemed to come together.

After our tour guide, Simone Kis, introduced herself and our Italian driver, Stefano, we headed out to our first experience together - a 'traditional' Italian dinner. The restaurant was located on one of the many circles in Rome - as they say, each one has either a fountain or an obelisk, and some have both. They led us through to the very back of the restaurant to a low-ceilinged room with several levels of tables packed in. Two Asian tour groups were already seated and before long the entire room was packed with about 150-200 tourists. Throughout the meal, a Fabio-wannabe played an accordion - very loudly and often right beside someone's head - and a mediocre singer belted 'Volare'.

The meal consisted of several courses - more food than should ever be served to one person at a single meal. First came antipasto - cheese, some type of cured meat and peppers. Then the first pasta dish which looked (and tasted) suspiciously like spaghettios. Then a second - I'm guessing macaroni and cheese. Finally, the main course of chicken with a slice of meat of some kind under it, and I don't even remember the sides - honestly, I think I've blocked out the memory. It wasn't good. The tiramisu they served for dessert probably would have seemed good if we hadn't had such a delicious version the night before! All of this served as we sat elbow to elbow and tried to converse with our newfound friends over the volume of Fabio and his femme fatale. Regardless of the food or the atmosphere, we had a wonderful time getting to know our traveling companions.

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