I finally went out to see a movie for the first time since I saw Batman last summer. It’s not that we haven’t had any interest, but I suppose we have less interest in trying to find a parking spot in Georgetown on a Saturday night. So what great cinematic work of art drew us out to the theater for the first time in a year? Well, it was Angels & Demons. I can’t say it was an Academy Award winner by any means, but I was well-entertained. The part that I enjoyed the most was watching Tom Hanks run through the great Italian city of Rome, and sitting next to Jon going “ooh! There’s that piazza! And that piazza! And that church! We were there! And there! And there too!” I was also glad we had gone to Rome before the movie, so we wouldn’t be in Rome with a bunch of American tourists pointing at a church going “Hey, that’s the church that was in Angels & Demons” the way they did all over Paris with The Da Vinci Code.
I have now had the great opportunity of going to Rome twice in the past five years. The first time was in the summer of 2004, a one-day trip with my friend Janice. We arrived at night by train from Florence and stayed up until 3am wandering the streets. I remember two things distinctly about that night: 1. It was alive and happening, almost like it was daytime, but the sun was replaced by a full moon. Outdoor cafes were crowded with people sipping wine and coffee, eating cheese or gelato or other delicious Italian treats. Bars and clubs were booming, people were window-shopping, tourists were sitting on the Spanish steps and in front of the Trevi Fountain taking pictures. 2. Every street and corner we turned, there was something different and interesting to look at. A sculpture, a statue, a church, a fountain, a picture of Mary. We didn’t even try to take a taxi back to our hotel near the train station – we just walked and took it all in.
The second time was in the fall of 2007, when I was living abroad in Paris. Jon and I took two weeks off to wander through Italy – quite a luxury for Americans, having two weeks – and spent four rainy days in Rome. We wanted to buy a clear umbrella so we could see the tops of the Coliseum without it blocking our view, but couldn’t find one.
Your guidebook will explain how to do Rome properly. My version will tell you the same, with personal opinions interjected.
The Vatican. You can’t go to Rome without stopping to see the wealthiest religious state in the world. It was closed the first time I was in Rome, so it is essential to check its opening hours on the Web for the most up-to-date information. Very Important: Get there EARLY, before it opens, so you can wait on the giant line to get in. Even on a random weekday in November. Within the Vatican, each room becomes more and more ornate as you proceed towards the Sistine Chapel – the last room. There are halls covered in gold-framed paintings with so much action and detail in each one that you really need a few hours and a stretcher upon which to lie and stare upright. The Sistine Chapel has a recorded message reminding you not to take pictures – but alas, nobody pays attention and flashes bounce off everywhere. Be good by turning off your flash if you do take photos. If you like to send postcards, you can do so from the Vatican Post Office. It will stamp it with a Vatican stamp, since it is its own country.
St. Peter’s Basilica. You can catch the Pope giving a Sunday mass outside with giant screens, but then you can’t go inside the cathedral until afterwards. You’ll be asked to cover up your shoulders, and you’ll be scolded by Catholics for baring any part of your shoulders while climbing the many stairs to the cupola even if it is 100 degrees out. Also be impressed by the Japanese tourists hiking up the stairs in high-heeled stilettos. I didn’t ascend to the top last time because we had exactly 7 euros left and no ATMs nearby – exactly enough for one person’s admission upstairs, so Jon went (be sure to carry enough cash with you). There is so much to take in at St. Peter’s, like the jester outfits on the Swiss Guard and staring at Michaelangelo’s La Pieta wondering how is it that Mary is able to hold a grown adult Jesus in her giant lap without her lap looking so giant? Only the gift of a true artist can trick the eye like that.
Roman Forum. We waited out the rain for a sunnier day so we wouldn’t go trapsing through the mud around the Forum. It’s really a good idea to get an audioguide to walk you through each area, or else everything will just look like piles of rocks.
Coliseum. This is the first time I will recommend seeing a movie before going on vacation (I really hate thinking that something is because it appeared in a movie, kind of like when people attribute classical music to TV commercials. i.e. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is NOT the “United Airlines song”). Watch Gladiator with Russell Crowe as our representing ancient Roman to get a really great vision back in time to when Rome was at the height of civilization.
Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps and Piazza Navona. These are best enjoyed with a double gelato in hand.
The rest you can pull from your guidebook. But some distinct memories and pieces of advice come to mind:
1. Check the prices and be very clear the quantities you order in a restaurant. In touristy areas, they will rip you off. For example: 2 “large” teas (large = larger pot of boiling water) cost us 12 euros each, or 24 euros, or nearly $40. Wine was 3 euros. Another example: we ordered what we thought was one appetizer of a giant warmed mozzarella with salamis surrounding it, but waitress brought us two because we “never specified only one”. We managed to argue it off our bill.
2. Most inexpensive hotels are by the train station, and it is then very easy for you to get in and out of Rome if traveling by train. The area is, for the most part, safe, but do be aware of your surroundings. People will pickpocket. We stayed at the Papa Germano Hotel, a quaint 2-star hotel that was clean, quiet and inexpensive. It was across the street from a Chinese restaurant and rooms came with a TV, ensuite bathroom, Internet downstairs and breakfast included.
3. Churches, churches, churches galore. If there was anything I got out of Angels & Demons, it’s the number of old churches in Rome filled with famous sculptures, frescos, paintings and hundreds of famous Italians buried in the floors and walls (but not morbidly). With that…
4. Great souvenir: The “hot priests” pinup calendar (also available online). It is exceedingly disturbing and I’m not sure if the proceeds go back to the church or to some clever entrepreneur’s pocket. It is a 12-month calendar featuring some handsome young vicar staring at you on each month. Alternatively, you can also get the Pope calendar, but it’s less controversial and less interesting and then you just have a calendar with the Pope on it every month.
5. If you want to see a movie, note that Italy has the number one best voice-dubbing in the world. It even has people specially trained to sound like Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts, but in Italian. Most movies will then end up being in Italian, so check with the theater ahead for movies in English.
6. Definitely dine here: Da Giggetto, of Roman/ Jewish cuisine, in the Jewish Ghetto (Via del Portico d’Ottavia 21-22). Order the fried artichokes.
7. Lastly, you should really see Rome by foot. Ancient Romans did, unless they had horses, and it is the best way to discover so much on every street corner. Take an umbrella with you in case of rain.