Our plane touched down at Rome's Leonardo da Vinci airport on a rainy, grey day. It looked as if someone had replaced the whole city with a blurry black-and-white photograph of itself. Somehow it was no less beautiful and enchanting for it. Once out of the plane and in the airport, we both began to grin from excitement and because we could actually semi understand what was being said on the announcement speakers or what was written on signs. We have gotten accustomed to living in Japan where neither of these are true so when we can give our subconscious a break from the constant uncertainty of words we cannot help but notice it. We progressed through the expected travel formalities of passport check, baggage claim, and customs clearance before meeting our driver who led us through a maze of people, escalators, moving walkways, and parking garage concrete before arriving at his thankfully roomy van.
The man drove at a furious, frustration driven, clutch punishing, whiplash inducing pace that made my New York honed road rage look like elementary school nap time by comparison! I believe Jason had the urge to kiss the ground when we finally arrived miraculously safely at our hotel near Piazza del Popolo an hour and a half later. There was no thought of a tip and that probably fueled his next drive - I hope I never meet those people.
We knew our hotel room would not be ready so a quick change of shoes and stowage of bags at the front desk later we were off on our first walking adventure in Rome to the USO. We had arranged all of our tours through the USO at the suggestion of my best friend and wanted to meet the team that had helped us along the way. I do not know that we absorbed much on this walk except cold rain water due to jetlag but I do remember thinking it was a beautiful shopping street that crossed a wide bend in the Tiber on our way back when I was much dryer and had had lunch. It never ceases to amaze me just how small the world is and I somehow am frequently reminded of this on adventures when I bump into friends, colleagues, fellow college alumni, or other folks I have met along my treks. There in the USO, not four hours after arriving halfway around the world and over two years since I had last seen him stood a chief I had worked with at my last unit in Washington, DC! I called his name, he looked at me puzzled for a heart beat then came over with his wife and parents to give me a "what are the odds" hug. We left there to check into the hotel, nap, then do some general site seeing.
Seeing my former colleague was a highlight of day one and a great way to start our adventure. The next day, after some much needed sleep, we woke up early to see the Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, and Colosseum. Our tour guide was an archeologist who had studied all over the world, including the Great Pyramids, and was an incredible wealth of knowledge. It was only us and one other couple so we could take our time, ask questions, and did not have to jockey for a position close to the guide to hear him.
We got up pretty early the next day for our Early Entry Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel and St. Peter's Basilica tour. Our tour guide for this hurried three hour adventure was an art historian who talked nonstop to our group of 20 or so people. She was very knowledgeable and pointed out some of the more eccentric pieces in the museum as well as the well knowns. We marveled at the Sistine Chapel for a solid half hour before moving on to the cavernous St. Peter's Basilica. On the way there, she mentioned that you could take a stairwell or elevator all the way to the top of the dome of the basilica after the official tour ended for 20 Euro. She failed to mention a few important details though: it was cash only...and there is no ATM within the security limits...and the souvenir shop does not give cash back. So, after some attempted negotiations with one of only two extremely rude Italians we encountered in Rome, we begrudgingly left the dome for another day (managed to make it on the second to last day of the trip) and determined for the first time on this trip that we would have to come back to Rome one day to spend more time lingering at certain sites.
An indulgent way to instantly get a feel for the culture of any vibrant city, is to take a walking tour of their farmer's market. We have made a point to incorporate such a tour into all almost all of our travels together and we have yet to be disappointed. Mercato Testaccio was no exception. We had the luxury of a private tour with our guide who seemed to know every vender at all of the stalls even the ones we did not stop at for treats. We sampled so many fantastic foods from fresh fruit to fried artichokes to pizza that we asked him for recommended sites to walk to so we could work off the flavor packed calories. He pointed us to places that had not crossed our Google searches and off we went to a pyramid, a cemetery, a famous keyhole, and a mansion with arguably the best panoramic view of the entire city.
The next day was both Palm Sunday and my birthday. This date was the whole reason we picked the travel days that we did so we would follow up our anniversary weekend with a trip and spend my birthday doing something that is truly a once in a life time experience: Palm Sunday Mass in St. Peter's square with the Pope! We did not understand 95% of what was verbally said during the service but we relished the atmosphere as over 100,000 people from every corner of the globe followed along as best the could with the script, kneeling, standing, giving signs of peace, and worshiping as one. The rich, absolute silence during the pause for prayer portion of the service left an impression on us both that will last a life time.
I believe that a trip to Rome would be a waste without signing up for a dedicated tour of pasta! We saved the best for last with this one. We got lucky again with an unintended private tour of a globally known cheese and cured meat store, a restaurant that cooks the four traditional pastas of Rome from scratch, and a gelato store dedicated to making organic desserts. Before we embarked this tour, we worked up our appetites by walking the equivalent of a half marathon to see the Castle San Angelo, part of the Catacombs, and part of Via Appia Antica. When we left that gelato store the last evening, we were absolutely full of good food, architectural wonder, historical conundrums, and overall whimsy so we followed the Tiber back to our hotel stopping to take final night pictures of sites we had seen and planned to see again in the future.
We logged over 70 miles each on our pedometers in the six days we were in Rome. I am certain we could have logged three times that if we had had more time to stay. We started a list of the places we need to visit when we return and we are already looking forward to this undetermined date which will certainly come after we spend time site seeing, food tasting, and generally exploring other corners of this wonderous world. Below are links to places we ate, tours we took, things we saw, and the hotel at which we stayed. We found out upon our return that the USO will unfortunately be closing down this June so, for the military in the audience, you can reach the tour companies we used directly with the links. Our next book discussion begins on May 10th so come on back then to see my thoughts, and add your own, on Simon Sinek's Start with Why! Order your copy today so you can follow along with me.
Hotel Valadier. Museo Leonardo da Vinci Piazza del Popolo. La via Appia Antica. Food tours company - Local Aromas. "The Bone Church" - Il Convento dei Cappuccini. The place with the four pastas - Casa mia in Trastevere. Organic gelato place - Gunther Rohregger. Colosseum and Vatican tour company - Through Eternity Cultural Itineraries.