With the expense involved in flying to Rome, we decided to make the best of it, and extend our pre-cruise stay by renting an apartment in Rome for a few days. Things started off a little off-kilter. Our flight on US Air was delayed on the tarmac at Philadelphia for roughly two hours, so it made for a very tiring flight.
We arrived at Fiumincino Airport and were met with mass chaos at passport control. Now, I'm no expert, and perhaps it's like this everywhere, but things might run a little more smoothly at that airport if they actually put some waiting lines in place. It seemed like passport control was just a huge room with one exit, stuffed with people milling around trying to work their way to the door.
Once we got through, it was easy enough to find our baggage carousel. We had arranged with Stefano at RomeCabs for transportation to our lodgings. He sent us a link to a video explaining exactly where to meet our driver at the airport. Sure enough, as soon as we exited the security area, Johnny was waiting to meet us. He patiently stepped outside for a smoke while we pulled some Euros out of the Bancomat and broke one of the bigger bills by buying some breakfast at the airport cafe, and away we went.
TIP: A little aside about currency....we had obsessed about the best way to go about dealing with currency exchange. We found a real easy method to deal with it. A couple of weeks before the trip, I opened up an online checking account with CapitalOne. The sent me a debit MasterCard tied to my account. No currency exchange fees, and they even reimburse any ATM fees incurred. At every ATM I used, the exchange rate for Euros turned out to be the Forex published rate for the day, so it was a really great way to change currency.
I'm a real fan of apartment rentals as opposed to hotels, but it's sometimes a risky business. Often the apartment is great. Other times, it's only so-so.
In this case we found a lovely but small apartment on Via Giulia, just a block from the Tiber river and two blocks from Campo Di Fiori. We found it to be a great base of operations for our tours of Rome, although it was a bit distant from the nearest Metro station. The price was similar to a hotel, and the added space and ability to cook some of own meals made it a very attractive alternative to a hotel stay. Via Giulia Numero 191 is only one block from the Tiber River (the Tevere), and close to the restaurants and open air markets of the Campo De' Fiori.
I called the rental agent from the car as we left the airport to let him know we were on our way. When we arrived at the apartment, it was still locked up tight. Johnny called the rental agent again for us, and then insisted on staying with us until someone showed up. I thought that was really service above and beyond, and I'd recommend RomeCabs on that basis alone.
Because of the late arrival time, we felt a little too wrung out to go with our original plan of hitting the ground running and heading to the Colosseum. Instead, we wandered the neighborhood and stocked the apartment at the local grocery store, a Despar market , right around the corner, and then start our exploration.
Our first stop is the open air market at Campo De' Fiori. During the day a lively fruit, vegetable, and peddler's market is set up in the Campo. At night, the restaurants lining the square roll out their tables and awnings. We've arrived just as the market is packing up for the evening, but we are able to find some fruit and an all-important Rome bus map.
Campo de Fiori
As we explored the neighborhood, we stumbled across Forno Roscioli, a bakery and pastry shop. One glance at the display window, and you will be rendered helpless, regardless of your dietetic resolutions. The second best sfogliatelle I've ever had in my life can be found here...it's worth seeking it out!
Our next stop is to stroll our own block. Just a hundred yards away, past the bridge over Via Giulia designed by Michelangelo, is the Santa Maria Della Orazione e Morte (St. Mary of Prayer and Death) Church. Founded by an order who dedicated themselves to providing decent burials for the dead found on the banks of the Tevere and the streets of Rome, they decorated their church with macabre images.
Chiesa Santa Maria Della Orazione e Morte
We decide to go a little further afield and try to find the Pantheon, so we start heading up toward the streets above Campo Di Fiori. All day long, we've been hearing helicopters above the city, and we haven't really thought much about it, but as we reach Torre Argentina, we start seeing riot police in full gear, blocking off the streets. What the heck is going on?
It's a huge, moving demonstration, marching through the streets of Rome, occasionally stopping to play music and make speeches. We see Palestinian flags waving in the crowd. It turns out this is a huge event, apparently in support of Palestinian autonomy.
We're a little unnerved by the huge crowd and the heavy police presence. It looks very well ordered and controlled, but knowing how things can spiral out of control very quickly, we give it a wide berth and start meandering around, trying to find the Pantheon. We snaked around the narrow streets, not quite sure of where we're going. Then, suddenly, there it is! Ancient monuments in Rome have a way of sneaking up on you. You turn a nondescript corner and BAM! Antiquity in your face!
First glimpse of the Pantheon
Originally built by Marcus Agrippa as a temple to all of the gods of ancient Rome in 27 BC, it was rebuilt by the emperor Hadrian in 126 AD. 483 years later, it was given to Pope Boniface IV by the emperor Phocas, and has been used as a Catholic church since. The 142 foot dome has inspired Bramante, Brunelleschi, and Michelangelo.
At the moment, though, it's actually closed...there's a private function of some sort going on inside, and a huge crowd is gathering at the doors, waiting to be let in. Just as we're about to give up, the doors open, the congregants leave, and the crowd starts to shuffle in. We peak in just long enough to take a photo, knowing we'll be back later in our visit.
The exterior of the Pantheon
The crowd pushes into the Pantheon
We examine our Berlitz map carefully, and decide to walk over to Piazza Navona. It's just a few blocks to the west. Distances on the map are deceiving....every thing in Rome seems to be much closer together than you would think.
A short walk, and we arrive at Piazza Navona, but the entire northern part of the Piazza is stuffed with the demonstrators we saw earlier. Helicopters buzz overhead and the speeches ring out. Perhaps Piazza Navona will also wait for another day.
On the way back to our apartment, we stopped for Gelato at a place next to the Despar, L'Imperatore del Gelato. I had a piccolo pineapple (ananas), Mrs. Zukini had a piccolo stracciatella. Mmmmm. Mmmmm. We also stopped again at that local bakery, Antico Forno Roscioli, and picked up a pair of Napoletanas for breakfast.
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