We took our Christmas vacation early this year (I’m covering work for someone else during the holiday week).  So, for our early Christmas/celebrating Rebecca’s 13th birthday, we went to Rome.

It was a busy time leading up to our departure, with a Christmas party Friday night, then Rebecca testing for her advanced green belt in Tae Kwon Do on Saturday, but we were at the Stuttgart airport midday on Sunday for our afternoon departure.  Note to self–apparently if you are flying out Sunday afternoon from Stuttgart, you only need to show up about an hour early.  We were waiting almost by ourselves for about an hour.  There was a slight delay with the flight, but it was only about an hour and a half flight, and we arrived pretty much on schedule.  The airport at Rome was not very crowded, either, which I thought was interesting.  Unfortunately, the airport is not a great first impression of Rome.  As a matter of fact, it looked like a dump.  It was dirty, there was a lot of trash, and a lot of things seemed broken.  Still, we didn’t have any trouble getting our bags (unlike some poor soul–the first thing out of the baggage claim was a handle with a luggage tag on it.  Wonder what happened to the bag?)  One interesting thing–we got off the plane, got our bags, went to the train station, and never did go through any sort of passport control.  We walked through a customs area, but that was it.  Perhaps there’s some agreement between EU countries, or maybe Italy isn’t that particular.

We got tickets for the train (from a real person–you could tell where the automatic machines had been, but it looked like they had all been pulled off the wall) and only had a few minute wait before we were on our way.  About 40 minutes later, we were at the Termini station in Rome, caught the Metro to the stop close to our hotel, and after a few fumbles (it was dark by this time) found our hotel, the Best Western Spring House.

The hotel room was okay.  It was quite small, more European in size than the last Best Western we stayed at (in Berlin), but had all the basics.  It did have one extra thing in the bathroom; we weren’t sure if it was a bidet or a urinal, or maybe just a really short sink.

We were hungry and tired, so we took the recommendation from the hotel desk clerk and went to a little Italian restaurant fairly close by.  He told us it wasn’t a touristy place, but somewhere he went to eat.  I’m not sure about that, as the ladies at the table next to us were speaking English, and I don’t think the only other group of people in the place were locals.  Rebecca and I might have been better off at a touristy place; to be honest, we weren’t all that impressed with the food.  The bread was good, but we didn’t care much for the antipesto, or the gnocchi we had.  Roy had fettucine and half of Rebecca’s gnocchi, and he liked everything.

img_4593Our first morning, we walked to St Peter’s Square.  It was rainy and chilly, but we walked past a huge long line waiting to get into the Vatican.  St Peter’s Square was not very crowded; they were putting up a Christmas tree and setting up for the festivities Christmas week.  We had decided to try one of those hop-on, hop-off bus tours, so we just followed the buses until we found where they stopped.  Naturally, Rebecca wanted to ride on the top (which is open, so the seats were all wet, but we made do).  It was a cold ride up there, but we rode for a while, and then got off at Piazza del Popoloimg_4623The obelisk in this square is the second oldest in Rome, brought to Rome in 10 BC by Augustus and originally set up in the Circus Maximus (where they had the races).  It was the second obelisk (after the one in St Peter’s Square) that we saw in Rome, but definitely not the last–obelisks and tall columns seem to be the defining characteristics of the squares in Rome!

At the originating point, the bus stopped and they told us the bus would not be proceeding for another 30 minutes, but the next bus would leave in about 10 minutes, and we could transfer.  We got off and looked around for a few minutes.  This turned out to be a nice stop–we got a look at Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri (Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs), which is interesting as it was built using part of the walls of the Baths of Diocletian (used from 306 until 537 when the Goths cut the aqueducts).

We spent most of the afternoon in the area of the Roman Forum.  We got off the bus at the Piazza Venezia, close to the Victor Emmanuel Monument which was built to honor the first king of unified Italy.  It’s a bit overdone, and apparently was controversial since a large chunk of the historical area was destroyed when it was built.  We didn’t go up to the monument; instead we went around and climbed up the steps of Capitoline Hill to Piazza Campidoglio.  Capitoline Hill is one of the seven hills of Rome, and the piazza was designed by Michelangelo around 1536.  From this area, there is a really nice view of the Roman Forums.


You can’t get in to the Roman Forums area from this end, so we walked along the street toward the Coliseum and looked at the ruins from there.  There are little signs along the way that tell you what the ruins are.  Some of them, such as the Arch of Titus, are in amazingly good shape, considering they are almost 2000 years old.

img_4689We walked to the Coliseum and admired it and the Arch of Constantine.  However, we decided to skip touring the inside of the Coliseum for today since it was due to close in about an hour, and the weather was rainy.  Instead, we headed to the Pantheon.  We walked through Piazza Navona, which I’d read was “the most beautiful square in Rome.”  Sadly, it was cluttered with what I suppose is Rome’s version of a Christmas market, but it bore no comparison to the Christmas markets we’ve seen in Germany and Prague, seeming like a cheap carnival in comparison.  The Pantheon, however, was lovely.  Due to the subdued lighting, the pictures I got don’t do it justice.  The dome is splendid, and although some of the sculptures are by “unknown artists”, they look beautiful.  Perhaps it was the time of day (it was twilight when we came out) or the fact that it wasn’t too crowded, but this was one of my favorite sights in Rome.

img_4697After leaving the Pantheon, we headed toward the Spanish Steps; our target was the “famous” McDonald’s there, said to be the prettiest in the world.  We passed by the Trevi Fountain on the way, marking it for a return trip.  The McDonald’s was pretty; the food was about what you would expect.  A kid’s birthday party started while we were there, so it was loud.  Architecture aside, not much different the world over.  I suppose that’s the point.  A quick look at some cow statues heralding the “Cow Parade in Rome” and a look at the Spanish Steps as we walked by, then back to the hotel to rest.  Tomorrow, Vatican City!

Keeping in mind the really long line from the day before, we went early to the Vatican.  There was already a line of people waiting for the entrance to open, but once it opened, it didn’t take that long to get in.  What you’re really paying for is entrance to the museums, which to me all seem to blend together.  A lot of websites recommend a guided tour, which is probably a good idea.  We didn’t do that (although there are plenty of people all around the streets who would be happy to accomodate you), but we did rent audio guides, which I highly recommend so you have some idea where to go and what you are looking at.

img_4758The Vatican Museums have an absolutely incredible display of art, sculpture, and antiquities.  We spent a few hours exploring–not nearly long enough for such a dizzying array, but it gets overwhelming after a while.  We did, of course, go through the Sistine Chapel toward the end of our visit.  What an amazing feeling to see the actual paintings that have been reproduced all over the world.  The Sistine Chapel itself wasn’t quite what we expected; I’d somehow always had the impression of a rounded ceiling and a larger room.  Rebecca was unimpressed.  Her opinion:  “It’s just like all the other chapels–pictures of naked people and stained glass.”  As far as the shape of the room, and some of the wall paintings, there’s truth to that, but Roy and I liked looking at the famous ceiling and the Last Judgement fresco on the altar wall.  Unfortunately, according to the signs, they don’t allow pictures, although that didn’t seem to stop several people.

Before leaving, we paid a visit to the Vatican Post Office for Roy to buy some stamps and then headed out of the city-state of Vatican City to find something to eat in Rome.

img_4815In the afternoon, we retraced part of our route of the day before, passing by St Peter’s Square, then walking along the Tiber River heading generally toward the old city center.  We stopped for a short look at the outside of the Castel Sant’Angelo and then made our way toward the Torre Argentina, which is the site of Pompey’s Theater and considered to be the place where Julius Caesar was assassinated.  Incidentally, it’s also the location of the Roman Cat Sanctuary.  Cats inhabit the ruins in Rome, and in this area, there’s a small building where volunteers take care of over 200 cats.  Rebecca loved this place, of course, and the lady who was there spent quite a lot of time with us talking about what they do and letting Rebecca play with the cats.


img_4830Once we pried Rebecca out of the cat sanctuary, we headed back toward the Pantheon area to find the Caffè Sant’Eustachio, billed as having “the best coffee in Rome.”  The coffee was very good, as was the chocolate Rebecca had.  However, in my opinion, the ambiance or something wasn’t that great.  Maybe it’s better in warm weather when you can sit outside at the tables, but honestly, I got the feeling from the people that “yeah, yeah, drink our great coffee and leave.”  They make a big deal about not letting anyone see how they make the coffee; although the coffee was really good, I think the experience is overrated.

We walked past the Pantheon, then on to the Trevi Fountain, where we all did the obligatory coin toss.  After spending a little time admiring the fountain, we continued to the Spanish Steps, this time climbing the steps to the top–while trying to avoid the men trying to hand us flowers as a “present”.  Our timing turned out to be good, as we got a beautiful view of the sun setting over Rome.


The following day was clear and gorgeous, really the only clear day we had while in Rome.  This was a good day for it, as it was also the day there was a Metro strike until 5 pm.  Our first stop was St. Peter’s Basilica.  We walked to St. Peter’s Square and got right into the cathedral.  There were parts blocked off–we assumed they were setting up for the Christmas Mass–but we could still get a great view of the awe-inspiring dome, and I was able to get a snapshot of the Pietà.  We also got a peek into a curtained-off area that appeared to be a Christmas setup, including a Nativity scene.

img_4920We decided we really had to climb up the Dome, but elected to pay the extra 2 Euros to take the elevator part of the way.  Even with this, there are 320-odd steps to climb to get to the top.  It’s quite an experience.  For part of the climb, the walls slant inward, giving you an odd off-balance feeling–and parts of the climb are on very narrow spiral staircases, not for the claustrophobic!  Still, if you can manage it, the view at the top is worth the climb.

After our visit to St. Peter’s, we headed toward the Tiber River, planning to walk along it again for a little way, then cross toward the part of town with the Roman ruins.  On the way, we stopped for lunch at a great little place called Ristorante Ponte Vittorio.  It didn’t seem to be a really touristy place (there were quite a few Italians eating there), but the food was the best we ate the entire time in Rome.  The people were also the friendliest; I think this is the only restaurant of those we ate at that I’d go back to, except for the little gelato cafe close to our hotel.

Following a really good meal, we walked along the Tiber, getting another view of the Castel Sant’Angelo, and incidentally a large number of street vendors all selling tripods–I guess it’s a popular spot for photos!  It was a really nice day for our walk; with the sun shining, it wasn’t too cold.  We passed by part of the Jewish Quarter and then turned away from the river toward the Circus Maximus.

img_4967The Circus Maximus was a huge stadium and was used for chariot racing.  Now it just looks like a big field of dirt.  You can see part of what I think is Palatine Hill from the stadium, but otherwise, there isn’t much left to see.  We decided to continue on toward the Caracalla Baths, curious to see how they compared to the baths in Trier.

We did run into a little bit of a problem trying to follow the map and get across the busy streets.  We ended up taking a detour into the Caracalla Stadium, which is NOT the same; there are some ruins there, but this is an actual sports area that is in use today, or at least it was that day.  We tried to get through, but there wasn’t a path, so we had to go back out and around.  We did make it to the gates of the Caracalla Baths–two minutes after the last entry time of 1530.  We weren’t the only ones, either.  Roy was frustrated, but we decided to at least walk around the perimeter to see what we could see.  Part of what we saw was a guy climbing over the fence and walking into the baths–I guess he really wanted to see them.  As it turned out, we were glad we didn’t pay to get in, as it looked like a lot of the area was blocked off (presumably for protection of either people or the ruins).  It looked like we could see just about everything from outside the fence.

It was a long walk, though, so we were hoping the Metro station would really reopen that evening as it was supposed to.  It was quite a way from the baths to the closest Metro, but it still wasn’t open when we got there, so we stopped at a cafe for coffee, while Rebecca had another gelato.  Fortunately, the Metro did reopen, so we were able to get back to the hotel without much trouble.  Side note–we noticed that the Metro line that goes to that area of town is not as nice as the one that goes to the really touristy areas.  This train was not as clean and it was covered in graffiti; there seems to be a significant difference in the two lines.

For our last full day in Rome, we promised Rebecca we’d go to the zoo (Bioparco).  Unfortunately, the Metro doesn’t go very close to the area where the zoo is–and it was raining.  We had quite an adventure trying to get there; we bought bus tickets at a tabacchi shop with no problem and found the bus stop, but the buses in Rome don’t seem to announce the stops.  We had figured out how many stops, so we just counted them and watched out the window.  Looking out the window got harder and harder as we went on, and more and more people got on the bus.  We literally had to squeeze our way off the bus at our stop, and we were sure people were wondering why we were getting off there.  We wondered why also, after we went up and down trying to follow the map to the zoo–all the while in the pouring rain.  Finally we made it to the zoo entrance and went in, only to have the lady tell us all the animals were inside due to the rain.

We took her advice and just bought tickets for the reptile house, which was reasonably interesting (and warm and dry).  By the time we were finished there, the rain had stopped, so we decided to go ahead and risk getting the tickets for the zoo.  It was an okay zoo; Rebecca really enjoyed it, especially the wolves.  It had a lot of birds running around loose; a bunch of them came up all around me as I was sitting quietly on a bench while Rebecca was trying to get a picture of the wolves.

img_5032After the zoo, we decided to take the walk to the Metro rather than deal with the bus, since it had stopped raining.  We walked through the grounds of the Villa Borghese, which are quite nice.  Since we had not yet seen the inside of the Coliseum, we wanted to make sure to see it that afternoon.

The Coliseum seems to be a bit of a racket, from the people dressed as gladiators hanging around outside offering to let you have a picture with them (for an unstated fee), to the extensive line for no apparent reason (that you can bypass if you pay extra for an audio guide).  Still, it’s interesting to see, once you get in.  Inside, there was also an exhibit of sculpture, architecture, and artifacts from a number of areas in the Roman Empire, which was interesting.  The Coliseum (or the Flavius amphitheatre) was supposedly the largest building of the era and could hold over 50,000 people (one estimate said 70,000).  A lot of the structure is missing, partly due to the ravages of time, and partly due to the ravages of people; a lot of it, especially the marble, was used to build other monuments, including St. Peter’s Basilica.  However, considering it was opened in 80 A.D., it’s still a pretty imposing sight.

The day we left was (naturally) sunny and nice.  Still, we’d seen what we wanted to see, so just had a leisurely walk around the area to pick up a few gifts, then caught the Metro to the train station.  Since it was Rebecca’s birthday, we gave her her present on the train (a Wii game–a big clue that she was getting a Wii for Christmas).  An uneventful flight home closed the story on our family Christmas trip for 2009.

See our photo album for Christmastime in Rome.

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2 Responses to “Christmastime in Rome”

  1. Sometimes it seems like an unfair and demanding lifestyle, but not a lot of people I know get to see Berlin for Thanksgiving and Rome for Christmas. I think you might owe a big thanks to your two dads–one on earth, the other in heaven–for working this life around for you and Roy and Rebecca. You may miss some things, but you sure make up for a lot of them. Love you. Mom

  2. I like this blog. I especially like how you added the photos in with the text. Beautiful way to keep and cherish memories! 🙂

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