The flight from Manila was a long one, and we had to stop over in Doha, Qatar. The layover was okay, but the Doha airport seemed like it was in the middle of the dessert, which probably is. When the plane lands, you need to get down the plane through the stairs and get on the shuttle bus which takes you to the terminal. It actually takes a good 10-15 minutes to get there. And they have also divided the terminal buildings for arrival, economy transit and premium transit, and these buildings are about 5 min apart by bus. I thought that I had ridden the longest airport shuttle in Shanghai to get from the terminal to our airplane which was parked in the middle of nowhere, this is even worse. We always joked about us riding the bus all the way home to Manila. They said a new international airport is being built to replace this, so hopefully, it will be better and more convenient.
So back to Rome. We arrived early in the morning, so we pretty much had the whole day to go around on our own. With a rough plan in mind, we knew where to go and how to get there. So, we dropped off our luggages at the hotel, then headed to take the subway. While waiting for one of our tour mates to join us, we walked out of the hotel towards the subway. We got our first glimpse of a deli and cafe, and got to taste the pizza bread - just tomato sauce, cheese and prosciutto. It was delicious. Little did we know that we would be tired of eating that because that's all we're going to have for lunch, hahaha.
We then headed to the subway, and what an experience we had. We knew that Italy is a place where there are a lot of pickpockets, so we were kinda aware. But what we didn't expect was how rampant it was. On the subway rides, we were warned by the station staff and by local commuters as well several times. One commuter pointed out two ladies who were pushing - which meant that they were already trying to distract you so that they can pick your pockets or open your bags. One of our tour mates had her zipper already half open, without even knowing it. So the subway ride was a ride from hell, and being that it is our first activity in Italy, we were disappointed. We didn't feel comfortable because we needed to be on guard all the time. What's worse is that we were already paranoid, and we begin to suspect everyone that looks seedy even if they are not thieves. Unfortunately, some Italians do look seedy, hahaha. Actually, this is no different from other parts of the world. I was in Brazil recently, and it was the same thing. You just have to be on guard, especially in places like the bus, the subway, the park, and places with lots of different types of people.
On my first subway ride as well, I lost 2 euros to the damn ticket machine and had to fill up a form in Italian to get my refund, which was only going to be available in a few days, so what's the point. Luckily, the maintenance guy was doing his rounds and he found my 2 euros. They tore the form and gave me my 2 euros, haha. I guess it got stuck somewhere in the machine. Well, God was watching over me :-)
Our first stop was the Piazza di Spagna (the Spanish Steps), the most popular meeting place of locals and tourists alike, and then name is inspired by the Spanish Embassy to the Holy See, which was here before. From the square, you can find one end of the Via del Condotti, which is the popular brand shopping street, housing Gucci, Louis Vuitton, etc. In the middle of the square, you can see the Fontana della Barcaccia, depicting a small boat stranded after the flooding of the Tevere. And a little bit to the side is the Colonna dell Immacolata where a status of the Virgin Mary stands on top of a round column. The square is where the Spanish Steps lead up to the Trinita dei Monti, a French church. We headed to the top and as we reached there, the rain started to pour, so we took refuge inside the church. It was a very nice and cozy church, the paintings and art inside the church were abundant. The skies finally cleared up a bit after our visit to the church, and from there, you can the most beautiful rooftops of Rome. And of course, as you descend the Spanish Steps, you see wonderful view of the Piazza di Spagna and surrounds just below. We then headed back to the bottom of the steps to find the rest of the group. Some of our group mates have already gone to Via del Condotti to do their shopping, amazing! So indeed, this is the most popular meeting place :-)
From the Piazza di Spagna, we all headed to the Fontana di Trevi, the famous fountain where you throw a coin so that you can one day return to Italy. My niece had a walking map, which was really excellent and we went through the backroads which was less crowded.
At first, I didn't realize that I had the Trevi Fountain in front of me. I was expecting a much smaller fountain, hahaha. The fountain was huge! It's said to be 85 feet high and 65 feet wide. It's actually one of the biggest Baroque fountains in Rome. The fountain depicts the three roads all meeting in this area, representing the different routes and aqueducts where water flows into Rome. By the way, on the coin throwing, there were a lot of different interpretations, which I didn't know about when I threw my coin. One was that you needed to throw the coin using your right hand over your left shoulder. Then another says you need to throw two coins to bring in romance, and if you throw three, it will either bring marriage or divorce, hahaha. Oh well, I threw my coin, so hopefully someday I get to return :-) They say approx 3000 euros a day are thrown into the fountain, this money goes on to subsidize food for the needy.
The fountain is truly a wonderful sight, but it was really crowded. And moreso, because the rain was starting to pour once again. Suddenly, you can see lots of vendors selling umbrellas. But I wanted to brave it, and I just didn't want to spend my euros on China-made umbrellas, hahaha. But I did succomb to it later on, which turned out to be a smart move, as I was able to use it the next couple of days. It was worth it, hahaha. On the streets, you'd also find vendors selling castanas (chestnuts). It was truly the spirit of Christmas as you smell the chestnuts roasting. The castanas were humongous, though the taste was just ok.
We then decided to head to the Gelato place, San Crispino, which was supposed to be just around the area. San Crispino is known to be the best gelato in Rome. Again, armed with my niece's printed map, we tried to look for it. But this time, we missed it, and because it was such a small shop with a single door hidden behind a parked car. Some were about to give up already since it was raining, but we sent my brother for another last try to find it. Lo and behold, he did find it. And we had our first try of Italian Gelato. Yummy! Others tried the ciocollato and unique flavours while I tried the lime sorbet. The lime sorbet was yummy, never tasted sorbet so creamy yet refreshing. I'm glad we persisted in our search :-)
We ended up back in the Spanish Steps and back to the subway station. When we got back to the hotel, our rooms were ready and we were all able to check in, although we had a blooper when we ended up opening a room that was occupied. The occupants turn out to be one of our tour mates, which was embarrassing! What a way to get introduced, hahaha. After settling down, we headed down to the lobby to meet our Tour Director and the rest of the tour group for an orientation. We all got a chance to introduce ourselves, and where we're from. There were quite a number of folks from the US, some couples, some families, some siblings. We also had folks from Australia, several couples from South Africa, Canada and of course, us, from the Philippines. We were about 40+ folks. We were happy to see such a diverse group of people, and also a large variety of age groups. We knew it was going to be great group.
After the orientation, we were given the option to go for dinner and an introductory tour of Rome at night. Being that it was Christmas eve, we opted to go, although dinner was just pizza. We went to a restaurant called La Tana dei Re and had our first Italian dinner, with all you can drink wine. Starters were good. We had bruschetta and roasted zucchini and eggplant. Then we were asked for what type of pizza we wanted, Margherita or Neapolitan. All four of us in our table opted for Margherita. After a few minutes, four whole pizzas were served. Woh! Ain't we sharing one? Hahaha. Well, that's Italy for you. And of course, the dessert was Tiramisu. Overall, it was a nice dinner, despite it being a pizza party. There was also live entertainment, a man and a woman were singing the opera over at the opposite balcony. It was nice.
After the dinner, a lot of us were really tired, so the bus ride was quite. I tried to fight my sleepiness because there were so many beautiful sights to see, and this time, it was nighttime. Our first stop was the Colloseum. Now, if the Fontana di Trevi turned out to be bigger than I expected, the Colloseum turned out to be smaller than I expected, hahaha. I guess I haven't gone inside yet. Now, I feel dreamy now, probably a combination of my sleepiness at the same time realizing that I'm seeing all these with my own eyes. We also went around Piazza Venezia on the bus, going around the rotonda several times, which made us even dizzier and sleepier, haha. Piazza Venezia is in the heart of Rome, and there you can see the Palazzo Venezia and the famous Victor Emmanuel Monument. We then took a stop at the St. Peter's Square, where only my brother and my niece went down to take photos. There, we saw a line, which we assumed was a line to attend mass, as it was Christmas Eve. Some of the other places we just passed by were the Bocca della Verita, the lion's mouth of truth, where you would put your hand to find out if you're telling the truth or not (featured in the movie Roman Holiday), the ruins where the great Pavarotti performed his opera, Circus Maximum which was where the Roman chariots raced, Castel Sant'Angelo - the round structure near the Tiber River which we often pass - known as mausoleum of Hadrian, the houseboats in the Tiber River and its high walls, the luxurious Exedra hotel near the Piazza della Republica, and another luxury hotel - the Excelsior Hotel.
This is surely a great way to get a first glimpse of Rome. Compared to our early morning introduction to the darker side of Rome, tonight's tour starts introduce the magic and romance of Italy to us.
Day 2, we had a full day ahead of us. Our first stop was the Colloseum, and this time, it was during the day. We were able to go around half of the Colloseum from the outside and peek in to the interior from the small open arches on its side. We also saw the Arc of Constantine which lies at one side of the Colloseum. From there, we also get a view of the Roman Forums.
Our next stop was the Piazza del Campidoglio which leads to the Capitoline Hill (one of the 7 hills) where you can have a full view of the Forums and Palatine Hill (centermost) from the top. Today the Forums are only left with the ruins and fragments on the ancient structures which housed the government, a basilica, and some arches and monuments. Famous speeches and political gatherings were held here.
We then headed back to the Trevi Fountain area. And as some of our kids were extremely hungry, we went to find a place to eat. As we sat, we soon realized that we didn't have much time, so we decided to skip the next part of the tour was a walk to the Pantheon then to Piazza Navona. We agreed to meet with them at the Piazza Navona for the Christmas market, which we took a cab to get there.
Piazza Navona was quite interesting, they had booths that offered games much like in a carnival and also some booths selling Christmas decorations and candy. One stall was selling Porchetta, roasted baby pig, which is like our lechon back home. My brother bought some to try, it tasted much like the Cebu lechon, meat marinated in some herbs. Piazza Navona is made known because of the movie Angels and Demons, although I haven't really watched it yet. So made a stop in one of the churches ride in front of the Egyptian obelisk. It was Sant'Agnese, which turned out to be one of the basilicas in Rome. The church was small and cozy, and similar to other churches here, the ceilings and domes were painted. A small nativity exhibit was also around. We then headed back out and went around the piazza. We saw some giant donuts, giant Nutella (you find them everywhere here in Italy), roasted chestnuts, and animal-shaped balloons all around. We also saw one of the fortune telling machines that looked like the one in the movie Big where Tom Hanks' wish to be an adult came true. We also saw both the fountains on each end of the Piazza, as we headed down one end to meet with the rest of the group.