Our Roman Holiday

A week in Rome was the right amount of time to see a variety of sights and balance relaxing and kids-centric activities. While our first full day required a 3-hour nap before we could face a late dinner as civilized people, our itinerary was full and flexible. It even included an overnight trip to Naples and Pompeii. No tears were shed. No Band-Aids applied. Our Roman holiday was fascinating, tasty, and just the respite from our daily routine we were hoping it to be.

The trip was planned quickly. My husband was selected for a course in Rome and the rest of us opted to cancel a weekend ski trip to tag along with him. His course dictated the dates and happened to coincide with carnival and the beginning of Lent. The course, unfortunately, also determined our hotel location.  Hotel dei Congressi was comfortable.   The staff was kind.  They have an elevator, room service, and on-site restaurant.  So aside from the fact it was in EUR, we liked our hotel.

Having EUR as our home base for Roman tourist activities presented logistical and gastronomical challenges. A 20-minute taxi ride cost our family of five about €30 each way. We were close to a Metro stop, which got us to city center and Termini Train Station for transfers to the other metro line. It was much more affordable at € 1.50 per ride.

A Day All About Food

Our first full day in Rome was on a Saturday. The weather was decent and we happened to snag the last few spots in Viator’s Small-Group Rome Food Walking Tour: Trastevere, Campo de’ Fiori and Jewish Ghetto. For 3.5 hours, we ate our way through Campo de Fiori, Jewish Ghetto, and Travestere learning about regional food dishes, ingredients, and local preferences.

We began our tour by watching 2 meter-long pizzas being made at Forno Campo de’ Fiori through a large window.  Our guide described the different pizza styles in Italy and carvival foods such as frappe – deep fried puff pastry covered with powdered sugar (yum).  A walk through the Piazza Campo de’ Fiori market revealed beautiful vegetables and flowers, as well as overpriced touristy knick-knacks.

At the edge of the piazza, were given fresh Buffalo mozzarella, prosciutto, and Romano at a popular deli. Delicious. Not too far away was Antico Forno Roscioli, a bakery.  It was another popular choice for locals.  We squeezed our way to the back and watched as customers ordered their bread, pastries, and pizza. Our guide provided us several varieties of pizza to try.  (I also snagged a tortina de pistachio for later).

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Our guide then took us through the Jewish Ghetto and discussed the sad history of persecution, intolerance, and fear led to the “housing” of Jews in a small area of the city. The neighborhood is again bustling with restaurants, cafes, hotels, schools, and tourists.  We sat down to eat two popular Roman specialties – supplì (fried riceball) and twice-fried artichokes (crispy like potato chips).

The tour continued past the synagogue Tempio Maggiore di Roma, across the Ponte Fabricio bridge to Isola Tiberina and then on to Trastevere for a lunch of pasta and wine. With full bellies we set out for our final stop and tasting – Punto Gelato.  There were so many flavors to choose from; it was hard to make our selections.  The attendant was quick to point out if two flavors would not work together.

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In a vain attempt to walk off the food we’re eaten during the tour, we walked over to the Piazza Navona.  We spent some time admiring the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (4 Rivers Fountain) and then returned to our hotel for a siesta. We slept for three hours!

Dinner was up next but we’d forgotten to make reservations anywhere. The concierge tried to assist, however most restaurants did not have a table available till 10pm. Fortunately, Ristorante Pizzeria Tatà  was just a few blocks away from our hotel. We took a chance and walked over to see if they could seat us. [It is near the Obelisco di Marconi and would be a great place for lunch while visiting the Museum of Roman Civilization and the Planetarium & Astrology Museum (when they reopen).]

At 9pm it was brimming with large groups, couples, and families. The friendly bar staff gave us all drinks while we watched pizzas being made until our table was ready. Our server was kind and patient as we butchered his beloved language. He brought colored pencils for the kids and had the kitchen split my main of Saltimbocca alla Romana for me and my daughter to share. Everyone else ordered wood-fired pizza. We left Tatà satisfied and just as more large parties were walking in. It is a very popular spot in EUR on Saturday night. Reservations recommended.

Our three hour nap could not defend against our food comas and we fell quickly to sleep when we got back to the hotel.

A Sunny Sunday Strole

Sunday was warm and sunny. It was the ideal day for a stroll along the Via Appia Antics. We considered a bike tour, but in the end favored a walk at our own pace and avoided the need to return to our bikes at the starting point.

Our taxi dropped us at the Porta San Sebastiano and the Museo delle Mura. The museum was open and had admission by donation. There are great views on each level of the museum, but the most impressive was from the roof.

Setting off toward the catacombs, we walked cautiously along the road as packs of joggers, bicyclists, and cars veered around us. From the Domine Quo Vadis Church, we enter a more pedestrian-friendly path toward the San Sebastiano Catacombs. The walk was relaxing. The kids picked flowers and tried to climb olive trees. It was wonderful to feel the sun on our faces after months in Norway.

The Catacombs of San Callisto is open on Sunday but closes for lunch from noon to 2pm. We arrived at noon.  We pressed on toward the Catacombs of San Sebastiano (closed on Sundays) to eat at Ristorante l’Archeologia.

We had a feast! A bottle of chianti, calamari, pasta and clams, tortellini and truffles, shrimps, pasta and pork ragu. For dessert, we were served scoops of gelato, chocolate, and a warm nut-brownie with plantain gelato.

Not far from Ristorante l’Archeologia is the Circus of Maxentius, an ancient race track and mausoleum site. We relaxed in the grass and watched the kids play football. Afterwards we returned to the Catacombs of San Callisto for a guided tour. We were led through the underground maze of tunnels with burial compartments and crypts. Very interesting.

Sunday evening we decided to eat at our hotel restaurant, La Glorietta.  It was a pleasant surprise. The wine, pasta, fish, and saltimbocca was good. One of my husband’s colleagues and his wife joined us mid-meal. The conversation became more lively and so did the meal.

Monday Madness

I had high hopes for Monday. I wanted to hit Palatine Hill, the Forum, and the Coliseum in the morning. After refueling, the plan was to see the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica.  The theory being they would be less crowded and therefore waiting for us to arrive.

Rick Steve’s suggests purchasing your combo-tickets at the Palatine Hill. It was a smart move. The lines are shorter. Once inside, we took the steps on the left and walked the long path to view the Circus Maximus. The rest of our time at Palatine Hill was spent eating tortina de pistachio under a tree, looking for water bottle filling stations and the toilets.  Our favorite spot was near a rose garden where we could view the Forum from above. Our time in the Forum was short. It was hard for the kids to imagine Rome in its hayday and they had great urgency to get to the Coliseum.

With our tickets already purchased, we headed to a shorter security line and into a dense pack of afternoon Coliseum visitors. Deftly weaving through tour groups and slow teenagers, we viewed the chamber’s below the stadium floor and ruins of the once awesome arena. The female bathroom line was ridiculously long as was the amount of selfie-stick peddlers.

I was optimistically hopeful we were stick to our itinerary, especially when we’d completed our morning itinerary by 1pm. Lunch was next.  Here is where the day took an unfortunate turn. I did not have a phone to help us with lunch recommendations. My phone hadn’t charged and was languishing back in our EUR hotel. My son’s phone was about to die from high exorbitant use of battery-sucking apps and games.

We just started walking away from the Coliseum with the intention of seeing the Pantheon.  Luckily, Daruma Sushi Monti is not far from the Coliseum. We ate next to the Fontana dei Catecumeni in the Piazza della Madonna dei Monti and then pressed on North.  Only, we needed to be going Northeast. I drug those kids almost 3km along Via Nazionale to Fontana delle Naiadi and to Porta Pinciana of Villa Borghese. They were real troopers!  I almost gave up too wanting to get a room at The Westin Excelsior Roma. That’s when we saw a taxi and took it to the Pantheon.

I postponed our tour inside the Pantheon in order to get gelato from my tired crew. Charged with creamy sugary-goodness, not only did we view the Pantheon, but the iconic Trevi Fountain and the baroque church Chiesa di Sant’ Ignazio di Loyola.  We’d all hit a wall then and retreated to the hotel to rest before another late dinner.

Our dinner choice was closed for a private party, so we ate across the street. I am a bit embarrassed to mention this particular meal, yet it seemed very popular with the other customers. The Old Wild West is just as it sounds – burgers, steaks, and an American Wild West-themed decor. I thought it was pitiful for an American tourist to be seen here. Yet, there we were ordering BBQ hamburgers and Coors Lite.  Maybe we’ve been away from the US long enough to find this food good enough to eat.  And the truth is, it wasn’t bad.  No one noticed or cared how awkward I felt. We were surrounded by Italian families pigging out on what think we eat every night stateside.

Get thee to the Vatican!

The weather was iffy on Tuesday.  The perfect day to be indoors immersed in thousands of years of history and art.  We did two brilliant things that day – 1) we purchased our tickets in advance on the Vatican Museum site and 2) we snagged Audioguides  and maps for the kids (reduced ticket + Audioguide for Children = €13,00).

The Audioguide for Children has you weave through the museum.  The kids loved it!  Our tickets gave us entry at 1030am and we were there with several tour and school groups.  However, it did not take away from our experience.  Once through the Hall of Maps, the audioguide took us on a short cut to the Sistine Chapel.  We grabbed some lunch at the museum’s pizzeria and decided to revisit several exhibits (the Museo Egizio was our favorite).  We also wanted to see some areas that were not included in the audioguide, including the long path to the Sistine Chapel that we had earlier bypassed.  There are fantastic works of art there, including a papal robe designed by Matisse.

Our extra long tour of the Vatican Museums made it impossible to see St. Peter’s Basilica in the same day. We opted for a few glasses of wine at a street side cafe near by until dinner.  While nothing could top our experience at the Vatican Museums, our dinner was a close runner up.  I had actually done some research on restaurants and came across Katie Parla’s blog post Where to Eat & Drink in Rome in 2017.  Katie says Cesare al Casaletto is the perfect Roman trattoria.  That was good enough for me and I had called to secure reservations for 8pm on Tuesday night.  The wine flowed (we drank Casale della IoriaTenuta della Ioria’ Cesanese del Piglio Superiore DOCG, Lazio, Italy).  The pasta and calamari were devoured.  It was a scrumptious meal.

Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Tour

Our decision to take the Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Tour was in attempt to have a relaxing day in Rome while still covering a lot of ground. We’d seen a lot of sites already.  However, the bus allowed us a different perspective on the places we’ve previously visited and an audio tour.  We stayed on the bus for an entire rotation, taking about 90 minutes. The highlight of the tour for us was driving past Torre Argentina.  My daughter was eager to visit the Roman Cat Sanctuary where Julius Caesar was murdered.  She was thrilled to see cats lying in the sun.

We got off the bus and found a table on a balcony in Piazza Venezia across the street from the Victor Emmanuel monument and it’s 2-meter wide mustache.  We sat in the sun enjoying our late lunch and then caught our bus for St. Peter’s Basilica.

St. Peter’s Square is impressively huge and beautiful with statues of saints peer down on us.  The Basilica is opulent.  It is an architecturally impressive feat.  I would like to return for a guided tour to learn more of its history and the building process.  I could have stayed for hours.  Our visit started and ended with a long pause in front of The Pietà by Michelangelo.

Our arrival at St. Peter’s Basilica was too late in the day to climb the cupola dome.  We vowed to return.  Finding a taxi, we ventured off to complete our day at the Spanish Steps.  After people watching and window shopping, we ate at Babington’s Tea Room right next to the Spanish Steps.

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Pompeii

When playing our trip to Rome, my daughter requested a visit to Mt Vesuvius. She had just finish studying volcanoes and wanted to see Pompeii for herself.  Lucky for us, we have friends living in Naples and they were excited to chauffeur us around.

A train ride from Rome to Naples was quick, easy, and affordable. I purchased tickets online through Trenitalia. We departed at the Aversa station where my friend whisked us away to Cantina del Vesuvio situated in the Vesuvius National Park. We were given a short tour of the vineyard and olive trees, a three course lunch, and a few glasses of wine.  Our alfresco lunch had hazy views of the Gulf of Naples. I wanted to live there.17230153_1473409166003304_1992463934_o

5 minutes away was Pompeii.  We found a guide and he took us through the site filling our heads with the history of the city (the good and the ugly) and even kept it entertaining for the kids.  We learned about gladiators, acoustics, plumbing, and city planning.  The highlight was seeing the cast of an eruption victim.

Our Last Day in Rome

We took the train back to Rome early Friday morning.  The only thing left on our list was to climb the dome at St. Peter’s Basilica.  It was AMAZING!  We moved quickly through security and made our way to the dome ticket booth (cash only).  I suggest purchasing tickets that included a ride on the elevator. It saves climbing over 200 steps.  Worth the money!  At the roof level we saw beautiful mosaics. Up another 300 steps at the top of the cupola (no elevator for this portion), our reward was the incredible views of St. Peter’s Square, the Vatican Museums, and the city beyond them.  It was a wonderful way to spend our last afternoon in Rome.

As we had done just a few days before, we grabbed a cab to Piazza di Spagna near the Spanish Steps. We did a little shopping (I got a new wallet at Furla!) and had our last fantastic Italian meal at Ristorante 34.

Rome is a fascinating city.  It is hard to understand how ancient ruins are surrounded by modern buildings and traffic and yet remain magnificent and not entirely engulfed by the 21st century. It somehow works.

If I return to Rome, and I hope I get the chance, I would like to go in the Spring to see the city with more color.  I absolutely loved riding in Italian taxis.  The drivers are fast, and still managed to not hit pedestrians and other vehicles and get us to our destinations in one piece. It was impressive and exhilarating. The Italian language is beautiful.  I hope to know more of it when I return as well.
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Lessons learned: While we liked our hotel and its continental breakfast with included cappuccinos, it’s location was a long way from where we wanted to spend our days, making us dependent on the metro and taxis.  And while there are things to do in EUR, both the Museum of Roman Civilization and the Planetarium & Astrology Museum were closed for renovations.  Also, not all museums and monuments had information on hand to describe what we were viewing.  Next time, I’ll opt for audio or group tours when offered.  Knowledge would be worth the price. 

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