When in Rome

by Karen Phillips

As we walk into Vatican City, a “tour guide” approaches us and, for just 80 euros, will take us into Saint Peter’s Basilica ahead of the line, and give us educated information as we go through. The line is about half a mile long, so we begrudgingly accept. While she flashes her tour-guide credentials and waves her hand at angry patrons, we bow our heads and follow behind like scolded puppies. My husband Jason notices she has a wig in her purse as we enter the basilica and we secretly devise a duck-andrun plan in case things get creepier. Her breath smells like mothballs and the current wig on her head is distractingly dirty. We get “shushed” three different times by guards because she is speaking too loudly. About half an hour into the “tour” we part ways. Unfortunately, we miss out on the Sistine Chapel because it’s closed the first three Sundays of the month.

When we arrived in Rome the morning of Aug. 10, we couldn’t wait to drop our bags off at the hotel, wash-up after our nine-hour red-eye and start exploring the city. However, the cab driver told us our hotel was 45 minutes and 60 euros away.

“Wow, I didn’t realize the airport was so far from central Rome,” I said as we climbed into the cab, anxiously awaiting our arrival.

The landmarks surrounding our hotel looked nothing like a city. We pulled up to Hotel Artis on a side street, after passing it two times, before finally spotting it near a run-down grocery store and a dead end. Maybe we’re just a few blocks outside the city, I thought, still hopelessly optimistic.

Then reality hit. The receptionist told us we were a 30-minute train ride or 45-minute bus ride away from central Rome, and the train and bus station were about a 10-minute walk from the hotel. We would have to commit to that trip twice a day to explore the city, and that’s if we didn’t need to rest or come back to the hotel at all in the middle of the day. I booked the hotel. Oops, my bad.

Jason and I settled in and decided on a plan of action. We were going to go to the city and look for a new hotel. We’d tackle a couple simple sites so as not to waste the day, and call it an early night.

Without getting into details about the difficulties of trying to figure out how and where to buy a train ticket, we got into Rome via the sweltering train about two hours later.

Using the tourist map the receptionist gave us, we found our way to the Pantheon, which was commissioned to be a temple to all the gods of Ancient Rome. The circular skylight at the top of the un-reinforced concrete dome streamed a beautiful ray of sunlight into the church. The Pantheon has been continuously used throughout its history and is one of the best-preserved buildings in Rome.

The Trevi Fountain’s Baroque architecture was beautiful, but the enormity of this famous fountain was a bit difficult to appreciate with the swarm of people passing through the square that afternoon. We snapped a picture and moved on.

Having been warned that we wouldn’t like the pizza in Italy, we stopped for lunch at a nice little pizzeria with outdoor seating and free wifi. Jason ordered a margarita pizza out of curiosity, and I ordered fresh ravioli with spinach and ricotta cheese and some marinara sauce to top it off. What a great meal to start off the trip. Jason loved the pizza so much, he said he could finally die a happy man. He ordered five pizzas in our three days in Rome. His only complaint? People like to stare. At lunch we were situated between two other tables, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they all went home with sore necks after we left. Maybe it was because we speak English, or because we were using our cell phones for internet access, or because we ordered pasta and pizza? I guess we’ll never know. But what I do know: Jason hates being stared at.

The Spanish Steps are the widest staircase in Europe. The Barcaccia Fountain at the base of the steps has some of the coldest, most refreshing water I have ever tasted, like magical glacial water with added electrolytes. People were lined up at the fountain waiting to refill their water bottles, wash their hands and pose for a picture in front of the half-sunken ship. While Jason climbed all 138 steps, I sat by the fountain people-watching and resting my tired feet.

The Piazza de Spagna is a great central location next to a Metro stop and in walking distance to most sites in the city and we found a great hotel, Hotel Madrid, that had availability for the next two nights. We said “goodbye” to Hotel Artis and ran to Hotel Madrid with open arms.

The rest of our time in Rome is hot, tiring and active. Luckily, the Metro is shut down for the duration of our trip, so we have the luxury of walking in the unforgiving sun everywhere we want to go. We visit the Arch of Constantine, the Colosseum and see some of the Roman ruins. We don’t go inside the Colosseum because the lines are too long, but just seeing its construction and grandiose stature is breathtaking.

Our five-year anniversary trip is filled with delicious food, spectacular sites, and memorable experiences. Distant hotels, minimal air conditioning, shut-down Metros and staring people make for funny memories and entertaining stories; I still have a recurring nightmare about that Vatican City “tour-guide.” In it, my husband is wearing a wig and taking me on a tour through the Guilford Courthouse National Military Park, giving me misguided information in a foreign accent. I’m in handcuffs and he’s stolen my wallet. Hidden meaning?