We’ve been here in France now for four months, and we’ve enjoyed some great short trips within the country. But when the Grenoble Ecole de Management’s equivalent of Fall Break arrived, we decided to take advantage of our proximity to other countries in Europe and take a holiday outside of France. Our problem—just too many countries and great places from which to choose! (I’m sure you are all feeling sorry for us.) We looked at the availability of flights from either Grenoble or Lyon, and it turns out that easyJet, a low-cost, no-frills airline, flies out of both airports, and the fares seemed to be wonderfully low. Checking the weather forecasts for some of the possible destinations, we “settled” on a four-day trip to Rome, a city we had never visited, even though we have visited Italy in the past. (Click on the pics for a better view. I had to squish them to post them! If you click on the underlined bold print, the links will come up.)
The airline easyJet covers the Rome route from Lyon. After booking the 1 hour 40 minute flight for a Sunday 7:10 am departure, we looked into getting to Lyon. A navette (shuttle) leaves regularly from the gare right to Lyon’s Saint Exupéry airport. It looked like we could get the bus at 5:00 am and it would get us right to the airport at 6:05. Whoops! I had misread the navette schedule, and the first bus on Sundays isn’t until 6 a.m. arriving at 7:05! That wouldn’t work; we’d definitely miss the flight. We needed to travel the day before and stay at the airport hotel. We did that, and on Saturday night, an airport hotel staffer thoughtfully called to remind us that the time changed in Europe on Sunday morning, October 31, and we needed to change our clock. I thanked him and wondered to myself if they do that in the U.S. airport hotels?
Next, we needed to find someplace to stay in Rome. I had checked out the only English-version guidebook available, a 2002 Lonely Planet book, from the Grenoble International Bibliothèque. Guidebooks seem to become dated quickly; restaurants go out of business, and hotel prices change dramatically. Bed and Breakfasts usually suit us better than hotels, so I did an Internet search, but I did not find them in abundance in Rome. Looking on Rick Steve’s graffiti wall, I found a recommendation for a B&B called Finestre sul Vaticano B&B on Via Angelo Emo, Roma. I called and we were in luck; they had a room that we could reserve.
Using the outdated guidebook as a jumping off point, we made a list of things we wanted to do and see during our short stay. The tricky part was figuring out what was open on which days. Monday November 1 was a holy day (All Saints’ Day), so the Vatican Museum would not be open because of all the activities at the neighboring St. Peter’s Basilica. Mark that visit for Tuesday. We had already made a timed reservation to go to the Galleria Borghese for Wednesday. (No reservation = no entry, and don’t even plead, as we discovered when we arrived with some other visitors who were turned away.) That left the Colosseum and the Forum, which would be open on Monday.
I had stumbled on information about the Roma Pass, and this tourist card would allow us for 25€ each to ride all public transport, visit two museums/archaeological sites for free (unfortunately, the Vatican is NOT included in the choices), get reduced prices at other sites within a three-day period, and gave us maps and other information on Rome. We planned to stroll around and get our bearings on Sunday, and then pick up the pass on Monday, start the three-day clock running with our first validation on the metro. In our rambling, we found the Piazza del Popolo, which was filled with tourists and families enjoying the air, and the view from Pincio Hill was breathtaking. On the return route to the B&B, I was forced to stop outside the Ferrari/Maserati dealership showroom so Steve could ogle the cars. As he was taking pictures through the glass, a man sidled up next to him and said in a Southern accent,”Thinking of buying one?” We then spent a pleasant half-hour trading tourist tips with this Oklahoman and his Venezuelan wife. Ambling around in search of a restaurant, we came upon the Trevi Fountain ablaze in light and its piazza crowded with people enjoying the warm weather and the three-day weekend. By 7:30, we were hungry and ready to eat just about any Italian food that might be within arm’s reach, so we threw our coins in the fountain to ensure our future return to Rome and moved out of the piazza. Unfortunately, Roman diners don’t even think of entering a restaurant or trattoria until closer to 8 o’clock. But we did find a place that let us enter around 7:45 but requested that we give them more time before ordering. Lesson learned, we just ordered more wine to pleasantly pass the time—pas de problème. The next three nights, we didn’t venture near a restaurant until after 8 pm, and we made sure we carried some snacks during the day to assuage our hunger.
We opened the curtains on Monday morning to rain. Great! Our plans were for a day almost completely outside. Wearing our Gore-Tex jackets and shod in our hikers that we hoped still had some remnants of waterproofing, we forged ahead and rode to the Forum on the metro. The rain came down in torrents, and we trudged over the ancient cobblestones as rivers of water flowed across them.Wait. I thought the Romans had been pioneers in water management systems. I think someone forgot to hook this area up to the aqueduct system for which they were so famous. I guess in 312 B.C., when the first aqueduct was installed, they didn’t think the Forum would one day be a tourist attraction. By the time we made it inside to the Colosseo the rain had abated, but we were quite water sodden from the top of our thighs down to our toes. The Gore-Tex did keep our torsos dry! At the Colosseum, we never figured out how to use the audio guide properly because corresponding numbered signage was in extremely short supply, but the written descriptions in English that we read were enough to convince us that although the Colosseum is an engineering and architectural masterpiece, with the goings-on there (think lions, gladiators, and human carnage for entertainment), it seems more like a deep scar on Rome’s image.
From the Colosseum we managed to find San Pietro in Vincoli (Saint Peter in Chains church) and were rewarded with Michelangelo’s sculpture of Moses. Just as I was about to snap a pic, the light illuminating it went out. What the…? Closing time? Blown fuse? Utility workers strike? Well, in a tick, someone deposited the requisite 0,50€ to turn the lights back on. The entry to the church maybe free, but it does cost to keep the lights on if you want to see this magnificent sculpture. When we returned to the B&B, we squeezed out the water from pants, socks and shoes, crossed our fingers and stuffed our shoes with newspaper. I think I’ll subtitle this part: A Wet Thing happened on the way to the Forum…
Of course, we awakened on Tuesday to a sunny day. After sharing the breakfast table with a couple, Jan and Keith, from St. Louis, Missouri, and David from Portland, Oregon, and getting tips from Lavinia, the host, and Lourdes, her sidekick, we left the B&B for the short metro ride to Vatican City. Nothing, absolutely nothing, had prepared us for the magnitude of St. Peter’s Basilica. It is massive beyond pictures, holding 60,000 people for mass. We climbed the 330+ winding, narrow steps to the cupola with the stupendous 360° view of Rome and, of course, in the church itself we became transfixed upon seeing the Piéta, Michelangelo’s masterpiece which he completed at the tender age of 25.
Leaving the Basilica, we discovered my most egregious failing in planning this trip: I hadn’t reserved tickets for the Musei Vaticani, which would have allowed us to bypass the line for tickets. Following our visit to the Basilica, we had indulged in a leisurely lunch and arrived at the Museum at about 2:15 (entry to the Sistine Chapel closes at 4:30). The line to enter wrapped around the long wall encircling the museum. Plus, it had just begun to rain. As we deliberated about what to do, the line continued to get longer. Finally, at Steve’s insistence, we decided to join it and see what would happen. We made it to the ticket window by about 3 p.m. and carefully mapped out a plan to be able to see what we didn’t want to miss. We headed right for the Sistine Chapel. (This is Art History 101) Steve and I entered and found a bench to sit on near the perimeter and tried to take it all in. Impossible, even if you had a year of visits. My biggest regret was not having brought opera glasses to see the frescoes 20 meters overhead, in detail. Funny, I’ve never seen that recommendation, but one that is a must to see all the details.
For our final day in Rome, I had booked a reservation for the Galleria Borghese. It’s chockfull of sculptures that you may have heard of (still fresh in my mind after that Art History class 3o-something years ago). The Bernini sculptures are legendary, and seeing them up close was an indescribable experience. To see what I mean you can look at the Galleria Borghese website. (No picture taking allowed!) Change it to the English version and check out Apollo & Daphne, David, and Pluto & Persephone. Because we could only bring one bag, not one bag and a personal item like a purse, onboard the airplane, we had dismissed the idea of buying any souvenirs from this trip. But when we saw a special poster of the beautiful Borghese sculptures in the gift shop as we were leaving, we impulsively bought it. Uh-oh. How do we get this out of Italy? Where can we post it? I had read that the Italian post office has a less than exemplary reputation for mail delivery. Had we just spent our money on something we might never see again once it was mailed? Then I remembered reading that the one post office in Italy that you can trust is… the Papal P.O. Poste Vaticane in Vatican City exists because Vatican City is its own little country within the city limits of Rome. It has its own stamps and postal system. We found a shop to buy a mailing tube and went to the post office in St Peter’s square where I had mailed a few postcards the day before. The worker was polite and patient with these Americans, and he cheerfully sealed the tube with some tape and slapped the papal postage on the tube. (The postage was more than the price of the poster!) We’ll see if it makes it to our home in America.
Since our arrival in Grenoble, we’ve spent little money on anything but the essentials of life: food, travel, oh, and wine. The “locals” in Grenoble put us to shame with their fashion sense. So, walking around Rome, another fashion capital of Europe, Steve became possessed by a longing that he has been suppressing. He has often heard about, and lusted after, modestly of course, Italian shoes. As we passed the shops along the vias, he kept checking out the store windows looking for the perfect style and price point. (The darn $ to € exchange rate is putting a crimp in our spending here in Europe.) Finally, we found a little shop that sold all things leather, and you’d think he found the holy grail of scarpe (shoes). The saleswoman converted his U.S. size to European and found a pair to fit in the stockroom upstairs. There is a scarcity of size 12D shoes in Italy and France. The men here are just not as large as our strapping Hungarian-Americans.
I’d like to say the trip back to Grenoble was uneventful, but first, we missed our intended bus back to the airport by seconds, seeing it pull away as we hurried up the stairs. Then we had a two and a half- hour flight delay because the plane of the Chinese president who had been meeting with Mr. Sarkozy was leaving France via Italian airspace, and it coincided with our departure time. International security demanded no departures or landings during that time. Finally, back on French soil in Grenoble, Wolfgang and I stopped at the boulangerie on the way home from the gare. We were suffering from near-fatal French baguette withdrawal and only a fresh loaf could cure that.