Thursday, 5 September 2013

Catching Up: A Rome Summary

A friend of mine is off to Italy soon, and I thought to myself "I need to get her to read the Visiting Italy summary I wrote." I went to send her a note with a link to it, but realized that while I wrote it, I never posted it. My bad. So here, finally, 3 months after I wrote it, is my Rome Summary. 

Having stayed in Rome a month, here’s some info to consider if you’re planning a visit to the Eternal City of any duration. Call it "My Visitor's Guide to Rome"

Metro: good. Trains: good. Trams: good. Busses NO. Rome’s city busses are everywhere, but the one you need isn’t. No one can tell you when the bus you want will come, and it’s really hard to know where a bus is going, when it will pick you up and get there. Sundays are a terrible day to ride the bus; some lines don’t run at all, some have different routes, some ply the same routes but don’t stop where they do every other day. Busses are packed, always. Rome is a big city and you have to get around, so you will take some kind of transit, like it or not.

So pick where you will stay based on at MOST two considerations: 1) How far is it to the nearest metro or tram stop? If it’s more than a 10-minute walk, stay somewhere closer. And 2) How close is it to Termini?

Your distance to Termini is critical if you want to go anywhere (except central Rome or Trastevere), because being 9 stops away from Termini by Metro adds an hour to any journey you want to take from Termini. There are some really cool things outside of the center of Rome, and no matter what they are, Termini’s probably where you have to go to get to them.

  • Tivoli? Bus from Porto Mammolo, via the B Line from Termini.
  • The Colli Albani? Via the FR5 train from Termini.
  • Ostia Antica? Via the B line from Termini.
  • The Cittavecchia cruise ship terminal? Via the FRX train from Termini.
  • The aqueduct park? Via the A Line from Termini.
  • Anywhere on a day trip from Rome, such as Perugia or Orvieto? Via a train ride from Termini.

All roads may not lead to Rome, but all roads from Rome leave from Termini.

Walking in Rome is commonly a challenge. There are virtually no sidewalks, and where there are, cars park on them. You will learn a new way to cross busy streets, ignoring lights and walking at will through busy traffic as the Italians do. Walk like an Italian. Defying death on a day-to-day basis walking through rushing traffic makes life interesting, and more like living in Italy. And you will walk. A lot. On cobblestones. I cannot stress how this calls for good shoes. Every time I have come to Italy, I have brought my best walking shoes and gotten blisters.

There are bank machines (Bancomats) everywhere. They take your ATM card from home. They all work in English. They are all easy to use. They all spit out Euros.

There are grocery stores everywhere, but they’re different than you’re used to. Most -- especially near the center -- are not big, but most are bigger than they look from the outside. There are no big signs advertising them, and so you need to know what you’re looking for: Despar. Carrefour Express. Todi. Pam. Punto. All are good, and open Monday to Saturday from early to late. Some are open Sunday. All sell beer, wine, picnic stuff, terrible bread (see below), toilet paper, and everything a grocery store normally sells. There are plenty of fruit and vegetable markets and stands; many are only open in the morning, however.

Your choice of restaurants here is simple: Italian. I saw more Chinese, Japanese and Kebab places than I have before, but that’s about it for cuisine. Still, you don’t come to Italy to eat Thai food.

Italians eat the most amazing lunches and dinner, but eat crap for breakfast. Stand up, eat a croissant while the cappuccinos being made, and drink cappuccino. In and out in 5 minutes. Done. Italians take breakfast in a bar, and I don’t care if you don’t drink, the best breakfasts are in a bar. It’s bars that sell killer cappuccini and croissants. Note: it’s a bar. Some Italians actually do have wine or beer with breakfast. And this ‘aint Starbucks. There’s a price if you stand, a higher price if you sit. Stand. Be like them. If you insist on sitting, realize that the incremental price of the coffee buys you the table. You are allowed to sit all day and I swear they will not bother you. Don’t feel obligated to keep buying stuff. So only sit if you want to stay a while (more than 15 or 20 min).

When eating out, Italians are eating fewer 6-course meals, even though the menu is still structured to accommodate 5 or 6 course meals (antipasto - pasta - 1° - 2° - contorni - dolci). It’s OK to not have 6 courses. Antipasto, 1°, dolci is fine. Most pastas are now incorporated into the 1° portion of the menu, and the pasta serving sizes (which used to be small) are getting bigger. However, the 2° dishes still really need a contorni (side dish). Set tourist menus are OK and generally a good deal, but don’t be surprised if the restaurant shows them outside but not on the regular menu when you get inside. If you want that menu, ask for it. 

In real (non-touristy) restaurants, you won’t get salt & pepper on the table, nor will you get oil and vinegar, and you will get dirty looks if you ask for them. Italians think their food is seasoned perfectly, and view your attempts to change it as an insult. 

Most Italians don’t tip much, and you don’t need to either. If paying cash in a restaurant, rounding it up to the nearest 5 is fine, and you DON’T leave the tip on the table at the end like a North American. Just pay.

Covet €1 and 2 coins, and 5 notes. Collect them, carry them, but use them where change is a problem. Most places that sell tickets for attractions don’t have change, and all the tickets are priced not in convenient €5 increments, but instead have prices such as 7 or 11. In a street market, pay cash, and don’t dare try to pay for 1 of bananas with a 20. However, a supermercato is a great place to break big bills and get change.

You get a lot of things in a tabacci. I don’t care if you don’t smoke. Tabaccis sell transit tickets, phone cards and other useful stuff.

If you have the opportunity to have a porchetta sandwich, try it. Roast pork. You will be happy forever.

Italians make awful bread. The only thing it’s good for is to toast and put diced tomatoes on (bruschetta). Their rosette buns are particularly poor; stale before you get them. Their version of a baguette is a huge disappointment if you’ve been to France. If I could teach the Italians one thing, it would be “Go to France and learn to make French bread”.

Italian napkins are terrible, especially the ones in bars. It’s like they’re plastic coated. They absorb nothing. If I could sell Italians one thing, it would be better napkins. And thick aluminum foil. And Ziplocs. They don’t have Ziplocs. In fact, you can’t buy plastic baggies as you know them. Okay, there are a few things Italy needs.

Wine isn’t one of them. They have lots. It’s cheap. A really expensive wine in Italy is 10. Most are 4-6 and many are under 4. Wine also comes in boxes, including drinking boxes (though mostly whites in that size) and half-liters. And some markets offer BYOB wine: bring your own bottle (such as a 2 l pop bottle), and they will fill it with wine. Trionfale Market has 2 of these places. Wine for 1.30/l.

Beer’s just as cheap – as little as 1.40 for 3 x 330 ml bottles. But they only sell little bottles (330 ml) or big bottles (660 ml). And the most you can get is a 3 pack of little bottles. But the beer isn’t very good. Peroni and Nasturo Abbuzi that are readily available everywhere are blah rice beers. But they’re cheap.

And since bars sell beer and wine at all hours of the day, and they drink it everywhere, so can you. Don’t even hesitate to have a picnic with wine somewhere. People drink beer on the street all the time.

I don’t for the life of me understand why you can take pictures in some churches and not in others. And they will yell at you or kick you out if you try where you can’t. So read the signs when you go in, or ask.

Italians just generally dress better than you, and all the scarves and leather jackets you buy won’t make you look like them. Tourists stand out like sore thumbs, especially tourists trying to look Italian. I’ve noticed over the years that Italians stand out less; there was a time when they just looked WAY better than us all the time without effort, but this trip it was clear that American “dress like crap” culture has taken over, which is a shame. You will still see mind numbingly well-dressed Italians wandering around (the stylish women in their 4” heels floating effortlessly among the cobblestones are a thing to behold), but there are fewer of them. I promise to do a post of photos KC and I took of Italian women in their fancy Italian shoes.

Rome is FULL of stuff to see and do. We were here a month and didn’t see half of everything. Don’t try. I’m not going to list everything to see and do here; that’s what guidebooks are for. But I will list some of our best Rome experiences:

  • Porta Portese market. It’s where we bought most of our souvenirs. Reserve a Sunday. It’s worth at least 4 hours.
  • Trionfale Market. North of St. Peters. Best “new” (non street, mostly indoor) food and vegetable market in Rome. Not a lot of tourists here. Far better than Testaccio. Bigger and more interesting than the Campo dei Fiori market. Hit it on a Tuesday morning and visit the nearby flower market, also off the beaten track.
  • St. Clement church. If you only go in one church, make it this one.
  • Getting out of town: Castle Gandolofo & the Castelli Albani. Tivoli.
  • Ostia Antica. Easy to get to, better ruins than Pompeii. Better than the Forum, too, but you’ll go to the Forum anyway.
  • The Cappuccino church and its weird crypts decorated with thousands of human bones.
  • The trip to the top of the dome of St. Peters. An architectural marvel. Fabulous views. Great gelato on the roof of St. Peters. What more could you ask for?
  • Coffee in a bar standing up at the counter. But never drink cappuccino after 11 AM. 

And here are our top Rome disappointments:

  • The Spanish Steps. Tourist hype. You’ll be in the area anyway for other reasons, so no matter.
  • Trevi Fountain: Horrible crowds, and while the fountain’s nice, there are better ones (like Piazza Navona; almost as crowded but worth it)
  • St. Peter’s (the church, not the climb to the top of the dome). I know it’s heresy saying this, but St. Peter’s is less impressive than many other churches in Italy, notably the ones in Florence and Sienna, and many other churches in Rome (like St. Clement, with a church over a church over a house). You’re going to go, so I’m just sayin…
  • The Ara Pacis. A whole expensive museum dedicated to one thing. One interesting thing, but one thing.
  • The Etruscan museum. Highly regarded by many, but too many rooms of repetitive pottery bits. In hindsight, heading up to where these were found, an hour’s north of the Rome in the Etrucscan necropolis of Cerveteri would have been a good daytrip.

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