Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Roman Empire and the Best City in Tuscany

I'm not even sure where to begin. There are so many wonderful things to share about our trip to Rome. One thing I will say, is that our mini-adventure trying to get to the train station did not set the tone for our trip. The trip was absolutely fantastic!

For those of you that want the short version of our trip, here are a few reflections:

  • Rome is fantastically beautiful and romantic, BUT it is also amazingly kid friendly. Who knew, right? The Romans were friendly and warm, and at no point on our entire vacation did I feel as if little r was a "problem" - for lack of a better word. So, if you want to take your kids to Rome, I'd say "more power to ya!" You wouldn't regret it, and you would probably have many more stories to bring home because of it.
  • The decision NOT to bring our stroller was probably one of the better decisions I've made in my lifetime. I agonized over this because I knew we would be doing a fair amount of walking. Who am I kidding, we were going to do nothing but walk for four days straight! Rome is lined with cobbles, narrow roads, and a lot of traffic. There are also a million stairs. Plenty of people had strollers, and I know that others have made this work, so I'm not saying don't do it, but for us, it would have been a nightmare. Instead, I brought our Moby along. I had no clue if little r would let me wrap him up in it, and it turns out, he loved it when he was tired. It became a life-saver at several points. (It's also an interesting way to lose weight while eating ridiculously good Italian food!)
  • And finally, night trains are a really cool way to travel; the ancient Roman ruins are REALLY old and incredibly awesome to experience; Rome makes the most incredible pizza on the planet; if you have to pee while you are in Rome, buy gelato so you can use the restroom inside; try not to climb the top of the Duomo tower in Florence when it's pouring down rain; DO take a horse and buggy ride around Florence for a romantic and charming way to see all the important parts of the city; and plan your trip to Rome the same weekend as the Rome Marathon because it just makes things a tad bit more exciting :)

And for those of you that want to get all the goods, read on...

I guess a good place to start would be with our experience with the night train. It was uber cool. We all truly enjoyed using the night train to travel, especially little r. I wasn't sure what to expect from our sleeping car. Big R and I had some experiences sleeping on couchettes in our previous travels, and sleeping wasn't something that stands out in those memories. The sleeper car was very cozy - small - but we had all the space we needed. Knowing that the cabins wouldn't have a ton of space, I made sure we packed light, and it all worked out well. The big question I'm sure everyone wants to know though is whether little r slept on the train at all because you may or may not remember that he refuses to sleep much on an airplane... Yes, this could have been a disaster - it was anything but! After a period of pure excitement, we were all ready for some shut-eye including the crazy little bear.

The night train got us into Rome around 9:00 a.m., which was perfect. We had gotten just enough sleep that we were ready to take on the Roman Empire. I was lucky enough that a friend of mine here in Bamberg had just gone to Rome the week before and she had a couple of great tour books, including our best friend, Rick Steves' (seriously, this guy is probably the only way we travel). So, I had spent some good time in the days leading up to our trip setting a light itinerary. Rome is a very large city, so having an agenda is the only way to make sure you can fit it all in. I knew that we would be most interested in exploring the ruins of ancient Rome, eating some incredible food, and of course, finding religion (the churches in Rome are phenomenal!). What I knew we would be less anxious to do was spend much time in museums. Museums with a toddler can be challenging, but Big R and I aren't typically drawn to them anyhow. We appreciate art and can certainly understand beauty, yet we'd rather spend our time exploring the more raw part of a city's culture - architecture, ruins, neighborhoods, music, and maybe a palace or two...

Our adventure was to begin in ancient Rome at the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. I couldn't wait to go back because on my last trip to Rome, my best friend and I had to rush through the ruins, and we felt like we missed so much. I had set us up with a little B&B that was located literally around the corner. It was a very comfortable place run by a Korean-Italian man named, Roberto (for some reason that really cracks me up), called the Downtown Accommodation. The room was very clean and had everything that we needed including an extra bed that he set up special for little r. Our host was incredibly nice and helpful. He provided us with a map and showed us how to get to all the major attractions. I knew it was a nice central location, but I had no idea that I got us a hotel that allowed us to walk everywhere - literally. It was awesome! (and it was only 125 EUR/night, which is super cheap for Rome, if you can believe that!)

Ok, so on with the trip... We had purchased our Roma Pass for 30 EUR a piece, which got us into two museums for "free" and discounts for nearly all others you would ever want to visit in Rome. It also included free public transit throughout Rome for three days. Not a bad deal at all, and something I highly recommend if you are visiting Rome for several days.

The Colosseum was just around the corner. You are literally walking down the block and BAM, you are facing this 1,900+ year old structure. Pretty fantastic.

We paid for a guided tour, mostly so we could skip to the front of the painfully long line. The tour guide was knowledgeable, but I have to be honest that I probably heard less than half of what she was saying while I wrangled the crazy bear and Big R took pictures. The Colosseum was exactly as I remembered it - still fascinating and unbelievable that we were standing in such an ancient structure. A place where Romans killed each other and animals for sport for over 400 years. Crazy to think about, isn't it? Here are a few of the pictures we got from inside the Colosseum.

From the Colosseum you can get an excellent view of the Arch of Titus, which commemorated the Roman victory over Jewish rule in A.D. 70. This rebellion was the end of any Jewish political entity again until modern Israel was created after WWII.

We left the Colosseum and with our bellies full of gelato, we headed for Palastine Hill and the Roman Forum. It was exactly as I had imagined it would be watching little r race around the ruins. Such a fun place for a kid, who knew?! Big R and I kept laughing to ourselves when we'd be admiring a beautiful detail on a ruin and little r would yell, "a truck, mommy, a truck!"

After sharing a very yummy panini, we started our trek toward the Pantheon.

The little man was finally tired, so he let me wrap him up in the Moby while we walked around the Pantheon. It was probably one of the quietest trips inside a church I've experienced since we started traveling with little r. The Pantheon is easily one of the most splendid structures in Rome. If you visit, you might bypass the Vatican Museum (we did), but you absolutely cannot miss seeing the Pantheon. It was built TWO MILLENNIA ago. Unreal...

We decided it was time to head back to the hotel so we could freshen up a bit for dinner. I had a whole "Heart of Rome" walk that I really wanted to do after dark. We ate dinner just down the street from our hotel at a place that would have been especially charming had it not been for the fact that we had little r with us. It didn't end up being the smartest choice we made, so we ate quickly, and headed out the door. Little r didn't waste any time wanting to get wrapped up in the Moby. A mere ten minutes later and the snuggler was out cold - for literally the rest of the night. He let Big R and I explore Rome at night while he snuggled up to my chest. It was a pretty awesome experience, I'll have to admit...

We took the walk over to the Trevi fountain, which was alive with locals and tourists enjoying the romantic meeting place...

And then we strolled over to the Spanish Steps to take in the view...

The best part of our evening though was the stop at a wine bar where we enjoyed a couple of glasses of wine bathing in the romantic atmosphere. It was fabulous, and also a rarity for us on our mini-vacations with little r.

Our second day in Rome we had a bike tour reserved. What a great way to see a busy and bustling city with so many sights and great neighborhoods. The tour was five hours long, and we saw all of the best Rome has to offer. The weather was perfect, our guide was completely chill and relaxed, and little r really enjoyed the bike ride.

After our tour of the city, we hopped on the bus and headed to Vatican City. We had already decided that we weren't going to try to see the Vatican Museum, mostly because we wanted to spend those 2-3 hours seeing other things in Rome, but we were not going to miss seeing St. Peter's Basilica.

Our trip to St. Peter's was followed by a spontaneous decision to see Castel Sant'Angelo, which is this castle-like structure not too far away from Vatican City that was built as a tomb for the emperor, used through the Middle Ages as a castle, prison, and place of last refuge for popes under attack - the building is full of history - but the best part of this structure are the views it provides of Rome.

And my favorite part was the small cafe near the top where we sat and enjoyed a glass of wine while enjoying the breathtaking views.

As the sun went down, we headed toward Piazza Navona where we had decided we wanted to have dinner. It was the one place everyone warned us not to eat simply because it's more pricey than other neighborhoods. It is true that Piazza Navona draws many tourists but there is a reason for this - this little Piazza is fabulous. Artists fill the center of the plaza with art of all styles. We even found ourselves drawn to this place and also found ourselves buying a little piece of Rome in the form of art on canvas - yep, folks, we officially purchased our first oil painting. I can't wait to get it framed and take a picture of it to share with you all.

Dinner was wonderful and the environment was so romantic and calming. We were really happy we decided to eat here and not heed the many warnings from others. It was worth every Euro we spent - little r agrees :)

We were running on empty, so we walked back to the hotel and crashed. Little r slept exceptionally well on this trip, so we got much more sleep than I am accustomed to, which was so nice. Our last day in Rome we decided to spend the morning in the Villa Borghese Gardens. We didn't have reservations to see the Borghese Gallery, but we had heard the gardens were Rome's "Central Park" and we thought that would be a fun way to spend a Sunday morning with little r. There was also a zoo to be seen, so we made sure to check that out as well. It wasn't anything like the gem in Nuremberg, but it did keep the little man happy for a couple hours.

Our afternoon was spent in the lovely Roman neighborhood called Trastevere. We rode through this neighborhood on our bike tour and immediately identified with the feel of the place. Unfortunately, we got mislead by the train system and got a bit off track. I think we walked a good mile or two back into the City, but considering that was our only traveling mishap of the trip, we decided to put it behind us and enjoy the rest of the afternoon. The weather was perfect, the gelato was incredible, and lunch was oh-so-welcomed. Trastevere has several immaculate churches within its boundaries. I have never seen such intricate detail in a church as we saw in these small places of worship in Trastevere. Here are a sampling of pictures that we took that afternoon as we enjoyed this small part of Rome.

We finished off our afternoon enjoying a glass of wine and Prosecco at a restaurant in Campo de Fiori, which is the only piazza in Rome without a church. In the center of the square is a statue of Giordanno Bruno who was burned alive for disagreeing with the Pope. We were told by another tourist we befriended next to our table that Davinci also disagreed with the Pope, but he was much smarter about not letting the Pope know this. The weather got a little exciting, so we stayed put while little r napped and relaxed into the ambiance that surrounded us.

Our tanks were empty, so we grabbed a small bite to eat at a sweet little place near our hotel, and then called it a night. We woke up a little earlier (I actually had to wake up little r - unbelievable!!!) the next morning to catch our train to Florence. We were in Florence for less than 12 hours, so the trip was quick, but we still had a great time exploring this important piece of Tuscany. From talking Big R into climbing the tower of the Duomo only to get near the top and be surrounded by a huge storm (with side-ways rain, no joke!), to taking a horse and carriage ride around all the important sights in Florence, to spending the afternoon sipping an espresso in the palace gardens, to watching little r entertain a restaurant owner as he danced to the Beattles - it was a lovely day. Here are some of the pictures we took of our day in Florence.

Big R will undoubtedly groan that I didn't show off the best pictures, and that is most likely the truth. We, or should I say, "he," took over 450 pictures on this trip and most, if not all, of the those pictures are amazing. I did my best at picking a good sampling, and hopefully he will share some of his favorites as well. It wouldn't be like us if I didn't add our favorite sentiment at the end of a great mini-vacation - Rome is definitely on our list of places we want to go back to... oh, just one more to add to our list...

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