After our short stop in Pisa to see the Leaning Tower, we had a 3 hour train ride to Rome. Roma Termini was an insanely large train station with a multitude of tracks that were bustling with people at all times of day. We had heard ahead of time that Rome is notorious for pick pockets so we closely guarded our belongings while making our way through the crowds. We walked across the street to a tobacco shop and bought 3 day tickets for the Metro, which is Rome’s underground subway system. A 3 day pass only cost us about $16 each. The Metro had a stop at Piazza Barberini which was very close to our hotel. We got off of the Metro at our stop and then proceeded to walk around in circles around the piazza until we finally stopped and asked for directions. We had forgotten to buy a map and didn’t speak much Italian. Luckily the piazza had a very intricate fountain- the Triton fountain, for us to look at while we circled.
There were several streets leading off of the square and we had no idea which one to take at first. We finally got on the right street and found our “hotel”, Relais Roma Centro. I emphasize that word because we had to buzz into the building like it was an apartment in a complex and the hotel was basically just the whole second floor of the building that had been converted into a tiny bed and breakfast. Our room shared a wall with the reception area, which was a little weird. It also had a hidden door to enter it through a mirrored wall that opened up to enter into our room. It was definitely a different set up than we had expected. Our room even had mirrors on the ceiling
Before we left the states, we had a pre-booked and prepaid an evening wine cruise on the Tiber River for that night that we were really looking forward to but by time we had navigated our way from the train station, through the metro and by foot to our hotel, we did not have very much time to make it across town to the spot where the boat would depart. We were a little bummed to miss out on this chance to sightsee but at the same time relieved at the thought of relaxing for a bit before going out on the town again. That was one nice thing about being on a self-guided tour. We had the flexibility and freedom to change plans at the last minute if we felt like doing something different.
We relaxed a bit then showered up and set out to find the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain, which were both within walking distance of our hotel. We found the Trevi Fountain first and were very disappointed to see that it was under construction and not running. The legend of this fountain is that if you throw a coin over your shoulder into it, it means you will return to Rome one day. They had a little kiddie pool filled with water next to a picture of what the fountain was supposed to look like that you could still throw a coin into, but it just wasn’t the same. We did it anyway for tradition’s sake and then moved on to see the Spanish Steps.
When we got to the Spanish Steps, there were people EVERYWHERE! It was so crowded and almost claustrophobic with the street vendors coming up and shoving their merchandise in our faces. There was one particular scam that we knew about ahead of time where men walk up to women and give them roses and tell them it is a gift. They then wait for the woman to walk away a bit and turn to the man and force him to pay. Knowing this, it got really old having roses crammed in my face all night and we had to get to the point where we were bordering rude to get them to leave us alone.
Tired of the calamity, we decided to find a nice place to go for dinner. There were countless restaurants filling the streets of Rome but we stumbled upon one that was particularly enticing. It looked very old Roman style and the staff was even wearing togas reminiscent of gladiator times. The inside of the restaurant was very intricately decorated and was lavished with paintings that mimicked frescos in some of the greater known attractions in Italy. We had one of the best pizzas of the entire trip at this restaurant and it was a fun and authentic experience!
The next morning, we woke up early to meet at the Arch of Constantine for our tour of the Colosseum.
We stopped at the Metro station and bought a pastry and a cappuccino for breakfast and sat outside enjoying it while taking in our first view of the Colosseum. Not a bad view for breakfast!
We made our way over to the arch and noticed that there was only a group of Asian people standing together at the same spot that we were supposed to meet. A little perplexed, we asked them if they were with the tour that we would be on but none of them spoke English. Having booked an English speaking tour, we got a little worried. We double-checked the times on our tickets and realized that we had shown up an hour and a half early! Although sad that we missed out on some much needed sleep for no reason, this gave us some time to walk around the outside of the Colosseum and to take some photos of it on our own before the tour started.
We eventually met up with our tour group and started in towards the Colosseum. We had paid extra to be able to tour the upper third tier level as well as the rarely toured lower level where the animals and the gladiators were kept until fight time, rather than just touring the arena level. I highly recommend doing this if you ever visit the Colosseum! It was really neat to hear the history and see the areas that not everyone gets the chance to see. They only allow 20 people at time down into the lower level so it was a less crowded, unique experience to be able to see that first hand.
During the tour, we saw reconstructed trap doors on the arena level where they would let the animals out onto the arena floor. When we went down to the lower level, they showed us how it was rigged and explained that it took 8 slaves to turn the cranks to open the heavy-duty trap doors.
After the Colosseum, our tour continued across the street to Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum. I still hadn’t kicked my cold at this point and wasn’t feeling well at all so I don’t think I enjoyed this part of the tour as much as I would have, had I been healthy. However, Dustin really enjoyed seeing the ruins and it was interesting for both of us to learn about the history of how ancient Rome used to operate and how it was set up.
For the second half of our only full day in Rome, we had booked a tour called Crypts and Catacombs, which was a 3 ½ hour tour of exactly that. We met our group at Piazza Barberini and walked over to Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, a church that housed the Capuchin Crypt. The crypt was comprised of several small chapels, each ornately decorated with the skeletal remains of 3700 Capuchin monks. It was eerie being in what was basically an above ground graveyard, only without the graves! The Catholic monks there view this as a tribute to the monks before them and walk the rooms every single night to pay their respects. We were not supposed to take photos in the crypts but Dustin snuck a few anyway because this place was too unreal to try and describe to our family and friends back home without a visual image! The pictures are a little blurry since we were quickly snapping them, trying not to be seen!
After the first stop, a tour bus picked us up and drove us just outside of Rome about a ½ hour away to the Domatilla Catacombs. Beneath the church there was a huge labyrinth of underground tombs where the dead used to be buried. The levels that we toured were at times cramped and narrow, and went every which way. There was very dim lighting and even though the bodies had been removed from the levels that we were permitted access to, they were still buried in the lower levels beneath us and that thought really started to play with my mind while walking around in the dark! Our tour guide told us a story of a man who used to work at the catacombs and he got lost in them one night just before closing time. When it came time to close the catacombs for the night, all of the lights were turned off and he was trapped in the darkness amidst the hundreds of bodies buried there. The catacombs are so extensive that he didn’t find his way out for 2 days! It made me extremely happy that Dustin and I were in a group with an experienced tour guide who knew the way out!
Our last stop on this unique tour was at the Basilica de San Clemente al Laterano in Rome. This medieval church is basically 3 churches built on top of one another, in 3 different tiers. On the lowest level you can hear the running water from an underground fountain that dates back to Imperial Rome. The sound of this water is actually what caused the lowest level of the church to be found in the first place. One of the friars there couldn’t sleep because he heard the sound of running water. Everyone thought he was crazy but one night he started digging and ended up devoting his life to finding the source of the water he heard, all the while uncovering a whole new level of building that was buried beneath and built upon. I’m usually not a huge fan of touring churches because even though the art in them is beautiful, they all start to look the same to me after awhile. And once you’ve seen the Sistine Chapel, nothing really trumps that. However, this one had an interesting story behind it so we both really enjoyed it!
Overall, Rome had a lot of interesting history to see but the city itself was not our cup of tea. It was very overcrowded, noisy, there was graffiti on absolutely everything, and I think everyone in the entire city smoked, so that is all you could smell the entire time we were there. Anxious to vacation on a different kind of pace, we set out the next morning for the Amalfi Coast!