Our first day in Rome!

Many of my friends have recently traveled to Italy or are planning a trip, which has made me nostalgic about our honeymoon in May-June 2010. We traveled to Rome, Siena, Florence,Venice and Paris for 11 days total and took close to 1,000 photos and kept a good little travel journal while we were away so my recall of our trip should be pretty accurate! Tip: When we go away, we keep all of our ticket stubs, pamphlets, receipts and brochures and try to scribble down our days’ events when we get back to the hotel in the evening so we have some sort of record of our trip.

We left for Rome on a red-eye flight from JFK the day after our wedding. The late flight is something we repeated on our most recent trip and is becoming our modus operandi for traveling to Europe. We took a 5 pm nonstop flight from New York that got us into Rome at around 8 am on a Monday morning. Red eye flights can be a little bit annoying, but our feeling is that we hit the ground running and get a full day in our destination city without having to “waste” time or money on hotels and allowing us to maximize our time away. If time or money were unlimited, it is nice to get to a hotel at check-in time, relax for a bit before hitting the sights, but traveling on a budget (both financial and time) makes the red-eye a more economical choice.

We arrived at Rome’s Fiumicino airport and got our luggage quickly, then made our way upstairs towards the train (Leonardo Express, € 14 each). Just near the train platform was a grouping of shops, including train ticket sales and small caffes. We purchased two tickets for the train from the ticket office and moved to the platform. Note: On trains across Italy, you have to get your ticket validated before you get on the train (I have no idea why). You will see a smallish, not always conveniently placed yellow box near the platform, and you have to put your ticket in to get stamped. If in doubt, make sure you have plenty of time before your train and watch locals get their ticket stamped, or you can ask one of the station employees. Worst case, you will go to board your train and the conductor will tell you that you have to run all the way back to get your ticket stamped (happened to us in Florence…ugh!). So try to get it validated off the bat!

The Leonardo Express links the airport to Rome’s Termini station, which is the main train station. The ride takes about 30 minutes and there are no stops in between. The trains come every 30 minutes, so it is a very easy way to get to and from the airport, and probably cheaper and more direct than taking a taxi. When we got to Termini station, we joined up with the morning rush and got onto the metro. Rome’s metro system is incredibly easy, especially compared to cities like New York, Paris, or London (who also all have fantastic undergrounds!). It is broken into two lines, A and B (easy enough!) and like all public transportation, you have to know which direction you are traveling in. Our hotel was situated just near the Spagna (pronounced span-ya) stop, so that became our home base. We took the A line towards Batitstini and got to the Spagna stop. Navigating the system is easy, but hauling two 50-lb bags of luggage and two carry-ons is the hard part, especially since there is a massive shortage of escalators and elevators. The adrenaline of being in Rome fueled me to be able to schlep my own bags initially, but by the 4th or 5th set of steps (and all of the rush-hour commuters, which I found hilarious because by this point, it was about 10 am, well past rush hour in the States!), I grew tired and my poor husband took the job of hauling our bags. As I have mentioned in previous posts, we have bags by a company called High Sierra, which are huge rolling duffel bags that can be turned into backpacks. We bought these specifically for this purpose, since carrying a backpack is easier than hauling a bag. We got through this leg without needing the backpack yet (but wait until Florence…).

Finally, we exited the Spagna station and it sunk in–we were really here, in Rome! After being on the ground for 2+ hours, we were outside and could take in a breath of Roman air! We arrived at our hotel, the Marriott Grand Flora Roma Park on the via Veneto, not far from the Spanish Steps and just next to the Villa Borghese (more on that later…). It was about 10:30 by the time we got to the hotel, which was too early for check-in and our room was not ready (as we had anticipated). We stashed our bags with the front desk in their locked room, freshened up in the hotel’s bathroom, and headed out into the Roman air.

After leaving the hotel, we walked down the via Veneto and stopped in a tabacchi (small tobacco shop) to buy our Roma Pass. Tip: In large cities such as Rome and Paris, there are passes that you can buy to gain access to sights and jump to the front of the line. Each pass is specific to the city, so it is worth doing some research before you go. For the Roma pass, which costs € 25 each, you get unlimited access to the Rome metro system (which was great for us) and free admission to two “museums or archaeological sites,” according to the website. They can be purchased online, at any museum, or at a tourist information site (PIT), listed on the website.

We continued to walk down the via Veneto and just reveled in being in Rome as we walked. Something about the city just made me feel like I was…home. Maybe some of it had to do with the fact that we had Google-mapped a lot of it and our planned walks around the city, or that I have seen Roman Holiday like 20 times, or that my great grandparents are from Abruzzo, the region just east of Rome, but it felt so familiar and perfetto! The other thing that struck us as we were walking was just how walkable Rome really is–it is much smaller than I had thought, looking at a map. My husband had a whole itinerary planned that I thought was overly ambitious, but once we started walking, I realized how doable it actually was.

We rounded a corner and I heard it: the rush of water and noticed that we were nowhere near the only people walking towards a common destination. Before I knew it, the Trevi Fountain was looming right before me. Tons of tourists swarmed around the fountain, throwing in coins and taking pictures, but I was able to tune those distractions out and focus on the beauty of this immense fountain carved into the side of a building. We marveled in the immensity of the Trevi fountain, but knew we would pass by it a lot on our travels, so we headed over to the Pantheon.

The Pantheon was initially built as a temple to all of the gods (pan = all, theon = gods) and is now for all intents and purposes a church where many people are buried (including the artist Raphael and several kings). Admission is free and it is definitely worth seeing. One of the most spectacular things is the oculus, which is essentially an opening at the top of the dome that lets in light (as well as air, rain, snow, birds, etc). A drain in the bottom of the Pantheon takes care of any rainwater that may have accumulated.

We left the Pantheon and walked over to our first of many churches: Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. Afterwards, we walked to St. Ignatius church to admire the trompe l’oeil dome. We were starting to drag a little, so we went to Caffe Sant’Eustachio, where we each got their famous grancaffe, a secret blend of espresso beans that is delicious and caffeine-packed!

We walked to our next destination: San Luigi dei Francesci (St. Luigi’s church), which is the French church in Rome and marveled at the gilded ceiling there. After we left the church, we happened upon my favorite piazza ever: Piazza Navona. The buildings surrounding the perimeter of the piazza are relatively short, which enables you to see the sky well and makes it feel like you are on a movie set!

We headed over to the Largo di Argentina, an archaeological site not far from the Piazza Navona that houses many of Rome’s stray gatti (cats). Having five of our own cats, we especially wanted to stop by and see these. The ruins are below street level, so the cats are safely shielded from the traffic of the busy streets nearby. They are cared for by a group of people who have them spayed/neutered and vaccinated and are fed daily (the nonprofit group is run on donations).

After bidding the cats arrivederci, we realized how hungry we were and decided to stop for lunch for our first meal in Italy. We had found Enoteca Corsi (on the via dei Gesu) on TripAdvisor and went there for lunch. We had a quartino (1/4 liter) of red house wine (when in Rome…) and I had a caprese salad (mozzarella, tomato & basil–an entire ball of mozzarella!) while my husband had some type of meat (we had no idea what it was…) which were delicious. We ended up spending about €27.50 on lunch, which includes service in Europe (almost always). When we got home, we saw an old episode of “$40 a Day” with Rachael Ray from 2002 and she had visited there as well!

After leaving lunch, we walked through the Jewish quarter and across the Tiber river to Trastevere, which is sort of off the beaten track of downtown Rome. We crossed over the Isola Tiberina, a small island in the middle of the river that houses a hospital on our way there. Once in Trastevere, we went to Santa Maria in Trastevere, another church. There is a statue of Saint Anthony there, who was my grandma’s favorite saint who she prayed to all the time, so I felt compelled to light a candle. Many people go there to pray to San Antonio as well, and you can write him letters with your prayers on them and leave them at his feet, which I did as well.

We wandered around the maze-like streets of Trastevere for a little while longer before heading across the Ponte Palatino and back towards downtown Rome.

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