Saturday, May 18, 2019

when in Rome: top 10 insider tips

planning a visit to Rome anytime soon? (you totally should!) in the eight months we've lived here, we've come to understand some of the Eternal City's quirks that threw us for a loop at first. these are the things that will drive you crazy and derail your day if you're not prepared (mamma mia!). but if you keep these things in mind when planning your trip, you're much more likely to get a true taste of la dolce vita. 

1) Check Opening Hours

what you don't want to see when you're trying to get into St. Peter's

most museums and some churches are closed on Mondays (except for the Vatican Museums, which are closed on Sundays). and St. Peter's Basilica is closed to visitors on Wednesday mornings for the Papal Audience. most churches, some other sights and some restaurants also close in the afternoon for a few hours (often between 1 pm to 3 pm or so). as you're sketching out a rough idea of what you'd like to see, make sure you double check the hours so you can maximize your time! on the flip side, you may sometimes be pleasantly -- or unpleasantly -- surprised by Free Museum days. it used to be that all of the city and state museums were free on the first Sunday of the month, but this year, each site has chosen its own dates to offer free entry (you can read the whole list here). why would that be unpleasant? well, because you can guarantee the museum will be much more crowded than usual on that day. and for some sights, like the Colosseum, you still have to queue up to obtain your free ticket before entry. if you're on a tight time schedule, you may want to book in advance for a different day! which brings me to my next tip:

2) Book in Advance

Bernini's Apollo and Daphne at the Borghese Gallery. you literally can't see this unless
you have tickets for the museum ahead of time.

you don't need to have advance tickets for everything, mind you. i'm a big advocate of a loosely structured itinerary with plenty of built-in time to wander and swap out one thing for another depending on mood or energy level. but there are a few sights you really must book in advance or you'll be fed up before you even get in the door.

  • The Colosseum. the lines to buy tickets directly at the Colosseum ticket office are absurd, especially during peak tourist season. you can buy general admission tickets (€12, which includes entrance to the Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill and is valid for 2 consecutive days) from the official website here. children under 18 are "free", but buying a ticket in advance  (even a "free" ticket) means you still have pay a €2 booking fee per ticket. if you can't get tickets in advance, you can buy them directly at the Palatine Hill entrance, which is about a 5 minute walk from the Colosseum itself. the line to buy tickets there should be much shorter. 
Image result for map of colosseum and palatine hill entrances
don't buy tickets near #1 -- buy them near #2!
  • The Vatican Museums. ohhhh my goodness gracious. the line to buy tickets directly at the museum is outrageous. on any given day you could easily spend two hours waiting in line. save yourself the misery and book in advance at the official museum website. general admission tickets are €17 + a €4 fee for booking in advance, but i'm telling you, it is well worth it! you can either print out your tickets or display them on your phone. try not to smirk at the hapless people stuck in line on the left side of the sidewalk as you frolic up the right side of the sidewalk to the museum entrance (where, i'm sad to say, you'll have to navigate a super crowded security checkpoint rivaling that at any international airport -- but at least you didn't have to stand in line for two hours first!). the one problem with the museum website is that it often rejects US credit cards. if yours doesn't go through, call the Verified by Visa fraud department affiliated with your credit card so they can process the charge. that number is 1 (800) 654-9214 for Chase VISA cards and 1 (855) 486-5157 for Mastercards. 
  • The Borghese Gallery. this gem of a museum actually requires advance reservations -- they don't even give you the option to buy on site. as long as you're prepared for that and can actually get tickets, that makes the museum experience so much better because they control the crowds. you can purchase tickets here, or just email them directly at (English is fine!). 

3) Don't Overlook the Churches! 

St. Teresa in Ecstasy, by Bernini -- carved exactly for this little niche in the church of
Santa Maria della Vittoria, so that the sun spotlights it perfectly

even if you're not religious, don't miss out on the incredible art, sculpture, and beauty that is hidden away in the churches you walk right past on your way to throw your coin in the Trevi Fountain. near the Piazza Navona, the church of Sant'Agostino holds one of my favourite Caravaggio paintings -- Our Lady of Loreto, depicting a barefoot Mary blessing two road-weary pilgrims. the French national church located between Piazza Navona and the Pantheon, San Luigi dei Francesi, contains a triptych of gorgeous Caravaggio paintings on the subject of St. Matthew the Apostle. just around the corner from the Pantheon, Santa Maria sopra Minerva has a striking Michelangelo sculpture of Christ the Redeemer. further out, past the Trevi Fountain, Santa Maria della Vittoria holds Bernini's masterpiece, the sculpture of St. Teresa in Ecstasy. and near the Piazza Venezia, the Church of the Gesu is decorated with a stunning trompe l'oeil ceiling that makes it look as if angels are flying directly out of the sky towards you (no 3D glasses needed).

4) Don't Get Scammed

Piazza Navona is gorgeous, but it's also prime pickpocket turf

yes, there are pickpockets here, so just be smart about your wallet and phone, and be on guard if someone comes up to you (even appearing to be another tourist) with a sob story -- they may be working as a team so one distracts you while the other is lifting your wallet! but actually, you're far more likely to interact with the hordes of street vendors who will walk up to you hawking selfie sticks, shawls, strange wooden bowls, and all manner of other stuff you don't want. that's all well and good (just say "no" and keep walking), but you really have to watch out for the guys who will come up to you and try to tie a woven bracelet around your wrist, or hand you a rose. the bracelet ruse is particularly effective because once it's on your wrist, there's no easy way to give it back to them and then you're stuck paying €5 for something you didn't want in the first place. unsuspecting tourists also get trapped into paying for photos they take of street performers or the men dressed up as gladiators wandering around the Colosseum. if they see you taking a picture they'll come up to you and demand payment! so either don't do it, be sneaky about it, or be prepared to pay up. 

5) Drink Up! 

the water in Rome is the best i have ever tasted. it's ice cold, perfectly safe to drink, and it's free! it runs through hundreds of nasone (literally, "noses") dotted all over the city. so bring along a water bottle and fill up every chance you get! (on the flip side, restaurants don't serve tap water, so be prepared to buy a liter of still water [no gas or naturale] or mineral water [con gas or frizzante] with your meal.)

6) Beware the Tourist Traps

amazing sandwiches at the Lost Food Factory, just steps away from the Pantheon -- and not a tourist trap! 

a general rule of thumb is that any cafe or restaurant within spitting distance of a major monument or museum is going to be overpriced with poor quality food. if you just walk one or two blocks in the other direction, you'll usually be rewarded! any menu with pictures on it is a dead giveaway, and i'm usually skeptical of the guys who stand out in the street trying to lure you into their restaurant (although some good restaurants do use that tactic too). so check TripAdvisor reviews before you go, and just assume that if you've got a splendid view of a famous sight, you'll be paying extra for it. that being said, i've had good experiences at the following places that seem like they should be traps but are surprisingly reasonable: 

  • On the Piazza Navona: Vacanze Romane. this is still kind of a tourist trap, but it can be forgiven because it's directly on the piazza and the people-watching can't be beat. the food is fine and the prices are a bit higher than what you'd pay a few blocks away, but the service is friendly and the drinks are strong! 
  • Near the Pantheon: The Lost Food Factory. most definitely not a trap, this remains one of my favourite little restaurants in Rome (i've eaten here at least four times!). the husband and wife duo make delicious sandwiches to order for €4-7 a piece. the wife speaks good English and they have an English menu. seating is limited and they don't have a bathroom (they'll direct you to the Lindt chocolate store across the street, which has a bathroom all the way in the back of the store). 
  • Near the Vatican Museums: La Soffitta Renovatio. it can be a little hard to find this restaurant on one end of the Piazza del Risorgimento -- there's just a single door on the street, leading downstairs to a huge restaurant with multiple seating areas! they have a wide menu of Roman specialties, pasta, and pizza. their house wine is great. service is friendly and prompt. you'll see a lot of tourists in there, but also locals. the restaurant is a ten-minute walk to the Vatican Museums entrance, so it's perfect for carb-loading before you embark on your museum adventure (all 4 miles of it, if you walked through each and every exhibit!!). 
  • Near Piazza Venezia: Abruzzi. a bit more upscale than La Soffitta Renovatio, but still very reasonably priced with classic Roman dishes. this restaurant is a favourite of the seminarians since it's located close to one of the universities they attend for lectures, and you're bound to see a collar or two while you dine. don't miss their traditional green sambuca as a digestiv at the end of your meal! 
  • Near the Colosseum: Trattoria Pizzeria Luzzi. just a few blocks from the Colosseum, this restaurant caters to tourists with a multi-lingual menu, but still serves up good food at prices far below what you'd pay on the main thoroughfare (and their house wine is just €8 for a liter carafe ... hard to beat!). i've only had their pizza, but they have other traditional Roman pasta dishes as well. the interior is bit cramped and chaotic, but they have plenty of covered outdoor seating!

7) Ride the Bus Like a Local 

you'll blend right in if you start jabbering away on your cell phone.
(see the yellow validation machine in the upper right of the photo? you'll need that to stamp your ticket.)

Rome's public transit is notoriously unreliable, but here's how to make the most of it! first, make sure you purchase tickets before boarding (you can't buy them from the driver). bus tickets are sold at kiosks near major bus stops, tobacco shops (tabacchi shops), and many bodegas and souvenir shops (just look for an ATAC sticker in the window or a sign that says biglietti). to plan routes and track bus arrival times, i use the Moovit app as well as Google maps. when your bus arrives, board either through the front or the rear door, not the middle. you'll find a yellow machine near the front and the rear in which to stamp your bus ticket. if it's not stamped, it's not valid, and you could face a €50 fine if a ticket inspector comes on! once stamped, it's valid for 100 minutes of travel on buses or trams with unlimited transfers. (you can use the same ticket for the metro, but it's only valid for one metro ride - you have to use a new ticket each time you go through a metro turnstile.) then, you want to try to make your way toward the middle of the bus. newer red buses have a marquee and announcements listing the next stop (prossima fermata). they only stop if someone requests a stop (or if someone is waiting at the stop to get on the bus), so definitely pay attention and don't just rely on memorizing that you have to ride for six stops, for example. the older silver buses don't even have a marquee and some of them don't have announcements, so then you really need an app like Moovit to track your progress in real time -- or just sit on the right side of the bus and check the names of the stops as you go past so you know where you are! when you're coming up on your stop, push one of the red stop request buttons and make your way to the middle door of the bus so you can get off. the buses don't stop for long, and you risk missing your stop if you're still sitting in your seat when those doors open! if the bus is crowded you can say "permesso, di scendere!" so people know you need to get off.

8) Hop-On, But Not Off

a very happy customer on the bus

Rome is inundated with hop-on hop-off bus vendors wearing brightly colored vests and sticking brochures under your nose. if you give off even a whiff of being a tourist, they'll try to sell you a ticket and then upsell you on various guided tours. just tell them "no thank you" and keep walking. then, at your own leisure, go to the City Tour Roma website and book a single-run ticket for about two-thirds of the cost of the standard hop-on-hop-off ticket (a full price single-run ticket is €17 per adult but we got ours for €12 during an online sale -- and kids 5 and under are free). this ticket lets you ride on the bus for one full 1 hour 45 minute loop around Rome, with an English audioguide narrating the trip. it gives you a great overview of the city and then you can later go back and explore whatever has piqued your interest. it's a nice chance to rest your feet while still exploring the city! (note that they advertise free wifi on the bus. when we rode, the wifi was spotty at best, so don't count on it.)

9) Know How to Get a Taxi

apparently i don't have any pictures of taxis. so here's a UPS delivery bike instead. i just love Rome.

if you want to take a taxi, you'll need to find a taxi stand (near most major intersections/piazzas/train stations), call a taxi directly, or use the MyTaxi app -- you can't just hail one off the street like a New York yellow cab. if you don't speak much Italian, the MyTaxi app is great -- you can type in where you need to go, and it shows you a live tracker of the taxi cab coming to get you. just know that the vast majority of taxis only take cash and rarely give change, so it's smart to have small bills and €1 and €2 coins. you don't have to tip the taxi driver at all -- if anything, just round up to the next euro.

10) Take a Train! 

the most relaxing way to travel

train travel in Italy is much less of a debacle than i expected after reading about frequent delays and strikes. the high speed Frecciarossa trains are fantastic for traveling around the country, especially if you want to take some day trips from Rome (the fast train will get you to Naples in just over an hour, and to Florence in ninety minutes). then there are slightly slower and slightly cheaper Inter-City trains. finally, there are the slow regional trains (with no assigned seats) that can get you out to various destinations like the ancient city of Ostia Antica on the coast or to the medieval gem of Orvieto north of Rome for dirt cheap. the easiest way to buy tickets is at, or directly on the Trenitalia website (although it can be a bit trickier to navigate). we also take the train to and from Fiumicino airport -- you can either take the direct Leonardo Express train from the airport to Termini station (in eastern Rome), or if your final destination is on the western side of the city (Vatican or Trastevere neighborhoods), you can take the regional train to Roma San Pietro or Roma Trastevere. any of these tickets can be purchased in advance through the websites mentioned above, or you can also buy the tickets directly at the airport train station (which is within the airport complex, an easy 5 minute walk from baggage claim). 

and there you have it! my best advice for getting the most out of your visit. if you've been here before, you should come again ... and if you've never seen it, you absolutely should. there's just no place like Rome!

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Siena - Day 2 {Duomo, Santa Maria della Scala, Orto de' Pecci}

(read about Day 1 here)

on Sunday morning, we slept in a little and availed ourselves once again of the hotel breakfast, ordering two cappucinos (cappucini?!) a piece to make up for the lack of a coffee pot. checking out of the hotel was quite an experience. i was third in line to hand in my keys and pay the tourist tax (a nightly fee commonly charged in Italian cities). the people currently at the desk were an American couple who had had a snafu with their rental car. apparently they didn't realize that much of the old town is considered a "ZTL" (limited traffic zone) and you aren't allowed to drive on the old roads without a special permit. maybe i've read too many guidebooks but this just seemed like common sense to me, plus there are signs everywhere at the entrances to the limited zones. but the fact remains that they didn't know, so they racked up several fines and had had to go to the police station earlier that morning to present their documents. not a fun way to end your vacation, but what was really baffling was that, to the woman, this was somehow the hotel's fault. the guy was more rational about it, basically saying he wished the hotel clerk at check-in had been more explicit about the driving restrictions, but he seemed to understand when the morning clerk apologized and waived the hotel parking fee for their car but said that unfortunately the couple would be responsible for the traffic tickets. the woman was not having it. "nobody told us! i don't know how else we were supposed to drive to get here! they should have signs!" (they do...) eventually the guy convinced her that there was really nothing more the clerk could do. i was so impressed by the clerk's polite and helpful demeanor, and she spoke excellent English which really helped. she never once looked flustered, just patiently kept reiterating what the hotel could and could not do for them. but then of course she had to tell them about the tourist tax, which you could tell the woman thought was a total scam despite the fact that it's clearly posted at the hotel desk and also in the confirmation email. but finally they settled up and left.

then the next party was a German family (appearing to be adult siblings with their elderly parents), and the patriarch wanted to review every charge from the stay with a finetooth comb. which is fine, and completely understandable, but it was just funny because his adult daughter kept proffering her credit card to the hotel clerk, like, "i'm sure it's fine, just process our card and we'll be out of your hair." again, the clerk did an admirable job paying attention to both the father and the daughter, taking the daughter's card but not actually running it through until the father gave his taciturn approval. 

and then it was my turn. keys, check! tourist tax, check! i couldn't resist telling the clerk, "you are really very patient!" and she just smiled. i can only imagine the stories she could tell! 

while i was watching this real life soap opera unfold in front of me, Nick had taken the girls out into the courtyard to play. when i finally emerged, we set off for the Duomo to attend mass. as in Florence, the Duomo here is only accessible by paid ticket, unless you are attending mass (and they don't let people in for sightseeing during mass hours). i always feel like a bit of a rebel when we  bypass the confused tourists who didn't realize the church would be closed and go up to the security guard and tell him we're there for mass. which is a funny way to feel as you're heading into mass. but anyway, we took our seats near the back and craned our necks to take in all of the beauty. 

ugh! so sad that this is blurry, but at least you get the idea

looking up into the dome

and then ... it happened. the strumming of a guitar, and a song led by someone sitting (!) on the steps on the side of the altar. i wish i had a picture of Nick's face. it was the same expression i imagine he'd have if i told him we were having tofurkey for Thanksgiving dinner. i have a little more tolerance for variety in liturgical music than he does (which is perhaps not a good thing), but even i was completely unsettled by the incongruity of poorly executed folk music performed in this spectacular space. we are continually frustrated by the mentality that unfortunately has permeated so many churches: "to get young people through the doors, we have to do contemporary music!" welllll, guess what, folk songs from the 70s aren't contemporary any more. and the vast majority of young Catholics i know don't want truly contemporary music at mass anyway. then there were a series of kerfluffles including the priest and one of the altar servers crossing back and forth from the sacristy back to the altar several times looking confused, and the priest making several extemporaneous remarks in the middle of the Eucharistic Prayer. in a word, it was sloppy. and i know we've gotten "spoiled" by participating in mass at a seminary in Rome where the priests and seminarians are all committed to excellence in liturgy, but i've been to plenty of regular parish churches that managed to treat the liturgy with respect even if they didn't have a lot of resources. but the (literally) saving grace of any valid mass is that ... it's still mass. we still hear God's word, we still join in the celebration of the universal church, we still receive Jesus in his Body and Blood. there is always the consolation of Jesus Himself!

after mass was over, we hurriedly looked around the inside of the Duomo a bit before they shooed us out so the next mass could begin. the church is truly magnificent.

the pulpit dates from 1268 and was carved from Carrara marble by Nicola Pisano, just on the cusp of the Renaissance.
the lions represent triumphant Christianity. 

ex votos (thank offerings) on the wall outside one of the chapels

St. Jerome, sculpted by Bernini, holding a crucifix

the Chapel of the Madonna del Voto - painted in the 13th century and wearing a crown of real gold.

the Piccolomini altar, commissioned by Pope Pius III (birth name Francesco Piccolomini), who was from Siena.
Michelangelo sculpted the statue at the bottom right and his students carved the rest.

Michelangelo's work: St. Paul

the mosaics on the floor were laid over a period of almost two hundred years. here the town of Siena is orbited by its "lesser" neighbors including Roma (the elephant), Pisa (the rabbit) and Viterbium (the unicorn)

another mosaic showing Fortune on the far right, trying to keep her balance on top of a flimsy boat
(the clear implication being that she is not to be trusted!)

outside after mass, getting some wiggles out

one of the bronze doors
looking back at my pictures, i can't believe that we didn't immediately go get lunch after mass. but somehow we decided to muscle through seeing a museum first, since it was directly across from the Duomo (and i do remember thinking "we probably won't spend much time in there"). this was the Santa Maria della Scala, which has worn many hats over the years -- first as a lodging place for visiting pilgrims, then as a hospital, then as an orphanage, then finally as a museum. there is also a beautiful chapel there, in which St. Catherine of Siena prayed. 

old frescoes in the sacristy of the church

a fragment of Mary's veil

the church was built in the late 1250s

Cecilia saying a prayer

incredible high altar 

the painted columns around the apse make use of an optical illusion to appear straight when viewed from
the center of the church. but if you get up close, you can see the intentional distortion. 
beautiful organ case
 the next few rooms in the museum were once used as hospital wards, and are decorated with frescoes depicting life in medieval Siena.

"Paying the Wet-Nurses Their Wages in Grain" (painted from 1575-1577)

"Caring for the Sick" (painted from 1440-1441)

"Endowing the Hospital with Walls"
 then we discovered a sizable children's exhibit, with quite a variety of art forms and a special "graffiti" area where the girls could draw their own pictures. Nick and i alternated between watching the girls here, and exploring the rest of the museum.

Cece was thrilled that she could touch most of the objects in this exhibit!

Greta said, "why does she have such a big bum?" (face palm)

 i left them here while i took off at breakneck speed to see the rest of the museum. what i most wanted to explore was the Oratory of St. Catherine, which was created by the lay confraternity of Santa Caterina della Notte. the chapel and prayer halls are hushed and still seem to be bathed in prayer. St. Catherine herself sometimes slept in one of these rooms after working in the hospital on the floor above.

a sign for one of the hospital wards

view of the Duomo from the old hospital window

"O Christians, go forward reverently in this sacred enclosure to venerate the nocturnal cell where the sublime Sienese heroine St. Catherine dwelt when she was ready to help languishing humanity in this hospital."

it was so dark, my phone couldn't take very clear pictures! 

the marble statue of the Madonna and Child is from the 14th century

the hooded men are members of the confraternity devoted to helping the poor and sick in honor of St. Catherine
-- just like the cofradios who march in the Holy Week processions in Spain

a list of confraternity members from the 1950s. this reminded me so much of something you would see
at a Knights of Columbus!

i can't get over my obsession with windows.

this is the very spot where St. Catherine would lay down to sleep after a full day of working in the hospital
then i went at an even faster pace to see the original pieces of the fifteenth-century Fountain of Joy (Fonte Gaia), carved by Jacopo della Quercia, and then all the way down to the depths of the museum to the original Roman road running through its center and the excavations of Etruscan era homes.

Lady Justice

the original angel statue on the right, with its repaired plaster cast on the left

this section of the Etruscan exhibit was marked "pericoloso!" (dangerous!")

an ancient well

no need for a humidifier here -- see the water droplets clinging to the ceiling?

heading back up the steps towards the children's exhibit
when i came back, i found that Greta had added her own masterpiece to the wall -- and Nick and i switched places. sometimes it's better for everyone to just let the girls stay in one spot while he and i take turns seeing everything we want to see!

at last, it was time for lunch. here's our secret to traveling on a budget with kids: we eat sandwiches and pizza a lot. apparently, twice in two days on this trip. this pizza was absolutely amazing -- huge slices for €2, and Nick got their special stuffed pizza which was kind of like a calzone. i failed to get a picture of it, but it was incredible!

if you're ever in Siena, this was the place! just a few minutes' walk from the Duomo. there's no indoor seating but
it was delicious! 
we had a few hours before we needed to head back over to the train station. we could have gone to the Duomo museum, where all the cathedral's art is on display, and where you can climb up to the top of the unfinished wall and walk along it for a stunning view. but we figured the girls were pretty much over museums for the day, and so we took the recommendation of the family we'd met at the little playground the day before and walked down to the botanical garden. on the way, we passed an epic flea market. 

lots of "rusty gold", as Nick says

Greta was actually quite smitten with this costume jewelry, despite her expression

"hey babe, you go on ahead, i'll catch up to you!"

so i left Nick perusing the treasures of the flea market while the girls and i headed down into the garden. Orto de' Pecci is a lush valley below the city, with a small petting zoo, several gardens, a little restaurant, and lots of open fields. it actually used to belong to the psychiatric hospital, whose patients worked in the gardens and cultivated the land as part of their recovery. (brilliant!) the girls made friends with a few other little girls playing with a ball. i was encouraging Greta and Cece to speak in Italian to their new friends, while their mothers were prompting them to speak to us in English, and there was lots of applause whenever any of the kids squeaked out something in the other language. i think Greta in particular appreciated that the other kids were a little out of their comfort zone too -- she didn't feel like the only one who was having to stretch her brain!

the kids loved to run inside this sheet metal head and yell to hear their echoes

i had made the mistake of telling Cece that there would be sheep. there were, in fact, only goats. "but WEAH are the SHEEP?!?!? that NOT a sheep!" was a near-constant refrain until we left the park. 
Nick caught up with us and showed off his newly acquired treasure from the market: a solid brass faucet cover in the shape of the Sienese wolf's mouth. a one of a kind souvenir! then he proceeded to demonstrate the fun of rolling down a hill to the girls. which led to a discussion of how this didn't used to give us vertigo ... we must be getting old.

i was shaking with laughter and couldn't hold the camera still!

poor Cece kept trying to roll across the hill instead of down,
and couldn't figure out why she wasn't going very fast
then we had to say our goodbyes to Siena. we walked back up the hill to Il Campo, where i let the girls play with confetti again while Nick ran back to the hotel for our suitcase (which the hotel had graciously allowed us to store there for the day!). noticing several parents with brand-new bags of confetti, i asked one where you could buy it, and he pointed to a souvenir shop on the perimeter of the square. so Greta and Cece had one last hurrah in Il Campo with their very own bags of confetti!

see the kids in costume walking past? Carnevale season is like Halloween here -- the kids wear their costumes for weeks!

about to walk through the gate out of the old city

we truly enjoyed Siena and i would go back in a heartbeat!