Friday, 17 April 2015

Italy - Our First Day in Rome

Sixteen days.  Over 5000 pictures.  Seven trains.  One ferry ride on the Mediterranean.  Lots and lots and I mean lots of walking.  Roman ruins that were far more amazing than I had anticipated.  Artwork that even mesmerized the kids.  The most picturesque, can this place be real, walled town sitting high on a hill in Tuscany.  A few treacherous but breathtaking climbs along the cliffs high over the Mediterranean.  Oh, and food.  Let’s not forget the food.  Ravioli, pesto, oranges (oh my goodness the oranges), bread and pastries, succulent chicken with figs and how can you make potatoes taste that good, prosciutto and cheese, and gelato, gelato, and more gelato (we attempted to get a different kind every time we got some).  And vino – yes we enjoyed some wonderful Italian wine at the end of most days, and sometimes at noon, and sometimes just because.   

View from the guest house we stayed at in Cinque Terre.
Italy was at the top of our list of places to visit while living abroad.  There was no doubt we would be heading there and the two weeks the girls had off between terms in April was the perfect time to go.  The springtime weather would be nice (hopefully), the crowds wouldn’t be too bad (or so we thought), and with two full weeks to travel, we could plan a wonderful tour that would allow us to see most of the sights at the top of our list without feeling like we were running a race across the country.  We wanted to enjoy as much Italian cuisine as we could (who doesn’t), visit some of the many architectural and artistic marvels that call Italy home, walk in the countryside amongst olive trees and grape vines, dip our feet in the Mediterranean, and in general, just experience the great country that is Italy and its people.  So that’s just what we did and it did not disappoint.  I’ve always wanted to visit Italy and now, having been there, I can honestly say it was even better and more beautiful than I expected.

Don’t worry – I won’t be sharing all 5000+ photos, but a smaller selection as I relive this amazing trip for both your reading and viewing pleasure as well as for us to keep and remind us of this wonderful journey.  We have tales to share and since we were in Italy for two weeks, it’s all too much to try and put into one or two or even three blog posts, so I’m going to do as the Italians do and go slowly.  This may take a few weeks and several blog posts, so keep coming back.  There’s lots to share.

Our trip actually started in London at Kew Gardens.   

Yes, you’ve seen pictures from Kew on here before but we had a 6:30 am flight to Rome to catch at London’s Heathrow airport so we headed down to the city the day before to spend the night at a hotel near Heathrow, so why not spend some time at Kew Gardens and see the changes spring has brought since our trip here a month ago during winter.  

The girls had fun running around the obstacle course created entirely from trees that had blown down during some bad storms in 2013 and 2014.  Ok, Eric and I might have had some fun on these too.

We climbed up to the treetop walkway and enjoyed views of the entire Garden.  

This visit to Kew Gardens was spent entirely outside because it was warmer than our last visit back in February. 

Sunday morning.  Or was it still night?  The bedside clock explains everything.  Normally, I would be upset by the fact that Eric booked us on a 6:45 AM flight, but hey, I'm heading to Italy.  Can't be upset about that regardless of the insanely early hour.  

Heathrow is quiet at 4:30 in the morning.  The stores aren't even open yet.  Hopefully one opens before we need to board the plane because for Leah, a plane ride means a piece of gum (to help with the ear popping) and we need to get a pack.   

The flight to Rome is quite scenic.  We flew over the English Channel, then over the snow-covered Alps.  Which Alps, French, Swiss, we aren’t sure.  But they were breathtaking from the sky.  And later, we caught our first glimpse of the beautiful blue Mediterranean Sea.

We arrived at the Rome airport by 10:00 am.  A driver met us as we exited, we threw our bags in her car and off we went heading for the city.  We had a 30-minute drive so we just sat back and enjoyed our first glimpses of Italy.  As we pulled away from the airport I spotted an orange tree, its branches heavy with bright, round fruit.   

This isn't the actual orange tree I saw leaving the airport (we whizzed by that one much to fast to get a photo), but one of many we would see during our visit to Italy.
One of my most favorite things in the world is seeing citrus fruit still on the tree.  Simply beautiful!  I think I'm going like it here.

Our hotel was located in the heart of Rome so as we drove into the city, we got a bit of a tour of what Rome has to offer and, well, I don’t think there is any better way to describe it than – Wow!   

The National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of a unified Italy, completed in the early 1900s, and one of the first structures we drove by on our way into Rome that made our jaws drop.  The statue in front and chariots on top would dwarf a person standing next to them they are so large.  As this Monument wasn't far from our hotel, it would be the chariots sitting high on top that would guide us back in the right direction each day. 
The somewhat arid Mediterranean landscape sprinkled with the architectural ruins of the great Roman empire mixed with more modern (and by modern in Rome I mean 100+ years old or so because in the grand scheme of things, that is modern in an ancient city like this) buildings adorned with statues the size and likes of which I have never seen before took my breath away.  Eric and I looked like two little kids who just entered a candy store with our eyes bulging out of our heads as we took it all in.  I could not wait to start exploring this majestic city.

It didn’t take long for us to discovered the warmth and depth of Italian hospitality.  Never have we received such a welcome at a hotel.  The couple that owns the small hotel we stayed at welcomed us with open arms and supplied us with all the information we would need for our three day visit: what to see, where to eat, how to navigate the public transportation system, they assured us of the safety of Rome but warned us to watch out for pick pockets, and even gave the girls a little Koala that clings to their bags (ok, the Koala said “Australia” on it, but the gesture was nice).   In fact, the gentleman even paid our driver for us when we discovered there had been some miscommunication about the bill already being paid (we thought it had been, but apparently not) and we didn’t have any cash in Euros yet.  How nice was that? 

Now, you may be wondering why we didn’t discover the friendliness of the Italians with our driver from the airport.  Well, it’s because she spoke very little English, which became quite apparent as soon as we jumped into her car and Eric asked her “How long is the drive into Rome?”  She glanced over at him in the passenger seat, smiled, and then nodded her head yes.    There wouldn’t be much conversation during the car ride. 

By the time we finally made it to our room (which used to be an abbey and still has the remnants of the frescoes painted on the ceiling), we felt very well equipped with the knowledge we needed to get exploring this fine city.  So off we went. 

We spent most of the afternoon just wandering the streets.   

We climbed the Spanish Steps, which were covered in other tourists just like ourselves,

and stopped to enjoy our first gelato in Italy, partly to console my disappointment when we arrived at Trevi Fountain which I was very excited to see only to find it empty of water and buried under scaffolding as some restoration and maintenance work is being done to it.  Oh well, the gelato was delicious,

and we would see many more beautiful fountains in Rome, like this one.  

We laughed at the teeny, tiny cars that look like wind up toys but after wandering the narrow, people filled streets for awhile made oh so much sense in this city.

This girl cannot keep her hands out of a fountain.  Can you see the water droplets glistening on her arm?
We wandered from Piazza to Piazza because there are a lot of them in Rome and each one has it’s own flavor.  We enjoyed the fountains, and street performers.   

This guy’s act was simple but brilliant.  Bubbles, especially lots of big ones, always attract a crowd.  In another Piazza, another performer brought tears to our eyes we were laughing so hard as he imitated unsuspecting tourists who were walking by on the street behind him.

Towards the end of the afternoon, we wound our way through the narrow streets searching for the great Roman-built Pantheon.  Why did we have to search for it?  Because this gigantic building that houses one of the largest unreinforced concrete domes in the world is easy to miss.  

The front of the Pantheon.
It is buried deep in the city, hidden amongst narrow streets lined with shops, cafes, offices and apartments.  If you were merely one block over and didn’t realize the Pantheon was so close, you could easily miss it.   

The outside of the Pantheon, while massive in size and very impressive, has been quite beaten up by the elements and time.  But the inside – now that is another story.   

Once inside you see the dome – the mind bogglingly huge dome, the size of which just can’t be relayed through a photo.  Truly a marvel of Roman architecture.  How did the Romans build this thing 2000 years ago?  Despite its incredibly vast size, it isn’t known why the building was originally built, but most likely as a temple to the gods.  In 609 AD, it was given to the Pope and converted into a Christian church.  It contains the tombs of many notable Italians, including two kings and a queen, the painter Raphael Sanzio da Urbino, as well as other artists, a composure and famous architect.   

Just outside the entrance of the Pantheon, a group of people had gathered, some old, some young and some in between.  They were standing with arms linked, waving flags and holding signs, and singing in a language I didn’t recognize but I knew was not Italian.  They weren’t street performers, yet they were here to get peoples' attention.  We stopped to watch and it didn’t take long to puzzle out what the signs they held were saying.  They were singing for peace in the Ukraine.  We were in Italy.  The Ukraine is not all that far from here.  This group wanted to get some attention.  Well, they got my attention.  As we were roaming the streets of this beautiful city on vacation in Italy enjoying gelato and all the splendid sights, this gathering was a humbling reminder that ordinary everyday life is going on for most people, and often not in a good way.  After explaining to Ellie and Leah what was going on, they both stood and watched the demonstration with the most serious looks on their faces I would see during the entire trip.  What an educational experience.  And may there be peace in the Ukraine.

From the Pantheon, we decided to head back to our hotel to eat and rest before venturing out again to see some more of Rome.  We stopped at a little grocery store, with aisles so narrow in places you couldn’t even pass another person.  But the food!  This was just a standard little grocery in Italy but by American standards, it seems like a gourmet shop with the selection of fresh breads, meats, cheeses, pastas, oranges and lemons grown right here in Italy (I have never seen such large, beautiful lemons), and wine.  It wasn’t hard to gather some delicious fare to take back to our hotel and enjoy on our little terrace.   

Our dinner was simple, but fresh and delicious.  Some cheese and salami, fresh bread, olives, hazelnuts, and the juiciest oranges.  And for dessert (we forgot to take a picture), some shortbread cookies filled with jam that we would see all over Italy in the days to come and were my favorites.

We had been in Rome for almost a full day but we had not yet seen the Coliseum.  Well, actually I had caught a very brief glimpse of it down a long narrow street as the driver from the airport was delivering us to our hotel.  We were all itching to see it so after our first Italian dinner, we put our shoes back on and headed out the door. 

Walking up to the Coliseum for the first time at night is nothing short of amazing.  

In some respects, approaching this enormous structure feels very much like approaching a modern day outdoor NFL stadium, but the architecture – my, oh my!  

And at night, the massive stone arches that encircle the entire stadium were lit up from the inside giving it a majestic, romantic glow against the deep blue of the evening sky. 

Our first day in Italy was coming to a close but I was already in love with this country.  It didn’t take long.  We met great people, tasted great food, and visited some sites I’ve heard about my entire life.  Tomorrow we will be going inside the Coliseum, as well as visiting the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill.  I couldn’t wait!


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