Sunday, November 12, 2006

Rome, Germany & Home

It's finally time to tell you about the last part of our trip (can you believe I'm such a procrastinator?).

We landed in Rome in the afternoon and were met by a man from the Army there who drove us into the center of the city. He brought us to the Army's regional headquarters for Italy, where we stayed at a lovely apartment they rent out for a reasonable price. It was roomy, with two large bedrooms, a full kitchen, living room and dining room. The even had some food waiting for us, and we were able to have a nice snack before we took a walk to explore the neighborhood.

That was an adventure in itself! We were heading to Termini Station, the main rail hub, where wanted to stop into the tourist info office to help us with our planned tour of the city. But I got a bit mixed up on my directions and we ended up taking the long way around, walking for nearly an hour through some rather questionable looking neighborhoods in nearly 80 f (26c) temperature. It was a rather rude introduction to the everyday life of Rome, which is a very loud, crowded and dirty city--a dramatic contrast to the beauty and rich history we discovered when we visited many historic sites in the subsequent days.

When we finally reached Termini, it was another adventure to find the tourist office, and once we found it, there was not much info to be had. But I did get a nice free map of Rome that would keep us on course the following days.

By then, we were tired and hungry, so we decided to go to an Italian restaurant (of course), which was a real treat. It was incredible having familiar Italian dishes in Rome, prepared by Italian cooks. We had bruchetta, pizza, raviolli, spaghetti and lasagna. It was tasty and not too expensive, and so helped us to overcome the exhaustion of getting there. To prevent getting lost, we took a cab back to the apartment and settled in for the night.

The next day, after a nice breakfast in the apartment, we set out to follow my perfectly laid out plan for the day, starting at the Colosseum. We got there no problem on the subway, and waited around 45 minutes in line to get to the ticket counter. That's when my perfect plan fell apart. To get a children's discount, I needed my passport (which I had left in our room), but I decided to just pay the regular fee since we had waited so long. I pulled out my credit card, and the guy said, "Cash only." Then I was in real trouble because I hadn't had the chance to get any euros at that point. So a bit dejected, we left and sat beneath the Arco di Costatino (the Arch of Constantine) to regroup.

Because so many of Rome's historic sites are so close to each other, we found that it was easy to re-order our plans. We wandered through the Roman Forum, with its vast and impressive ruins. It gave us our first real taste of the incredible Roman architecture that is so famous. We were surrounded by many large marble columns in various states of collapse, but you could easily see where all of the various market places and houses were. It must have been really impressive in its time.

From there, we walked up the long stairway leading to the Capitoline Museums. We explored outside for a while, and Peter enjoyed running in the large, open courtyard and looking at the ancient fountain. We even saw the famed She-Wolf sculpture. But we decided not to go inside so that we could see more of the city.

After a quick stop for lunch (Italian pizza), we walked on, making an unexpected stop at the Area Sacra Argentina. We weren't even aware it was there, but it was another ruined building and courtyard, but in this one Julius Caesar had been stabbed. For Chris, who has read about Roman history, it was an impressive find.

From there, we went on to our intended destination, the Pantheon. This former pagan temple turned church was an architectural wonder, and we walked around looking upward in wonder and around us at the well-preserved ornate floors, walls and artwork.

We were ready for a treat after that, so we discovered another Italian treasure: gelato. It is ice cream that is tastier than any ice cream I have ever had before, with real bits of fruit or other things mixed in. It is hard to describe it so that you can appreciate just how good it is. But after that first taste, we were sure to have some every day we were in Rome.

Next, we walked to the Fountains of Trevi. It is said that if you throw a coin over your shoulder into the fountain, you will have a swift return to Rome. So Chris and Elizabeth made sure they took a turn.

We took the subway to explore a few of the many impressive piazzas before stopping at a grocery store to get the fixings for supper (real Italian sausage!) heading back to the apartment.

The next day I tried again to follow my perfect plan to go to Vatican City. We took the right tram, but in the wrong direction! By the time we realized it, there was no way we could get there in time because there are always long lines. So we revised plans again and headed to the Colosseum. This time I had money and passports (I discovered the child discount was only for EU residents, so I ended up not needing them!) and the line was much shorter. So we were able to explore this most famous of Roman attractions. It was interesting to see the vast interior and match it to what I have seen in books and on TV for so many years.

After lunch (more pizza and gelato) we made our way to Palatine Hill, the price of which was included with our ticket for the Colosseum. I had never even heard of Palatine before planning our trip to Rome, but for all of us is was one of the best sights in the city. There were wide-open green spaces among the ruins, which felt like a refuge from the noise and dinginess of the city.

From there, we walked through the Circus Maximus on our way to the Santa Maria in Cosmedin Church. This houses the infamous Mouth of Truth, where legend says that a liar who places his or her hand in the mouth will have it bitten off. Chris and Elizabeth took their chances, but came out unscathed.

Before heading back to the apartment, we took the subway to explore a few more of the piazzas and see the Pyramid of Cestius, which looked strangely out of place in the city.

On our final day, we headed out determined to see the museums and cathedrals of Vatican City. When we arrived (after taking the right tram!) we saw that the line to the museum wrapped around three long sides of the outer wall of Vatican City and it would have probably taken an hour and a half or more to get inside. That didn't seem worth it, so we kept walking (ultimately circling all of Vatican City) until we came to St. Peter's Square, where the Pope addresses the faithful. It was another one of those moments where I felt amazed to be standing in a place I had seen pictured during so many significant moments in history.

After lunch (pizza, lasagna and spaghetti--you have to eat real Italian food when you can get it), we checked the lines going into the Vatican Museums and found they were much shorter. In less than 30 minutes, we were inside. (One funny side note: Italians love children, and the Vatican guards were so enamored with Peter that they completely ignored our bag as it went through the x-ray machine.)

We had been told that even in a full day, you could never see all of the wonderful art there is inside, and it was true. We took much of it in, from the wondrous Michelangelos in the Sistine Chapel, room after room of Raphaels, works by Leonardo da Vinci, glorious sculptures, and many other wonders. It was a feast for the eyes, but we chose to focus on the things we knew we wanted to see rather than gorge ourselves on everything and feel exhausted. We left feeling satisfied.

We ended the day at St. Peter's Basilica. It was awe-inspiring to be inside this grand cathedral, with its ancient sculptures, graves of popes and saints, and the chanting and prayers of the masses that went on aw we walked around. We told Peter that the building had the same name as him, but he didn't seem to be as impressed as we were.

The next morning, we flew from Rome to Hahn Airport in Germany, where we had nearly seven hours before our next flight. So we rented a car to see a bit of the area, and are so glad we did. After the noise, busy-ness and drab colors of Rome, the beautiful green countryside of Germany were both figuratively and literally a breath of fresh air. It was especially nice to drive up and down the mountainous terrain (we don't have mountains in Estonia). We first went to the town of Herrstein, where we planned to walk through the old center of the village. But the tourist information center was closed, and we couldn't find exactly where the old center was, so we enjoyed the view of the old Bavarian homes from our car and moved on.

Our next stop was Idar-Oberstein, which also had stunning scenery. We stopped at a outdoor festival they were having in the center of town, which had music and many local craftspeople selling items. After another stop at a playground for the kids, we headed back to the airport, ending our trip where we began, in Riga.

The next day we drove back to Tallinn, happy we had taken the trip but even happier to be home again.

Following are a few pictures from the trip. Click here for lots more.
--Tim

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