DAY 9: UMBRIAN LIGHT AND ROMAN NIGHTS
AT A GLANCE
Hotel: Hotel San Carlo (first night)
Key Words: Uva (grapes), Bruschetta (Toasted bread topped with tomatoes), Poggio (knoll or hill), Bella (beautiful)
Highlights: A beautiful lunch at a winery in Umbria, an evening tour of Rome, and making wishes in the Trevi fountain.
After so many days among the tiny streets and crowded piazzas of the city, it was refreshing to spend much of the next day in the country as we made our way by bus from Florence to Rome. After enjoying a final breakfast on the rooftop terrace at the Hotel Silla, we made our way to a mountainside in Umbria, where Reid introduced us to his good friend Marco, owner of Poggio della Volara, a grape and olive farm. Maggie in particular had been looking forward to this day for the entire trip, and we were not disappointed!
Marco bought the farm as a young man, and very specifically wanted to find a place where the soil and stone would be good for both grapes and olives. While the grapes and wines were lovely - and the primary revenue driver for the farm - he admitted to us that olives are his real passion. He is working with other farmers to lead a movement in Umbria that supports local farmers and an earlier harvest, which leads to much tastier and healthier oils than the mass produced oils found in the super market. He and his wife also treated us to a wonderful meal of homemade pizzas and bruschetta, all designed to match with the various wines we tastes, and which we enjoyed together at a long, rustic table on their front porch. It was as near to heaven on earth as one could imagine!
Rome, however, was calling our names, and it was time to make our way to our final destination. We all got settled into our new digs at the Hotel San Carlo (did we mention how easy it was to find, check-in, and enjoy our accommodations thanks to the careful planning of the tour?). We enjoyed a light siesta before joining back up with the group as Reid led us on an evening walk that is typical in Rome called a passeggiata. We made our way from the hotel past the Pantheon to the Piazza Navona, an area of the city known for its great restaurants and night life. We enjoyed wandering with our fellow Ohioans (Sue and Mark, and Kim and Leon) until we found a perfect trattoria where we enjoyed pasta all carbonara and a glass of wine before once again rejoining our group.
Back Door Basics: Embrace Local Customs
As the sun goes down and the pavement begins to cool, all of Rome pours out into the streets for the passeggiata to enjoy the light breezes, socialize, and build up an appetite before one of those famous Italian dinners. This evening walk isn't just tradition - it's an important way to beat the heat. As an added bonus, you'll be able to enjoy the latest in street fashions as the Romans show off their outfits to their friends and family!
Once again, Rick Steves and Reid had a delight in store for us. You can read all about the nighttime Roman walk here, but there's nothing like doing it in person. A particularly special moment of the trip was our visit to the Trevi Fountain. Priscilla visited Rome 40 years ago and had always hoped to return to Italy. She had thrown a coin into the fountain on that trip, and it truly felt like magic to be back in that spot four decades later. While life changes are making travel more complicated as we get older, we both threw coins in this time and hoped with all our hearts we'll be able to return to Rome again someday.
Priscilla tosses a coin over her shoulder into the Trevi Fountain and sends her wishes with it for a return to Rome someday!
DAY 10: SAINT PETER'S CITY
AT A GLANCE
Hotel: Hotel San Carlo (Second night)
Key Words: Chiesa (church), Cattedrale (cathedral), Duomo (cathedral / dome), Pietà (literally pity, but commonly as a typical sculpture subject of the Virgin Mary holding the body of Jesus)
Highlights: TWO trips to the Vatican - St. Peter's Cathedral in the morning, and the museums at night. And lots of churches in between!
Steps: 22,579 (most daily steps of the trip!)
There's something magical about travel that leads one to live fully in the moment. Even though we were nearing the end of our trip, we both awoke with energy and excitement for the day ahead, full of everything we'd already seen and learned and hungry for another day of exploring. Though neither of us are Catholic, we have friends and family who are. We're also both avid students of history, so our visit to the Vatican felt full of meaning for both of us.
Here we were able to see the fruition of the arc we had been studying since Venice, where the full power and glory of art was on display. The splendor and size of St. Peter's cathedral are designed to inspire humility and awe, tempting people back to the church after the rise of the Renaissance's humanism and the subsequent Reformation. For eight days, Reid and our local guides had been training us to see and understand the stories being told through religious symbolism and we were able to spot messages in the artwork nearly everywhere we looked. The Rick Steves Audio App came in handy again here, as guides are not allowed to give lectures or commentary inside the cathedral. Instead, we were able to discreetly follow the sounds of Rick's voice as we made our way from chapel to chapel.
Back Door Basics: Get Religion!
Nearly every church in Italy, from the giant basilicas to the small local chapels, seems to have something of note that is worth visiting. For example, in churches throughout our tour we saw paintings by grand masters, multiple sculptures by Michelangelo, and holy relics like the chains that are said to be those St. Peter wore while he was in prison. Often these churches are free or just have a small suggested donation, are much less crowded than museums, and let you get an up-close, intimate look at the artwork on display. A simple google search (or your trusty Rick Steves guide) will let you know which churches are worth a visit.
Much of the afternoon was on our own, and Reid encouraged us all to be adventurous and take the Roman metro to make our way around town. Because we have both lived in large cities and traveled about Europe, we did not find this particularly daunting. Nevertheless, there is always some sort of thrill in mastering the local train system! On Reid's suggestion, we incorporated a number of churches into our wanderings, including the Church of St. Peter in Chains, and a fascinating building called the Church of Angels and Martyrs, which is build upon an ancient Roman bathhouse.
As we noted earlier, one way to beat the crowds at the museums is to go in the evening. We were fortunate to be in Rome on a Friday evening, one of the few times the museums are open after dark. The museums threw open the windows and we walked across courtyards and through galleries that opened out onto night views of Rome. The fresh breezes made the small rooms feel more bearable, and a live concert out in the courtyard offered quiet accompaniment that followed us from room to room. Two highlights stood out in particular: the Raphael Rooms and the Sistine Chapel. The Chapel is meant to be totally silent, but we were old pros at the Rick Steves Audio App by that time and were able to squeeze onto an open bench seat to stare up in wonder as Rick explained the stories of the chapel ceiling panel by panel.
As we left the museums and headed back to the hotel, Reid sent us off with firm instructions for a good night's sleep. It had been a long and very full trip so far, but we wanted to be sure to enjoy the grande finale on our last day together. He didn't need to tell us twice!
DAY 11: SIMULTANEOUS CITIES
AT A GLANCE
Hotel: Hotel San Carlo (Third and final night)
Key Words: Giardini (Gardens), Aqui (Here), Dove sono ...? (Where is ...?)
Highlights: Basilica San Clemente with Francesca Caruso, the Colosseum and Forum, and an afternoon stroll through the Borghese Gardens
Our final day in Rome was nothing short of magnificent. Every aspect of the day was incredible, and we could not have asked for a more perfect end to this incredible trip. This was thanks in large part to the best guide in Rome: Francesca Caruso. It has to be said, when Reid told us how lucky we were to be spending time with her, we had to wonder a bit - all of our local guides had already been so amazing! Francesca, however, is in a class of her own. I cannot recommend her highly enough, and hope you'll have the chance to see Rome through her eyes if you travel on a Rick Steves tour or manage to hire her on your own during one of her limited slots for private parties.
Francesca insisted that we could not visit the Colosseum or begin to understand Rome if we did not first visit the Basilica San Clemente, a small church just a couple blocks away. The Basilica, now owned by the Irish Dominicans, stands upon not one but TWO layers of ancient Roman structures, which have been partially excavated to show how the city evolved over time. Understanding these layers and the ways Rome has involved helps us begin to reconcile this city which has had so many lives throughout the millennia.
Then, the big show: The Colosseum, Forum, and Palatine Hill. We were almost surprised to learn how much the Romans enjoy and embrace these stereotypical tourist traps. In fact (and despite its many historical inaccuracies) Romans love the movie The Gladiator so much that they host live showings of it in the Colosseum every summer! Here, Francesca didn't shy away from the complicated and difficult history of these sites - the money spent, the men and animals captured, trained, and killed, and the paradoxical nature of a civilization that was simultaneously one of the most enlightened and brutal in the world. We also discussed the ancient Romans' "shock and awe" strategy for their capital city, including the overwhelming grandeur and street plan of the Forum and its surrounding buildings. Perhaps even more amazing than all this, though, is how quickly it disappeared. Until the 1800s, much of this entire area had become so buried in silt, refuse, and time that nothing remained but a grassy field with a few column caps sticking out.
We were all very sorry to say farewell to Francesca at the end of the morning, but it was time to move on. For our final free afternoon, we wanted to spend a little more time "doing as the Romans do." We decided to head to the Borghese Gardens - perhaps not the first item on the tourist lists, but it allowed us to enjoy the city as it is meant to be. We strolled along the paths under the trees, wandered around the lake, and enjoyed our favorite afternoon treats one last time: prosciutto, melon, and gelato. The quiet and simple walk helped us let Rome sink into our bones a little, so it became part of us and would stay inside long after we got home.
At last, it was time for our closing dinner. Reid invited us all up to the rooftop bar of the hotel, where he'd laid out a tasty spread of treats and we all contributed our share of wine (much of which we'd bought at the winery in Umbria). Stories, hugs, and laughter were our companions as we ate a final dinner and shared highlights of our trip. Looking around the table, it was amazing to think that these people had been strangers only 10 days before, and we promised to stay in touch by swapping emails and starting up a Facebook group where we all subsequently posted pictures and shared recollections upon returning home.
DEPARTURE - ARRIVEDERCI!
Making our way to the airport early the next morning, we rode in silence for awhile as we reflected back on our trip. We were likely both thinking the same things - a mixture of deep joy and satisfaction, sadness at our departure, and a fervent hope that we would be able to travel together again someday soon.
We were departing at different terminals, so Priscilla got out to say farewell as Maggie unloaded her bags. A final, big hug and, without words, we made our bittersweet goodbye.
Life has a way of introducing challenges that can make travel dreams difficult, but with those coins in the Trevi Fountain, we have a little extra luck on our side. We hope we'll see you there.