Thursday, 22 April 2021

FAMILY REVIEW: Roma, Italy

The ETERNAL CITY!



Our arrival in Roma was in a little airport (with a cheaper airline) which meant we were further away from the city centre. It was about 30 minutes from Rome City and after finally finding the car rental place at the airport and renting our final car rental for this entire trip, we made our way to our accommodation on the outskirts of Rome.

It was a strange feeling landing back in Italy. It felt like "home" with familiar feelings yet it was a city we had never been to before. Knowing the language better than any other European language (besides English), knowing the Italian systems and knowing the way the drivers drive made it easier to adjust. The weather wasn't as warm as when we had left Italy the last time but also not as cold as Paris so it was a huge relief!

ACCOMMODATION

As we've said before on earlier posts, there are some cities that charge extra tax if you're staying in short term accommodation. We had paid it a few times during our trip - all in Italy - and Rome was no exception. We stayed in a holiday park-type accommodation which was cheap but included the daily taxes we needed to pay in the total costs instead of paying each night. 

The upside is that this place was very basic and we had everything we needed: Separate rooms, heat for the cold, free parking outside the accommodation, close enough to the city centre and train lines (via a street road that had nowhere for foot traffic to properly walk safely) and it was cheap enough for our final week because other places were too pricey for our budget!

The downside is that the internet was pretty rough and we could only get it in common areas, the area was extremely loud... the car noises were endless (nearly all of Italy was the same), the local roads around there were pretty rough man... pot holes everywhere. Add to that the other rough road we had to walk to get to the train station.


But it kept us safe and warm for our final week and they had a TV with some English speaking shows so a bonus for me!

ALL BLACKS VS ITALY

While in Paris, I saw that the All Blacks were playing a game in Rome... on the day we flew into the city. What are the chances?

After some budget adjusting, we decided Nathan and Hadrian could go to the game together while I stayed in our accommodation. But it wasn't going to be easy for logistics.

We were to land in the morning, we would have to rent our car as fast as we could, we would have to navigate through Rome to get to our accommodation, we would have to unpack and plan the trip to the game: roads to travel, parking close to the stadium, a new and younger navigator to help get there, avoiding toll roads... and eat before everyone leaves.


They just made it there - and actually they missed the first part.. including the haka. But they were there for the rest and I'm so glad it fell enough into place for them to experience an All Black game in Rome.


And according to them both, they were surrounded by nearly everyone smoking - enough to need to cover their mouths with their scarves. 


And also according to them, they saw more Kiwis there than we saw anywhere else in Europe!

RETURNING TO ITALY

Like I said before, we felt a sense of familiarity when we landed in Rome. Returning to Italy brought back fond memories and fast adjustment. Going to the supermarkets was no longer foreign to us... we knew the systems and we knew what to expect in the food choices and at the check outs.

While at our local supermarket, we saw a father and daughter who were clearly new to the system as they had not bagged the produce properly. The check out operator was clearly frustrated but also quite rude in trying to explain to them how the system works. In the end the father had to go back and figure it all out.

We stood there a few groups back feeling for them knowing we had been in that same position 6 months earlier but we were lucky to have a patient worker who helped us figure it out. 

We also remembered the Italian driving, the extremely loud emergency service sirens, the horrible conditions of the local roads that are not toll roads and the rubbish piled up around skip bins everywhere - something we saw often the last time we were in Italy.

Rome was also a no driving zone which meant you couldn't drive into the main city centre without paying a tax. So we avoided it as much as we could. 

ROME PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION

Guys, Italy needs an upgrade of their transport systems. Some are ok... most are not.

We went to the city centre with no issues via train except.... the ticket machines (even though you can have your instructions in English). Some worked and some just didn't. And you had no way of finding out until you were at to the machine. Then you just hope you find another one that works in time to catch the train. 

We had similar experiences everywhere in Italy we stayed - one memorable experience in Florence where we just never found a working ticket kiosk.

Their bus system is just as outdated. They have ticket machines by the bus stops but then most don't work and only if you're lucky you get the money spat back out at you but then you can be as unlucky as a family we met where the machine just ate all the money they put in there.

But... their buses don't take cash. So you have limited options. 1) Walk to the next stop and hope there is a machine there that works 2) Find a local to help you find possibly another machine or somewhere else to buy a ticket and hope they speak English 3) Find a local tobacco shop where you can buy bus tickets but hope it's close enough to your bus stop so you don't miss your scheduled bus or 4) Risk it and catch the bus without a ticket and hope you don't get caught.

We were in a hurry and had a bus to catch to make it to our train that takes us back to our accommodation so we tried options 2 and 3 before risking 4. 

We were caught on the bus by the bus workers whose purpose is to catch tourists like us. 

We were given two options: 1) Pay a fine on the spot or 2) Not pay and see what happens. 

We had to give our passports over to them and they recorded our details and gave us our tickets. As we were trying to explain our situation and how it was their terrible ticketing system that put us in this predicament in the first place, with the worker not even caring about a word we were saying except telling us in broken English that we could have asked a local for help... (like, does he realise that most people in Italy actually don't speak English and does he realise that most Italians are not as helpful as he thinks they are... which is all true FYI). But while mid trying-to-defend-ourselves, a lovely lady came to our defense and tried to be a mediator between us and the worker. She explained to them our situation and explained to us that tourists are exempt from fines in extenuating circumstances. The worker didn't listen and by that point he had already printed the tickets and also by that point, we had already paid for one.

But after this lady (who was also foreign but had been local for many years and had been working with migrants and tourists in Rome for the last few years) explained that they have very little authority to force us to pay for our tickets, we refused to pay the second ticket and left.

Yes, we did risk it and yes we could have gone for option 1 in the first place and walked to the next stop. But guys... this was so normal for Italy public transportation that it seems like tourists will always be caught up in catch-22s. Need to pay for a ticket but no machines working anywhere near the biggest tourist foot traffic areas... but then also need to use the public transport to get places. So it feels like we are set up to have no working ticket kiosks just so we take risks, get caught then feel pressured to pay the fines. We hardly ever found a working ticket kiosk in all of Italy. And in Florence, we went from station to station looking for one working kiosk and never finding one. Not a single machine and no other way to pay for tickets. Might I add that locals travel for free so of course they don't care about what kiosks are actually working.

It's a flawed system and needs a major upgrade. Of course, it's not the greatest lesson to teach a 10 year old - breaking rules and not even dealing with the consequences properly - but by this stage of our trip, we learned a lot about how Europe works. You gotta fight for yourselves. And if you don't, you will get eaten alive. Nathan fought for the mistakes on our flight tickets and I fought for this. After talking with this woman who came to our aid, I felt like we were just dollar signs in a flawed system that may possibly be purposefully flawed in the first place!

However, I do not recommend you do what we did!!!! I recommend walking to the next stop to find a working ticket kiosk! It's not worth the headache and the fighting and any of the drama. Be good citizens and don't do what I did (because ultimately it was me who made the bad decision).

ROMA

So let's move past the public transportation headache and look to the other things Rome has to offer... 

We spent one whole day exploring Rome. ONE.WHOLE. DAY.

We didn't have time to spread it out over days so if we missed something this day, then it would have to wait until the next time we were in Rome! 

VATICAN

This was our first stop because we were closer to Vatican City than we were to Rome city centre... and we had tickets to go to the Vatican Museum. 

After finally getting ourselves to Vatican City (with the not-so-safe walk to the train station and the not so reliable ticket kiosks), there was this crazy long line and no real signs of where the entry to Vatican City was. There were so many people there and lines everywhere that we joined the line... thinking this was the line into Vatican City.


In the line we could see people holding fancy gold invitations and we had to go through two security checks - something we thought a little odd just to enter the City.

Turns out, after waiting in the line for over 30 minutes and being sheep following the crowd, we were in the line to see the Pope! Hence the fancy invitations... 

So after going into the building where the Pope was supposed to meet all these people, we had to turn ourselves around and go into Vatican City which did not have security to enter and did not have a line. We clearly followed the wrong crowd!

We quickly ran (walked quickly) through Vatican City to reach the Museum and the benefits of everyone going to see the Pope was that the lines in the Museum were short!


And the Museum was huge! We could have spent the whole day there if we had time but we only spent a couple of hours there looking at so many beautiful ceilings (there is more than just the Sistine Chapel ceiling).


While in the Sistine Chapel, there are strict rules there (as it is a Chapel, after all). You couldn't talk above a whisper, you could only sit on the benches allocated (not the stairs leading down to the seating area) and you couldn't take any photos.


Every time a new group of tourists came in, there was a hustle of noise - as you'd expect. There were security workers there telling everyone to be quiet... but they were louder than the crowds! And as much as no one was allowed to take photos, people were... very subtly.

One of the things that was a surprise to me in the Sistine Chapel was that the main painting - and most popular one - on the ceiling (Adam and God) was quite small. Smaller than I expected. And the rest of the paintings on the ceiling and walls were just as beautiful.

A lot of history in the Museum which was great... except for Hadrian who by this time was so over Museums. This was his last museum visit on our trip!

COLOSSEUM

We had some places we wanted to make sure we hit... the usual tourist spots. But guys, you gotta know... every tourist place is surrounded by scammers and scams. 


The worst place we went to with scammers (in all of Europe) was the Colosseum. It was covered with people constantly stopping tourists for some scam or to sell everything under the sun.


You try to be polite at first but we ain't new to this game so that politeness went out the window. Even the companies that have reps outside trying to sell you tickets to go into the Colosseum are scammers - just dressed in nicer clothes. You can see a ton of these reps trying to communicate with the tourists with at least one rep being able to speak nearly every language they think they'll need. When they saw us, they tried to guess which language we spoke.. espanol, filipino, mandarin... oh English (because we were wearing All Black jackets). It was dodgy as. You can buy the tickets direct from the Colosseum, you don't need to buy them from these guys.


Not only were these reps over represented in front of the Colosseum, so were the other scammers trying to give you something for "free" or trying to give you some sob story to get something out of you. And no matter how many times we said no - over and over again - they kept coming.

It was the worst place for scammers. 

And as much as the Colosseum was a beauty to behold, the scammers took away that beauty because we were too busy continuously saying no. 

So tip... stand your ground, don't listen to anyone trying to stop you and buy your tickets in advance to enter the Colosseum!

TREVI FOUNTAIN

Thankfully, we were there at a off peak-ish time so it wasn't as crowded as we thought it would be. It is definitely a very beautiful fountain and we sat outside it for quite a while just taking it in.


However, it is also a tourist hub so people are offering to take photos for you but know they are also wanting to charge you for that photo! So keep your wits about you there as well. 

PANTHEON

The walk down the Roman streets from the fountain to the Pantheon was difficult to maneuver through. Google Maps helps, yes, but it was just a lot of narrow streets and dodging a lot of people and hoping you took the right turn off.


But when you turn that corner to finally see the open space and the Pantheon there, you forget the road you took to get there!

We've always wanted to see this building (well, Nathan and I) as it was such a big engineering feat with how the ceiling was built.

It was busy outside of here as well but we were not hassled by anyone there.

Even better, we found out entering the building was free! Even though it was busier inside than outside, it was not overly crowded or loud. We had the chance to really take in the architecture and the history of the building. 

BACK TO VATICAN CITY

We made our way back to the Vatican as it was the closest place to our train leading back to our accommodation. This is where we were caught out on the bus. So by the time we reached Vatican again, the mood was pretty low. We were ready to leave Italy and ready to reach the Southern Hemisphere.

ROME TEMPLE

Before we were gonna fly out, we had to stop here. This was our main purpose - to come here when it opened. We would have made it to the opening had we not decided to return home earlier than planned but we still had to see its beauty and feel its spirit.

We navigated through the outskirts of Rome and after struggling to find somewhere to stop to just see it (as it was closed off while finishing the final touches), we were able to stop outside a local dog training centre and quickly take in its beauty. Sure, the temple construction workers were taking cigarette breaks and we had to ignore that part of it while taking in the grand beauty of it. 

READY FOR OUR FINAL FLIGHTS

After our full day of Roma, we went back to our accommodation, packed our things into our suitcases anddddddd.... our largest suitcase decided to give up and the wheels started to come off. We can't make this stuff up that on the very last night, our suitcase breaks (just like the day we were flying out, one of our original suitcases broke and we had to do a quick swapover). It couldn't be wheeled except in one direction and very, very carefully. 

So we taped it up with what we had, packed it in the car and silently prayed that it would last the final flights home (3 flights in total) without completely falling apart and really, just making it back to NZ!

We drove our final drive along the pot hole roads and headed towards the biggest airport in Rome - Leonardo di Vinci International Airport. Guys, this airport was the best - from start to finish. We've been to airports that have their car rentals in such odd and difficult to reach places but this car rental return was in the main carpark, easy to find and close to the main terminals. We flew through the car return, saying goodbye to our final car rental experience in Europe (thanking our lucky stars that there were no issues with the car) and being so relieved that this part of our travels was finally over. Car renting around Europe is no easy feat. 


We headed through the easy to navigate airport and because my two boys are travelling with me, we were super, super early to the airport so had time to kill. We were there before our check in terminal was even open - yes, that early!

But when we got to the check in (because I obviously have to check where to go first before I can start relaxing even if we're too early), they had just opened and we were first in line! We put our broken luggage on the belt with our fingers internally crossed that we would see it on the other end and made our way through customs.

Now I don't know if it was just our luck that day but we breezed through customs as well. The longest we waited in line was like 5 minutes. That never happens.

We had time on the other side to look around at their very upper class shopping area (window shopping, of course) and even had time to relax and eat and slowly make our way to our gate.


This airport was grand, clean and just the best airport we had been to the entire trip. 

To just top it all off, we waited by our gate and were let on first because we had a child. Granted, a big child that doesn't need any assistance but we didn't complain as we were ushered on first. 

We said our final goodbyes to Italy, to Europe, to car rentals, AirBnbs, driving on the wrong side, scammers and everything frustrating that happened to us... but then we also said goodbye to the best time of our lives. We struggled but we became stronger; we had our eyes opened to the realities of the world but we appreciated what we have; we got sick of being in each others pockets all day every day but we grew stronger as a family and we know these memories will be something we will always cherish. 

We hopped on the plane and guys... China Airlines is awesome. And our seat selection we had previously made was also awesome. At the front of a section where we had the most spacious leg room for such a long flight. We had great service, delicious food and leg room!?! What more could we have asked for!


Roma, you were our original goal all those years back (4 or so) and we made it a reality. It was a difficult journey to get to you but it was worth it!

FINAL REVIEWS

H: Rome was alright, it was the last leg of our trip and I was just happy to be going home. Overall it was fun. (Bear in mind this review was made 3 years after the trip from a teenager, not a 10 year old)

N: Rome was the grand finale I was hoping for. If our circumstances had allowed for more time I would have spent it exploring every nook of this ancient treasure. The Vatican museum, the Pope and the city in general, the Pantheon, the Trevi fountain, the Colosseum, Italian's all full of hope singing in unison in the grand Stadio Olimpico in their battle against the All Blacks, many an ancient ruin filled with history, dirty cigarette covered cobbled streets and many things more - all made for a great end of our visit to the capitol of the homeland of pizza and pasta. Bravo Italy. Grazie infinite. Tutti magnifici.

T: I wish we had made it to the opening of the Rome Temple but that just means we have something to plan for. I also wish we had more time to explore Roma but for the time we had, I enjoyed it (except the bus incident!). I've always had a love of old Roman history so being in the centre of all that history was amazing! Tourist trap-y? Yes. If you look past that though, it's a great city! I will be back, for sure!





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