Succumbing to the lure of Italy

Since I’m the consummate Francophile, I didn’t think any other country could lure me the way France does, but when Italy called, I’m awfully glad I answered, “Pronto.”

We decided to keep it simple: to include only Rome, Venice and Florence, to travel by train and to stay in B&Bs. We picked late September ’04, thinking the weather would be perfect. It was.

A “home” in Rome

The enchantment began before we even left. I stumbled upon a website for a B&B in Rome called Patty’s Rooms (phone +39 3403292930 or visit The reviews on Rick Steves’ Graffiti Wall were good, so I wrote and received the warmest response I’ve ever had.

Patricia and I became buddies long before meeting, and my husband, David, and I were looking forward to “staying with friends.”

We were met at Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci (Fiumicino) Airport by Patricia and her husband, Rudy. What a delightful way to begin a journey after an exhausting day and night traveling!

They whisked us away to their lovely apartment in the suburb of Monteverde, next to Trastevere, and furnished us with lots of inside information as well as a personalized map of the city with all local transportation marked plus two bus/tram/metro tickets to start us off.

Patty and Rudy offer private city and countryside tours as well, not to mention a nice snack service. They have wine, cold soft drinks, chips, etc., for their guests. You just mark down what you take, paying at the end of your stay.

We helped ourselves to nice Montepulciano Abruzzi and Sangiovese wines, each only €4.

The B&B offers two rooms (with great beds) each with a private bathroom. We had the Mimosa Room and it was very nice, but I would recommend the Iris Room; it has a balcony. Our room cost €65 (near $84) per night, with airport pickup costing €28.

Breakfast was cappuccino, juice, yogurt, a huge, fresh hard roll and a tasty croissant. Patty even did our laundry for us (€6) while we were sightseeing.

Sacred sights

We headed into Rome on the tram (one-half hour) to pick up our tickets for the following day’s Papal Audience. At the end of the tram line, we chanced upon our first Roman ruins in the Area Sacra dell’Argentina. We had never heard of these ruins — they weren’t in any of our guidebooks — but the four temples looked quite impressive to us newcomers.

We headed up the Via dei Cestari toward the Pantheon and found “Vestment Row.” All the display windows featured colorful vestments, miters, staffs, clerical collars, chalices — religious articles of all kinds. Only in Rome!

The Piazza della Minerva, with Bernini’s elephant obelisk, came next. We decided to take a quick peek inside the only Gothic church in Rome, Santa Maria sopra Minerva. It was a fitting beginning to our tour of Rome’s many churches. This unassuming church holds the tomb of Fra Angelico plus beautiful frescoes and Michelangelo’s “Christ Bearing the Cross.”

We walked on to the Pantheon but didn’t linger, as we felt jet lag hovering over us and we still needed to get the tickets for the General Papal Audience.

Papal visit

General Audiences are held on Wednesdays at 10:30 a.m., but you’ll want to be there by 9:30 (or earlier if you want to sit up front). (Editor’s note: Pope Benedict XVI has decided to continue the Wednesday morning audiences.)

There is an auditorium for the audiences, but in summer they are usually held in St. Peter’s Square; take sunscreen and wear a hat.

We ordered our tickets months before through our local diocese and picked them up at the Bishops’ Office for United States Visitors to the Vatican (Via dell’Umilta, 30) near the Trevi Fountain. You can also get them through the Santa Susanna Church near the Piazza della Repubblica (fax 011 3906 4201 4328 or visit

Tickets must be picked up the day before the audience. Budget time for this; we had to wait about 45 minutes so that the sister in charge could talk to us about the audience before handing out the tickets.

City tour

We had planned to visit the Vatican Museum and St. Peter’s Basilica following the Papal Audience — bad idea. The basilica is closed during the audience and for some time afterward for security. Therefore, everyone heads for the Vatican Museum and the line is incredibly long.

We decided to postpone our Vatican sightseeing until the following day. Instead, we took the hop-on, hop-off tour of the city which starts at Termini Station.

If you need a WC stop before getting on the bus, go into the train station and down the escalator. Signs will point you to the toilets (you will eventually get there). The WC is pricey (70¢) and you must have exact change.

After locating the white ticket office in front of Termini Station, we bought our tickets (€13), found the bus (parked around the corner from the ticket office, not right next to it) and climbed up to the crowded open top level.

You are given little earphones and should remember to take them with you if you hop off. The commentary is not that great, however, and didn’t work well on all the buses.

We got off the bus several times, snapping some photos and getting on the next bus 15 to 20 minutes later.

The map we were given was not at all exact about where the bus stops were located, and at least two of the 11 stops were far off the mark: be forewarned. Luckily, we always returned to where the bus had let us off to catch the next one. We saw some people who had gotten off at one stop and walked to the next to continue their trip; we passed them as our bus rolled right by them.

Sistine Chapel

The following morning we did indeed return to the Vatican Museum and its fast-moving line. The entry fee was €12 and they wanted cash. We went through a security check like at the airport, since we were entering a foreign country.

David and I took the rapid route straight to the Sistine Chapel. We went through some beautiful rooms reminiscent of the Louvre or Versailles and bought some postcards and souvenirs as we made our way toward the prize. It was not terribly crowded, but then we were there pretty early.

Yes, the Sistine Chapel is marvelous and, yes, your neck will hurt. No, you cannot shoot photos or video inside (you must put your camera in your bag or purse).

St. Peter’s

If you exit out the back, you will come to two important areas: the line to the cupola (the dome climb) and the toilets!

We missed the cupola sign, so we toured St. Peter’s before making the dome climb. However, I’d recommend doing the climb first; it is a long walk around again to get back to the cupola line.

We took the elevator up to the first level and then climbed the next 320 steps (€5 or, if you make the whole trek by foot, €4). There was a lot of huffing and puffing and more than a few shivers at the slanting, narrow passageway, but it was not a terribly difficult climb.

Everyone smiles with pleasure (or maybe relief) at the end of the climb and oohs and ahhs at the vista panoramica. It is really not to be missed, even when very crowded.

Going back down is quick, and there is a WC on the first level (on the rooftop of St. Peter’s, with all the giant statues). We ambled through the nun-staffed souvenir shop and had a snack in the shade of the dome before taking the elevator back to the ground level.

The basilica of St. Peter’s is overwhelming. We felt like Lilliputians lost in the vast spaces among the statues and cherubs. Be sure to spend some extra time here, just absorbing.

More historic sites

Our third full day in Rome was spent, finally, at the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. We arrived at the Colosseum at 9:45 a.m. and walked right in. The €10 admission fee covered both the Colosseum and Palatine Hill; the Roman Forum was free.

We did not take a guided tour but just wandered on our own with information torn from several guidebooks. We stayed about 1½ hours in the Colosseum, just soaking up the romance of it all.

There are two nice bookstores/gift shops. The one on the upper level is larger and less crowded.

The WC inside the Colosseum is small, with a long line; the one right behind the Colosseum (under some steps) is a better option.

Before heading to the Forum (where I knew we would tire ourselves out), I suggested a side trip up the hill from the Colosseum to the Church of St. Peter in Chains (displaying the chains that imprisoned him in both Jerusalem and Rome). It was just starting to sprinkle, so ducking inside the quiet, dry church and taking a load off our feet proved to be a good idea.

Peter’s chains were interesting, as is the nice gift shop, but the pièce de résistance was Michelangelo’s “Moses on the Tomb of Pope Julius II.” I put a €.50 coin in the box and illuminated the warm marble statue. We had him almost all to ourselves for five minutes before a tour bus arrived.

We picked up some fruit near the church and returned to the Roman Forum, where we ate a little picnic lunch. Talk about a great view!

We were lucky that the short sprinkle had cooled off the Forum a little. Even in late September, Rome can be quite hot and sunny, and the Forum is “no picnic” in the heat.

We “forumed” until our eyes were crossed and our shoes were dusty, but since the Palatine Hill was already paid for. . .

I do recommend the hike up to Palatine Hill, if for nothing but the view of the Forum — bellissima! We checked out the view of the Circus Maximus on the other side of the hill also, but we liked that better from the ground.

We exited through the side entrance (WC nearby) with less than a springy step but with great memories and no regrets.

Local find

That evening we dined at our favorite tavola calda, Il Tirsu, near the Via Monte Verde bus stop on Colli Portuensi near our B&B. It is actually just a tiny mom-and-pop deli, but we ate dinner there three times. We stopped there the first night because restaurants in the area don’t open for dinner until 8 p.m. — too late for our tired bodies. We returned because of the food and the friendly service.

Raimondo Mancosu and his smiling wife spoke no English, but we managed. We took the other couple from our B&B there and communicated well enough to get what we wanted, even reheated when necessary, as well as separate checks!

Raimondo’s wife was delighted to see Americani and set up tables for us outside. After our second visit, they waved us off with “A domani” (“Till tomorrow”).

Our most expensive meal there cost €17.40 ($23) for two with wine.

Making reservations

The following day we took the bus to Termini Station to catch the Eurostar to Venice. We had purchased our tickets online before leaving home because I was afraid that a Rome-Venice Eurostar on a Saturday might be sold out and I wanted to make sure we had reserved seats for the 5-hour ride.

We reserved our tickets at It was not difficult, and the price was the same as it was locally (€89.86, or $117, for two).

We picked up the tickets at the station from one of the many easy-to-use self-service machines. Just press the Union Jack flag to get English, then the button that says something like “tickets reserved on Internet” and, voilà, your tickets appear as soon as you stick your credit card in the machine.

In order to save some time in Venice and Florence, I also got tickets for our Venice-Florence and Florence-Rome train trips, which I had not reserved ahead of time (€53.20 and €58.88, respectively, for two).

A harrowing beginning

We were early for our train, so the track was not posted yet. Apparently, tracks are not posted on the main board until about 10 minutes before departure time. We found a monitor near the information booth and it listed our track as No. 6. Our train car was No. 8, so we walked down the platform to sit near where the car should be on arrival.

We did not recheck our track on the big board before boarding — big mistake! We were on the train with luggage stowed when someone said we were in their seats. We were on the wrong train!

Two other Americans with large suitcases were blocking our exit, but they realized that if we were on the wrong train, they might be too. They were, and the four of us jumped off.

We were congratulating ourselves for our near miss when one of the women asked if I had punched our tickets. I gulped and started back down the platform to do so when I noticed that our train had been changed to track No. 3. I bolted back to David and the two women and we started running, our suitcase wheels humming and our jackets flying. We had four minutes to make it all the way down the platform and over to track No. 3.

I yelled to several conductors along the way that I hadn’t punched my ticket. They all just cried, “Run! Is okay.”

Three of us made it to the first car on our Eurostar before the conductor closed the door. David and I hauled our bags through several cars until we reached our seats.

The woman who made it with us had to leave her large suitcase on the first car, as it would not fit down the aisle. She was worried about her friend since she had both of their tickets. What a fiasco!

It took an hour before my asthma cough died down and we breathed easier. Then we noticed the conductor coming down the aisle checking tickets with David’s jacket over his arm! It had apparently fallen off when we scrambled onto the train. We had not noticed the loss.

The conductor looked relieved and cried, “Finalmente!” He didn’t seem to care much about our unpunched tickets, so we sat back to admire the countryside.

By the way, we were not seated next to each other. I have yet to figure out how to do that on the ticket machines. I had chosen seats pictured side-by-side but was given consecutively numbered seats.

For some reason, European train seats are numbered in a way I don’t understand. Seat 33 was not next to seat 34. It was nearby, however, and that was okay with us. We had overcome bigger problems that day.

Next month, the journey continues.