Roman Holiday

2 June - 9 June 2024

random trip report

[Click images for large version and again for full resolution]

Noah and I tour Italy - his send-off to college, and to life. The trip is scheduled for 2 weeks but we pull the plug after 6 days.

Sun 2 June

After the BOINC workshop in Geneva, I get up 8:30 AM, pack, and take the train to the airport. I'm leg-sore and exhausted from yesterday's hike.

Complaints about GVA:

  • There are no power outlets in seating areas. There occasional counters with stools and outlets - but the outlets are dead! C'mon - this is 2024!!
  • The WiFi requires that you scan your boarding pass at a kiosk, of which there are only a few. And then - guess what? It's so slow that you can't actually do anything.
  • The ITA boarding process is chaotic. They want to scan your passport, but they don't tell you this. The PA system is incomprehensible. There's no line, just a mob. They do this every day - why not get it right?

The flight to Rome (FCO) is smooth. Getting to the airport train station is easier than last summer.

My hotel (Positano) is a 10 min walk NE of the central train station (Termini). A young Indian guy works the counter.

I spend some time on Google maps looking for restaurants, cafes, and grocery stores. There are oddly few. But when I go out for a walk, there are restaurants everywhere! And countless small hotels (many upper-floor) that Google and don't know about. Lesson: for some things, forget Google; just walk around.

I find a grocery store and get staples, than go to a pizzeria across the street from the hotel, the kind that has a dozen kinds on display and you pay by weight. I get some mushroom/tomato/basil, way more than I need, wash it down with a beer and take the rest back to my room, which is equipped with a fridge.

The room is OK except that the color scheme (orange/blue) is bizarre. The TV doesn't get any channels well. The toilet flushes with a button in the wall you have to press many times. Around 10-11 PM, and then again 7-8 AM, there's fairly loud water-in-pipes noise: 10 sec on, 5 sec off, repeat.

Mon 3 June

I take the train to FCO to meet Noah, getting there at 11:50. I wait at the terminal 3 passenger exit with the sign-carrying limo drivers. Time passes. At 12:30 I get an email from Noah saying he's at baggage claim. A series of confused emails ensues. Turns out he's waiting outside, 100 meters away; apparently there's a 2nd passenger exit - huh??

We return to the Termini. At 14:00 or so we walk down Via Nazionale to the north end of the Fori (forums). We're accosted by one of those super-friendly African guys, who gives us 'presents' (elephant bracelets etc.) and wants to be our friend, then asks for money. I give him $US10.

Noah's expression reflects exhaustion

There's been some kind of car race along Via de Fori: grandstands on both sides, and you can't cross.

We stop at Basilica dei Santi Cosma e Damiano. I have no coins to illuminate the altar.

The side room has a bizarre giant diorama.

We continue past the Coliseum, through the park with Nero's castle, and on to Callimaco, a bar that is exactly as I remember it from last summer. We each have an IPA - Noah's first official beer.

We get a gelato from the stand in the nearby park and watch boys kick a soccer ball around.

We cut through the Termini to return to the hotel, and have pizza at the place on the corner.

Noah (who didn't sleep on his redeye) is tired but manages to stay awake until 10.

Tue 4 June

Noah wakes up at 5, not well-rested.

We visit the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Vittoria, with its controversial sculpture.

We visit the Museo Boncompagni Ludovisi, a former mansion with a mix of deco-era clothing and household items, family portraits, and some classical paintings and statuary.

Nice frames

I like honest portraits

Ancient Rome at sunset (artist's concept)

We walk to the Gallerie Borghese but it's sold out for the day. I look online and it's sold out all month! But there's an online ticket agency where I can get tickets for 1 PM the next day for just a few euros more.

We walk through Villa Borghese. There's a lesser museum but it's closed until 1. We continue to Piazza Populo.

Side note: we're not happy about Google Maps. The walking interface is funky; it spins around randomly. The spatial resolution is poor. It shows stuff you don't care about. It thinks you speak Italian just because you're in Italy. It knows about only a small fraction of restaurants and hotels - maybe those who have paid Google.

We don't know where to go next. Noah has the brilliant idea of finding an online walking tour, which is excellent.

We stop for lunch (pasta) at a place on a side street.

The walking tour takes us through the Jewish quarter and past the Teatro San Marcello. We visit San Nicola in Carcere, built on top of a Roman temple, with underground catacombs with bones of early Christians.

Lots of marble

Past two ancient temples.

Supposedly neither dogs nor flies enter this temple

Past the Bocca della Verita (the Mouth of Truth); we take a pic but don't wait in line.

Past the Circus Maximus. Up the hill and into the Garden of the Oranges, with features the putatively 'most spectacular view in the world'. Noah and I politely beg to differ.

Dome of St. Peter's in distance

We briefly visit the nearby Basilica di Santa Sabina all'Aventino.

We continue to a door with a keyhole through which you can see the dome of St. Peter\'s. Except there's a truck parked about 100' away blocking the view.

We descent the hill and go by the Pyramid of Cestius, build in 12 BC.

Somehow they got the proportions wrong: it's 100' on the side but 125' high (rather than the recommended 100), making it look pointy and, I must say, a bit ridiculous.

The tour ends at the 'Non-Catholic Cemetery', an absolutely beautiful place where famous and well-off non-Catholics (mostly foreign) are buried. The residents include Percy Shelley, Keats, and Goethe.

Goethe is a hero of mine

I chat at length with the caretaker, a woman who knows a tremendous amount about the cemetery.

We take the Metro back to the Termini. We eat at a nice restaurant around the corner from the hotel. I have the Omega 3 salad, which features salmon and avocado. Noah has a mushroom pizza. We split an amber beer.

We return to the Termini, explore the food court, and get kinda disgusting Nutella donuts. We partly eat these in the small park near the hotel. A group of 3 African men talk loudly, eat noodles, and throw trash into the grass behind them. (I really don't understand this piss-in-your-pool mindset).

Wed 5 June

Breakfast on leftover donuts and coffee from the lobby. We walk to 'Coffee Time', a nice cafe, for 2nd coffee.

One-person car - nice

With considerable effort (there's no sign) we locate 'Scuderie Antiquarium di Villa Albani', a 2-room gallery with some interesting, much-restored Roman sculptures. I chat with the docent, an enthusiastic young woman. She admits that the museum is hard to find and thus they get few visitors.

Young man being attacked by wild boar

Domesticated boars

To kill time, we go to Museo Storico del Bersaglieri, a 1-room museum mostly devoted to a particular military leader from the 1840s. I ask the guard who they were fighting at that point but he non parla Inglese.

We continue to the Gallerie Borghese and locate the young man who has our tickets. We search unsuccessfully for water.

The museum is spectacular in an over-the-top way. Every square foot, floor to ceiling, is something priceless. Mostly sculpture, but there's a room with a lot of Caravaggios. They make a big deal about showing a Velasquez at the same time, and I think I know which one it is but it'd oddly unlabeled.

Note finger indentations

The heads are ~4' high

My namesake!

Sort of a reference to Caravaggio's Supper at Emmaus

This is quite large

Was everyone this buff back then?

We leave; Noah gets a small bottle of water, a rip-off at $E3.

Statue of Goethe in Borghese park

We walk ~2 miles to the Vatican, through the Piazza Populo and across the Tiber.

I make Noah do the navigating, which is non-trivial.

We reach St. Peter's square.

There's a long line to get through a security checkpoint. We walk around the cathedral.

Occasionally a deep, loud voice comes on the PA system. I tell Noah it's the voice of God saying 'The snack bar will be closing at 4:30'.

We consider climbing the stairs to the top of the dome, but it's $E8 and the line is long, so we skip it. Sitting outside, I discuss how to get to the Ottaviano Metro station. An older but very fit woman overhears and gives us directions. She shakes her head at the number of tourists. I tell her we're sort of tourists but not like the rest. Noah admonishes me for being elitist. Guilty as charged!

We return to the hotel for an hour or so of rest. It's been a long day. My right foot has a worrying pain on the outside. Noah - who slept badly again - has been a zombie most of the day. He says he's OK physically but not mentally.

We go to the food court at the Termini but nothing appeals so we eat at a place, on the station's squalid side, that serves Indian and Italian food. I get chicken tikka masala but it's mediocre.

There are political ads on the giant TV screen in the station. The nationalist overtones are clear: 'Piu Italia, Meno Europa'. Elective democracy leads to strategies that amplify and exploit negative human traits like greed and racism. There are alternatives.

Thu 6 June

We check out of the hotel and go to the Termini around 10. Noah wants a large-size coffee so we go to a Starbucks. They don't have brewed coffee but their Venti Americano is pretty big.

Our train ride has 3 legs, with 6 min between the first two. It leaves at 1:02 so we have some time to kill. I find a place to sit (of which there are maybe 10 in the entire station) and Noah walks to the Trevi Fountain.

When the Departures board finally shows our train, the platform is listed as '1EST'. Huh? It turns out this is at the far end of the station, almost 1 Km away. The train is not the high-speed kind. As the train pulls away, there's a long announcement in Italian; I can understand '20 minutes late' at the end.

By the time we get to Ciuci we're 30 min late. The train company has provided a bus to take us to Teoranto, which is a long ride on back roads. We're just in time for a train to Perugia. There are 2 stops with names like 'Perugia Escolo', which are confusing. We get off at plain old Perugia.

The train station is at the bottom of a big hill, and the old town (where our hotel is) is at the top. I splurge on a taxi (actually it's only $E8). It lets us off at the entrance to a pedestrian path between medieval buildings. With some effort we find the Hotel Fortuna, which is in a building that dates back to 1200 or something like that, and has been updated beautifully. It's a GREAT hotel in all respects. On the 3rd floor there's a 'reading room' with fresco ceilings.

The reading room

On the roof (5th floor) there's a terrace with views of the Umbrian countryside in all directions. The ground-floor hallway has a fresco showing (I guess) the owners.

We walk to the adjacent piazza, and to a view point at the far end.

We eat at the Cafe Vanucci on the Piazza della Republica (so-so). We located a tiny supermarket and buy food for the room: crackers, brie, cookies, yogurt. I take my laptop to the terrace as night falls.

View hotel rooftop terrace

At 10 PM, leaving Noah in the room, I go in search of an IPA. There's a place with taps, but it's deserted - a bad sign. I then go to the 'Minimal Bar', which has a nice name but nothing on tap, and only Brooklyn Brewing IPA in bottles, which I had in France and it's not good. So I give up.

Fountain and cathedral at the end of main Piazza

Fri 7 June

The hotel provides a pretty good breakfast, which we enjoy at length.

We go on a long, fairly random walk. The city has a number of covered escalators that help people get up and down the hill. We explore one of these, and it leads to a large subterranean area, in ancient vaulted brick, dotted with art and little stores.

I buy a pair of nail clippers at an underground store run by an extremely old and friendly couple.

An old lady carrying two heavy tote bags asks us for help. She broke her left arm in a fall a month ago. I have no idea how she carried the bags at all. She has lived in the US (Boston, Chicago, NYC). Her husband died recently and she's traveling to Milan to deal with legal stuff. I tell her we're tourists with nothing to do, and are happy to help. We carry the bags to the bus station, halfway down the hill.

We go back up the escalators, emerge from the catacombs, and head along a ridge, stopping at a large cathedral (Chiesa di San Domenico) and the adjacent archaeology museum, which has large numbers of what must be coffins but are way too small to hold a body; did they cremate back then?

Etruscan? It looks right-to-left

Fancy bathtub

We return to the hotel and rest a bit. Then we go to the Museo Nazzionale, which has a massive collection of local religious art, from c. 1200 to the 1800s.

Odd sidelong glances

More shifty looks

Was pink paint on sale?

Nice suit - C&R?

Cecilia, patron saint of music (AFAIK keyboards didn't exist in the 3rd century)

I suppose that from an art history perspective this is interesting. Techniques and styles progressed. Foreign styles, e.g. Flemish, were incorporated by Italian painters.

But I quickly tire of pictures of the Madonna and Bambino, and of a ghastly green-tinted Christ drooping on a cross, oozing blood here and there. Nobody smiles in these paintings. They have nothing to do with life.

Christianity is a giant fraud, perpetrated on a vast scale. It's shameful and shameless. Its basic schtick is nonsensical: Christ died for our sins - what does that mean exactly? If we believe in Christ, we can sin with impunity? And since he was resurrected, he didn't die; are we damned again? Various Popes have acted pretty similar to Hitler. And so on.

BTW, Perugia in the 1400/1500s seems to have been controlled by total assholes. This resulted in, among other atrocities, the Blood Wedding of 15 July 1500.

Aside: it's becoming clear that Noah isn't really enjoying any of this. When we go to museums, or walk around crowded piazzas, his eyes are on the ground in front of him, or on his phone. He speaks in monosyllables. I'm starting to question the viability of the trip.

Later in the afternoon, I go (by myself) to the big cathedral, San Lorenzo.

Note unusually vivid colors

An election is coming up, and there are stages set up at either end of the piazza, with ranting speakers. I search for a restaurant I saw last night that serves wild boar and rabbit. It turns out to be very near the hotel. We eat there; it's disappointing. The wild boar is chunks of meat swimming in gravy. Noah gets grilled lamb.

Sat 8 June

Noah has gone to the breakfast room when I get up. I get an email from Erica, saying that Noah has been emailing her and is miserable because of lack of sleep, due in part to my snoring. She suggests getting a separate room for him.

But it quickly becomes clear to me that we need to abort this trip. What lies in front of us are 7 more days of museums and cathedrals, of which Noah has had his fill. And so in large part have I.

So I propose to Noah that we return to Rome and catch the first flight back to SF. He agrees strongly. So I get on my computer, try to change the original flight (no dice) and then book another one, TAP, $534, 5:55 AM the next day. There's a FlixBus from Perugia to Rome at 2:30. I'm able to cancel 2 out the 4 remaining hotel reservations; we'll eat a chunk of money, but so be it.

We check out, leaving our luggage at the hotel. We kill some time wandering around.

We go to a crepe place but after 5 min the waiter hasn't come so we leave. We go to a restaurant on the Piazza which helps us kill time because the service is so slow. Noah gets pasta with scampi, which turn out to be evil-looking creatures, all shell and legs and almost nothing edible.

By now it's about 2 PM; we get the luggage and try find the escalators down to the bus station. This takes a while and I briefly enter panic mode. But we make it in time, and the bus ride to Rome (Tiburtina station) is pleasant. We take the Metro to the Termini, figuring to kill some time there before heading to the airport.

We get to FCO around 9:30 PM. The TAP desk is closed, so we can't get boarding passes, so we can't go to the gate area. Fortunately there's a lounge, and some seats with power outlets. ~50 other people are in the same situation as us. We move away from a gross bum who sounds like he has COVID. A young woman in a burka has a long and very loud cell-phone conversation. I have a dry cough and runny nose. We settle in for a long and sleepless night.

Sun 9 June

The TAP desk opens ~3 AM. We fly to Lisbon and stand in a long 'passport control' line (what the hell is the point of these?). Panicked people in danger of missing connections try to cut the line and are rebuffed by guards.

The flight to SFO (11h 15m) is marred by two kids in the next row, ages 2 and 10. The precocious, hyperactive, and entitled 2-year-old talks, yells, and screams pretty much the entire way. The dad does nothing. The exhausted mom occasionally plays Bad Cop with little effect.

I kill time by doing numerous NYT crosswords and watching 4 episodes of The Simpsons. I watch The Soul of a Cyclist, an excellent movie about the spiritual and philosophical dimensions of riding bicycles, especially 'classic' ones.

We arrive SFO at 2:15 PM and BART home. Exhaustion has messed up my balance and I fight nausea.

Erica is on a work call so I get Ray (bless his soul) to pick us up. I finally get home at 4 PM and collapse in bed. After 40+ hours of wakefulness, my brain is in bad, bad shape. I don't sleep, but have vivid wakeful dreams. My legs cramp from dehydration; I get up and drink water. Around 8 PM I arise and am more or less back to normal. I'm hoarse but not sick.


I'm glad we did this trip. But in retrospect it was too ambitious - too long, too many cities - and with too much focus on tourist attractions like museums and churches. Also, any future travel with Noah must address his sleeping issues - separate room, sleeping pills, and/or earplugs.

Copyright 2024 © David P. Anderson