There were three highlights during our trip to Rome and the Amalfi coast, but first:
Dollars and Euros, Dec 2015
EUR 0.8 for a Dollar *
EUR 0.67 for a Dollar
EUR 0.93 for a Dollar **
Taxi vs. Uber
We stayed at Via Sforza, 10, 00184 Roma, Italy.
Taxi charge from our Hotel to the Termini Railway Station was EUR 7, plus tips.
Uber charge from our Hotel to the Termini Railway Station was EUR 10, plus tips. The Uber driver couldn’t thank us enough for choosing him and earned a happy tip.
As an aside, the missus and I walked all over this ancient city while our 20 year old Uberd to his places of interest after spending a couple of days with us.
If you’re looking for winter cheer between Christmas and New Year’s Day, you would probably do (very) well choosing Rome over Milan, Berlin, Paris, London, Edinburgh, New York, Washington DC, San Francisco or Tokyo. Open air celebrations and festivities are in full swing in several corners of Rome during that time and not concentrated in one part of town as in the other cities.
(Christmas Markets in Germany and Eastern Europe are also prolific and attractive, have authentic food, warm gluhwein, goods crafted locally with german precision – not made in China – and also typically have humorous, high energy and sometimes artistic performances. Unfortunately most of them close down by Christmas Eve and are dark through New Year’s Day).
One of the seminal frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, that of God creating Adam has been imbued with relatively new meaning. Michelangelo, apparently without the knowledge of his sponsor, Pope Julius II, used his expertise of neuroanatomy (Michaelangelo studied cadavers) and ensconced God within an anatomically correct Human Brain in his painting. This portrayal of the brain along with other anatomical renderings, remained a “secret” through the centuries although it has been in the plain view of millions of visitors. The apparent secret was uncovered in 1990.
Michelangelo and Da Vinci were contemporary artists. Da Vinci was actually well known as a master of the human anatomy but was not commissioned to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. His professional practice was generally restricted to the north of Italy (typically Milan and Florence). Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Julius II to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (1508-1512) and in addition to painting classical and legendary frescoes for the centuries, apparently managed to instill and preserve his secret.
The concealment of the brain probably lays testimony to the fact that anatomical depictions were discouraged by Pope Julius II. Incidentally, Pope Pius IV had fig leaves and loin cloths painted on the same ceiling, strategically positioned to render modesty to the nudes (1560s). The fig leaves and loin cloths were removed by a team sponsored by a Japanese TV station, that did major restoration work on the ceiling, using experts from Italy and Europe, starting in the 1990s.
The colors on the ceiling are more vivid than they appeared during our visit a couple of decades ago, when the Japanese restoration was in progress. The color contrasts this time were also more pronounced. It was hard for me to believe that the legs of Jonas were not actually dangling down from the ceiling instead of being flatly painted on it, as he confronted the fish that swallowed him.
I tried “airbnb” for the first time and booked a house in Sorrento on the western coast of Italy. The owner of the house and I spoke over the phone and I requested him to help me find a driver for a day as we wanted to see the Amalfi coastline.
The owner, Carlo, volunteered to drive me around. I objected, as I was looking for an expert driver who could give me a professional tour. He simply said, “Just come and you will have the best day in your life.”
Carlo picked us up at the Sorrento train station. His house was perched on high ground and had a terrace with a picturesque view, overlooking a bit of the town below, the Napoli bay with ships plying on it, and the Vesuvius volcano across the bay.
We wanted to set out early next day for our drive. Carlo informed me that he would charge us EUR 100 for an 8 hour tour, everything included, and that he’d drive us as far south as Maoiri. I was taken aback as I had seen prices on the internet averaging EUR 300 for similar trips, albeit in luxury cars. I told Carlo I couldn’t do that (shortchange him) and that I’d pay him EUR 150.
It turned out to be one of the best days of my life. My 20 year old, who finds it unfashionable (uncool?) to exude exuberance, blurted out the same sentiment involuntarily.
A two lane highway hugs the cliffs over the Mediterranean zig zagging left then right, rolling up and down. We passed massive, sheer white stone surfaces on the left with the coastline on the right as we ventured south. Carlo stopped frequently on the verge of successive precipices and told us a little bit about the local towns by the sea. (On the way back he insisted on stopping at the same spots, to afford us a nocturnal view of the twinkling lights above and below us).
He was full of information on the locale (and also personal milestones such as his breakup with his girlfriend, as we passed the hotel where she is an employee). At a museum stop at Ravello, when my wife asked where a statue was from, he actually looked up a book and read my wife the answer. At Amalfi, he circled Piazza Flavio Giola, couldn’t find parking, kept going, returned and dropped us off for lunch, and said he’d join us soon. I came back half an hour later to the Piazza and he was still circling and missed lunch. He joined us for coffee stops at Positano and Minori and was obsessed with saving us money on food and shopping.
Carlo took us to a place where he had not been before, Grotta Dello Smeraldo. We took an elevator down to sea level. The caves were half submerged in water and (brief) boat rides were available inside them. Sunlight entered the dark caves through underwater cracks in the cliffs, casting an eerie emerald hue. Unfortunately the local Italian boatmen inside the grotto have been brazened by the tourist trade and were loud, taking away from the serenity. They provided a sharp contrast with Carlo’s classical Italian persona (typically squeezing his upturned fingers on both hands and using his face and wide eyes to express himself emphatically).
By the end of our 12 hour ride, we had walked around Positano, Priano, Amalfi, Minori, Ravello and driven through Maiori. Except for the last town, each of the stops were unique, colorful and vibrant.
In summer, the roads are clogged particularly with huge tourist buses, and it may not be possible to do this trip in a day. It is also quite humid in the summer away from the sea. It was not freezing in December but the downside attributes of winter are the cold beaches and water.
I seemed to have enjoyed Carlo’s company even more than the sightseeing. His mother made breakfast in the mornings (we had taken a Turkish glassware as a gift for her after reading about her on airbnb reviews), and I joked that I wanted to adopt her son and bring him to the US. She said she’d be happy to be rid of him.
Carlo dropped us off at Sorrento station at 9am on our third day and said he’d be looking towards Mount Vesuvius at 12 noon because he knew we’d be on the volcano at that time. I reached out my right hand and touched his cheek and we were both misty eyed as I said I’d miss him too.
Rome – Roma – Roma – Roma
Aside from the Vatican, Rome has many unforgettable gems, most within walking distance of each other, and we (my better half and I that is) walked to them all. Mind you, I had hauled a wheelchair for my spouse all the way from Maryland to Italy, because she sustained an injury before our travel, but she not only walked to the spots once, but repeatedly.
Trevi of course takes the cake. After years, the fountain itself is free of all construction, and glitters unencumbered day and night. (Thanks to Fendi for footing the EUR 2.5 million restoration bill. Private entities are helping out all over Italy while the economy deals with challenges). Trevi attracts consistent crowds whether it's mid day or midnight and many jockey for a position to throw a coin over their shoulders into the fountain. People doing that are "guaranteed" to return to the fountain. (Approximately Eur 3,000 is collected nightly from the fountain, or $1.26M annually, and distributed to charities).
The Colosseum was built from 70 through 80 AD on top of Nero's palace after he was vanquished. Gladiators and exotic animals killed other gladiators/animals over 400 years inside this unique, complex stadium. The massive floor of the arena, which had trap doors (atop elevators coming up from the dungeons below) to introduce ferocious anmials suddenly to the gladiators, was also transformed to hold a body of water and accommodate simulated sea battles. Admission then was always free but the lower classes sat farthest away from the action. (The current renovation of the Colosseum is being supported by Diego Della Valle - of Todd's Shoes, to the tune of EUR 25 million).
I had bought expensive “avoid the lines” tickets online for a guided tour of the Colosseum, but discarded them (because although I did not need to stand in line, I’d have to wait a precious half a day for the tour to start). We bought new tickets again for a guided tour to enter sooner.
The Pantheon, Navona, the Forum and the Spanish Steps with Bernini’s “ugly boat” alongside filled my soul. We returned to each of these architectural spectacles time and again trying to absorb the history and the art to the dregs of our capacity.
The Pantheon is almost 2,000 years old and still hosts the largest unsupported dome in the world. It was built as a temple, and is now a church. Along the way, 200 tons of bronze was removed from it and taken to St. Peter's Basilica (and now forms the canopy under St. Peter's dome). Raphael (Raffaello Sanzi) was laid to rest inside the Pantheon. Next to him is the grave of his fiance, Maria Bibbiena, whom he never married.
Piazza Navona has four fountains representing four major rivers and two smaller fountains off to the sides. Remnants of the Forum mark the ancient center of Rome. Keats and Shelly became world famous by the time of their early deaths at ages 25 and 30 respectively, and Keats' last abode at the bottom of the Spanish Steps has been memorialized as the Keats Shelly House.
We sat down for snacks at a sidewalk table of a restaurant facing the Colosseum. Our 20 year old "thought we were having dinner" (with the bright sun shining in his face), and ordered steak. An Irish (or were they Scottish?) couple sitting at the next table shared with us that their air tickets to Rome had cost them only 24 euros each. They were aghast when I shared with them that my son's steak had set me back by 94 euros. The wait staff actively encouraged (demanded?) tips. Unfortunately many stores and restaurants around the landmarks have inflated prices without the supporting ambiance, taste or service.
There are other stores selling edibles, drinks and stationary which are scrupulously honest. One such gem is at Trevi, called Forno (to the left when facing the fountain where Piazza di Trevi changes its name to Via delle Muratte).
New Year’s eve found us on the ramparts of the Colosseum. We popped a bottle of champagne at midnight, as did others in the midst of thousands of tourists from all over the planet, hooting and hollering. Fireworks and balloons carrying lamps were released by members of the gathered public as a multitude of small scale impromptu celebrations broke out. I had actually expected a major firework display, but nevertheless, the overall mood was electric and I hope I can visit again on another New Year's eve.
New Year’s fireworks occur at many attractions all over this great city.
As we stood at Pompeii next to dainty slender pillars belonging to ancient buildings the realization that this ground was buried under 15 feet of volcanic ash and that forests existed at one time above the level of our heads, made me wonder if these delicate stone structures survived the centuries because they were buried. Excavation started in 1748 and is ongoing. Incidentally, the tour guide, if knowledgeable, makes a definite difference in the attention span and learning curve of visitors, particularly the younger ones.
One should not, if possible, “do” Pompeii and Vesuvius in one day, as one or both experiences will get shortchanged. By the way, Vesuvius is still smoking. In celebration of our ascent, my son and I both lit up, tossing our health to the volcanic wind. Yes, the missus made it all the way up also. No she did not smoke and was livid that I was corrupting our son. I wasn’t, Vesuvius was.
* BWI Currency Exchange - The final amount we received in Euros was after the imposition of Exchange Rates and all fees for the transaction. The BWI counter offered us a lower fee (with respect to its regular fee) because $1,250 exceeded their threshold for a lower fee.
**The PenFed Visa cash advance, received at an ATM at Trevi, was paid off immediately on returning to the US and no charges were levied for this transaction. Additionally, unlike most VISA cards, no foreign transaction fee was imposed by PenFed for purchases we made with this card in Italy. We pay no annual fee for carrying PenFed Visa. (PenFed Visa was contacted prior to travel to allow the card to be used in Italy).
ATM limitations and risks: Bank Accounts typically have a daily limit on the amount of cash that can be withdrawn from ATMs. I held a book vertically over my right wrist as I used the fingers of my right hand to enter my Personal Identification Number, to mitigate potential risks such as prying external telescopic cameras attempting to record my PIN.