November 13, 2016
We start our day in Orbetello with a small caffè and a moment saying goodbye to our furry friend who’s been calling the space behind Nita’s back and the chair home for the past few days. Rather than heading straight south along the coast, we decide to head inland along some nice looking roads towards Lake Bracciano which will bring us into Roma from the north and right into Ponte Milvio where we’ll be staying for the next twelve days. Once again we’re avoiding the toll-roads and we’re rewarded with some beautifully winding tarmac that takes us into the mountains and the towns that line their sides. Along the length of the SP3a we pass through Allumiere and then Tolfa which is incredibly lively for it’s location. The streets are buzzing while a market is in full-swing and as we stop to change batteries in our GoPros, a crazy-looking accordionist stops by the bikes to play us a tune.
Outside of Tolfa, the road reaches upwards and the temperatures continue to drop, coming to rest just above freezing. Around one corner the rear of my bike breaks free for a moment and steps out in protest as the mixture of cold air and moisture on the roads make for an “exciting” mix. Easing back on the throttle, we wind our way down the pass towards Maziana before rounding the southern end of the lake towards Bracciano – the starting point for our push southeast towards rome. On a map it’s distance would have us believe that we’re still miles away from our initiation to riding the Roman roads, but almost instantly the traffic is bumper to bumper and remains that way for the next hour into the capital city. Contrary to our belief that we’d feel as if we’re being thrown into the deep end, we stay quite relaxed as we negotiate the general mayhem; perhaps it’s the cumulative riding experience up to this point, but the busy streets of Rome don’t seem to faze us in the least.
At last, with cramping clutch hands, we arrive at our apartment in Ponte Milvio and are greeted by Carla and her sister Georgia, the owners. Impeccably dressed and speaking very good English, the sisters show us around the apartment and in no time we’re settled and feeling quite at home. Outside, the honking of horns is incessant – as is the drone of sirens. It’s been a while since we’ve been in a city like this! Our apartment is ideally located – while far enough away from the tourist spots to experience local life, it’s close to a tram line that, with a little effort and a couple of transfers, gets us to the sights in about fifteen minutes. The bikes have a secure garage and the apartment, with it’s safe-grade door and three cast-iron gates, is probably the most secure place we’ve ever been in! In reality though, the neighborhood is fantastic and at no point do we feel the extra security is needed.
With the morning caffè long gone, we head out to explore the neighborhood and grab a late lunch. Just around the corner from the apartment are a wealth of restaurants and bars and it’s hard not to notice that Ponte Milvio is a pretty hip place. Bustling with young and beautiful people, the patios are full of folks having furiously animated conversations. We find a little spot on the patio of a bar around the corner, grab a caffè, devour a panini and relax into our new home. The staff here are lovely and we’re happy to spend a moment here digesting the fact we’ve made it to Rome on our bikes. With a supermarket and lively street-vendors in all directions, we feel right at home.
The weather for the next week is all over the place and when we wake up the skies are grey but there’s no rain in the forecast. There’s a camping store – Campo Base – that I’d like to check out that’s a straight-shot south of our apartment along Via Flaminia. The walk there provides a nice look into life across the river Tevere (Tiber) where the quiet streets are still, somehow, jammed with parked cars. A homeless man wakes up long enough to shoo some pigeons away from his stash of food and brown bags before looking our way and passing out. Down the lane three more homeless men find a bench nearby and settle into a conversation while passing a bottle back and forth. At least one person in every place we’ve visited in Italy has mentioned the state of the economy here and in Rome the effects of unemployment and an uncertain future are apparent on many of its streets.
Along the road next to our home, BMW is offering demo rides of their scooters, which seems rather random until a billboard catches our eyes – the Italian motorcycle show, Motodays, will be at Fiera di Roma while we’re here – on the rainiest days of the upcoming week. Perfect! The camping store works out well and we’re able to restock a few supplies before heading back towards Ponte Milvio. After a nice home-cooked meal we step out to the bar for a couple of drinks where a €7 bevy also gets us all the food we can eat, making it a great way to get dinner in the coming days. Even though we’re still full from dinner our waiter is compelled to bring food to the table and, while we nibble, we daren’t empty the plate knowing more is certain to show up.
The rain starts to move in, and the next day is a wash-out. Between writing and editing photos, we make a quick run to an amazing pasticceria just behind the apartment. Lined with beautiful pastries the process for actually getting them out of the display case and onto our plates is a complete mystery. Getting in line, I muddle through some truly terrible Italian while pointing at a number of tiny bundles of flavor. The woman is smiling patiently and eventually I have my selection before heading towards a different counter for a caffè. The old man at this counter is far from patient – in fact, he simply ignores me assuming I’ve come to the wrong counter to pay for my treats. I notice other people simply yelling orders in his general direction and that seems to do the trick – though it’s a different gent who picks up my order. With caffè in hand I make my way to the third, and final counter. The woman at the till returns me to the world of warm, kind folk and soon enough Nita and I are sitting on a covered patio listening to the rain fall and the hum of conversations we don’t understand.
It’s on this patio Nita and I realize that, with the removal of language, we’re incredibly dependant on process. For example, if we were to walk into a restaurant without knowing a word of the local language, we’ll generally go through the same stages as we would at home – a greeting, a definition of service (“Dinner or drinks?”), the scope of that service (“Table for two.”) – and so on. The removal of that system of processes – like here in this pasticceria – creates confusion, mild panic and head sweats! Another aspect that throws those sweats into overdrive is the idea that we’ll get everything we order, and be able – no, encouraged – to leave the building and return to pay when we’re done. There’s an amazing trust in peoples honour which seems so, well, adult.
We wake the following day to a wonderful golden glow streaming in through the windows. The sun’s arrived and we’ll be taking full advantage of it today. The Mancini tram is a short ten minute walk away from us and we quickly figure out how to use it. Tickets can be bought from tobacconists with a white “T” on their signs and each tram has a validation machine onboard. Failing to validate the ticket can result in a fine that needs to be paid immediately although we never see anyone checking fares; yet another system built on trust. In no time we arrive at Piazzale Flaminia with the masses of people working their way through Piazza del Popolo, past the Obelisk of Ramses II and we’re instantly inundated with sensory overload. Everywhere we turn, visitors are having their pictures taken against a backdrop of ancient buildings and narrow streets. It’s wonderful and overwhelming.
In the piazza, and endless throng of Indian street-sellers push their wares into our hands and one physically separates Nita from me, nudging her towards the obelisk while keeping himself positioned between us. An incessant “Buy, buy, buy” is repeated inches from her ear as he pushes a flower into her hand. Finally, he “gives” her a flower as a gift before turning and asking me for money. Welcome to the tourist zone! Refusing the gift and calling him on his con, he finally leaves us alone but I’m definitely irritated – more by the fact that we let him split us up and control our movement than the con itself. We make a mental note to do better next time.
We pass to the right of Chiesa di Santa Maria dei Miracoli, one of the twin churches that divides the south exit of the piazza into three roads and begin our walk to Vatican City and St. Peters square. Across the Tevere, we pass the Palazzo di Giustizia and continue along the river to Castel Sant’Angelo where a long line of street vendors and tourists are entertained by musicians and performers. A lone drummer hammers away at a number of repurposed buckets and bottles while another man creates massive bubble – much to the delight of some kids. Further along, an invisible man reclines in a chair against the burnt orange of a stone wall and, if not for a fidget here and there, we’d never know it was a performance. This part of Rome feels like a stage and we’re thoroughly enjoying the show.
Before entering into Vatican City we decide to grab a bite at a caffè and, for the first time, we fall prey to a tourist bar! We’re so hungry we fail to look into prices or the menu and we’re oblivious to the absence of locals. The waiter is, of course, very polite and we each order our usual mid-afternoon snack: a caffè, a water and a pastry. Normally, we’re lucky to break €5 for the pair of us at a local caffè but here, with the addition of a single salad, we hit €60! As in $80! So this is why there aren’t any prices on these menus… It’s a painful lesson but, to be honest, completely our fault. It usually takes the smallest of efforts to avoid this but today we’re too hungry, and too in awe of this great city to apply what we already know. The next time someone says “They charge $15 for a cup of coffee in Rome” we’ll know exactly how they travel!
Still suffering from sticker shock, we walk into Piazza San Pietro and are duly impressed; the buildings in Rome are simply so incredible it’s hard to imagine anyone being anything but. From the vastness of the Piazza to the statues that line it’s perimeter, to the dome of the Basilica itself – it’s magnificent. There’s a buzz in the piazza as the crowds await conclave and the naming of a new pope after the sudden resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. Around the entry to the piazza, television crews are busily setting up their temporary studios and aiming their cameras at the chimney-stack where the faithful await a plume of white smoke announcing a new spiritual leader. We spend a long time in the piazza taking it all in. Faith or no faith, there’s a wonderful energy in this place.
On our walk towards the Pantheon, I remember our friend Brock mentioning the Ducati Caffè and, thanks to the phones, we figure out we’re right by it. I’ve loved Duc’s for a long time and t-shirt Brock brought back from his visit to the caffè is one of my favorites. We’re surprised to find the caffè reasonably priced, nicely designed and staffed by folks who are lovely and warm. After giving our feet a brief break we continue on our way to the Pantheon and, having approached it from the back, are completely unprepared for how imposing and wonderful it is.
Lit by a solitary opening at the top of it’s dome, it’s interior somehow remains still even when it’s filled with visitors. One of the best-preserved buildings from Ancient Rome, being here somehow makes us feel small. The air inside is cool and, after taking our time walking it’s circumference and craning our necks upward, we make our way back into the bustling piazza outside. Winding our way down narrow streets we make our way to the Fontana di Trevi – along with about ten thousand other visitors! It’s hard not to use words like “Incredible” or “Awesome” over and over again when describing the sights of Rome – but they almost require it. The Trevi is no different – it’s scale is incredible, and the detail goes beyond our own imagination.
With the light quickly fading and the late Italian dinner time fast approaching, we walk past the Scalinata della Trinità dei Monti and, tucked down a side lane, we see a sign advertising “Beer” with an arrow pointing inside and “No Beer” pointing out. Sharing a laugh with the host, we walk a little further down the street and find a lovely restaurant with a heated patio called Il Brillo Parlante. We enjoy a wonderful meal and head back toward the tram only to realize that we haven’t bought tickets for the return ride and the tobacconist’s are all closed. Luckily the Piazzale Flaminia is the end of the line so there’s an automated vendor – something that can’t be said for most of the stations along the tram lines. For €24 we opt to buy a weeks pass which, amazingly, gives us access to trams, buses, the metro and the regional train line! It’s a great deal for anyone interested in booting around Rome free of their gear.
The next day is our first attempt at the metro – Romes underground. There are only two lines in the city which, we’re told, is due to the difficulty in excavating a city with so many buried historical sites. Construction is stopped when a potential site is found and can be held up indefinitely until a proper archaeological dig has been completed. It doesn’t seem to effect the ease of mass transit here, it’s as good as any of the other major cities we’ve visited. The one drawback of having only two lines, is that the major hub where they meet (Termini) is very busy, but as we make the transfer from Metro A to Metro B, we simply take a deep breath and enjoy the ride to Colosseo. So far the city’s transit system has proven to be pretty simple to navigate.
Emerging from the stop at Colosseo we’re almost instantly presented with the awe-inspiring view that is the Colosseum. Since I was a child I’ve imagined what it would be like to be here, standing in it’s shadow. It’s more grand than I could imagine and the sun is pouring onto it, dousing it in a beautiful golden glow. We’re both lost for words. Making our way through the street-vendors, the tour-guides and the line of visitors, we finally make it into the building and, for two hours, we walk the corridors where gladiators walked, crowds roared and the most horrific of sports played out. Being here conjures up so many mixed feelings; it’s beautiful and yet it’s history is not. We feel fortunate to be here, walking the ancient and uneven stairs that fall away from us with every step and feel far to tall – even for me. It’s brilliant.
With our time amidst the ghosts of the colosseum at an end, we make our way to a restaurant with a great view of the ancient building. With the sting of our €60 caffè at Vatican City still fresh in our minds, we take our time making sure we’re not going to suffer the same fate twice. In actuality, the two restaurants we check-out seem quite fair and we choose the one with craziest owner. For entertainment. He’s wonderfully animated and filled with pride about his restaurants which endears us to him immediately. Over the course of our lunch he continues to tell us about the quality of his food, the amazing location and the other fine restaurants he’s a part of. He also repeatedly tells us how his various pricing schemes make so much sense over anything the competition has – even though we’re already eating! In fact the only time he stops telling us how smart we are to have picked his restaurant is when one of his staff brings out a giant plate of pasta for him to eat. Ah, the sound of silence.
Nicely fueled for our next leg of the journey, we visit the Arco di Costantino before heading to the ruins at Termi di Caracalla which are unfortunately closed. Still, we walk the perimeter of the ruins and even from a distance the archways and buildings are impressive. Our feet are beginning to complain and, with the sun setting, we start making our way back to the apartment. On our way we pass a number of gypsy women on the streets – something we often see in larger cities. In the past two days we’ve seen two women laying stretched across the sidewalk, facedown, hands firmly clasped in prayer – hoping for a donation. Seeing someone in this position is difficult, and the answer to “What’s the right thing to do?” is never as easy as we’d like to believe – unless we simply distill it to “Help.” Sometimes that may be a donation, but most of the time it’s got to be something more – something that requires more from us than simply reaching into a pocket. Change requires effort.
Despite our sore legs, we get up the next day excited to hit Motodays at Fiera di Roma and see what a motorcycle show in Rome is like. Fiera di Roma is outside of the city to the west – close to the airport – so unless we want to pay a fortune to a cabbie we need to figure out a way to get there by transit. Luckily, there’s a train that drops us off right outside the North gate – all it takes it is a tram, two metros and the regional train to get us there. All in all, it takes about thirty minutes – not bad considering all of the transit is covered by our week-long pass. In fact the only stresses on the trip are not knowing for certain if the fare on the regional train is covered by the weeks-pass (it is) and the fact that our stop isn’t listed anywhere on the train-line maps in the carriages. Luckily, the station at Fiera di Roma is impossible to miss – the complex of exhibitor halls is massive.
The show is quite something. Taking up the first seven buildings, it’s a motorcycle event of epic proportions. Every brand seems to be present and the main booths are well-designed and massive. We love going to these events on a Thursday or Friday since they’re relatively quiet and we get free reign of the place as we walk the complex. The highlight of the day has to be meeting Marcello Carucci a wonderful man who’s travelled over a million kilometres in the past thirty-five years. Speaking with Marcello is Dr. Cortelessa, who helps with our conversation and explains that Marcello puts most of those kilometres on his bike during his summer holidays while he takes a break from being a school-teacher. Both men are proud, warm characters and our time speaking with them leaves us feeling inspired.
After hours of walking the floors, we make our way back to Ponte Milvio and discover that our €7 dinner and drink special happens everyday! A pipe on the patio watching the happy-hour crowd come and go is a perfect way to end another busy day in Rome.
The sun is shining brightly the next morning but we’re not going anywhere. The aching in my legs keeps me up most of the night but, as it subsides, I’m feeling really happy with the amount of Rome we’ve seen over the past few days. Rather than continue to punish ourselves, we decide to spend the day working on the site and taking short walks through the neighborhood. We break for a quick caffè at the pasticceria around the corner and find the ladies still lovely and the one gent still particularly grumpy – but at least he’s grumpy with everyone!
With our legs feeling somewhat normal again the following morning, we take advantage of what looks to be our last sunny day in Rome. Again we take the tram, two metros and a different regional train to Ostia Antica, which was once a major harbor city for Ancient Rome. Because of it’s distance west of the capital, Ostia Antica is much more quiet than the other sites we’ve seen and being able to walk freely amongst the ruins also helps us feel more connected to the history of this wonderful place. It takes us hours to walk through the ancient streets, enjoying an impromptu performance by a drama-school teen at the amphitheater before heading over a bridge towards the water. This place simply feels special. We rest our legs while we enjoy a caffè before making our way back to the train station for the trip back into Rome. Getting off of the metro at Spagna, we slowly wander the lively Via del Babuino before enjoying another great meal at Il Brillo Parlante and heading home.
Our last few days in Rome are spent working around the weather which has brought torrential rain in fits and spurts, and lighter rain more steadily. The only mode of public transit we haven’t taken yet is the bus – which we remedy with a bus ride to Libia street in the northeast. It’s definitely a newer part of the city but even without ruins at every corner, it’s a lovely area to visit. Our first attempt at getting a photograph in front of the Libia sign at the metro-station quickly goes sideways as we’re chased out of the building by an over-zealous security guard. No photos in metro-stations. Got it. Just outside of the station we get the pic for my uncle – with the political situation in Libya, mixed with the difficulty in obtaining a transit Visa, this may be as close to visiting that country as we get. Well, there is the border in Tunisia… which will likely happen!
We finish our time in Rome with Sunday markets in Ponte Milvio and pizza at a wonderful place around the corner from our apartment where the food is fantastic and the service is equally as good. The steady diet of bread and pasta is definitely taking it’s toll – but it’s so hard to say no to the wonderful cooking in this country! Rome has been truly eye-opening; every corner presents the visitor with a new opportunity to look back in time and discover something about themselves. We’ve loved it here but we’re excited to get back on the road and back into the quiet of smaller towns on our route south.
The next morning, we’re up early packing the bikes and are ready to go by the time Carla arrives to pick up the keys. With a quick ciao, we make a right and find ourselves back in the fray of Roman traffic.