Rome take two, and the end of my Contiki tour

Our second day in Rome was better than the first. We had more time to explore, and though the weather was scorching and the tourists were rampant, we were finally able to see the city by foot and have some free to wander the streets on our own.

We began the day with a ride on the metro to the city (see my post, The downside of Rome, for why the metro was, uh, not the best experience we could have had). Then, we embarked on a brief walking tour during which our wonderful tour guide, Josie, took us through the Roman Forum and around the Colosseum, where we had to navigate through crowds of tourists while being accosted by peddlers offering “exclusive” tours. The Colosseum is as big as I had imagined. Standing next to the massive structure made me think about how small I was not just in size but in relation to to the world’s history. This amphitheater is 1,400 years older than my entire home country, and more major events have occurred there than days that I have been alive. Tourists and peddlers aside, standing outside the Colosseum was my favorite part of being in Rome.

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Our walking tour dropped us off along Via del Corso, a long street with a bunch of shops. A few friends and I  broke off from the group and visited the Disney store (my friend Sasha is obsessed!) and looked into a few other shops along the street. Afterward, we grabbed lunch at a small restaurant nearby. We were surprised by the quality of the food at the restaurant — Sasha’s pasta closely resembled Easy Mac and my pizza was nothing more than a tortilla covered in tomato paste and a few shreds of mozzarella. But we were starving and swallowed it all down, ready to get back to exploring. We stumbled upon a charming street market where we found a few souvenirs for friends and some great street art. Euro Trip Summer 2014 - Contd 151 Euro Trip Summer 2014 - Contd 160

 

After making our purchases, we continued walking down the street, shocked to find that it dropped us off right at the Trevi Fountain! Well, what was left of the fountain.

The Trevi fountain is currently under construction as the Fendi fashion house pours 2.18 million euros into restoring the historic site. While I’m glad that Rome is actively upkeeping its monuments, it was a bit of a bummer to see the fountain gutted and covered in scaffolding. But..I snapped a few pics with it anyway.

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After all of that walking around, we realized we were hungry again (that  wasn’t the most filling). So Sasha, our friend Kharah and I wandered down a few more streets until we happened upon an alluring restaurant. It was called Dakota Cafe, and I highly recommend it for anyone traveling to Rome because of the fantastic wait staff. We ordered espresso and Kahlua drinks, which were perfect and cheap, and when I spilled my friend’s drink on my white dress, a server immediately came up to me and offered to help clean up. She ran across the street and came back with a spray can and a brush. Apparently, the spray had some magical stain removing powers and I was to spray it on my dress, wait five minutes, then give the spot a good brush and I’d be good to go. It worked wonderfully, and I thanked the waitress profusely. I’m not sure if helping customers get stains out of their clothes is customary of the Roman restaurant industry, but I was blown away by the kind act regardless.

We soon left the cafe, and with only an hour left before we had to meet up with the rest of the Contiki group, we wandered around the street some more. We were not using any maps and did not know where we were, but the same way we stumbled upon the Trevi Fountain, we happened to walk right into the Pantheon. We were crunched for time, so we could not go inside, but we walked through the plaza and took in the huge, grandiose building.

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Minutes after we arrived at the Pantheon, we watched police chase down a street merchant who had been caught selling illegal merchandise. It was a riveting burst of action at the end of our day, and definitely added excitement to the adventure. And don’t worry, the police caught the guy.

We then headed back the Colosseum to meet up with our tour guide and snapped a few more pictures with the extravagant structure. All three of us were disappointed we did not have enough time to go inside, but we figured we still had a great day and we would just have to come back and visit again some day.

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That night, we celebrated our last night on the Contiki tour with a huge bash with our comrades. Everyone adorned themselves in “I Heart Roma” t-shirts and went to the on-site club to drink, dance and write notes on each other’s shirts with permanent markers. It was a great way to end our trip, and we all got lovely souvenirs out of it. I retired early that night, needing to get some rest for the next day, when I’d be packing up and leaving for Switzerland!

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Vatican City to Piazza Navona: My first thoughts of Rome

Ah, Roma. A city so decadent in history, yet rendered poor with the apathy of today’s peddlers. Our time in Rome had its ups and downs, to say the least; but Rome was a beautiful city and I just don’t think I had the chance to get to know it to its fullest extent. I’m sure I’ll go back someday — though now, I think I’ll travel to a few other paces on my bucket list first.

So, okay, from the beginning. We left Florence in our usual style — bright and early — and headed straight to the Vatican. The ride was short, and most of us slept on our way there. When we got to Vatican City, all 45 of us got dropped off at a bus port in a few steps away from the entrance to the Vatican Museum. We met the guide who would be escorting us through the museum, and received our headphones for the walking tour she’d be narrating. Then, we stepped inside. Immediately, we knew that this was a bad day to visit the Vatican.

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Apparently, the next day was a holiday and the Vatican Museum was closing early. Consequently, everyone and their mother was at the Vatican to celebrate the holiday and get into the museum before it closed. Tourists from all over the world surrounded us as we embarked on our tour through the grounds. Our tour guide had to hold up a purple umbrella for use to see her above the other tourists’ heads. Inside the museum we could not see much of what lined the walls because there were so many people crowding the tiny hallways. We could at least see what was above, which were beautiful ceilings intricately composed with Christian paintings and sculptures. Though I could not see the majority of what we were walking through, I was still humbled by the pure fact that we were inside the most significant building in the Christian world.

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We ended our tour in the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo, you do not disappoint. Talking was not permitted inside the chapel, which finally gave everyone the opportunity to peacefully soak in the beauty surrounding us. We stayed inside long enough to look at every panel of the Renaissance masterpiece, and then headed back outside into the square. A few of us had a quick glimpse into St. Peter’s Basilica, another humbling and surreal experience, but quickly had to rejoin the rest of our group and hop back on the Contiki bus.

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After leaving the Holy City, we took a quick driving tour around the Rome, passing the Colosseum, Palatino and Piazza Venezia Vittoriano. Rome is unlike any city I’ve ever seen. The city is speckled with Ancient ruins, yet has a Starbucks or Zara on every corner (okay, maybe not every corner, but you get the idea). Looking at the  buildings whose heydays were nearly 2000 years ago (the Colosseum opened 80 A.D.), I could not believe that they were preserved for centuries. It was almost saddening to see people walk by these ruins with their headphones in, playing on their iPhones, completely desensitized to the history surrounding them.

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Our coach dropped us off for dinner in Piazza Novona, a beautiful city square on the site of the Stadium of Domitian. Knowing the restaurants along the Piazza would be pricey, a few friends and I ventured outside the plaza to find a nice quiet place to eat. We settled on a cute little corner café with outdoor seating and friendly Italian waiters. Craving something somewhat healthy after days of engorging on pizza, I ordered a caprese salad. It was exquisite.

Sitting at that corner café, enjoying Italian food and watching locals zoom by on their Vespas, I realized I had been pretty critical of Rome so far. While some parts disappointed me, like the crowded Vatican and the complete modernization of the areas surrounding the ruins, I recognized I had set my expectations too high. I needed to forget about my preconceived notions of the city and just focus on what was in front of me. Rome is truly charming, with cobblestone streets and picturesque crème and preach-colored buildings that look exactly like the movies. There was beauty all around me, I just had to look through the bad stuff to find it.

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After dinner, we grabbed some gelato (of course), then hopped back on the coach and headed to our campsite. This was the last city on the Contiki tour, and our last time setting up camp together. Back at the site, my friend Sasha and I grabbed our iPads and went to the on-site bar for WiFi so that we could Skype with our friends and family back home. Though everyone else was drinking, it was a quiet and peaceful night for us and we got much-needed rest for our next day in Rome.

The downside of Rome

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I’ve heard horror stories about tourists and even experienced travelers getting scammed in Europe, but to this point, the scams I’ve experienced have been identifiable and therefore harmless. But Rome is an exception.

On the train ride from our Contiki campsite to the Colosseum, two of my friends caught pickpocketers attempting to get into their purses and pockets. They were incredibly fortunate that they caught the bandits (who quickly bolted off) before they could do any real harm, but the theft attempts were still highly unnerving.

Along with seeing pickpocketers, I have never seen so many beggars on the streets before. They constantly approach people, begging for money, muttering words that are incomprehensible in even their native languages. And the street venders are ruthless. To every person who passes by, they say they have “a special deal for you” and force you to tell them what item of their selection you like the most. Then they tell you how much money you have to give them for it and persist until they make a sale. Ruthless.

I needed a pair of sunglasses one day and figured I’d get them from a street vendor because prices on the street are generally much cheaper than those in stores. I began looking over the selection a man had laid out and he asked me what pair I wanted. I said I was just browsing, and he immediately picked up a pair of sunglasses and said “these.” I tried them on, didn’t like them, and asked to look at another pair. Of course this excited the man, who though this was his chance to make a double sale. He just start ether handing me sunglasses after sunglasses until finally I found a pair that I liked and I skied how much they cost. “45 euros,” he said.

I laughed out loud of course. I wasn’t trying to be mean, but I couldn’t help but find humor in that this man though he could actually sell a pair of $3 sunglasses for €45. I said no thanks, and went to walk away, but then he motioned to me to stay. He said, “Okay, how about two pairs for 60.” I told him I had no more than 5 euros and didn’t intend on spending any more than that.

“How about €25?” I laughed again. “No thanks,” I repeated. This time I was really trying to walk away but he poked my arm from behind and said “Okay, okay, okay, 15.” I asked him not to touch me and pulled away. But I was waiting for my friends to be done at the next stand over, so I could not go far away from where I was standing.

But again he poked me, this time also grabbing my arm. Clinging to me, he said, “Fine! I sell to you for five!” Fortunately, my friend Sasha oversaw this and screamed at him to let me go. He hesitantly released me and I scurried away, making sure I got out of his eye sight. I told my friends where I was going and told them to meet me there when they were done. I couldn’t believe the man had been so forceful about selling me a pair of sunglasses. The ordeal was uncomfortable, borderline scary, and completely unnecessary — not something I want to remember about Rome.

But while I was trying to erase that memory from my brain, another dumb scam happened to me. At the Termini station in Rome, I was patiently waiting to board my train to Zurich. While I walked toward the platform, a few people came up to me asking if I needed help. I knew that they were just scammers looking to make money off of me, so I just denied and kept walking each time.

When I finally reached my train platform, a man in a dark blue suit was standing at the entrance of the train and asked to see my ticket. Assuming he was with the train company, I showed it to him and he directed me toward my carriage. But then a red flag was raised when he picked up my suitcase and started carrying it towards the carriage. I looked around and saw no other patrons getting help with carrying their luggage to the train. Uh oh.

The man began walking so quickly, I had to jog a little to keep up. I was so nervous that he had my belongings; I thought he was trying to steal them! But he got to my carriage, with me in tow, watching him lift my luggage into the overhead compartment above my seat. I thanked him for his help, and then he put his hand out and asked for five euros. Fooled again!! I gave him a €2 coin and told him that was all I had. He said he really needed five, but again I denied him. Getting the idea, he walked away, and I took my seat. Moments later, I saw him carrying someone else’s luggage onto the train.

Of course, I understand cultural and regional differences. But sometimes I find it so hard to understand the nerve of some people to go out of their way to scam others. These people didn’t make me think any less of the beautiful city that is Rome, but it absolutely made me lose some confidence in humanity. Like, c’mon. If people are smart enough to devise plans like these to get money out of people, they’re smart enough to go into a better profession! Easier said than done, I know, but I really think that there are ways we can help people help themselves. But I know it will take some time.