Saturday, July 16, 2011

May 2011 Trip Part 1 - Rome

In May, Ashley and I were able to take a couple of weeks off for an awesome vacation to Rome and the Greek Islands of Mykonos and Santorini.  What made the trip even better was that we kicked things at the fabulous Excellence Playa Mujeres resort Mexico celebrating the wedding of our friends Amy and Jeff.  There's a lot to cover from this trip so I'm going to break it up into two posts, one on Rome and one on Mykonos and Santorini.

We had a couple of reasons for choosing to go to Rome.  One reason is that it is a fairly short flight to Greece from Rome.  The other reason is that we had heard it is one of the best cities to visit in Europe.  We were definitely not disappointed.  We visited Rome for two nights before going to Greece and due to the flight schedule we spend another night in Rome on the way back home.  This gave us roughly 2 1/2 days to explore the city which was just enough to introduce us to its awesomeness and build a desire to make a return trip.

I think Rome is an amazing city.  It's one that I definitely want to visit several more times.  You definitely feel like you are in Europe when you are walking the tight, winding streets bound by old, mid-rise buildings.  There is an energy to the city that is hard to describe.  There is amazing food. There is a ton of history.  Bottom line, there's a lot to love about Rome.

We landed early on a Monday morning and made it through the airport much faster than expected.  Much to our surprise, there was no thorough passport check like we endure coming into the US.  We then grabbed our bags and headed out to find our transportation.  Before the trip, I had arranged transport from the airport to our hotel through Rome Shuttle Limousine based on recommendations in a FlyerTalk forum thread for our hotel in Rome.  The booking process for the transportation was quite different than I'm used to.  I filled out a form on the company's website.  They sent me an email asking me to confirm.  I responded with confirmation.  There was nothing beyond that.  I was left hoping that there would be someone at the airport to pick me up.  Sure enough, someone was there with our name on a sign.  This was a common trend throughout our trip.  When someone says they'll do something, they do it without needing reconfirmation.  I think I've been conditioned here in the US that I have to follow up on bookings/reservations/etc to make sure that it's been done.  Anyway, the driver led us out to a shiny, black Mercedes Benz sedan, and we had a comfortable 40 minute ride to our hotel, the Rome Cavalieri.  This is a gorgeous hotel set on a hillside about a 10 minute drive from the main part of Rome.  We were fortunate that we were able to use points to stay here as it was an extremely nice hotel.  The only downside is that the distance from central Rome, but this didn't really bother us as we only stayed there two nights.  We also took advantage of Ashley's Hilton status to get free access to the spa.  We had heard from another couple that it was really nice, so we checked it out on our second day after walking all over Rome.  It was definitely worth checking out and get us into a more relaxed mood.

Hotel Cavalieri
For our one night stay in Rome on the way back from Greece, we stayed at the Hilton Rome Airport hotel which had two great benefits.  The first was the convenient location by the airport for our morning departure to the US, and the second was a free shuttle into Rome.  This allowed us to maximize our time in Rome for the day (which was possibly the best of the three days we had there).  I'll end my rambling with a word of warning to anyone flying back to the US out of Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumcino airport.  Make sure to arrive at least 3 hours before departure of your flight.  We arrived around 2 hours before our flight, and it took us around 1.5 hours just to get past security.  The check-in/security process is highly inefficient.  After security, there is another line for passport clearance (moves fairly quickly).  Then, you have to take a bus to the terminal where the actual gates are.

Here the highlights from our time in Rome:

  • Piazza Navona - This was our first stop on our first day in Rome.  It's one of the major piazzas in Rome.  It's quite large and in the shape of an elongated oval.  Apparently, it was the site of an ancient Roman stadium.  There are a couple of fountains in the middle and cafes line the edge.  Piazza Navona is surrounded by a maze of tight alleys and streets filled with shops and restaurants.  Even though the area is touristy, it's still fun to explore.
Piazza Navona
  • Pantheon - The Pantheon was one of the sites I was most excited about seeing in Rome.  It was built in 126 AD, and it still has the world's largest unreinforced concrete dome (thanks Wikipedia).  The dome and its oculus (hole at the top of the dome) are a breathtaking site.  One of the cool effects of the oculus is the beam of sunlight that it allows inside of the building.  There is very little lighting otherwise so the effect is quite dramatic.  The design of the Pantheon has been an inspiration for quite a few structures including the dome of the US Capitol building and the University of Virginia's Rotunda.
Pantheon Oculus
  • Trevi Fountain - This is apparently a must see.  While it's a really cool fountain with all of the statues, there were so many people packed into the small area around it that it was hard to enjoy it.  We were there on a Monday before Rome's busy season.  I can't imagine what it's like on a weekend during the summer.  We didn't spend a lot of time here, but we did check it off the list.
Trevi Fountain
  • Spanish Steps - This is another spot that's high on the list of sites to see in Rome.  It's a popular place for sitting and enjoying Rome.  The piazza at the base of the steps is a popular spot for tourists.  We didn't spend a ton of time here, but I did snap a few pics.
Spanish Steps
  • Colosseum - This is probably the most well-known site in Rome, and it's definitely something I've wanted to see in person for a long time.  We went here on our first day in Rome during a whirlwind tour of some of the major sites so we only saw it from the outside, plus we had heard from a few people that the inside tour wasn't that exciting.  It's definitely an impressive structure from the outside.  We also checked out the nearby Arch of Constantine and got a view of the ancient Roman Forum from a distance (something I'd like to check out in more detail on a return trip).
  • Trastevere - A trendy neighborhood with lots of restaurants and bars.  We strolled through here on our second day in Rome.  There's less of the hustle and bustle here than in central Rome.  We stopped in a small food market and got a couple of slices of pizza for lunch.  We returned here later that night for dinner at Taverna Trilussa and there were lots of young people about going to the numerous bars and clubs.
Street in Trastevere
  • Vatican - From Trastevere, we walked down the Tiber River to the Vatican.  We spent the majority of our time here in the Vatican Museums.  In order to see the Sistine Chapel, one of my top priorities on the trip, we had to go through the Vatican Museums.  I would recommend going in the afternoon around 3pm.  Apparently, the line to get in is really long in the morning.  At the advice of our hotel concierge, we booked our tickets in advance so that we could skip the line, but there wasn't much of a line when we arrived.  Finding the entrance to the Vatican Museums ended up being a minor adventure.  We walked up to the Vatican on the side of Saint Peter's Basilica.  There was a long line to enter Saint Peter's, but it took us a few minutes to figure out that the line was for Saint Peter's and not the Vatican Museums.  We finally asked us a guard who informed us that we had to walk outside the Vatican City wall around to the other side of the Vatican.  After a 10 minute walk, we finally arrived at the entrance to the Museums.  The Vatican Museums are a massive collection of museums showing different paintings, sculptures and other art that the Catholic Church has collected over hundreds of years.  We were primarily interested in the Sistine Chapel, but you have to go through a maze of different exhibits to reach it.  We didn't spend a lot of time perusing these exhibits, but our favorite was the Gallery of Maps which has maps of different regions of Italy frescoed on the walls.  We finally arrived at the Sistine Chapel.  The famous ceiling painted by Michelangelo is a beautiful sight even if you are crammed in shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of other tourists.  I kind of wished I had studied up on the scenes depicted on the ceiling before going as that would have enhanced the experience.
Saint Peter's Basilica
Ashley in the Gallery of Maps
  • Sunset from Hotel Bernini - Ashley had a great idea to go see the sunset from the top of the Hotel Bernini on our second night in Rome.  Our hotel offered a free shuttle into the city that dropped off right by Hotel Bernini.  This was definitely worthwhile as we got some great views of Rome at sunset.
Sunset from Hotel Bernini
  • Via del Corso - This is one of the main streets of Rome.  It's lined with shops and restaurants.  We strolled down it on the last day of our trip.  It can get a little crowded, but it's a great place to experience Rome.
  • Piazza del Popolo - If you walk the length of the Via del Corso starting from Piazza Venezia, you will come to Piazza del Popolo.  This is one of the larger piazzas in Rome.  It's a great place for people watching with several restaurants and cafes on the outer parts.
Piazza del Popolo
  • Hotel de Russie - A family friend of Ashley's recommended that we check this place out.  It's a very nice hotel near Piazza del Popolo that has an awesome courtyard restaurant.  We took a break from walking and enjoyed some wine in the courtyard.  We had not made dinner plans that night so Ashley had the idea to ask the concierge for a recommendation.  Not only did he give us a recommendation, he called and got us a reservation at a great restaurant even though we weren't guests of the hotel.  Excellent service!
Hotel de Russie courtyard
  • Ristorante Trattoria - We went here on our first night based on a recommendation from the concierge at the Cavalieri Hotel.  Their specialty is Southern Italian food, and there is a glass wall between the kitchen and dining room so that you can see the chefs at work.  When we arrived, there was only one other table occupied in the restaurant which had us a little worried.  We think this was because it was a Monday night.  The other thing is that Romans eat really late.  If you show up at a restaurant at 8pm in Rome, you will be one of the only ones there, and the others will probably be American tourists.  Ashley had a great pesto pasta dish, and I had a great pasta dish with shrimp and tomatoes.  The coolest part of the dinner was that we got to see the chef make our desert chocolate torte as our table was right beside the window looking into the kitchen.
Dinner at Trattoria
  • Taverna Trilussa - Taverna Trilussa is in the Trastevere neighborhood and is highly rated on TripAdvisor.  We came here on our second night in Rome.  While we really enjoyed our food, the service was interesting.  This was our introduction to what is supposedly typical Roman table service.  Service in Rome is notorious for being indifferent and non-intrusive, a major contrast from typical service in the US.  Apparently the reason behind this type of season is a desire to leave diners alone to enjoy their meal and only come to the table when called for.  This is definitely what we experienced at Trilussa.  Our waitress pretty much left us alone, and we had to flag her down to get her to our table.  I hope that we weren't being shunned because we were pretty much the only Americans in the restaurant.  Anyway, we got the tasting menu since it looked really good.  Winners from the menu were the cheese plate, cured meats plate and pasta Amatriciana (Roman specialty pasta with tomato sauce and pancetta).
Pasta Amatriciana at Taverna Trilussa
  • Due Ladroni - We went here on the last night of our trip after the concierge at Hotel de Russie recommended it and was gracious enough to book us a reservation.  This place had an old-style Italian restaurant feel to it.  It was obvious that the waiters were used to lots of tourists because they were very professional and attentive.  There were lots of locals there as well, certainly a good sign.  We had an awesome experience here, and I would highly recommend it to anyone that goes to Rome.  This was one of the top restaurant experiences of our trip.  With the exception of my grilled lamb chops, everything we had was amazing.  We started with an amazing plate of parma ham and fresh mozzarella.  For the pasta course, Ashley's fussolini with clams and mussels in pesto sauce barely edged out my amatriciana (it was so good at Trilussa I had to get it again) for the winner.  Ashley got grilled sea bass with tomato sauce for her main, much better than my grilled lamb chops.  Add in an awesome bottle of Montepulciano and you've got a memorable meal.
Parma Ham and Mozzarella at Due Ladroni

Fussolini with Clams and Mussels in Pesto Sauce at Due Ladroni
  • Bibamus - We stopped here for lunch on our first day and had pizza.  The pizza was quite good (Ashley had mushroom pizza and I had anchovy pizza), but there's probably better pizza in Rome.  We chose this because we were starving after our flight from the US, and it looked better than several other touristy places near Piazza Navona.
Anchovy pizza at Bibamus