Travels With Myself

A Personalized Periodic Update, just for my family and friends, of the Ongoing Adventures of Your Favorite World Traveler

Location: Budapest, Hungary

After nearly 30 years in the financial industry in the US (mostly California and New Mexico), I decided it was time for my second life. I sold my house, sold my car, sold all my furniture, took a TEFL course and moved to Budapest to teach Business English to the business people of Hungary. Amazing mid-life change! I taught for about eight years, then pretty much retired. Since then I have traveled extensively, and have been to nearly 75 countries. I have had six books published, mostly about my travels - see my author's page on I have made friends all over the world. Becoming an expat is the best move I ever made and I plan to continue my travels indefinitely. Come join me on this blog and enjoy the places I've been and the people I've met in the past and present and hopefully will meet in the future.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Livin' La Dolce Vita

Okay, so I didn’t actually frolic in the Trevi Fountain (the lurking Carabinieri sort of put one off for that), but I did throw my coin in, which means I’ll return to Rome again. It took me 42 years to get back after my first visit, but, Hey! I made it!
Actually, it was great to visit one of the world’s most wonderful cities once again. The architecture and feel of ancient Rome, the little narrow side streets filled with surprises, the relaxed ambience and, of course, the incredible food. Everything seems to taste better in Rome. The food, the wine, the air, even the water. The homemade bread burst like a flavored explosion on the tongue. The pasta, served at least seven hundred different ways (and I’m sure there’s a seven-hundred-first I missed) urges the food lover to search for a new and better trattoria, the better to try new and even better dishes. What a treat for the senses.
Okay, so, this time I traveled with a couple of friends from Budapest, Mike and Ida Apted (he’s English and in his sixties, she’s Hungarian and ageless). We took an evening flight to Rome on Thursday, June 17, just one hour and 25 minutes away – and costing just $90 US on Wizz Air’s discount airlines. Ida had booked a taxi to the hotel (60 euro!, but it was nearly 11 PM by the time we got our bags and got out of the airport), which got us there easily and in comfort. The weather was hot and humid, and we hoped it would continue during our long weekend stay.
We arrived at the Hotel Julia in Central Rome around 11:30 PM. The hotel, a small but acceptable three-star establishment, is on a side street just a minute or two from the Piazza Barberini, which is also the start of the famous Via Veneto. The rooms are basic and, in my case, did not have an en suite shower (it was just down the hall), but since I spend very little time in my hotel when I travel it was certainly adequate. And it was clean and the bathrooms spotless, which pretty much fulfills my requirements.
I was starved by the time we arrived, so I hastened over to the Piazza and found a late-night snack bar where I had a couple of pieces of nice oily pizza and a fruit smoothy. Yum.
Up bright and early Friday morning for breakfast at the hotel, then out onto the streets of Rome. I still remembered the sights I saw back in 1968, but had no idea how I got to them, so, armed with a map of the city, I was off and running. I probably walked at least five miles that first day, but I saw a lot. First it was over to the Trevi Fountain, about five minutes from the hotel down some neat side streets. I turned a corner and suddenly there it was in all its glory. What a treasure. I stared at it for awhile, then set off again for the Colosseum.
I walked down to the Vittorio Emanuel monument, the huge white building referred to locally as The Typewriter or The Wedding Cake, circled around to the left and passed Trajan’s Column on my way to the Forum, about another hundred meters or so on the right. I had not been able to walk the Forum during my last visit, so I made up for that lapse this morning. Bought a multiple ticket for admittance to the Forum, Palatine Hill and the Colosseum, which turned out to be quite handy.
Wandered the Forum for awhile, lost in antiquity, then emerged near the Colosseum – or Flavian Amphitheater, as it was originally called. Got to the entrance to find three access lanes: one was for groups, which contained about 700 people, one was for people waiting to buy tickets, and contained about 600 people, and the center lane was for people who already had tickets (Me!), so I walked right in – no waiting. How do I do it?
Wandered the Colosseum for awhile, then down past the Arch of Constantine to the Circus Maximus (or what’s left of it, which is just a grassy field), and across the Tiber into the Trastevere section for more jaunts down those great Roman side streets. It was nearly lunch time, so I decided I needed food and drink. My map indicated a Scottish pub in the center of town, and also stated that if I showed the map I’d get a 15% discount. Cool. So I trudged off for the long trek.
I was dragging by this time, as I always tend to overdo the walking my first day anywhere, but finally managed to find the Nag’s Head Inn, which was just opening. I was the only customer. I’d passed several inviting Irish pubs along the way, but I was aiming for that 15% discount. I hiked myself onto a barstool and ordered a McFarland’s Scottish ale – cold and delicious. Yum. Refreshed, I thought I’d try a nearby pasta place I’d also found on the Net, so asked for my bill and showed the waiter my discount map. He was Italian and surly and immediately said, “No discount.” I argued sort of half-seriously and half-jokingly, but he wouldn’t budge. No matter what my map said, no discount. I was not happy. So, DO NOT go to the Nag’s Head when in Rome. That’ll teach ‘em.
Found my pasta place on another side street near the Trevi Fountain and had a wonderful lunch of spaghetti and clams, along with another beer. Aaaahhh, this is the life.
Caught a short nap at the hotel, then hooked up with my traveling companions for dinner. They’d put me in charge of restaurants, and I’d found a beauty for our first night in Rome: Africa, an Ethiopian restaurant where you eat with your fingers. Just a short 15-minute walk from the hotel in the warm Rome evening. Good food, good ambience and more beer. The food was placed on top of thinly-baked bread, with the consistency of American pancakes, only with a better cohesiveness. Then you peeled off some bread and goodies (meat, sauces, etc) and popped it into your eagerly-waiting mouth. Mmmm. A successful first evening in Rome.
Saturday was another full walking day. I hiked off to the Spanish Steps, again about 10 minutes from the hotel. I arrived at the top of the Steps, and immediately noticed a lovely little restaurant overhanging one side. I knew that would be tonight’s dinner place. I’d come back at lunchtime when they were open and make our reservations. Meanwhile, I descended the Spanish Steps, still a cool place to be, to the Piazza di Spagna and its designer shops and stores. Walked over to the Piazza Navona, which I remembered from my last visit, then checked out something called the Time Elevator, a visual experience tracing 2700 years of Rome’s history. It was okay, killed 30 minutes and 12 euro, and at least it was cool inside.
Walked over to the Pantheon, which was undergoing renovation, so there was lots of scaffolding all over the front. The inside was still interesting; it’s pretty basic; the top is a large dome with a hole at its apex, to let in sunlight and rain and birds. Amazingly enough, there were literally dozens of tourists taking pictures of the hole! Craning their necks, even lying on the floor to get a better angle. What possible artistic interest can there be in a photograph of a hole in the roof?
Anyway, had a light lunch at a nearby trattoria, walked back to La Palazzetto restaurant at the Spanish Steps to make our dinner reservations, then repaired to the Hard Rock Café on the Via Veneto for more air-conditioned comfort and one of the World Cup football matches. It was Japan vs. Netherlands, so there were lots of orange jerseys in evidence. I was surprised to notice, however, that when I ordered another beer the bartender poured it in the same glass as my previous beer. I expected more of the Hard Rock. It was, however, a nice afternoon.
Met Mike and Ida around 7 PM and we walked to the Spanish Steps and dinner. My friends were pleased and impressed with the location, food, ambience (real tablecloths!) and the young British couple seated next to us. I am now the King of Restaurant Selections – at least in Rome. Had a wonderful meal, more pasta and salads, then walked down the Spanish Steps and mingled with the crowds. There was a military-type band playing on the Steps, which was fun and entertaining. No karaoke, though.
We strolled the nighttime streets around the Trevi Fountain, browsing in stores and shops, spotting places to which to return for shopping on Monday, our last day in Rome. A nice casual evening. The weather was still holding, hot and humid, but with a gentle cool breeze at night. Couldn’t have been better.
Sunday we all hooked up for the day and decided to visit the Rome Catacombs. Metro-ed to the southeast corner of the city, then took a ten-minute bus ride to the appropriate area. A short walk and we paid our money and caught the next guided tour in English down into the burial place of the ancient Romans. Interesting place, with small vaults cut into the lava rock up the sides of the tunnels, some larger rooms that served as vaults for popes and other high officials. There were no more bones in the part we toured, as they had been exhumed some time ago and carted down to the third level. Of course, it was rather cool 30 meters down in the ground and our tour, which lasted about 45 minutes, was long enough. At the end, our guide told us that over the centuries about half a million people were buried in this one catacomb. Half a million people? Damn! I had no idea.
We bused and metro-ed back to the city center, to the Piazza del Popolo. After a short sojourn in one of the ubiquitous Roman churches, (due to the rain, on my part, at least), we stopped at a small trattoria for pizza and beer, another good meal. Mike and Ida then continued on to the Piazza Navona and I split off to find the Trinity College Irish pub and that day’s World Cup match between Italy and New Zealand. The pub gradually filled up with fans from everywhere and I watched the entire match. Italy dominated the match but just couldn’t score and it ended in a 1-1 tie. But I had my Guinness, so was happy.
We were all pretty tired out by then, so opted for dinner at a nearby restaurant. As it was Sunday, many of the shops and restaurants were closed anyway, so we really didn’t have much of a choice. At any rate, it was still a nice place, small but good food. I had the Fettucine Alfredo and enjoyed every bite. A post-dinner limoncello at the Pub Albert rounded off the evening.
Monday was our last day in Rome, but our flight didn’t leave until after 10 o’clock that night, so we had, effectively, one more full day in Rome. Naturally, the major concern was that we had all done all of the sightseeing we wanted to do, so were sort of at loose ends. Anyway, we decided to go to the train station in the morning and check out the procedures for getting to the airport by train, and also to buy our tickets. Well, it was the morning from hell, a real stress walk around the Termini station. It’s huge and only fairly well signed, so it took us a long time to find what we needed. After about an hour of searching and asking and trying, we finally got our tickets for that evening and also located the way to our track – 400 meters from the station! That’s a quarter of a mile. Good thing we did our reccy early so we knew what to expect later. I was developing shin splints by then, but soldiered on.
We walked back to the metro, which was another labyrinth in itself; at any moment I expected the Minotaur to leap out from behind a pillar. It must have been nearly another quarter-mile walk from the train station to the metro line.
We left our bags in the hotel and split up to do some shopping. I bought a few fun things – colored and strangely-shaped pasta, a bottle of good limoncello (Italian lemon-flavored liqueur) and some nice olive oil. We hooked up again for lunch at a really neat little nearby trattoria, the outside of which was covered with leaves and ivy and flowers, a real country haven in the middle of Rome. And the food was, once again, delicious. My pasta with seafood was yummy, as always, but the homemade bread they served with it was scrumptious – I must have eaten half a loaf easily. Really tasty.
We finished off our afternoon at the Hard Rock café watching half of another football match and sucking down more limoncellos. Around 5 PM, we collected our bags and caught the metro to the Termini train station. Our earlier scouting expedition paid off, as we immediately found our way to our track; and yes, it was at least a quarter of a mile away. Long damn haul. The walk was partially alleviated by moving sidewalks; however, they moved at a snail’s pace so it probably took us longer to use them than it would have if we’d have walked. But we were all pretty wiped out by then, so what the heck.
As we got to the correct track our train was getting ready to depart, so we caught a break there and 30 minutes later arrived at Fiumicino airport. It was then around 6:30 PM. Mike’s web ticket said the check-in counter opened at 7:45 PM, so we had a light snack in the airport restaurant and got in line to check in. Of course, the counter didn’t open until nearly 8:45 PM, another long wait in line. At least we were first.
Checked in and did some more duty-free browsing, waiting for our boarding, which was to start around 9:45 PM. Well, Patient Reader, I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice it to say there were aircraft problems which delayed and delayed and delayed our flight so that we didn’t leave Rome until around one o’clock in the morning, arriving in Budapest at 2:30 AM. Got that – AM? Beat and tired and sweaty and yucchy. We shared a taxi to Kalvin Ter where I said a final arreviderci and crawled into bed, not to awaken until late Tuesday morning. Thus endeth our Rome adventure.
And it was a wonderful weekend trip. I did everything I wanted to do and re-acquainted myself with the good memories from 42 years in the past. Some things I decided to pass on, as I just wasn’t interested this time around. I didn’t see the Vatican or St. Peter’s or the Sistine Chapel again. I knew I’d just get depressed thinking about all that panoply and riches built on the backs and pennies of the poor and ignorant followers around the world.
Anyway, I’d seen a previous pope, John XXIII, out at Castel Gondolfo, his summer palace, in 1968. As we waited in the audience chamber, everyone was hushed, and I expected a quiet reverence when he finally came in. The doors opened and he was carried in on his palanquin by his Nubian slaves and the crowd went wild. They started cheering! “Yay, pope!” “Alright Papa!” “Gimme a ‘P’, gimme an ‘O’….” You get the picture. I must admit to surprise at the noise and cheering, as I thought a more toned-down reverence would have been in order.
I failed to visit the Campidoglio again and didn’t do a Tiber cruise. I didn’t visit any of the museums this time and missed out on a famous tourist restaurant, Fettucine Alfredo, owned by its namesake who prepares his signature dish with solid gold fork and spoon presented to him (or his ancestor) by Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks – or so goes the advertising hype. Maybe next time. And I missed Harry’s Bar, where a simple meal will set you back 50 euro without drinks. Pass.
But I did throw a coin over my shoulder into the Trevi Fountain, so I will undoubtedly return to Rome again someday. I can but hope.