Rome: Food, Old Things and Too Many People

Rome was a change of pace. Lisbon and Barcelona were vacations with tourist sights, Rome was a pressure cooker of tourism. Ain and I flew to Rome and met up with Dave, who knew an elderly Italian couple that we were able to stay with. From the success and hospitality of these people, it made me realize that staying with family friends is the best way to map out a trip. We were picked up at the airport, whisked off to their house outside of the city and greeted with a meal and a comfortable basement. There was a language barrier between us and the father, Salvatore, but his eccentric hand motions and youthful demeanor made all communication easy (and often accompanied by smiles, uproarious laughter and the occasional made-up Italian exclamation). The mother, Gulia (pronounced, Julia), was a phenomenal cook who whipped up 3-4 course meals while we would be hastily ushered into the basement as it seemed no men were allowed in the kitchen. She used to be an English teacher and drilled Dave on updates with every member of his family.

In the morning Salvatore drove us to the train station and taught us that the driving regulations in Italy required everyone to drive like they own a Ferrari even though nobody does. We flossed and flew all over the country side and bought 40 minute transit passes for 1 euro, something that we would have clearly fumbled with ourselves.

We hopped off the train some time later and followed our line of sight to St. Peter’s Basilica. The main square was full of folding chairs and we trailed a horde of tourists to the Vatican museum. Most efforts to enter a museum can only be compared to cattle ranching through a few select entrances. The force of the crowd led us along the set path and we got to see famous old paintings and the Sistine Chapel while doing our best to not bump into other people stopping suddenly to take pictures. I now realize why the Vatican refuses to be swallowed by the Italian government: it is insanely rich. Absolutely everything is encrusted with gold, the vaults hold unknown treasures and the only word that can be used to describe the world’s smallest country is “ornate.”

As we left the Vatican we witnessed a relatively unknown but frequent occurrence, the running of the counterfeiters. Few things were more satisfying in Italy than watching the people who had been harassing you to buy the world’s most trashy and poorly made merchandise now running in packs yelling “Polizia!” to alert others. Sure, they are just trying to make a living, but I just wish they could try some new sale tactics than doubling their prices and then yelling until they’re hoarse about their goods being “HALF PRICE, JUST FOR YOU!”

The weather during our visit was unbelievable and actually quite hot during the day. It was equally unbelievable to watch Italians don heavy winter parkas and shake their heads at us when we only wore t-shirts. As we crisscrossed crowded streets we sought out gelato as actively as landmarks. Our goal was to average four cones of gelato a day (this was achieved easily).

The rest of our day involved us hitting up every major monument and getting a thorough feel for Rome. We saw the Castel Sant’Angelo, Fonta di Trevi, the Spanish Steps, Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II, the Coliseum (though we didn’t go inside until the next day) and the estate of Nero. The train home had a beautiful sunset and Salvatore picked us up to escort us to our regal meal prepared by Gulia. It was during this meal that I was introduced to blood oranges from Sicilia, which became my Italian obsession.

The morning following our epic meal, we took the train back to downtown Rome. This now routine commute would have been impossible without Salvatore ferrying us to and from the train station with passes in hand. We got off at our usual spot near St. Peter’s Basilica and headed downtown.

What we didn’t realize, and what soon became clear to us, was that this particular morning was the three year anniversary of Pope John Paul’s death. This event brought with it a mass lead by none other than Pope Benedict XVI. The Papi himself. So as we picked up our pace and flowed with the crowds we rounded the corner and stood in front of a massive screen with the Pope plopped down in his throne. There must have been around ten thousand people utilizing chairs and hording around for a glance. Our luck was unreal, but honestly the once in a lifetime experience was mostly gotten over in 20 minutes of gawking. Old guy. Big hat. Loads of religious significance. More importantly it was very hot and I am not a Roman Catholic. We snapped a bunch of pictures and took off.

Catalonian Vacation

Our second stop was Barcelona. Our original plans to stay one crazy night in Barcelona were changed when we realized we had thoroughly seen Lisbon and all of our group was gone for the last two days. Ain and I changed our flight and escaped Lisbon (generally) unscathed. As I mentioned earlier, we were able to stay with a friend who was studying in Barcelona for the semester and graciously took us around to see the sites. Thanks to our connection with these newly minted locals, we got to see parts of Barcelona that we would never have found otherwise. On our first full day we tried to go to the Sagrada Família, but we arrived too late and had to settle for being awed by walking around it (and taking too many pictures).

At night, we rounded up a group and hit the club. By club, I mean, the club in the area. A massive 15-euro-cover warehouse of party that was actually three separate clubs connected by pathways of loud and drunk people. Each inner venue had a new DJ and a new wave of jumbled dancers. We succeeded in all the requirements of a night in a European disco: lost each other within 2 minutes of walking into the club, danced until it hurt, waited in a massive line for a nasty bathroom and rounding it all off with a rowdy visit to a late night chip (read: fries) shop

The next day we had the classic budget travel meal. Find a big market, buy a bunch of fresh bread, meat and cheese and head to a park and enjoy. It was hard to single out foods at the Boqueria Market because so many things looked good. I normally hate olives, but thanks to the ones I had from the market, I am now an olive snob.

As if the meal from the day wasn’t enough, we had dinner at a hidden local place called La Champagneria. We were debriefed on the form of dining before diving into it, but nothing could have prepared us for the chaos. In a rarely enjoyable case of catch-22, the establishment requires all sandwiches (Chorizo and some meat I didn’t even think to order are the only thing available) be ordered with a bottle of Cava and vice versa. Want to eat? You have to drink. Want to drink? You have to eat. Oh, and it’s remarkably cheap. As the picture below illustrates, this place is overrun with people (here is a youtube video I found of it in action). We spent the first 20 minutes contorting ourselves to elbow out a nook to have our dinner. After much spillage and yelled orders, we enjoyed incredible sandwiches with a refreshing bottle of Cava. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

At some point on our post-meal loafing we wandering into a massive train station. Luckily I had my camera with me and I was able to capture my surroundings. After our epic meal, we headed home to get some rest.

The next day we finally got to venture inside the Sagrada Família. While it was packed with people, it was highly organized and you could escape once you ascended the towers (a far cry from what I would experience in Rome). The Sagrada Família is an unbelievable undertaking and while I’m familiar with the building from a coffee table book from my childhood, my high expectations were way too low.

Inside the Sagrada FamíliaThe amount of detail coupled with the size of the place is beyond words, so I’ll leave it with that. Ain had already been but was kind enough to revisit it and I’m surprised since it is constantly changing and continuously staggering. There was an entire exhibit on the types of stone used around the site and apparantly it has become very political over what exactly was envisioned by Gaudi.

The stairway down was windy and it was hard not to peek down every couple steps. Luckily, there was no railing, so pure fear drove most people against the wall. One man in particular was terrified of falling down the manhole sized hole and kept yelling out in Spanish and inching along. This provided our decent with much humor and allowed us time to pause and enjoy the graffiti that littered any spot not watched over by a guard.

One evening we enjoyed a cooking class taught by a peppery, spark plug of a woman who essentially just made dinner for a group of people while talking us through the steps. We also gained the knowledge of making a fine sangria as Ain and I hung on every phrase our teacher uttered. My personal favorite was her description of making a layered Hors d’œuvre as “you stack it like a Lego.” Another was, “Alcohol makes you drunk, but Sangria just makes you happy!” The massive portion of paella left us feeling cultured and stuffed to the gills.

Our final day involved walking down to the water and poking through flea markets for useless souvenirs. I was in the market for a watch that might catch my fancy, even though I have no real need for a watch, and Ain perused for an antique lighter. I found a massive watch that I learned was designed for someone losing their sight and I thankfully came to my senses and declined the hilariously large instrument. Either motivated through this momentary clarity of judgment or driven by a deeper irrational purchasing leanings, I moved on to something wholly useless. A sundial. Specifically, a portable sundial from 1850. It is a laughable pursuit now, but at the time it seemed the perfectly irregular accompaniment to the plethora of time keeping devices that are detailed and are useful when there is a lack of direct sunlight. No matter, I found what I wanted and it was better than others I had seen, so it was on to haggling. My pathetic attempts to barter with the man proved hopeless and I paid too much for something severely outdated. At least it’s a souvenir from Barcelona…made in London.

After our market experience, we picked up our luggage and made our way to the airport, which ended up being the most efficiently run airport I’ve used. Small details make all the difference. For example, the usual setup is after grabbing a bin you throw luggage, clothes and shoes in while people behind you mumble and quietly hate you. Here there was a wide open area of individual bin loading stations and then when you were ready you head through the terrorist detector. We had a short hop over the Mediterranean Sea and landed outside Rome in high spirits.