After my Greek experience, I flew out of Athens and into Rome! I met the family at the airport a few minutes after I landed. Luckily Mom, Dad, Kevin (my older brother), and Joey (my younger brother) all were able to make it to Europe for a week to visit! Unfortunately for them, the time change was a bit tough to overcome. It was a lot of napping on the 40 minute ride into Rome.
We arrived at our airbnb, a little over a mile north of Vatican City. It was a quaint apartment with all the essentials- beds, a bathroom, and a wine opener! The minimal operating space (every hallway and the kitchen being wide enough for one person) was tough to acclimate to, but we got used to it!
After a quick nap for the sleepy Eastern Time Zone folk, we headed off to the Galleria Borghese. This art museum, arguably the best in Rome, houses some incredible paintings and sculptures. Thankfully I found the pamphlets explaining the historical and artistic significance of each room. There’s so many things I don’t notice in art museums, so I’m thankful I had something of a guide! My favorite pieces were probably Portrait of a Man and Boy with a Basket of Fruits. Also, the walk through the park to get to the museum is beautiful, especially in the late afternoon.
We left the Galleria and conveniently found the Harley Davidson-Rome storefront, so we spent a quick minute browsing. Kevin was craving gelato all afternoon, so we took a taxi to Giolitti near Piazza Navona. I had the house fresh whipped cream (made daily) on top of my gelato, and it was delicious. Then we went to The Pantheon right before it closed. It was gorgeous inside, especially for being over 1900 years old. Not much else to say about it- you have to see it and take it all in.
We then began the nightlife at a Pittsburgh bar, La Botticella. It’s a must-see in Rome- you’ll think you’re walking into a bar in Pittsburgh’s South Side. Plenty of Americans and Pittsburghers frequent the bar, and we met a few travelers plus the owner. That said, I refuse to return until he hangs a CMU banner among his many college banners draped over the walls. We then finished the night at a recommended Italian restaurant around the corner, arguably one of the best in Piazza Navona. I forget the name, but remember the pasta! I had a variety of seafood setting on a tasty linguine smothered in a white cream sauce.
Saturday was spent in Vatican City, touring the buildings inside the walls! Michangelo’s paintings are incredible, and the backstory with multiple Popes’ commissionings is very interesting. I highly recommend the Vatican Tour, although make sure to search around so you don’t pay too high of a price! There’s so much history inside the walls, it really helps to have an audio guide explaining each building and subsequent room. We finished with seeing the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. I may or may not have gotten a quick picture in the Sistine Chapel. The Basilica was my favorite part. It’s so grand inside and I could’ve spent all day there. The square is beautiful as well, and we came back the following day for the Pope’s weekly address from his balcony.
We spent Saturday night at a restaurant for apertivo time, where we were served small appetizer dishes while sipping on some light refreshments! We then went to a few bars, recommendations from friends of Kevin, while awaiting our table at a delicious little pizza restaurant. The pizza was delicious, and the house wine was some of the better wine we had in Italy! It was a tough spot to find, and tougher to get a table, but well worth it all.
Sunday we slept in, then began our day with a trip to the bakery down the street. This small shop in the basement of an apartment building was delicious, and served dozens of different breakfast foods and sweets. We seemed to be the only tourists visiting, but they were still very friendly. And with it costing about 10euros for us all to have a huge breakfast and coffee, it was well worth it! At noon, we attended the Papal audience in the Square. It was incredible to see the thousands that turn out every weekend to see Pope Francis. Although he only spoke in Italian, it was great to see the Pope in person and get my religious items blessed by him! We then went for lunch back near the apartment before heading to some other tourist spots. First we went to the Spanish Steps and took in the view from the top. We saw the Trevi Fountain, which is gorgeous even in the rain! The fountain is neat to find, because even with signs and tourists it still feels hidden. On advice from my friend Julia (who studied in Rome a year ago) we went to Old Bear in Piazza Navona. The eggplant bruschetta and pumpkin lasagna (perfect amount of pumpkin) were delicious, or “life changing” as Julia described.The atmosphere was like an old English pub, but still delicious Italian food. We made another stop at La Botticella, the Pittsburgh bar, and met more people from Pittsburgh. The family we met was friends with one of my football teammates at Carnegie Mellon- small world! We finished the night with more food- delicious seafood and pasta for me- at a different restaurant around the corner from La Botticella.
Onto Monday- the Coliseum! After an extended stop at the bakery (Joey needed some extra coffee) we took the metro to the Coliseum grounds. I HIGHLY recommend starting with Palatine Hill, where there is no ticket line and usually less people overall- you’ll waste an hour in line for the ticket at the Coliseum, and the same ticket gets you into all 3 places (Palatine Hill, Roman Forum, and Coliseum). We actually also made a beautiful, albeit steep walk up to a quiet church overlooking the historical area. I recommend the walk, but not the men in costumes trying to pose for a picture. We encountered a violinist on the walk as well! Our self-guided tour of Palatine Hill included a slight rainstorm, and lots of climbing stairs. We found an orange garden and a beautiful lookout point on the Roman Forum. We then trekked back down to the ruins of a temple, which was across the street from the Coliseum. We didn’t spend much time in the Forum, but the views from above were incredible. After about 2 hours exploring, we made our way to the Coliseum.
The Coliseum was intimidating on the inside with steep walls and massive amounts of stone. The pictures really tell it all. There’s so much history- you could spend years there learning because the history includes so much more than the grounds itself. I enjoyed the upper balcony, where I spent some time reading about the day-to-day operations and how events were run. There were also artifacts and replicas of the pulley systems and other parts of the stadium’s underground. Just standing inside overlooking the main floor is powerful experience.
Sunday night was a light night with some more delicious appetizers, pasta, and pizza, as we had to be up early for our trip to Florence. We arrived in Florence around 9AM and had a train leaving at 4PM, so we had a day to grab lunch and look around. We spent time in the local markets and saw a few important buildings/areas, but I didn’t have much time to explore. Our lunch was more Tuscan food, and my Macaroni seafood pasta was delicious. We had a little time to spend after lunch, so I went exploring the indoor food market and leather market. I found a nice passport holder and had a conversation with a woman who has worked in the same shop for 30 years. She was incredibly knowledgeable and explained the different leathers and processes used to make each piece. Inside the food market, I sampled different meats from an old man, having no idea he spoke almost no English. Then when I tried to order, I had to wait for his son to come over from the other side of the market to explain my order to him. The dried meat and cheese was delicious and made a nice snack for the train ride into Venice.
Onto Venice, which was my favorite part of the trip. I unfortunately had to leave early to return to Qatar, but I really enjoyed the time we spent there. The way of life opposes American East-Coast style, and it was rather relaxing. I love being on the water, so the idea of only having transportation available via boat was exciting. I really enjoyed the subtle aspects of life- mostly taken for granted by the locals it seemed- almost every restaurant was a back-alley hidden wonder or a waterfront gem. The walking is easy and you’re always a few steps away from a view of the water. While I waited for my water taxi to the airport, I got to take in the endless view including the Alps in the distance.
As for our activities, we arrived in the evening- the cold was worsened from a nasty wind. We met our airbnb host and walked through a light drizzle to our apartment. Our place was a roomier first-floor flat and we were right next to the supermarket. We managed to sneak over a purchase some essentials (wine and cheese) plus other non-essentials (paper towels, water, etc.) before they closed. We then marched a kilometer through the rain to a small pizza shop in a seemingly abandoned alley. After crossing a bride, it was a narrow, dimly lit passage that suddenly opened to a pizza shop and beyond that, a lively square. The pizza place is arguably the best in Venice, and it almost lived up to the standards. Roman pizza is definitely better though.
The following morning we went to Saint Mark’s Basilica and the surrounding area. It floods during high tide, so everyone uses one elevated walkway to get across the square. The Basilica is beautiful inside (no photographs allowed, like many older buildings) and a tranquil place relative the bustle outside. It felt a little like the mosques in Turkey, with a different architecture inside. After that, we went roaming around the square and walked the water’s edge. We made a quick stop at the Hard Rock Cafe- Venice, and watched people take Gondola rides. The talent the rower possesses to steer the gondola is incredible. We then walked the entire way back to our apartment (3KM), which turned out to be a good idea. We came across a homemade soap store, which I went in to check out. Mom and Dad ended up finding a few soaps they liked, so make sure to stop by our house and wash your hands before it’s all gone!
We walked across some of the main picturesque bridges in Venice and hopped in and out of small shops. We finally found a restaurant that looked good, and it turned out to be delicious. Their pizza was simple and tasty, Joey had delicious pasta, and Mom and Dad had a calzone. Kevin and I both had tasty seafood dishes, mine being a soup and his pasta. As we continued our walk back after lunch, it was approaching the local lunch time and most places were closing for an hour. We were able to find a small pub on the water however, and had
one three last drinks before I had to pack and leave for (almost entirely) alcohol and pork-free Qatar. I think it’s safe to say I had enough wine, cheese, pasta, and seafood for a while. I’m back in Doha now and really enjoying shwarma, which I missed dearly in Italy. I had to hustle back and pack and grab a taxi at the dock, which took me to the airport. I headed back to Doha through Istanbul. I arrived early Thursday morning and was able to catch the back end of the 2016 IMPAQT trip, which brought CMU-Pittsburgh students to Doha for their Spring Break.
I had a blast in Italy. The religious sites were on my bucket list, and it was great to be able to see them with the family. It was also nice to visit the family- Kevin is graduating and my parents are beginning the process of moving, so it was great to get us all together for a long trip. Rome was a lot of fun- there is so much to do and we didn’t come close to seeing it all. However, what we did see was impressive and gave me a great first view of Europe- I’m discounting Istanbul for a second here. Florence and Venice were short-lived, but great nonetheless. I would consider living in Venice for at least a short period of time. The lifestyle suits me pretty well, and the idea of a city built for boating beckons me. The food everywhere was fantastic. The wine was great, the cheese was varying and delicious all the same, and company was superb.
Italy was the final leg of my Spring Break travels. It was eye-opening and exhausting all at the same time. I met so many people, saw some of the marvels of the world, and experienced new languages and cultures. I’m thankful for Mom and Dad bringing us along on their trip, and I hope we can travel again soon! Love y’all and miss you!