Italy, Part 1: Rome

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Oct. 23-Oct. 26, 2021

The lead up- Before I get to Rome, I have to tell you it’s a miracle the family all made it. Many of our trips have been spontaneous but this trip has been planned for months. Matt (Josh’s brother) and Tomi (Matt’s girlfriend) were the first people to say “we’re coming to visit!” and we picked a place (Italy) and time (the boys’ fall break) to make it happen. In the weeks prior Matt and Tomi sold their house, bought a new house, did renovations, and moved 😅 just crazy. On top of those things, the night before their trip, they found out their flight to Rome had been canceled 🤯 it took a lot of “communication” from Tomi, who you never want to piss off, and, thankfully they were rebooked. 

On our side, we had a flurry of activities/tasks to do before catching our ride to Brussels. For the first time ever we decided to board our cats in a “cat hotel” for the vacation. The vet we’re using here offers boarding and they seem to be really good people so we are giving it a shot. As the cats are getting older, it’s probably good to have quick access to care so this gives me some peace of mind. We will see how it goes!

On top of cat logistics (which are too boring to go into), we’ve received letters that the boys needed additional vaccines to live here, so those has to be scheduled. And on top of vaccines the boys also had to get COVID tested to fly to Italy. In Europe, each country has their own rules about tourists, COVID passes, and tests. Italy requires anyone over 6 to either be vaccinated or have a negative test. Since vaccines are not yet available to our boys who are 10 and 8, COVID test it was. We also needed this test to be as close as possible to our tours in Italy which may require negative results within a certain number of days as well. Getting yourself COVID tested is never fun. Getting your kids COVID tested is quite possibly torture, and starts to get expensive. (I’m not saying it isn’t good to do…but it is also a pain). 

Friday

The boys had a half day at school on Friday so Josh and I got in a quick run with Melissa at the gym, got the cats to the vet, finished up some packing, picked up the boys, went straight to COVID testing and then to lunch where – as the universe aligned for us, Melissa was also having lunch with our friend visiting from Scotland, Ana Maria. We were all so excited to see each other one more time before leaving town – especially Ana Maria and her son Lucas who had just recently come to visit in Maastricht. 

After lunch we returned home to wait for our transport to Brussels. Our flight was early Saturday morning so rather than leave home at 5 in the morning, we stayed at an airport hotel (literally located at the airport) Friday night and got a bit more sleep before our flight. It was a great call and shout out to Marriott/Sheraton for having cozy clean connecting rooms and room service.  🙌 

On our way to Brussels!

Saturday 

The morning alarm came early but with the excitement of what was to come we all got out on time from the hotel. As we were getting ready, Josh checked for the boys’ negative test results via email and only Mason’s had come. Thankfully we heard from Matt/Tomi that they did indeed get on their flight to Rome so that was a big relief. 

The Brussels airport was not crazy busy, thankfully, and checking in/getting through security, and grabbing a quick breakfast was a breeze.  We boarded still without knowing Caleb’s results which thankfully came in as we landed. Want to know how many people checked those results? Zero

I digress. We landed and already had messages that Matt and Tomi had also landed so we were so excited to get into the airport and see them. They found us at baggage claim and after a big scene celebrating our reunion we made our way out to meet the driver our Airbnb host had arranged for our airport pickup. 

Reunited!

When we arrived we were greeted by our host but could not yet check in. We sat at a cafe downstairs and enjoyed some bites, some coffee, and yes, some wine before meeting the host and taking what became our most extensive house tour ever 😆 it took quite a while but the place was so cute with amazing views and we were all just so happy to be there. 

What time is it anyway?!?! Waiting at a cafe to check into our Airbnb.
View from one of our terraces at the Airbnb
View from our Airbnb rooftop terrace

Josh and I ran to the grocery to get some basics and then we gathered the family and took a walk around. We walked by the Pantheon and found a good second lunch spot not too far from there and enjoyed our first real meal in Rome together. 

After walking around a bit more and seeing the Trevi fountain, Santi Vicenzoe Anastasio Retoria church, and some other things from afar we decided to take it back to the rental and chill out. Poor Tomi and Matt were suffering from jet lag and we were trying to keep them awake to get them on “Europe time”. Some wine, pizza takeout, and our rooftop terrace helped us get that job done.

Trevi Fountain

Sunday

Originally we had a morning tour of the Colosseum booked, but our tickets were changed by the guide to 2pm. Normally that’s a tough time to get the boys out for a tour (mornings are best for us) BUT it did allow us to start the day a little slower and easier (no alarms!). We left mid-morning to walk around and see a few things before the afternoon tour. We started with a stroll to the “Jewish Ghetto” of Rome where Jews were forced to live beginning in 1555, suffered really terrible living conditions, and ostracized from “regular” life for about 300 years. Since then, the area has been rebuilt, hosts synagogues, old Roman architecture, and churches. Remains of the old wall are still there, as well as Jewish museum, but we did not know all this when we were there (just walked over at our host’s recommendation). We did find the “turtle fountain” built by Giacomo della Porta, which originally had dolphins instead of turtles, and which used water from the one of the 1st Roman aqueducts and originally served as a drinking fountain.

We then traipsed over to what we learned later is referred to as the “wedding cake” building. The Vittoriano built to honor Victor Emmanuel II (first king of unified Italy). It also hosts Italy’s tomb of the unknown soldier and a section honoring the announcement of the defeat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of World War I by Supreme Commander of the Royal Army, Armando Diaz. We later learned that while this building is impressive, most Romans and Italians hate it because it was built in the middle of old Roman ruins/architecture so looks very out of place.

Lunch was more pizza and pasta (#wheninrome) at a small place we walked by. It fit the bill but wasn’t very memorable. Nevertheless, with full bellies we made our way to the Colosseum. 

We booked our guide through Airbnb experiences which was a first for us and it worked out really well. Our guide, Andrea, was really smart and engaging. I would highly recommend her. 

Here’s the thing about Rome. Roman emperors considered themselves nearly equal to the gods because the city was believed to be started by Romulus who was believed to be half god. Because of this, they wanted to build like they were gods and made everything SO BIG. I’ve even seen Rome before and still the size of several places is just mind boggling to me. 

On this tour we visited Palatine Hill (where Rome is believed to have started), the Roman Forum (where everything happened for citizens (shopping, celebrations, etc), and the Colosseum (where all the gory god awful stuff happened). Our guide went into some pretty terrible details about the tortures that took place in the Colosseum. How it was built in ten years with slave labor, how women and gladiators were also second class citizens. How at lunch time, people would pop over and watch women or men fight or be killed (and apparently at times raped) by animals. We also learned it wasn’t used as often as you might think because of the expense to produce an event there. Over one million people and animals were killed in the colosseum over its lifetime hosting these gory events. 

The guide said that today, the Colosseum is seen as a symbol of life, despite its morbid past. Important events can still be held there on a reconstructed stage and Italians (and others) come from all around to have engagement/wedding pictures taken there. 

One of the other new things available now is to tour the Colosseum underground. They’ve excavated and preserved the tunnels used to flood the stage area for naval battle reenactments as well as where animals and slaves were caged. An elevator system was also restored to show how they lifted the animals from the tunnels to the stage area. 

This tour ran close to 4 hours which was a feat for all of us, especially the boys. I was so proud of them, though, because they did not complain and they were interacting with the guide when she asked them questions. They like to share their knowledge about the emperors (that they learned from Rick Riordan books). We all earned the gelato, wine and pasta that night! 

Monday

Our morning started earlier with a 9:00 tour of the Vatican. We met our guide just outside the main entrance and made our way in. Within the medieval walls of Vatican City is actually a separate country from Italy. It is the worlds smallest, richest country, in fact. The Vatican museum is divided into different rooms (salas) and/or smaller museums, consisting of many different rooms, some of which used to be a part of the Papal residence. Historically, as new Popes came along, they expanded the residence and filled the space to their liking. Our guide said that if you looked at each artifact for 30 seconds only, it would take 4 years (assuming you did not ever stop in those four years) to see everything. I’m not sure if that is super accurate (and Josh and I argued whether I’d remembered this factoid correctly), but considering how many things we saw and we barely scratched the surface, I found it believable.

Sphere within a Sphere, A. Pomodoro (1990)

We toured the Pine Cone courtyard for a bit, learned the significance of some of the statues/sculptures, then entered into the museum. We toured for a couple of hours, seeing what felt like a LOT but knowing it was such a small portion of the actual museum, and culminated the tour with the Sistine Chapel. Y’all I can’t go into all the details of everything I saw because to me, it is overwhelming and impossible to remember every tidbit of information. I can say, seeing the Sistine Chapel was pretty special and it was near the end of our tour. Inside there, you’re not supposed to talk, sit, or take photos (we saw many people breaking these rules, of course).

After the Vatican tour we were all pretty hungry so we walked a few streets away and found the cutest family run Italian place, Trattoria Massa. The kind where the grandma comes out to tell you to sit, basically tells you what to order, when you’ve ordered enough (BASTA!), and demand everyone share the meal. We tried the house made lasagna, a couple of other pastas, and the boys had, of course, pizza. I doubt you’d find this place in a travel review book, but we all agreed it was one of our favorite meals. As Mason says, we still had room in the dessert portion of our stomachs so we stopped for gelato at Lemongrass, which our Colosseum guide, Andrea, told us was one of the best in town. We agreed.

With full bellies we started making our way to St. Peter’s Basilica, the largest church (measured by interior) in the world. Looking at it from afar you could appreciate the size and all the structures but it is  truly not until you climb some steps and walk inside the Dome of that church that I think its massiveness hits you. It even solicited some genuine “wows” from our boys that told us they were impressed with what they saw. We all agreed that we should climb to the top of the Duomo. In all there’s more than 500 steps I think, but we cheated and took an elevator for the first couple of hundred then climbed 320 steps, mostly in a narrow, hot, stairwell. I totally recommend it…unless you’re claustrophobic – stay the heck away. We took in the incredible views from up top, made our way back down, and then spent a little time walking around the interior. 

I caught a glimpse of the Pieta, super famous from Michelangelo on my way out, then we went to the Vatican post office and sent some cards to a couple of cousins. 

I think this site is really interesting regardless of your religion or viewpoint on Cathlolicism, which certainly has its share of negative history (ancient and recent). Seeing what artists created hundreds of years ago, what humans were able to build without “modern” technology, and what is still around today is meaningful to me. One of the ideas Matt/Josh discussed was whether humans could even build today the same structures with the same methods. Hearing about the back and forth of paganism/Christianity/rulers/democracies/emperors is a reminder that what we think is a permanent situation of a couple of hundred years can change. 

Another monument that caught my eye on our way out was the monument dedicated to refugees and migrants, called Angels Unaware, that was unveiled in September 2019. I found it really powerful and did some reading up on it here. According to this, it includes Mary and Joseph, and a total of 140 migrants ranging from Jews fleeing Nazi Germany to Syrians fleeing civil war. The article says the artist wanted to remind us that migration has existed for all of humanity, across all cultures, races, and religions and it was unveiled on the 105th World Day of Migrants and Refugees.

Angels Unaware, T. Schmalz 2019.

After our long day in/around the Vatican, we made our way back to the Airbnb and let the boys (and ourselves) have some down time. We enjoyed our rooftop terrace time with Matt and Tomi, continuing to catch up after not seeing each other for 2.5 months.  Josh went out with them later to try to get into the Pantheon but the line to get in was wrapped around the block so they saw Piazza Navona, grabbed a couple of drinks at a fun bar, then came home with pizza and wine to cap off the night. 

It had been a good few days in Rome, but we were ready to head to Tuscany!

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