Where and when: Rome, Italy for 7 days in November
Why: Solo traveler with serious wanderlust looking for wonderful art, tremendous food and a much-needed break from reality
How: Took Lufthansa via Frankfurt to Rome. Found the fare on ITASoftware in May for $549 rt (inc. taxes) and when I couldn't get the fare myself online, I gave the code ITA gives you to a travel agent and they found it for me. Huge score for me. Service on Lufthansa was excellent, especially considering I was in coach! I made the connections coming and going in under 55 minutes (restroom stop included). My only complaint is that I am not a fan of Frankfurt airport due to its tiny waiting areas at the gates (no room for most to sit and wait) and lack of available bottled water (I just couldn't find any! Most places were "out".)
Pre-trip reading: I re-read Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling by Ross King and Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal: Building St. Peter's by RA Scotti for historical perspective. I also read Roma by Steven Saylor, which is historical fiction covering the time from just before Romulus and Remus through the assassination of Julius Caesar. I highly, highly recommend this is book if you want an entertaining way to learn ancient Roman history. I knew nothing about the Vestals, Romulus and Remus, the Sabine women, etc. This covered it all. And it was great reading to boot!
Guidebooks: I took Rick Steves Rome 2008 with me…there are still places he can get me into and out of succinctly that make me want to use his books (his tour of the Capitoline Museums was just about right for me) and his data (hours, addresses, prices) is usually accurate. I also use Frommers, but this will be the last time for that as I am constantly finding incorrect data in their publications, not just here but in other countries as well. I will be going back to using Cadogan in the future. As always I rely heavily on a Streetwise map.
Weather: The first week in November and it was cool (high 40s, low 50s at night) later in the evening and early mornings, but when the sun was up and it was late morning to late afternoon, it was high 60s and bordered on shirt-sleeves only weather. On narrow streets and piazzas where the sun doesn't reach it was cooler, but on the day in the Forum it was definitely too warm for a coat at all. Light rain on arrival day, otherwise total sunshine except for a bit of overcast in the afternoon of the 6th day. I was thrilled at this weather luck, as it had been driving rain and cold many days leading up to my trip.
Hotel: Hotel Pantheon, on the corner of via delle Convertite and via del Corso. This is an excellent location for touring the city (between Trevi and Pantheon, and conveniently 5 minutes to Giolitti!) and deceiving in how quiet it actually is. I didn't hear any street noise at all. It is set back off Convertite behind a security gate and off an inner courtyard. Then up four stories (three of which are served by an elevator). The staff is really very helpful and friendly. My single room, however, was the smallest I'd ever been in (about 2 feet all the way around the bed to walk, bidet directly in front of shower (step over), shower doors open inward) and I felt the bed had seen much better days. But otherwise, it was exactly what I should have expected for 116E a night. I saved my money on flight and accommodation so I could go wild with….
Tours: I booked with Context Rome for three tours, Helen Donegan for the private Vatican Museum after-hours tour and the Vatican Scavi tour.
Context Rome's Roma Antica tour – This was a four hour walking tour through Palatine Hill, the Forum and the Colosseum. Cecilia Martini was the guide and I really enjoyed her presentation. She acknowledged that to some people, what we were looking at might just be a pile of stone, so she really made a point to put things into context (pun intended) and help bring the area alive. We could have spent a bit more time in the Forum (focus was really on Palatine) but I can't say there's anything there I felt I missed either. Time was short in the Colosseum, but I'd already been there on a previous trip and after all that we'd seen and learned at the prior two locations, I didn't mind that it was relatively quick there (plus there was just less there to see than in either Palatine or the Forum). I will be sure to take Context's Classical Rome tour (the companion tour to this one) on my next visit.
Context Rome's Galleria Borghese tour – This was a two hour tour of the Borghese. Hilary Bockham was the guide and she was excellent. When you sign up for these tours, be sure to take advantage of the "what is your interest" part of the registration form, because she made a point of tying my interests in Vermeer, Rembrandt and other artists into what we were seeing in the Borghese. It was fabulous. My only complaints have to do with not having enough time in the museum. We didn't get to cover as much as I'd hoped in two hours (although we saw the big draws there) and there is also a Canova special exhibit on, but the pieces are interspersed among the permanent collection, so you have to spend part of your two hours on that; you do not have access separate from the permanent collection and outside the two hours. I will go back to the Borghese on a future visit on my own just to drink in the exquisite Berninis which I have come to appreciate so much more with Hilary's help.
Context Rome's Caravaggio Seminar -- This was a four hour walk with Anthony Majanlahti. The walk was to start at the Santa Maria del Popolo, move on to Sant'Agostino and San Luigi del Francesi and then on to the Galleria Doria Pamphilij. We certainly covered the churches, but had lingered at additional sights along the way so that we were literally running to fit the second and third churches in before they closed at 12:30 and our guide then left us at the entrance to the Galleria since the tour time was over. It was a bit disappointing; however, some of the sights we saw along the way were interesting enough: Canova's first and second studios, one of which was made into a very funky café where we had cappuccino, one of Rome's talking statues, etc. It did put Rome into context for us, but I think the tour covers a lot of territory for four hours and could be streamlined or rearranged a bit better perhaps. The Caravaggios in the churches are absolutely exquisite though, and I revisited them when I passed by on later days, since there's nothing like free-entry to great art!
Italy With Us' Private After Hours Vatican Tour -- I had expected this to be the highlight of my trip, and it was. After all I'd heard and read about the madhouse it can be in the Vatican Museums during regular hours, and I am unequivocally not a fan of crowds, I decided this was the best way to enjoy this to the max. The tour included the tapestries, maps, a few of the upper galleries (not the Pinacoteca), Raphael's rooms and of course the Sistine Chapel. While all of the rest was really just a pre-cursor for me, I about keeled over in ecstasy in Raphael's rooms and the Sistine Chapel. The School of Athens was just delightful and the Sistine Chapel was exquisite, all the more so because we had it to ourselves (about 15 of us) for 45 minutes. Helen Donegan set us up with a wonderful guide who was so knowledgeable and friendly and answered all our questions well. While this was quite expensive and while I wish we'd also seen some of the Pinacoteca (I'll just have to go back for this too!), this is an experience of a lifetime. Definitely a "priceless" moment.
Vatican Scavi tour -- There's not much here to be said that others haven't already said here on Fodors. I enjoyed this immensely and learned quite a bit. I would definitely recommend it to most visitors to Rome.
The one thing that really hit home for me here was when Cecelia told us that we'd learn bits and pieces about the history of Rome at different places and from different people and finally it would all come together. Well, I, being the heathen (and non-Catholic) that I am, knew nothing about St. Peter and how he was crucified upside down. I learned this from Caravaggio's The Crucifixion of St. Peter in Santa Maria del Popolo, and then, on the Scavi tour, the guide explained that part of the reason they have confirmed the bones in what they think is St. Peter's tomb to be St. Peter is the missing foot bones, which would be logical if he'd been hung on the cross from his feet (since they'd have most likely chopped the feet off to get him down). There were several more instances like this, but it is true, the more you pay attention and learn, the more it all comes together.
So, that all said, rather than give a day by day account, I'll just highlight some of my favorite sights and restaurants for future reference:
I visited 28 churches in a week. After a while, they do tend to run together, but the ones that stand out for me were: Santa Maria del Popolo for the Chigi Chapel and Caravaggios, San Prassede for the mosaics, San Pietro en Vincoli for Moses (oh my, that was just beautiful!), the Orvieto duomo for the gold and mosaic façade, St. Cecelia in Trastevere for the building and the sculpture of St. Cecelia, San Francesco e Ripa for the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni.
I absolutely love Michelangelo's work, so for me it was just a dream seeing the Sistine Chapel, the Pieta, Risen Christ, Moses, and the Campidoglio all in one week. I also grew to love Bernini's work, both in the churches there and in the Borghese. It still amazes me how much wonderful art is in churches here that is so free and accessible. And that when given the choice to mob Moses or Peter's chains, the crowd mobs Moses!!! But I felt about Moses like I did when I saw David…I really believe he is so human-like that he is about to move toward me and speak. It is amazing how lifelike he looked. Just mesmerizing.
I have a soft spot for animals, so I was completely taken by the cat sanctuary at Largo Argentina. I was following Walter's Caesar Assassination walk of the area, and knew there'd be cats, but I was pretty overwhelmed by how well the cats were taken care of and how nice the people in the shelter were. It really is a great experience and was neat to see the cats lounging and lolling about the ruins there. Also pretty cool to see "the" spot where Caesar fell!
The day I spent walking around Trastevere was well worthwhile. It has more of a neighborhood feel than anywhere in the centro storico, and at least on the Saturday I was milling around, there were very few tourists about.
Palazzo Barberini for the National Art Museum…this is very "do-able" and has some interesting pieces by El Grecco, Caravaggio and of course Raphael's Fornarina. I visited it on day one while I was walking off jetlag.
The Capitoline Museum was really very interesting, especially for its sculpture and the unique view over the Forum. I loved the Dying Gaul, Amore & Psyche and Spinario (Boy with a Thorn).
Ara Pacis – I stopped here walking back from Castel Sant'Angelo and was really impressed. While it is housed in something that doesn't even remotely fit the fascist architecture neighborhood nearby, the altar itself is gorgeous. What a wonderful way to preserve it.
I did take a quick daytrip to Orvieto, but in retrospect I wish I'd stayed in Rome and revisited some places or seen other places I hadn't yet been to. Orvieto was virtually deserted and it was nice to see its gorgeous cathedral, but there wasn't much else to do there but shop (and shops were closed through lunch).
I don't know what it was, but on this trip the Pantheon captivated me. It was my first stop the day I arrived and the last place I saw the night before I left. In a light mist, in bright sun and especially lit at night, it was just beautiful. I can't explain it, but looking at it gave me that feeling that I was truly somewhere special, ancient and mystical.
Ok, for restaurants:
On one of my first nights, I was too tired to think, so I let my hotel pick my restaurant. They sent me to Ristorante Mario, the next street over from the hotel (via della Vite). The menu said it specialized in Tuscan cuisine. Indeed, the pappa al pomodoro was really good, lots of olive oil and bread! For a main course I had a beef done in wine and tomato. The beef just fell apart with a fork but it was barely warm and didn't appear to be cooked through well at all. I wasn't comfortable with how undercooked it was, so I didn't finish it. Total bill here 28E.
It took me several days (due to the long All Saint's Day weekend during which the restaurant appeared to be closed) to get into Armando al Pantheon, but I finally did. On my last night I had gnocchi alla gorgonzola and a bruschetta with a hot pepperoni spread, along with a semifreddo. All of it was heavenly. The gnocchi was unlike any I had ever had before as it absolutely melted in my mouth. With a glass of wine, the total bill was 28E.
In Orvieto, I stopped in at La Taverna dell'Etrusco on via della Misericordia. I had the pappardelle alla pesto and bruschetta (six pieces, each with a different spread) and a bottle of water for about 18E, I believe. The pasta was really very tasty.
Above the Colosseum is Hostaria de Nerone (a Frommers recommendation on via delle Terme di Tito). This was a good choice for a quick lunch after the Forum tour. I had the spaghetti all'Amatriciana which was quite good and veal saltimbocca alla romana which I wrote in my journal "was to die for". So I guess it was good. I didn't write down how much this was, but I recall it being quite reasonable (in line with my other choices). A nice location too if you've just left the Colosseum and are moving on to St. Pietro en Vincoli.
A good find for me was one in National Geographic Traveler that arrived just as I left home. Ristorante Arlu on Borgo Pio near the Vatican was a great stop post-Basilica touring and on the way to Castel Sant'Angelo. It was full of priests the day I walked in for lunch, and remained full the entire time I was there. I had the insalata caprese, rigatoni con salsiccia, apple cake and cappuccino. I have 22E written down for this one. It was really good in a neighborhood where I'd been led to believe there weren't any "good" choices!
And after the private Vatican Museum tour, Helen recommended Dino and Tony's on via Leone IV, which three of us chose to try out when she said it was "fun" and had the best amatriciana in the city. She was right on both counts. It's one of those places where they ask you "Appetizer?", you say yes and all of a sudden there are 10 appetizers on your table. Then they say "Pasta" and you all have pasta, and again and again. And then "carne or pesce?" and you have your main course. Then dessert, then dessert wine. It is a convivial atmosphere, lots of locals, family style seating. It was an incredibly fun experience, the staff were great with us. For three of us, with 2 bottles of wine, it was 89E. This was my best meal there, I think…or maybe tied with Armando.
Gelato….I never found San Crispino, but I tried Giolitti, Blue Ice and Palma. I think hands down I liked Giolitti the best. I tended to find myself gravitating back there. I noticed a lot more "exotic" flavors than on my prior trips to Italy, like sacher torte and gingerbread. I tended to gravitate more towards the traditional flavors like fior di crema and zuppa inglese. That's not to say that I'd turn down Bailey's flavored gelato if I could get my hands on it.
Overall, I return quite smitten with Rome. I will definitely return and was not at all troubled being a solo female traveler. I felt comfortable out and about late at night (midnight was the latest I was out) and never felt threatened or nervous. There is just so much to do, I was overwhelmed at my choices and what I wanted to do and still have left to do! Thank goodness I tossed that coin in at the Trevi Fountain!
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Where and when: Rome, Italy for 7 days in November