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Trip Report Rome For The Holidays: MaitaiTom's Eternal City Escapades & Christmas Caper

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Prologue: Friends, Fodorites, Fellow Travelers, lend me your ears (well, in this case your eyes). I come to praise Rome, not to bury it, although at times it nearly buried me.

Tracy and I had visited Rome on two different occasions earlier this decade, but those stays had been relatively short in length. So, just as the two of us did in 2006 when we ensconced ourselves in Paris for a week, we thought it would be fun and exciting to spend a similar amount of time exploring the Eternal City in the days leading up to Christmas 2009. We wanted to see what we had missed on those previous visits. And boy, had we missed a lot!

Of course, a Maitaitom and Tracy trip always seems to include its fair share of high drama and low comedy, and this vacation certainly embodied enough of both genres (with even more drama after we arrived home). Hopefully, this trip report even includes a miracle (which includes a huge assist by a fellow Fodorite) that makes the “Magic Cream” episode in 2006 pale in comparison.

I suspect that those of you who love Rome and those of you that despise it will disagree with me on some, if not many, points. Unlike most places we have visited in our travels, I have quite a few mixed emotions about Rome, but I am certainly glad we had the opportunity to experience everything the city threw our way.

One of the main reasons I don’t blog on a trip is that I believe it is too easy to get caught up in the emotion of the moment, which can skew one’s viewpoint (well, at least mine) either too positively or negatively about a place or event. At the end of the day, there is always vino to be drunk, and I tend to make too many spelling errors after a carafe or two. Plus, it’s hard to write down anything of significant meaning while covered in a plethora of bird poo (an event that takes “embarrassing” to a new level).

Instead, I like to reflect upon the places we travel, and Rome is a prime example of a city that took a lot of reflecting on my part. As a matter of fact, I still am doing just that as I write today’s first installment.

Hopefully, my massive missive will give you a good glimpse of Rome and provide an important cautionary tale of not letting one’s guard down while traveling, no matter where you are. In any event, grab chair, open a bottle or three, and I hope you enjoy Rome For The Holidays.

Act I: Debits, Delays, Detours, Decisions and Deicing or All Roads Really Do Lead To Rome

As trips go, I believe I outdid myself in becoming an idiot earlier than on any trip we had ever previously embarked upon (and that’s saying something). On the evening before our flight, Tracy said, “Why don’t you clean out your wallet and just bring your debit card along with your credit cards?” I guess she didn’t think an oversized George Costanza wallet was conducive for traveling overseas.

“Credit Cards? Check!” I said.

“Debit card? Crap, where’s my debit card?” Yes, in all the pre-trip planning I had not noticed my debit card had gone missing, probably lurking somewhere in the great abyss known as my desk. After thoroughly checking my desk drawers (ok, I tossed everything on the floor in one last frantic attempt to find it), it was determined to be MIA.

Fortunately, after calling the 800-number on the card, we were told it had not been used since the Carter administration (as you can see, I am not the banker in the family). The bad news, I had no debit card, so we only had one to take on the trip. We always like to have a back up, just in case one of the “Bank In The Boxes” gets hungry and eats our card.

Bad news greeted us at LAX when we arrived at the Air France gate. Our 12:35 p.m. flight to Paris had been delayed until 1:55 thanks to unusually bad weather in Paris. Even with a San Diego State education, I immediately realized our 90-minute layover time at CDG was now gone, and we would miss our connecting Alitalia Flight to Rome, unless, of course, it happened to be delayed, too.

My new friend, Carlos (the Air France guy at the gate), kept telling me that since Alitalia had not put the Paris to Rome flight up on its computer, we couldn’t get a boarding pass for our next flight segment, but as I boarded the plane, he said he would keep looking for me until we took off. Carlos did not lie. Moments before takeoff, there was Carlos standing at our seats with boarding passes in hand, however since there was no chance we could make our original connection, he had kindly booked us on the next Paris to Rome flight; which was only about 90 minutes later than our original.

No problem, we thought. We would call our hotel in Rome (that had scheduled a driver to meet us) and give them information regarding our new arrival time in Rome.

I have never subscribed to the premise that the French do not have a keen sense of humor. Shortly before our plane landed in Paris, I asked the Air France purser if we would have enough time to catch our new connecting flight to Rome. I told him it would be on Alitalia.

He feigned crying, wiped his eyes and gave me a look that said, “Why the hell are you flying them?” Then he patted me on the back and said, “I think you’ll make it.”

Upon landing in Paris, we rushed to the nearest monitor to see how much time we had to make our flight. The Alitalia flights to Rome up on the big board looked much like NBC’s Fall Schedule of new television shows…they were all cancelled.

I turned to Tracy and whispered, “We’ll always have Paris.” It seems attempts at comedy after an 11-hour flight fall upon deaf ears.

While most passengers heading toward Rome were flooding the Air France information desk, Tracy used her Amazing Race knowledge and said, “We’re flying Alitalia. Let’s try that desk first.” Good call. We were second in line at the Alitalia desk and quickly given two pieces of paper for an Alitalia flight that was supposed to take off at 5 p.m. Tracy and I were told to go to the nearby Air France guy who was standing near a computer. He would print out a boarding pass for us.

He in turn told us there was a flight leaving in 15 minutes and did we want that one? In a Sarah Palin moment we said, “You betcha,” and, coincidentally with the snow falling outside, the landscape looked very similar to Russia.

We rushed through security, zipped over to our gate, where they were telling passengers that our flight was delayed indefinitely due to inclement weather. When I looked up on the board, the flight number looked vaguely familiar. Sure enough, this was the original flight we had scheduled three weeks ago that had been delayed.

First the flight was delayed until two o’clock. Then it was three. Then it was not going to take off to at least five, if at all. We called the hotel and said to cancel the driver. “We’ll be there when we get there.” While Tracy read and tried to stay awake, I loaded up on double espressos and cappuccinos in a feeble attempt to stay coherent.

The snow actually stopped for about two hours and everyone sitting around kept wondering why we weren’t taking off. I hadn’t seen this many glum faces since I went to a San Diego Padres’ game last summer.

Then, at exactly 4 p.m., a voice boomed over the intercom that boarding would commence immediately for our flight to Rome. It was as if we had all sat on a collective tack. Suddenly, 175 weary bodies leaped from their seats, got quickly in the queue and looked longingly at our ride to Rome.

That’s when the blizzard started. I didn’t know what Alitalia’s immediate plans were to deal with this blanket of white stuff, but this was the kind of weather that Santa puts Rudolph on his Red-Nose-Alert speed dial.

Once inside our Alitalia plane, I really thought we had traveled back in time to the 1970s. The seats were covered in green cloth. I half expected Kermit the Frog to be my seatmate. I was surprised they didn’t have shag carpeting.

As we sat there, looking outside (it was hard to look inside what with all that green cloth staring us in the face), the snow kept coming down harder and harder, and the wings were icing up pretty good. Being from California, we had only a faint knowledge of deicing procedures, but I was pretty damned sure this plane needed to have it done. A brave flyer I am not, so it’s a safe bet I looked like William Shatner in that Twilight Zone when he saw the Gremlin messing with the engines on the wing.

The captain told us that we would slowly taxi, get deiced (thank God) and then off to Rome we would go. When he said, “slowly taxi,” he wasn’t kidding. From our gate to the deicing station, we taxied for the better part of an hour (55 minutes to be exact). “Geez, I hope they take the chains off this thing,” I thought. After ten to 15 minutes of deicing (a procedure similar to one of those gas station car washes), we moved out on to the runway, and the steward came to sit next to me for takeoff (we had moved to exit rows since they were available). I think my face might have rivaled the seats for the color green at this moment.

The engines revved like I have never heard engines rev, and we moved quickly (very, very quickly) down the runway. It seemed like we had only gone about 50 yards when the plane made a sharp ascent upward. Ground control to Major Tom.

The steward, sensing my feeling of imminent doom, told me they rev the engines harder in this weather to keep the wings from icing up again. I forget if that made me feel better or if I just passed out. Yes, I am glad I live in California.

Safely on the ground in Rome (thank you Alitalia), we immediately caught a taxi to our home for the next eight nights, the Hotel San Francesco in Trastevere. The fare was 50€, which I guess was a flat fee since our driver would not accept even a nominal tip.

The hotel lobby was very nice, and we caught a quick glimpse of the charming breakfast room where we would get our motors started for the next seven days. We were assigned Room 406, which I was told was located on the quieter side of the hotel. I will give a more detailed account of the hotel later in the report, but the first impression was less than stellar. The floor was covered with; well we don’t know exactly what the floor was covered with. In any event, it was clean, but the room had very little space to lay anything out.

The shower was your typical European death shower, where a broken hip is just one misstep away. It had the ever-popular “Shower On A Stick” that pointed out directly toward the bathroom guaranteeing a flood with any wayward spraying. Tracy’s yoga lessons gave her a definite advantage over me in contorting to fit the uniquely small space, but we adapted nicely throughout the week and no bones were broken in our daily effort at good hygiene.

The lighting in the bathroom was poor, but after about 18 hours of flying and waiting it was best not to see our countenances in any light that evening. The bags under my eyes were now as large as our carry-on luggage.

Note: Once again, this why I do not blog. After spending eight nights at the Hotel San Francesco, our thoughts on this hotel are much better than our first impressions.

After cleaning up, we wandered down to a place called Ristorante de Cencia, which looked charming on the inside. As we entered, the good news was that everyone inside was speaking Italian, so for the first time we really felt like we were on vacation. The bad news; we ate there.

The food was, for lack of a better term, uninspiring. Tracy ordered a vegetable soup that ultimately made a can Campbell’s Soup look good. I had an “ok” Garbanzo bean and pasta soup. My veal scaloppini was woeful, while Tracy had Rigatoni with bacon, peppers and Pecorino cheese that she deemed “passable.” We weren’t too disappointed because we were so tired we probably could not have appreciated a really good meal, plus, what the hell, “We were finally in Rome!”

For the rest of the trip, I had made restaurant reservations before we departed for a few of our nights and had a pretty good idea of the other establishments we wanted to dine while we were in Rome. Our reviews of these restaurants might surprise some.

It was quite chilly walking back to the Hotel San Francesco, but as we wound past Santa Maria in Trastevere we both had a warm feeling. It felt great back to be back in Roma. Settling into our bed I leaned over, gave Tracy a kiss and before either of us could say “buona notte,” we were sound asleep, our first full day roaming in Rome looming ahead.

Coming Up: Bad Forecast, Nice Spread, Big Balls, Giulia Childs, Numb Skulls, Where’s That Damned Enoteca, Just Look For The Elephant, Hunky Doria, Don’t Meow For Me Argentina and Taking It On The Lamb Chops

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