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Six Days in Rome – 3/24 to 3/31, Day 4 Sunday, 3/28/2010 May 1, 2010

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Six Days in Rome – 3/24 to 3/31, Day 4

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Saturday three weeks before our flight to Rome was the beginning of daylight savings time for the United States. We lost one hour back then. Tonight was the 1st day of Italy’s daylight savings time. We lost another hour last night.  Will I get this hour back?

Our evening tour, Rome by night plus dinner and music, won’t start until 8:00 PM and someone from Vastours would pick us up between 7:15 and 7:45 PM at our hotel. We’d have plenty of time to look around before the tour.

I chose a city market about a mile away to go to after breakfast. This one was supposed to open every day of the week and was a good place to shop according to the ad I saw. On the way there, we’d go to Roma Termini and find out where we could buy tickets and take the train to the airport on Wednesday. I also needed to know the train schedule too.

We’re out by 10 AM and took us less than 5 minutes at Roma Termini to find out all we needed to know about the express train to the international airport. From Termini, the city market was only a few blocks away. However, when we arrived there, the market looked deserted. The walls were covered with graffiti. The steel doors were all shut and the streets looked dirty and old.  We decided to go to the nearest metro station and take the metro to the Coliseum. The metro ride cost €1 no matter where we went and it was quiet easy to follow the signs around as long as we got the direction of the train right.

The line to get in the Coliseum was very long and judging by its slow progress it would probably take an hour to get in. Many tour guides came to ask us joining them for a private tour and we could get in right away. Someone told us that we could get in faster if we rent an audio tape for a little more money. That sounded like a better deal because we could move at our own pace without being rushed. After spending €20 more, we got in within 15 minutes. Although it wasn’t very easy to follow the instruction and explanation on the device, we managed to complete the tour within 2 hours with plenty stops to take pictures, admire the majestic and impressive structure and pay respects to Roman’s engineering achievements. Part of the arena floor has been re-floored to illustrate the appearance of the ancient time. When I was inside, I couldn’t help but to picture the gladiators on the floor fighting their lives against each other and against vicious animals for a crowd of 50,000 cheering crowd. The images of Russell Crowe as gladiator Maximus, the white haired slave merchant, the black slave, the emperor, the cheering spectators  on the stands and the gruesome executions and cruelty kept popping up in front of my eyes as if they were real. Many innocent lives were lost in this arena 50 or 100 feet from me in the name of entertainment and here we were standing here 2,000 thousand years later admiring the grandeur of the amphitheater. Hmm, I wondered what‘s the problem with this picture?

Did you notice 168 on the recording device? 一路发

After our visit to Coliseum, we planned to tour the inside of the Forum but decided not to because it was getting hot and the tour may take another two hours. In addition, it was lunch time and we’d need to find a place to have something light to eat before our tour tonight and a dinner after the tour. We walked back to the metro station and were going to take the metro to Basilica St. Peter’s. Unfortunately I misread the map and ended up at a small pyramid we saw yesterday.

Pyramid of Cestius, Rome

On the way back to metro, we passed by this middle-eastern restaurant and decided to have some rice and a couple of slices of pizza for lunch. The friendly owner of the restaurant came and began to chat with us, He said that their food was prepared from the scratch everyday and offered some baked egg plants and shaved meat from a shawarma rotisserie similar to gyros found in a Greek restaurant. The egg plant was meant as an appetizer which was grilled and then marinated with curry and herb. The shaved meat definitely had lamb and beef. It might have chicken in there too. The meat was juice, tender and full of flavor. From its texture, I guessed that they added a lot of fat to layers of meat in the shawarma. It certainly tasted a lot better than what I usually get from Greek restaurants or from Greek places at food court in shopping malls. We saw a Middle Eastern customer who ordered a shawarma wrap which included lettuce, cucumber, onions, tomato, rice and a white-colored sauce made from yogurt in pita-like bread the size of a Chipotle wrap. It looked so good!

Halal Food Catering Service

Friendly Owner

We then found the train station nearby, took the metro back to Roma Termini, stopped by the Internet Point, exchanged for some euro, had some gelato on the way back to hotel and then took a nap before our evening tour.

We waited for our bus at about 7:10 but Vastours didn’t show up until about 7:50. Our tour guide was a gentleman in his late 50’s and there were about 20 people in our tour including two other Asians.

The first stop of our evening tour was the Trevi Fountain. As we walked to the fountain, I noticed that the restaurants along the narrow street got busier as we got closer to the fountain. Side walk tables were very popular even on a cool night like tonight. A few restaurants had their patio heaters on to attract passersby. Around the corner to the fountain was a street performer who stood motionless like a statue. A small crowd had already gathered around him as more curious people stopped to see what’s going on. The male performer asked a female tourist to hold his briefcase for him and stood motionless side by side with him. Then, as he moved his arms and head, she asked her to move with him. This act went on for about three to four minutes until he finally let her go which attracted a round of applause from the onlookers. Since we didn’t have too much time here, we walked with the crowd to the fountain and found people stood shoulder to shoulder around the fountain. Many were throwing coins into the fountain while others were taking pictures for each other. The small square was so crowded that it could only be described as 擠得水泄不通 “ji3 de2 shui3 xie4 bu1 tong1: which means that it was so crowded that even water could not trickle through. We stopped for a moment, took a picture, to the gelato shop and ordered a small scoop for each of us.

Street Performer, Trevi Fountain, Rome

Evening at Trevi Fountain, Rome

Gelato

Bicycle Rental Point, Near Navona Piazza, Rome

The bus then took us around a few other places such as Via Veneto, Piazza Barberini, Piazza Venezia, Vit­toriano, The Coliseum and St. Peter’s Square and Basilica. The bus finally stopped at Piazza Navona and we got to stay here for about 10 minutes. Evening at Piazza Navona was even more beautiful. People gathered around the fountains and stood by a few artists who were making drawings for a few lucky tourists. After we returned to the bus, our tour guide announced that our tour ended here and in a moment two lucky guests would enjoy a beautiful dinner and the rest of the guests will be driven back to their hotels. Hmm, I said that we were the two guests he had mentioned. After the bus dropped us off not too far from Piazza Navona, our tour guide walked us to a restaurant, talked to the manager and gave him a voucher. He then said that the bus driver would come back later to take us back to our hotel. He then left.

Basilica St. Peter's in the evening

The name of the restaurant was Casanova which had maybe 25 tables in the dinning room. The restaurant looked contemporary and comfy with soft lights, mirrors on the wall and white tablecloth covered tables. A bar was located near the front door and the kitchen was in the back. When we got there at 9:15 PM, there were two other tables at the restaurant and they had already finished their meals. We were seated at a table right in front of a small stage which had a piano and bench. A guy, who sat in front of the piano, was talking to two other people; a guy and a gale both in their late 20 or early 30’s, who sat on two chairs against the wall not far from the piano. Since the tour brochure said that we’d have music with our meal, I presumed that the guy would play the piano for us. the other two people I thought were the waiter and waitress of the restaurant and they were waiting for their tables to clear.

Dinning room of the Casanova Restaurant, Rome

At Casanova Restaurant, Rome

A guy came out of the kitchen and bought a candle holder with a candle to our table. He lit the candle and left. Another person, this time a woman, came and introduced herself to us and said in English that she’d take care of us tonight. She then asked us whether we liked to have some wine with our dinner: white or red. Apparently we didn’t have any choice of what brand of wine we could have. I asked for red wine and she came back with a bottle of red table wine with the restaurant logo on its label. She also mentioned that we’d get a four course dinner. All the while the guy at the piano played soft music for us and other guests at the restaurant.

Soon, our first course arrived which was two slices of roasted egg plants with a tomato-based sauce topped with melted cheese. Not particularly special, I thought! Before we could finish our egg plants, people at other two tables began to leave which left us the only two guests in the entire restaurant. Other people at the restaurant included the manager, the guy who bought us candle, our waitress, the pianist and the other two who were also on the stage. Plus two people in the kitchen, I counted eight. Just to serve us two!

As our waitress cleared the empty salad plates off our table, the other two persons stood up and walked to the front of the stage, smiled to us and then begun to sing Italian opera songs for us while the pianist played. I suddenly realized that they were waiting for us the entire time. They must be very disappointed that there weren’t more of us which made us somewhat uncomfortable. They sang two songs while we ate our second course which was a pasta dish.

Caserecci pasta with sun-dried tomato

The pasta was actually not bad at all: al dente caserecci pasta and sun-dried tomato with cream sauce, herb and shaved cheese.  The texture of the dark green-colored pasta was just right: a little chewy in the middle and somewhat rough on the outside. There was barely enough sauce covering the pasta unlike pasta dishes served in the United States which was soaked in the sauce.

After two songs, they and left the stage. We politely clapped our hands, acted like we enjoyed their performance and assumed that they would go home since they have done their duty tonight. The third course came which was veal cutlet and some vegetables in cream and pepper sauce. I didn’t like the way it looked and liked the veal and sauce even less. Even I could do better than this; I said to myself. At this time, I saw the bus driver came and the manager chatted with him and signaled him to sit down. He then sat at a table by the front door and waited for us to finish our meal.  Now we have nine people serving just the two of us. Soon the manager came out and gave him a plate of pasta to eat. Poor guy probably didn’t have anything to eat while drove us around Rome.

Then the trio came back to the stage and performed two more songs for us. At this time, we were more comfortable with their performance probably because we had drunk more than half of the wine in the bottle. We gave them €15 and thanked them for their excellent performance. They offered to sell us their CD for €15 which had 12 to 15 songs. We took the CD and had them signed their names for us. They then packed their stuff and left. The dessert was tiramisu which was okay but not great. Unlike its American version, this tiramisu wasn’t too sweet which was good but it definitely needed more rum and liqueur in it. We quickly finished ½ of our dessert, left €15 at the table, thanked the waitress for their fine service and complimented to the manager about his beautiful restaurant.

The driver got up and we walked to the bus waiting outside. Our ride to the hotel took less than 15 minutes from Casanova. We gave him €10 for the ride and said goodbye to him. It was a quarter to 11 PM. He’d probably be home by 11:30 at the earliest. It must be a long day for him. For us, that was a very expensive meal: we had already paid for the meal with the tour to begin with. We then spend €30 on the performers, €15 tips to our waitress and bus boy plus €10 for the driver. One expensive meal in Rome! And the meal was below average. No wonder that there were just two of us there. All other tourists probably have checked this out and avoided it all together. In fact, the tour was a bad one and no one should come at all.

At our hotel room, we compared two one-day trips to places outside of Rome and decided to visit Florence instead of Pompeii. We’d do that on Tuesday. Vatican museum and Sistine Chapel were on schedule tomorrow.

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Six Days in Rome – 3/24 to 3/31, Day 3 3/27/2010 April 28, 2010

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Six Days in Rome – 3/24 to 3/31, Day 3

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Our tour today was Monument Rome which started at 8:30 AM at the Vastours office. We got up early to have some breakfast at the hotel and waited at the lobby for the tour company to pick us up. Just about when we were ready to leave our room to wait for the bus, Bao told me that our Canon Sureshot was gone. We looked but couldn’t find it in the room. She then said that it was most likely lost at the souvenir shop at Basilica St. Paul. She probably placed the camera on the counter as she paid for the chocolate we bought. Well, we’d have to make another trip to Basilica St. Paul after our tour early afternoon.

Around 8 AM, a guy showed up at hotel lobby and took us to a van parked nearby. After a couple more stops at other hotels, we arrived at the tour company at 8:20 or so. Tour bus started at 8:50 because some people had problems with their remote controls and earphones. Today we had about 40 tourists and our tour guide divided us into a Spanish speaking group and an English speaking group of about 20 people each.

The three-hour Monument Rome tour included visits of Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, Piazza Navona and finally St. Peter’s Basilica.

The bus took us through Via Veneto which was made famous by movie “La Dolce Vita.” Since there wasn’t much to see from the bus, I had to come back later to check it out. After driving by Piazza della Repubblica and Najadi’s Fountain, our bus dropped us off at an underpass and our tour finally started on foot. The first stop was the famous Trevi Fountain which was at the junction of three streets or tri vie in Italian. Before we arrived at the fountain, our lovely guide got us together and gave us a brief history of the fountain because it would be impractical to gather us together once we got there.

A close up view of statues above the Trevi Fountain

Our tour guide told us that the fountain was the terminal point of one of many ancient Roman aqueducts which supplied clean water to ancient Rome. The concept of the fountain was originally sketched by the famous artist, sculptor and architect Bernini (widely regarded as the Successor of Michelangelo) in the late 17th century. However, his project was scrapped because the Pope who commissioned the design and construction of the fountain died. The construction of the fountain was revived in 1930 by Pope Clement XII and finally completed in 1762. It was last restored in 1998 completed with a big pump. When we got there, which was a mere 5 minute walk from where we were dropped off, there were already a lot of people gathered around the fountain. We were told to take 10 minutes to take pictures and to throw coins, one or 2 but not 3 unless you want to divorce your spouse, into the fountain. We managed to make our way to the edge of the fountain, took some pictures and threw one euro penny into the fountain which, according to our guide, meant that we’d come back to Rome one day.

The fountain was without question the most beautiful Western fountain that we’ve ever seen. Nearby, there were many restaurants and shops along the three streets leading to the fountain. Many of them had set up tables on the sidewalk. Since it was still early, the restaurants have opened for businesses yet. I could image that the restaurants would be crowded by tourists at lunch and dinner times. I also thought about coming back to here and enjoyed a night out and a nice dinner here.  Since we didn’t have time to waste, we quickly went to a gelato shop right by the fountain and had some gelato before walking to our next stop, Piazza Colonna and the Column of Marcus Aurelius. I wasn’t too sure what the tall column was for other than that it was constructed to pay tribute to Marcus Aurelius who was a Roman Emperor about 2000 years ago. It was so remarkable that the column has been standing here, its original location, for almost 2,000 years. A closer look showed the detailed art work of the raised relief of 2,200 figures on the column. In the interest of time, we didn’t stay here long because we still have a few more stops to go to.

Column of Marcus Aurelius

Pantheon was about another 5 minute walk from Piazza Colonna. It was a circular building of enormous size with more columns on the outside. In ancient Rome time, Pantheon was constructed to serve as the temple of all gods. Pantheon was later converted into a church called Basilica of St. Mary and the Martyrs. Unfortunately the exterior of the building was being refurbished when we got there but the sheer size of the building left me astonished of Roman’s engineering capability 2,000 years ago. Our tour guide told us that Pantheon has the second largest dorm in Rome, second to the dome at Basilica of St. Peters. What made the dome of Pantheon different from the others in Rome is that Pantheon’s dome has a big hole in the middle. Since the dome has no window, The Romans left a big hole in the center of the dome to allow the sunshine in.  As such, the floor and the building were equipped with a drainage system to drain the rain away on raining days. Our tour guide pointed out the holes to us and said that the original system is still being used to this date. Wow! 2,000 years and still counting! Amazing!

Drain holes on Pantheon floor from ancient Roman

A view of the inside of Pantheon

Piazza Navona, our next stop, was another 5 minute walk away. Piazza Navona was lively, charming and filled with artists of many kinds. The elongated public square within four walls of tall buildings had three fountains and a beautiful church. The Four Rivers Fountain was designed by Bernini in the mid-17th century, was under renovation. We still could see the amazing detailed art work of the sculptures through the Plexiglas windows on a fence surrounding the fountain. The four sculptures were four gods representing four major rivers of the known world at the time of Ancient Rome. There were two more fountains in the square, one each at the north and south ends of the square. There were many artists displaying their art work in the square and numerous restaurants lining both sides of the piazza. We took some pictures but didn’t have too much time admiring the art work because we were heading to our last stop of the tour, Basilica of St. Peters and the Vatican.

Piazza Navona, Egyptian obelisk and the church of Sant'Agnese in Agone

Piazza Navona

One of four gods of the Four Rivers Fountain

After a 10 minute pee stop at a souvenir shop near the St. Peter’s piazza, we headed to St. Peter’s Piazza. Well, before we could get in the basilica, we had to wait in line like everyone else: a line of about 300 to 400 people.

A marble statue for sale at a souvenir shop near St. Peter’s Piazza

The line in front of Basilica St. Peter's

It took us about 50 minutes to get in the church after passing through a metal detector. Before we got in the church, our tour guide told us that we’d gather around La Pietà by Michelan­gelo as a group and she’d tell us the story of the famous statue. From there, we’d go our own ways and anyone who wished to go back to the hotel should meet her in 25 minutes. We decided to say goodbye to our tour guide and stayed at the church for a little longer.

La Pietà by Michelangelo

Inside the Basilica St. Peter's

La Pietà, created about 500 years ago, was placed behind a bullet proved glass panel to prevent it from damage by visitors. In 1972, the statue suffered its greatest damage in the hands of a mentally unstable geologist with his hammer. The statue shows a young and beautiful Mary holding the body of Jesus after crucifixion. The statue was elegant and was truly a masterpiece by the famous artist. We stayed inside the church for about 45 minutes and Bao decided to go to the top of the dome but I was tired from all the standing and walking the entire morning. Since there was a long line to the dome and it was kind of cold inside the church, I decided to wait for her outside. After almost an hour she reappeared from the church and told me that it was truly worth the wait and the cost of about €10.

The dome of Basilica St. Peter's

A close-up view of the dome of Basilica St. Peter's

A view of Piazza St. Peter's and Rome

At Piazza of St. Peter's

We then walked around the main street of Vatican in order to find a place to eat but couldn’t find a good restaurant. We avoided a serve-serve cafeteria because it was too busy. We finally settled on a restaurant called Nova Café with six or seven tables outside on the sidewalk. The place was really a tourist spot because the menu had six languages including English, Japanese, Russian, Germany, French and Italian. Since there were few restaurants here, their prices were cheap either. Well, maybe there food was good, I said to myself. We ordered a pizza and pasta with prosciutto. The tourists at the table next to ours were a middle-aged American couple who came from Michigan. They ordered a bottle of white wine, shared a pizza, salad and a cup of soup. The pasta was good but there wasn’t much prosciutto to speak of. The thin-crusted pizza looked awful and tasted like cardboard. Our neighbors also agreed but we just had to make the best of what we have and enjoyed the pasta and made fun of the pizza with our neighbors. I called this 隨緣 “sui2 yuan2.” The worst of the whole thing was that we have to pay 15% service fee which was listed at the bottom of the menu. Because of our bad experience with Nova Cafe, let me forewarn you that you should avoid this restaurant by all means possible.

Well, we need to go to Basilica St. Paul to retrieve our camera. We took a taxi to there and got our camera. We also bought some more chocolate for ourselves because they were so good. We then took metro to Termini and stopped by the Internet point to check emails and review XB’s online Chinese resume. We then went back to the hotel for a nap after on our feet for the past 6 six hours.

By the time we got up, it was almost 8 PM. We walked across the street to a pizzeria called Pastarito for dinner. To me, this was just a run-of-the-mill type of Italian restaurant and I wasn’t expecting anything special from a restaurant such as this one. But it was very busy though. Maybe it was a Saturday.

I ordered a bottle of 2008 Sangiovese di Romagna from a winery called Poderi dal Nespoli. I have always loved Sangiovese “sahn-joh-veh-zeh” which is the primary grape for Chianti from Tuscany. Romagna is a region in northern Italy between Tuscany to the south and Piedmont to the  north. You may not have heard of Romagna but you must have heard of Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati which are manufactured in this region. Wine wise, this region is known for Lambrusco which is well known worldwide but is not my favorite. Our Sangiovese di Romagna was a dark red wine with a lovely and complex taste and floral and earthy scents on the nose. I was very impressed by a wine that sold for €12.50. We also ordered the following to go with our lovely wine: Cesar salad for €7.00, Bread with Pancetta with smoked Provola cheese €2.00, peppered Mussels in white wine sauce €7.90 and Milanese Risotto with saffron €7.90.

A few slices of bread came in a basket. They were a little dry. A bad sign; I told myself. It got started on a wrong note. Cesare Salad at Pastarito was different from what we had in the U.S. It was a mixed green salad with red radicchio, cherry tomato, thinly sliced, juniper-flavored ham from Austria, croutons, and shaved parmesan cheese. There was no dressing because it was supposed to be an oil and balsamic vinegar dressing that we’d add ourselves. Hmm, this was an unusual combination but it was unusually good. Fresh greens and very sweet cherry tomatoes were mixed with this special flavored ham that I’ve never had before.

Bread with pancetta and smoked cheese was very good but, for the sake of lower cholesterol, I preferred the pancetta a little leaner and crispier. Perhaps, it could be stir-fried in a sauté pan before going into the salamander.

Next on was peppered Mussels in white wine sauce. Mussels have always occupied a special corner in our minds even though we don’t eat them often. It was way back in the summer of 1989 when our family was living in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. We packed our new camping gears, took our two kids, ages 7 and 4, and drove our car to Victoria Island of British Columbia for a four night camping adventure. We camped at a camping ground about 10 miles north of Nanaimo. On the fourth day, we left our camp ground in the morning and drove to the city of Victoria with the intention to return to our camp for the night. After a nice lunch and a tour of the city in the afternoon, we started to drive back to Nanaimo after 7 PM. I had planned to find a restaurant on the way back and have some fast food before returned to our camp. It was getting dark and the highway on the island wasn’t the easiest to drive. Around 8:30, it began to rain and we couldn’t find any restaurant anywhere because many have already closed for the day. Finally as we drove around a corner, we found a small roadside cafe with their lights on. We were so glad that we finally could have something to eat because we and the kids were very hungry. We settled down to our table and realized that the narrow dining room had no more than 10 tables and all of them had white table cloth and fancy silverwares. We also found out that there was a violist who was entertaining the guests of the restaurant. Needless to say, this wasn’t a family restaurant and we were kind of out of place here.

I didn’t remember what we have ordered that night but one dish we could not forget was their mussels with 髮菜 “fa3 cai4” in a white wine broth. I have had 髮菜 at Cantonese restaurant before but didn’t particularly like it. 髮菜 literally means hair vegetables because it, after soaking it in water, looks like human hair. It is a vegetable which can only be found in the Gobi Desert in northwest China. The Cantonese like it a lot because it sounds like 發財 “fa1 cai2” of 恭喜發財. The mussels were so tender and good, we ate them all. The broth was so delicious and flavorful that we soaked every piece of the bread with the broth and fed them to our kids. After dinner, rain continued and by the time we got to the camp ground, it was too wet for us to stay there. We ended up staying in a hotel instead. When we came back to Calgary and later back to the United States, I’ve tried to make that dish a few times at home. But to this date, my version didn’t even come close to what we had that particular night. Whenever we had a chance ordering mussels at restaurants big or small, we inevitably would compare it to that dish we had at a road side café on a rainy night somewhere between Victoria and Nanaimo.

To our surprise, we found that dish tonight at Pastarito in Rome. The mussels looked fresh and tasted a little sweet to me. None of them was over cooked and they were perfect. The broth looked so appetizing and we couldn’t stop drinking it straight from the bowl. The bread now tasted so delicious just like the bread on that rainy night more than 20 years ago. We were happy and satisfied.

Risotto was good and filling but it would be excellent if it had a little more butter and saffron too. We then ordered some coffee but skipped desserts. The check was to €43. What a deal!

Since it was still early and we had already taken a nap earlier, we went to Roma Termini for a walk. Later, we went to a bar called Twins across street from Roma Termini for a drink. The bar was crowded with young people and there were more guys than girls. It was very loud and we couldn’t even hear each other. Well, I guessed we really didn’t belong here.

Inside Roma Termini

Inside the bar Twins across the street from Roma Termini

Shortly after midnight, we left the bar and walked back to our hotel. Tomorrow was Sunday and our Rome Illuminated tour began at 8:30 in the evening. We’d have plenty of time on our own tomorrow.

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