Welcome to Italy!
We could hardly believe the day finally arrived to throw our bags in the van and head to the Brussels Airport: Destination Rome! Our last flight was in December to Norway (see blog here) and a few things have changed since then. First, we no longer needed to prove our vaccination status or take a covid test upon arrival or departure. Second, some of the contracts for Priority Pass (at the airport lounges) have changed January 1st, so we weren’t all able to get into the Brussels airport lounge to wait for our flight as planned. We adapted of course, and ultimately – in spite of horror stories we have heard this summer about flights out of certain airports in Europe – we had a smooth experience flying in and out of Brussels, even with a checked bag. We couldn’t wait to get to Rome and meet up with our family from Maine!
We arrived very late in Rome on Friday, no delays, and checked into the airport Hilton hotel. We had one day to kill before meeting up with the fam (arriving early Sunday morning), so we made the most of all the hotel offered. We couldn’t believe how busy it was, too – check in lines took hours on Saturday. We were lucky. There is a great fitness center, pool, and outside recreation area as well as large restaurant and bar to enjoy. We spent the day in the sun and tried to adapt to the Rome heat! The next morning we were raring to go, signs ready, to pick up my sister’s family and my parents. It took them a long time to make it through customs, but it didn’t matter – we finally made it.
The reunion was oh so sweet! We took two taxi vans into the city (a little easier than public transportation with 12 people and tons of luggage) and we dropped off the bags at a luggage drop arranged by Bounce. It was very convenient since we had the whole day to wander around before we were able to check into our apartment, it was hot, and everyone was pretty tired. This allowed us to explore without hauling around bags. (For the record, we were all thrilled with these Cotopaxi bags below. I highly recommend them!)
We immediately found a cafe terrace to plunk down at, grab a bite to eat and visit for a while. Lauro Bistrot wasn’t remarkable, but it sure hit the spot! It was such a treat to order our first cappuccinos and pizzas of the trip and catch up on everything. We had the whole patio to ourselves. We were able to regroup and discuss some of the plans for the upcoming days and compare heights of all the kids as they’ve grown so much since we saw them last.
After lunch we headed over to the “Welcome to Rome” museum. This is just a small museum with an audioguide that takes you through several immersive exhibits, but it does a great job of giving visitors an overview of Roman history. Everyone really enjoyed it! Kooper fell asleep because she didn’t sleep on the overnight flight, but we all agreed it was a good way to kick off our experience in this ancient city.
From there we walked to Piazza Navona. The intention was to eventually make our way back to where our lodging (and stored bags) were so we would be nearby in the afternoon when the apartment was ready. This was a great stop! So sprawling and colorful with beautiful fountains, Piazza Navona is an impressive landmark and was surprisingly not all that busy. This giant square used to be an arena where Romans came to watch games as early as the 1st century AD. The fountain of the four rivers was sculpted by the infamous Bernini in the mid 1600’s.
Not far from Piazza Navona is the always impressive Pantheon. This is one of my favorite spots in Rome, and apparently was a favorite for most tourists as well, because the lines were super long to enter. Although it is free to enter (and we were able to enter without a wait in February of 2020, see blog here), they are regulating crowds at the moment. Even without entering the great structure it amazed everyone with its grandeur. The fountain of the Pantheon in front of it is magnificent, too! I learned that each column – quarried in Egypt – is 40 feet tall and weighs over 60 tonnes. Standing near them sure makes you feel small…
It was hot – SO HOT – in Rome, and we were starting to slow down. It was time for our first gelato of the vacation! What better place to go than Giolitti gelato? It’s a famous location that even our taxi drivers encouraged us to check out. The only bummer is there is no place to sit after getting your gelato, but we were happy to hang out in the shade while we tried each others’ flavors. We unanimously agreed this was a must-visit place in Rome! Giolitti location here.
All fueled up with gelato, we wandered the streets casually in the direction of our stored bags and apartment nearby. Soon I got a phone call from the landlord who informed us that the unit we had booked was just used by people who contracted covid, and they’d need to close down the apartment – but they miraculously found us a new place to fit all 12 of us. Shocked, confused and relieved, we waited for the apartment to open for another hour, retrieved our bags and walked across the cobblestone streets to our new apartment. The new booking was sufficient, but needless to say we felt duped. In hindsight (after talking to locals) we realized the apartment manager definitely made up a story and played us. Overall, our experience with BBHOMEROME-Trastavere Bridge was definitely not as advertised – the place, although in a good location and spacious enough for our family of 12, was falling apart and sweltering hot. We were very disappointed by the service and because of the last minute change, Booking.com didn’t allow me to review either place we booked. This also seems like good motive for making last minute switches to people’s reservations. In spite of this, we did our best to spend as much time in the city and the least time in our apartment as possible.
After checking in and taking a little rest (the Mainers needed time to get a second wind after that overseas overnight flight), we headed over the Ponte Sisto bridge to Rome’s Trastavere neighborhood for dinner. The bridge was lovely too, always lively with musicians and a view overlooking the riverside. We had scoped out several restaurants – this is, after all, is the foodie hub of Rome – and decided on Tonnarello, a popular restaurant that doesn’t take reservations. We thought we’d have the best luck by arriving early as the majority of people eat late (7pm or later) in Rome, and it served us well! We got right in without much wait at all (in hindsight some in our group suspected that we cut a line, but I’m not sure if there was much of a line when we arrived) and had the most delicious meal! Mussels, pizza, pasta and charcuterie – marvelous. When we left the restaurant there was no doubt about a line…it snaked around the block!
On the second night, my parents put the kids to bed (it was easy after a long day touring Rome) and we went out on a double date through the Trastavere neighborhood. We went bar hopping to find unique places to share a drink and a late night bite to eat. It really is a fun, lively area to explore when you’ve got a hankering for good food and fun!
Touring the Ruins
After a solid night’s rest, we woke to go on the hunt for breakfast and gelato before meeting our group tour guide for the Colosseum, Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum. Just around the corner from us was Antico Forno Roscioli Bakery where we grabbed some pastries, and nearby that was Manfre Cafe, a great little place to snag fresh squeezed OJ (the best) and cappuccinos. We were fueled and ready to go.
Then we took a walk – first we passed Largo di Torre Argentina, an archaeological site right in the middle of town, and continued on towards the Altar of the Fatherland.
Piazza Venezia is striking with its huge traffic circle, fountains and massive white “birthday cake” of a building. The Altar of the Fatherland (or Victor Emmanuel II Monument) broke ground in 1885 as a tribute to the first king of a unified Italy. There are many symbolic parts to this monument, but perhaps the most notable is the shrine to the Italian Unknown Soldier. The stair cases around this “altar” are some of the most fun to traverse – be sure to explore all around it if you have time!
Nearby we visited Trajan’s Column in the great Trajan Forum. This forum is nearly 2,000 years old, but is one of the last forums to be built before the fall of Rome. The great column that stands proudly in its center is 35m (115 feet) high, consists of over 2,600 relief figures in 155 scenes, and commemorates the Emperor Trajan’s victory in the Dacian wars. It was completed in the year 113 AD, and likely was once topped by a statue of Trajan. However, it was stolen in the middle ages and replaced in 1587 by a statue of Saint Peter which remains today. Thanks to the tall trees we were able to rest a bit in the shade before continuing on…
We walked past the Forum of Augustus as well before making a beeline to Flor Gelato, one of our favorites in Rome, right near the Colosseum. What a tasty treat! You simply can’t have enough gelato … when in Rome, right?
We gathered outside the Crown Tour offices (booked through Get Your Guide) and were given our head sets. Our guide met our group (There were about 20 of us) and we walked towards the entrance to Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum. Right away we knew this was going to be a long day with a lot of walking in the heat, so we were grateful that our guide was courteous of the youngest and oldest members of the group and we had plenty of places to rest. We had to walk by the Colosseum to reach the Roman Forum, and it always boggles the mind to imagine yourself in these places centuries ago. Still, I think the Roman Forum is my favorite spot in Rome. It is looming and massive, telling us quite a story in the bones of the past. I loved seeing photos later of what the Forum looked like during Roman times and find it hard to believe any of it still stands after so many years.
If you can’t join a proper tour group, definitely download the free Rick Steves Europe audioguide or another guide to help you appreciate the grandeur of these ruins. After a great tour with lots of stories and plenty of time to rest and grab water from the fountains, we headed over to the Colosseum. It is hard to tell from these photos just how hot it was, but I can say it was hot enough that we saw an elderly woman struggling to remain conscious from what appeared to be heat stroke. The hubby and I helped a bit until police and paramedics arrived, but it was just not a day for the faint of heart.
Inside the Colosseum we were told stories of the Gladiators and of the construction of the Colosseum. We also were able to walk down onto the arena floor (not into the underground) and learn about the trap doors used during the games. What a remarkable place! I was a wee bit disappointed because I thought I had booked a tour for the underground as well, but it turned out I misunderstood the description and ended up kind of bummed (for the record, nobody else knew the difference and everyone loved the tour). If you have kids, it’s nice to do a tour with a guide. But, having done this before by myself and three kids, I can also say it is entirely possible to go at your own pace and enjoy just as much. The guide’s stories keep kids more engaged of course, but if you’re creative you can do this for them as well. Ultimately, a guide isn’t necessary (and sometimes it can cramp my style if I want to wander and take photos or explore more) but it is certainly a great way to enrich the experience.
By the end of the 3 hour tour we weren’t messing around and everyone was hungry! We went straight to Volare, behind the arena, to have a nice meal of pizza and pasta. On the way back to our apartment we took our time walking up and over the Altar to the Fatherland through Campidoglio, whose square was designed by Michaelangelo. We learned from an emergency with one of the kiddos that we could find restrooms through the back entrance of Musei Capitolini, while the rest of the group waited and watched a big protest happening in the square. The large square is impressive and has great views on one side over the Roman Forum and a convenient entrance on the other side into Piazza d’Aracoeli, where Nannie and Pappi were waiting for us. The stairs leading up to Cordonata Capitolina were especially memorable here! If we had more time I would’ve loved to explore these buildings more, like the Scalinata dell’Ara Coeli and the Capitoline Museums. They certainly are striking.
After the long day of walking, eating and 3 gelato shops, we headed back to the apartment to rest. The next day was another long day of walking and tours.
Lady’s Day & Gentleman’s Day
On day three in Rome we decided to split up. The women took the girls on a private tour of the Vatican and the men took the boys to St. Peter’s Square, then over to the Trevi Fountain. We planned to meet in the afternoon at the Spanish Steps and have an early alfredo dinner – perfect plan!
First we needed to grab a quick bite for breakfast, and we all agreed that fresh squeezed orange juice just tastes better in Rome. The little cafe “Old Bar Pasticceria Mariani” was right around the corner from our apartment and was perfect for cappuccinos, pastries and juice. We made sure we were dressed appropriately of course, as there are dress codes to enter St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.
We walked from the cafe to Castel Sant’Angelo, a building commissioned by the Roman Emperor Hadrian as a mausoleum for himself around the year 135 AD, then it was later renovated and used as a military fortress and then castle for various popes. Today it is a museum, but was once the tallest building in Rome. The bridge leading up to Castel Sant’Angelo is lined with iconic statues and is especially striking at night. We arrived fairly early to cross the bridge and were lucky to have the area to ourselves!
The river Tiber was calm and glassy and made for beautiful reflections of the bridges.
Continuing onto the Vatican just a few blocks away, we arrived at St. Peter’s Square by way of Via della Conciliazione, a massive boulevard leading straight to St. Peter’s Basilica. Again it wasn’t busy at all before our tour, so it was lovely to see the grandness of the great square practically deserted. We made our way around the side of Vatican City up Viale Vaticano towards the entrance to the Vatican Museums where our wonderful tour guide Alex was waiting. She whisked us right inside, skipping all the lines and snagged our tickets.
We had to go through security, then into a large lobby and up the main stair case (don’t forget to look down into the spiral from above!) towards the Giardino Quatrado where we sat outside Caffè delle Carrozze and discussed details about Michaelangelo and the Sistine Chapel. Alex explained that the chapel was built in the late 1400’s and the ceiling was painted over the course of four years completely solo by Michaelangelo himself. It is remarkable to think of all the time and patience it took to create the series of paintings depicting 9 stories from the book of Genesis in the Bible which converted to over 5,000 square feet of frescoes!
But before we were able to visit the Sistine Chapel (where no photography is allowed), we made our way through the Vatican Museums. Alex kept the kids interested by showing them flashcards with various Roman gods and statues they would keep an eye out for, telling them stories about each. She was great! I highly recommend the family-friendly Vatican tour with Get Your Guide (there are lots of options for small groups or private tours at varying price points – I think they’re all very good as long as it says “for kids”).
Alex had the kids hunting for symbols (like bumblebees) and earning points for answering questions. We learned little secrets like where Michaelangelo’s inspiration for his paintings came from (some were statues right there in the museum!) and definitely learned quickly that this is a place you always have to look UP!
The hall of tapestries is spectacular. One single tapestry blows my mind but this hall was completely full, each one depicting a different scene from Jesus Christ or Pope Urban VIII’s life. The most popular tapestry is the resurrection of Christ (top center photo below) which, if you look closely as you walk by, Jesus’s eyes will follow you. It is quite an illusion!
We also learned about a rare red stone called porphyry that was used for royalty and now no longer exists in nature. It was mined and used for the items we can view here in the museum (including a massive basin bowl and huge tomb) but nothing else will ever be made of this stone. Fascinating! From there we continued on to my very favorite hall in the Vatican Museums: the Gallery of Maps! I’m so obsessed with these ancient maps, most of which were made in the late 1500’s at the behest of Pope Gregory XIII. There are 20 massive panels depicting areas all over Italy in the 120m long gallery hallway. The ceilings are equally impressive here. I still can’t get over how they made such accurate maps in a time without modern technology…
From there we made our way to the Sistine Chapel. It’s important to note that there are restrooms to use periodically inside the museums so don’t worry! You are also permitted to bring water with you inside. We spent a good 30 minutes inside the chapel just taking in the beautiful frescoes, and an animated young priest took a liking to our girls and quietly began telling them stories and asking them questions about what they were seeing. I think Alex started to think he was taking her job! Ha! After a nice visit in the chapel, we walked down an impressive staircase and hallway outside and around through St. Peter’s Square to enter St. Peter’s Basilica.
It was here people were screened for their clothing. The screeners were actually very nice even though some (women) people were rude, and they offered them shawls to cover their shoulders or wrap around their waists to cover their legs. A lot of grief can be avoided if you just dress properly – yes, even in the heat!
Saint Peter’s Basilica is an incredible marvel of Catholic history. It took 120 years to complete the building we see today (during the 15-1600’s), and was worked on by the great Bernini, among others. Inside lies Michaelangelo’s infamous Pietà statue as well as dazzling art, relics, frescoes and sculptures throughout. It is truly mesmerizing!
After three hours of touring we were getting a bit fidgety and hungry, so we said goodbye to Alex and made a bee-line outside and around Vatican City walls to a pizza place where all seven of us were able to eat for around $60! It’s hit or miss in Rome, and depending on where you choose (in a touristy area or more local) the prices at restaurants really vary.
Spanish Steps/Trevi Fountain
Meanwhile, the men had already taken a detour to see St. Peter’s Square and then walked all the way across town to the Trevi Fountain. I do wish I could’ve seen it too, but I would’ve much preferred first thing in the morning without the crowds. Still, they really enjoyed it and reported that it was incredibly impressive – more massive than photos show! From there they stopped for a pizza lunch and afterwards made their way up to the Spanish Steps to meet us.
It took us about an hour to walk from the Vatican to the Spanish Steps, stopping occasionally in the shade for a break, a little shopping, and for water. The steps themselves were grand! But it was so crowded and hot, it was hard to appreciate them fully. Instead we met up with the guys and killed a little time in a small shady alleyway, catching up on what each of us did that day. Then we continued up the street to Il Vero Alfredo.
Il Vero Alfredo is a restaurant famous for their made-to-order alfredo pasta. Lining the wall were hundreds of photos of the owner with celebrities who had eaten here over the last decades. It was fun to spot people we recognized! The food was great – and very filling – and it was fun to watch our waiter mix our dishes right there at the table.
After dinner, most of us were pretty worn out by then and ready for some rest. We walked home and regrouped as tomorrow was a big travel day. Thousands of steps over the course of three days and we were ready for a break! At least our bellies were happy and full and we were together.
Rome to Salerno
This was our first experience all together in taxis, trains, and rental cars – making our way to our gorgeous villa down by the Amalfi coast. Overall it went off without a major hitch. The fast trains in Italy are great! Very comfortable, easy to navigate (that says a lot when you’re twelve people and tons of luggage), and reliable. The one bummer we ran into was that the Europa rental car place in Nocera Inferiore closed at 1 for lunch and didn’t reopen until 3:30, and we just missed the cutoff. So we ended up having to wait at the train station (it was fine, we ate a delicious meal at Pizzeria ‘O Sarracin while we waited) before I could go pick up the little car. It all worked out, and I ended up taking three trips back and forth from Nocera Inferiore to our beautiful villas Villa Le Favole, which was super fun because each small group I dropped off had the same reaction when we drove through the gates: “Wowwwww!”
Villa Le Favole
We were thrilled to arrive at our next lodging – it can’t be beat. Villa Le Favole is a hidden oasis with wonderful hosts, beautiful landscaping, citrus trees, spacious apartments, private patios, a huge pool and incredible rooftop terrace. Breakfast didn’t come with our reservation but could have been added for a price; instead we shopped at a local grocery store and made our own breakfasts and snacks. – but our hosts generously brought us coffees and cappuccinos each morning to our patio. What service! Another amazing perk is that a wonderful restaurant is just a 3 minute walk down the street, and it was SO GOOD that we ate there each night! Definitely dine at La Fucina Ristorante & Pizzeria when you stay at Villa Le Favole.
The pool was clean and the amenities were plentiful. We enjoyed playing games out on our patio table and relaxing in the quiet groves of citrus trees. And how amazing is this view from the rooftop terrace!?
We were very well rested for our BIG day in Pompeii and Naples. We decided to do these tours without Nannie and Pappi, letting them kick up their feet and enjoy the Villa for the day without having to trek around in extreme heat (in places they have already visited before). So off we went, walking about 20 minutes down the hill from our villa to the bus stop in Pagani. I had purchased bus tickets earlier to ensure we were all set for our various travels but what I noticed is that not many train or bus cars had working ticket machines. I ended up giving away all my unused bus tickets but I’m glad we had them (and they were pretty cheap). That said, unlike the trains in Italy, the bus stops are not as clearly marked. They are, however, quite reliable. Definitely trust google maps – it helped a great deal! It took about 40 minutes to get down to Pompeii from Pagani, and we had just enough time to grab cappuccino before walking another mile to our meeting spot with our tour guide, Eliana Sandretti. I won’t mention that I made the hubby run back to the apartment for the cash envelope for our tour guide … and I had it in my purse all along. HA! He was a very good sport about it, saying “I needed a good run this morning.” Always making lemonade…
We found Eliana Sandretti through Trip Advisor, and I messaged her directly for this tour. I liked that she has a website, and she wrote to me directly through WhatsApp. She also worked with me to coordinate another experience later in the day and helped us communicate with taxi drivers when needed. She certainly was helpful – but I wouldn’t call her tour engaging for kids. The kids liked her, and she was good with them, but this tour wasn’t exactly a “kid friendly” tour. She is a professional – an archaeologist – so her angle is fascinating, but maybe more-so for adults. Still, we were glad to have a tour guide and she answered all of our questions. I will suggest you ask if it’s possible to use head sets as she is quite soft spoken, and I know if my parents were with us they would have needed her to use a microphone.
We learned so much about the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD that buried Pompeii in 13-20 feet of ash and debris almost instantly. We were impressed that a fairly bustling and rich city of 11,000 people could be frozen in time – so fascinating for archaeologists! When people dropped what they were doing to flee the eruption, everything was just left there in the city, and later, once carefully excavated, it gave us one of the best pictures of ancient Roman life ever uncovered. Around 2,000 people from the city lost their lives here, and casts of their bodies can be viewed in various places including museums in Naples and here at Pompeii. The most notable thing I learned was that gladiators (who trained in the arena above) were not treated quite the same as they were in Rome. Here they could earn their freedom, and they weren’t held like slaves. It was a more prestigious occupation, and something that was decided early on in life, as early as age 9, to begin their training.
Recent excavation efforts have revealed previously unknown areas of the city, and efforts continue to uncover new things every day. We were permitted in a brand new home that was just finished being cleaned and unearthed – and only opened the week prior (above). It was the home of a wealthy person, and included underground escape tunnels and incredibly well preserved paint, tile work, and imagery. Below you can see layers of what is a current archaeological dig, as well as mosaics, wall art, lead piping for water, and streets elevated to allow sewage to run down the cobblestones.
The kids were especially excited to see the casts of bodies. So much we could learn about them from small details – like a special belt in the body above tells us this woman was a slave. Below you can see photos of us walking through the large Roman Forum of Pompeii. It is here where we get the best view of Mt. Vesuvius and can imagine how large she loomed over the city before her explosion. In the forum there was also a massive area with columns that Eliana explained was for their justice system. Here people came to receive sentencing or stand trial.
We also saw brand new archaeological digs beginning near the exit, and learned that many of the people working are students. Inside the museum we viewed artifacts removed from the rubble. Each one gave us a picture of life during ancient Roman times in Pompeii.
After our tour through the ruins (we probably could’ve wandered around there all day if it weren’t for the heat and our hungry bellies), Eliana brought us to a restaurant down on the main strip outside the exit of the Pompeii ruins. Of course we were enticed by the slushies, too! We indulged in a hearty lunch, shopped a bit for souvenirs, and then prepared to take the (super sketchy) train from Pompeii down into the heart of Naples.
One thing I will say about THIS train compared to the nice train that brought us from Rome to Salerno…it was more like a dirty subway than a passenger train. Tickets were useless, and when we got downtown we needed to change trains to go up to the Naples National Archaeological Museum where we planned to spend the afternoon. It was quite a process to find new tickets (the one place we absolutely needed them) for the new train and get to the right spot – so pay close attention to the signs as there is also a lot of rerouting and construction in Naples. What a city!
We emerged from the metro right out onto the colorful, bustling streets of Naples just outside of the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. This was the perfect place to escape the heat, search for mummies (all the kids were excited about those) and kill some time before our dinner plans. Right away we noticed the city felt grungy and noisy – much different from other cities we have visited in Italy. But we were well prepared and were told it has a “lawless” feel. If you have an open mind, this chaos can be quite beautiful! The sights and sounds fill up all the senses. I know this isn’t shared by all in our party, but I would love to return to Naples one day with a little less hustle and bustle energy and more of a “sit and watch” and EAT energy! This is one of the cities the movie “Eat, Pray, Love was filmed in.”
Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli
Into the museum we went! It was fairly cheap for our family of five (€32) for the whole day, but we were only going to spend a couple of hours inside exploring. This museum was originally built in the late 1500’s as barracks, and then later was used by the University of Naples for 150 years in the 16-1700’s. In the 1800’s it became a museum and was extensively renovated.