Monday, July 5, 2010

Day 5: Do as the Romans Do ...

We take a train from Firenze to Roma which takes just over an hour. Across from my seat, I meet a lovely couple named Bob and Cynthia from Mobile, Alabama traveling with their twelve year old grandson Andrew. They told us that when each of their grandchildren turns twelve they go on a trip with their grandparents. Lucky Andrew traveled to Munich, Siena, Firenze and will go to Rome as well. They were at the rehearsal for the Palio as one of their friends lives in Siena and offered them his seats as a member of the "Istrice" Contrada. Wonderful couple - we exchanged e-mails as we parted.
Our driver picks us up from the train station. His name is Giancarlo and he is wearing a three piece navy blue suit in this blazing hot weather. He is a combination of a James Bond character and the "Italian" guy who doesn't really speak Italian played by Bill Heder on SNL ... very charming and warm and inadvertently funny.

Our hotel in Rome is the Hotel Internazionale, Via Sistina 79, near the Spanish Steps. It is a very odd place compared to the elegance of the Borghese Palace Art Hotel in Firenze. My first guess was that it was converted from a religious residence. It turns out that it was a series of chapels with attached residences. Dark wood, funereal burgundy red carpeting and an odd configuration for the hotel suites. Last furbished in the 50s or 60s with a funky smell and dirty walls. The reception area looks likes the the counter of car rental agency. One concierge surreptitiously smokes at the front desk. The lone bell hop is probably sixty and none too happy about it. The kids are creeped out by the atmosphere and I really can't blame them.

The only two positives are: a pretty outdoor terrace all to ourselves and the proximity to the Spanish Steps (also known as the Scalinata della Trinità dei Monti pictured here to the right). We walk down the steps and try and make our way down to the Trevi Fountain. You can't imagine the scope of this until you see it. As we stood before it (with about four or five hundred of our closest and personal friends), I was imagining Anita Ekberg dancing in its waters in La Dolce Vita. The building began in 1732 and ended some thirty years later. It was turned off and draped in black in honor of Marcello Mastroianni after this death in 1996.

A friend back home had recommended a certain gelateria called the San Crispino Gelateria, Via Panetteria, 42, near la Fontana di Trevi, claiming it to be the "best" in Rome. Pretty darn good, pretty darn good, I would say.

We wandered towards the Palazzo del Quirinale, the current official residence of the President of the Italian Republic on Quirinal Hill, the tallest of the seven hills of Rome. It was originally built in 1583 by Pope Gregory XIII as a papal summer residence. We saw a military procession in progress. Behind it was a little park where the air was cooler and there was a gentle breeze. Children were playing soccer, people were walking their dogs without a leash and walking on the grass (all strictly forbidden according to the signs). This one time sentry box (featured to the right) was near il Quirinale.

Where to go for dinner? I spoke to the concierge and showed him a list of suggestions made by the travel agency and asked which was closer. He mentioned a couple so we went to one closest to the Trevi Fountain but it appeared to be closed. It was late (much after 8) so we settled on the first thing that we happened upon called ... Grill & Wine Restaurant, Via in Arcione 74/75. Okay, the English name should have warned us but the charming host sort of pulled us in as we walked by. Charm, they have, these Romans (when required).                                                                                

My risotto was delicious but R and J were disappointed with their pasta dishes and the bruschetta. It was too hot, a little claustrophobic, not particularly comfortable and a "live" musician played an endless series of Bee Gees and Pink Floyd accompanying himself with a pre-recorded tape. Still there was a great deal of laughter and fun.

We walked home and wanted to take a look at the Spanish Steps at night. Something to watch out for for new tourists such as us: a scam I have noticed played out several times now. A vendor approached us to ask us to buy some roses. We said no politely. Then he insisted that he give both J and I a free rose. We resisted and he insisted. He asked where we were from. "Canada," we said. Then he offered to take our pictures with our camera. I could see that R did not want to but he relented (R had figured out what this guy was after). Then the man asked for money, politely then in a more irritated manner. R said no. I handed him back the roses. He stalked off muttering angrily about Canada blah blah blah Canada blah blah blah to his colleagues. Then I saw the same scenario played out with another couple - they were nicer than us an paid the man some money. We slunk home, hot, tired and very full. And with a funny story under our belts.

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