Thursday, August 30, 2012

How to Take the Wrong Train in Italy (and How to Prevent It)

In Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart says one of his most notable lines, “We’ll always have Paris.”  Now, Frank and I like to say “We’ll always have Grosetto” after we got on the wrong train and ended up two hours away in a town we’d never heard of in our lives.

It started with our journey to Pisa, which, as you already know, annoyed me.  We were back at the train station, on our way to Castiglioncello, which some fellow Americans told us about while we were swimming in the beautiful waters of Vernazza .  Here’s where we were expecting to go:

Courtesy of Silbertanne 3, courtesy of Wikipedia
Here’s where we ended up:

The train station folks, just the train station.

So how did it happen?  First of all, I’m no public transportation expert.  But I felt like I had gotten the railways of Italy down.  We were waiting on the track for the 15 minute train ride to Castiglioncello, when the train pulled up.  First indication something was awry – it was clear this was a high-speed train with assigned seating.  That’s not what we expected.  We boarded anyway.  About a half an hour later, the conductor came by, looked at our tickets, and yelled at us in Italian.  Not only we were on the wrong train, we were in first-class seating.  We did the only thing we could think of.

When in doubt...

We went to the drink cart.  That's where we figured out that while we were standing and waiting for our train, another, very late, train came through on the same track.  We didn’t exactly know what time it was, so we boarded.

The train at 14.56 (2:56pm) was the one we thought we were boarding. We
were traveling from Pisa Centrale, leaving at 13:52 to Livorno Centrale,
arriving at 14:06. We were traveling on track one, indicated by the little
blue circle.
Once in the drink cart, we weren’t sure what to do.  We did not know the next stop.  We did not know if we were headed north, south, east, or west.  We did know the next stop would be awhile, as high-speed trains don’t stop often.  Would it be in Rome?  Genoa?  Florence?

We didn’t bother asking, and just kept drinking until the train finally stopped about an hour later.  We got off in beautiful… Grosseto?

Not actually beautiful, and not in a single guide book
We grabbed some food and partied on the platform, waiting for a train back to where we were staying in Cinque Terre, now about TWO hours away.

What started as a €10 train ticket to a beautiful beach town, turned into a €42 train ticket right back to where we started.  But we did learn a very valuable lesson - always check the time before you board a train.

Total Cost: €10 to Castiglioncello + €42 back to Cinque Terre = €52, about $65

Best Deal: On the bright side, we only spent €10 and ended up taking a trip worth €42

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Where to Save Money in Vatican City

Vatican City is just one of those things you have to see, even if you aren’t religious.  Warning: this will not be one of the cheapest things you go in Rome.  I do have an economical tip though if you are really looking to save: skip the Vatican Museums.

While pretty amazing, the Vatican Museums are also pretty expensive.

I really don’t advise that move, but I’m just here to be economical.

First, the awesome parts about Vatican City… We started our day at about 8am.  St. Peter’s Basilica opens at 7:30am and the Vatican Museum opens at 10am.  Also, this happened to be a Wednesday, when the Pope allegedly gives his blessing to the people in St. Peter’s Square at 10:30am.  The timing was all right.

Everything is set up for the blessing, just waiting for the Pope.
When we arrived to Vatican City, there was a long line for the papal blessing, which we stood in initially and then abandoned ship.  Instead, we pushed forward to St. Peter’s.  The line moved right on through, and without paying a penny, we were inside the church doors.  That’s when I realized getting up at 6am on vacation was one of the best decisions I made.

Quiet enough to hear a pin drop.
There was almost NO ONE there.  We had St. Peter’s virtually all to ourselves.

All to ourselves to worship St. Peter…

Frank opted to just touch his foot, even
though it's apparently good luck to kiss it
All to ourselves to see the beautiful confessionals…

Frank wanted to confess, but I told him this trip was only two weeks long.
All to ourselves to see works by Bernini…

And all to ourselves to witness Michelangelo’s Pietá

If the inside of St. Peter’s Basilica wasn’t breathtaking enough, we went up in the cupola.  It was €5 each, but we were trying to buy time before the papal blessing, so we shelled out the dough.  And wow.

That’s the view after climbing the stairs.  You could also take an elevator for €7.  We were beyond impressed with the intricate mosaics.

And then we realized, we hadn’t even climbed halfway up.  After more stairs, we reached the roof.

See the cupola behind Frank?  We still need to
take more stairs to get up there!
Breathtaking, and yet, this still wasn’t the top.

Definitely the most claustrophic stairs ever. Also not good for
people who are hungover.
Finally, at the very furtherst point, a view of the city that is not comparable to anything in the world.

From this vantage point, we could not only see St. Peter’s Square, but all of Rome.

That huge white building is the Victor Emmanuel II Monument,
a tribute to the first king of Rome since the 6th Century.
Frank wouldn’t stand too close to the edge since we were so high, but we still managed to get this picture.

After we were back on solid ground, we could see the line for the Basilica had grown considerably and was wrapping all around St. Peter’s Square.

Ohh... sorry folks!  Been there, done that!
We could also see the Pope was nowhere to be found even though it was 10:30am and time for his papal blessing.  So disappointing.  Oh well, off to the Vatican Museums.  This is a looonnnnggg walk.  Longer than we thought.

Again, since we were pretty early, there was no line, but it was €15 each to get in.  By contrast I spent €0 to get into what I consider the best museum in the world, the Louvre in Paris (more on that in another post), so I was expecting something great.

In one of the first rooms, I decided Iwas in love with the Vatican Museums.  Only because I’m a history nerd.  I saw hieroglyphics from Egypt…

Some mummies…

And canopic jars, where the Egyptians would store the organs of the mummies to preserve them…

Once that room was over though, I was a little lost.  Everything was so beautiful…

But I just didn’t get it.  Frank was bee-lining for the Sistine Chapel anyway, so I followed, weaving our way around amazing artwork, but stuff we just didn’t know existed.

Unless someone is more apt in art than I am (and while entirely probable, I feel like I know more than many), I feel like you might need an audio guide through this.  We finally made our way to the Raphael rooms, and I was thoroughly impressed at the School of Athens.

I show this painting to my students every year to point out how
Plato explained things with the heavens and Aristotle explained
the world with science.
Then finally, what we’ve all been waiting for – the Sistine Chapel.  It’s not what you expect.  It’s dark (to preserve the paintings) and the guards keep hushing people.  If they see you taking a picture, they throw you out.  The Chapel was extremely crowded, but we managed to snag a seat and took in the glory of Michelangelo’s most famous work.  It was amazing, but it also made me feel the same way as the Mona Lisa… is this it?

Paris, 2009 - I'm standing as close as you can get to the Mona
Lisa, and it's still a lot smaller than I expected.
Finally, after our necks were sore from craning them upwards, we took a piece of advice from Rick Steves and exited the Chapel to the right, past a sign that said “for tours only.”  We weren’t on a tour, but we moseyed right out that way, which landed us right back at St. Peter’s Basilica and saved us the loooonnnnggg walk back from the front of the Vatican Museums.

The Square is much more alive now that's is 1pm!

A special note… do not, and I repeat, do NOT eat from the trucks outside of St. Peter’s Basilica.  We had a great experience with roadside food in Paris, but not so much here.  The sandwich was so awful that I took it back and the next one wasn’t any better.  I had to take it away from Frank and throw it in the trash.  It prompted us to come up with the phrase, “I’m so hungry, I could eat a sandwich from a truck.”  The problem was, I wasn’t even that hungry.

Total Cost: €5 for the cupola, €15 for the Vatican Museums, about $25

Best Deal: Getting to St. Peter’s Basilica so early, that barely anyone was inside

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Pretending to be an Emperor in Ancient Rome

When you buy a ticket to the Coliseum for just €12 (remember, we spent €20 and also got to see three "secret" places), you are also buying admission to Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum.  I think that's an incredible deal to see so much history.

I know I have more of a vested interest in visiting a city founded more than 2,700 years ago than most people because I teach ancient history.  Still, you can’t say this isn’t impressive.

I was talking about the home of the Roman emperors, and not
necessarily Frank, but he's impressive too!

That’s the House of Augustus, at the beginning of Palatine Hill.  It’s where the first emperor of Rome, Augustus Caesar, lived.  He’s the adopted son of Julius Caesar, which pretty much just blows my mind.

This aqueduct also blew my mind.  Ancient Romans had running
water, which some countries still have not mastered, even today!
As the emperors succeeded one other, they added to this giant complex on Palatine Hill, one of Rome’s seven major hills.

We get our word "palace" from Palatine - aren't you glad I'm a
history teacher?

Besides the homes of former emperors, Palatine Hill also gave a glimpse of the Circus Maximus, where 150,000 people would gather in ancient Rome to watch chariot races.  This is what is supposedly looked like then:

Photo by Carptrash, available under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license
Really hope I just attributed that correctly.
This is what is looks like now:

Huge difference.  Luckily I have an active imagination.
Also on Palatine Hill… a pile of rocks! 

No, this is supposedly the huts of Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome.

And if that wasn’t enough history for you, from Palatine Hill, you can go to the Roman Forum. 

Here I am pretending to be an emperor taking charge in the Roman Forum.

There you can see ancient landmarks like the Arch of Titus, built for the many military victories of Emperor Titus…

The remains of the House of the Vestal Virgins, who kept the eternal flame of Rome lit...

The Temple of Castor and Pollux, a tribute to the Greek twins, who came to be known as Gemini…

Ara di Cesare, the site where the corpse of Julius Caesar was burned…

And the Temple of Saturn, to the god Saturn…

I could have stayed there forever, but after awhile, Frank complained that we were just staring at a pile of bricks

Perhaps a valid point...
But to see all that history was worth it.

Total Cost: €12, includes entrance to the Coliseum as well

Best Deal: Seeing buildings dating back to the beginnings of Rome

Monday, August 27, 2012

Three Sites at the Coliseum Most People Don't Know About

Overall, Rome was more disappointing than I wanted it to be (it was very touristy, had lots of gypsies and good food was hard to find).  But, I am an ancient world history teacher and was enthralled to see landmarks from thousands of years ago.

The Coliseum, originally called Flavian Amphitheatre, was
finished in 80 A.D.  Frank loved hearing all these random
facts.  And by "love," I mean, "was annoyed by."
Specifically, the Coliseum could not possibly have impressed me more – mainly because we made the best decision to pay extra money for a tour and see three things most people do not.  In my opinion, this was an economical move because we got way more bang for our buck!

You know we're on a tour because of these little intercoms
around our necks.
Frank would never have given me to okay to purchase tickets for a tour, so I did it very quickly so he wouldn’t be the wiser. 

He didn't even know what hit him!
 I had read in some tour guides that you have to book a tour underground online or at least a day in advance – that is not true.  You should have cash though.  I did not and we had to wait a longer line to pay with credit card.  Regular admission to the Coliseum is €12, and that includes entrance to Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum as well.  For an extra €8 per person, we went to three spots the average visitor does not, including the hypogeum.

FIRST... People in our tour group were the only ones allowed on this huge platform.


In the distance, you can see all the rest of the tourists crowded onto a little tiny platform on the other side.

See everyone else in the distance?  Haha, suckers!
Our tour company, Pierreci, had an excellent guide.  She was informative, but she also gave us plenty of time to explore on our own.

The only seats left in the Coliseum.  Actually, these were reconstructed,
but all of the seats were taken out after the Coliseum was not in use
anymore.  The seats, along with many other parts of the Coliseum,
were used to build churches else in the Roman Empire.

SECOND – Then it was downstairs to the hypogeum.  

That’s the underground part of the Coliseum where the animals were kept in cages and then raised to the floor to fight with the gladiators.

This may look like nothing, but it was part of the elevator system
used to bring the animals up.  I was incredibly impressed because
it's more than 1,900 years old!
 On the down side, you have to stay in one little roped off area of the hypogeum.  On the up side, it smelled old as well.

THIRD – Our little tour group got to make its way up to the third level.  

You can see everyone else on only the first and
second levels.
 From here, you could not only the entire Coliseum, but most of ancient Rome.

That's the Arch of Constantine in the foreground with Palatine
Hill and the Roman Forum in the background.
Even though the allure of this tour was supposed to be the underground, I was most impressed with being up here, high above the other visitors who didn’t even know we were looking down at one of the most incredible structures in the world.

Another part of the Coliseum where people had
started to dismantle it for materials.

Total Cost: €20/person, about $25

Best Deal: The price also includes admission to Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum