After eighteen days of getting spoiled by Stef’s extended family in Prague, we headed to Rome where we would be meeting up with my parents, brother, and sister-in-law.  After seven months apart, we could not wait to see my family, but we had ten days in Rome on our own before they would arrive.  We initially planned these extra days to finalize any work, but we ended up being most thankful for having some time to detoxify.  For these ten days, we would be staying on the outskirts of the city with a local Italian, Fabio, and his pet rabbit, Toto.

Rome on our own

We, of course, did not want to see the sights in Rome before the family arrived. So instead, we slowed our pace down, relaxed and enjoyed our local neighborhood.  We watched kids play soccer at the local park, became regulars at a popular coffee shop, and navigated the supermarket.  We also decided on one week of eating clean, no alcohol, and daily yoga (sometimes with Toto).  It was not easy walking past countless store windows filled with pizza and gelato each day, but we made it.

Before the family arrived, we did venture into the heart of Rome on one occasion.  Stef found a free walking tour which offered a “backstreets” tour of Rome. Since only two of the stops would likely cross paths with the family tour, we headed out.  Our plan to hop on the bus to the metro did not pan out. We could not figure out where to buy bus tickets, especially on a Sunday. We ended up just walking the thirty minutes it took to get the metro, fortunately, we left plenty of wiggle room.

Rome’s backstreets

Rome has a recorded history of over 2,500 years, so we obviously only scratched the surface in our three hours.  Jobe, our guide, did his best to give an provide an overview of the history and provide us with some interesting, lesser-known, facts.  We, appropriately, began our tour at Porta del Popolo which sits at the end of Via Flaminia, the road that led into ancient Rome.
We learned about ancient Rome, Renaissance Rome and even the fascist Rome as we wandered the back streets.  Avoiding the crowds provided ample time to cover a lot of ground and unearth a lot of history. I felt it provided a great introduction to Rome and having the historical background allowed for a deeper appreciation of the main tourist attractions.  Jobe also provided some great advice on avoiding pickpockets and the best times of day to visit certain places.


 

Family Arrives

The day we’d been looking forward to finally arrived. We packed our bags, said goodbye to Fabio and Toto, and headed out to meet our family. Unfortunately, our 9:30 am meeting time turned out to be a bit optimistic thanks to some “complications” with the car rental.  Stef and I took the opportunity to get acquainted with our new local area and a mere six hours later we were welcoming everyone to Rome.
We still had about half an hour before getting the keys to our accommodation and they all felt a little jetlagged. My parents decided to wait on the keys while Brent, Bri, Stef and I walked to the nearby Villa Borghese.  Villa Borghese houses the Galleria Borghese and Brent and Bri, the artists in the family, hoped we could get in.  Entry was supposed to be free that day but, unfortunately, tickets were sold out when we arrived. Instead, we simply enjoyed the gardens, artwork in the park area, and catching up before heading back.
As always, when with family we get totally spoiled. Checking in to our amazing apartment, dinner, and drinks to end the day was only the beginning of an unforgettable Italy trip. It would have been plenty for us just to get to see our family, but we also got to experience Italy in a way that our own travel budget would not allow.

The Colosseum and Roman Forum

After the delay getting our van for the trip, we essentially only had one day to see all of Rome. We walked to the nearest metro station and headed to our first stop, the Colosseum.  The line was horribly long but my dad had, fortunately, bought all our tickets beforehand. After a little confusion finding the right line, having pre-bought tickets allowed us to walk right in!
The Colosseum is the largest amphitheater ever built and held an estimated 50,000 to 80,000 people.  This amphitheater provided a venue for all types of entertainment. Most well known of these are the gladiator contests. Warriors, slaves, and animals would battle to the death for the audience’s entertainment.  The event was wildly popular and only became more violent throughout its one thousand year run in the Colosseum.
Despite being almost two thousand years old, the Colosseum has held up pretty well.  Though most of the seating has crumbled over the years, it still retains most of its structure.  I imagine in its day, a sold-out crowd did not look much different than an NFL stadium on Sunday. Though Sundays when someone gets “killed” it generally has a different meaning.
Just across from the Colosseum sits the Roman Forum.  The Forum served as the hub for daily life in Rome for thousands of years and gradually continued to grow as Rome did. Today, the area contains the ruins of a variety of different buildings constructed throughout Rome’s history. The Forum is expansive and seeing it all could take all day.  However, with limited time, we just hit a few highlights. My personal favorite was the view from atop the hill, it provided a great view of all the Forum ruins below, the Colosseum and the rest of Rome.

Trajan’s Column and Trevi Fountain

After lunch, we just happened to stumble upon Trajan’s Column. Winding up the column, carvings tell stories of King Trajan’s victory over the Dacians.  The carvings represent over 150 different stories and display over 2,500 figures.  Despite construction in 113 AD, the details in the column have withstood the test of time.
Next, we headed to the iconic Trevi Fountain, the largest Baroque fountain in Rome. Tossing a coin into the fountain apparently brings good luck. We already felt pretty lucky just to be there, but added our few cents to the $1.5 million dollars retrieved from the fountain each year. Actually, I missed taking a picture of Stef tossing hers for the first time so I made her toss mine in as well.


 

Pantheon and Piazza Navona

From the Trevi Fountain, we headed toward the Pantheon. We visited the Pantheon on our walking tour but did not enter. To our surprise, there was no line and we hoped to walk right in.  However, gaining entry required some creative wardrobe shuffling to meet the dress code. Eventually, everyone got a chance to step inside, view the artwork and the famous oculus.
The large dome atop the Pantheon is open at the top. This opening, known as an oculus, aided in the construction of the dome and also provides all of the Pantheon’s light. With the ceiling open to the elements, the floor inside also slopes slightly to drain any water on rainy (or even snowy) days. I could not believe how well its oculus illuminated the Pantheon’s interior.
We stepped back outside and made the short walk to Piazza Navona.  This square provides some stunning examples of Rome’s Baroque art and architecture.  In the center of the square sits the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi or Fountain of the Four Rivers. The fountain represents main rivers in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas, accompanied by a statue of a man from each region. At the time, people from the Americas were assumed to be very barbaric which is very well captured in this artist’s work.  The square also includes the Sant’Agnese in Agone church. In order to prevent the churches stairs from extending far out into the square, the architect designed a concave entrance. This was new and controversial but proved to be a very popular design throughout Europe.

Spanish Steps

We had only been on our feet all day, so as the day wound down, we needed a challenge. We headed toward Piazza di Spagna which lies at the base of the 135 stairs of the Spanish Steps.  After taking a second to admire the fountain in the piazza, we mustered the rest of our energy and ascended the stairs. The steps tend to draw a large crowd (and also pickpockets), but by early evening much of the crowd had headed elsewhere.  The view from the top wrapped up our whirlwind tour of Rome and we headed back for some hard-earned food and drinks.


 

Orvieto

We have rarely traveled by car since leaving on our trip.  Driving can bring its own challenges, but also provides opportunities to stop and see a lot more along the way.  After a full day in Rome, we packed our bags and headed toward Florence, but we had to make one stop along the way. Many hilltop towns dot the path between Rome and Florence, but few have a history like Orvieto.
After arriving at the top of the hill, we had a little time to explore before our scheduled tour.  We walked along the wall that sits at the edge of the hill and then headed into town.  At the center sits Orvieto’s famous Duomo. We were all shocked to find such a large and beautifully decorated church in this small town.  Several pictures later, it was time to start our Orvieto Underground tour.
Unbeknownst to us, the town of Orvieto sits over hundreds of underground caves. Throughout the long history of Orvieto, the cities inhabitants carved caves under the surface.  In ancient times, the caves provided protection and contained everything needed to survive for long periods of time. Similar to the Cu Chi Tunnels in Vietnam, but these were much easier to navigate.  Over time, several layers of caves were built and used for various purposes. One cave on the tour contained centuries-old tools used for making olive oil and others used to house pigeons.  Though not often used today, most houses in Orvieto still have private access to one or more of these caves.  We were astonished by each room we explored and very glad we added this stop to our tour of Italy.

On to Florence

I’ll be leaving the rest of our Italy trip for my next post.  We made some great memories in Rome and Orvieto and have plenty of pictures to remember it by.  Only a few made this post, Brent’s “secret” photos of every dog in Italy had to be left out, unfortunately, but having six people to capture each moment was great.  Look forward to more when next we take on Florence, Venice, and Civitavecchia.

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