Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Rome Review - Tours and Best Western Art Deco Hotel

Ciao tutti!  We recently spent three nights in Rome prior to embarking on a cruise to tour Rome.  What a fabulous city!  It was all we thought it would be and more.

We arrived in Rome on a Sunday afternoon and took a shuttle to our hotel, the Best Western Art Deco.  The hotel is small, just 68 rooms and in a well located area with public transportation nearby
(The hotel is a seven minute walk from the Termini train station).

We were greeted by GianLuca, a rather brusk man with what seemed liked little patience.  It was 1:00 and he told us our room would not be ready until at least 2:00.  He handed us a map, pointed out where the Spanish Steps, Colosseum and Trevi Fountain were, took our luggage and told us to come back after 2 PM.

It is a bit startling to be less loose in an unknown area. We began wandering the streets, which were fairly deserted and did not leave us with a warm and fuzzy feeling. After a few wrong turns, we discovered the train station and stopped in some neighborhood stores.  We found a lovely place for lunch, as a reasonable 5 and 6 Euros each for a pasta dish.  One thing that is very expensive throughout Europe was soda - the least amount of money we found a can of soda for was 2.50 E and up.  Meanwhile, a bottle of water was .39E. So you know what our preferred beverage was!

We got back to the hotel at 4 PM and were told our room, number 102, was ready.  No baggage help - GianLuca pointed us to the tiny elevator and we shlepped our bags up to our room.  We initially liked the corner room, a fairly good size for a European hotel room.  Upon entering was a small "hallway" with the bathroom on the left and closets on the right.  We had a king sized bed, arm chair in the corner, t.v. and a mini bar, and a desk and chair.

The bathroom was spacious, with a toilet (and a tank high on the wall, which created a tremendose "whoosh" and creaky noises as it refilled), a bidet, high tub with jets and hand held shower.  Also a sink, but absolutely no space to leave toiletries.  We were continually bringing our toiletry bag in and out of the bathroom.  Another odd feature was that there was no control of the temperature of the water when taking a shower.  We'd set the hand held shower head at an acceptable level and were continually burned as hot water poured out and then cold. It seemed like if anyone flushed a toilet or put on the tap while you were showering, you could be guaranteed a burn.  We had to wait until we got on our cruise ship to enjoy a long shower that had the temperature remain as it should have been!

The bed was extra hard - I had no problem with it but my spouse was miserable.  The room was spotlessly clean, which is the most important factor for a hotel for us.  Even though there were some cracks in the bathroom tile and sink, everything was gleaming.

We decided to lay down and rest, as we had been up more than 24 hours between the time change and our flights and didn't wake up until 6 the next morning.

This hotel provides a free breakfast from 7 - 10:30 AM.  As you sit down, you are brought a pot of coffee (undrinkable for me, who enjoys light and sweet coffee and even difficult for spouse, who likes strong coffee).  Some mornings the coffee was as thick as mud, even if we asked for "Americano" coffee. 

There were scrambled eggs, which quickly ran out each morning, grilled meats such as prociutto instead of bacon.  Also some excellent yogurt, fruit, cereal, pastries, and juices.  The orange juice is from blood oranges, dark pink and among the best orange juice I've ever tasted.

On day two we had pre-booked a "Skip the Line" Tour of the Colosseum with Dark Rome Tours.   After breakfast, we decided to walk to the Termini Station and purchase a ticket for the Hop On, Hop Off bus to tour the city and get to the Colosseum in time for our tour.  Since we had an early morning tour of the Vatican the next day, we decided to take the two day bus ticket.

We also purchased our subway ticket for the Vatican Museum at the Termini Station the next morning. Since our tour was to  began at 8:15 the next morning, the subway was the best way to get to the Vatican.  That was the only place I had problems with the language barrier, as the girl at the information booth did not speak English at all. It all ended well as we were able to figure out what to do.

Our tour bus was the red 110 Open bus. You are handed earplugs that you insert into the plugs near your seat and turn the channel to your language.  You then hear a pre-recorded discussion of where you are (or in many cases, where you have been - the tape ran behind where we actually were and in some cases indicated something was on the left hand side of the bus when it was on the right). The first stop was Santa Maria Maggiore Church, which we discovered was walkable from our hotel. Then on to the Colosseum, Circus Maximus (which is nothing but a grass lot), Piazza Venezia, St. Peters, Ara Pacis (for shopping for high end designers), Trevi Fountain, Barberini and then back to the Termini Station.

We did the full tour, then went back to the hotel an hour or so to pick up our tour tickets, returned to the bus and got off the bus at the Colosseum. Our Skip the Line Tours for the Colosseum and Vatican were with Dark Rome tours.  The company was excellent.  We found our tour guide, Simone (a male) and were off.  Simone was an archaeology student, who gave us information on the Colosseum in detail. His English was very good and he was easy to understand.  Who knew that the Colosseum was all marble and the marble was pilfered by the ancient Popes to be relocated to the Vatican?  That made for some huge gouges in the columns and walls of the Colosseum.  It is truly fascinating to see buildings so old that are still standing.

We then went on to the Forum, which we found even more interesting as that is where the population actually lived and then on to Palantine Hill.  Simone was a great guide as far as the archeology aspect of the tour -but he didn't seem to like Americans very much. He made a few remarks about Americans, the most memorable being that the Americans who go to the American colleges in Rome cause "big problems" with their out of control drinking and trashing of things in Rome.  We were told every weekend there are reports about American students being arrested for their partying ways and that we should lower the drinking age in the U.S. so they wouldn't come to Italy and trash the country. It seemed to us Italy has enough of their own problems that student drinking couldn't possibly be the worst issue for the Italians.

When visiting any popular attractions you should purchase Skip The Line Tours.  There are thousands of people at the main sightseeing areas and the ticket lines are unbelievably long. You will save hours by purchasing your tickets before you leave.

After four hours being on our feet, we decided to take the bus back to the hotel and rest up for our tour early day the next day.  While walking back to the hotel, we found a delightful sidewalk restaurant where we had a nice three course meal for 15E each.

When we went back to the hotel, we also decided to book a night tour of the city in order to take some nice nice photos.  We booked a tour through the hotel that was to pick us up the next night after our Vatican tour.

The next day we were out of the hotel by 7 AM to take the subway to the Vatican.  As a veteran of the NYC subway system, I thought this would be a snap to take the subway in Italy - until I realized I didn't know which direction we had to go to get to the Vatican and it was rush hour. We knew we needed the red line going in the direction of Battastini but how to get there? We were pushed along with a crowd so large I had to plant myself against a wall until the first train came and took on as many people that could fit so we had a clear path to walk.   After taking a deep breathe, we easily found the correct train and were on our way.

Our tour was again through Dark Rome Tours, and the tour advised us to get off the subway at the stop marked "Cipro" - the stop after the main Vatican station.  Upon emerging from the train stop - we looked around and saw  nothing but neighborhood.  We began walking in the direction we assumed the Vatican would be and later found a sign with an arrow pointing the way.  We later asked a street vendor which way and she pointed us in the right direction.  We found our group and were ready for our tour of the Vatican.  Our tour guide (I believe her name was Francesca) was excellent.  She was enthusiastic and her English was outstanding.

We were able to go past the long lines to purchase tickets right to the Vatican Museum, which was fascinating. The many rooms are filled with historical art by Raphael and Michaelangelo, as well as Raphaels' students who finished a room that was not completed when he died.  We saw the former Popes Quarters, the door that goes to the current Pope's living space, the tapestry room and more. It is awe inspiring to be in rooms with items that go back thousands of years.

Then on to the Sistine Chapel. This was a bit of a let down only because you are unable to take any photos in the Chapel.  To see Michaelangelos spectacular paintings and not be able to take a picture is disappointing.  Do you know why pictures cannot be taken? Not because the flash will ruin the recently restored chapel, but because a Japanese company paid for the restoration and now own all the copyrights to the chapel.  How could the Italian government have allowed such a thing to occur, that thousands who come to see this work of art cannot take a single picture of it? 

On to St. Peter's Basilica where my top wish was to see Michaelangelo's Pieta.  When the Worlds Fair was held in New York in 1964/65, the Pieta was displayed and I vividly recall seeing it while I was there as a child. Francesca was delighted to meet someone who actually saw it during that time, as it is the only time the Pieta was removed from St. Peters to be displayed elsewhere.  The statue was as striking as I remembered it as a nine year old.

The rest of St. Peter's was amazing and we could have spent an additional two hours viewing all there was to view.  We thoroughly enjoyed this tour.  We walked through Vatican Square, caught the Hop On Bus and took it to the Trevi Fountain.

When we disemarked the bus at the Fountain stop, we found the fountain wasn't just around the corner, we had to do quite a bit of walking to get to it.  We stopped at a pizzeria for a pizza which we split between us. It was a four cheese pizza that was probably one of the best pizzas we've ever had.

The Trevi Fountain seems to be the most over-rated attraction in Italy.  There were thousands of people crowded around this beautiful fountain pushing to take pictures throwing their coins. I was absolutely stunned at how many people there were. The surrounding area is restaurants and souvenier shops. Lucky for us, it began raining and many people ran off, so we were able to enjoy the fountain without being pushed and prodded.

Checking our watches, we discovered we needed to get back to the hotel to get ready for our evening tour, so off we went to the bus.

The evening tour was through a company called Carrani Tours. We were to be picked up from our hotel for what was described as a 2-1/2 hour tour of Illuminated Rome. We were picked up and taken to sit at the Carrani offices until 8:15 PM when they loaded the bus from their office. Our tour was over by 9:30, after those of us who did not book the dinner option were taken back to our hotel. (The dinner tours was supposed to be 4 hours).

They drove by the sights so quickly it was impossible to take pictures. Led us on a long walk to the Trevi Fountain to take pics, sped by the Colosseum, which was magnificent yet no stop for photos. Taken to the Vatican for much too long for pictures.

Tour was not as advertised. There are many other tour companies to use in Rome - I would not put clients with this tour company.

The next day, our Rome visit was over.  We checked out of the hotel quickly with two lovely women at the front desk (only day we didn't see GianLuca) , our car service picked us up and we were off to Civitavecchia for our cruise!