13 June 2012. We had a bloody long day ahead of us. We had roughly 540km to drive from Venice to Rome. That is a little less than the distance from Durban to Johannesburg, which is about a 6 hour drive. It was going to take much longer, however, because we were going to stop at the Barberino Designer Outlet to do some shopping first. Barberino is over 220km away from Venice. It was a rather long drive just to do some shopping. The upside though, was that it was where we could find designer labels at a fraction of the cost that normal retail stores would sell for.
We loaded the bus by 7 and were off. As usual, Steve played our group’s song – We Are Young by Fun. I did not mention this yet but every Contiki group has a song, and it is the first song you’d hear everyday on the bus. We never started a day without it (except obviously when we stayed somewhere for 2 nights). Steve had chosen that song because it seemed appropriate after our first night in Amsterdam where people got totally wasted. I was sad to leave Venice but very excited to go back to Rome. I couldn’t wait to stand in St Peters Square again and feel that awesome atmosphere surrounding it. As emotional as I was in Switzerland, I have never felt the presence of God like the way I did while standing in St Peter’s Square 3 years ago. I knew we’d be driving through parts of Tuscany on our way to Barberino, so I stayed awake for the majority of the journey. It was only when I saw the freeway signage that showed the turnoff to Barberino that I realised how close we were to Florence. We were barely an hour away. Too bad we couldn’t stop there!
About 3.5 hours had passed since leaving Venice, when we finally reached Barberino. I wasn’t prepared for the size of the outlet. It was huge. Driver Steve dropped us as close as possible to the entrance, and we were so happy to finally be able to stretch our legs since we hadn’t yet done a service stop. Steve handed each of us a voucher and a store map. We’d receive further discounts in some shops if we produced the voucher. We also got a voucher for a slice of pizza, chips, and a coke for €6.50 from the restaurant/takeaway within the complex. Great! But I wanted more gelato, too. I wanted to have a gelato (or 2) for every day that I was in Italy. I was not going to short-change myself this time round. We were then let loose. The guys, naturally, weren’t as keen as the girls to have 2-2.5 hours to shop. I don’t think the girls cared though, I certainly didn’t! I hadn’t budgeted for doing major shopping, but I thought it was definitely worth a look around. Also, I realised that I didn’t have anything to wear in Monaco 3 days later, so my plan was to find at least a top that was suitable.
Barberino has every designer label you can think of – Prada, Armani, Chanel, Polo, Ralph Lauren, the works. Long story short, Prada was out of the question, but I had to look in there anyway. I really had to stop myself from running out of that shop because I was screaming inside from being so horrified at how expensive everything was, especially since it was the “factory” price. I ended up getting a great top at Gas and a top for Monaco from Guess. They cost enough for me to not buy anymore from Barberino!
I used the remaining time just to walk around and horrify myself a little more with the extravagant brands on offer. It was damn hot that day, and I was so pleased that I had bought polarized sunglasses for this trip. The glare was blinding. It was great to walk around though because Barberino is like its own little town with streets and benches and little gardens. Even if you didn’t want to shop, it was a nice place to take a stroll, though it would not take you very long and you’d eventually get bored. I noticed that the guys had bought themselves stuff, too. I smiled to myself upon seeing that. I guess you’re almost forced to shop when you’re a guy travelling in a tour group consisting mostly of girls, in a foreign country, by a coach that can’t drop you somewhere else.
When I was done, I headed to the restaurant to meet with the others and get myself something to eat. I was pretty hungry and obviously gelato wouldn’t be good enough for lunch. After struggling to decide what I wanted, I decided to use the voucher to get the pizza, chips and coke. I sat at a rather high, cocktail-type table with Alex (who dropped her slice accidentally) and Kelsey (the Australian one). It was really awkward to sit there because the table was a little too high (especially for Kelsey, who’s pretty short, poor thing). I couldn’t finish my chips, which came at no surprise to me because I generally don’t like having chips with anything as it makes me too full too quickly. I hate that much starch. I had a few minutes to digest my food so that I could get gelato (it was well planned out; my body is naturally programmed to accept ice cream at any time).
Once we had all gathered we hopped back on the bus and had another 3 hour journey before doing a service stop. The Autogrill that we stopped at was quite large, and sat tall above the freeway. Again, we were greeted with a Burger King and some other great food. I was a little peckish and so got myself a sandwich. Italian bread is the bomb and those on tour with me would agree on how good the sandwiches at the service stops looked! When we were done, we were ready for the final stretch to Rome. It was another 2.5 hours or so away. I tried to catch some sleep but it was very difficult to do so, especially since I was on the aisle seat again. I didn’t have one of those neck pillows either, and at that point I really wished I had gotten myself one. I never realised the need for it until then.
It was pretty obvious when we reached Rome. The traffic was crazy, and there were scooters weaving in-between the cars like crazy. I was so happy when we got there, it felt like home. Rome is just so full of history and I love the architecture, among other things. The route suddenly became familiar when we were approaching the Colosseum, because I had traveled on it when I was on the way to my hotel from the airport. I knew exactly where we were. The last time I visited Rome, I stayed in a hotel that was on Giovanni Giolitti, the same road as the Termini station. The walk to the Manzoni station was quicker though. We were in that basic vicinity which is north east of the Colosseum. This route did confuse me because I knew where the Colosseum was in relation to that area, and it seemed as though we were going slightly out of the way. I began to wonder where Driver Steve would be able to park the bus because I had seen pictures of the area around the Colosseum and it didn’t look as if there was a place for a bus to park. Eventually, we were on a hill next to a fenced off soccer field, and it was then clear where we were going to be dropped off.
When we jumped off, I had the chance to get rid of some garbage that Alex and I had accumulated on the bus from Barberino and Autogrill, and took a few moments to watch some kids play soccer (a very cute one scored a goal, too) as Steve briefed everyone on where we were going to be walking. I didn’t have to pay attention much since it was a basic “follow me” talk. We walked to the corner, turned left, and went straight down the road with the Colosseum facing us. I couldn’t take my eyes off it and was in awe as it got bigger.
We had to turn left again and make a sort of U-turn, all downhill, so that we’d end up on the road that runs alongside it. We walked about 200m after the U-turn before Steve stopped us at a slightly less busy point on the sidewalk, with only the road separating us from the Colosseum. I never really realized that it would be so open like that and that you could go touch it if you wanted to without having to jump over a fence. Steve gave us a talk about what it was all about, and showed us where the Metro station is, for those of us who wanted to visit the next day. We managed to take some photos before beginning our 10 minute walk down the same road to Piazza Venezia. On the way there, I began to feel the heat. It was a really hot day, and there wasn’t much shade to walk in either. Even though it was around 4:30pm, it felt like midday. We stopped briefly to listen to Steve speak about the Roman Forum. He told us how we’d be able to get tickets for it at the Colosseum, and it would work out cheaper if we got it as a combo rather than separately.
After crossing the road, we passed an Indian street vendor appeared to own a jungle. It was as if his stand was built with fruit, and garnished with fruit. He had so many types to choose from that I knew I had to get something from him at some point. Unfortunately we were still moving so I didn’t get anything. Besides, we were a stones throw away from Piazza Venezia. The vendor was literally around the corner from it.
I was not prepared for the magnificence of the Capitol building when we got to it a few moments later. I had seen pictures of it before but I never realized that it sat in Piazza Venezia. It was the first time I saw a building that was that white. It seemed to be in pristine condition. We crossed another 2 roads so that we’d be able to stand on the walkway that was directly opposite it, and there seemed to be a lot of construction going on so it was a rather awkward walk until we got to the middle of the piazza. It was from there that the true scale and beauty of the Capitol could be seen. I was awestruck. After Steve’s talk, which included him pointing out the place where Napolean hid his mother during the war, a large group of us wanted to get a closer look at the Capitol. We crossed the crazily busy street and wondered whether the guards would let us inside because it was pretty close to closing time. We had only a few minutes to go up the steps and admire the wonderful detailed carvings on the building. I was there fore barely 5 minutes before heading back down to meet up with Steve and the others again. When I crossed the first street and was so tempted to stop at one of the street vendors to get gelato, but I knew that it wasn’t going to be long before we got supper, so I gave it a miss. I died a little inside. I crossed the second street and was back in the middle of the piazza with the others. It was a chance to rest my legs and I sat for a few moments with some of my group, waiting for the last few people to join us again. The best part about the middle of the piazza is that because of the rather tall buildings surrounding it, we had shade to sit in. When everyone was together again, we had a short walk to do to get to our dinner venue. I think all of us were starving and exhausted by then.
When we got to the “restaurant”, I don’t believe I was the only confused one. When we walked in, there were couches and chairs around, but no tables. On the left was a rather stylish looking bar. We were then told to go upstairs, up a staircase consisting of what seemed like no less than 40-50 stairs. When we got to the top, we had to weave our way between some strategically positioned walls before coming out into the coolest restaurant I’d seen. It was actually a cross between a nightclub, a theatre, and a restaurant. The tables were near the ceiling, and overlooked a stage, a bar area, and a dance floor. Everything except the tables were below us. It was almost as if we were sitting in private gallery. The room was white but had different coloured lights focusing on different areas. There was a staircase on either side of the room, which cascaded down to the dance floor.
Too bad I couldn’t get a clearer panoramic shot.
I found a table right at the front with the twins, Alex and Rachel. The advantage of this spot was that we had an unobstructed view of the room. The disadvantage was that we were the furthest away from the food! It wasn’t that big of a deal though because there were no savages in our group so everyone got a bit of everything. The selection was quite good too, and I remember that my favourite portion was the little bow-tie shaped pasta. I don’t even know what was in the sauce that it came with, but it was really good.
Sitting with Alex, Rachel and the twins was pleasant and I got to know them a little better. It was a nice mix of nationalities (although Rachel and I were the only non-Americans) and we spoke a little about the different ways that we do or call things. That’s what I loved about my Contiki group – you could talk with virtually anyone. Since we were all travelers and all chose the same tour, it gave us all something in common. Travelers are generally like-minded, too.
After dinner we walked back downstairs to the entrance foyer and had to wait a few minutes for Steve. Some rather smartly dressed people were waiting outside, which included a lot of older men in black suits. The first thing that popped into my mind was “mafia”. Yes, I know, how ridiculous. No, I highly doubt they were, but I couldn’t help thinking that.
Tina, as usual, was out with her camera again. Thanks to her, most of us will remember what that place looked like at the entrance.
When Steve was finally ready, it was time for our walking tour. It was already quite late so I expected most of the places to be closed, like the Pantheon. Thankfully, a lot of the main landmarks in Rome can be seen from the outside.
The first place that we were heading to was the Trevi Fountain. Thankfully Steve knew the way there since he had been to Rome so many times, so we stopped about 20m away where he could give us a pep talk about the fountain. All I could think about was that the last time I was there, one of my wishes was that I would come back to Rome, and there, it had come true. Steve said that it should be one of our wishes, too. I had a “been there, done that” moment.
Because the excitement of being back in Rome and the thought of the gelato shop round the corner was going through my mind, I didn’t quite pay attention to where Steve said we should meet after about 30 minutes. I did hear him say that we’d meet on the left side of the fountain outside the ice cream shop, but I forgot immediately afterwards.
The fountain was mad. It took a while to actually get to the front and find a spot to sit to throw in my coins and take a photo or two. Thankfully, Travis was around and offered to take my photos. It was very funny when Tracy’s arm got in the way of one of the photos, as it was not the first time.
Once my photos were done, I wasted no time in going to the best gelato shop in Rome, which sits on the right of the fountain. I was on a high walking to that shop, because I went there the last time I was at the Trevi Fountain and it was the best gelato that I had had anywhere. I got 2 scoops for around €3, and had about 10 minutes left before meeting the group. I bumped into Tiffany, Kelly, and a couple other girls and we walked confidently back to the spot where Steve had left us earlier.
After about 5 minutes we began to get a little worried since no one else from the group showed up. I then seriously doubted what I had heard Steve say, when it suddenly hit me that we were to meet right where I had been standing a few minutes back. We made a quick dash for it and I saw Steve look up at me and say “Ahhh!” in a “THERE you are” kind of way. Whoops. I don’t think I made them wait for too long though.
Now, for those familiar with the map of Rome, you will know that the next closest landmark is the Pantheon. So naturally, that was our next stop. In fact, it wasn’t really a stop, it was more like a pause. I took in as much of it as I could (it was closed anyway, so I was glad I had the opportunity to go inside it the last time) and grabbed a few photos before scurrying off towards Piazza Navona.
It was at that point that I stopped using my Sony camera and decided to permanently switch to my phone’s camera. All the while I had been alternating between the two, but it became a pain in the ass to keep taking my Sony camera out of its pouch. That process wasn’t quick enough, and besides, the clarity of my phone’s photos were much better too since its HD.
I was again in a familiar place when we reached Piazza Navona. I found it even more charming than I had before, and I took more time to admire the piazza. There were people selling paintings and souvenirs all over the area surrounding the Fountain of the Four Rivers. Steve gave us some time to linger around the piazza, and pointed out the ATM in the far corner. I had some money on me but I wanted to get more just in case, but again, the ATM rejected my card because it had a magnetic strip and not a chip.
I didn’t mention this before but I was using an American Express Travel Card. Its basically a debit card that you can get for Euros, Dollars, or Pounds and you load money onto it. It works at most ATMs. I was just unlucky a couple of times, but thankfully I was never short of money.
When we regrouped, Serena, the Canadian girl I had met on the first day, told some of us that an Indian man had charged her €10 for a string that he had tied around her wrist. I was furious, because he acted as if that string was some miraculous souvenir of Italy, just because it was red, white, and green (the colours of the Italian flag). What most people don’t know is that that string is a religious thing that Hindus wear. Most times it is red only, but some people do use the 3 colours depending on what they are praying for. I was mortified (and still am) that the man used that to trick her. How can anyone use something that has religious significance to rob an unsuspecting tourist? Its absolutely shocking. I asked her to point him out to me but he was long gone. I really would have given him a mouthful, not to mention gotten Serena’s money back! Anyway…
Piazza Navona was the last stop of the day and from there we had to walk to the bus. When we started our walk, I realized that we were heading north and I knew exactly where we were. Directly ahead of us was the Tiber River and Castel Sant Angelo, and to the left was St Peters Square. I actually thought that we were going to end our walking tour at St Peters Square, but we stopped at an intersection in which our view of both Castel Sant Angelo and St Peters Square were obstructed by trees.
When we crossed the crazily busy street, I knew that St Peters Square was right around the corner. It seemed as if I was the only one that knew that, but I just didn’t know how to get everyone’s attention. Even if I did, we were on a rather narrow island in the middle of the road, so there was no way that everyone could see what I was seeing. I told a handful of people around me, so they managed to get a glimpse of it. I was really disappointed that we didn’t go to see it at that time of the day. I always wanted to see St Peters church at night but unfortunately it was still too early (well, it was already after 8:30pm but the sun only sets after 10pm in summer) and we had a bit of a drive to get to the hotel.
Driver Steve eventually came and it was a mad rush to get onto the bus because of the traffic. I was so glad to be sitting again, as it had been an impossibly long day and I was exhausted. When we got to the hotel, I was glad to get some of my stuff ready for laundry. We were given a bag to put our stuff into and had to write our name on it so that it would be easy to return. Ally, Rachel and Paul were planning what they were going to do the next day. I sat with them for a while but was so exhausted that I hardly paid attention. I knew where I wanted to go, but its not easy planning sometimes and you never know who you’re gonna end up with. I went to bed knowing that whatever I was going to be doing the next day would be great. I was, after all, in Rome.