Rome: A City for (Walking) Lovers

Rome - Borghese gardens
Take a beautiful, relaxing walk through the Borghese Gardens.

Rome has long been known as “The Eternal City” allegedly because the ancient Romans believed that wars may rage, tempests might descend, disasters could occur, but Rome would endure all – and it has to be said that looking at the city’s endurance throughout the millennia, they may just have been prescient. Rome, though, is also know as a city for lovers – in our view for walking lovers. If you want to come to love the eternal city, get yourself a pair of (fashionable) walking shoes and come with us.

 

We have visited Rome on three separate occasions at this point. The first visit found us on a group tour with a guide where we spent most of our real walking time in Vatican City and the rest of it viewing the city largely from the windows of a bus, with a walk around the Coliseum thrown in. By the time that visit was over we were certain of one thing: we had a distinct feeling of “been there, done that” about the Vatican which was now forever crossed off our bucket list, and we had no feel for a city whose streets we had not walked.

Our second visit to the city required a bit more planning since we wanted to take a private tour. We had only one day since we had arrived in Civitavecchia on a cruise ship. [As an aside: if you like to cruise, it’s a great way to get a brief feel for a city so that you can return to spend more time – and you need to note that the port of Rome which isn’t in Rome at all is an hour-and-a-half drive from the city itself.]

We booked a driver to pick us up at the port and whisk us into Rome where we picked up the guide. This driver-plus-guide is the only sensible way to do a private tour in Rome since there is nowhere to park at most of the places you’ll want to visit, and you don’t want to waste time. The driver could stop anywhere – and we do mean anywhere – drop us off and return with the click of a cell phone button. Our knowledgeable guide showed us the inside and outside of the Pantheon, many churches, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps etc. We loved every minute of it and yet we still didn’t have a feel for the city.

Then we went back on our own with three full days to conduct our own self-guided walking tour. We checked in to the Grand Palace Hotel, a beautiful, atmospheric property close to the Borghese Gardens and planned our attack.

We would set out in a different direction on each of the three days we would walk the city. We began at the Borghese Gardens because of their proximity and spent the first day exploring around that part of the city. The next day we set out to do Ancient Rome. We revisited the Coliseum, and this time actually went inside. When we arrived though, the line for ticket-buying was too long for us to waste time so we went off to the other ticket spot to gain entrance into Ancient Rome. Much to our delight, it was a two-for ticket so we then had our ticket in hand to go directly into the Coliseum when we returned. We recommend that or buy your ticket in advance.

Rome - ancient rome
It was a fantastic day to walk the hills of Ancient Rome and feel the ghosts of the past.

Ancient Rome is a must-see to get any feel for what this great city was in the days of the Roman Empire. Make no mistake, it is a Roman ruin that has not been restored, but that is its beauty. The walls are real, the cobble-stone streets are real, the tiles are real, the arches are real – none of it is the well-intentioned rebuilding that is based on some scholar’s research. We took our time and walked. Then it was into the Coliseum. Again, the ruin is in its ruinous state and it’s magnificent. To see the labyrinth of halls and cubicles that formed the underground of the “main stage” fires the imagination as we pictured the gladiators fighting one another as well as wild animals and condemned men. Just blot out the sights and sounds of the milling tourists and the sensation grips you.

 

Of course we also spent a day walking the streets of modern Rome, browsing and window-shopping at the likes of Dior and Chanel. We dined in a number of lovely trattorias and savored a new wine each evening.

Is three days enough? If you plan your walking tour well and are prepared to walk seven to ten kilometres a day, you’ll likely end up as we did – with a real sense of the ancient and the modern of the city of (walking) lover

If you have a few minutes, we’ve captured the highlights in this video…

So happy we had a chance to visit Istanbul

Ottoman luxury
Typical Ottoman Empire luxury!

The news is sad. It’s always sad when stories of terrorism and mayhem make their way into our lives either directly or indirectly, but we find it especially distressing to hear of death and destruction in places that should be on everyone’s travel radar – but sadly sometimes they have to be shelved.

Over this past month the news out of Istanbul is frightening: tourists killed by a suicide bomber right in Sultanamet Square near some of the world’s most wonderful edifices. We are just so happy that we had a chance to visit Istanbul before this latest round of terror attacks.

It is one of the world’s finest cities – some say the most romantic. Apart from the frantic traffic – you take your life into your hands just crossing a street downtown – the sights are without equal.

The apparent emphasis on security was evident to us, though, even from the beginning of our visit. When we drove up to the front of the new Marriott Hotel in the Sisli district, the car was stopped at a gate and inspected with a long-handled mirror to check for hidden explosives underneath before we were permitted to approach the front door. When we entered the hotel for the first time and for every time thereafter, we walked through metal detectors and our bags went through an X-ray scanner – every time we returned. Once through that gauntlet, though, the hotel was outstanding – one of the loveliest Marriott’s we have ever stayed in (and we’ve stayed in many). And we cannot say enough about the professionalism, competence and friendliness of the staff.

dolmabahce palace
Dolmabahce Palace – one of our favourite spots to visit in Istanbul – but they won’t permit interior photography

Our days in Istanbul were spent with a private guide we hired through Tours by Locals, a Vancouver-based travel company whose guides are second to none. Young Emre, with his patriotic fervour and deep knowledge of his city and country, introduced us to so much of what that wonderful city has to offer – he led us through places that we would not have seen either on our own or with a group tour.

Of course we visited Haiga Sofia, the Blue Mosque, the Basilica Cistern, the markets and Topkapi Palace, places so close to last month’s bombings. But he also took us to Dolmabache Palace, the nineteenth-century palace and home to the last of the Sultans on the Bosphorus and many small mosques, early Christian churches, and he included a truly one-of-a-kind restaurant experience where they serve food based on original Ottoman Empire recipes – Deraliye Ottoman Restaurant. Our lives have been greatly enriched by having visited Turkey in general, and Istanbul in particular.

After the recent current events, it’s fair to say that there will be some travelers who will think twice about visiting, then perhaps avoid it: this is so sad, if understandable. We are grateful that we did not have to make that choice.

Our video shows how we saw Istanbul. If you’ve been there, we hope it brings back wonderful memories. If you haven’t, please enjoy.

Irish Memories for St. Patrick’s Day

leprechaun museum
Patty & friend at the leprechaun museum in Dublin!

It’s hard for us to believe that it’s been three years since our extraordinary private tour of Ireland, Patty’s ancestral home. But today, St. Patrick’s Day, we’re thinking about the emerald Isle and all it offered to us.

We began with the delights of Dublin, a truly wonderful city. Then our tour took us to the ancient site of Newgrange, south to Cork, then on to Killarney. We marveled at the Book of Kells in Dublin, Blarney Castle, the breathtaking Dingle peninsula, and a number of sacred places along the way.

Ireland truly is green, but it’s much more than that. It was for us a trip that had long been on our bucket list and we’ll go back the moment that the opportunity presents itself!

 

Join us for a few moments of our private tour to see for yourself…

Welcome to Rome: A cautionary tale about Leonardo Da Vinci Airport

The Boscolo Grand Palace Hotel, our home away from home in Rome. We were very happy to finally get there from the airport!
The Boscolo Grand Palace Hotel, our home away from home in Rome. We were very happy to finally get there from the airport!

We had been to Rome twice before, arriving by ship both times.  Just this past fall, we flew into Rome and landed for the first time at Rome’s Leonardo Da Vinci Airport, its international airport in Fiumicino.

After three wonderful days in London, we had made our way to Gatwick for the short flight to Rome, anticipating our three days there before setting sail for the Greek Islands and Istanbul.  In spite of all the woes of airline travel these days, we were still excited to be making our way to the eternal city.  An hour later in Rome’s airport we were beginning to doubt our modus operandi.  To say that the luggage handling was lengthy would be an understatement, and there was a distinct lack of any customer service for British Airways passengers.  However, after a rather impatient wait, the luggage finally arrived.  We were ready to take on Rome.  Or so we thought.

We made our way out the doors of the international arrivals into a sea of people waving placards announcing the names of their passengers who had pre-booked their taxis.  We often do this, but we’ve had to wait so many times for our taxi drivers – especially at Heathrow – that this time we decided to wing it.  Mistake number one.

As we made our way through the crowd, Patty spied – or was spied by – a man sporting a lanyard which presumably identified him as an official taxi driver.  As throngs of people passed by, he asked us if we were looking for a taxi.  “Yes,” Patty said, immediately after which he grabbed her suitcase from here and propelled his way through the crowd toward the door where the taxis waited in a queue at the curb.

He maneuvered his way past this line to a waiting car just beyond and thrust our suitcases rapidly into the trunk.  He smilingly opened the door and ushered us into the back seat which we obligingly let him do.  Mistake number two.

There was already a man in the front passenger seat.  We wouldn’t mind sharing the cab with his brother, would we?  We actually did mind, but it seemed unfriendly in the face of their clear friendliness to tourists, and he was already there.

There was no visible identification inside the vehicle and no meter.  He began to pull away quickly as Patty asks him, “How much?”

“Just tariff,” he says.

Patty presses him.  “Could you be more precise?”

The driver sighs and pulls out a laminated card from a pocket.  We look at it.  It is this moment where we know without any doubt that we have “been had” as they say: 100 Euros for a trip from the airport didn’t seem right.  After all these years of traveling, we have managed to avoid most of the travel scams and consider ourselves to be quite savvy.  This time we weren’t.  But it wasn’t over yet.

The joys of modern technology meant that we were able to immediately pull out a cell phone and track our route on Google maps so that we could be assured we were actually taking the direct route to our hotel, a tactic we highly recommend in any city you don’t know well.  We followed the dot all along.  The friendly driver and his friendly brother were both aware of our tracking, but were not aware that Art had, in fact, also searched out and discovered that the tariff would be closer to 40 Euros.

We finally arrived at our hotel, the driver pulling up to the curb far enough past the hotel that the bellman didn’t immediately realize we were guests of his establishment.

We were both out of the car quickly, pulling our suitcases from the now-open trunk (which the brother didn’t’ want us to do), before the driver demanded 100 Euros.  Art passed him 40 Euros which resulted in an angry rebuttal about the fare.  At this point, the bellman at the hotel noticed us and immediately came over to assist with our luggage.   As the bellman took our luggage for us, Art asked him what the normal tariff from the airport to this specific point in the city would be.  He indicated that it was between 40 and 50 Euros, so Art pulled out another 10 Euros and gave it to the brother who was still demanding a hundred.  We firmly paid the 50 and followed the bellman and our luggage into the hotel, not looking back. The bellman was appalled at the audacity of his countrymen.

In retrospect, we realized we should have been savvier, but we had been anxious to get away from the throngs at the airport.  We should have lined up for the taxis in the official line and been patient.

On occasion, however, you might find that you don’t have much choice. We recommend that you get the fare sorted out before you put your luggage in the trunk of the car, even if you have to restrain the driver – which we would have had to do.  Then get out your cell phone and track the route (make sure you have a roaming package before you leave home!).  We learned a lesson – we hope you might benefit from it.