A few thoughts on my recent trip to the City of Light.....
- The title is what the shuttle bus driver told us as we were unable to get down the street that led to our hotel. Some folks with red flags and green smoke (nice touch) were striking because the financially strained government was threatening to cut something they used to get for free. As such, we had to walk 15 minutes (hauling our luggage) to our hotel entrance instead of being delivered there as we paid for.
- It's a VERY crowded, hectic, not-very-much-fun city IF you limit yourself to the tourist zone. Don't get in a hurry and, unless you want to pay a LOT of extra Euros, be prepared to wait in very long lines. Also, you will be panhandled and approached by pushy street merchants often. They do not take no for an answer at first, and will just stand there and stare at you if you try to ignore them. Have some fun and make a game out of annoying them. We did.
- Away from the tourist high-points, Rome is very charming. Some of the best food can be had at the smallest places, although the old tourist book adage "eat where the locals eat" doesn't always apply to Rome. Many of the locals eat at the touristy spots out of necessity. My hint: Look for a place off the beaten path that has tried to write a street menu in English but has misspelled something. We ate at a great little place that offered "tipical" Roman food. (And which had gluten free bread for my wife as well.)
- Maps of Rome are about the most useless travel tool ever. I'm referring to the tourist maps that are at every hotel. First, because of all the back alleys and small side streets, 1/2 the street names you're looking for won't be on there. Second, imagine a bowl of spaghetti. OK, you now have the street layout of Rome. There are some signs for tourists near the big areas, look for anything else? You'll get there. Stop at a cafe and drink a coffee.
- Time (and traffic laws) are more suggestions than actual dictates. "Five Minutes" can mean anything from five minutes to half an hour. It's flexible. When you cross the street you take your life into your own hands. In theory, at lighted cross-walks, the cars are supposed to yield right-of-way to pedestrians. In practice this is a coin flip proposition. If it's a scooter you're less than 3-1 against. Tread carefully.
- As mentioned earlier, dining al fresco is an overrated, panhandle-filled, dirty, loud undertaking. Unless you just have to feel like you're dining "In the European way" take a seat in door, usually in the A/C and you can enjoy your meal in relative comfort. At least the waiters will (sometimes) shoo the crap-hawkers out of the restaurant.
- In Italian food, simpler is better. I can't stress this enough. In America we have taken a fairly healthy cuisine and turned it into a gloppy, overwrought mess. (Think: Good writing, then my writing on this blog) The best dishes that I ate in Rome were 5-6 ingredients, tops. Also: Pasta Carbonara is probably what is being eaten right now by the Almighty himself. I am not exaggerating. You rarely go wrong if you choose this as your pasta course. I ate it every meal except one, where it wasn't offered on the menu and I went for tagliatelle con fungi.
- In October, Porcini mushrooms are in season. You're welcome for that tip.
- Prices are negotiable, and very negotiable if you're not a Roman. They also start out ridiculously high.
- Mussolini did not exist. Just in case you think he did do not bring this up with the Romans. Still a very tender subject.
- Burlusconi did exist, you will find out quickly whether the Roman you're talking to loves or hates him. There is no middle ground.
- Avoid, at all costs, US Airways 767 flights into/out of Rome. Take the Airbus 330's. Trust me on this one.
More on a lot of this later, with pictures.