Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Day 12 - Perugia - Rome

Today is a travel day, the last full day in Italy for Austin and Norma, and we arise early (for us) and check out of the Locanda della Posta bound for Rome. Our plan is to arrive early, sometime before noon, and check into our hotel which is in Rome’s Leonardo DaVinci Airport (also referred to as Fiumicino for the town in which it is located), return the rental car and take a cab into Rome, spending the day enjoying the wonders of the Eternal City. Austin and Norma’s flight is scheduled to depart very early the next morning, and we all think the plan is a good one, saving us from waking up early in Rome the next morning and having to make the 40 minute drive before the sun rises.

The drive from Perugia to Rome is surprisingly easy. It is a weekday but there is little traffic as we head south, past Deruta and Todi, crossing over the A1 autostrada via Narni and Orte. After slightly over an hour we arrive at the outskirts of Rome and turn on to the G.R.A., a kind of beltway or ring road that circles Rome. Lanes merge from 4 lanes to 3 lanes then 3 lanes to 2 and we are caught in a virtual standstill. The final 20 miles of our trip take nearly an hour but just after 11:00 we arrive at the Hilton Rome Airport Hotel, which is connected to Fiumicino’s three main terminals by a walkway and people movers.

The hotel is big and spacious, very much like an American hotel. Surprisingly, our rooms are ready and we return the rental car and drop off our bags. We discover the real beauty of the hotel, however, as we inquire about arranging a taxi into Rome. The hotel, we are told, has a private shuttle bus that takes guests into Rome every two hours, with return trips every two hours as well. We are there just in time to catch the 12:00 bus and, amazingly, considering that several hours ago we were zipping up our suitcases in Perugia, a few short minutes later we are bound for Rome. We spend the bus ride making plans to spend Austin and Norma’s last day shopping and sightseeing.

The Hilton bus lets us off in front of the Teatro Marcellus, a few steps away from the Capitoline Hill and the Forum, and very conveniently located in the center of Rome. We drag ourselves up the long staircase to Michelangelo’s piazza on the Capitoline Hill and enjoy his archetypical Renaissance palazzos that enclose the piazza. Around the back of the piazza is a terrific vantage point over the Roman Forum and we take a number of photos, including a number of Latin inscriptions that adorn the fragments of friezes that have been restored, hoping that this will earn our daughter Lindsey some extra credit in her Latin class.

The rest of the day is spent walking, sightseeing and shopping over miles and miles of Roman landscape. While we have visited Rome now a number of times, each visit has been brief and we do not consider ourselves experts – more likely only advanced beginners. We do know the lay of the land, however, and find that the city is eminently walkable, despite the crowds of tourists which are here even in the winter time. We walk up Via Corso, a fairly upscale area, heading for our three major landmarks – the Pantheon, the Piazza Navonna and the Trevi Fountain. We typically include two other points in defining our Roman universe, the Spanish Steps and the Campo dei Fiori, but today we are likely going to avoid the trendy shops and mobs of the Spanish Steps.

At this hour many of the shops are closed shops, so we wander to the Pantheon, one of the most studied buildings in Art History 101. No matter how many times you happen upon this structure, it popping into sight from between buildings as you enter the piazza, its magnificence never ceases to amaze you. We wander around the outside and inside for a while before heading for the Piazza Navona, where we expect to have a nice, if overpriced and touristy, lunch and do some people watching, waiting for the shops to reopen.

For the first time in our experience, the Piazza Navona is a complete disappointment. Only a few street artists are set up in the middle of the long oval piazza and there are few tourists or others milling around. The Bernini fountain, which figures prominently in Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons is under renovation and is completely shielded from sight by a wooden fence erected around it. Most disappointing, however, is that only one or two of the many cafes that line the piazza, and which typically are abuzz with activity, are open and those that are nearly empty. We decide to sit and have lunch anyway and are treated to the worst meal we have had on this trip, a fact which is not exactly surprising, but disappointing. We expected tourist-bad with a lively atmosphere. What we got was bad-bad with no atmosphere, kind of like a restaurant on the moon.

After lunch we wander down to the Campo dei Fiore, an outdoor food and flower market that is one of our favorite places to hang out in Rome. It is afternoon so the market has closed and where several hours earlier stall after stall of fresh produce, colorful fruits and fish and meat vendors was set up, the piazza is empty, save for a few flower vendors at the far end of the square. The Campo dei Fiori always seems alive, however, and there is a good crowd of people and a palpable buzz and energy. We stop for an excellent ice cream, something we have completely underaccomplished on this trip and wander through numerous trendy little shops that line the neighborhood.

Our shopping and strolling finally takes us past the Trevi Fountain, where we make our wishes and throw our coins in the fountain. Time is getting late, and we decide to search for a trattoria near the bus stop. After rejecting restaurant after restaurant we finally settle on a small trattoria literally around the corner from our pickup spot. Unfortunately our Trevi Fountain wishes have not come true – perhaps we should have thrown in more valuable coins – as this dinner is even worse than our lunch. Perhaps that is an unfair statement, because the food is better then the tepid pizza that hasn’t been microwaved long enough at lunch. But the experience of table, the very thing that makes for so many enjoyable meals here in Italy, is totally lacking at this Rome restaurant. Perhaps this jaded owner has had his fill of vapid Americans making a mockery of his proud vocation through their words and deeds. But we expect and deserve better than the shrugs and sneers we receive, plates and bowls slapped down in front us as if challenging us to a duel. We try everything Signore Personalita has to offer -- gnocchi with tomato sauce, ravioli with tomato sauce, fettucine with tomato sauce and spaghetti carbonara, but the whole affair is soulless and empty. Our main courses are good enough -- roast chicken, veal paillard, veal saltimbocca and veal Milanese, but both we and he are simply marking our time until the bus arrives. I will say that the profiteroles are excellent, swimming in chocolate cream, but it is too late to save this meal. A few moments later we hop on the bus and soon are heading off to sleep on one of those rare days in Italy where food not only did not play an important role, but where it made the experience worse.

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