Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Italy Part IV: All roads lead to Rome


In a dimly lit underground metro station, my roommate and I waited as the train bound for the Colosseum jolted to a halt. The doors opened and the small crowd of people on the platform next to us began to fill the train car. All of a sudden, my roommate began to push the back of the woman ahead of us. I wanted to pull my roommate back when I realized the woman she had pushed was another of our flatmates also traveling through Italy with another friend. Baffled by the odds that we would run into one another in Rome on the metro train, we decided to tour the Colosseum and ancient ruins together.

We learned the brutal history of the gladiators in the Colosseum from our Fabio-look-alike tour guide. Smack in the middle of modern Rome, the giant structure offers an interesting juxtaposition to the surrounding traffic-filled streets. We also saw Palatine Hill (the start of Rome) and the ruins of the Roman Forum before stopping to grab a Roman pizza for lunch.

We met up with other friends in Piazza Navona for dinner and learned that on a slow night (it was a Wednesday), hosts will attempt to recruit diners. In all fairness, we were a group of nine people looking for a restaurant... We ended up in the cellar dining room of a restaurant with complimentary appetizers and champagne. I tried "trofie," a type of thin rolled pasta, with pesto and shrimp -- an excellent choice. After many laughs and about three hours, we started the trek back to our hotel.

We spent Thursday morning at the Vatican. We saw St. Peter's Cathedral, climbed to the top of it's dome, visited the Vatican museums, saw the Raphael rooms and saw the Sistine Chapel. I have never seen so much marble as in St. Peter's. Mosaics, sculpture and carvings filled every square inch of the place. But, the constant clicking of cameras made the building feel more like a museum than a Church.

To finish off our day of touring with a more relaxing moment, we walked to the Spanish Steps. Right in the middle of town, this grand staircase serves as a grown-up's playground for catching up with friends, people-watching or enjoying the always-tempting Roman cuisine (especially when the weather is as clear and dry as on that afternoon). The steps were packed.

After refreshing in our hotel, we found a Spaghetteria for dinner, which boasted a menu filled with more than six pages of spaghetti dishes. I narrowed my selection down to three and had to ask the waiter which to choose. I sampled one of the house specialities: al dente pasta with mushrooms, walnuts, garlic, parsley, olive oil and Parmesan cheese. The restaurant was just around the corner from the Trevvi Fountain, so we saw the white sculpted fountain glowing against the jet black sky. Even into the wee hours, people filled the piazza.

Basil, oregano, parsley and garlic wafted through Campo di Fiori, an outdoor food market in the heart of Rome. Supposedly where restaurant owners go each morning to find fresh fruits and vegetables, my friend and I picked up a few tempting edibles for ourselves: homemade pasta, a bruschetta herb mix and roasted hazelnuts. Afterwards we walked a few blocks to the Pantheon -- the building of perfect proportions. The hundreds-of-years-old structure pops up in the very center of Rome. We found fresh mozzarella, tomato and basil sandwiches for lunch and sat to eat them on the steps of a fountain in the Piazza, soaking up the sun's warm heat and historical icon in front of us.

A little later in the afternoon, my friend and I stopped for the best gelato of the trip. My winning combo included banana, stracciatella (vanilla chocolate chip) and nocciola (hazelnut). After a week of gelato-eating, I had found the perfect complements.

We spent our last night in Rome enjoying a long dinner with friends in the true Italian spirit. We met in the Trastevere (in southwest Rome), an area with many shops and way too many restaurants to try. We found a spot with outside tables under tiny lights (and heating lamps) where we relished our last plates of pasta, fresh bread, tiramisu and plenty of wine.

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