Leaving on a Jet Plane
The end of the French University semester is at the end of January. Unofficially this is about a two week break for the professors and lecturers. It was a little bit shorter for Amy because she had to finish grading her students presentations. She had recorded them using the video feature of our digital camera. We had the joy of watching third year English students give an oral presentation on such illustrious topics as "American Politics" and "British Immigration. Once she finished grading she had to present some research to her advisor back in Indiana. Basically they wanted her to show that she had been doing some research during her year abroad. Even with all of this work we still managed to have a few days free. We discussed going to London, Dublin, bits of Scotland and even Barcelona before finally settling on Rome.Ryan Air is an ultra cheap airline in Europe. Unfortunately they no longer fly out of Strasbourg, but have an airport about 30 minutes away in Baden Baden, Germany. Even with the added travel time we purchased tickets that were cheaper than taking a train or bus. Daniel agreed to drive us to Baden Baden. Tammy and Fabianne decided to make a trip out of it because there is a Wal-Mart in Baden Baden. If it seems strange to travel to another country for a Wal-Mart let me explain the reasoning. There is no Wal-Mart in Strasbourg. As I have mentioned before shopping in this city is a bit of an adventure. No store carries all the items you will need. It usually takes 2 stores for all of our grocery needs. Buying any household item will generally take a visit to 3 or more stores before we find the items we were looking to purchase. Auschan comes closest. They have a good variety of both groceries and general goods, but even they do not have everything your average Wal-Mart will have. Prices in Germany are generally much cheaper than in France because they have less taxes. Add that to Wal-Marts general low price and you have quite a bargain. Since we were already headed to Baden Baden riding along for convenience and low prices was an easy choice for the ladies.
We planned to meet at the girls at 9:30 Tuesday morning for our ride out to the airport. Daniel and company arrived about half an hour late, but no matter because we still arrived at the airport over an hour early. Ryan Air has a habit of flying out of smaller airports, often taking space in old Air Force bases. Baden Bade was no exception and we got our boarding passes quickly. The flight was quick (about an hour and a half) and smooth going. We flew over some beautiful, snow covered mountains, and then landed in Rome.
The Ryan Air Roman airport is located next to a military base. We were greeted off the plane by camouflaged men with machine guns! Inside the airport proper were roaming guards equipped with uzis. As with most airports it was located outside the city. We went outside where there was a bus waiting and purchased our tickets to the train station. Quite a few other people were doing this as well. Amy and I were the last two people aboard, and it was PACKED. I pushed my way onto the steps of the bus and could go no further. Driving down the road I had to lean against the door of the bus. I prayed the door wouldn't suddenly open and send me flying into the streets. Standing on the steps of a crowded bus, leaning against the door is never the ideal travel circumstance, and in Rome it was a nightmare. There has seemingly never been a good city planner in the city in its 2,000+ years of existence. The roads wind, twist, and curve everywhich way. The bus driver apparently learned his job from a blind man. He drove fast, rarely hit the brakes, choosing rather to take wide curves nearly smashing the parked cars on the side of the road instead. My view was one of panic. The bus took us to the metro station which we took to the train station.
Our hostel was located just a block down from the train station. This is in the middle of the city. My first impression of Rome was that it is dirty. There in downtown Rome, the building are high and allow little sunlight to penetrate the streets. All sorts of people were milling about and the sidewalks were full of merchants selling magazines,sunglasses, purses, pants and just about anything else you can imagine. I got the impression that most of it was bootlegging, but I didn't stick around to ask. Using our printed directions we walked the two blocks to our hostel. It was essentially a flat in a big apartment building. There was no sign outside suggesting there was a hostel inside. Luckily there was a number on the building and someone coming out of it as we approached. Two men left the building and I caught the door to let us in. As I did so one of the men in English said, "Can I help you?" I stood there a moment wondering if he was talking to me, but he continued to walk on so I figured it was part of the conversation with the other man. An odd thing to hear in downtown Rome, when in fact, I needed help. Inside we wandered about looking for some sign that would indicate a hostel. After searching the mailboxes for a sign we noticed a door with a small plaque labeled "Eden." This was the name of the hostel so we knocked. A pleasant young man answered the door and agreed this was the hostel.
He spoke rather good English and began welcoming us with way too much enthusiasm. He brought out maps and began to describe the places we would want to see and the correct paths to see them. He brought out keys and explained where our room was and how everything worked. I kept wishing he would shut up and let us go sit down a moment and rest. Eventually he got to money and I whipped out my credit card. "No" he said, "that won't work. The credit card machine is broken." When I asked when it would be working again he shrugged and mentioned that he had called about it, but that in Italy nothing gets fixed quickly. Having no choice I took out cash and paid the man. This was quite discouraging because we had planned to put a good deal of the trip on our credit card and only pay for a few things in cash. The hostel took nearly 1/3 of the money I had set aside to spend in Rome.
As I said the hostel was a converted apartment. The main room had a couple of tables, chairs and a radio. There was a real kitchen with stove, fridge and cabinets. The two bedrooms were fitted with four bunk beds a piece, giving a total of 16 places to sleep. There was a narrow hallway that led to the one toilet. In the hall were two cubicle sized showers. The room we slept in (Amy on the bottom bunk, me on the top) was never completely full. There was always at least two males and two women in the room, with a couple of beds remaining empty. The other room remained mostly full with a group of college aged girls. No privacy was the norm. Showering was quite an experience. Since there was no lock on the hall door to the showers I generally hung my change of clothes over the shower door. Squeezing into the small shower I would undress shower, and then dress while trying to not lean against the wet walls.
I Go Out Walking
After getting settled in our room we decided to go for a walk. We stopped off at a little cafe and had some supper. We, of course, ordered Italian (pizza for me, calizone for Amy). We quickly realized that recognizing the proper sights was going to be a difficult task. Many of the modern buildings are designed to look like the ancient Roman forum. There were columns and marble steps everywhere. However, we managed to see the beautiful ministry of agriculture building and the Trevi fountain.
The Trevi fountain was built in 1735 as a monument to clean water being brought to Rome via the aqueduct. Legend has it that anyone who drinks the water or throw a coin into the fountain will assuredly return to Rome in the future. It was quite beautiful to behold just as the night began to take hold. Unfortunately there were numerous gypsies hounding all the tourists to purchase toys or pay to have their picture taken. One man came to Amy with a rose saying it was hers for free because of her beauty. Now I believe my wife is truly beautiful, but strange men don't offer her roses for no reason. She refused the flower numerous times but he kept shoving it into her hands and expressly claiming he wanted no money for it. Eventually she cracked and took the rose. No sooner was it out of her hands but the man whipped out a camera asking to take her picture for a small fee. Again she repeated no, and I stepped in with a much louder NO! and the man finally accepted the rose back and left us alone. We were there maybe 15 minutes and were approached at least four times by people this way.We returned back to the hostel around 8:30. We found a young lady completely wrapped up in covers and sound asleep. We went to the main room and began playing cards. Soon several other ladies came in saying "hello" to us and then speaking to each other in Italian or Spanish. All of this was very disorienting. We were at the end of a long and exhausting day to find ourselves not in the comfort of our own home, but surrounded by strangers in a peculiar little home. As we prepared for bed two other Italian girls came into the room and spoke to each other quite loudly despite the sleeping girl. As the ladies left, another young man climbed into a top bunk and began preparing for sleep. There was an odd moment of me wondering whether I could turn the light off. After the young man was laying under the covers I decided if I was to sleep at all it was to be lights out. I chose the top bunk and dreamed of falling off.
The Roman Forum and Colosseum
We awoke early the next morning prepared for a full day of sightseeing. I found that someone had occupied shower number 1. The second shower was open but I couldn't seem to make myself enter into it. You see I knew that the occupants of my room were not up yet, and that left only 1 of the girls in the other room to occupy the shower. Though the hostel left little privacy, the actual showers would not permit any indecencies themselves. But still, I felt too awkward to be showing next to some strange woman. I chose instead to sit in the main room. There I was in my pajamas with my towel and a fresh change of clothes. I caught several odd looks from the other residences.Showered and refreshed we headed out for the Colosseum. We quickly found ourselves lost, and not for the last time. Italian streets tend to wind and curve aimlessly. We had a map, but it was for tourists and didn't have the details of every road. Luckily there is plenty to see in Rome and we quickly found ourselves staring at the first of many Egyptian obelisks. Unknown to me Rome carries a good many obelisks. We stared in awe of the ancient wonder, turned a corner and found ourselves in front of St John's church.
Dating from the 17th century St. John in the Lateran is the Cathedral of Rome, mother of all churches in Rome. It is also, quite beautiful. The structure is quite enormous, I had to stand a good 200 yard away to get a good picture.
Inside the church is ornate, intricate and absolutely gorgeous. It is continually amazing to me to see such beauty inside a church. My own faith maintains very simple church buildings. Though I understand the purpose and intent of keeping the buildings simple and the heart beautiful, when I enter into these buildings I can see some truth in the ability of a building to bring you closer to God.
From there we found our bearings and made our way to the Colosseum. Like most people, I suppose, when I think of Rome I think of the Colosseum, and had been looking forward to viewing it since we began planning the trip. I was not disappointed. The Colosseum is located next to several preserved areas of the ancient Roman city. It was quite a feeling to realize that I was walking in pathways that men have walked for over 2,000 years. Some of the first Christians walked those very steps, stayed in those very ruins, and were killed on that very ground. The apostles Paul and Peter walked, talked, and preached where I was walking and talking. You seem to only see the Colosseum photographed from one side, but it is just as unique and interesting the whole way around.
We stopped to eat at a little stand next to the Colosseum. My advice to my readers is that if you ever go to Rome, eat before you visit this structure. One small cheese sandwich, one pastrami sandwich and two Cokes cost us 17 Euros! And for this we had to stand in line for 15 minutes! After walking around the structure a couple of times we debated about whether to actually go inside. Our desire was to go in and see where the fighting occurred, however there was a long line to get in and we knew there was much more to see that day.
After talking it over and deciding not to go in we noticed that the line had actually shrunk a great deal during our debate. We paid our money and ventured inside. Again, you usually only see the inside of the Colosseum photographed from one angle. I had only seen the floor taken from above. That shot doesn't really give a good perspective, because what you see in real life is much more interesting. Underneath what was once the floor are about three levels of pathways. It is amazing how deep the trenches go. But then there is much more to see in terms of the walls and what is left of the stadium seating. To stand where thousands of others stood and watched countless bloodbaths was quite an experience. My tour book states that contrary to popular belief the Colosseum was not a place of martyrdom for thousands of the early Christians. Apparently this rumor started from a permanent cross set up there by Benedict XIV. He did this so the structure would be considered holy and not destroyed any further. However, there is little evidence that Christians were killed in as great a number as popularly believed. My other tour book stated that there probably were Christians killed in the arena, but not in great numbers.
From the Colosseum we ventured to the Roman Forum and then up to Palantino. The Roman forum consists of the ruins of various temples and governmental buildings. Palantino is, according to legend, the site of the first Roman settlements. It also later held the homes of the nobles and emperors. What remains now is ruins of their palaces. It was very interesting to see these ruins.
A few buildings remained pretty much intact, but many were but traces of their former grandeur. While I was there I couldn't compare this section of Rome with our trip to Paris. In Paris all of the old building are in pretty good shape and, of course, date back to the Renaissance and not before Christ, and thus are very beautiful. Rome, through all its history, is not nearly as pretty. The Louvre will never compare to the Colosseum in terms of history, but it wins hands down in terms of beauty and grandeur. Never-the-less the forum and Palantino were quite spectacular in their own way. In the middle of the forum, with little fan fare, lies Julius Ceasar's grave. Apparently he was burned and buried in a little spot that only later received any type of monument. Now there is a bit of rock ruins build over a lump of dirt. Not too impressive for a renowned emperor. Though, I suppose, one could say the entirety of the ruins is a testament to him. Palantino is built on top of a hill and gives a wonderful view of the forum and most of Rome.
From there we headed to the Panthenon. It is pretty much like the pictures you see in guidebooks. It has the big Greek columns and looks about a million years old. Inside, they were working on the dome, cleaning it inch by inch. There are a few graves inside, my favorite being of the famed painter, Raphael. Outside was another Egyptian obelisk. We grabbed a quick sandwich from a couple of nice old Italians and followed a British tour group on to the Piazza Novona. After a brief rest we headed home for the day.
On numerous occasions I have complained about the traffic in Strasbourg. Well, I have been to Rome and I take it all back. The roads must have bee laid out by a drunken, blind man. Rome has been sacked, burned and remade on several occasions. The typical way to rebuild the city seems to have been to build right on top of the old city. I don't think they ever had a good city planner working for them. What remains is a series of roads that are overpopulated, not well spaced, and wind all over creation. In America when two roads intersect they normally do so at right angles. At the intersection one places a stop sign or a traffic light and everything runs smoothly. In Strasbourg intersections usually become round-abouts. Each road intersects a circular road in which the driver pulls into, drives around the circle until he meets with the road needed. In Rome, roads just seem to run into each other allowing God and insane drivers to sort it out. I saw 5 or 6 major roads run into each other, twist and turn into and around each other. Creating some sort of massive highway for a brief moment before each road finds its own way, sometimes at very odd angles. The problems for a pedestrian tourist is that there are very few crosswalks with any kind of signal allowing you to safely cross a road. In Strasbourg this is also true, but usually you only have to wait about a minute before a nice driver will stop allowing you to cross. In Rome no such drivers exist. We found out to get across the street you had to just walk out in front of a car and pray it stopped, which they always did. I decided the reason the city is so religious is because everyone is praying not to get ran over.
On our last day we rose very early to reach the Vatican before the other tourist. Our illustrious hostel keeper had noted that if you make it later than 9 am you should plan on spending the day in line. We arrived about 8:30 to a steadily growing crowd. Not knowing which way to go in we wound up in line to climb up the steps to the dome of St Peter's church. The initial steps slowly sloped in circles around the elevator. By the time we reached the top of the first level we were out of breath and knew it was going to be a long climb to the dome. We rested and managed a nice view of the famous plaza. Some more steeper, circular steps took us about midway up the dome. Here we could climb inside and look down into the church. Unfortunately there was a large fence designed to keeper jumpers from leaping to their death. It also kept me from getting a good picture. From there the steps became much steeper. The stairwell was very small, allowing you to climb one at a time and that only if you were relatively thin. Eventually they began to lean to the side as well and became so steep they hung a rope down so that you could keep your balance. We finally escaped to the outside and the top of the dome. After joining the small crowd of out of breath travelers we were rewarded with a truly spectacular view. You can walk around the entire dome getting a panoramic view of Rome and the Vatican city. Unfortunately it was a little cloudy that day and my photographs didn't come out as well as I would have liked.A trip back down the stairs led us into the church itself. Like St John's it is absolutely gorgeous. But unlike the National Cathedral, it is much larger on the inside. There are several side areas. Many of the Popes commissioned a statue to remember them after their death. These became more and more spectacular. I managed to slip into an English tour group for about the last half of the tour, while Amy listened to her own audio guide.
My favorite part of the church was underground. There they have a burial room where many of the Pope's (plus several bishops, a king, two queens, and an emperor)have their final resting place. In this area is where the Apostle Peter's bones are supposed to lie as well.
After lunch we headed out of the city to the catacombs. Just outside the old city walls lie thousands of underground tombs. Many of the 3rd Century Christians are buried there. According to law the Christians and other groups could not be buried within the city limits and were thus buried in several catacombs. We visited the catacombs underneath St. Sylvester's church. It is essentially a series of underground tunnels where thousands of people were buried practically on top of each other. There still remain markings and drawing of the early Christians. We saw the Christian fish symbol etched in a stone as well as some drawings of Jonah and Noah's Ark.
From there we walked past the Colosseum again and visited the other side of Palantino where lies the Circus maximus. This was the sigh of the old chariot races as seen in the movie Ben Hur. We finished up our sight seeing with a stop off at the mouth of truth. Unfortunately, the church had closed by that time so I was unable to stick my hand inside the mouth to see if it would bite off my hand for being a liar.
The Long Road Home
Our flight was scheduled for 10:50 Friday morning. We left the hostel just after 8 am. We were assured Ryan Air had a shuttle bus from the train station to the airport. After searching all over the train station we finally gave up and decided to take the city transportation. With still over 2 hours to reach our destination we figured we were doing fine. We plotted our path and boarded the metro to the end of the line. From there we went top side and looked for a bus. After spending a few minutes trying to determine which bus would take us to the right place, we spotted numerous suitcase holding travelers and decided they were probably going our way. Actually there were quite a few suitcase holding travelers and I found myself once again smashed against the door of a crowded bus. This time there were even more travelers trying to get on. Two British tourist began screaming at a couple of Italian ladies trying to squeeze in. This went back and forth until finally the bus driver said he had to go and made the Italians get out. The bus made a couple of stops and each time there was another argument with passengers trying to board. Finally after more than an hour and a half the bus reached the airport. We rushed inside only to see that our flight had been taken off the board. Being 35 minutes before our departure we were sure that we would be allowed to board. We were wrong. The Ryan Air lady said they had a policy to stop boarding 40 minutes before departure time. Saddened and irritated we were given the option of flying to Baden Baden the next day or Frankfurt at 9 that night. A call to Tammy confirmed that Daniel would not be able to pick us up in Frankfurt and that Baden Baden might be difficult for him. She assured us that there was a bus that ran from Frankfurt to Strasbourg and that we could catch it. We bought our ticket to Frankfurt and decided to spend our time in the airport. It would be a nearly 3 hour trip to and from Rome again and we worried we might miss another flight. Nearly 9 hours we spend sitting in that small, military airport. We read, we ate, we sighed, but we did not sleep. Finally the time came and we boarded the plane to Frankfurt. We reached the airport only to find out it was well outside Frankfurt proper. But they kindly offered to sell us tickets to a shuttle bus. A hour and a half bus ride later and we were in Frankfurt. At 3 am armed guards at the train station informed us that we were not allowed into the station without a ticket. We would not be able to buy a ticket until 6 am. It was cold, it was raining and we were in the seedy part of town. We began walking down the street to get away from the screaming drunks out at that hour. After passing a couple of bars and motel lobbies we finally stopped at an all night kebob shop, right next to all the sex shops. We nursed our one kebob and two glasses of water for 2 1/2 hours. All the while trying to ignore the loud mouthed drunks, bums and drinking games going on around us. Finally at around 5:30 we had had enough and walked back to the station. To our surprise the guards had left and we found ourselves inside. To get to Strasbourg it would take us 2 trains and about 3 hours. I couldn't pay fast enough. After an hour wait to change trains in some other city we were on the train to home. Finally at around 11 AM and 28 odd hours we had made it home.