Italian Lessons, Part One
Part One: Traveling in Rome
Thanks to a group of incredibly generous people, my family (my wife, our two teenage daughters, and I) were able to spend a week in Rome from Christmas through New Year’s Day, 2014. This was my first overseas trip in 16 years, and I must admit that I was nervous about it. Part of my anxiety came from simply not knowing anything. I had never been to Italy, I speak no Italian, and I felt overwhelmed by the possibilities. Another fear came from a specific situation in our family. My wife has developed bad knees over the past couple of years, so she is not usually able to walk long distances. But, she’s a champ and wasn’t going to let that stop us from a trip of a lifetime.
In an effort to let friends know about our trip, and to help some of you who may be interested in visiting Rome, I’ve decided to write a few blog posts. This first one will be some tips about getting around in the Eternal City.
I leaned on three sources in getting ready for Rome. First, I read Rick Steve’s travel guide to Rome. It was awesome, if not 100% accurate. I also downloaded his audio guide and listened to his podcasts on Rome. Second, we watched YouTube videos. These were my favorites. Third, I spent $5.00 on an app called ROME from mtrip. The map feature on this app was the most useful thing I could imagine. I highly, highly recommend it.
To and From the Airport
The main Roman airport is pretty much like every other airport. Getting from the airport to Rome is another matter. At no point on our trip did we take public transportation. If you want to know about busses and trains, I suggest you check out Rick Steves. If you have three or more people in your group, taking a cab seems to be the cheaper option anyway.
Rome has two kinds of taxis: legal ones and illegal ones. The illegal ones will take you for a ride, in every sense of the word. Use the legal ones. They are white. Make sure the meter is on, except when going back and forth to the airport. At the airport, go to the taxi stand, and take the taxi in the front of the line. It will cost you €48 to go from the airport to anyplace inside the walls of Rome (which is where you should be staying). You should give the driver €1 for every big piece of luggage, and maybe €2 more as a tip.
Coming back to the airport is exactly the same. If possible, don’t let your hotel call you a taxi. Ever. They will call you an illegal one. If they call you a legal one, the meter starts when they get the call, not when they pick you up. Just go to the nearest taxi stand.
There are ATMS all over the place. You can draw money out of your bank with your ATM card. There is always a transaction fee for this, so I would draw out as much cash as I felt comfortable walking around with in my money belt. I used cash all the time, unless the bill was high enough (at a restaurant or shopping), in which case I used my Visa debit card. We let our bank know a few days before we left that we’d be in Rome. We had no problems with our card.
People are People
One thing I definitely re-learned: people are people. We encountered very nice people, kind and compassionate people, competent people. We also encountered thieves, unscrupulous liars, and incompetent jerks. Like any other big city, remember to keep your guard up (especially on the street).
Taxis in Rome are weird. I never had any luck getting a taxi anywhere except a taxi stand. You’ll see them in major squares, and near major sights. A sign with the word TAXI in black on an orange rectangle. The drivers get bent out of shape unless you go to the taxi in the front of the line.
Make sure the meter is on (it almost always is). When you get to your destination, pay the meter but round up for the tip. So, if the fare is €6.60 or €6.20, give him €7.00. If it is €7.00, I gave him €8.00. I always used cash, and every taxi driver knew enough English to give me back the change I requested.
Taxi drivers drive like crazy people in Rome. OK, everyone drives crazy. Pedestrians walk in the street like they are drunk. People park their cars anywhere and everywhere.
Here is one trick I learned quickly, after being driven around in circles by our first cab driver. The app I got, ROME by mtrip, has a GPS map function. Even with no wifi and no cell service, it worked great. When we got in a taxi, I would sit in the front seat. I would turn on the GPS and plug in our destination. I would show the cabbie I was tracking the route. When I did this, we never got driven around in circles. Did I offend a couple of cab drivers? Yes, I did. But, so what?
Our worst experience with a tax happened on New Years’ Eve. We were leaving a Vespers service at the Vatican, and there were far more people needing rides than there were taxis. This led to taxi drivers in legal cabs turning off the meters and demanding high fees (two and three times the normal price) to take folks to their hotels. I ended up paying a guy double for a ride. It irked me, but there really was no other option if we were going to get back.
Rome is a walking city. If you don’t mind walking, and you have the time, you might never need any other form of transportation. Watch out for the drivers, of course, but this is a city designed for foot traffic. Almost everything you want to see is inside the ancient walls, which is a fairly small area by modern city standards. It’s a beautiful city, and not a bad place to get a lot of exercise.
If Walking is a Problem
As I mentioned earlier, my wife has trouble walking for a long time. Because of this, we used taxis more than we would have otherwise. That usually worked out for us. If you are in a wheelchair, or in a position in which you simply can not climb steps or walk for distances in the 100 yard range, you are going to have some real problems in Rome. This place is just not handicapped accessible at all. Even places that should be, like museums, are really, really not. That said, don't be afraid to bring a cane, walker, or wheelchair if you need the help. The city is worth seeing, and worth the effort. But if you can't get out of a chair, I'm sorry to say, I wouldn't go.
Under no circumstances should you stay in a hotel outside of the city walls. You definitely want to be in the heart of things. We stayed a a hotel that was in the walls, but kind of far from the major attractions. That didn’t matter much, but I would have liked to have been closer in. Nonetheless, even our hotel was within easy walking distance (15 minutes) of some spectacular sites.
Oh my goodness, the food in Rome is amazing. Even the tourist trap pizzerias across the street from the Vatican were good. The best places were near our hotel on Via Flavia, restaurants where they speak almost no English. Rick Steves suggests you be prepared to spend €15 per person on lunch and €30 per person on dinner. I agree with him. And, at that price, you will eat better than you’ve ever eaten in your life. Every real restaurant has a delicious house wine that is cheaper than Coke. Everywhere you go you can eat dishes that will spoil you against Americanized “Italian” food for the rest of your life.
Street Vendors, Pickpockets, and Scammers
Rome is filled with street vendors. For some reason, “selfie-sticks” were incredibly popular with these people. Here is what we figured out pretty quickly. Most of these folks are selling souvenirs at higher prices than any museum gift shop. Sometimes these vendors are trying to distract you so you can be pick-pocketed. My advice, ignore them. Those who get in your face, just say a firm “no” and walk away.
Everyone warned us against pickpockets. That’s why I bought a wallet thing that goes down the front of my pants and ties around my neck. I kept cash, debit card, and passport in there at all times. I also wore a backpack with one compartment locked. I kept our portable phone recharger battery, along with a few other semi-important items in there. Did anyone try to pickpocket us? No, but we didn’t let anyone near enough for that to happen. As someone said to me--in Rome, don’t be afraid to be a jerk.
There are a lot of fast-talking, desperate-seeming people in Rome. My advice is not to speak to anyone who approaches you. Don’t sign up for a tour, don’t get on a “hop-on-hop-off bus,” don’t “sign against drugs,” don’t give directions. Just keep going.
That’s enough for now. In my next post, I’ll talk about some of the sites we saw, and give you some tips on avoiding the outrageous lines.