Wednesday, January 05, 2000

TR Vatican City

Italy and Vatican City

Well, contrary to all published concerns we did not notice or experience any Y2K problems in Italy!
Millennium celebrations are well under way in Italy, particularly in Rome where most of the scaffolding has come down from all the ancient ruins. If the mass of people and tourists in Rome over New Years are any indication of things to come during the year, I pity those that are to follow!
But there were not as many as expected because they had jacked the prices up to ridiculous heights. The marathon organizers had expected 30,000 runners –there were only 5,000! Maybe if they hadn’t charged $500/night for a hotel they would have attracted more runners!
I had to arrange our own air and hotel to circumvent the high prices that they were charging. I think that it hurt them but they came to their senses at the end because we checked a 4-star hotel in Central Rome while walking around and the prices had dropped to $225 and rooms were available for New Years!
The weather was pleasant, sunny, but cool during the whole week. Nicole, Chris and I arrived on Wed afternoon. We discovered that our hotel, the Sheraton Roma, was located about 5K from central or downtown Rome, which caused some inconvenience. But they had a free shuttle to the Piazza Venezia and there was a metro station only a quarter-mile away. But it is definitely much easier if you are located in central Rome.
We spent the rest of that day exploring Rome on our own. From the Piazza Venezia which is in the center of Rome you can walk to almost all the other main tourist sites except the Vatican and the Catacombs. There are two metro lines but they only get you to the edges of the old city and the Vatican and you must walk to most of the sites anyway.
The next day we took one of the Get-on, get-off bus tours to learn the layout of the city and where all the major attractions were. Rome reminds me of Athens in that no matter where you walk you seem to run into an old ruin or column sticking up out of a vacant lot. We saw old ruins that we could not even identify with the Guidebook!

There is too much to see and do in Rome in a 4-day visit. You need at least a week to visit the city. But we tried very hard and toured for 10 to 12 hours each day! We walked by all the sites but only spent time in the Coliseum and the Vatican. Since 2000 is designated a Jubilee Year by the Vatican there are many special programs going on and many ‘pilgrims’ visiting Rome. The Pope had opened the Holy Door at St Peter’s Basilica on Christmas Day and it will remain open through 2000. Apparently it is only opened on special occasions. The last time was about 25 years ago! We got to pass through the door during our visit to the church. We also visited the Vatican Museum that includes the Sistine Chapel. They had just finished 20 years of restoration work on the paintings in the chapel so it was very impressive! But we only spent a few hours in the museum whereas you really need at least a day. Chris and I were impressed with the Coliseum. It still puts a lot of modern-day coliseums to shame! I could describe all the other tourist sites, the Trevi Fountain, the Roman Forum, etc but it wouldn’t do them justice. Rome is truly a city that you must visit personally to enjoy the many sites and culture!

It is a bustling city and the traffic is crazy. Like the rest of Italy there are no traffic rules and everyone drives or crosses streets based on the ‘chicken principle’ –the bravest one wins! It took a few days before we were ‘brave enough’ to step out in front of cars going at 30 mph. Some you have to dodge, others stop! It is almost impossible to get a taxi and if you aren’t going in a direction they are going they won’t take you! Prices were equivalent to those of a big city in the US –expensive but not as bad as most cities in Western Europe.

New Year’s eve turned out to be a bust for us unfortunately. The main problem we had was lack of information and thus where to go and what to do. There was zero/zilch information in English on what activities were happening on New Year’s eve. I tried asking at the tourist information booths. Nicole asked the guides at the Vatican (they only spoke Italian and French). Even the clerks in the hotel were not much help! But we did determine that there was a concert in St Peter’s Square as well as concerts or festivals in almost every major piazza or square in Rome. But we couldn’t get solid information on how to prepare for these events –do you go early, do you eat there, can you buy booze there or do you take your own? As a result we winged it and took nothing! And that was the wrong decision.

I also decided that since there were going to be millions of people/drunks/thieves in central Rome that we should take as little as possible with us because there was a strong probability that we could lose it! Boy was that a right decision! So I put all our valuables, passports and extra money in the safe deposit in the hotel and took only enough cash to get us through the night plus one credit card for back up. That decision saved the day and trip for us but I made one small error! Instead of carrying the day’s cash in my trusty money belt I felt it would be wiser to carry it in my jeans pocket so it would not be so obvious every time I needed to access the money. Wrong decision! That money never even made it to St Peter’s Square which was our initial destination! It was picked/stolen before we got off the metro! I wasn’t even upset because I just had a feeling that such a thing might happen but I was really surprised at how easy it was and how helpless I was to stop it during the act! When we arrived at the main metro station to change lines there were thousands of people trying to get on and off the trains. Everyone was shoving, pushing, etc and your main priority became survival. If you fell or got pushed down you were dead! So you had to push back etc while hands and bodies were pushing you all over. Several times I felt hands pushing and probing and was able to keep one hand near my pocket/money. But when the final push came to squeeze people on to the train all hell broke loose and we literally had to fight and push back to prevent from being knocked down or trampled. That is when it happened! After we were on the train and the doors closed I realized the night’s cash was gone! Fortunately the credit card was hidden in a jacket pocket and survived. But barely. I felt a hand inside my jacket! Yep, the guy squeezed between Chris and I was trying -damn not trying, he had his hand inside my jacket! I couldn’t even get my arm up to hit him so I shouted at him to get his GDAMN hand out of my coat. Chris later said that the same guy tried twice to lift his jacket to get access to his jeans pockets! When the doors opened at the next stop he was gone like a flash!
Hopefully my story will give you some insight into how easy it is to rob you and how helpless you can be. But I could have prevented the robbery if I had just used my money belt. But I believe that even that has to be concealed because it would have been vulnerable had it been exposed!

But that was only a temporary setback because the credit card replaced the money at the nearest ATM and only $10 went into the jeans pockets this time! Upon arriving at the Vatican we quickly determined that almost all the restaurants were closed and the few that were open would not let us past the front door without a reservation. So much for dinner! Even more surprising was that only a few bars were open. Everyone in Rome including those who worked at the bars were partying! So much for buying a drink! We walked around St Peter’s Square for awhile trying to figure out what the agenda was for the evening. It was 8:30pm, cold and the band was not even on the stage yet. It would be a long, dry and cold wait!
We decided to take the metro back into central Rome to check out some of the other Piazzas. When we arrived back at the metro station we discovered that they were closing the metro down completely at 9pm. All the notices stated that the metro would close at 01:00am but they decided to close it early! So we caught the last train back to central Rome which meant we had to taxi home. But that also meant that 2 to 3 million other people would be fighting for the same taxi!
We did find a few of the other Piazzas with hundreds of thousands of partygoers in each and several hundred thousand flowing out into the side streets. The police had essentially cordoned off Central Rome to traffic and there were over two million people partying in the streets.
We decided: a) we weren’t in the mood for partying-especially with no booze; b) we didn’t want to stand in the cold for another two hours watching everyone else get drunk; c) we didn’t want to have to wait until 3 or 4am to get a taxi after the party broke up. So we made our way out of the downtown core and caught a cab back to the hotel where we watched the concert and show at St Peter’s Square on TV and the fireworks from the comfort, warmth and safety of our room. We must be getting old!
And I mustn’t forget –we enjoyed our New Year’s Eve dinner –Mars bars and coke!

The upside of that evening was that I didn’t have the expected hangover for the marathon the next day. I left Nicole and Chris sleeping off their Coke hangover and made my way to the Vatican. The marathon started in St Peter’s Square. Like everything else the Italians do, the race organization was chaotic and screwed up! About the only thing that happened as planned was the blessing by the Pope at noon and he even gave a special blessing to the runners. Then it was off! The weather was sunny and cool –great running weather. The course was fairly flat and passed by all the main tourist attractions to finish next to the Coliseum. It should have been a good day. Unfortunately I had torn a muscle in my right hamstring two days before Christmas and in spite of massages and a week’s rest to let it heal it had not! I started slow and at 3 miles had to slow down. By 5 miles I was visiting my first medical station to get the hamstring wrapped. And it only got worse from there. Had the race not started in Vatican City I would have dropped out for the first time in my life. But the rules of the 50+DC Club state that if the race starts and finishes in different countries we can pick either (but not both) to count as the country of the race. Thus even though I only ran 200 yards in Vatican City, I intended to count the country as Vatican City since it is considered a country. And since there may never be another opportunity to do so –I had to finish this marathon! So I jogged, walked, stretched and visited medical stations for 26 miles –but I finished (4:17)! My primary goal was to finish without causing further damage to the hamstring. Time was not important. I hope I was successful in my goal but I have not tried to run in the 4 days since the race. I am now starting to get concerned because I have two more marathons in January. I go for another massage today and then I will try to run tomorrow. Keep your fingers crossed!

Now it was time to move on. Although we would have liked to spend more time in Rome we were looking forward to getting out of the city and the crowds. On Sunday morning we picked up our rental car and headed for Sorrento. We stopped in Pompeii so that I could give Chris a quick tour of the ruins. It was much easier walking around in Jan than last Aug when the temp was 100+ degrees.
Finally we arrived at our hotel in Sorrento. The Bel Air is a 4-star hotel built into the cliffs overlooking the Bay of Naples with fantastic views of Sorrento and Naples and a 200 foot drop from the patio into the Tyrrhenian Sea. (Do I ever spoil my family –I am not used to this luxury on my travels!)
Surprisingly there were lots of tourists in Sorrento and Capri but most were Americans on excursions from Rome. The next day we took a hydrofoil over to Capri, a funicular from the marina to the village of Capri, a bus up a very windy and steep road to the village of Anacapri and then Chris and I took a chair lift up to the top of Mount Solaro for some fantastic views of the island and Sorrento across the bay! Capri is a very scenic island but you had better be in shape because all the roads on the island only go up or down!

Finally it was time to head home so we drove the scenic route along the coast through Amalfi to Solerno to pick up the motorway back to Rome. What a beautiful but scary drive! It is basically a single lane road with multiple hairpin curves which become really challenging when you meet a tourist bus! Then you hit the motorway where you damn well better get out of the way if you are only driving 100mph!

But all in all a great trip with lots of history, lots of scenery and interesting things and even some exciting stories to tell our grandkids –someday?

Take care and stay tuned. Hopefully the next trip and marathon is only a week away?

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