5,022 miles: ancient Rome (part IV)


When one thinks of Rome, one surely thinks of this big guy and all he stands for. During the 5th grade Olympics at his school, Jack had immersed himself in all things ancient Rome, so he was looking forward to seeing the Colosseum in real life. I’d found out from a friend about an amazing tour of the Third ring and the Underground at the Colosseum, so it was one of the first tours I actually booked.

But before the Colosseum there was…you guessed it…another Holy Door.


the Basilica of St. John in Lateran


The flower garland draped over the door was the only decoration we saw on any of the Holy Doors. 

The Basilica of St. John in Lateran has a ton of history to it:  it’s the actual cathedral church of Rome and its construction was ordered by Emperor Constantine, the man who helped turn Rome from paganism and towards Christianity.


the Holy Door from inside the Basilica


Across the street from the Basilica is the Scala Sancta, a set of 28 marble stairs brought to Rome by Emperor Constantine’s mother, Helena, sometime around the year 326. These stairs are the ones Jesus walked up to receive his judgment from Pontius Pilate; the faithful climb them on their knees, a particularly holy exercise, especially during Lent.


It was difficult; it was powerful, and it hurt; however, we are certain it hurt much less than crucifixion. We were surrounded by nuns and pilgrims, and it was completely silent except for the low murmuring of prayers.

We left the Scala Sancta a little stunned. We could see the Colosseum about a mile ahead of us, and we had a little over an hour until our tour of its Third Ring and the Underground, so we decided to walk there and stop for a quick lunch on the way.

But nothing in Rome is quick.

We found an adorable little sidewalk cafe, Trattoria Luzzi, around 11:45 and popped right in, sat down and ordered. The host came and sat next to us, chatting with the boys and making them laugh. I pulled out our Colosseum tickets and explained that we needed to be there by 12:30. Our charming host told us not to worry.

So we didn’t. And he didn’t either.


Our food–which was quite good, by the way–didn’t arrive until 12:15, and we woofed it down in a typically rude American fashion then set off on a mad dash down the hill to the Colosseum.

We arrived 5 minutes late and were told our tour had already left without us. To add insult to the injury, we were also told we needed to purchase entirely new tickets to gain access to the Colosseum at all. I’m still confused by this as our Third Ring tickets were not cheap and definitely included getting in the door. We managed to convince the ticket lady to let us in on a much shorter tour of the areas open to the general public led by a guide, which was to start at 12:45.

The guide didn’t even show up until 1, which only led me to believe there was no way being 5 minutes late was the death knell to the original tour. Grr. Frustration. Did I mention it was pouring rain at this point, too?

IMG_2880IMG_2879IMG_2884IMG_2886Roman weather in March is insane…thunderstorms one second, bright blue skies the next…

The 45-minute tour was, to be honest, nothing much to write home about–most likely because we were all disappointed to be missing out on the Third Ring/Underground tour and growing a little weary of the schizophrenic weather.


Our next stop was Gladiator School. Thankfully, a friend had warned me that this is way, way out in the middle of nowhere. She certainly wasn’t kidding. It took awhile to even find a taxi who would drive us. Then he dumped us off at what looked like an exit ramp to an interstate and grunted at us to head that way.

Thankfully, Russ had Google Maps fired up on his phone, and we headed down the highway and then turned right onto a dirt road. The whole walk there was surreal; I was honestly worried that we had the wrong address and was also concerned with how on earth we were going to get back to town. We saw only one car (pictured below) on our 15 minute walk.


this can’t be safe (all I kept thinking was that my Dad would be freaking out if he knew what we were doing right this moment…)


finally! a sign!


I was seriously wondering what I’d gotten us into at this point, but Gladiator School was an absolute slam dunk.


The owner, Paolo, meant business. This was a combo of American Ninja Warrior and Ultimate Fighting lessons. Each boy cried at least once while Russ and I sat on some wooden bleachers and took in the spectacle (stellar parenting, no?). But somehow they all graduated from Gladiator School and were given certificates (and a bonus lesson on the importance of a firm handshake). Paolo was a hero and even called us a taxi.

Between the Colosseum tour debacle and the 2.5 hour Gladiator School experience, we were worn out, so we took a break at the apartment before heading out to dinner.



Da Pancrazio was amazing. Built over the site where Julius Caesar was assassinated, the place just oozes history. (Don’t let its emptiness fool you; we were still dining on American time–around 7–instead of the typically Roman time for dinner, which is much, much later and unmanageable with small kiddos.) Afterwards, we walked over to the Campo di Fiori, an open air marketplace that is decidedly more happening in the daylight hours and when it’s not raining.


While Gladiator School was a highlight, we were surprised at how overrated we found the Colosseum–something that surely was driven by our frustration at missing our original tour and subsequently enduring a much more common, less detailed visit with a guide who spoke very broken English. We were still in love with Rome, but we were not happy that we’d spent a good chunk of our day wrapped up with the Colosseum. Maybe all of that was God’s way of fussing at us for following the most Holy experience of the Scala Sancta with a visit to a place that was once totally devoted to grisly battles and the unnecessary butchering of animals (our guide proudly told us that over “5,000 beasts” were slaughtered during the Colosseum’s inaugural celebration–a spectacle which lasted 100 days). Ugh.

We were now halfway through our Italian adventure, and the best parts were coming up.



5,022 miles: Italy, old and new (part III)

(warning: photo heavy essay follows!)


When you’re visiting a city that was built in the 8th century B.C., you’re going to see a lot of really old stuff. That’s why when you stumble across some type of modern structure, it really stands out. More on that in a bit.

Monday, we headed out to pass through our second Holy Door at The Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls which is–just as its name implies–outside the walls of Rome. What this translates to for travelers is, of course, “off the beaten path.” In fact, it’s so off the beaten path that it wasn’t even on any map of Rome I had. I knew its general direction, though, and had written it in with an arrow pointing south. The family was a little concerned to say the least.

Our taxi driver, however, knew exactly what I was talking about, and on our ride out to the Basilica, we passed several of the places I had on tap for us to visit that day–which helped to gauge the distance back.

The Basilica was unbelievable.


Not surprisingly, there were very few visitors other than us. We passed through the Holy Door and into the nave which had a breathtaking ceiling covered in gold.


the Holy Door of the Basilica di San Paolo Fiuri le Mura, opened for the Jubilee Year of Mercy, 2016


Everything inside this Basilica, built in the late 300’s over the tomb of St. Paul, was stunning.


While the majority of the original Basilica burned down in 1823, the apse mosaic survived. It was created in the year 1220.



After pulling Russ and Theo out of a group picture (we were not traveling with another group; I had to convince them that photo bombing probably wasn’t the best thing to do in a Holy place), we hailed another taxi for a destination that could hardly be more opposite than this beautiful Basilica:  the glass and steel monstrosity that is Eataly.


I’d read about Eataly on Elizabeth Minchilli’s wonderful blog, Elizabeth Minchilli in Rome (I also read her latest book, Eating Rome, prior to our trip. I highly recommend it if you are like me and read cookbooks as if they were novels.) We found Eataly to be fascinating. After riding up its 4 skywalk-type flat escalators to the very top level, we slowly made our way back down, trying to decide where to have lunch.


Eataly was a unique experience in the grand scheme of things, and we enjoyed it very much. If you’re a fan of farmer’s markets, upscale cooking stores, people watching, and gourmet food, be sure to visit.

Next stop, the  Pyramid of Caius Cestius, which was just a short walk away.


The pyramid is a tomb built for a very pompous Roman who died around 12 B.C. Its presence in Rome is almost as out of place as Eataly’s.

From here, we headed towards the Protestant Cemetery, which is actually just right across the street from the pyramid, but due to a display of rookie level cartography skills on my part, we took the scenic route. The very scenic route.

The English teacher in me wanted to see the graves of Keats and Shelley. Normally cemeteries creep me out, but this one was green and bright and lush and not eerie at all. Thank goodness.

Keats’ grave was easy to find (down the path towards the left), but Shelley’s took a little more time (his is straight up the hill from the gate towards the very back of the cemetery). My whole family humored me as I dragged them around.

What followed after our cemetery visit qualifies as the only bad moment for us on the trip. We stepped across the street from the Pyramid to hail a taxi to take us up the hill to Santa Maria del Priorito di Malta. None of the chain smoking throng of taxi drivers seemed eager to take us; finally, one fairly young hipster stubbed out his cigarette and said we could fit in his taxi if one of the boys rode in the very back.

He opened the door, and Theo climbed in and over the back seat to a tiny seat in the very rear of the car. The rest of us piled in, with me in the front seat. The driver proceeded to race like a maniac up the Aventine Hill, zigging and zagging and revving his engine. He stopped short of our destination and said to get out because he wouldn’t go any farther. We were confused, but figured when in Rome and all. Total fare, according to the meter, was 5 euros. We climbed out, and Russ handed him the fare, but the driver started yelling that it was 20 euros instead. We countered by pointing to the meter. He yelled some more in Italian. We handed him the 5 euro bill and started to walk away, and he went completely bananas, screaming that “the boy ruined the fresh seat.” Apparently, Theo was supposed to climb into the very back of the cab without stepping on the seat at all. (And for the record, the fresh seat was not even the least bit dirty afterwards.) We haggled him down to 7 euros and chalked it up to a driver with a serious OCD issue.


probably not supposed to pick oranges from the garden of a convent

We were here to look through the keyhole at the Priorata di Malta, which gives you a view across 3 countries–Malta, Italy, and the Vatican City–straight to the dome of St. Peter’s. (Interesting fact for you geography junkies: Malta has 2 sovereign locations outside the boundaries of the actual physical country that fall under its rule–sort of like satellite offices–and the Priorata di Malta is one of them.)


tough photo to get for many reasons…this one certainly doesn’t do the Keyhole of the Knights of Malta justice

Opting to avoid ruining more fresh seats, we walked down the Aventine Hill to the Circus Maximus on our way to Santa Maria in Cosmedin.


This home to ancient Roman chariot races is huge and was a great place for the boys to run around and be a little wild.



The Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin was built in the 800’s and contains the most famous manhole cover in the world:  the Bocca della Verita.


We refueled with some gelato (boys) and wine (grown ups) and began to make our way back to the apartment.


the Roman bird nest in full effect…

On the way, we climbed the gazillion steps up the back of the National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II and looked out over the Roman Forum, which was our only interaction with these 2 huge, important places. Again, we owe it another trip.

After a long day, we headed back to the apartment for a rest and then walked to Alla Rampa, a great little restaurant walking distance from our place and tucked behind and below Santa Trinita dei Monti. The outdoor seating was warm and cozy, and the cacio e pepe was out of this world.

All said, we walked 9.23 miles this day, checked off one solid quadrant of our map of Rome,  and earned ourselves some must deserved rest.


Tucker peeking out of our apartment window, top left





5,022 miles: Italy, Part II


Castel Sant Angelo

A quick little religion lesson:  Pope Francis has declared 2016 a Jubilee Year, the Holy Year of Mercy. While we are not Catholic, we are faithful Christians, and Rome is, of course, one of the Holiest cities on the planet, so all of this interested me greatly.


During a Jubilee Year, the Pope opens 4 Holy Doors throughout Rome. (These doors are actually sealed with brick-and-mortar when not opened.) The significance of passing through a Holy Door is best summed up here:

“To pass through the Holy Door means to ­rediscover the infinite mercy of the Father who welcomes everyone
and goes out personally to encounter each of them.” — Pope Francis

The opening of the door signifies God opening a new pathway to salvation, mercy and grace. Your walk through the Holy Door symbolizes your access to God to receive forgiveness and mercy. During this journey of spiritual conversion, pilgrims will seek to be filled with God’s love so they can experience His love and mercy in their daily lives. (http://www.nawas.com/catholic/holy-year-mercy-jubilee-pilgrimages.htm)

I’m all about gaining some blessings, so I plotted out a way for us to pass through all 4 of the doors while we were in Rome. It was like a full week of Sunday School for my family, but we did it, and there was minimal complaining.

First up, the Holy Door of St. Peter’s Basilica.

I’d read that you needed to register for this door; the instructions were partially in Italian, but I plowed through and had our little family registered as a group of 5 pilgrims. Once you complete the registration, you sit back and wait for the Vatican to approve your pilgrimage and to assign you a time to pass through the doors. We were given 9:30 a.m., which is all fine and dandy unless you are on U.S. time and have been in Rome less than 24 hours; in that case, it feels like it’s 3:30 a.m. Good times.

The pilgrimage begins at Castel Sant Angelo, which we didn’t manage to actually enter due to my dragging of my family to the Holy Door. I was paranoid that we would miss our appointed time. Passing through a tent where a man actually looked up our reservation and pulled out a folder with information with our name on it validated my sense of urgency. We were handed a pamphlet which detailed the steps we were about to take on this pilgrimage.


There were several suggested prayers, reflections, and readings, but honestly, it looked like the majority of folks were just plowing ahead as quickly as possible. We walked down the Via della Conciliazione, past the Church of Santa Maria in Traspontina, through the Colonnade, and then through the decidedly neither religious nor contemplative security area.


Passing through our first Holy Door was indeed pretty magnificent.

St. Peter’s Basilica is, obviously, pretty magnificent as well.


Michelangelo’s Pieta is directly on the right once you enter.

You do a whole lot of looking up when you’re inside St. Peter’s, both figuratively and literally.

Once again, we waited too long to eat and were very grumpy and not in the mood to walk the distance to Pizzarium or Pastasciutta. Instead, we left St. Peter’s and walked over to De’ Penitenzieri. A few plates of penne arrabbiata and spaghetti bolognese fueled us up for a second trip to St. Peter’s for the Pope’s Angelus and to climb the cupola.

When in Rome, the Pope typically holds 2 audiences a week:  a Wednesday Mass and the Sunday Angelus, or blessing.



Even though we do not understand Italian, this was still one of the most moving things we’ve participated in.

After the Angelus, we went through security again and made our way to the dome of St. Peter’s in order to climb the cupola. We bought tickets to take the elevator halfway up; I can’t recommend this enough, especially if you are working on little sleep. Once you exit the elevator, there are still roughly 231 steep stairs to climb, so you really won’t feel like you’ve been cheated.




The view at the top is breathtaking, and this is only slightly due to the fact that you’ve climbed straight up a tilting iron ladder to get to the tippy-top.





while I was looking at this view…


…these 2 turkeys were doing this.

The climb down was equally as harrowing.

After the dome, we visited the Vatican Grottos underneath the Basilica. There’s a ton of fascinating information in the Grottos. You exit the Grottos back into St. Peter’s Basilica again but on a different side. It was later in the afternoon, and the light was amazing.



After a quick gelato stop, we headed back to the apartment for a bit of a much needed rest.

We made a frantic trip to the Pantheon in the rain, and were there for exactly 4 minutes before it closed.


yep, hole in the roof


rainy exterior shot

Sorry, Pantheon. We totally owe you another visit.

Monday evening, we wandered around the nooks and crannies of Piazza Navona until we stumbled upon an amazing little semi-hidden trattoria (whose name I’ll post when I can track it down via credit card statement). Because it was early (for dinner for Italians), we were the only people in the place, but the servers did not seem to mind at all. When people did start trickling in, we were pleased to see that they were all locals. We’d inadvertently unearthed a gem of a restaurant.


We walked through the Piazza Navona to take a peek at the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, which our sons recognized more from the movie Angels and Demons than they did from the travel info I’d attempted to pump into them.


a completely pitiful photo but it was pouring down rain, so we didn’t linger

chestnuts roasting on an open fire…

(no one really likes chestnuts, by the way…)

Day 2 was pretty doggone amazing. I’ll close with the best photo of the day, taken from atop St. Peter’s Dome. It sums up our first Holy Door experience to a T.







5,022 miles away: Italy Spring Break, part I

Spring Break 2016 did not disappoint. We booked flights to Rome way back in early July, and then sat back until nearly mid-January before we started planning anything else. After a frenetic few weeks of devouring guide books, websites, blogs, and anything Roman I could find, we put together a plan for our week there that I dare say rivals any vacation we’ve ever taken.

First off, hotels in Rome are crazy expensive. We decided instead to find an apartment–a housing choice that’s outside of the box but worked out infinitely better than we ever imagined. I scoured VRBO a bit and stumbled upon a website called My Magic Rome. We rented Via della Croce 44 int. 6, and while the all caps statement on My Magic Rome’s site stating that the apartment “IS NOT NOISY AT ALL” is also not true at all, the apartment really was a great home base for us. The views were unbelievable. (We also booked a driver directly through My Magic Rome for airport pick-up and drop-off at Fiumicino, a drive of only about 35 minutes or so.)

looking right and then left out of our bedroom window

the nighttime views were even better…

But before we got to this awesomeness, we had to cross the ocean. Oof. And we had to do it via a connecting flight out of New York. Double oof.


Russ contends–and I agree–that it’s rather pitiful that our boys are semi-seasoned international travelers yet have never visited New York. Until now. Our 2 hour layover in NYC consisted of a walk through the domestic terminal, a walk outside (danger, Will Robinson) from the domestic terminal to the international terminal, and a photo op by a ridiculous t-shirt store to prove they had actually been to New York. Obviously, stepping foot outside the airport terminal and onto the actual ground of NYC makes it count as a visit.

Alitalia. My goodness. Yes, you delivered us safely to and from your marvelous country, but, honestly, your planes are in desperate need of an upgrade. Zero legroom and seats that are so old that they don’t recline anymore at all.

IMG_7555not a whole lot of breathing room here…and this is in Alitalia’s economy plus section...

We landed in Rome around noon and made it through customs without an incident. We were truly worried about our luggage as Alitalia’s number 1 complaint listed on Consumer Affairs was about their spectacular ability to send luggage off to opposite corners of the world from its owners (and after seeing the plane and realizing that lack of space and very uncomfortable seats should have been the number one complaint, we really started to sweat). Fortunately, our 2 bags came through just fine; we met our driver quite easily, and headed to the apartment to check-in.

Needless to say, we were all rather tired and rumpled and hungry. Carina from My Magic Rome met us at the apartment and gave us a thorough tour of the apartment and its amenities. Before she had finished her introduction of the place, we’d already broken into the bottle of wine they’d given us as a housewarming treat.


When we went to London 2 years ago for Spring Break, our arrival day was ugly:  4/5 of us were lying on the floor of the hotel lobby while Russ checked in, and Jack was so tired he fell asleep at the dinner table and actually fell out of his chair. We planned our Saturday accordingly for Rome; the goal was to have a quick lunch, get a little fresh air, grab a quick dinner and hit the hay early.

We aimed for Pastificio for lunch (and actually found it), but once we truly realized how it worked (order at the front, lean against the wall and eat quickly while standing; Pastificio is known for being an incredible pasta store with a tiny restaurant-like element to it), we decided instead that we actually wanted a sit-down lunch, so we ambled back a bit to Pasticceria d’Angelo. We should have stuck with the original plan. d’Angelo was nothing special, and Pastificio clearly did look special. Our loss.

We walked down to the end of Via della Croce and turned right at the corner a block from the Spanish Steps, which, unfortunately for us, are in the process of being refurbished.


Our next stop was the Capuchin Crypt Museum. This chapel built entirely out of the bones of Capuchin monks was listed as one of the top “must-sees” with children. It certainly was, um, different. Located in Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappucchini, we were thrilled to have found it on foot on our first try (even with a well-studied map, Rome is notoriously tricky to navigate on foot).

IMG_2494Photos are not allowed inside the museum–or in the gardens, either. (I discovered that last little bit after being scolded by a security worker after taking this photo.)

Russ got a little weirded out by the whole thing, but the boys thought it was pretty neat (remember that our little Reverend Tucker loves him some Halloween…). There is a sign by the exit of the chapel which reads, “What you are now, we used to be; what we are now, you will be…” but I remembered it after I’d exited, and they wouldn’t let me back in to find it. I think the guard was still a little miffed that I’d snuck a photo.

After the bone chapel, Russ discovered the most amazing thing:  you can get vino to go in Rome. The boys were fired up to explore, and you really can’t beat a stroll through Rome–especially with a toter.



We made our way past the Piazza Barberini and came up on the back side of the Fontana di Trevi.


And it was not covered in scaffolding! We were thrilled (we’d heard the Fountain had been recently restored and were worried our view of it would be similar to our view of the Spanish Steps). My original idea was to give the boys quarters from their birth years to toss into the fountain, but that got ditched before we even left Atlanta when I ran out of time to sift through quarters looking at the dates. Best laid plans, right? We scrounged around in our backpack and found a handful of coins, explained to the boys what do to, and waited our turn.

IMG_2516starting to look a little weary, no?


Yes, Rome, we will be back…

One of the things I really tried to do prior to us leaving Atlanta was restaurant research. I knew we’d be overwhelmed by all the choices, and I certainly didn’t want us to accidentally end up eating at the Italian equivalent of a Ruby Tuesday’s. So I was armed with a list of fantastic, non-touristy restaurants and had made reservations at the (few) places which took them. Saturday night, especially after our navigational success with finding the Capuchin Crypts, I had my sights on Trattoria da Gino (which is also sometimes called Trattoria dal Cavalier Gino). After reading multiple glowing reviews of the place, I’d tried to make online reservations but had never received a reply.

This place is tucked away behind the Parliament building, with “tucked away” being the operative word. We gave the map to Jack, and he took us up and down Rome’s labyrinthine cobbled roads until we found a sign posted high on a wall with an arrow pointing to Gino’s. We then walked in a complete circle two times and still couldn’t find it. Frustration set in, so we broke down and asked a concierge at a hotel, and he had no idea where it was, either. The concierge looked Gino’s up online and told us that it was closed on Saturdays, even though the website says it’s closed on Mondays. (Upon looking up the restaurant online for ourselves, I found a link showing an actual photo of it and realized we’d walked right past it twice. The vines covered up the name and it was dark–because, duh, they’d decided to take the night off.)  We had another rather nondescript dinner at a trattoria whose name I can’t even recall and caught a taxi in the rain back to our apartment.

We stocked up on provisions (water, wine, popcorn) at the funky little market Coop under our apartment and settled in for the night.



Despite some bungled dining plans, day 1 was a total success. We saw several important sights and survived on very little sleep. Spring Break 2016 was off to a terrific start!