Monday, April 6, 2009

The Third Trip – Rome, Italy

Before I get started today, I want to give props to the Iowan Supreme Court. It isn’t always easy to make the correct decision in the atmosphere this country has fostered the last decade or so, but these nine judges, from a very conservative state, did just that, ignoring the irrational and bigoted cries from the still powerful religious right. Let’s just hope that the California judges have to courage to do the same thing. This country needs more “activist” judges.

(For those who don’t know, the Iowan Supreme Court ruled that denying gays and lesbians the right to marriage was unconstitutional, specifically sighting the fact that dislike of homosexuals is based in religious teachings and government has no right to side with religious doctrine. All nine judges ruled this way. It wasn’t a split decision like it was in California.)

I’ve been looking for a good place to live that is easier and cheaper than California. I may have found it.


A while ago, I decided that I didn’t want to vacation in any place that I had already been to. There are so many places in the world I want to experience, so going back to a country I’ve spent time in seemed ridiculous to me. But about a year or so ago, I ran into an old friend from Italy on MySpace that I used to know back in the days that Thin White Rope used to tour Europe twice a year. In fact, Daniela started out as a fan and friend of the band’s, but eventually became our booking agent in Italy for the last couple of tours.

Daniela told me that she had done quite well in her life. She was now an artist. She was married and had two young children. And she spent her time between and apartment in central Rome and a villa out on the edge of the city. She invited Skip and me to visit and spend a relaxing vacation in her villa any time we wanted. Now, I didn’t think I would ever want to go back to Italy, despite the fact that I love the country tremendously. But Daniela’s offer was too much to pass up, so after a week or so of discussion, Skip and I decided to book the trip with some existing frequent flyer miles and let Daniela know we were taking her up on her generous offer.

Due to restrictions on using frequent flyer miles, we had to book the trip almost a year in advance. I thought it would seem like forever before we were able to leave, but as time seems to do, it went by fast and before we knew it, we were preparing to pack up and head to the airport. We hadn’t made any plans except for a possible trip to Naples and Pompeii. I had been to Pompeii twice before, but Skip had never been and I wanted him to see it. Not having the whole trip planned in advance is very unusual for me. When we vacation, I usually know every move we’re going to make and every day we’re going to make it. But I had been to Rome so many times in the past (Skip had also been there a couple of times), that I was just looking forward to settling in and relaxing out in the country. I really didn’t want to do anything at all.

Our flights were leaving very early in the morning and I have trouble sleeping on planes, so we decided to stay up all the night before we were to leave, hoping exhaustion would help us sleep on the trip over the Atlantic Ocean. Our friend Nate came down from Oregon to house sit for us and take care of our cats. He went to sleep, but we woke him up to drive us to the airport. Nate dropped us off at 5 AM on Monday in front of the American terminal and then took off for home, probably dreaming of the sleep we had interrupted. But much to our surprise, when we tried to check in for our flight, we were told that we weren’t leaving until 11 PM on Tuesday, a full day and a half later than we were originally scheduled. It seemed that there were some intense snowstorms on the East Coast and JFK Airport in New York was closed down, so we couldn’t leave until the airport reopened. This was a surprise to us. We knew about the storm, but had checked the American website just before leaving, only to be told that all flights were still on schedule. We weren’t happy that no one at American had thought to update their website. But there wasn’t much we could do, so we had to call Nate back (he was about half way home) and just go home and try to get back some of that sleep we missed the night before.

Tuesday night came fast though and before we knew it; we were checked in and on our way to New York. We were scheduled to arrive in Rome a full two days after we were originally supposed to arrive and we were very disappointed about missing those two days of our vacation. But an added bonus was having a nine hour layover in New York City. It had been almost twenty years since I had been to the city and I was anxious to spend even that short time seeing what had changed over those two decades.

We arrived at JFK, jumped on the subway and immediately headed to what used to be the World Trade Center. There we saw the beginnings of new construction. Then we just started walking uptown to see what we could see. There were some new buildings we saw along the way, but it mostly felt like the same city I knew back then. We walked within a block of where CBGB’s used to be, but I couldn’t bring myself to go look. I just thought it would depress me too much. We walked all the way up to 24th Street and then over to Madison Avenue, where we were scheduled to have lunch at 11 Madison Park (, a totally amazing restaurant opened by Danny Meyer of Union Square Café, an old favorite of ours from the days we used to visit New York a lot.

I had called 11 Madison Park a day before and made a reservation. I was worried because they listed their dress code as preferring a coat. I warned them that we were coming in from the airport with only travel clothes on our backs and they told me not to worry. That made me very happy. The room was a beautiful one and by the looks of the other diners, we were woefully underdressed, but the restaurant greeted us happily and seated us next to one of the high windows along the side for a great view of the park across the street.

We had plenty of time, so we decided on the five course prie fix meal pared with wines. It was probably the best, most elegant meal I’d ever had in New York. From the opening course of Atlantic Fluke Carpaccio with Seaweed and Sea Urchin, to the final savory course of Herb Crusted Colorado Lamb with Cumin, Panisse & Sheep’s Milk Yogurt, to the Mango Linzer Tart dessert, the meal was practically flawless. We struck up a conversation with a man sitting next to us who was dining alone. We talked about restaurants in New York and Los Angeles. He was going to visit LA in a few days and we recommended Bazaar and Providence as must visit places. They were already on his list. When he finished, he passed the remains of his bottle of wine to us, claiming he couldn’t drink any more. There was more than half left. It was a bottle of Louis Carillon, Puligny-Montrachet, Les Combettes, 1er Cru, Burgundy, 2000. Skip estimated that it was a $300 bottle of wine. It was wonderful and we were very grateful. In fact, we were grateful for the whole afternoon and the chance to once again have an amazing meal at a place we’d never been to before.

But all good things must come to an end and we thanked the restaurant staff and jumped back on a subway car to the airport. Before we knew it, we were once again in the air on our way to Italy.

We arrived in Italy early and gave Daniela’s husband, Tino, a call. He explained how to take the train into Rome and then find the right bus to get on to get to their apartment. A few hours later, he met us at the bus stop and after introductions; we walked the block to their apartment.

It was a fantastic place, right across the street from Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Vatican City. You could walk out on their balcony and see the Dome of the Cathedral rising in front of you. (In fact, the next day, after a visit to the Sistine Chapel, we walked to the top of the Dome and gave the family a call. They all came out on the balcony and we spent time waving at each other while laughing about it on the phone.) The apartment had a small dining/living room and kitchen, three large bedrooms and two full bathrooms. Five people lived there; Daniela, Tino, their two kids, Francesco and Norma, and their Romanian housekeeper, Basilica. The housekeeper slept with the kids in their room. The third bedroom was used as Tino’s office and it was in that room that we had been sat up with a futon so we could sleep.

Tino had picked up several books in English for us, including an extremely comprehensive book listing all the restaurants in Rome, giving short reviews and information about every one. This, in combination with my own tourist’s books, became very helpful. Within a few hours, Daniela arrived home. She had been in London with friends. Then the kids arrived from school and we were able to get to know the entire family.

From here, I’m going to resist the urge to tell you about this trip in my usual day-by-day way. It had been at least 18 years since I’d been to Rome, but I had been there probably a dozen times, including taking two vacations there after TWR tours had ended. I thought I had seen everything the city had to offer, but I quickly realized that there were still lots of sights in the city I hadn’t seen. Walking around Rome is a wonder. There is something new to see down every street and around every corner. For example, I had never seen the Pantheon, a Roman temple built in 27 B.C. before, despite it being in the middle of downtown Rome. I had also never seen the Piazza del Popolo despite how close it is to the Spanish Steps, which I had seen several times in the past. I had also never been to the top of Gianicolo Hill, and seen the magnificent Fontana dell’Acqua Felice, a beautiful fountain that is one of the few still fed from the ancient aqueducts. And I had never been in the Castel Sant’Angelo, although I had driven by it many times before. There was so much I hadn’t seen before, and I’m sure there’s plenty I still haven’t seen. In fact, we had to cancel plans to take day trips to Ostia Antica and Tivoli due to the loss of our two days due to the New York storms. And the last day we were there, we missed out on going to the top of the Victor Emmanuel Monument and seeing a couple of museums due to an accident Skip had that I’ll get to later. Missing all that just gives me more reason to go back some day.

But this all also led to our decision not to go out to the family’s villa at all. There was just too much to do in Rome. It all worked out in the long run. The family usually stays in Rome during the week so the kids can go to school and then retires to the country for the weekends. But this particular weekend was full of business for both the adults. As I said before, Daniela is an artist, but Tino ( makes his living as a film maker. He has made one award winning short called “Space Off” ( and a series of short TV episodes called, “Italiani Nello Spazio“ ( These had been shown on Fox TV in Italy. (We saw all of his films and liked them tremendously. “Italiani Nello Spazio“ was in Italian and we still found the episodes funny.) If we wanted to go out to the villa, they would have to take us out there, go back to the city, and then come back out to pick us up again when we wanted to return. And there was no TV or internet hookup in the country. So we decided staying in Rome would be the best plan for everyone.

On Sunday, we walked over early to the Vatican and took part in the Pope’s Sunday Mass with several thousand other visitors. I’m not much on religion and I tend to think that the Pope is one of the World’s most evil men, but I was interested in seeing what it was all about. What I saw were crowds of Catholics cheering, crying and making the sign of the cross after every sentence the Pope spoke. It was all a bit crazy, but we grew bored fast and left. All we could see of the Pope was his small figure looking out a window a long ways away while he spoke to his admirers through a microphone. They can have him.

We spent the rest of that Sunday with the family celebrating Daniela’s birthday. We had a wonderful meal at her favorite pizza restaurant, Pizza Ciro (, which specializes in Naples style pizza, and then spent the rest of the afternoon strolling through the city and window shopping. It was very nice and relaxing and I appreciated being able to see Roman family life through a real Roman family’s eyes.

We found time to meet up with other friends, like Mario and Francesca, who both worked for the TWR’s original booking agent. It was great to see both of them again. It’s been way too long.

We spent a full day at Pompeii. We took the bullet train from Rome to Naples and then jumped on the subway for the half hour ride to Pompeii. Then we spent the next eight hours wandering around the beautiful ruins of the city. Much of the art and architecture of the city still remains in some form and seeing it is awe inspiring. There are also plaster casts of the bodies of people trapped in the magma that enveloped the city. It’s amazing and like nothing I’ve ever seen before.

Most of our time was spent walking around the city, or eating and drinking. We visited two wine bars, Enoteca Cul de Sac and Antica Enoteca (, where we enjoyed some amazing glasses of wine with delicious little snacks of meat and cheese. We were on our way to a third wine bar, Trimani Il Winebar, which is supposed to be one of the city’s best, when Skip had his unfortunate accident. We also visited the bar at the Hotel Excelsior, where we were told we could get the perfect martini, and I’ll be damned, but it really was.

On the food front, we had really good meals at Ristorante al Piccolo Arancio, Ristorante Antico Arco (, Ristorante Il Barroccio ( and Trattoria Monti. I think it’s pretty hard to have a bad meal in Rome unless you frequent the tourist’s spots that cater to those with no love of food. We had two lovely meals prepared by Basilica, that were just delicious in their simplicity and flavors. We also woke every morning to breakfast, which usually consisted of blood orange juice, cappuccino and whatever baked goods Daniela had baked the night before. I’m not much for breakfast, but that was a perfect way to begin the day.

We had two great meals. The first was at Taverna Angelica (, a restaurant near the Vatican that is frequented by priests and nuns. In fact, the night we were there, we were sitting next to a table of tipsy nuns who tittered and gossiped about the Pope, not realizing we were listening closely. My chicory risotto and grilled tuna steak were next to perfectly prepared. The restaurant is hard to find, but well worth the effort.

The best meal of all was at a restaurant called Ristorante Il Convivio ( Amongst the wonderful courses we had there was a single sea snail cooked in its shell and served with a fried gnocchi; Rigatoni with fresh and dried mullet roe; White fish and clams in a sour cream sauce with Roman-style artichokes; and the best damned cannoli I’ve ever eaten. But nothing beat the Crudo. Crudo is an Italian take on Sashimi. It’s an Italian take on raw fish. My Sea Bream, Sepia, Oyster and Shrimp with Onion Sorbet and Bottarga (shaved tuna roe) were all so delicious I almost started crying. Wine was poured liberally for every course and a perfect grappa was served at the end of the meal. We were so enthusiastic about the meal that the chef came out to greet us. It was the perfect four-hour meal.

Our biggest adventure was on our last day there. We were a block from the wine bar we were headed to for lunch, when I large group of girls heading to or from school forced Skip to the side of the walkway. He hit something jutting up and fell face-first into a metal grate in a brick wall. He immediately started screaming. Not in pain, but out of frustration because he knew this meant the end of our vacation. His hands were stuck in his pockets and he couldn’t move. Blood was streaming everywhere and I noticed his sunglasses had shattered. It was probably the glass from them that had cut his eyelid.

The girls took off in a flash, but a group of older men immediately appeared to help me. We got Skip on his feet and put him in a chair one of the men had brought out to the street. They also brought out wet rags that I held to Skip’s head to stop the blood. It was shooting out of his cut like a fountain. One of the men got on his phone and in less than five minutes, an ambulance was right there. As the medical crew prepared him, I tried to clean up the mess that was left. The men told me not to worry about it, that they would take care of it and I should worry about getting Skip to the hospital. So I climbed into the ambulance after Skip was loaded in and off we went.

(Keep in mind that little English was spoken at all during this whole event and I don’t speak Italian. This was the case throughout most of our trip, but I’ve found that communication is easy if you really want to make it work.)

After a short trip to the hospital that was more frightening than any roller coaster ride I’ve ever taken, Skip was loaded off the ambulance and taken into the emergency room. He was immediately looked at and a large band-aid was put over his eyebrow to slow down the bleeding. The hospital staff started asking questions and also wanted to know details about Skip, including his passport information. I called Tino and told him what happened. He wanted to talk to the hospital staff and after a short conversation, came back to me. The first thing he told me was not to worry about cost; that it would all be covered. I was suspicious about that. Tino asked me to keep in touch and he would come pick us up when we were ready.

The doctors were worried about Skip’s injuries and wanted to take x-rays and a MRI to make sure he had no internal injuries. After that was done, they cleaned Skip’s cuts again and re-bandaged them again and then asked us to wait for awhile until they could get Skip’s results. In the meantime, they started seeing other patients who were waiting, some of them in much worse shape than Skip. (In fact, I watched one older man die despite the efforts of the medical team to keep him alive. It was a sobering experience and I felt so badly for the family members who were working through their grief right there.)

About half an hour later, Skip started bleeding again and I found a doctor to let him know about it. They immediately wheeled him into a room and 15 minutes later, he was out and on his feet, with three stitches in his eyebrow. A doctor who spoke English approached me to tell me that they wanted to keep Skip for 24 hours for observation, but he was refusing. We were leaving the country in less than 24 hours as it was. So they wanted me to watch him and if he grew dizzy or started having headaches, they wanted me to bring him back right away. And with that he was released, although another doctor checked him over once more and helped clean him up. His hair was matted with blood and blood was all over his clothes. This doctor also gave me a prescription for antibiotics and told me where to go to get it filled.

I called Tino and Daniela answered the phone, telling me that Tino was already there waiting for us. I looked over my shoulder and there he was. We packed Skip into his car and drove to the apothecary, who filled our prescription and charged us 20 Euros. And that was the total cost for the whole thing.

Tino took us back home and they fed us a nice meal. After a few hours of rest, Skip was antsy to get back out and see things, despite his bandaged and extremely bruised face. So we left again and took the bus to the center of town. But it was too late and everything was closed down. We spent the next couple hours walking around town, enjoying a drink here and there, and making our way to our dinner reservation at Trattoria Monti.

Our whole experience with socialized medicine left us wondering what the hell all these conservatives are talking about when they speak of the evils it brings and how ineffective it is. It may not be the best medicine available, if you can afford the best medicine, but it sure beats having nothing, which is what millions of people in America have. And it sure seemed to work fine for us. I suspect most of them are talking out of their assholes, as usual.

But that pretty much sums up our trip to Rome. I was happy to see that the feel of the city hadn’t changed since I was last there. Things are more efficient, the busses and trains run on time, for example. And I didn’t see the large numbers of beggars and their children that used to flood the streets preying on tourists. We had a shortened, but wonderful time. For that, we mostly have to thank the generosity and friendliness of Daniela, Tino and their family. Being with their family for that short time was wonderful way to experience life in that city. It’s a wonderful country and an amazing city. I sure hope we can make it back there again someday.

And I hope our friends can visit here someday so we can repay them in turn. (They are huge Disney fans and have been to Walt Disney World in Florida, but I’m trying to convince them they have to visit the original park. The one in Florida is fun, but it’s not the same or as good as the original.)

Skip's pictures of our trip can be found at:


I’d also like to express my grief about the major earthquake that struck Italy this morning. I’ve already talked to Daniela and her family is okay, although they were woken up by the shaking. The earthquake was only 60 miles away from Rome. I’ve been in major earthquakes and they are frightening. My heart goes out to the victims.

And that’s it for this week. Next week, I hope to get to my stories about Vinyl Fetish, the record store I worked at in Hollywood in the early 80s. Thanks for reading and pay attention to those ads. -ML

1 comment:

  1. Wow!! its amazing !! lovely!! its a attractive Tourist hub , i would like to enjoy italy tours from rome!! Thanx for sharing excellent informations. I’m impressed by the details that you have on this blog

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