A Roman Holiday

Just a cliche blog title to open up my post on my first trip of 2018 to Rome! I didn’t really plan on taking a trip to Rome this month, but several flight attendant friends were planning a trip. I decided to tag along. Things happened, schedules changed, and the Rome trip ended up being just me and my friend Sarah. This was great though because we got to travel together (something we’ve never done) and having just two people makes travel so much easier.

The adventures began before we even reached Newark, our connecting airport. There was one flight on United from Newark to Rome on Tuesday evening. Sarah and I met up at Reagan National for a 9:00am flight to Newark. The flight was half full and we were feeling pretty good about it, even when it was delayed an hour because of the inbound aircraft (Just Sewark things…) We got cleared as standby for the flight and were waiting to board when suddenly the gate agent announced the plane was on maintenance. Within a few minutes, the flight had been delayed to around noon because the maintenance issue was a no-go item. We were afraid the flight would get canceled or it would be delayed too late for our connection at 5:10pm.

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Margherita pizza

This had never happened to me before on standby. I’ve been lucky to get on the flights I wanted, or just roll over onto the next flight if there wasn’t room. I’ve never had to start thinking of other airports and other airlines as options. The next flight to Newark was leaving late as well, and we were afraid it would be too tight of a connection. So we started looking at Delta and American since we can jumpseat on those airlines. Both had a few flights going out soon to LaGuardia. We rushed over to the American terminal (worst thing about DCA airport is there are three separate security checkpoints and we had to go through TSA three times since KCM (crew bypass line) wasn’t open at that time of day.) We arrived at the American flight and it was already closing. We hurried over to the Delta terminal (through TSA again; never had I done so much TSA in the span of 15 minutes) and the flight still had some time before boarding. We listed with the gate agent and she told us the flight was wide open and we would get on.

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Some very strong espresso!

Thank God for Delta Connection! We had a lovely short flight over to LaGuardia on Republic’s nice ERJ 175s (which our company also flies in Houston; I love that plane). Then it was the challenge of getting to Newark from LaGuardia. We bought tickets for a bus that took us over via Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan. It was around 3:00 at this point. The bus ride took a little over an hour but it stressed me out with the New York traffic. We arrived in Newark at 4:10 and our flight was boarding at 4:50. We made it to the gate with plenty of time to spare (flying standby means you’re not paranoid about getting to your gate hours before boarding. As long as you show up around boarding you’re good). The flight was fairly full but we got a whole row in the back to share for ourselves, which has never happened to me on standby.

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The Pantheon

We were so relieved we got on the flight but we were mainly relieved that we had survived that chaotic trip over to Newark airport. This entire experience reminded me I always need to have a backup backup plan when flying standby, I should never check a bag, and things only went as smoothly as they did because Sarah was also a crew member (meaning we got through security easy breezy). So traveling with fellow crew is always the best!

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Overlooking the Colosseum from Palatine Hill
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Details inside the Colosseum

We arrived in Rome before the sun had even risen. We were jetlagged and exhausted but couldn’t check in to our hostel until 2:30pm. This is always one of the biggest struggles for me when flying to Europe. All the flights are overnight, meaning you arrive in the mid morning and have to wait before you can relax in your hostel. Our first day was spent mainly exploring a bit of the area, including the Borghese Museum and surrounding park. We also stumbled upon the Spanish Steps from above and got some very pretty pictures. We had a dinner of pasta, wine, and tiramisu that evening and fell asleep quite soundly.

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Overlooking the Spanish Steps
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The Colosseum from the subway station

For our first full day in Rome, we spent the morning visiting the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, which includes Palatine Hill. It’s pretty incredible taking the metro over to the Colosseum station. The minute you exit the station you are greeted by this behemoth of an ancient monument, taking up the entire skyline. We bought a tour package to see both the Colosseum and Roman Forum with a group of about 20 people. It was nice because we had a tour guide explaining all the historical significance and we had access to the ground level of the Colosseum, but as far as bypassing long lines I don’t think it made a difference.

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The Arch of Titus, inside the Roman Forum
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The Roman Forum
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Lots of ruins everywhere

Our second day was spent visiting the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica. We got a similar experience from the Colosseum while walking the streets leading up to the Vatican: numerous tour companies approached us asking us if we had reservations. They tried getting us to buy their tour packages that allowed us to bypass lines and enter straight into the basilica from the Sistine Chapel. We weren’t interested in splurging on another tour package today so we went straight to the ticket office. I had read the Vatican Museum is one of the busiest places in Roman tourism. But there wasn’t a single line at the museum – not to get in, not to buy tickets, and certainly not to enter the museum rooms. The place was busy, but no busier than a normal Saturday at a normal museum.

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Raphael’s “Transfiguration” inside the Vatican

Tip: when visiting Rome during the winter off season, don’t expect tour guide packages to help you out with skipping long lines. You’re probably better off skipping out on a guided audio explanation and just self-touring the different sites. This was what we did and as we could read the English explanations written on all the museum artifacts (something that I’m forever grateful since audio guides for other languages cost up to 8 euros) we saved quite a bit of money.

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Courtyard within the Vatican
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Laocoön and his sons

Entrance into St. Peter’s Basilica is free, but the line was long. It wrapped halfway around St. Peter’s Square outside. We took pictures outside and waited in line for about half an hour, but then we decided we weren’t too bent on seeing the inside of the basilica. We ducked out of line and went to find lunch since we were starving.

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The Gallery of Maps

We did visit the Sistine Chapel at the end of our touring of the Vatican, but it was rather underwhelming. Photos were not allowed. The chapel was dim, small and jam-packed with people. All there was to see was the famous ceiling. It was very pretty, but it was hard to locate the famous painting of “God and Adam” by Michelangelo. The painting is surrounded by several other similar ones. I think the exhibits in the Vatican were much more interesting and beautiful than the Sistine Chapel by itself.

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Leaving the Vatican. If you buy a packaged tour and head straight into St. Peter’s Basilica from the Sistine Chapel, you miss out on going down this gorgeous staircase to exit the Vatican.

We struggled the whole trip eating at the same time as Italians. I’ve learned early on that people in Spain, Portugal, and Italy all eat very late in the day. We definitely tried timing our activities so we could eat lunch around 2:00 and dinner around 7:00. The only problem was the majority of restaurants closed for a break 3:00 and the majority of shops and stores closed after 7:00. That made it hard finding a lunch restaurant that wasn’t closing soon. And we had nothing to do after eating dinner. On our last day in Italy we ended up having lunch closer to 12:00 and started looking for a dinner spot around 6:30 (although restaurants were completely dead at this time).

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Me and Sarah outside St. Peter’s Basilica

We spent the afternoon visiting the Trevi Fountain before the sun set and browsing shops in the surrounding area.

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Trevi Fountain

We ventured out of the downtown area for dinner that night and took a bus to Trastavere, a historical district southwest of the city across the Tiber River. We found a lovely restaurant and sat outside for dinner in a closed off pavilion with heaters to make outdoor dining more pleasant in the winter. This was one of the best meals we had in Rome, complete with courses of bruschetta, pasta, prosecco, and dessert.

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Dinner in Trastavere: appetizer of bruschetta and prosecco

During our meal, we both agreed that we had seen all the major sights in Rome already and weren’t quite sure what to do with our last full day in Rome. We Googled around for some day trips and realized Florence is a popular day trip from Rome. It’s only an hour and a half train ride if you take the express train. We were staying right by Termini Station, so we decided to wake up early the next morning and go to Florence.

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Streets of Florence

Florence was a great place for a quick day trip. We were sad we couldn’t book a Tuscan winery tour on such short notice, but were very happy just wandering the streets of the city. Florence has such a different vibe from Rome. I have to say I enjoyed it more. There’s more charm and the architecture is more unique and defined. There is much Renaissance flavor in Florence, and the city has a craftsman feel to it.

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Florence Cathedral

We visited the Florence Cathedral (originally called Il Duomo di Firenze), a magnificent basilica with marble panels and the most intricate designs. This was by far the most beautiful thing I saw on this whole trip. We were walking through the streets of Florence and suddenly stumbled upon the Piazza del Duomo. The skyline was blocked by this magnificent domed building of intricate marble and detailing. The architecture on this building was incredible.

We weren’t interested in climbing 400+ stairs to the top of the dome (our feet were already sore from walking all over Rome) so we settled with just visiting the inside of the cathedral. It was quite large and spacious, but we weren’t as impressed with the stain-glass, gray stone, and lofty ceilings. The interior didn’t look that much different from any other cathedrals I have visited. The exterior was definitely the best part to look at.

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More details from the back

We paid a brief visit to the Mercato Centrale for lunch and just to see what markets are like here in Italy. For a Saturday afternoon I expected the place to be busier. The first level – full of butchers, produce stands, and pasta stalls – wasn’t very busy. The second level, full of food stalls, was definitely very lively.

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Michelangelo’s “David”

We made sure to see Michelangelo’s statue of David at the Accademia Gallery. The Accademia itself doesn’t have a lot of artwork to look at. David is definitely the main thing to visit. The entrance fee is around 12 euros so if that’s too steep of a price for you to just see the statue of David, the Uffizi Gallery might be a better option. The Uffizi Gallery (which has a huge collection of Renaissance art) is one of the top places to visit in Florence, but we were all museum-ed out at this point so we decided to wander over to the Ponte Vecchio bridge.

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The Ufizzi courtyard
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Standing on the Ponte Vecchio bridge

The medieval bridge is famous for being the only one in Florence left with shops that line the bridge arch. In the past the businesses were butcheries, but they have now been switched to expensive jewelers.

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The Arno River

We took our time looking for one final restaurant for our last dinner in Italy. We dined for at least three hours at an adorable little ristorante (sitting past all the other Italians surrounding us). We ordered delicious pasta, drank a whole bottle of rosé (we’re fans of sparkling wine) and finished off the night with delicious chocolate cake. We hurried over to the train station to catch a train back to Rome and pack our things up for our flight back to the States the next morning.

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Last meal in Florence
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Delicious tortellini with tomato sauce & mushroom risotto

My time in Italy was short but I really enjoyed the glimpse of this beautiful country. I definitely expect to come back again to experience the country side of Tuscany, the canals of Venice, and perhaps even the Amalfi Coast. There is just so much this country has to offer. And I can’t get enough of their pasta. I even bought some to bring home as a souvenir – although it doesn’t taste the same without their delicious sauces.

Rather coincidentally, all the cities I’ve visited so far in Europe have been Romance language Latin Europe. I’m hoping my next few trips will involve other areas of Europe to get a different experience.

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