Friday, January 4, 2008

A budget traveler’s guide to surviving ROME, ITALY

From where I am at, the epithet the Eternal City that is used to describe Rome comes as a result of two principal events in ancient history.

First, it was here where the entire civilization of Western Europe was consolidated when the Roman Empire pacified warring tribes, conquered vast territories that covered the Iberian Peninsula, the British Isles and even Asia Minor, and became the major superpower in this part of the world. The vestiges of the grandeur of Ancient Rome is evident until this day in the languages, the customs and traditions, the art and architecture, the clothing and gastronomy, and the philosophy and politics of many countries not only of Europe but as well as of the entire globe.

Second, it cannot be denied that Rome owes a good fraction of its popularity as a tourist destination to the Roman Catholic Church which gained substantial clout over Medieval and Renaissance Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire.

Wanna visit Rome? Get your walking shoes and water bottles ready, cover up your shoulders and knees, and smile at this capital city of Italy with a big “Ciao!”

1. Reflect. I know that there are a lot of people who visit Rome for reasons other than prayer, but since you’re already in the heartland of Catholicism, it might be a good idea to pause and reflect. Whether you are marvelling at the extravagance of St. Peter’s Basilica or having some quiet moments along the Tiber River, take time to rest your body and soul. An important caveat, though: In the Vatican and in all churches in Rome, proper clothing is required. For both men and women, shoulders, chest, back and knees (and of course, the parts that you hide even if you’re not in Rome) should be covered upon entering a religious site. If you can’t trek in the sweltering heat unless you’re in your shorts and sleeveless shirt, just bring a shawl to cover yourself up. There are also pants that double as shorts, so you might want to look those up. Street vendors within the vicinity of Rome sell paper shawls for those who forget to dress up for the visit.

2. Nourish. If you’re in the city during the spring and summer months, having brief pauses in between stops is highly recommended because of the cruel Roman sun. Potable water is free in Rome so bring a small water bottle and recharge in the many fountains that surround the city. A quick pizza or pasta in the many Roman cafes, ristorante, osterie and trattorie may also be needed along the way. Remember, though, that Rome is not exactly a cheap city so be prepared to cough up some cash if you choose to buy your meals outside. You can skirt around this by going to any supermarket, preparing two or three sandwiches for the day and putting them all in a nifty backpack.

3. Evaluate. There are many tourist attractions that you can visit in Rome for free: St. Peter’s Basilica, Piazza di Spagna, Fontana di Trevi, Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, etc. However, there are also several sites where you need to pay for entrance, most notably, the Sistine Chapel and the Coliseum. If you’re travelling with a tight budget, visiting these two places might make you think twice. Personally I would recommend that you visit them should you have the money. Just make the sacrifice of eating less or buying less souvenirs or walking instead of taking public transportation. And speaking of budgeting and evaluating, I also have to stress that prices in all accommodations in Rome are sky-high. The nearer you get to the center, the steeper the price. Hostels in the periphery, on the other hand, may offer better deals but you always have to keep in mind all the hassles of commuting.

4. Snap. Pictures are free souvenirs and Rome offers a multitude of subjects and backgrounds for photography lovers. In Vatican City, don’t forget to take a picture of the church façade, the bronze statue of St. Peter inside the basilica and Michelangelo’s Pieta. Outside the Vatican, the most recommendable sites for picture taking are the Castel Sant’Angelo from the Tiber River, the Piazza Victor Manuel, the Roman Forum and the Coliseum, the Trevi Fountain, and the Piazza di Spagna (the Fontana della Barcaccia with stairway the leads to the Church of Trinità dei Monti in the background). Taking pictures in the Sistine Chapel is prohibited.

5. Plot. Unless you’re taking any of the bus tours (which usually fetch up to 12 euros per person), Rome is a gigantic maze filled with people and monuments. A good tip is that the earlier you get to explore the city during the day, the more you would see, as queues tend to build up around 10 AM in all historical places. Have a good map at hand and try to avoid the subway if you can. I personally prefer the buses that are more efficient and less crowded. At the bus stop in the Termini Station, there’s an office especially made for bus routes so have a pen and paper handy and list down all the bus routes you like to have. And don’t forget to buy your bus tickets at the nearby cigarette stands since you can’t pay inside the bus.

Marlon’s Rome route (1-2 days): Start very early (around 6 AM). Piazza di Spagna. Fontana di Trevi. Walk or bus ride to Piazza Venezia. Walk to the Colosseo. You can just take pics here and not enter the monument. Enter the Foro Romano (free) and the Palatino. Second day for the Vatican. Whichever combination you take, you’re bound to fall in line so just start early to see more.

Marlon’s budget tip: Always bring your water bottles and refill them for free during your Roman holiday! Be very careful with restaurants (especially those in the Vatican area) that seem to offer good bargains but have hidden charges in the end.

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