We returned a little over a week ago from our final trip for 2017 which revolved around Anna speaking at the Fifth International Congress on OCT Angiography, “En Face” and advances in OCT, an annual conference held by the American Society of Retina Specialists, on this occasion in Rome, Italy.
We’ve been to Italy before, back in September of 2012 on a trip that took us through Florence, Rome, Pisa and Milan for another of Anna’s conferences, although that little adventure is a bit of a blur for me. This time we’d be spending four nights in Rome and although I knew I had been before, it still all felt completely new to me.
We have done quite a bit of flying this year so we were able to upgrade to Business Class for the flights both there and back, which is great for a 13-hour overnight flight to Europe. We were supposed to depart at about 1:50am on Friday morning, but it was probably closer to about 3:00am by the time we took off. It didn’t matter to Anna, she fell asleep almost immediately, however, I had to wait until we were airborne and my “bed” was laid out before I could drift away, the last thing I heard being a small Chinese lady who had walked down the aisle to yell at her husband in the seat next to mine, “Cover your stomach!”
Friday, December 15
Due to the seven-hour time difference, we touched down in Rome at about 8:30am and were out of the airport relatively quickly. It was about a 45-minute taxi ride due to the morning traffic to where we were staying, the Ergife Palace Hotel, which was also where the conference was being held. The entire drive there I had this playing on loop in my head:
Sure, I realise it’s not about Rome, but it’s a homophone and that makes it close enough for me.
Anyway, before long we arrived at our hotel and one thing soon became glaringly obvious — There is not a whole lot to do in that part of town. It was a bit before 10.00am when we got there and our room wasn’t ready yet, but Anna was happy because she wanted to attend her professor’s talk which began at 10 o’clock. All she needed to do was freshen up a little and change her clothes, something she was able to do in a bathroom in the lobby. Anna attended the talk while I sat in the lounge area with a coffee or three and read my book. I saw Anna chatting with her professor at about midday so when she saw me we tried to check into our room, only to be told it still wouldn’t be ready for at least another hour. We decided to have another latte each and waited for the buffet lunch to begin at 12:30, which was complimentary for speakers at the conference. I on the other hand, had to pay €20.00 (approximately AU$30.00) for some pretty average food and there was no way of faking my way through this one, I clearly didn’t appear to be a doctor, although I did kind of blend in Italy; I was decked out in a pair of black Adidas track pants, a t-shirt with dinosaurs on it, and a cap. Add to this the fact that I was slowly marinating in my own juices from our flight over and smelled more than just a little rancid, most in attendance probably just assumed that I was some homeless guy that Anna had taken pity on and decided to give a free meal.
Our room was finally ready by the time we had finished lunch so I eventually got to peel off my soured clothes and scrub off a layer of grime. Anna cleaned up too and went back to the conference, leaving me with a few hours to kill so I decided to check out an area of town that had a few shops I wanted to have a look at. It had been raining quite heavily for most of the afternoon so I jumped in a cab that was out the front of the hotel and went to Quartiere XI Portuense. Clearly this was a recently gentrified area, as I was immediately greeted the second I stepped out of the taxi by a bucket surrounded by syringes with an old belt for a tourniquet and some used tissues inside (left). Nice.
I continued looking around the shops for a couple of hours, dodging the intermittent downpours, and then spent almost another hour in the rain trying to find an ATM that would accept my card and then attempting to flag down a taxi back to the hotel. It’s quite difficult to get a cab in Rome so I ended up getting an Uber, but that took about twenty minutes because of the traffic. In fact, the Uber booking came with a warning that the driver was either deaf or hearing impaired so I wasn’t quite sure how to respond when the driver called me on my phone; trying to communicate with a deaf person on the phone has trouble written all over it, but one would expect it would be even more difficult as a foreigner. Fortunately, everything went fine, he was calling me to say that he would be at least another 10 minutes, then he called me again when he arrived to ask what I was wearing so he could pull over and pick me up.
When I arrived back at the hotel, Anna had been looking at places to eat and suggested going to the very area I had just come from. I explained that there didn’t really seem like much in the way of nightlife in that spot and fortunately people eat quite late in Italy so we went and grabbed a drink at Matrix Bar, a dive bar down the road from our hotel and really the only bar in its general vicinity, while we looked for somewhere else to go for dinner. Matrix Bar wasn’t a particularly classy establishment, averaging a whopping two stars on Google Reviews, the first of which just reads “Sad and dirty,” but we were glad we stopped by for the amusement alone. We both ordered a beer and cringed as an angry guy played the poker machines while a heavily pregnant woman and her mother both chain-smoked and drank. As for food, there was a pizza restaurant out the back and a fridge full of desserts in the bar that inexplicably had the entire range of Magnum ice-creams without wrappers. That’s right, to choose your flavour of unwrapped Magnum, you had to read the sign in front of them.
We eventually decided that we would have dinner at Ditirambo, a great looking restaurant in Campo de’ Fiori, and we definitely didn’t regret our decision. We ordered some ham and burrata, then we got our mains. Anna had homemade tagliolini with pork cheek, artichokes, and sheep’s cheese and I got the same pasta but with drunken octopus and it was all spectacular! The only problem with proper handmade pasta is that is so filling and sometimes the portions here are enormous.
It was a Friday night and there was a cool shisha bar a few doors down in the square so we dropped by for a drink but there were a few drawbacks. First, it was freezing cold, we had to sit outside and, although there were heaters, we were still a little underdressed for the conditions. There were giant clear screens around us to block the breeze, but huge gust of wind came up and blew over the one behind us, shattering it! The other problem was that we were both still running on Singapore time so it was the equivalent of being about 6:00am and we aren’t that young anymore. The jet-lag had caught up with us both and Anna had a presentation to give the following day so we finished our drinks and caught an Uber home for the earliest night we’ve had in quite some time. A few sights from that tiring evening:
Saturday, December 16
Anna was giving her presentation just before 9:30am, immediately after two of her former colleagues and good friends from New York, Chandra Balaratnasingam and Rosa Dolz-Marco, who we had recently visited in Spain. I couldn’t attend so I chose to sleep in, but I was told Anna’s talk went exceptionally well and was sent some photos. The pictures aren’t particularly clear or flattering, but it should give you the general idea:
After it was over we decided not to have the free conference lunch, but maybe go to the market around the corner to get a bite to eat, but upon arrival it was somewhat of a letdown. A lot of the stalls weren’t open and very few of the ones that were had food, however, I would’ve had no problem getting a birth certificate printed there for some reason. Instead, we walked further into town and had more pasta, more cheese and a Roman artichoke.
Anna still had a bit of spare time before she had to go back to the conference so we walked around and looked at some of the shops in the area, mainly secondhand and vintage stores. First we went into a place that had a lot of cool secondhand clothes where Anna bought a really nice dress and I tried to purchase a Vegas-era Elvis statue to no avail, then we found what is the epitome of my kind of store — Mercatino Compra Vendita Usato, a giant thrift shop the size of a department store and it sold everything, including an old slot-machine. Unfortunately, the slot-machine was too heavy and too expensive so I just settled for an enormous Spanish tambourine that’s about 45cm (18″) in diameter that Anna talked me into buying, as well as a couple of records.
Anna left before I did to get back to the conference, while I took my time and then enjoyed the walk back.
I got home and we had plenty of time to relax for an hour or two before it was time to go out for dinner again. One of the speakers that Anna has worked with is from Rome so he booked a restaurant for a group of us, including Rosa and Roberto, her husband, as well as Chandra and his family, however, Chandra, his wife, and his son had all developed an awful stomach virus and would be unable to make it, instead opting to try and get in better shape for their long flight back to Perth, Australia the following day.
Roberto had the brilliant idea of having a look at the landmarks and ruins around the city before dinner to see what they look like at night, something I would recommend to anyone visiting Rome, be it for their first or fiftieth time, for several reasons; not only does everything seem to have a much more spectacular appearance under lights, but also you’re free from all the annoying people trying to sell you stuff and offer completely unwanted assistance, as well as the other shady individuals that seem to migrate towards the world’s tourist attractions.
Roberto, Rosa, Anna, and myself started out at the Colosseum, down past the Basilica Aemilia and the Imperial Forum, to the Altare della Patria and then slowly made our along the Tiber river, taking in all of the sights along the way en route to the restaurant. Once there, Anna’s Italian colleague chose a selection of his favourite dishes for us and we just ate and drank until we could no longer move. This might seem like a lot of pictures, but it is merely a taste of what we saw, ate, and drank that night. Also, a quick word of warning; some of the locations listed for the photos throughout this post may not be completely accurate, but I did my best:
Sunday, December 17
Today was to be the first of only two full days Anna and myself would have to ourselves this time and part of that would consist of changing hotels. The Ergife Palace wasn’t a bad place, but there was just nothing nearby, the nearest areas worth visiting were a 90-minute walk or a €20.00 (AU$30.00) taxi or Uber away. Fortunately for us, Anna had found the QuodLibet Guest House, located a relatively short walk from the Vatican and it was an upgrade we definitely welcomed. We checked out of our hotel and caught a cab straight to the QuodLibet, but initially it was a little difficult to find the Guest House. It turned out we needed to go through a common doorway for several other business and then take a tiny vintage elevator with inward-opening doors to the fourth floor, but once up there the place was beautiful. It had a bunch of uniquely themed rooms and the owners were great, really friendly and offering us heaps of free croissants and coffee.
Once we had settled in we took a walk into the city, but made a point of avoiding the Vatican as one can only imagine how crazy that gets on a Sunday. Instead, we opted to check out some of the markets and then go into town and spend the afternoon just shopping, eating, and taking in the sights. The markets were a bit of fun, although there was not a lot there that really appealed to us. What does become abundantly clear when you spend a bit of time looking through markets and vintage stores in Rome is that there must’ve been a period of time around 15-20 years ago when the place resembled an entire city full of at-liesure Jay Lenos (right) — There is so much secondhand denim available! It’s not just jeans, shirts, and jackets, pretty much any wearable item was available made from denim at the turn of the century in Italy. People often consider Italy one of the world’s fashion capitals, admittedly they are generally referring to Milan, but let’s not forget that there was a time not too long ago when visiting one of the most historically significant cities on earth may have easily been mistaken for a trip to the mechanic’s.
We walked into Campo Marzio, one of the main historical districts that also has an abundance of great restaurants and pedestrian shopping avenues. The first thing to greet you as you approach these streets at any entry point will be at least one military vehicle and a bunch of heavily armed military personnel, obviously in place to prevent a vehicle attack, as has been one of the more common terrorist methods of late, such as that which occured just before we visited Barcelona, Spain earlier in the year or in my home city of Melbourne, Australia just days before Christmas, which several friends of mine witnessed. Needless to say, we felt exceptionally safe with these guys around so we just relaxed and did what we set out to do; spend the afternoon eating, shopping and exploring, including looking at some of the same sights again, this time during the light of day. Another huge bunch of photos:
We were planning to have dinner and some drinks with Rosa and Roberto again, but first we had a look at some of the shops and bars in a kid of hipster district called Monti. There was a brilliant artist’s market there that we spent a lot of time in, then it was off for a couple of libations at a bar that had some great beer and some even more controversial local art. When it was time, we met up for dinner and then headed to the same shisha bar, this time well-rested and better dressed to handle the cold. Here is a sample of some of the paintings from that bar, as well as the token shot of us all drinking:
Monday, December 18
It was our last day to soak in everything Rome had to offer and we both had only one thing on our collective minds to begin the day; breakfast. Anna told me she had found a place simply called Eggs and as a part of their essentially egg-based menu, they apparently serve ostrich eggs for breakfast! We tried to make our way down there posthaste, but there was one minor setback we hadn’t considered; we had to walk past the Vatican, which meant we were going to get hassled constantly. “Why?” I hear you ask. Well, here’s a little background on the Vatican:
Vatican City is a country located within the city of Rome. With an area of approximately 44 hectares (110 acres), and a population of about 1,000, it is the smallest state in the world by both area and population. However, formally it is not sovereign, with sovereignty being held by the Holy See.
Within Vatican City are religious and cultural sites such as St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museums. They feature some of the world’s most famous paintings and sculptures. The unique economy of Vatican City is supported financially by the sale of postage stamps and tourist mementos, fees for admission to museums, and the sale of publications.
What that means is that there is a never-ending throng of people trying to sell you shit and they don’t quit! Without any exaggeration, there is one of these guys, some of them local, but many of them foreign, standing every four or five metres along the footpath in the general vicinity of the Vatican, some trying to sell stuff, others trying to point you toward the entrances for museums, chapels, and other tourist attractions, most likely in an effort to get tips from American tourists. They just assume the only reason everyone is there is to do the touristy stuff and they will do anything to make a buck, especially off the Sistine Chapel. “Sir, the entrance to the Sistine Chapel is to the right. Sir? Sir…?” said one as we walked past him and was approached by another. “Sir, if you are looking for the Sistine Chapel, it’s just to the right,” said the next one, “Sir, do you need help?” inquired another, but my favourite had to be one we passed while walking through St. Peter’s Square; “Sir, this is not the Sistine Chapel.” No shit, Sherlock, I was able to figure that one out for myself because probably the most famous visible feature of the Sistine Chapel is its ceiling, covered by a world-renowned and critically-acclaimed painting by Michelangelo, consisting of nine scenes from the Book of Genesis. We, on the other hand, were standing in a sprawling outdoor area with an unobstructed view of a cloudless blue sky.
Anna remarked that the Vatican had been cleaned up a lot since we were last there. Sure, the people trying to make a buck are a pain in the ass, but she told me that there aren’t as many gypsies, pickpockets, and criminals in general there. Just people bugging the shit out of tourists or trying to sell cheap souvenirs and fake handbags and quite a few homeless people and beggars. Apparently, last time we didn’t feel particularly safe in the Pope’s neighbourhood, but that wasn’t a problem this time so we took a couple of photos. Maybe it was just the time of the year, but it was a good thing we didn’t want to visit any of the sites because it was crowded as hell and this was on a Monday. Just look at the queues to get into the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica! I guess those annoying bastards are earning their keep:
Back to the mission at hand — Getting those eggs. We were still perpetually getting hassled and I almost got to the point of asking the next person who inquired if I “need any help” if they happened to know how to get to the place that fries ostrich eggs, but I thought it was best not to encourage them. We eventually found our way to Eggs on our own, the walk there was beautiful, but the restaurant didn’t have ostrich eggs. They had the shells of ostrich eggs out the front, but the sole woman who who worked there spoke very little English so I pointed at the shells and she shook her head. Whether they don’t serve them or they just weren’t available that day is still a little unclear, but I still enjoyed the breakfast we had.
After breakfast we just walked around the city, checking out a different district to previous days, especially the market stalls that sold wine, cheese, ham, and salami, but one of the best decisions we made was going into Antica Salumeria, right near the Pantheon. Their website describes the place as follows:
Historical family from Norcia dedicated to salumeria for many generations.Over the coure [sic] of the time it’s extended its branches in baking, food and pastry.Loved by their loyal customers and by many tourists who rush into the store.
We strolled around, another afternoon spent looking, eating, and shopping, be it for ourselves or buying gifts for friends and family back home. We found some interesting products available including a carrot sharpener (left). Judging by the text on the package, this product was most likely Danish, as opposed to Italian, but you never realise that you are coping without something until you first discover it. Still, with my giant tambourine, there probably isn’t enough room in my luggage for a carrot sharpener so I am destined to a life of blunt carrots.
Soon we were getting a little peckish again and it occured to us we still hadn’t had pizza since we had been in Rome. Neither of us felt like a big meal as we had already planned what we were having for dinner so we went to Alice Pizza. It may not have been traditional Italian pizza, more along the lines of fast food, but it was pretty damn good and with some kind of absurd flavours available, although it is hard to find a menu, leading me to believe that they change a lot of them daily.
We went back to our apartment to relax for a while before dinner and before too long it was time to eat again, this time at a place that Anna loved last time we were in town.
After relaxing, we went out for dinner at Sorpasso. Sorpasso is split into two different places; Passaguai, which is mainly just a wine bar, and Sorpasso, the kitchen and restaurant area of the wine bar. We pulled up a seat and instantly recognised a couple of the waiters so Anna asked how long they had worked there and it turns out it was highly likely they were the ones that served us five years ago.
Just as on that occasion, this time we ate like kings too. We started off with a prosciutto platter, then had steamed cod with artichoke and some braised beef, followed by some pasta and a cheese platter. Have a look for yourself:
Dinner was perfect, but our final night in Rome was only getting started. We went to a small nearby bar and sat in the main bar area, but it was little cramped and a tad depressing. It seemed like all the action was happening in the room next door, however, there was a sign that said it was a private function. The waitress said that it didn’t matter and that we should pull up a table and have some fun if there was a spare one. It turned out that there was so we crashed an office’s Christmas karaoke party and to say that it turned out hilarious is an understatement. Initially, we were welcomed with this group rendition of Wham’s seminal Christmas staple, Last Christmas:
The drinks flowed and the singing continued, some of it terrible, some of it quite decent, and on one occasion it was phenomenal. I’m referring to an African girl probably no older than about 12 or 13, the more-than-likely adopted daughter of one of the older employees, who did a mind-blowing rendition of Gloria Gaynor’s I will Survive. Things really got truly entertaining when, during a male employee’s heartfelt rendition of I’m Yours by Jason Mraz, it seemed that an incredibly drunk girl across the room (right) was flirting with me. She was constantly looking over at me, stroking the stem of her wine glass and occasionally mouthing the lyrics while staring me in the eyes, that kind of thing. Anna noticed as well and it was a running joke for us for the remainder of the night, but it was when I had to break the seal that it became clear that she was somewhat serious. The bathrooms in the bar were just two separate stalls side by side. I was in the midst of taking a leak in one stall when the door of the other stall closed and a woman’s voice began to sing seductively, “♫I’m yours…♫.” At first I thought it was just some regular drunk chick in the bathroom singing to herself, but when I went back to my seat I noticed the girl was no longer in hers. Anna then told me that the girl had got up just after I did and walked over to the direction of the bathroom. I informed her of what had happened while I was inside and neither of us could stop pissing ourselves for the rest of the night. Of course, the multitude of beer and wine certainly helped.
We eventually staggered home, still laughing, and packed our stuff when we got back. Our flight was at around 11:00am the next morning and we don’t have the best track record when it comes to making flights comfortably on time so we figured we had better get some sleep.
Tuesday, December 19
I don’t usually make a big deal of writing about the day we leave, but in this particular case I’ll make an exception. We got up, enjoyed some of the free coffee and croissants that Gianluca, our host at QuodLebet, had prepared for us, accepted his parting gift of some traditional Roman Gentilini biscuits and half a kilogram of Gragano pasta from Naples and we were on our way to the airport.
We got there with plenty of time to spare so we checked in and then went to the duty-free section to do some last minute Christmas shopping. Once that was completed we went up to the lounge and waited for our flight. In yet another example of our incredibly consistent ability to steal defeat from the jaws of victory at airports, we waited for the final boarding call and went to walk down to our boarding gate, which required us catching an elevator. We got in what we thought was the correct lift, albeit one with a bit of an industrial feel, and pressed the button for the floor, but it wouldn’t open when we arrived. Anna pressed the emergency button which rang an extremely loud bell, but the doors also eventually opened. We were then in an unfamiliar area so she pushed the handle on the first door in front of us, setting off a siren. It turned out that that door was to allow employees to access the tarmac. Oops
We somehow found our way back to our gate, although we were the last to board our flight again, met with the same looks to what we experienced when we did something similar in Sweden. We made the 12-hour flight home, laughed while we were landing as a Chinese man who was at least in his mid-40s bawled while watching a documentary on the death of Princess Diana, and arrived back at our place at about 6:00am. I showered and, before going to bed for a nap, thought I’d weigh myself. Despite walking anywhere between 10-14 kilometres (6.2 – 8.6 miles) per day, I had still managed to pile on four kilograms (8.8 lbs)! I’m going to put it down to water retention from the flight or possible muscle development in my quads and gluts from all of the walking and climbing. No way was it all of that pasta.
Our second trip to Rome was a blast, just as we expected, but there were a few surprises, coincidences, and things we just generally don’t understand in Italy.
First of all, despite all of the memes and everything else you may have read on the internet, yes, you can get pineapple on pizza in Italy (right). This one, however, might be a unique occurrence because it came from that Alice Pizza place and they did have some odd choices (banana pizza anyone?). Also, we never saw an actual Hawaiian pizza anywhere, but if this one exists, then there is nothing stopping anyone from adding a little ham to it.
- Quite a lot of Uber and taxi drivers are called Massimo. In fact, almost every driver we had was called Massimo! The reason we noticed was when we ordered out first Uber, Anna said to me, “You’ll never guess what our driver’s name is.” I honestly had no idea what she was getting at so I just said something stereotypical like ‘Geppetto.’ “No,” Anna responded. “But do you remember The Bold and the Beautiful…?” It was hilarious at the time, but the reference lost its edge after we kept constantly encountering Massimos.
- The final thing is quite a simple one — Why don’t public toilets have seats? Were people stealing them or something? I do everything I can to avoid a public toilet situation where I’m required to sit, but I think it would make the whole situation a little more tolerable if there were a seat. I’m not particularly good at hovering and that porcelain has to get a little cold on the cheeks during Winter.
Anyway, until next time, Italy, thanks to everyone who helped us out while we were in town and if you visit Rome make sure you stay at QuodLibet Guest House, you won’t regret it.
The next time you’ll probably hear from me will be in a couple of weeks after I spend four nights in Bangkok with my best mate, Owen.