At the top of my list of Rome Must-Do’s was to see the Roman catacombs, where Christians hid from persecution during the early hundred A.D.s. I had read about the catacombs when I was a child, fascinated by the esoteric symbols painted on their doorways, moved by the tales of men and women who had been yanked from hiding and had become gladiator martyrs on the bloody floor of the Colosseum. I imagined underground tunnels of damp stone, ancient candelabras in corners, and smoke stains on ceilings from where fires were kept.
Rob and I left our beautiful campground one sunny afternoon to undertake the challenge of navigating Rome’s public transit system to get to the Catacombe di Domitilla. Our campground was north and west of the city center, and the catacombs were south and east, so we figured to take the train to the Piazzale Flaminio Metro station and transfer to the B line that would take us as close as we could by subway to where the catacombs were located. Using the train was simple enough, but it was hot out, and Rob and I were bombarded with all sorts of smells in the air when we walked above ground after departing the last Metro station. We passed a hedge of honeysuckle that gave off the most intoxicating sweetness, then we walked through a section of residential road that decidedly smelled like old man breath and ass, with a hint of laundry detergent wafting down from the clothes hanging to dry above us. Rob actually gagged, and we hurried down that street as fast as we could, breathing through our mouths. Just as suddenly, the aroma of fresh-baked pastries drifted by us, pulling our eyes to windows full of cannoli and fruit cakes, located next to gelato stands whose blue, pink, and caramel mountains begged to be scooped.
We got lost, of course. That’s just what happens when you wander through foreign cities. After almost two hours of walking, expecting to see the catacombs around the next and next corner, we cracked and unlocked the Data Roaming switch on our iPhones to make sure we were headed in the right direction. We weren’t at all. After a stop inside a caffe where I bought chocolates and Rob used the restroom, we marched onward in the vague direction Rob’s Google Map dot/compass pointed us toward. 18 sweaty miles and four hours later, we finally rounded a stone walled corner to see the Catacombe di Domitilla. The gardens above looked pretty, and we passed tourists sitting in the grass gulping iced tea and paninis as we walked to the ticket admission office.
“We are closed,” the man behind the counter said firmly. He pointed to the clock on the wall which read 5:07. “We close at five o’clock.”
It was crushing. Rob told him it how long it had taken us to get there, practically begging him to let us into the cool underground tunnels that were just behind us, but the man refused. “Come back tomorrow, we are open from nine until five, any time.” We triple confirmed this, as his English was heavily accented, and then satisfied that we could come back the next day between nine and five, we shrugged our shoulders and walked back in the direction we came. Our feet were tired, our throats scratchy, and we chalked the day up to a massive fail.
I suggested that instead of trying to walk all the way back to the Basilica san Paulo Metro stop, we hop on one of the many busses passing us by. True, we didn’t know what number bus to get on or which route we’d find ourselves taking, but I figured that as long as we were headed north, we’d be in good shape. We had each bought a Roma Pass from the campground’s information center, a very handy little card that for only EU 25 allows you entrance to almost all the museums and historical attractions in Rome. Plus, you get to skip lines, and it also works as a rail/bus/tram pass for three days. We might as well take advantage of it. Rob agreed to my suggestion, and we happily found ourselves on a bus that wound up the Tiber River and back to Rome’s central hub. We decided to walk around before enjoying our first Roman dinner at a restaurant I had looked up, Boccondivino. It means ‘divine mouthful’, an artsy place founded by three foodie friends. If we got nothing else out of Rome that day, we would eat a tasty dinner.
I had not known how great the shopping is in Rome, or how relatively inexpensive it is. Rob and I set out on this trip with a shopping mission: to find him a dapper suit, and myself a flowing gown, so that we could dress up and go out on the town in style one night in some big city, perhaps Nice or Paris. We decided that since Rome was cooler than Frankfurt, had more designer stores than Prague, and was cheaper even than Croatia (Dubrovnik is a rip-off city that profits off of peoples’ false assumption that things are inexpensive there), that we would buy ourselves nice things here in Rome rather than risk prices going up again as we made our way further west. We wandered up Via del Corso, making a right turn onto Via dei Condotti towards the Spanish Steps, where the real good shopping is. Louis Vuitton, Dior, Gucci, Prada, all the major labels had stores along this side street. Alas, even though things in Rome are cheaper compared to Paris or London, or even Los Angeles, a designer dress is still a designer dress, and it was not cheap. Still, I lovingly ran my fingers over the sheer silk of a gown in Versace, fantasized about trying on the studded gold one in Valentino, and even dared to hold up to my body the feminine grandeur of a stunning Dolce and Gabbana floral. The price tags on all of these were between EU 7,000 and EU 12,000. Eesh. Damn my expensive taste! I longingly recalled the days I’d try on designer gowns that were loaned to me for free, along with jewelry, purses, and even shoes!
However, Rob and I did find a small women’s boutique that was far more affordable, with fine quality fabrics and well-thought cuts. He was very patient and cheerfully held my bags as I perused through the dresses. Rob is the youngest in a family of six, his five siblings all amazing young women, a couple of them I have been delighted to meet. That likely explains his good-natured tolerance of girly hobbies such as shopping, and his empathetic patience in listening to me moan about how difficult it is to use Italy’s seatless toilets or how I yearn for women’s shaving cream. I can’t find a single women’s shaving cream in Europe, and I’ve been to every drug store, farmacia, apoteke, super market, you name it. Oh for Gillette’s Satin Care in the Alluring Avacado scent, instead of my Palmolive Eau d’ Grandpa. Rob has since found me a gender-neutral shave gel in a tingly menthol, but it’s not flowery or fruity. I’m amused at how much I miss Target and its many options for hair removal and scented products.
Anyway, back to the dress shopping. It was an emerald green little number that caught my eye, the first and only thing I tried on in that store. I was enchanted by the way the fabric flowed, by the backless cut out as the dress was held together by a simple zipper, by the way the fabric dipped and draped over my hips, even showing off my tattoo. While it’s not the long, Cannes-worthy gown I’d pictured in my head, this would do nicely for the purpose of a night on the town. Rob silently agreed when he saw me step out of the changing room to find a mirror, and all the salesladies breathlessly exclaimed over how beautiful I looked. What else does a girl need to know this is the one? I giggled as I looked at my reflection, already in love with the dress, and when I was told the material was silk, I was sold. I delightedly forked over the euros (180, which I thought reasonable).That left Rob’s suit to be discovered, which we did at the Marciano store inside a galleria. Prada and Valentino will have have to wait for bigger budgets next trip.
Rob’s criteria for a suit was that it be reminiscent of something JT might wear. I say he succeeded with a gray jacket and vest with white pinstripes that looked very sharp on him, and he also bought a more formal black suit to wear later if I ever come across my floor-length Cannes gown. While we don’t plan on walking any red carpets on this trip, we kind of have this fantasy of living out a movie scene where we walk around a glitzy European city dressed up as if we’re wealthy undercover criminals along the lines of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, or James Bond and Woman. An upper class Bonnie and Clyde, or Mickey and Mallory. We’d walk in slow motion, of course, with hidden weapons strapped to my garter belt and up his suited sleeve. Yes, we know we’re very silly. And no, we don’t plan on robbing any crown jewels or stealing any of the Vatican’s hidden treasures—although they should be shared with the world and I would cheer on the person who did steal them to do just that!
Dinner that night was a relaxing and delicious end to our long day. Divine mouthful indeed. Boccondivino’s menu was pretty much an assortment of whatever the chef thought you might like that night. While we ordered fettucini with artichoke hearts and speck from the menu, we were surprised by plate after plate coming from the kitchen decorated with tapas-sized dishes such as meatball-stuffed zucchini, caramelized onion quiche, and white bean salad with a purple coleslaw on the side. We actually had no room left for dessert, but had stacked up on enough chocolates to last us for days, which we greedily nibbled back at camp.
To unwind from our long days, Rob and I have been watching movies. During our stay in Rome, it was “The Cove”, the award-winning documentary about the slaughter of dolphins in Japan, that gave us food for thought as we fell asleep. I don’t think it’s the best thing to unwind to, and we’d only manage to get about twenty minutes in before our exhausted bodies would take over and crash out, but it was definitely a worthwhile film to see. Quite tragic. That night I learned how the Japanese people are lied to and fed dolphin meat in their schools and fish markets instead of whatever other fish they think they’re buying. I’ve heard that since the documentary’s release, some things have changed, but Japanese fisherman are still killing dolphins and capturing many for captivity. Two things that stick out most to me: don’t ever pay to see a dolphin show; don’t eat seafood. (The latter is already a personal choice, but reinforced due to the unknown sources of most of our sushi and other sea fare.) If you’re interested in learning more, visit http://www.takepart.com/thecove.