Friday, April 3, 2015

My Euro Trip - The Last Day, Bike & Segway Tours / Italy by Cruiser Bike

So, as you know by now, just over a week ago I was in Europe. 

Since I've been back, I've been getting a ton of the same questions - how was it?  what did you do?  where did you go?  Etc., etc., etc.  To help myself from being on constant repeat, for the next week I'm going to devote my blog to recapping my trip, posting photos, and telling you all about what went down. 

Each day this week I'll recap one of the aspects of my trip.  Enjoy!

Update:  read all the recaps back to back!  An Overview (and how to pack), Stop One - Amsterdam, Stop Two - Paris, Stop Three - Munich, Stop Four - Rome Day One & Second Day Bike Tour, and of course a follow up summary.


My European Vacation - The Last Day, Bike & Segway Tours / Italy by Cruiser Bike

After a somewhat unproductive day in Rome the day prior, having burned my entire day on the Vatican Museum, I figured I better get my act together - there was still a ton to see in Rome. 

One thing I learned over the course of this vacation is the value of a good tour guide, and the joy that is riding a bike and giving your weary feet a rest after walking non stop for days on end.  So of course, I was very much looking forward to taking a tour with this group for my last day of vacation:

          Italy by Cruiser Bike - Website
          Italy Segway Tours - Facebook

Our tour was scheduled to start at 10 am near the Roman's equivalent of the Tomb of the Unknown Solider (Monumento a Vittorio Emanuele), so my husband and I hopped the metro and wandered the area prior to the tour's start.

Imagine my surprise when I found out this was nearby the location of the Rome Marathon's finish line, which was taking place the next day.  Sheesh, had I known that, I would have extended my stay a day and looked to see if they had other distance options.  Dang!

There was supposed to be one other couple on our bike tour the day of our visit, but apparently they forgot their appointment, since we waited until almost 10:15 before we left without them.  A part of me felt bad that they missed the tour, but - really, it's not fair to hold up others because you're running late for something.  Plus, it meant we'd get VIP service, since we were the only people on the tour that day.  Whoop!

Our tour guide, Matt, was very apologetic about the delay, which was really no problem.  Once we determined the other folks weren't going to make it, Matt wasted absolutely no time getting started.

Given the marathon the next day, our tour had a few minor detours due to road closures and fences within the first block or two of our ride ... but it was actually a hidden bonus, in that we could freely ride down a few roads that had been totally closed to traffic.  Awesome!!

Our first couple of stops for our tour were within eyeshot of the tour office, since they have a handful of ruins practically in their backyard - Foro Traiano and Mercati Traianei.  Matt explained that the Foro was a public square of sorts, where people would gather to have conversations (foro = forum), and that the Mercati was located nearby at the convenience of the women stopping at the Foro, as they could run by the Mercati afterwards to do some shopping (mercati = market). 

While we were there, since the Monumento a Vittorio Emanuele (my first photo above, the Roman version of the Tomb of the Unknown Solider) was right across the street, we learned about that building as well.  Matt told us that Italians call this building "the wedding cake", and that they hate it.  To me, I couldn't understand it, because it was a beautiful building.  But when Matt explained that the building was an infant compared to the history of Rome, having been built in the early 1900's, and that the stark white marble jumped out against the rest of the buildings in the city that was covered with the patina of literally thousands of years of history, well ... I guess I could understand.  And also, it made me hungry for cake.  Heh.

Continuing on our tour, we headed over to our first major stop on the tour - the Coliseum.  I cannot tell you how excited I was to be here!  After all, it IS one of the 7 wonders of the world.

Matt spent some time talking about the Coliseum and the Arc just to the left of it in the photo above.  Most interesting for me was to hear about the life of a gladiator, and to know that they trained for their battles not far from the Coliseum.  Apparently even the training sessions were a source of entertainment for the locals.  I couldn't help but snicker and think of the modern day TV show American Gladiators.  I supposed it would be pretty entertaining to watch those guys train, so I understood the interest.

Remember the final round where they shot tennis balls at competitors on that TV show?!  Hahaha.

Anyway, even though I always knew the background (loosely) of the Coliseum, I was amazed by it, seeing it in person.  And it was interesting to listen to Matt talk about the whole process that was attending an event there, including the seating priority - the most important of course sat in the lower levels, and the least important ... and women ... sat in the nose bleeds.  Matt kind of glossed over that comment about the women, but I caught it right away.  Even the women who were married to those of status had to sit in the lowly commoners' section.  Hm.

Another interesting thing I learned from Matt ties to the less attractive part of the Coliseum - the blood.  Apparently, the stadium designers struggled with a proper flooring substrate, as the constant blood shed was not good for surfaces like marble or wood.  I don't recall how they settled on it, but apparently the floor of the Coliseum ended up being sand, since as Matt put it "it could handle the blood best".


But interestingly, this flooring selection has a very important role in American culture even today.  Why?  Well, Matt explained that the word for sand during Roman times was "harena" or "arena".  And what do we call large buildings that host sporting events today?  Arenas.

One last thing on the Coliseum before I move on - can you believe that in one year at the Coliseum they hosted 100 or so events?!  That's an event once every 3-4 days.  Insane!!  Puts the phrase "panem et circenses" into perspective.

You may notice in our Coliseum photo above, by the way, that my husband and I are wearing ear pieces.  While at first they felt a little dorky and cumbersome, as we continued on our tour they proved to be tremendously useful.  Those little devices allowed Matt to talk to us clearly as we biked, so when we were on the move, he could provide additional historical narration relevant to the areas we biked through.  This was especially nice when passing sites that were interesting, but not really worth stopping at, as it allowed us to learn about the site but not waste time stopping to discuss its history.  Rome was the only bike tour we took during our entire vacation that included wearing an ear piece, and my husband and I both thought it was a really great amenity.

Our next major stop on the tour was Circus Maximus, which sounds much more impressive than it actually is today, since it's now just a stretch of open green space.  Interesting to note, though: people still use the park's original footprint today, so literally 2000 years after conception, the park's pathways are still visibly worn into the grass. 

It's here where Matt talked a bit about the Roman aqueducts, and showed us how to drink "like a Roman" from the current public water system: simply put your finger at the bottom of the spout where the water freely flows (the nose), and the pressure will build up inside to force the water up out of the upper hole, creating an easily accessible fountain.

My husband and I got a good chuckle out of giving that a try.  And actually, the water was quite nice tasting.

After this stop, Matt took us through the Jewish district of Rome.  There, he offered us a great tip about food.  Apparently, the reputation of the Jewish district is that they REALLY know how to cook.  Taking Matt's advice, we walked back there later for lunch and weren't disappointed.  The fried artichokes, by the way, were fantastic.

Eventually we headed to the bridge that leads to Castel Saint Angelo.  That was quite a beautiful site:

We really enjoyed this location, so my husband and I actually came back here later in the day and took some additional photos.  At which point we realized: once you cross the bridge to the castle, it's a straight shot to the Vatican's main plaza, so we headed that way for a few additional photos too.

Back to the tour & Castel Saint Angelo - Matt explained that this castle was originally meant to be a tomb for one of Rome's ancient emperors, but it had also been used as a fortress by the Vatican when the Pope became the ruling power of Rome.  Then, during the time of the plague when the Vatican / Pope was ruling Rome, it gained a totally new significance: at that time, the people staged a march that crossed this bridge (with the intent of marching into the Vatican's main square).  During this march, the Pope had a vision of Archangel Michael on top of the castle, who supposedly gave the Pope confidence that they would beat the plague.  Shortly after that, the plague left the city.  To commemorate the vision, the Pope commissioned the angel statue on top of the castle that you see today.

Somewhere around this point of the tour, Matt had some good news for us - it was time for a tour break and a surprise.  While the tour wasn't terribly aggressive since you ride at a very casual pace, and we really didn't NEED a break, who would say no to ice cream?  Yum!  We entered a local shop that prided itself on using only the best ingredients for their handmade creations and enjoyed some ice cream ... free of charge!  We were allowed two sample sized scoops, so I decided to try a new flavor - cheese with dates and almonds, and also had some pistachio. My husband had tiramisu and lemon cheese cake.  All four flavors were delicious.

After our break, we passed through the artesian district of Rome and eventually came upon a farmer's market and open air shopping area.  This all fed into our next stop, Piassa Navona. 

You'll note the obelisk in the fountain.  Apparently, during all it's many conquests, Rome acquired 13 of these and placed them to mark important places in Rome.  You will find them scattered throughout the city.  (Foot note, did you know that Julius Cesar actually had a relationship with Cleopatra and that they had a child together?!  I found that fascinating.)

Our trip then passed by the Pantheon, which Matt explained was a "wedding" of two churches - Pagan and Christian.  He explained that the flat roofed structure with pillars, or the "front" of the Pantheon, is actually an old style Pagan place of worship.  And the round, domed structure behind it, is an old style of a Christian church.  By building the two together, Rome was showing the unity of its people.  Of course, even more fascinating is that the dome has a giant hole in the roof, which hardly ever has any issues with rain coming in due to the constant warm air rising up out of the dome and pushing the rain out of the way.  Apparently the building only gets wet inside during major storms.

Nearby the Pantheon, Matt pointed out a church that is known for its beautifully painted ceilings with optical illusions, Saint Ignazio di Loyola.  Taking Matt's recommendation, we came back to both the Pantheon and Saint Ignazio di Loyola later in the day and were immensely pleased.  Not only were they free and easy to get into (unlike the Vatican), they were much less crowded and offered similarly spectacular views of religious art.

Note: these are not my photos, but just so you can appreciate the beauty of both buildings:



By the way, if you visit Saint Ignazio di Loyola, be a patron of the rosary stand.  For about 5 Euro, you can buy a simple rosary to commemorate your trip and also help support the church.  (Secretly, I had wanted to buy a rosary on this trip, but was tremendously disappointed in the cost of them at the Vatican.  Imagine my joy in finding a smaller church that could benefit from my money far more.  I purchased a pearl-like rosary, and on the center station it features the church's name sake saint on one side, with a sacred heart Jesus on the other.)
By now, having made a pretty good loop on our bikes, we had seen most of the highlights of Rome.  Eventually, Matt began leading us back to our starting point.   When we returned to the tour office, he very kindly drew out a map of our bike route so that we could revisit anything we saw that interested us on the tour, and also circled areas he recommended we visit that weren't on the tour.  As I mentioned above, all of his recommendations were fantastic, and my only regret is that I wished we had more time to do them all, since we didn't' get to everything he suggested.
He also offered us a discount coupon on any future tour bookings in Italy (since they offered tours in Florence and Milan as well), and said that I was free to share the discount with all of you.  Unfortunately, the card didn't include a discount code, so - if you're interested in booking a tour with them mention this blog and ask for a 10% discount.
Note: they also have another special until the end of 2015, per their Facebook page (which I would hazard a guess they'd be willing to extend to their bike tours as well) - Italy Segway Tours will be celebrating ten years in business. To show our sincerest gratitude, we offer you a special 15% OFF valid for all our Segway Tours in Florence, Rome and Milan until the end of this year. Promotional code ANNIVERSARY.
Anyway, like all good things, this too must end.  
After having spent the good majority of our day on the bike tour with Matt and then going out on our own to visit some of the sites he suggested to us, we wound down our final day in Rome by taking the tram back to our hotel and stopping at a by-the-slice pizza shop nearby for dinner. 
Sadly, all that was left of our week long trip was packing up the next morning and flying home...

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