After a week in Rome, the one definitive statement I can make is this: it wasn’t enough time.

Like most people, I don’t get much opportunity to travel abroad.  The last vacation I took outside the US was ten years ago, when I took the family to Ireland and had other extended family members along as well.  That trip was a long-time dream vacation for me, and I’d still like to go back.  For Marcia, though, Rome was her dream, especially the Vatican — and Rome was on my bucket list, too.  As the date for the beatification of Pope John Paul II approached, and as I realized we wouldn’t be getting any younger by waiting, the timing was perfect to make the dream a reality.

Today I’ll write three posts about the trip, with the last a special treat as I had a chance to conduct an interview at the Vatican while I was in Rome with the head of the Patrons program for the museum.  In the posts, I’ll offer slideshows from the 400 or so pictures I took during the week and give a few explanations and talk through some of the highlights.  In this slideshow and post, I’ll give a general overview for those who have never been to Rome, and discuss some of the highlights of the trip.  This slideshow focuses mainly on the street scenes and architecture:

The first scenes are of the Trevi Fountain, of course, which has been made famous in films like Roman Holiday and La Dolce Vita.  We did toss a coin in the fountain, so we hope to be returning soon.

Obviously, we had a wonderful time, and we learned a few things as well about traveling abroad in general, and to Rome specifically.  First, make sure you get a good hotel.  We were very fortunate indeed to stay at the Hotel Quirinale, which turned out to be centrally located for anyone who wants to see the sights of the old city.  It’s right off of the Piazza della Repubblica, which means that the subway station is just steps away from the hotel, and the tour buses start their routes just around the corner.  At 3.2 kilometers, the Vatican is a long but doable walk from the hotel, although beware that it’s an uphill return stroll.  The Colosseum, the Forum, the Pantheon, and most other must-sees in Rome are shorter walking distances.

The Quirinale was worth the stay even without its strategic location.  The staff was helpful and friendly, and most of them spoke excellent English, so language was never an issue — at least not when I wasn’t using my weak Italian.  The rooms were quite spacious, all with full baths, flat-screen TVs with several English-language news channels (which only became an issue when news broke of Osama bin Laden’s demise).  Its restaurant made the best tiramisù I’ve ever had; in fact, we made a point of ending three of our days in the restaurant to get it.  Breakfast is included, as it is in most hotels in Rome, but at the Quirinale it consists of a full buffet rather than the continental breakfast that Americans expect in USA hotels, and it’s delicious.

We had plenty of food elsewhere, too, and none of it bad.  The bread in Rome is uniformly outstanding, but that’s just the beginning.  The most pleasant aspect of dining in Rome was the time allowed to — and practically demanded of — those dining.  Thanks to a leisurely pace of serving one course at a time, dinner routinely lasted 90 minutes to two hours.  No one rushed us out of the restaurants, not for lunch, dinner, or piazza-side cappucini and gelati.  Every time, I had to ask, Posso avere il conto, per favore? so we could pay the bill and move along.

For those used to Italian food in the US, dining in Rome will hold some surprises.  The food is less salty, for one, and Roman chefs use less garlic, which makes the dishes more subtle and nuanced.  The menus are typically more diverse than in the US as well, and I’m happy to report that veal is a lot less politically incorrect in Italy than in America.  Pizza has a surprising diversity in Rome, too.  The traditional pizzas use a very thin and delicious crust, with less sauce and cheese than in the US, with a lot of unusual toppings — like zucchini, eggplant, hardboiled eggs, and even potatoes.  When ordering pizza at a ristorante or trattoria (which is a less formal and expensive restaurant), be prepared to cut or tear pieces off yourself; the chef won’t cut it at all.  At a pizzeria, you can get it by the (very large) slice, and they usually have more diversity in the crust types as well.

We found all of these places by walking through Rome.  Almost all of them have their menus on display for passers-by, and their waiters are not shy in trying to convince people to stop for a bite to eat, in Italian and in English.  After I told one, “Maybe later,” he replied immediately, with a big smile and booming voice, “Okay.  I’ll be waiting for you.”

As I mentioned before, it’s an easy city to walk through, and it felt surprisingly safe.  We took some key precautions, though, and we didn’t avoid all the mistakes.  I got harangued into buying four roses for 15€ on my first day at the Spanish Steps, but learned quickly from that experience not to be polite in telling street vendors no.  They understand immediately that you’re a waste of their time and move along quickly. I used a money belt recommended to me by HA reader Simkeith and we carried no bags or purses to grab, a very important precaution in a city plagued by borsaioli (pickpockets and thieves).  We didn’t walk alone at night in poorly-lit areas, but that’s a precaution I take at home, too.  We felt like we ate everything in the city, but I lost five pounds on this trip.  (And I’m sore this weekend, too.  I’m 48, not 28.)

We used the hop-on/hop-off bus from Green Line Tours to get around on two of the days, and that worked out very well as it put us in the neighborhoods of points of interest.  It also provided us a way to have a “sag wagon” to fall back on when we got too tired to do much walking.  We also arranged two tours through Appian Line, one of the Vatican and one called Rome at Night, both of which were excellent; if you do the Vatican tour with them, ask for Stefano, who was brilliant, and who we unexpectedly ran into at lunch and chatted with for quite a while.  But be aware that organization isn’t their strong suit, especially at the end of tours when they’re supposed to get you back to your hotel or to their office.  Both times, I wished I’d just grabbed a taxi and paid the extra money, and we passed on a third tour through Appian because of it.

Speaking of walking, I have to make one recommendation: bring a hand-held GPS device.  I killed my first such device, so I brought my Droid cell phone instead.  However, data roaming costs a fortune, so I didn’t want to use the native Google Maps GPS app while in Rome.  Instead, I bought the Sygic Aura map of Italy that allows the user to download all of the data onto the phone itself, and then just use the GPS signal to pinpoint locations.  It has its operational quirks and isn’t easy to master, but once I got used to it, the Aura map became indispensable to find the points of interest I wanted while on foot.  At $45, it saved me at least twice that in cabs, and it also comes with a large list of restaurants and other points of interest that are easy to find through its search function.  No matter what country I visit, I plan on using the Aura product in the future, at least until data roaming becomes free.

Finally, a word about the Italian people.  When Americans travel abroad, we wonder how we will be received, and not just because of contemporary politics.  The  phrase “ugly American” was a well-earned sobriquet a few decades ago.  To our pleasant surprise, Romans received us very warmly.  In fact, as we walked down the street in one area away from the splashy tourist attractions, an older woman stopped us on the street to tell us in her limited English that “America is beautiful” and “I love Americans!”  We detected no cold shoulders, but instead felt remarkable hospitality and found many small kindnesses.

That’s one of the many reasons we will someday return to Rome — and we’ll throw another coin in the fountain when we do.