Italy by Rail and Ship: The Folly of Line Picking

When in Rome … you join the queue of long lines to enter attractions like the Colosseum and the Forum and the Vatican.   If you are lucky, you encounter little or no lines or you pick the line that moves the fastest.  For our just completed trip to Rome, we batted .500…

  • Colosseum Part 1 …. despite what some web sites tell you, it does NOT close one hour before sunset.  In the summer, the final entry is at 6:15pm.  We arrived at 6:15pm and 30 seconds.  I kid you not.  There was no line!  But you have to go through this barricade set up to the main entrance, and as we were walking through this, one of the security guards told us that they are closing the gate and we need to hurry up.  Hurry up we did, to no avail.  By the time we reached the gate, it was locked.  We could see it locked, and we could see another couple just ahead of us just shut out.  So at least we were not the very first ones.  But I still walked up to the gate, I suppose that I just needed to see that the gate really was fastened with that lock and that there was no other way to get in.  So despite no line, we did not get to the Colosseum.
  • Colosseum Part 2:  fortunately for us, the Colosseum is a combination ticket that gives you entrance into the Forum and Palatine Hill over the course of two days.  So we returned the following day right around the time it opened, which was 8:30am.  There are three entry lines:  one for reserved time tickets, one for people with no tickets, and one for people with regular tickets.  We only waited about ten minutes in our line before it was our turn to go through the security check point (x-ray conveyor belt and metal detector – is that what they still call them?).  From there we had to go to another line to actually hand in our tickets for admission.  This line combined all three former lines, but we were able to get through within about five minutes.  Total time in line was only fifteen minutes vs the one or two hours that I’ve read and heard others have had to endure.
  • Palatine Hill / The Forum:  opens at 8:30am, we arrived around 9:30am and had no line!
  • Vatican Museums Part 1:  it is highly recommended to have timed-entry tickets to visit the Vatican, otherwise people will be waiting forever to purchase tickets at the regular ticket counter.  I tried to buy tickets online, but on four separate occasions the transaction failed to go through, so we were taking a chance by having no reservations and trying the regular line.  At a minimum, it takes three hours to go through the Vatican Museums and it closes at 6pm.

    We arrived just around 2:30pm.  It is basically following the herd uphill on a narrow sidewalk that suddenly is divided into two lanes by metal barriers with chains.  And as you walk, there are so many touts and people with official-looking name tags and IDs around their necks, attempting to help you out.  What they are really trying to do is to sell you a private tour or a pre-purchased time-entry ticket.  I didn’t really want to engage with any of them, but when one asked me if I had a ticket and I said “No”, he told me to go to the line towards the right.  We were walking on the line on the left.  Trusting his knowledge, we walked up the right hand line and came to the top where tour groups are supposed to go to.  Looking back, we saw that the left hand line was actually the one we needed to be in for regular tickets.  And so retraced our steps and joined the correct line, probably losing about 25 spaces due to my mistake.  However, the line moved on pretty well and we only waited for about twelve minutes before they let us in. There were three lines to choose from for security, and the one we picked went pretty fast.  From there, we wound our way up some steps, following signs for the ticket window.

    Ah, now we had to choose from five ticket kiosk lines.  Lisa and I split up for the two closest lines and we would just see which one moved faster.  I thought I had the fast one picked out, because there was one family finishing up, another single guy after them, and then two early-twenty something chaps ahead of me.  Lisa had at least four separate groups/people in front of her, including a stroller.  The family ahead of me finished up, and it my line moved up, so confident in my line picking choice, I waved Lisa over.  Yeah, wrong move.  As soon as she came over, her line moved up.  And the lady in front of her moved over to my line, because she did the split line strategy with her husband, who was in the process of buying his and her tickets.  And then there was a delay.  I don’t know what it was, but by the time is was resolved, Lisa’s former place in line was now up to the ticket transaction window.  I still had the two young guys in front of me.  And then they had some sort of issue that the ticket lady had to process and wait on.  And so we waited.  And waited.  And waited.  Ah, the foolishness of line picking!  At long last Lisa and I were able to move forward to buy our tickets, which took less than a minute, and finally we were in!  But had we stayed in Lisa’s line, we could have had a least another five minutes in the Vatican, which doesn’t seem like a lot, until….

    We are in the Sistine Chapel.  The time is 5:30pm.  I figure we have a whole half an hour of admiring the art.  But I am wrong.  You see, the 6pm closing time is when they want everybody out of the museums.  And there is a lot of walking to the exit out of the museum.  Which meant that just after 5:40pm, the security guards inside the Sistine Chapel rang this little bell, then proceeded to sweep everyone out into the other parts of the museum leading the exit.  Our little delay at the ticket window could have given us an extra five minutes in the Sistine Chapel, which is the main reason why we visited the Vatican Museums!  Ah, drat.

  • St. Peter’s Basilica:  immediately following getting booted out of the Vatican, we made our way to the famous church, which has its own stories of huge lines all throughout the day.  But on this evening there was no line — well, just two security lines.  I picked the one on the right because it seemed shorter.  Yeah, seemed.  It so happens that we were delayed because one guy had to go back through the metal detector to empty out his pockets, then take off his belt before he could successfully pass through.  As this process played out, I could only turn to Lisa and smile because this was just the story and folly of line picking.

All in all, we were pretty darn lucky and didn’t encounter any huge waits for any of the places we visited in Rome.  And whenever we did wait, or there was some sort of delay, we just had to remind ourselves that we are on vacation and we have all the time we need and to just relish the moment of being together, experiencing the delays and to expect the unexpected.  Queues and lines are a fact of life and sometimes we are super lucky and other times we just gotta give in and smile because we are still batting .500 and everything will balance in the end.  Or so we keep trying to convince ourselves…

Italy by Rail and Ship: The Colosseum

My trip to Rome is not complete without a visit to the famous Colosseum, made famous by gladiator battles against each other and wild animals.  

Photo taken from the Forum looking across the street to the Colosseum

The best photos are of the exterior vs the interior

Interior remnants; photo taken from the second level

The underground Chambers housed wild animals, theater sets for performances, and the Gladiators

We went just after their 8:30 a.m. opening and only waited about 10 minutes. Had we come later in the day the wait would have been at least one hour

Italy by Rail and Ship: Rome Street Food Walking Tour

Another travel experience using our credit card points from Chase Ultimate Rewards.  Three hour historic walking tour with five street food stops along the way…

Thin crust traditional Pizza Margherita and beer

Pizza is from forno Roscioli

This is called “suppli,” a fried ball of rice with meat and tomato sauce and a melted mozzarella in the middle… delicious!

Salami samples with bread and glasses of wine

This is a fried zucchini flower stuffed with mozarella cheese. Reminded me of tempura

And finally some gelato. Lisa went with the limon and I got the pineapple..we were both feeling something tart or fruity

Italy by Rail and Ship: Catania, Sicily 

A walk through the town of Catania, Sicily with their fish market, Duomo square, Roman ruins and churches galore.  We spent about four hours in port last Thursday.  The next time perhaps we will do the day trip tour up to Mount Etna, which is Europe’s largest active volcano, but honestly were just looking for a some low key things to do that would not take too much energy. Wandering around town fit the bill perfectly, as we were able to get back to the ship for a late lunch and use the Aqua Spa facility.

Duomo and the main Square

Fish market bleeding into the fruit and vegetable market. There are also plenty of butcher shops spilling out from the market

These are ruins from the Roman amphitheatre, which is buried underneath the city and partly exposed for visitors to check out

Italy by Rail and Ship: $84 for Two Sandwiches and Two Surprise Hours of Walking

The following post has been produced by using the speech to text feature on my smartphone. So full disclaimer there may be some grammatical errors and things that do not make sense but please bear with me and my smartphone!

Throughout our trip we have used our Chase Ultimate Rewards points to redeem different travel experiences offered through there points redemption web portal.  These points are earned via sign-up bonuses for the new credit card and by every day expenditures.  Each point art is basically one penny, so with 50,000 points we have about $500 at our disposal to be used towards airfare, hotels, or travel experiences like tickets to events or Admissions and tours.
Some of the experiences have been delightful, such as our Seaport Village Fourth of July VIP experience, and our food tour in Venice.  Others have been disappointing because our tour guide never showed up, that happened twice in Dubrovnik, Croatia.  That was a real bummer because we could have used our time more effectively to do some other touring, but instead we were waiting around for people who never showed up. Then we had to figure out what to do instead and by then it was too late to reserve something else or two take the public bus to get to somewhere.

In Rome, we have a few experiences booked with the Chase Ultimate Rewards. Our first one is renting electric bicycles for the day to tour some places that would be pretty cool to see by bike, specifically the Appia Antica, which was one of the original roads leading from Rome and on Sundays they close it to traffic so it is just pedestrians and bicyclists.  Perfect!  So I wore my white dri fit shirt, my sport shorts and my sandals because I knew I was going to do minimal walking today.

Our booking was for 35 Euros each, which included the electric bike, locks, helmets, and a sandwich and a bottle of water.  Factoring the exchange rate and commissions, the equivalent is around $84. So what did we get for $84? We got that and a whole lot more, a whole lot more that was unintended and and not appreciated…

First we had to get to the bicycle rental shop, which is located at Rome’s main train terminal. However our hotel is in the Travestere neighborhood, which is over an hour walk to the bike shop. Taking the tram or bus line 2 the train station would be the best option. So using my Google Maps, I figured out where to catch the bus in order to get to our reservation on time. However, I did not realize that you must already have tickets before you board the bus or tram or Metro (subway). Yesterday when we arrived to Rome I bought tickets at the transit station and they had to get machines to do so. I thought this would be the same at every tram stop, but I was mistaken. So although we were at the correct bus stop, we did not have any tickets. You cannot buy tickets when you board the bus, you have to get them either at a ticket machine, the transit office, and or certain retailers and bars. 

Unfortunately, on an early Sunday at 9 a.m. there is not a whole lot open. So we walked for maybe 15 minutes before I found a juice smoothie stand and asked the guy in my best broken Italian if he sells any tickets for the bus. He did not, and he did not know where else I could go to buy them. So we continued walking on, hoping to find some place to buy these elusive bus tickets.

Eventually, after crossing the bridge and walking on towards the next tram stop, I did find a little convenience store that had a sign that signified tickets were for sale. So I went in and bought our tickets, and we were able to find the correct bus for our destination. However when the bus pulled up it was quite full and standing-room-only, fortunately one of the passengers pointed me to where I needed to validate and stamp our bus tickets so I would not get the 50 Euro on-the-spot fine from any fare inspectors.  The half-hour ride was bumpy and crowded, but we made it to the terminal and got off. Unfortunately we got off one stop too early and added additional time two our walk to the bike shop.

It was around 10:10 a.m. when we arrived to the bike shop. There was one employee there and he found our reservation and we went through all the paperwork etc etc like the contract and liability forms. He provided us with the locks and helmet and the lunch in bottled water and then he showed us our fights and went over the features and operating procedures. I’ll take a test drive on the first bike and found out that the electric pedal-assist was not working. It was basically just a manual bike that you use human power to propel it forward. The second bike did work as advertised, although the brakes were a little loosey-goosey, front brake was fine but the back brake didn’t have much stopping power.  There were probably five other bicycles so we spent the next 20 minutes trying out the other bikes, but each one had unique issues that ranged from a broken pedal, to suspect and non-working breaks, to wobbly handlebars that did not give you confidence riding in the street because you thought it would fall off.  

Eventually I settled on the best of the worst, a bike that had a good front brake but pretty much no back brake. The pedal assist did work and finally we left the bike shop around 10:45 a.m. to start our adventure. we rode down hill on the cobbled streets with me in the lead and Lisa trailing behind. However when we got to the bottom of the hill, we said was having some trouble keeping up and she questioned if her pedal-assist was even working. I took one look at her bike and realized that her back tire was flat. So we hiked back up that Long Hill in the sun and returned to the bicycle shop.  I showed him the flat tire, but was not offered an apology, he just took the bike pump and filled the back tire with air and told me to try again. I wasn’t too confident in this so I took a longer test drive around the block, purposely going over some bumps to make sure that the tire could really keep the air and it seems like it could, so I returned and said that we would try again.  Time was now 11:15am. 

I switched electric bicycles with Lisa so I had the now fixed Flat Tire Bike and she had mine, and we started on our way through some pretty busy streets and bumpy roads on track towards our destination.  Every now and then I would stop and check the back tire by using pressure with my thumb and it seemed like everything was fine. Of course everything was fine because we were still close to the bike shop!

Lo and behold, two and a half miles and 30 minutes later, I felt a disturbance in the force. All of the sudden my bike was not handling well and I looked back to find that the tire was completely devoid of air. Yep, the flat tire was back. I cursed as I shook my head in disbelief, took off my bike helmet and took a few deep breaths.  Man, I could not believe this happened! Although in hindsight I should have known not to take the same bike back on the road.  I blame myself and I blame the Bike Shop, the heat and the distance back was not helping my mood.

I checked Google Maps on my phone and luckily found a few bicycle shops within a one-mile radius. Unluckily I found out that they are not open on Sunday. The closest bike shop was a rental outfit that was a mile and a half away. My idea was to go there and borrow a bicycle pump to get some air and maybe ride back to our bike store but that was not going to happen.

The only alternative left was to walk back to the bike shop, which Google Maps said would take about 45 minutes.  Wait, there possibly was another alternative. The guy at the bike shop said if anything happened that we could take the metro back to the main train station in get us close enough to the bike shop. So we made our way to the closest metro station, lugging the heavy bicycles down the steps and into the underground Metro System where I checked the wall map to figure out how to get to the train station. There are multiple entries and exits wanted to be sure that I was not going the wrong direction. Nearby were some to get machines and there was a representative from the subway there. I showed him my Google Map phone to make sure I was at the right place to get the train and he pointed me in the right direction. Just to make sure, I asked him if bikes were okay to take. He looked at me, he looked at the bikes, and he shook his head no. Well, s***.  That is why some passengers walking up the stairs gave us dirty looks as we were bringing our bicycles down the stairs. So we had to get back up to the street and get those heavy bikes up the stairs since the lifts were not operating. Of course they were not working, it just seemed like everything fell into place, that going to Appia Antica was not meant to be for us.

And so we walked. We walked back to the bike shop, trying to fight the shade when there was a little, Crossing illegally when it was safe because it was too hot to wait for the little pedestrian man to say it was okay to go. I found a public garden with a nice table and chairs that looks like an ideal spot to drink our water and eat our sandwich, but as soon as I popped my bike up and cleared the table, the garden security guard came up and basically told us to get out. Sheesh!

Eventually we made it to the train station, hot, sweaty, thirsty, and tired. I was not intending to walk all of this time through busy streets and in the hot sun. Passing through the train terminal I spotted a McDonald’s and just wanted to treat myself to a milkshake. So I braved the crowd and got my milkshake and and iced tea for Lisa. And thus we had a picnic lunch on the floor of the train station, but ended up only eating not even half of one of these sandwiches because it was so dry and basically just a big piece of bread with a little cheese and some ham and nothing else in it.

We made it back to the bicycle shop at 1 p.m. I told him that the bike got flat again and that he should not rent out the bike. I was still open to getting a replacement bicycle and going to a different destination, a huge part that a lot of people go to to ride bicycles, Segways, and those four seater bicycle carts.  Since we had already paid for this, I was willing to give it one more shot. Pictures I had to find another electric bike that would suit me. I tried two other bikes and the breaks basically did not work at all. He said that I needed to squeeze both brakes at the same time in order to stop, but even going at a low rate of speed their combined stopping power was minimal. Lisa was at this point not confident at all in our bicycles and she wanted out. Who could blame her? We had just wasted about 4 hours of our morning trying to get to this bicycle shop and having all these problems that it just wasn’t worth it anymore.  The bike shop dude try to explain that in foreign countries you cannot always expect the brakes to work perfect. Okay, I guess. But I would rather be safe than sorry and so with that last statement I told him that we were finished. I turned in our locks and helmet and signed off on the rental return which he stamped at 1:05 pm.  Never once did he apologize for our mishaps and I kept it cool and didn’t complain or make any snide remarks or show any bitterness or anger. It was all a matter of fact that these electric bikes were in poor mechanical condition and we just won’t take a chance on them anymore. 

So that is the story on how we paid $84 for these lovely two sandwiches and two bottles of water Plus 4 hours of wasted time. But I suppose it makes for a memorable story at our expense. But at least we are not hurt from any bicycle mishaps and we eventually found a public drinking fountain to quench our thirst from our empty water bottles and now we are here at the zoos entrance just chilling out in the shade with an occasional Breeze to cool us down.