A travel feature by Jim Harris
I am 75 years old and a retired book professional with nearly forty years of book selling for publishers, as a retailer and for a book wholesaler. Most recently, I have been a volunteer at a regional writers’ association and written book reviews.
My wife and I completed a two week visit to five cities in Europe– Prague, Vienna, Venice, Florence and Rome. The trip was based primarily on books that I read from 2006 to 2016. A secondary basis was my religion. We are Jewish so the places we visited was relevant to that. My wife’s family background also influenced the cities we would visit.
Here are the books that influenced our choice of meals, hotels and sights/sites. All of the hotels, restaurants and most of the sightseeing that I write about I have reviewed for TripAdvisor.com (you can look them up).
James Benn has written a series of mysteries set against a background of WWII. His protagonist, Billy Boyle, is a former Boston police officer from a family of police officers. To protect Billy from the hardships of war, after he enlists, his family gets him assigned to the staff of a distant relative. Almost as soon as his assignment is vetted, his boss moves to London. His boss is Uncle Ike (General Dwight Eisenhower!). Billy’s adventures take him to London, Ireland, Sicily and for my purposes, to Rome. In the book, Death’s Door, Billy is given a case that involves the murder of an American clergyman assigned to the Vatican while the Germans still occupy Rome.
Mary Beard is British Professor of Classics at Cambridge University in England. I saw her at a lecture at Town Hall in Seattle in 2016 before our trip. She was speaking about the history of Rome. Her book related to that talk is SPQR. I never really knew what that meant but I remember seeing it on banners in all the movies I have seen about ancient Rome. Now I know! It means the following (thanks to Wikipedia) “Senātus Populus que Rōmānus (“The Roman Senate and People”, or more freely as “The Senate and People of Rome”). Even though history is my avocation, I usually fall asleep when reading non-fiction history books. Professor Beard’s book was a page turner. No falling asleep for me. Her style is very readable. She does not focus on the decline of Rome. Instead Professor Beard focuses on Rome’s growth. And she starts as far back as 750 BCE.
SIGHTS and SITES
On our visit to Rome, we took a self-guided tour of the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel. We purchased advanced tickets for this tour which allowed us to by-pass the nearly two block long line awaiting entrance. This was one of the few times that that advanced ticket buying actually worked out in our favor. My last visit to these venues was in 1959. What a difference! On my first visit, all of the murals and frescoes were covered by nearly five centuries of soot and dust. All I can say is WOW! In the late 1980s and early 1990s these were cleaned and the results are stunning. While walking through the museums, the grounds outside are visible through numerous windows. It is possible to see many of the places that Billy visited during his visit. The following photo is from the Vatican Museum.
After the museum visit, we walked around the outside of Vatican City to the entrance to St. Peter’s Piazza and the great basilica therein. The line to get in was about an hour long so we opted not to go in because it was late in the day and we had both visited St. Peter’s a long time ago. A visit to the Vatican should be on your “bucket list.” Even if you do not read James Benn’s book. However, I do recommend Benn’s series to all fans of mysteries, history, and WWII.
We visited The Forum, Colosseum, Arch of Constantine and Arch of Titus. They are all in the same area so it is convenient to do so. We purchased advance tickets for the Forum but because of heightened security it still took over an hour to gain entrance. The Arch of Titus was our goal and it is only about 25 meters (yards) from the Forum entrance. My interest here was fueled by several book references to the carvings of the icons that were stolen from the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans around 70 A.D. The carvings are on the inside of the arch and are depicted being carried in a Victory Procession in Rome. It was the last time they were seen.
This photo is the inside of the Arch of Titus showing the stolen icons from the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
We walked the length of the Forum hoping to exit at the Victor Emmanuel Memorial. When we got there, the exit was closed for repairs and we had to walk halfway back to find an exit. Make sure that you check on the availability of museums and sites if you go. From the Forum, we walked to the Jewish Quarter, about 15 minutes further. Jews have been in Rome, in that location, for more than 2,000 years (before the birth of Jesus).
EAT, STAY, TRANSPORT
Our hotel in Rome for three nights was Relais 6 Hotel, Via Tolmino 6, Rome, 00198, Phone: 39-068-535-8888 (about $100 per night including breakfast). It is owned by a man whose father had served in the Italian Navy during the World War II. Before it was a hotel, it was an office building built in the 1930s. It was used by U. S. Military Intelligence during the Allied Occupation. The hotel has a small museum with artifacts from the war period including both military and civilian. Ask for a private tour with the owner.
The hotel was about a 10 minute, three block walk to a subway (Metro, Underground) station. The line included stops at the Colosseum and the main train station in Rome. A taxi trip from the Jewish Quarter at rush hour (1600) was about 10 Euros plus gratuity. Well worth the fare. Do not attempt to drive yourself in Rome. It will drive you crazy. We had rented a car in Venice to return in Rome near the main train station. We drove around the block 4 or 5 times before we found the return place. It was the worst driving nightmare I have ever experienced in a foreign country.
From the hotel to Civitavecchia (port of Rome), we took a private car. The fare was 125 Euros plus gratuity. The following is the link to the port car service. The car arrived on time at the hotel and the trip was about 90 minutes. http://www.civitavecchiaport.org.
For dinner on our last night in Rome we went to Da Enzo, Via Dei Vascellari 29, 00153, Phone: 39-06-581-2260. We saw a TV show about this place before we left home (not Rick Steves). A reservation is absolutely needed but the hotel did it for us. The restaurant is not open until 7:30 PM or 1930. We took a taxi to the restaurant and back – about 10 Euros plus gratuity each way. This was a highlight dining experience. Try the Caci e Pepe, their signature dish (pasta with cheese and black pepper).
The other two nights we dined at neighborhood spots– Pepe Verde, Viale Gorizia 35 and Osteria dell’Ingegno a Corso Trieste, Corso Trieste 146/B. Both were a 10 minute walk (in opposite directions) from the hotel. The hotel booked our reservations both nights around 7 PM. Good food that was reasonably priced (under US$50.00 including gratuity for the two of us) at all three places including non-alcoholic beverages. In the Jewish Quarter, we had lunch at Nonna Betta, Via del Portico d’Ottavia, 16 which is around the corner from The Great Synagogue (worth a visit). TripAdvisor rated it the best restaurant in the Jewish Quarter. We were there in early November, and it was warm enough that all the outside tables were filled (lots of them) and we had to dine inside (also full). Food was excellent and reasonably priced. Definitely not a tourist trap as our tablemates were local business people.
Watch nwbooklovers for Jim’s next installment: Venice!