Virtual Reality Tour of Rome by LivItaly Tours

I was recently invited to go on a special tour of the Colosseum, Roman Forum and Palatine Hill with LivItaly Tours – special because they’ve added VR glasses/goggles so you can see computer generated recreations of the sites while in them.

We – my 10-year old daughter and I – met with a group of other bloggers at the nearby Caffé Propaganda in the Celio neighbourhood, just next to the Colosseum, where we had a drink and demo of our glasses.

They work with your smartphone through an app you download in advance.  Once at a site, you select it in the app, and it recognises your motion, so as you turn the view changes.

We started off at the Colosseum, talking about how it got its name and the colossal statue of Nero that was once next to it – and that thanks to the VR glasses, we could see again.

Being on a group tour means jumping the substantial line, which even in November was pretty long.

Now, I’ve been in the Colosseum many times, and have had a number of guided tours there too, but for my daughter, despite being born in Italy and living here, this was her first time.  She’s currently studying the Greeks in school, so this was an interesting way for her to connect the dots to the ancient world.  She was full of questions, and our guide, Rachel, was full of answers.  The glasses were appealing to my daughter not only because of the cool/fun factor, but because many of the monuments and ruins from the ancient world require a lot of imagination to see what they were really like, and visualising them with the glasses makes it come to life much easier.

Next we headed up the Palatine Hill, where the emperors had their palaces, and saw over the Circus Maximus, the world’s largest sports arena.

For the final part of the tour, we heading into the Roman Forum, once the downtown of the Roman Empire, and thus, kind of the center of the entire world.

The entire tour probably lasted between 3-4 hours, and we were engaged the entire time.

I’m a big fan of walking tours in general.  There’s a number of quality tour companies in Rome and in general they are all worthwhile – the more you’re able to invest, the more likely you’ll have a smaller group size and a more knowledgeable guide.  Visiting many of these sites on your own, without any additional information or guide, can be an underwhelming experience, so I do recommend doing a tour.

Having the VR glasses was a nice addition too, especially for kids, who can be hard to keep interested.  I also felt that our guide was great with kids too – she was happy to get questions and visibly pleased to be able to answer them in a way that kept more questions coming.

The price of their tours are slightly higher than other similar tours, due to the VR glasses, but you get to keep them afterward, and they work for other sites as well (and for other VR apps).  They also offer a guide that’s full of recommendations that go behind the sites – food, markets, shopping, etc.

For more information, check them out at:

LivItaly Tours 

Skype: livitaly.tours 
Vicolo del Divino Amore 18a, Rome

 

A rant about taxis in Rome

There are many con-artists in many cities all over the world – and I have issues with them all, but there’s a special place in hell that I reserve for the crooked taxi driver who preys on someone who’s just arrived – sleep-deprived and jet lagged – putting a horrible start to their trip with a bitter taste in their mouth that’s hard to remove no matter how good the pasta and pizza.

Now I know a number of taxi drivers and although they aren’t all evil, I’ve had enough first-hand (and second-hand) experience with dishonest (or simply annoying) drivers, that it’s not a case of one bad apple ruining in the bunch – it’s more like a shitload of bad apples and one edible one.

There’s a few common scams that are worth noting when taking taxies around the city:

1.  Putting the fare at nr. 2 or 3 instead of 1 (which is a higher rate used for travel outside the city center).  Many drivers always seem to “forgot” to reset it to “tariffa 1″.

2.  Driving around in circles, jacking up the fare.  This is especially true when someone who doesn’t know the lay of land mistakenly requests a driver take them to an address only 2-3 blocks away. The driver, knowing they have someone on board without a clue, will probably take the scenic route.

3.  Taking a 50 euro bill (for example) and then insisting you gave them a 10 or a 20.  Most people don’t have the stamina to argue this out successfully, even when they know they’re right.

In my experience, these aren’t that common though – not enough to avoid taxis, in any case.  The fare starts anywhere between 3 and 6.50 euro (depending on the time of day and whether it’s a Sunday or holiday), and this changes often enough that it’s better to just give an estimate.   But the city is compact and you can generally get anywhere for 10-15 euro, which isn’t bad if you’re a few people, it’s raining, and/or you’re in a rush.

The Big Scam, though, the one that keeps me up at night with fictional arguments between me and the taxi drivers, has to do with the fixed rate to and from Rome’s airports.  The reason why this scam gets a capital “S” is that it’s made possible by the city itself, out of sheer incompetence, stupidity and (I wouldn’t doubt) a dose of corruption.

Ready for my rant?  Great – here goes:

So, the fixed rate is supposed to be 48 euro to/from Fiumicino and 30 euro to/from Ciampino.  This amount is valid up to 4 passengers WITH bags, any time of day, and to any destination within the Aurelian Wall (essentially the center of Rome).

Here’s some of the petty ways a dishonest driver will try and skew this in their favour:

1.  Driver insists it’s 45 euro/30 euro per person.

2.  Driver asks extra for bags or for nighttime supplement.

3.  Driver insists that this amount is just TO the city walls, and then from there it’s metered.

What’s annoying is that taxi drivers, all parked out in front of the airport, tend to work with a wolf-pack mentality, so if driver A tries to screw you and you go to driver B, they’ll often feel the pressure of the pack to say the same thing to you that driver A said.  For one of them to break off on his own and take you for the actual fare, is an act of rebellion – one that he’ll probably pay for later.

The fixed rate is well documented though – printed on most cab’s side exterior, and there’s a card inside the cab as well that repeats these details, in various languages.  There’s even a map that shows the area that’s considered “within the walls” in orange.

And that’s where my blood finds its boiling point – because the map is wrong.  

The Aurelian Wall was built about 1700 years ago and (obviously) – it hasn’t been moved around during the last millennia and a half.  Most of it is intact, and if you do a search for images for the wall on Google you’ll get a bunch of versions – from the antique to the more modern, showing where the wall is (and has always been).  It’s not really a debate, until you search for a map that shows the area within the walls, in regards to the taxi fare.

My favorite is this one, because it shows the area that concerns one of the densest areas in Rome for accommodation – the area just North of Termini Station (about 2:00 if the orange ring were a clock face).

Here’s another version with the area I’m referring to highlighted:

This was the original map and if googled, can be found on sites that posted it from 2012, when the fixed taxi rate went into effect.

Here’s another one that shows the wall outline, but for some reason excludes a triangle north of Termini:

And here’s what you’ll see in the back of the taxi and on the website of the Comune di Roma:

What happened to the little triangle where there are about 200 hotels?  Was this ancient wall moved?

Whereas the other scams are disputable, this one is institutional.  I’ve actually written the city of Rome, asking for some sort of explanation, and the only response I received was that it would be reviewed.  The person I spoke with didn’t seem to understand what the hell I was talking about anyway.

My suggestions, in light of all this:

1. If you suspect a taxi driver of scamming you, take a picture of their ID number, and the license plate, etc.  This will almost always change their tune.  But please, don’t stop there – file a report here.  If you don’t, you’re enabling them.  Report them.  Otherwise, it’s worth it for them to keep doing it.

2.  Use a taxi app like My Taxi.  It’s free and works well and will have your route established and the fare recorded.

3. If you’re traveling solo, try Scooterino – a ride service app like *Uber but on a scooter.

4.  For airport transfer, book a hired car, called NCC (do this through us or your hotel).

5. Take the train or bus instead from the airport.  It’s quicker anyway.

 

* Uber is heavily fought in Italy and its legality is dubious.  There’s convenience, but prices are higher than taxis and not really worth it.

 

 

 

 

 

BonAppetour – Dining with Locals

Some of the best meals I’ve ever had in Italy came from home chefs, and not in restaurants.  Italian cuisine is the result of poverty + resourcefulness over lots and lots of time to prefect the dishes that remain unique to each area of Italy, and change from town to town, and region to region.   So it makes sense that if you want to eat something really authentic, you need to get something homemade.

I was lucky to recently meet two young entrepreneurs out of Singapore, who started BonAppetour, hoping to capture, and make available to tourists, something that restaurants cannot.  Below is Rinita, one of the founders, on the right, and Alexandra, their local community manager/organizer.

On their site, you can select filters that show you what dinners (and often, classes) are available, and you can read other diner’s comments.  You reserve and pay online and are then basically invited to someone’s home for a kind of dinner party – with the host present.  This makes it not just an experience of the food, but also a way to connect tourists to locals.  It’s not often easy, or possible, to score an invite into someone’s home!  This way, you get a great meal, and the kind of insight that comes with meeting people of different cultures, who are happy to share their knowledge and open up their homes to you.

Our host, Francesca, made us a Milanese-themed dinner of liver paté, ossobuco (veal shanks) and risotto alla Milanese (flavoured with saffron), finished with a kind of tiramisù cream and pavese biscuits.

They seem to have a strong presence in Asia, their stomping ground, but also have many hosts/chefs in France, Spain in Italy – probably the three places most people want to have a home dining experience in.

Just a note though – authenticity is not synonymous with the postcard perfect/stereotypical vision that many people have of their destination.  So be prepared to get out to areas that real locals live in and to perhaps engage in conversations that reflect surprising opinions!

Bonappetour can be found on Facebook, Twitter, & Instagram.

 

 

Last minute June discounts on select apartments in Rome’s historic center

Appartamento Cestari – 2 bed / 2 bath apartment, available June 13, 14, 15 and 16 for 114 euro a night. Click here for more info or to reserve.

Navona al Tevere Apartment – 2 bed / 2 bath with terrace near Piazza Navona.  Can sleep up to 6 guests.  Available June 5, 6, 7, 8 for 125-135 euro, depending on number of guests.  Click here for more information or to reserve.

 

Capo le Case Apartment – 1 bed / 1 bathroom, sleeps 4, near The Spanish Steps.  Available June 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 for 102 euro a night for 2 guests, +5 euro per night for each additional guest.  Click here for more info or the reserve.

 

Appartamento Sardegna, 2 bed / 2 bath, sleeps 6 guests, just off Via Veneto.  Available from June 5th to 17th for 136 euro a night up to 4 guests and +10 euro a night for each additional.  For more info or to reserve, click here.

Touring the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s with Through Eternity

I’m just going to jump in and say it – if you go to the Vatican museums on your own, unguided, you’re wasting your time.

I’ve lived in Rome, on and off at first, for the last 20 years and had been to the Vatican only once.  I suppose part of that is because it’s what happens to people when they live near a tourist site – you assume you can go anytime because it’s right there, and prefer to wait for a time when it’s less crowded, which never happens.   That’s a good explanation for why I didn’t go for the first 5 years of living here.  The reason why I’d never gone back in the following 15 years is because the experience, frankly, wasn’t enjoyable.  I’ve had visits to the dentist’s office that were better.

Does anyone really enjoy the Vatican museums?  I’ve wondered this often as I hear our guests recount the days they dutifully spend there, first in line outside, then being herded through the labyrinthian hallways to catch a glimpse of the Sistine Chapel.  Despite it being on everyone’s must see list, I’d never heard anyone go on about how amazing it was and how they wish they could have more of it.  For the art historian, I can see how it would be like a kid in a candy store.  But for the average Joe, I always wondered what they actually got out of it.

When my wife said she’d booked us on a 5 hour tour of the museums and St. Peter’s with Through Eternity, I first felt that this would be a great opportunity to see if I could finally, with authority, substantiate my negative opinions of the museum.  Then reality hit and I wondered how on Earth I was going to make it through 5 hours of anything.  Then I just gave up worrying about it and went with it, as zen and open as possible.

Spoiler alert – the Vatican is pretty incredible.  However, it’s not an easy museum, and it’s not optimized for its visitors in any way.  And I’m 100% convinced that it wouldn’t have been worthwhile had I wandered through it by myself without a guide.  In the end, we were there 6 hours, and all of it, except the overpriced food, was great.

A visit to the Vatican Museums is a big commitment and as is true with all big commitments, you should be well informed.  For example – know that if you go on your own without booking ahead, you’re looking at a really long wait to get in:

Perhaps an hour?  Maybe more?  As the picture shows, these folks look like they’ve been there a while already, and this line stretches all the way down the street and around the corner.  This is, of course, the line for those who decided to show up without tickets. If you buy your ticket online and print it before arrival, you can jump this queue and go right to the entrance.  From there, visitors are divided into two categories: individuals and group tours.  If you’ve booked a tour with a guide, then you get even further preferential treatment.  We walked straight past the line for individuals and went right in.  I don’t even think we came to a full standstill.  For a museum that gets about 25,000 visitors A DAY, that’s pretty incredible.

Once inside, you’re part of a crush of humanity, all wandering slowly, trying to determine where to put your attention – because there’s so many options.  Our guide, Mario, told us that if you were to spend a few seconds in front of each painting in the entire complex, it would add up to about 25 years.

Here’s the thing – there are some wonderful,  beautiful paintings in the Vatican Museums and if you want to visit unguided, you can stroll around and look at lots of pretty paintings and sculpture on a variety of themes, like Jesus, Jesus and Mary, Mary by herself, the Apostles, Jesus being crucified, Jesus being resurrected…  I think you get my point – Catholicism is the main attraction.  For someone who’s not religious, and doesn’t recognize the characters in the paintings or the stories being depicted, there’s only so much you can take of this.  Maybe I’m just shallow and uncultured, but in the 1500′s it would have been amazing to see a painting that was realistically portrayed of a biblical scene.  It would have been amazing to see a painting of anything that you had never before seen in real life – like a certain city or an animal or maybe the seaside.  Throughout history, paintings were the only way to really see into someone else’s imagination, or a depiction of something outside your reality.

In 2016…  less so.

My point is that I think realistically and honestly, it’s hard for many people to get out of paintings what people got out of them centuries ago.  We’re jaded.  We’ve seen it all – and in full motion, in 3D, and Photoshopped to perfection.  Seeing pretty pictures just isn’t that amazing anymore.  What makes them amazing, and interesting, is to understand them and the time in which they were made and the history behind them.  It’s the technique and how it evolved.  It’s the politics and motivations that surround them.  It’s the life of the artists themselves.  It’s all about the context, and to get that, you either need to study art seriously, or you need a guide.

Mario, our guide, was not only well informed and passionate, but also theatrical and compelling.  Our visit combined the history of art, and how artists cultivated different techniques in different periods, to the history of religion itself and how religion and politics were (and in many cases still are) inseparable.

The visit to the museum, at that point, became a lot more than about just art.  I think to fully understand Western history, you need to understand Rome, and to fully understand Rome, you need to understand its relation to the church.  To understand that, and even more, to see it, you need to visit the Vatican Museums.

Some other tips about visiting the Museum & Saint Peter’s Basilica:

* The food is terrible and overpriced, so bring a pack lunch.  If you leave after the museum to go eat, and then want to visit St. Peter’s, you’ll have to queue again, whereas if you go from the museum to St. Peter’s, you don’t have to.

* Bring little kids – if you’re crazy, a masochist, and/or a glutton for punishment.  It’s just too crowded, too slow going, and too complex for them to enjoy it (in my opinion as the father of 3 daughters).

* Get there by metro or bus.  You could walk, but it’s exhausting to stand for hours in a museum.  Get there on a full tank, because you’ll be leaving on an empty one.

* Don’t forget to wear something that covers or can cover your knees and shoulders.  It’s a sacred place, and God is weird about knees and shoulders.

* You don’t need a passport.  Yes, the Vatican  is technically a separate country, but there’s no border patrol.

* Plan to go up the dome of St. Peter’s.  You can pay to take an elevator from the bottom to halfway, inside of the dome, looking down into St. Peter’s, and then you climb up through the dome itself to the very top.  If you’re into taking photos, this is a must.

* If you want to hear the Pope’s audience on Wednesday or Sunday, get tickets in advance online, come pick them up before, and them come super early to get a good seat (like 5:30 / 6 am).  Francesco is a popular Pope.  He fills the house.

* Most importantly, go by yourself, and you’ll just be spending hours looking at old, pretty pictures.  Book a tour with a well informed guide.

Thank you to Through Eternity who hosted me on this tour.  Through Eternity is one of only a handful of tour companies we have recommended over the years and if you are staying at our hostel, The Beehive, guests there get an additional discount using a promo code.