The double espresso shot was strong and over quickly, as expected. The kids enjoyed their gelatti, with my wife opting for a cappuccino. Then, a text from Natalia - finally! She explained that she had six different properties checking out and then in this morning, and she apologized for her non-responsiveness. No matter the circumstance, an apology is always appreciated. And I never lost sight of the fact that she had been trying to accommodate us by allowing us to get into the apartment several hours earlier than her normal check-in time so that we could drop our bags and get to exploring Rome. It was about an hour later than we had initially discussed, and the apprehension of being in Europe for the first time while being unable to get a response from our only local contact, piled on top of so much sleeplessness with a long, full day of Roman sightseeing ahead of us had taken a toll, but it was time to regroup and get rolling!
Keeping an eye out for "Phyllis," Natalia's representative, I noted a hopeful-looking, smallish man of possibly Filipino descent making his way toward us on the narrow cobblestone street outside of Don Nino. Definitely not what I would be expecting to be a Phyllis. In fact, when I stepped toward him, prompting him to say "Mr. Worth?" to which I responded, "Phyllis?" I could feel my family thinking me a clueless idiot. Much to their surprise, however, came his enthusiastic '"Yes!" followed by an offer to grab some of our bags and follow him through a locked door on the street that was directly in front of us. Time for the first of many old, dimly lit staircases, coming as no surprise to any of us. Universally, a thing Americans notice about European travel is the lack of elevators and abundance of steps. Our expectations were duly met over the course of the following two weeks.
The place was ridiculously more spacious than a hotel would have been, which we already knew from the many pictures on the airbnb site. That's one of the great things about airbnb. You could theoretically run into some fraudulent image posting and find yourself in a place decorated completely differently than the pictures show (which never happened to us at any of our six apartments), but the place is the place, and you know what to expect when you walk in. Still, it felt more magical than I had anticipated, being in the home of someone who actually lived in Rome by the Pantheon (or at least had at one time, before deciding to go full airbnb with it and turn it into a rental property). We looked out the bedroom windows down onto the street a couple of stories below, a smattering of people walking and talking. It was still early, too early for the crowds we would see later on and especially into the night. Now, it was time to leave most of our belongings in a Roman apartment with a man we had just met a few minutes earlier, with no way to know who he actually was if we returned later to find some or all of it missing. After getting our keys from him and checking that we could get through the various doors between the street and our home for the next three nights, we were on our way.
First up was the Pantheon. I don't believe any of us were ready for how massive and awe-inspiring it would be inside. This was a sensation that would be repeated on numerous occasions over the coming thirteen days: "wow, I knew this would be amazing, but not THIS amazing!" And there seemed to always be some little thing that could easily be missed or taken for granted, but if you noticed it, proved to be yet another incredible find. First up on this list was something none of us knew about the Pantheon, which was that Raphael is there. When he died at just 37 years old, he had already accomplished so much (including the magnificent fresco "The School of Athens," which has been the cover image of this very blog for many years) that his request to be buried at the Pantheon was honored. So there he lies, as he has for the past 500 years.
Next was the National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II ("Il Vittoriano"), an enormous marble complex which looks ancient and spectacularly classical but is actually barely a hundred years old. It's a commemoration of Italy becoming a unified country under its first king, Victor Emmanuel. Again, this only happened in the late 1800's. The Kingdom of Italy.
I didn't take any pictures of the monumental building and steps, but here's one from the top of it. Really great vantage point from here, even better than from the top of the dome of St. Peter's. That's why we stopped there and spent more time than we had planned (yet another recurring theme of the trip).
It was getting hot and we needed food. A stroll down the length of the ruins of Trajan Forum's below street level (wide and spacious, while set much lower than the present day street level) and the Column of Trajan brought us to a shaded outdoor eatery for our first taste of pizza, pasta, and expensive bottled mineral water to accompany the meals. But with the Colosseum beckoning, we instead headed back to the apartment to regroup, freshen up (which we still had not been able to do since leaving America), and hit the trail refreshed and reinvigorated.
Upon our return, after our first Roman bus experience using our Roma Passes that we had purchased at a tobacco shop by the Pantheon for cash (which prompted our second ATM stop, the first one being the one in the airport), the place looked even better than before, with all of our belongings as we had left them. No worries! There was bottled water for us in the fridge, fresh fruit on the table, and after taking turns with the two bathrooms in the apartment (we already knew what a prized commodity that any free, i.e. non-pay, restroom in Rome was), it was back to the Colosseum.