This was the day we headed for Rome. We knew today was going to be a jammed travel day, and it lived up to our apprehensions in every possible way. We were unable to get seats on the high speed direct train, so we got up at 5 to catch the local train to Napoli, where Anna was too visit her Uncle for a few hours before continuing on the Rome. Again, the best laid plans often go to hell in Italy.
We got to the train station and climbed on a little commuter train to Paola. The brief 20 minute journey went according to plan, but that was the last thing that did today.
In Paola, two trains were going to Napoli. The first one was more direct, but required an additional fare and was quite busy, so we weren’t guaranteed a seat. We decided to try our luck on the local train that was supposed to be following in 20 minutes. Word of warning, in Southern Italy, don’t believe the train schedules, especially on the weekend following Ferragosta. Our train was about 40 minutes late. No mater, we actually found seats on the un-air conditioned train and started off. But as we pulled into the beach resort communities north of Paola, more and more people piled on the train, heading for Naples, and no one got off. Soon, we had people hanging out windows, sitting in the aisles on suitcases, sitting 2 to each seat, all sweating in the mid August heat. With the Italian disregard for waiting and orderliness, each stop turned into a shoving match. As we pulled into the station (increasing late as we went along) the people waiting would start cheering, as the people hanging out our windows yelled and jeered at them, telling them they would be better off walking. It was like a portable soccer game, complete with hooligans, on rails. Adding to the scene were a few people, obviously nervous about making their connection in Napoli. One in particular would shove his way to the door every stop, stepping over suitcases and pretty much always stepping on my foot, to check our progress with the conductor. With each stop, his anxiety mounted.
As we pulled into Naples, he vaulted past everybody, was the first off the train, asked his friend to pass him his suitcase through the open window, jumped across the tracks and ran to the binario (platform) where a high speed train was ready to pull up. He ran to the door and pleaded for them to open it. Everyone on our train was following the drama through our windows. He hammered on the door, but to no avail as the train pulled from the station. Our train showed our empathy with a collective “Aaah”. His frustration must have reached the boiling point, as he launched his fist at the passing train. The last I saw of him was as he was having a rather involved little chat with Napoli’s Carbinieri (police).
We got off the train, almost 2 hours late, found we only had about an hour til the train to Roma, and started looking for Anna’s uncle. Flori and I did the tour of the station while the girls stayed with the luggage. As we walked, I asked Flori what the uncle looked like. “Well, he’s short, older, kind of like that guy,” as he pointed at someone passing by us. We continued to walk, when Flori suddently stopped and took a second look. It was our long lost uncle. We squeezed in a quick visit over take out pizza as we got on board our train to Rome. This time, we managed to get a first class cabin, relatively uncrowded, with air conditioning. After the conditions of the last train, it was pure luxury.
As we neared Rome, we began seeing examples of the antiquity of the city beside the tracks. A large aqueduct that was at least several centuries old ran parallel to the tracks for several kilometers. As we got closer, we saw other ruins of incredible age, sitting unheralded in the countryside. It was amazing. In any other city, they would be revered attractions, and here, they were just part of the landscape. It was this fact that stuck with me about Rome. We arrived in Rome, almost on time, and caught two taxis (we couldn’t find one large enough to accommodate 6 people and 10 suitcases) to the hotel. As we drove through the streets of Rome, I got my first taste of the city. Again, it was the ancient ruins that struck me more than anything else. They sat sprinkled throughout the city. Paris was beautiful, but Rome was like living in a archeological digs. As you went through the city, the historic strata was there to see. Ruins from the very beginnings of Christendom, medieval palazzos, glorious architecture from the 17th and 18th centuries, austere showpieces of fascist power from the Mussolini era, and gleaming modern buildings, all mixed in an incredibly rich tapestry of historical significance. And people go through the streets, not seemed to recognize the uniqueness of their surroundings. Even without the historical significance, Rome would be a beautiful city, but with it, there is no where in the world quite like this. It is truly la Citta Eterna, the Eternal City.
The taxi ride was brief, as we climbed from the station to our hotel, the Cavalieri Hilton, high on a hill overlooking Vatican City. I had redeemed points from business travel and had read that this was a beautiful hotel, but I had no idea. We pulled in front, round a circular driveway and up to the front doors. From the minute we stepped out of the taxi, we knew we had arrived in a privileged world of luxury. The Hilton Cavalieri is a 5 star hotel, known as one of the most luxurious in the city. And we had just spent several hours on trains from Southern Italy, much of the voyage without air conditioning, in our wrinkled summer vacation traveling clothes, with several bags and at least two shopping bags reeking of strong Italian cheese and sausage. One can imagine the clashing of appearances that happened when we entered the Cavalieri Hilton. No matter, the greeting was warm, gracious and seemed sincere. I stepped up to the registration desk and was told as a Hilton Diamond VIP, they had a special place for us to check in. I suspect it was a place as far removed from the olfactory senses of the other guests as possible. A strikingly beautiful hostess (even Jill agrees on this point) smoothly steered us through the check it, including the obligatory mix up with our kids (a cot had to be added to one of the rooms) but it was all handled with grace. Then she walked us up to our room. As I looked over at my family, trying to remain inconspicuous in the sumptuous marble lobby, I could tell they felt a little out of place, but our hostess soon made us feel at ease. We were on the Executive Floor, in adjoining rooms. We climbed to the 8th floor, and I marveled at the beauty of the hotel. I stay in a lot of hotels. On our first night, in New York, we stayed at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. It was nice, but in my opinion, highly over-rated. But I don’t think I’ve ever stayed at a more beautiful hotel than this. Real renaissance art was hanging in the hallways! The only place that even comes close is the Phoenician Resort in Scottsdale, but this was in a league of its own.
We started with a quick tour of the Executive Club room, a place we were to become very accustomed to in the next few days. It was a beautiful lounge, richly appointed, with a snack buffet that was changed 5 times a day, from 7 in the morning to 11 at night. It was on the 7th floor, overlooking the expansive gardens and pool area, with a to die for view of Rome out the windows leading onto the terrace. Our jaws dropped still further.
Then we were lead to the rooms. While no hotel rooms in Europe can be called expansive, these were certainly roomy, and very sumptuously appointed, with a to die for king size bed, piled high with cloud soft pillows, duvets and linens. The hotel has given us a bottle of spumante on ice as a thank you, along with a platter of snacks. After a long and tiring day, this was just what we needed. Everyone in the party was grinning from ear to ear. It was a perfect choice for our last European hotel of the trip.
We freshened up and then went to grab a light dinner in the club room. Unlike other Hiltons, here everything, including beverages, was complimentary. And no tired and limp cheese platter and unidentified deep fried bits here. It was cold cream of tomato soup (intentionally cold, and delicious), tempura chicken, delicate potato tarts, cheese, breads, small salads and much more. We easily constructed a very satisfying supper. As we relaxed with cappuccinos after several trips to the buffet (at first I felt a little like the free loading house guest, but I noticed all the other guests were walking away with laden plates as well), they changed the buffet to a dessert one. We loaded up again and watched the lights twinkle in the city below, with the dome of St. Peter’s dominating the skyline. It was an amazing close to the day.