It always seems that on our “last full day” somewhere, something memorable happens. Our last day in Rome continued the trend, though the day started innocently enough.
We rolled out of bed early to bus down to Campo de’ Fiori to see the morning market with its fruits and flower stands and to get our morning cappuccino and pastry. The market was small, and not particularly impressive by Italian standards, but was still vibrant with the colors, sounds, and smells of morning life in Rome.
On this day, our primary destination was Ostia Antica. In Republican times, Ostia was Rome’s main commercial port and military base. Ostia sat on the mouth of the Tiber River, but is now quite distant from any body of water due to siltation. Ostia is easy to reach by Metro, with one connection from the Termini.
where; old Roman columns appear, by themselves, tucked between the modern buildings, and incorporated into buildings built much more recently. Roads are routed around them. The scattered nature of the relics helps define the size and scope of the ancient city, which must have been truly awe inspiring in its day. As we headed through the Termini railroad station to the Metro station buried deep underneath, we passed preserved remains of an old Roman wall well below the level of the modern station.
We arrived at the Ostia Antica Metro stop and crossed the short ¾ of a kilometer or so distance to the archeological area. Entry and transit from Rome was free with the Roma Pass, though we were confused why we got three free entries.
The expanse of Ostia, which once housed 100,000 people at is peak, can be seen in its ruins in modern times. Unlike Rome, Ostia’s full layout is apparent. Sometimes referred to as Rome’s Pompeii; in you can see the layout and plan of the city and piece together how the civil works were organized (the Roman’s really liked their baths). In Pompeii, the ruins tend to be more intact after their dramatic covering. If you had to choose between the two, Pompeii would be better to see, but they are both worthwhile.
Back on the Metro to Rome, we stopped to check out a pyramid type structure emerging from a defensive wall at the Piramide Metro station. The Pyramid of Caius Cestius was interesting enough, but perhaps not a destination in and of itself. In any event, nearby we discovered a great little Italian deli, E. Volpetti (details at the end) where we found delicious prosciutto crudo, cheese, bread, pastries, battered and deep-fried pleasures including what we figured was mozzarella di bufala, stuff with ham, baked, then battered and deep-fried. The mozzarella ball (we’re not sure what the official Italian name for this one) is a life-shortening treat, no doubt, but worth the trip to Piramide for us on its own. The folks at E. Volpetti were all too helpful in providing samples and suggestions. We had to exit store while we still could.
After our visit to E. Volpetti, we were aiming for a late meal, if we were going to eat at all. We rested in the room for a bit and headed out late with the hope that we could see the Trevi Fountain without
the tight-packed crowd. Through a combination of a bus and a short hike, we found our way to fountain to find that the tight-packed crowd had dissipated to a loose-packed crowd. There were still too many people, but it was better and the fountain is beautiful at night lit up by the lights.
It was time for a little food, perhaps gelato and some more life-threatening edible treats, so we decided to go Piazza Navona to revisit the gelateria, Giolitti, from earlier in the stay. We were feeling pretty bus empowered at this point and the buses were still free to us with the Roma Pass so we decided to hop a bus for the short, otherwise walk-able, trip to Piazza Navona.
Though we had figured out some of the bus routes and had a detailed transit map, bus arrangements, as they are in most cities, are sometimes difficult to sort out. We studied our map and determined a number of bus lines that should take us the short distance. The lines all weave through the city and can be confusing on the map because two legs of the route sometimes use the same road (though usually on opposite sides of the street going in
opposite directions). We determined what side of the road was heading towards Piazza Navona and hung out at the bus station looking for the bus lines that we new headed to our destination. Buses run very frequently in Rome, usually every five minutes, so it was no time before one of the buses we were looking for, 81, arrived. Given the short time, we didn’t get the chance to study the route board at the destination to confirm that this was the leg of Route 81 that we wanted, but it all seemed right as the bus headed off in our desired direction.
Not to assign blame here, but the bus choice was a bit of an executive decision by the BeckBeck Bus Navigation system, possibly overreacting to the recent loss of street and road navigation responsibilities to the TomTom. In any event, when the bus reached Piazza Venezia, we expected it to jog to the right and continue towards Piazza Navona. The next thing we knew, the bus went left around the Piazza Venezia.
“Is it going around the monument somehow?” I asked Becky.
Before she could answer, it was clear. We were on the wrong leg of the bus route. Part of the reason we were casual on our bus choices is that all the buses are loops, and, though it would take some time, the bus should eventually loop around and make it to our destination. It was still before 11 pm and the buses usually run to midnight. We now figured that we were off for some extracurricular nighttime sightseeing, but it would work out in the end.
The bus was now rapidly moving away from the desirable tourist areas of Rome into gritty areas not found in any guide books, except, perhaps, in the warning section. But, seemingly like all areas of Rome, there were ruins to be seen along the way. Just after I told Becky that I would like to have seen the Roman Aqueduct on this trip, the bus passed by a big section the Aqueduct on the side of the road. Perhaps the BeckBeck system was just anticipating my wishes when it directed us onto Bus 81.
Attempting to read the complicated bus map in the low light of the moving bus, rapidly turned into a “Where’s Waldo” challenge as we kept finding additional legs of the route 81 further and further out on the map. This was not looking good. At this point, the neighborhoods we were passing did not look like a good place for a couple of blatantly obvious tourists to get off and stumble around looking for a way back home.
Now, we were on to Plan B. We’d ride the bus as a loop and all would be good. And maybe we could still get some of that excellent gelato that we dreamed of. As we settled into acceptance of Plan B, the neighborhoods became sketchier and sketchier.
Eventually the bus reached the terminus of its route in a particularly dark area. We’d reached the terminus of a route before on the 116 route. The driver has everyone get off the bus, steps out for a quick smoke, then gets back in the bus and the route continues. When the driver signaled to us to step out of the bus (we were the only ones on the bus), we figured we’d be back on our way as it was only 11:10 at the time.
Then something entirely unexpected happened. The driver changed the sign on the bus to “Deposito”, meaning that it was heading to the depot, and drove off. That was distinctly not good. Quickly checking the route board at the stop, we found out that this was the only bus line that should be coming to this stop this time of the day. We also confirmed that the line we were on, 81, was supposed to run until midnight. For a while we thought there was a chance that another Bus 81 would happen by and continue the loop, but no more buses appeared. Later, we figured that the buses would end their route at the later stages when they had no more passengers. They’d head back to the barn at that point. Our driver might not have been too happy that we hung on until the end of the line as it extended his working day. The again, we were really, really unhappy that we hung on to the end of the line.
Now it was time for Plan C. There was a problem, though. There was no Plan C. We had no idea how to get back.
The area of the bus stop was dark, so we weren’t so obvious there for the moment. Being “obvious” tourists in the area we were in was an issue. There was no way that we looked like we fit in to the neighborhood we were in. Having to check the map or TomTom every 30 seconds certainly did not help. It felt like we had been slathered with bacon grease and turned out to meet the lions in the Roman Coliseum. This would have been a really, really good time to have an open Starbucks on every corner! Eventually, we left the semi-protective shell of limited visibility around the bus stop and headed over to another bus stop nearby. But, despite our hopes, all the bus lines from this stop were heading still further out of town. If any buses were arriving at all, that is. We never saw another bus this evening.
Well, at least we were on a main street. With the TomTom indicating that we were five miles from our room, we started heading back on the main street. Soon a group of three men were trailing us, taking a couple of the turns we took, with our pulses quickening, we crossed the street to the side buses possibly going in our direction would be going. I clutched the Gorilla Pod (a.k.a., Becky’s airport sex toy) I was carrying inside my vest thinking that the shock, awe, confusion, and laughter caused by whipping it out might have been our only hope. I really didn’t want to resort to Plan D. My Plan D relies on the different running speed between Becky and me. Becky really doesn’t like it when I use Plan D, so I was looking to avoid it at all costs. At the same time, Becky was gearing up for the use of her Plan D, which involved using her feminine wiles and offering me as a “gift” to her cute new Italian friends. Now I really, really,
really don’t like it when Becky uses her Plan D. Fortunately, it did not come down to either Plan D or even the Gorilla Pod. The men behind us did not follow us across the street, they probably didn’t notice that we were there nor would they have cared. But it never feels that way at the time.
Continuing down the street, we saw no bus stops, no buses, and no taxis on the street. There were cars on the road, but few people on the streets, only clusters of men hanging out every block or so, smoking and drinking. All the shops were closed. We continued to walk with purposeful strides up the street hoping that we would go unnoticed as we passed the clusters of people. After several blocks of this, we started to see signs of a major street ahead. OK, maybe we could find an all night bus near the road, we hoped.
As were approached the street, we spotted a taxi at a stand that appeared quickly, as if a mirage. We quickly approached the taxi but learned, with our fractured Italian that the driver had taken a radio call and was heading off. He managed to communicate to us that he would call in another taxi by radio. It was not a happy sight to see our transportation drive off again.
We had no idea how long the wait would be for another taxi and we were starting to drift from the stop. As we were contemplating breaking a land speed record walking back to the apartment, another taxi appeared in no time after the first taxi had left. We don’t know if this was chance or the radio, but it didn’t matter. With an exhale, we slipped into the comfortable leather seats of the Mercedes as we escaped the dark, decaying sights of the corner of Rome we had somehow found. As the driver practiced his rudimentary English on us, we headed back past the Aqueduct to our room. We would have paid almost anything for the ride, but it was on the meter and, ironically, it was our cheapest taxi ride in Rome.
Back at the room, we devoured our tasty leftovers from E. Volpetti that we bought earlier in the day. All thoughts of one more gelato at Giolitti had passed. We finally got to sleep at two in the morning.
In the end, we were in no real danger at any point as a result of our ill-advised bus related excursion. Nevertheless, at the time, it certainly felt dicey and could have easily turned to the worse. A similar neighborhood in the States would have been uncomfortable for us to walk in at night. Being in a foreign country with minimal language skills certainly magnified the anxiety level. But, at least I got to see the Aqueduct. Twice, at that, and I’ll never forget the journey to see it!
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