Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Touring a city like Rome without a guide

 If you really want to tour some place in Europe and do it right, you should get a guide. So many people have told us that. But we did not follow their advice. It's OK with us if we "didn't do it right", we just wanted to do it ourselves and it's so amazing that Google maps makes it possible to do so. 

There was one place - the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel - where you couldn't get in without a guide. So Jim used his trusty website - - to book a guided tour, 2 days away. 
A hastily snapped picture looking up at the Sistine Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo

Think about it, if you traveled to Rome 25 years ago, you'd have to do it without the Internet. I guess you'd use a paper map. It might be possible, but figuring out where you are is next to impossible when there are no dependable street signs. And, believe me, there are no dependable street signs anywhere in Italy!
With Google Maps, we could just ask for walking directions to the Colosseum from wherever we were and it would tell us where to go. We can even use the feature called Live View to see the real world around us and follow big blue arrows. The background is seen live thru your camera, then Google Maps uses Augmented Reality (AR) to superimpose the big blue arrows and instructions. It was very helpful. To see how it's done - here's my video:

And, did we ever walk. For the 4 days we were in Rome, my Apple Watch recorded 8,500 16,000 13,500 and 16,300 steps. Whew! At home we're lucky to get 3,000 in a day. We didn't go out at night though - too bad, I'm sure the sights with the lights on at night are really beautiful. But, we've gotten used to early bed times and we are quite exhausted by then.

I was so happy with the technique I worked out with Google Maps that we did one of our "What Does This Button Do?" shows on it. See Episode 234:

I know we would have learned a lot more about the places we visited if we had a guide, but I'm just so happy that we got to see these places at all. Then, later, we can watch YouTube videos about the place and learn more. Having been there gives us the foundation. For example we visited the Pantheon - and it was impressive. Huge columns - Greek Temple-like - in a very rectangular formation is the front of the very round - Roman - building that houses statues and artwork representing all the religions of the time. Pan = all  Theon = religion. Loved it. Then, once we're back in our room with computer and internet, we can watch this video: and learn so much more. You can watch the video too - but if you haven't experienced it, it's just not the same. 

Here's Jim's 360 panorama of the Pantheon - you need to click on it to see it right, then you can scroll around to see the full 360 degrees.

I liked Rome a lot. I had always thought of it as just a BIG city - and I'm not a fan of big cities. But, I also love history and, I can't imagine a city with more history than this one. And it's the history of the western world - our history. Before we left, one of our Geeks on Tour members recommended the book "Oil and Marble." If you're going to Rome, you gotta read Oil and Marble. I immediately purchased the Kindle version so I could read it on my phone any chance I got - great train ride reading! I put it at one of the top 10 books of my life. I LOVED it. And, it gave me a foundation for looking at the art. It's about Leonardo Da Vinci (Oil) and Michelangelo (Marble.) I've heard of them! This book, although using accurate historical references was written as a novel - there were conversations between Leonardo and Michelangelo. You learn about Michelangelo's father's attempt to prevent him from being a sculptor - he wanted Michelangelo to get a respectable government job! Did you know that Michelangelo did not paint the Sistine chapel while lying on his back? That's what I had always understood, but think about it, that's a big ceiling - how would he get into position? By wriggling like a snake? No, the scaffolding was at a height that allowed him to stand and he painted by raising his hand. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Saluti a Roma

Where we stayed in Rome. It's a hostel just a couple blocks from the main Train station "Termini" It was recommended by my friend, Arynne, and we're SO glad! The Beehive. You may think of hostels as dormitory style bunk beds, with bathrooms down the hall. Yes, those type of accomodations are available, but most all hostels these days also have private rooms with in-room baths. There is also a communal kitchen which is great. We picked up some eggs and cheese from a nearby store and Jim used the kitchen to make us omelettes!
Our Hostel in Rome - just 2 blocks from the main train station: Roma Termini

Jim took advantage of the communal kitchen at the hostel to make us breakfast

The second night we were there was game night. We got together in the garden with one of the volunteer staff, and a few other guests. We answered some trivia type questions, drank some wine and got to know each other. What fun.

Gabby on the left, works here and was posing the questions. She is from Chile. The woman in the middle is from France, the fellow is from Queens, NY, and there were a couple of guys from Netherlands. What fun.
It was roughly $100/night, plus taxes, and we originally were only able to score 2 nights. But, we enquired about extending when we were there and got 2 more nights. Someone must have cancelled. Our other choice was to leave Rome and head towards our next stay at Castiglion Fiorentino. We had heard there were hot springs at Chiusi along the way. I would love that! But, we were told a car would be necessary to get there - it wasn't close enough to the train station. So - maybe next time. Now let's enjoy Roma.

Jim booked the Hop-on Hop-off bus for 3 whole days, so we used that as our basic transportation and walked the rest. We saw all the basics:
The Colosseum

You could fill your water bottles for free with still water or frizzante! Also notice the phone charging stations.

Spanish Steps

Trevi Fountain

Vatican Museum

Famous fresco - Philosophers - by Raphael

The Tiber River

The Pantheon

We did a live stream on YouTube while we were here at the Pantheon. Check it out:

Monday, May 09, 2022

Right train, wrong train, no one cares

 I don't understand the business model of train travel. There's no one to check you in, there's rarely any signage on the train itself about it's destination or schedule. It's up to you to look up your destination and see what time and what platform your train will be on.

We were a little late into Naples, and therefore rushed, but I don't know if that made any difference. We studied the Departures electronic board and our train was not there yet, so we found a seat (on the floor - as the train station has no provision for waiting) Finally, we see our train number, headed for Rome and we do our best to find that platform. We approach someone at the gateway to the platforms, show him our tickets and he points - that way.

We got on the train that he pointed to, even though there was no identification, and got settled. We really like train travel. It's so comfortable. You can just sit and watch the view go by. And, it flew by. We were on our way to Rome! For our first time. After 30 minutes or so, an attendant came by to check our tickets. Jim showed her his phone and she looked confused. She said, Italo, pointing to the screen. Uh, so what's Italo? Well, come to find out it's another train company. The train we were on was run by TrenItalia, not Italo. The tickets we bought were for Italo. Ooops. We asked "Is this train going to Rome?" She said, "Yes." So, Ok, what now? She shrugged and walked off - we didn't see her again. 

We made it to Rome.

Sunday, May 08, 2022


 Named after Hercules, this is the other city besides Pompeii that was destroyed when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79AD. Most people have heard of Pompeii and would plan to visit there to experience this history. We learned that Herculaneum is actually better preserve, but mainly, it was on our route. 

The main difference we learned about the preservation is that, in Pompeii, those who excavated and restored the site used a technique to inject plaster into the places where the skeletons were found. This acted like a mold and the results are more lifelike figures of all the people who perished in Pompeii. Herculaneum did not use this technique. The skeletons are still in their natural state and therefore, provide more scientific history. 

Think about it ... if you visit a cemetery, there may be hundreds of lives represented there, but they are from different places and they died at different times. In Pompeii and Herculaneum, you have thousands of people all killed at the same time. Their remains give us a picture of a moment in time for entire families - the children, parents, grandparents, etc. Scientists studying these sites were able to learn a lot about the culture in 79AD. 

If you're interested in learning more, that means me :-) Here are some links:

The first think you notice at Herculaneum is the depth to which it was buried. In this photo you can see how far down they had to dig to expose the ruins. (that's Mt. Vesuvius in the distance behind the trees at the top right.

We had a nice day on our visit, a bit overcast, but then it wasn't too hot. It was interesting to see Mt. Vesuvius in the background.

After walking down and down the long walkway, the first sight is the rooms full of skeletons. It's hard to imagine the horror.

Jim on the streets of Herculaneum

The documentation said this was some kind of pub, and those inset bowls were for buffet food.

We did a fair amount of walking to get from the train station to our room, then to the Archaeological site. Getting our steps in today - about 15,000.

We really like our bags from Rick Steves.

After Herculaneum, we're back on the train, headed for Rome!

Saturday, May 07, 2022

Amalfi Coast

 Towns built on steep hillsides. I've heard about Cinque Terre and the Amalfi coast from friends for many years. Cinque Terre is in the north and will have to wait until a future trip, but Amalfi was in our sites for this trip. At the front desk of our hotel, they had information on a boat tour that would take us to Amalfi and Positano. Capri and the Blue Grotto is also nearby, but we would need another day for that. 

We signed up for the boat tour, using the Hotels' service because a bus would pick us up right at the front door. The drive to the boat was interesting - spectacular views were so common that even the parking lots had them!

It was a nice day for a boat ride, not too hot, not too cold. The tour guide told us when we were passing by rocks said to be the place where the sirens lured Ullyses with their singing to crash on the rocks.

The tour gave us a couple hours to wander up and down in Amalfi, and get some refreshments.

An interesting fountain, eh?

Then we got back in the boat and hugged the coast up to Positano, which I think was even more picturesque.

Beautiful Positano

Everybody back in the boat. Going back to the bus then the hotel after a very full day on the Amalfi Coast.

Friday, May 06, 2022

Ferry to Sorrento

It was a phone call to my friend Arynne last month. She has been to Italy a few years ago and loved it. But there was one thing she would change if she were to do it again. Instead of the train from Naples to Sorrento, she would take the ferry. We checked it out and, sure enough, the ferry looked like a great way to go. We're always up for a boat ride.

Ferry ride from Naples to Sorrento. That's Mt Vesuvius out our window.

Once we got to Sorrento, it was a bit of a hike to the bus station where we would catch a bus up the mountainside to our hotel.

The first part of the walk

We had to walk up all these steps! This is the one place I took advantage of my carry-on's ability to be used like a backpack.

The trek was definitely worth it! Check out this view from our hotel at La Vue d'Or

The dining room at La Vue d'Or

The view from the balcony of our room

Thursday, May 05, 2022


When the taxi dropped us off at our hotel we stood on the sidewalk for a while, looking around for a sign for Bovio Modern Suite. We saw none. hmmm, I remember this hide and seek from the last time in Europe. Sometimes there is a little door (the one for people), inside a big door (the one for cars), and once you're thru it you see a big courtyard and lots more doors. We opened one such door and went wandering around - still no sign for Bovio. We went back out to the sidewalk and Jim scoured the walls until he found a phone panel with a button for Bovio. He pressed it and someone answered! We heard a buzzer in a nearby door and we opened it and went thru. Shortly a woman appeared at the end of the courtyard and waved us in. Here is what it looked like from the inside as we went out the next day. The light you see in the distance is the doorway back out to the street. It's very Harry Potter-ish, a neighborhood inside another neighborhood.

And, here's what our room looked like

The breakfast room. 
We made good use of our one evening and next morning in Naples.  Wine ... check,  Gelato ... check, pizza... check. 

We're so happy that we learned to pack light. All we have is our little carry on suitcases so it's pretty easy to walk around, even on these rough cobblestone streets and wheel them behind us. If needed we can even wear them as backpacks.

The Geeks are in Europe! Naples, Italy to be more precise.