For a tourist in the Eternal City, there are three main modes of transport: walking, tour buses, and taxis. Rome has a subway system but, unless you plan on really roaming around Rome, the others are sufficient to get around in the central district.
The tour bus system is pretty well designed for people who don’t want to be trapped in an all day tour, with no means of lingering at a favorite spot or taking a leisurely lunch. You can get on or off at any stop strategically located near the major sites. Walking is, of course, walking, giving you the freedom to wander around the narrow streets and alleys that taxis and buses cannot go. Both of these methods afford you the luxury to take in the city at your leisure. You don’t necessarily know where you’ll stop next and don’t care when you arrive. To really stretch a metaphor, they are blunt instruments, shotguns. Taxis, to snap the metaphor in half, are scalpels and the taxi drivers in Rome are master surgeons who weld their scalpels as Jacob Collins welds a paint brush.
At least the older, more seasoned, drivers do. The younger ones will take all major routes across town. The arterial routes EVERYONE uses, routes that are a melting pot of cars, scooters, buses and lories, all driving as fast as possible to the next stop light with no regard for lane position because there are no lanes. The cost of getting from the old city, say the Parthenon, to the west side of Central Park, where our hotel was located, a distance of some eight miles, was an average 2 euros more with a younger taxi driver than an older one. On the other hand, the younger drivers were friendlier and enjoyed talking to us when they found we were from the states.
Before I go any further, a word about how the taxi system works. All taxis in Rome are white, regardless of make or model of vehicle. There are taxi stands all over the city where the taxis queue up waiting for their next ride. You cannot, under pain of crucifixion*, hail an empty taxi driving down the street. You must walk up to a taxi stand and get into the next vehicle in the FIFO queue, regardless of the type of vehicle. Well, you can stand around and wait, if you want, but then the next driver in line notices you standing around and gets mad when you don’t want to take his car. It was never anything PERSONAL, mind you, but four people of not inconsiderable size and the driver crammed into a Fiat Panda is not a fun experience. We learned to stay away until the min-van taxis became available, but sometimes we had no choice and that led to the most memorable taxi drive of my young life, which I will get to later. The reason all the taxis had to queue up at strategically located stands had to do with some fleecing of tourists in the past, I don’t know the details and it really doesn’t matter, but knowing where a stand was and that a taxi would be there most times was a good thing, something you could rely on in a strange city.
We had resisted taking taxis for the first couple of days, wary of the perceived cost, but the irregularity of the tour buses coupled with the timing of when our hotel shuttle would arrive at the Vatican, made us realize that getting around in a timely manner was better sometimes than saving a few euro.
All of the drivers we experienced had their freak on in way or another, some benign, some strange, and one kind of scary. Three stand out. I never got their names, but for the purposes of our discussion, I will call them Tony, Raphael, and Paulie.
The first time we grabbed a taxi, the driver was a young lad, in his mid-twenties, driving a Fiat Panda (which is how we learned to avoid them when we could), with a small DVD in the center of the dash. After I climb in the front seat and showed him the address to our hotel, I noticed he was watching an American TV show dubbed in Italian.
“Is that The O.C.?” I asked.
He looked at me with wonder splashed across his tanned face. “You know The O.C.?”
“Yes, I was born there.”
“You were?” he asked, more wonder oozing out of his pores.
“Yes, it used to be a nice place, but trust me, not everyone looks like that,” I said, pointing at the screen.
“You don’t live there now?” His English was pretty good.
“No, we got out of there as soon as we could. It’s too crowded now.”
That didn’t seem to kill his enthusiasm, though. He told us he was really a professional poker player and only drove a taxi because gambling is only quasi-legal in Italy. He can only play in underground games, of which there were a lot in Rome, fancy that. He’s saving enough money to blow town and make it big on the World Poker Tour. We wished him luck and had no doubt he would, at the very least, blow town.
We saw the Colosseum on one day and the Forum ruins the next. The Colosseum is one big fucking pile of rocks let me tell you, and wandering around the Forum ruins and the Domus Agusti is a expansive experience after it hits you just how incredible OLD everything is. It’s also pretty exhausting going up and down and around Palantine Hill in the June heat. By noon, Sally was pretty well wiped out, so she hopped a taxi back to the hotel and the boys and I stayed. I really don’t know whether she had a taxi adventure. That’s her story to tell.
I wanted to see the Triton fountain, one of a long list of sculptures from my college art history class that I needed to see in person, so the three of us walked up the Via del Fori Imperiali to Via del Corso. A right turn at Largo Chigi led us to Via del Tritone and the fountain, which, drat it all, was not turned on. This was quite a stretch of road and the three of us were hot, sweaty and thirsty, so we headed back to the Via del Corso in search of cool refreshment. I see a sign for an English pub at the Via del Plebiscito outside of a gelato place we stopped at, but it didn’t open until five, thirty minutes later, so we headed west towards the Vatican and an eventual ride back to the hotel. Three blocks later, I see an open door of an Irish pub, the Scholar’s Lounge. This was a much needed oasis of good ale and English speaking wait staff in a land of Italian lager and a story in itself that I shall tell later. All I will say of the time spent there is that it is a LONG walk to the Tiber river in a city with few public rest rooms.
The three of us make it to the taxi stand outside St.Peter’s square and climb into the Fiat Panda at the head of the queue. Our driver is a older gentleman in his late forties, with black hair thinning on top but long in tight waves down past his shoulders and slick with what I can only assume was the Italian version of Jerri Curl. He wore a wife beater tank top and his arms and shoulders were covered in thick black fur. The radio was on, dialed to an international pop station. Just as we settled in and I showed him the hotel address, a song by Oasis comes on.
Raphael makes a raspberry. “Oasis! Shit!”
“You don’t like Oasis?”
“Pthhhhht. Oasis, shit!”
I look back at Matt, who’s smiling. “What about Blur? Do you like them?”
“Pthhht. All shit!”
I’m grinning from ear to ear at this point. The taxi is stuck in the middle of traffic. We’re all waiting for the light to change. Vespa scooters are zooming past us on both sides, inches from the car, jockeying for the pole position at the light. “What do you like? Do you like Led Zeppelin?
Raphael laughs, “Yes. Led Zeppelin!”
“What about AC/DC?”
“Yes, yes! Black Sabbath!” He looks at me with a big grin. I realize he looks like what Ronnie James Dio would look like if Ronnie James Dio was a little paunchy from sitting on his ass all day in a car seat, with crooked, cigarette-stained teeth.
“You know, I am a singer.”
“Really?! What do you sing?” Matt asked from the back seat.
“I sing for the women.”
“What do you sing for the women? Do you sing Scorpions?”
He looked at me. “I sing for the women.”
“At clubs here in Rome?”
“Yes.” He pulled out his cell phone and pushed buttons with his thumb. “Here is one of my songs.” A tinny jumble of noise came out. He muted the car stereo so we could hear his singing. It wasn’t too bad, if you like Italian pop ballads. His voice was pretty good and we told him so.
“Eh, the phone makes it sound like shit. It is not very good.”
“Well, that’s just your phone. I like it.”
He pulled in front of our hotel and we all got out. The fare was 14 euro and some change so I gave him a 20 euro note. He got out of his seat and leaned over the center console between the seats to dig around for change. He dropped a pile of coins in my hand, sat back down. I stepped back and closed the passenger door. He waved and flipped a youie back down the hill towards town.
As I walked up the steps towards to hotel entrance, I counted the coins in my hand. Even though the euro and the dollar are both based on the same basic denominations, that is 100 cents to a dollar, 100 cents to a euro, the currency is different enough to make you think when you have to make change.
I counted the coins again, there was no doubt about it, the guy had shorted me 2 euros.
Our last full day in Rome found us back on the Via del Corso and Via del Tritone for some last minute sightseeing and shopping. The Via del Corso is a main drag for shopaholics and Sally was feeding that vein. A few days earlier, my friend Scott, who did not know I was in Rome, called me out of the blue at the ungodly hour of 2:30 AM. Luckily for him, we were already up and talking to family back in the states, dealing with a family issue. He reminded me I needed to see the crypt of the Capuchin Monks under the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione, just off a side street from the Triton fountain, which, on this day, was flowing again. I took a few pictures before looking for the crypts.
It was just Matt and I on this adventure, as the thought of walking through seven crypts decorated with the bones of the dead monks didn’t really sit well with Sally or Ian. Matt and I queued up to get in. The crypt is a sacred place so no hats and no cameras. Luckily, I had a bag of souvenirs I was able to stuff my camera into so the woman at the door didn’t have to stop us. There are seven crypts in a row. You walk down a narrow aisle until you get to the end and then you turn around and walk out. I have to say, it was one of the most wonderfully bizarre things I’ve ever seen and, at the end of my life, I will be glad to have experienced it.
After we were done with the crypt, we hooked up with Sally and Ian at a Burger King on the Via del Tritone. Sadly, yes, Burger Kings in Rome pretty much look and taste like Burger Kings here in the States, with one difference, the hamburger buns were a bit more tasteless and very dry.
Anyway, we head to the nearest taxi stand and find we have to all cram into a Fiat Panda. This time, I’m in the back seat behind Sally. All of us have been carrying a small slip of paper with the address of our hotel on it so that, rather than bastardizing the language, we can just have the driver read it and be done with it. After this guy, an older gentleman who looks like a thinner version of Paulie Walnuts, reads the address, he takes off down the street towards the Tiber, but instead of crossing over, he turns right onto the main road that borders the river and heads north. Traffic is thicker on this road and he’s forced to stay in a pack of cars. This seems to irritate him and he turns to Sally and exclaims, “Traffic! Phht!”
As the pack of cars flows slowly northward, two things are happening. Paulie is hitting the gas and then hitting the brake as traffic moves in fits and starts, causing the car to rock back and forth as if it were floating on the ocean. This is annoying but I’m okay with it because the second thing that is happening is I realize we’re heading into a part of Rome that wasn’t built centuries ago and is populated with natives and very little, if any, tourists. I find this interesting because I’m seeing what the city of Rome looks like to the people who live and work IN the city, rather than a living museum, which is what the central district feels like.
We’re heading to the University district. I know there is a sports stadium up ahead and I figure all of the traffic is because of whatever game is scheduled that night. The car is still surging forward and slowing down. Every few surges, Paulie lets out a exclamation of “Traffic! Phhtfft!” which makes Sally have to look at him, smile and say, “Yes, it’s bad!” when really all she wants to do is hold on for dear life because seriously, if it were ever possible to get sea sick in a car on dry land 50 miles from the Mediterranean, this would be it.
By this time, the novelty of seeing a different part of Rome has worn off for me and now I’m wondering just where the fuck we’re going. I know generally where we are and I know that our hotel is west and a bit north of our current position so while going north seems like the right thing to do, there’s the whole question of crossing the river running around in my mind and thinking that maybe this guy Paulie has other ideas about where he wants to take us, like maybe we’ll be his quota for the local organlegger gang he owes money to. But there’s nothing to do but hold on and hope he knows where he’s going.
After a few more minutes, we get past the stadium and traffic thins out. Paulie punches it and the next thing I know we’re in a tunnel under a hill that grew out of the ground behind the university. Pauly is balls to the wall now, but it’s not a steady acceleration. He’s still pushing the gas and letting off because there’s still cars all around us. The tunnel we’re in is a couple of lanes wide with long curving turns. Other tunnels merge and split from ours. I’m getting queasy and am way past the point wondering where we are. Paulie is is hell bent for leather.
After what seems like an eternity underground, the road slowly rises and all of sudden we pop out into the fading daylight. The road curves to the left and I recognize the major street near our hotel. Two minutes later we’re solidly on terra firma in front of our hotel.
We’re all laughing as we realize that was the most competent taxi ride yet. Paulie knew exactly where he was going and the fastest way to get there. I was in awe as I told Sally that was the best ‘E’ ticket ride ever.
* Not really. That was a Roman joke, see, because the Romans used to crucify people as punishment. Yes, yes I know it really is as painful to me as it is to you.