Hello dear reader. This week I’m doing something a little different for the column. Beyond my adventures in Parts Unknown (see last week’s column), I also ended up touring around the Mediterranean. It was an amazing experience that I thought I’d share along with a little bit of a travel guide and a big heap of geekiness.
Before we get going, please note:
I’ve only been to Rome once.
I am not a professional traveller.
Take these in mind if and when you heed my advice.
Rome can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. The head of the Catholic church and his walled city state. Amazing wonders like the Colosseum. Fantastic pizza and pasta. Rome is all of these things and a lot more.
It’s a city where the old readily mixes with the new. Where the service is casual and relaxed but not where you feel ignored. Where people drive like the stunt drivers of the Fast and the Furious franchise high on crystal meth, but yet not one car seems to have a scratch or is missing a rear view mirror.
Landing at Leonardo Di Vinci airport, you have a number of options to get to Rome such as taxi or train. Being one not to trust either, we decided to pre-book our transport with our travel agent.
I have never been in fear for my life as much as I was while taking that mini-bus from the airport to our hotel.
My wife and I came up with this description to best describe it: If driving in real life was a video game, Ontario is the easy setting and Montreal is hard, Rome is probably very hard to expert (with Cairo coming in as the the level you unlock when you complete the expert difficulty perfectly).
Signs, lights, speed limits and lanes are more of a suggestion than a rule, especially if you are on a scooter. My advice, get someone else to drive for you, head for the backseat and buckle in. If you happen to be a pedestrian, pay very close attention to the roads for scooters. We found that the best thing to do when crossing the street was to not hesitate. Hesitation shows fear and Roman drivers can sense that.
There are a ton of hotel options to be found but if you want to spend most of your money on food and fun, your best bet is what a travel agent will refer to as a “boutique” hotel. As far as I can tell, this is just a euphemism for bare bones. Which isn’t bad necessarily. We went with a place called Seven Kings. Tucked away from busy streets, it’s also a great center point for easy transportation around Rome. Just a ten minute walk to two different subways lines, with taxis very near by, you can get on your way to the sights of Rome. It’s clean, it’s got a bed and really good Wi-Fi. That’s pretty much all you need. The one thing I will suggest is bring your own toilet paper. I’m not sure how the Romans figured out a way to make stuff worse then elementary school one ply but they did. Sure, there’s the bidet but I must admit, it intimidated me.
Now, I could go on and on about the sites of Rome but if you are a geek, there are certain things you just have to do. The Colosseum for example is one of those place you’ve got to check out. Used as a backdrop for tons of beloved nerd films like Return of the Dragon and Gladiator, it’s really a site you have to see to believe. Go early (as early as you can) to beat the crowds so you can really soak it in. The sheer size of it just makes you gasp a little.
As a comic nerd, whenever I travel anywhere, I have to check out the local comic shops. Rome was no exception. Initially, I didn’t think I would make it to a store due to their locations and our strict schedule (my wife is a Classics major which means we went to every museum in Rome but one), but as it turned out, Star Shop is just a a few blocks away from the Vatican so we were able to slide by.
Italy has a rich comic book tradition with home grown titles like the western Tex Willer and supernatural detective Dylan Dog being the most well known to western audiences. Knowing this, I wasn’t sure what an Italian comic shop was going to be filled with. Would it mainly be local books or translated North American titles? Would it just be comics or toys too?
When I walked in the door, I knew right away that Star Shop was my kind of comic book store. Clean, well organized with plenty of product (despite a small location) and with a staff that knew their product. It was very similar to a North American shop with the exception of the product. While there was a ton of reprints of North American comics, there was some differences in the format for a great many. There was a large amount of hardcovers which are slightly larger then their American hardcover cousins. I got to digging a little more and I found a few reprints that has me state out loud “WHY DON’T WE HAVE THIS?”
The first was the hardcovers of Neal Adam’s run on Batman. You’ve seen them before at every show you’ve been to in the past few years and while these are well made books and look great, the Italians have the same thing, BUT BIGGER! I didn’t have a tape measure with me but they looked to be just a little smaller than DC’s absolute format and just short of that price point (converted, I worked it out to roughly around 60 bucks per book). They also had a very nice looking set of hardcovers reprinting the newspaper strips of The Phantom. As best I can tell, they’re similar to the North American reprints but with much better covers.
Curious, I asked one of the guys who worked at the shop what sells in their store. He said it was kind of a 50/50 split between North American comics/reprints and everything else that they carried. A great comic shop with friendly staff who spoke English. If you go to the Vatican, check these guys out afterwards.
After we left the shop, it turned out comics were pretty easy to come by. I discovered a set of street venders near our hotel that sold used books including copies of Dylan Dog, Tex Willer and a bunch of old Avengers reprints from the 80s. Most of the bookstores we found also had a large comic section, however they seemed to have a greater focus on non-superhero books, like Blankets and The Sculptor, in addition to the Italian comics.
So what did I get? As regular readers know, I’m a big Geof Darrow fan and as luck would have it, I found a hardcover reprint of the latest Shaolin Cowboy mini-series, Shemp Buffet, in a large European album-size format (around 14 x 11). Even though it’s in Italian, it’s a fantastic size to show of Darrow’s art and I am so glad I picked it up.
Rome wasn’t the only place I found geekiness. My wife and I later headed to Naples and accidentally stumbled upon something kind of weird and neat. We had journeyed to the Naples National Archaeological Museum to see the treasures of Pompeii. We walk in, start looking around and I see something. “Dear… why do they have three statues of Batman?”. As I had been cracking jokes the entire trip, she thought I was making it up. Until she turned to see in a courtyard, three remarkable statues in all white of the caped crusader.
As it turned out, there was a pop art exhibit going on throughout the museum by artist Adrian Tranquilli called Days of Future Past. The exhibit revolved around the modern heroes like Batman, Superman and Yoda (yeah, I thought it was an odd choice too, especially when we saw one in a pope hat) in weird, artsy settings along side the heroes of old like Hercules.
The museum also had a small showing by comic artist Riccardo Federici that was showing off some spectacular pages from what I guess is his latest work.
Now for the most important part of Rome and Italy: THE FOOD!
This is probably a no brainer for food geeks but your best bet is to ask a local and find out where the locals eat. We got lucky as one of the hotel front desk people that I nicknamed Mr. Robot (because he looked and sounded like a robot the Communists sent in to infiltrate the Italian government and then forgot about so he became a front desk person at a hotel instead) told us under no uncertain terms that majority of the food in our area was tourist crap. However, if we wanted a good meal and didn’t care about paying a little more, we should go to Al Forno della Soffitta.
As much as I love food, I am not one of those people who takes pictures of it or the people who make it.
See these guys?
These guys make the best pizza you will ever eat. I say this without any exaggeration and in complete honesty. I mean just absolutely fantastic stuff. It will turn you off anything a chain pizza joint can throw at you for a long time. Their pasta was also phenomenal and probably the best we had while in Rome. We usually got there early, like 6pm, but due to Italian’s eating dinner later (7/8), by the time we left the restaurant, it was packed and had a line up outside.
So there you have it. A bit of a geek travelogue. I hope you enjoyed it and maybe got something out of it.
If you;’re gonna geek out, GEEK HARD!