Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Rome, Florence, and Saint Peter's Marathon

 In 2012, Deb and I took a vacation in Venice, and I ran the Venice Marathon.  Of all the trips we’ve taken, this was Deb’s favorite.  Since then, we’ve wanted to go to Rome, but for one reason or another, it was never a good time for us to travel there together.  This year, we were finally able to make that trip.
I always combine travel with marathons.  When we started planning a Rome trip, I was thinking of running the Rome Marathon, which is in April.  As I started looking into the details of that race, I discovered there was a legal squabble.  Roma Capitale was awarded the contract to manage the race in 2019, but Associazione Italia Marathon Club, who managed the race previously, claimed they still owned the rights for two more years.  Associazione Italia Marathon Club appealed to a regional administrative court.   I didn’t know how long it would take for this situation to get resolved, and in the meantime, I couldn’t enter the race.

Deb and I started considering other alternatives.  One possibility was to do sightseeing in Rome and then make a side trip to another city in Italy where I could run a marathon.  For example, I could have done the Pisa Marathon in December.  Another possibility was to combine our Rome vacation with a side trip to a nearby country with a marathon.  Malta, for example, has a marathon in February.  That would have made the travel arrangements more complicated, but it would have given me a new country.  I’ve already run a marathon in Italy.

As we were considering our options, I learned that Brent Weigner was organizing a small low-key marathon in the Vatican.  That fit into our plans perfectly.  The Vatican City (a.k.a. Holy See) is completely enclosed by Rome, but it’s an independent country.

As we started pricing flights to Rome, I noticed the airfare was less expensive if we stayed at least seven days.  Eight days seemed to be the sweet spot.  That gave us enough time to also spend a few days in Florence.  We could take a train from Rome to Florence, and flying home from Florence didn’t cost any more than flying home from Rome.

Tuesday, January 15

We arrived in Rome around noon, after an overnight flight to Amsterdam and a late morning flight from there to Rome.  We took an express train from the airport to Rome’s central train station.  Our hotel was only a few blocks from the train station.

We stayed at Hotel Mediterraneo.  This hotel was a well-located.  In addition to being close to the train station, it was also close to a transit station that was at the intersection of Rome’s two main subway lines.

After checking in and doing a little bit of unpacking, we started our sightseeing with a self-guided walking tour of central Rome.  Rome has numerous town squares, called piazzas.  Most of the piazzas have fountains, and each fountain is a work of art.  The closest piazza to our hotel was Piazza della Repubblica, where we saw the Fountain of the Naiads.  Next we stopped by Piazza Barberini, which is home to Tritan Fountain.

The most famous fountain in Rome is Trevi Fountain.  You can’t capture all the artwork in a single picture.

Our next stop was Piazza di Spagna, which was named for the Spanish Embassy to the Holy See.  Here we saw Fontana della Barcaccia and the “Spanish steps.”

From Piazza di Spagna, we walked to Piazza Augusto Imperatore, which is right on the bank of the
River Tiber.

This piazza is named for the Emporer Augustus.  It’s the site of an above-ground mausoleum, which holds his remains.  The mausoleum was fenced off for excavation, so we had to settle for the view from behind the fence.  This piazza is also home to Fontana della Botticella.

Piazza Navona is a long rectangular plaza that has three fountains.  At the north end is a fountain depicting Neptune and an octopus.  The central fountain is the Fountain of Four Rivers, with different sculptures on each side.  Finally, Fontana del Moro is located at the south end of the piazza.

Our next stop was the Pantheon.  The outside of this temple is 2000 years old.  The ornate artwork on the inside, however is only five centuries old.

In between these stops, we passed other interesting buildings, monuments and ruins.  We also stopped at a few shops.

The last fountain we visited on Tuesday was the Fountain of the Turtles in Piazza Mattei.

By now, we had walked more than five miles, and Deb’s feet were getting sore from all the cobblestones.  We wanted to take a Lyft back to the hotel, but Lyft isn’t available in Rome, and we haven’t installed the Uber app yet.  Instead, we walked back.   Our route, by chance, brought us by the Vittoriano, which is a monument to Italy’s first king.

After a much needed break, we went to dinner at Ristorante Alessio.  I was able to have pizza, while Deb had cacio e pepe, a pasta dish which is a staple of Roman cuisine.  After dinner, our server gave us each a shot of limoncello.  I think I have a new favorite drink.

Neither of us slept on our overnight flight, so we struggled to get through the day.  We held out until 8:30, but then we had to go to bed.  Deb slept OK.  I only slept for an hour or two, so I was a wreck on Wednesday.

Wednesday, January 16

After having breakfast at the hotel, we took a guided tour of ancient Rome.  We met our guide across the street from the Colosseum.

We started outside, as our guide explained the history and architecture of the Colosseum.  After we entered, we gradually worked our way up and around the first two levels.  From the second level, we could see part of the floor, as well as ongoing excavation of the passages underneath.

After leaving the Colosseum, we walked past other ancient ruins.  We also walked on portions of the original cobblestone roads.

Our next stop was the Roman Forum, where we learned about Julius Caesar.

After the Roman Forum, we walked to the top of Palatine Hill, which used to be reserved for men of power and privilege.

When we got back to the hotel, we had to take a break.  We did miles of walking, including cobblestones and tall steps.  When we were ready to go out again, we had a late lunch at another restaurant near our hotel.  Deb tried a different pasta dish, and I tried a different style of pizza.

After lunch, we went to the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano.  This was the first Christian basilica built in Rome.  From the 4th century until the 14th century, it was the Pope’s main place of worship.  The Pope still presides over this basilica as the Bishop of Rome.

Next, we saw the Santuario della Scala Santa & Sancta Sanctorum.  The Scala Santa is said to be the same set of stairs that Jesus climbed in the palace of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem.  These steps were transported to Rome in the 4th century and are considered sacred.  Church doctrine says that you can only climb them on your knees, saying a prayer on each step.

These steps lead to the Sanctum Sanctorum (Holiest of Holies), which was once the pope’s private chapel.

We were still full from a huge lunch, so in lieu of dinner, we stopped for gelato on our way back to the hotel.  In general, our meals were so filling that we could have lunch or dinner, but not both in the same day.

We went to bed earlier that night.  I slept better than I did the first night, but I still couldn’t sleep through the night.

Thursday, January 17

Thursday morning, we took a guided tour of the Vatican.  On our way there, we noticed the subway was unusually crowded.  Transit workers were going on strike at 8:30.  Most local residents, knowing that, made a point of leaving early enough to get to their destinations before the trains stopped running.  Our tour started at 8:30, so we got there OK.  Getting back to the hotel afterwards was another matter.

It was a small group tour, limited to 10 people.  As it happens, there were only three of us, plus the tour guide.  That made it possible for our guide to talk to us without using headsets.  It also allowed her to show us more areas than she could with a larger group.

After a quick look at the Vatican Gardens, we toured the Vatican Museums.  There are 22 museums in all, and we visited most of them.  Our guide was very knowledgeable about art, and the history of the Vatican.

After the museums, we saw the Sistine Chapel.  The frescoes were cleaned in the 90s, and the colors are surprisingly vivid.

After the Sistine Chapel, we toured St. Peter’s Basilica.

We saw the tombs of several popes, including John Paul II.

I was hoping to have lunch at the Vatican after our tour.  There are cafeterias inside the Vatican Museums, and one of them is a pizzeria, so I thought I would have an opportunity to have pizza in a new country.  Unfortunately, the museums were the first part of our tour, and we had to leave the museums to go to St. Peter’s Basilica.  Once you leave the museums, you can’t go back without waiting in line and getting new tickets.

Outside the basilica, we saw two of the Swiss guards.

I don’t know what the occasion was, but there was some kind of festival going on in St. Peter’s Square and the nearby streets.

Because the subway wasn’t running, we had to walk back to our hotel.  We made the most of it by doing some shopping and sightseeing along the way.  We also stopped twice for gelato.  Two of the buildings we saw on our way were Castel Sant’ Angela and the Supreme Court building.

After a rest break at the hotel, as visited Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore, which was only a short walk from our hotel.

We finished our day with dinner at a restaurant near the basilica.  As usual, Deb had pasta and I had pizza.

Friday night was the first night that I slept well all night.  I really needed that.

Friday, January 18

This was the first morning that we didn’t have to set an alarm.  We slept a little later and had a leisurely breakfast at the hotel.

After breakfast, we went to Villa Borghese.  This is a large park that was once the estate of Cardinal Scipione Borghese. We entered the park near Porta Pinciata, a 5th century arched gate through the ancient city wall.

Our first stop inside the park was Museo e Galleria Borghese, which houses one of the world’s finest private art collections.  In addition to the permanent collection of sculptures and paintings, we saw a temporary exhibit of Picasso sculptures.

After touring the gallery, we went outside to see the gardens.

We were just starting to explore the interior of the park when we got caught in a brief rain shower.  After that, we returned to the hotel.

After drying off and changing into dry clothes, we went to lunch at Santa Maria Osteria.  Deb had cacio e pepe again, and I tried a different style of pizza.  Then we spent the rest of the afternoon shopping and relaxing at the hotel.

In the evening, we went over to the Rome Marriott Grand Flora Hotel for a pre-race meeting with the other runners who were doing the marathon.  Brent briefed us on the course and went over the race rules.

After we got back, we stopped at a grocery store and got some pastry.  I ate some of the pastry as a light dinner, and I saved the rest for race day.

Saturday, January 18

Saturday was race day.  I had to leave before the hotel started its breakfast service, so I ate more of the pastry we bought the night before.

I met other runners at the Marriott, and we shared a cab ride to the Vatican.  They don’t open the gates until 7:00, so while we waited, a few of us went to a nearby McDonald’s for coffee.  I’m not a coffee drinker, but it was a chance to sit down indoors.  Also, they had bathrooms.

Although the main gate isn’t opened until 7:00, one of the runners knew about another gate on the side that opened earlier.

At 7:00, we all assembled near the Vatican Obelisk for a pre-race photos.  Then we started the race.  At this hour of the morning, we were the only people in St. Peter’s square, other than a few nuns and the security guards.

We all started out walking.  We walked as a group to the gate on the north side of St. Peter’s Square.  As soon as we left the square, we were outside the Vatican, but then we ran all the way around the Vatican, staying on the sidewalk adjacent to the Vatican walls.  Actually, we mostly walked.  In some spots, there’s very little room between the road and the wall.  In other spots, we had to go up or down steps.

There weren’t any aid stations, so we were each required to carry our own hydration system.  I had a fuel belt that held a single 22 oz. bottle, and I also had a hand-held bottle.  Ordinarily, that wouldn’t be enough fluid for an entire marathon, but temperatures were in the 40s, and I made a point of not dressing too warm.

As we were almost done running/walking around the Vatican, I saw a fountain on the outside of the wall, so I topped off the bottle I was drinking from.  Does that mean I was drinking holy water?

We re-entered St. Peter’s Square from a gate on the south side, and then ran out through the main gate.  We had to go a few blocks alongside a busy street, and we crossed two intersections.  There’s a bridge over the Tiber that’s just across from Castel Sant’ Angela.  Next to the bridge, there’s a long set of steps leading down to a bike path.  This was the end of the slow part of the course.  For the first two and a half miles, I was mostly walking.  Once we were on the bike path, we had a good running surface, and we never had to cross another street.  Now we could run freely.

As we each went down the steps, Sue Weigner recorded each runner's number, to make sure everyone made it through the first part of the course and onto the bike path.

The rest of the course was an out-and-back on the bike path that we ran five times.  Most of the time, we were right alongside the river.  As we got closer to the turnaround, we climbed a hill up to street level.  As we completed each lap, Sue took down our numbers.

I started the race wearing gloves and a Tyvek jacket, but I shed them as soon as I started to warm up.  Every now and then, I took a small sip of water, but I was rationing my water carefully.

Where the bike path climbed up to the street, there was another path that continued alongside the river.  By the time we reached this point, we were already getting spread out enough that you couldn’t always see the next runner in front of you.  In the first lap, several runners went the wrong way.  Later, as I saw runners who were confused about the course, I explained where they were supposed to turn.  By the second lap, everyone had it figured out.

In a race as small as this, I don’t expect any crowd support, but there was a local runner who yelled out encouragement in Italian, each time we passed each other.  I think he recognized my T-shirt from the Venice Marathon.

Toward the end of my second lap, I felt a few raindrops.  I knew rain was a possibility, but I wasn’t expecting it this soon.  Early in my third lap, I felt more drops.  The pavement was wet, and I could see rain hitting the river.  I had to stop and put on my jacket again.

For the next several miles, I was cold.  Thick cloud cover meant no warmth from the sun.  I was also noticing more wind.  On the bright side, I wasn’t perspiring too much, so I didn’t need to drink much.  Halfway through the race, I was still on my first water bottle.

Eventually, the rain stopped, but I was still cold, so I kept my jacket on.  By the time I finished my third lap of the out-and-back, I was done with my first bottle, so I dropped it off where Sue was waiting.  It was a relief to no longer have to carry a bottle.  Aside from the extra weight, it made my hand cold.

I eventually warmed up, but I kept my jacket on.  I unzipped it, but I was afraid I’d get too cold if I took it off completely.  I was beginning to perspire more, but by now, I was confident I had enough water for the rest of the race.

With about eight miles to go, I was tiring noticeably.  I wasn’t going particularly fast, but I always tire faster when I have to carry water with me.  I really notice the extra weight.

I pressed on at the best pace I could manage, but I could tell I was slowing down.  With about two miles to go, the sun came out, and I immediately started to get hot.  I had to stop again to take off my jacket.

I finished the race in 4:34:10.  I ran negative splits by about 11 minutes.  It’s worth noting, however, that I walked most of the first two and a half miles.

It didn’t cost anything to enter this race, but Brent still provided finisher medals.

I wasn’t expecting any post-race food, but one of the other runners provided cookies for everyone.  It’s always nice to have something to eat after a race.  It’s especially nice when you’ve had nothing but water during the race.

After the race, I still had to walk almost a mile to get to the nearest subway station, so I could get back to the hotel.  I was wearing damp running clothes, and I didn’t have any extra layers.  Now that I was no longer running, I got cold quickly.  I was about halfway to the station when I realized I forget to retrieve my hand-held water bottle.  I couldn’t bring myself to go back, knowing how much extra time I would need to spend outdoors in the cold.

While I was running, Deb was able to do some shopping.  Her lower back was bothering her, and she had blisters and sore muscles from all the walking we did over the previous four days, so she stayed within a few blocks of our hotel.

When I got back to the hotel, I finished the rest of the pastry I bought Friday night.  Then Deb got back.  She hadn’t had anything to eat since breakfast, and she was hungry for lunch.  She didn’t have to twist my arm much.  We went to another of the many Italian restaurants near our hotel.  This time we both had pizza.  We were both so stuffed that we didn’t need to have dinner that night, other than a few beverages we picked up at a mini market.

Sunday, January 20

After breakfast, we checked out of our hotel and took a train to Florence.  It took about 90 minutes to get to Florence.

We stayed at a boutique hotel called Hotel Paris.  These were the views from our room.

In the afternoon, we took a free walking tour of Florence.  They have different tours in the morning and afternoon.  The afternoon tour is focused on the art and architecture of the Renaissance.  The highlight of the tour was Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (a.k.a the Duomo).

One of the more unusual sights was a church built inside a former grain market.

We finished our tour at the Basilica di Santa Croce di Firenze.  It has been called the Pantheon of Florence.  The tombs of many of the greatest artists and writers of Florence are beneath this church.

After our tour, we had an early dinner at Osteria de’ Peccatori.  We enjoyed our entrees, but the desserts were even better.

Monday, January 21

On Monday, we took an all-day guided tour called The Best of Tuscany.   This tour gave us a chance to see a few other towns in Tuscany.  We travelled by motor coach, which left from the central train station.

Our first stop was Sienna.  We saw the large town square where the town’s 17 districts compete every summer in a horse race.  We also saw the Sienna Duomo.

The floor of the Duomo features 56 marble images designed by 40 different artists.  Staining the marble is a painstaking  process that took  hundreds of years to complete.

Next we traveled to a farm in the Chianti region, where we had lunch.  They served a four
course meal made from locally grown ingredients.  Each course was paired with a different local wine.

After lunch, we continued to San Gimignano.  San Gimignano is one the best preserved towns from the medieval period.

San Gimignano is built on the top of a hill.  From the town, you can see the surrounding Tuscan countryside.

Our last stop was Pisa.  We arrived just after sunset, so we barely had time to take pictures of the leaning tower before it got too dark.  The leaning tower, as it’s known today, was originally supposed to be the bell tower for the Pisa Duomo.

We also barely had time to see the cathedral before it was closed to tourists for the day.

We got back around 8:00 and still had to walk back to our hotel from the train station.  We got to bed later than night, but we both slept well.

Tuesday, January 22

After breakfast, we went shopping at the central market.  There’s a large building next to the market square where dozens of different vendors sell different kinds of food.  On the nearby streets, streets vendors sell clothing, leather goods, and various souvenirs.

Later in the morning, we went on a guided tour of the Florence Academy of Fine Arts.  There are paintings and sculptures by other artists, but the gallery is dedicated mostly to the work of Michelangelo.  The highlight of the gallery is the original copy of his sculpture of David.  I've seen pictures before, but it's much more impressive in person.

After the tour, we went back to the central market.  Then we stopped for lunch on our way back to the hotel.  As we left the restaurant, we couldn’t resist stopping next door for gelato.  We had gelato several times in Rome, Florence, and San Gimignano.  This cup has Nutella, cocoa, and pistachio.

Later in the afternoon, we had a guided tour of the Uffizi Gallery.  There are works of art from different periods, but our guide focused on important works by artists connected to Florence, such as Michelangelo, Botticelli, Leonardo daVinci, and Rafael.

Wednesday, January 23

We had an early flight to Amsterdam, so we had to leave the hotel at 4:30 AM, so we could get to the airport right when the check-in counters were opening.   Because we checked out before breakfast, the hotel gave us each a to-go breakfast.  We ate about half of it while we were waiting for our taxi and the other half after we got to the airport.

Our flight to Amsterdam was relatively short, but then we had a long layover and an eight hour flight to Minneapolis.  It was a long travel day.  I was tempted to try to nap on the flight, but I forced myself to stay awake so I would have an easier time getting to sleep after we got home.  The jet lag always seems to be worse coming home.

The meal on our flight home was pasta.  As if we didn't get enough in Italy.

Race Statistics
Distance:  26.2 miles
Time:  4:34:10
Average Pace:  10:28
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras:  365
Countries:  33