Saturday 20th October 2001

We were rudely torn from our slumber at 6:30am this morning when our phone rang. It was one hell of a shock and the first thought that went through my head was FIRE!

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There were no flames, no alarm bells ringing; we had mistakenly received somebody else's early morning wake up call. A minute later we heard the phone ring again but in the room above us. Then they stomped about like a herd of panicking hippos for half an hour. Eventually it went all quiet, and we fell back to sleep, thankfully.

We didn't return to the land of the living until gone 10am. We were flying home today, but weren't being picked up from the hotel until 2:45pm so we weren't in any rush. We started packing and found it almost impossible to close the suitcase. It became quite stressful, and I'm sure Julie was taking this to be a bad omen. I resorted to sitting on it, hitting it, and swearing at it; which worked! With the bad omen eliminated, our future safety was assured. Although it didn't put a lid on Julie's anxiety, and the nerves about flying had already taken a grip. She was visibly fighting her demons as we took our luggage down to reception for the day.

We stopped at Pepy's for a leisurely breakfast before heading for the Hard Rock Café to buy my father a pin badge for his HRC badge collection. I also bought myself a plain white HRC t-shirt for my collection. Like father, like son!

We were aiming for the park Villa Borghese which was at the end of via Veneto. Along the way we passed many top hotels and restaurants, several displaying photographs of stars that had frequented their humble establishments. One hilarious photo showed a gushing restaurant owner, Toni, crouched besides a very bewildered 'rabbit in the headlights' looking Mel Gibson!

We reached the park after completing an agility test crossing a nightmare combination of roundabouts and junctions.

Cars were coming at us from all directions!

We made it in one piece and were rewarded by discovering such a beautiful park.

It was very peaceful and relaxing, with many couples walking arm in arm, children riding bicycles or donkeys, and rowing boats on the lake.

The lake itself was very pretty.

Graceful swans swam amongst the children rowing their parents round in circles.

For a briefest of moments a stupid thought about jumping into a boat and rowing out into the middle had entered our minds but we quickly came to our senses before we made fools of ourselves!

Instead we found a nearby café called Casina del Largo and sat down for coffee. Far more civilised than working up a sweat trying to row a boat!

I thought that perhaps this building may have been a casino in its previous life but I later found out that Casina means 'Cottage' and not a den of gambling. Opposite the cafe were public lavatories and despite not wanting to frequent public toilets I had no choice but to answer the call of nature.

There didn't appear to be any segregation for sexes but when I walked inside, two cleaners were loitering, and I'm sure they nudged each other and winked.

It made me think that I had waltzed into the Ladies toilets. They didn't stop me however, and one cleaner walked in front of me into the cubicle and poured a bucket of water down a stainless steel hole in the ground. It was very strange to see an eastern style loo here in Italy. As in Thailand I thanked my lucky stars that I didn't need to squat. It was only my bladder that needed emptying. I dread the day when I do have a bowel movement on such a toilet.

On exiting the cubicle the two ladies were still there, grinning like mischievous grandmothers. I then noticed a sign in Italian which had some numbers on it. It looked like a price list!?

I rummaged in my pockets and gave them all the change I had. It only came to 900 lira, (about 30 pence), so in my best Italian I apologised. "Scuzi, it's all the lira I've got left, scuzi"!

It was now 1pm and time to be hungry, so we walked back down Via Veneto looking for a restaurant. Whilst in Rome I had eaten almost every conceivable type of Italian cuisine available to a vegetarian, except for a Risotto. Opposite the Hard Rock Café we stopped at a café to scour their menu. The head waitress came up to us and I asked if they did risotto, she pointed to the menu where they had a chicken risotto. "Sonno vegetariano" I said in my stiff British accent, but she understood, although I had to explain that I didn't eat fish either. She suggested ingredients such as pomodoro and melanzane, which I recognised as tomatoes and aubergines, so I agreed. When it arrived it was incredibly delicious. It tasted even nicer knowing that it wasn't on the menu and cooked especially for me! Julie had lamb and chips which was also tasty.

The flight home was still in the forefront of her mind so she decided to take her first diazepam tablet. Just as we were finishing our meal the pavement gazebo filled up to bursting point with a group of Japanese tourists. It was quite a squeeze for seventeen people to sit together despite them all being relatively petit!

With an hour to spare we walked past our hotel and down the other side of Via Quattro Fontane. We were heading towards the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore but decided that it was too far, choosing instead to aim for Piazza Republica.

We crossed into the centre of this large space, and sat down for a while by the centrepiece. It was a fantastic fountain with several playful nymphs on display!

We made it back to our hotel for 2:30pm, just in time to collect our luggage before our airport pick-up arrived. We left without Anna Robinsonno saying goodbye. She was too deep in conference with her aging gigolo friend to even noticed that we had left. Obviously hadn't taken her happy pills today.

Our driver took us to our limo which was a huge old black Mercedes but it would have been more at home in a vintage car rally. It was ancient!

I guess it could be argued that it had style, even if it was way back in the fifties. We drove down Via Quattro Fontane and passed the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore. We were right; it was too far too walk inside an hour.

When we stopped at a set of traffic lights our driver wound down the passenger side window and started shouting at the driver of a small minibus to our side. He was getting very animated and loud as it developed into avery heated debate. The other driver was giving as well as he got! Then the lights turned green and we sped off. He turned around to us and said "My son", then the classic Italian line, "he show no respect" throwing his hand up in mock despair!

This ride to the airport was far calmer then our incoming transfer. He was cruising along quite sedately. Although having said that, the springs in the back seat made it an exceptionally bouncy ride. There wasn't any seatbelts either so we were practically rolling about in the back having no control over our movements. Thankfully once we reached the motorway the road surface was a lot smoother, and so less bouncy.

Up ahead Julie, (ever aware of impending dangers), had spotted flashing blue lights of the police. Strangely the diver accelerated towards it, not slow down? As we came nearer we noticed that there were several police motorcycles escorting a coach. We had no idea what was going on. As we slowly cruised alongside the bus to my total surprise I recognised a very familiar face in the window. It was a sleeping giant by the name of Jaap Stam! Ex-Manchester United player, now playing for Lazio! What a bonus! I couldn't find my camera in time and had to settle for taking a photo of the coach from a distance.

The driver told us that the coach contained the Lazio football team. They were also on their way to the airport to fly to Venice for a game tomorrow. (Most matches take place on Sunday afternoons in Italy.) We talked further about the fact that I was a huge Manchester United fan, he was a huge Lazio fan, and he said that United have just taken the best player in the world away from his team; Juan Sebastian Veron. He continued talking football, and told us of his joy when England beat Germany 5-1. "Nobody likes the Germans" he said!

Shortly afterwards we arrived at the airport in plenty of time for our flight. We checked-in our suitcase, and headed straight for the departure lounge for the duty free shopping. I bought some spaghetti and a jar of pesto to take home. We also looked in vain for Hugo Boss Red perfume for Hannah but it was sold out everywhere we looked. We eventually found a body lotion in the range.

With 45 minutes to go we left for gate 33, to which we travelled by a monorail link. When we got out there were even more shops for us to walk around. They weren't taking Julie's mind off the flight though, despite now having taken the final tablet, she was still shitting herself.

We sat on the plane and faced a slight delay, but before too long were up up and away. Julie was not enjoying this flight in the slightest. To be fair it was a pretty bumpy turbulent flight. One of the flight attendants assured Julie that it was perfectly normal to experience turbulence over the Alps but that was no consolation for Julie. Three male attendants were very good with Julie, always cheerful and frequently stopping to ask how she was. One of them did a perfect impersonation of Alan Partridge, the character from the BBC comedy series, when he was about to bring the duty free trolley down the aisle. ".. feel free to rustle through my drawers, .. a-ha"

With fifteen minutes to go, one of the attendants came up to Julie to say that the plane is behaving normally and we should be touching down in about fifteen minutes. When we did land the relief hit Julie and she filled the sick bag. A lady who was sitting behind us asked if Julie was OK. She explained that she also hates flying and has found her solution is to get pissed on nine pints of lager. Her husband didn't appear too amused however! The diazepam hadn't worked for Julie but I'm glad that she hadn't taken to drinking a gallon of beer!

We got off the plane and picked up our suitcase immediately off the carousel as ours was the first to come out. A well spoken gentleman said how fortunate we were, the last time he flew back from Rome he had to wait five days for his 30 year old suitcase to turn up! We got back to the car, and back onto the M23 in no time, although in going through an industrial estate I was caught speeding by a speed camera. Flash Flash it went, catching me in an open mouthed expression of disbelief. I'm strangely looking forward to seeing the picture so I can stick it in the photo album.

Looking back on this visit to Rome I have to admit to have thoroughly enjoyed it more than any other vacation. We certainly have fallen in love with Rome, and Italy as a whole I feel. I'm convinced that in a past life I was Italian as I adore everything about this country, the food, the wine, the people, the football! I can fully understand why so many people dream about to moving to Italy. Perhaps one day we will.

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