A Weekend Getaway in Rome

Through a partnership between Pink Pangea and Homestay, I was able to travel to Rome for a long weekend. Homestay offered Pink Pangea writers a free stay with one of their hosts anywhere in the world. Although I could have chosen a destination as exotic as Japan or New Zealand, I decided on Rome so I didn’t have to pay too hefty a price in airfare: roundtrip from Tel Aviv was only $250. Plus, I had never been to Italy, and I figured the capital was the best place to start. During my three full days in Rome, I hit all the major sites and ate at some amazing restaurants.

Day 1: Friday, May 22

I was a little nervous before starting my trip. I am used to traveling alone, but not staying with a stranger. Homestay is a company that provides accommodations in cities all over the world with locals, rather than spending a fortune on a hotel room. All of the hosts go through a verification process, so I knew that nothing horrible would happen, but I couldn’t help thinking the whole thing would be a little awkward, at least at the beginning. It did make me feel better that I had a friend tagging along with me. I was excited for a real Roman experience.

After searching through hosts on Homestay, taking location and room quality into account, Diana and I finally decided on Rochelle, who lived in an apartment in the center of Rome. To be honest, we couldn’t really tell what the apartment looked like from the pictures, but the location was too perfect.

Rochelle contacted me about a week before our trip to tell me which shuttle to take to get from the airport to her apartment: SitBus, the only shuttle that stops near the Vatican as opposed to going all the way to Termini Station. Once we landed we easily found the correct bus to take. As promised Rochelle met us at the bus stop in order to walk us to her home.

The apartment was a one minute walk away from Piazza Navona, on a narrow cobble stone street. The area was gorgeous and very typically Roman. The three floor walk up was a bit tedious with our suitcases, but we managed.

I was pleasantly surprised when I walked into the apartment. The pictures definitely did not do it justice. It was small, but so old and pretty. The ceilings were latched and the view from our bedroom was an amazing lookout onto the narrow streets below. Rochelle was so welcoming and told us immediately to help ourselves to whatever we needed.

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our view!

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She offered to cook us dinner, but Diana and I wanted to explore our new neighborhood. Between Piazza Navona and Campo de Fiori, we found a small hole in the wall restaurant, called Ditirambo. The food was amazing. We started off with a caprese salad and each had pasta for dinner. Diana had a rabbit ragu and I had the popular cacio e pepe, cheese and pepper. It was definitely a great introduction to real Italian food and made me excited for the carbs ahead.

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Day 2: Saturday, May 23

We set our alarm for 7:30am so that we could get an early start on the day and try to beat some of the lines at the popular sites. Rochelle had provided us towels, so we each showered. Although we had brought our own, she also had shampoo, conditioner, and soap that we could have borrowed if necessary. After showering, we ate the amazing breakfast Rochelle had prepared: Italian coffee, yogurt, and various different pastries.

After breakfast, we set off for St. Peter’s Basilica. Along the way we passed the Castel Sant’Angelo and took some pictures, opting not to go inside. We arrived at St. Peter’s Basilica around 9am and already the line was circled around the square. But it moved quickly, and we were at the security check in about 25 minutes. It was amazing to see just how many people tried to cut the line. In fact, when a couple cut right in front of Diana and me I informed them that “the line starts all the way back there.” They looked defeated and moved towards the back.

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Once inside, we went to the cupola first. It wasn’t that crowded yet and we wanted to go to the top before the line got too long. It was 5 euros to walk up, and 7 to ride the elevator. We opted to splurge on the extra two euros and it was definitely worth it. The views were incredible, I definitely recommend going to the top if you ever go.

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After walking around the cupola and inside the basilica itself, it was 11am and we were hungry. We stopped at Mama Frites, and got some French Fries with “snack sauce” on top. It was basically like a spicy, smoky ketchup flavor. We walked along a cute street called Borgo Pio in Vatican City, browsing at leather stores.

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On our way to the Vatican Museum, we stopped at Old Bridge, one of the most famous gelato places in Rome. I had the pistachio ricotta flavor based on the worker’s recommendation, and it was delicious. The best gelato I’ve ever had. Definitely go here if you are planning on visiting the Vatican.

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Our next stop was the Vatican Museum. We bought our tickets online. If you only take one piece of advice from this article: buy your tickets for the Vatican online. The line was around the block, but we got to skip the whole thing and immediately enter because of our pre-purchased tickets. The only catch with the pre-purchased tickets is that you have to choose a specific time to enter the museum. We had planned on going at 2pm. But we arrived at 1:30pm and there was no problem. So you have to plan your day accordingly.

The museum was beautiful, filled with old statues, maps, and paintings. We sort of breezed through some of the sections of the museum, making a beeline to the Sistine Chapel. It was breathtaking to see the Creation of Man in person. After seeing so many copies and parodies of it on TV and the internet, it was a surreal experience to see the real thing in person.

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After the Vatican Museum our feet were so sore we sat on the steps at the exit for about twenty minutes before we started the walk home. Luckily for us, it was only a 15 minute walk back to the apartment. We napped for about two hours. Rochelle prepared us coffee and some pastries after we got home to help wake us up.

We walked to the Trastevere area for dinner, an old medieval part of the city. Again it was only a 15 minute walk from the apartment. We walked along the main street until we found a restaurant that had fresh pasta and vegetables in the window, called Il Duca. We split buffalo mozzarella and prosciutto to start. For dinner Diana had truffle ravioli and I had bucatini all’Amatricina, a typical Roman dish consisting of pasta with tomato sauce and pancetta. Everything was delicious.

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After dinner we decided to experience Roman nightlife. We went to a bar in Trastevere called Mr. Brown where they make their own special type of vodka that is infused with peppers. We stayed out until 2am, which Rochelle told us was very early for Rome!

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Day 3: Sunday, May 24

Because of the previous nights activities, we got a late start on Sunday. Rochelle had prepared another amazing breakfast: eggs, prosciutto, toast, and coffee. Our plan for this day was the Colosseum and Roman Forum.

The walk to the Colosseum was the longest one we would have to do from the apartment, and it was only 20 minutes. I loved the walk, because no matter where I walked in Rome I passed some beautiful building or an ancient artifact. Along the way to the Colosseum we walked by these old columns and remains of a building just in the middle of a busy street.

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The Colosseum was incredible and quickly became my favorite part of the trip. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that people had made it nearly 2,000 years ago and it was still standing. The architecture was incredible and so was the history behind the building.

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After the Colosseum we saw the Roman Forum. The line to get into the actual grounds was even longer than the line to get into the Colosseum so we decided to skip it, but not completely. We found a viewpoint overlooking the Roman Forum so we were able to see all the ruins from above, getting an even better picture of what used to be there in my opinion that walking around on the grounds.

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We found a trattoria down a little side street after leaving the Colosseum called La Paca del Cervello. The restaurant had phones on the wall behind the tables, allowing you to call other tables using a list of numbers. Although we didn’t make any phone calls, the little girls at the table next to us were definitely enjoying themselves. had pizza all’Amatricina, the pizza version of the famous Roman pasta. We were full and exhausted after lunch, so we decided to go home and rest before dinner.

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We made reservations for dinner at a restaurant right by the Trevi Fountain. We left a few minutes early to see the fountain before our meal. Sadly the Trevi Fountain was under construction so there wasn’t even water. Rochelle had warned us the fountain was under maintenance, but we didn’t expect it to this extent. We couldn’t get close to the fountain; we had to walk along a makeshift bridge to see it. The statues were still really beautiful, but I was a little disappointed I didn’t get to throw a coin in the magical water.

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Dinner was at Arancia, a restaurant hidden down a little side street. To start I had an artichoke “Jewish style,” which is a deep fried artichoke. For dinner I had pasta with truffles. Diana had artichoke cream lasagna, and our friend Danielle had lamb ragu. We all agreed it was the best meal we had so far.

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Day 4: Monday, May 25

Diana and I woke up early on Monday because we had such a lazy day the day before. There were still some key spots we wanted to see before we left. We had another amazing breakfast thanks to Rochelle: more prosciutto, toast, and pastries. And of course Italian coffee.

After breakfast, Rochelle kindly walked us to the Pantheon as she was on her way to work. We got there at 8:30am, and it was empty. We went inside, no lines, no admission fee. It was beautiful. The dome on the ceiling was breathtaking. Like the Colosseum I couldn’t fathom how that dome was built so many years ago. I also learned that because of the open spot in the dome, there are tiny holes on the floor to drain water.

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From the Pantheon we walked around the corner to Sant Eustacio, a famous espresso place in Rome. Heads up if you go, even though you order at the counter, you have to pay an extra 5 euros to sit outside at the tables. After coffee, we made our way to the Jewish Ghetto. We just walked around and explored the area. We tried to enter the Synagogue, but we couldn’t because it was the Jewish holiday of Shavuot.

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We ate lunch near Piazza Navona at Osraria da Fortunata, known for the old Italian woman who sits in the window and actually makes the pasta right there from scratch. I had carbonara, which I had been waiting to specifically try at this place after reading the Trip Advisors reviews. It was the best pasta I’ve ever tasted. The pasta was al dente, but that’s what the place is known for.

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From there we walked to the Spanish Steps, which I found pretty underwhelming. But the fountain at the bottom, Barcaccia Fountain, was beautiful. The area around the Spanish Steps is the place to shop in Rome. The street was lined with high end boutiques, like Prada and Gucci, so we did a lot of window shopping. We hung out and rested in Piazza del Popolo before we went back to the apartment to rest and shower before dinner.

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We had made reservations at Sera Margerita based off of a friend’s recommendation. It’s a Roman Jewish restaurant in the Jewish quarter that’s been around since the 1930s. All the food is homemade and the menu changes daily based on what is fresh. There are two seatings, either at 8 or 9:30pm, so we made a reservation for 8pm. Again I had an artichoke Jewish style to start, and for dinner I had the cacio e pepe, but this time is also had a giant glob of ricotta cheese on top. It was totally cheesy and decadent, but also fresh and delicious.

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From dinner we walked to Piazza Navona and sat by the fountain there. It was a beautiful night so we people watched for an hour or so, just chilling out in a great atmosphere. There were artists and street performs all around us. It was the perfect ending to the trip.

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Day 5: Tuesday, May 26I

We woke up really early, at 5am, in order to catch the SitBus back to the airport. Rochelle woke up also and again made us breakfast, which was extremely nice considering how early it was. We said our goodbyes and thanked Rochelle for everything.

Overall the trip was so much better than I had imagined. Even though I was a little nervous to be staying with a stranger, Rochelle was so welcoming and amazing. From the first minute we met her, she treated us like family. From providing us with a delicious breakfast every morning and snacks in the afternoon, to giving us directions and tips for the city, she provided us with everything we needed and more. The apartment was clean and beautiful, in an amazing location. Words cannot explain just how happy I was with my homestay experience. I don’t think my trip to Rome would have been as memorable as it was without this experience.

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Red Flowers, A Botanical Garden, and a Fancy Business Lunch

Yesterday, four of my friends and I decided to take an adventure. We had heard a lot about these red poppies that bloom throughout Southern Israel. Apparently there are just fields of these red poppies, like endless rows of them.

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What the poppies look like in full bloom.

I knew I wanted to go as soon as I heard about them. It was just getting there that was the problem. On my last adventure to the South African restaurant, our sort of simple three bus journey turned into a 2 bus, 2 taxi, and 1 car ride ordeal.

My friends and I decided to rent a car to ease the pain of actually getting to the place. Turns out that renting a car in Israel is really easy and cheap. Both of these things surprised me because they contradict most processes in this country. Between 5 people the car was only 50 shekels each (including a young driver fee and insurance) but an extra 20 when we had to fill up the gas tank.We left bright and early on Sunday, 5 of us squeezed into what felt like a clown car. We set off on the 45 minute drive south.

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Clown car

When we pulled into the Pura Nature Reserve, we had expected to see endless rows of bright red. But instead all we saw was green. I optimistically urged that we probably just had to walk a little into the reserve before we would see the flowers.

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What was left of the flowers.

Well, I was wrong. There were small patches of red flowers throughout the fields of green. Because the season is only the month of February we figured we must have been late. It was as if as soon as the clock struck March 1 (the day we went) all the flowers died. I mean realistically it was probably just a short blooming season, but it felt ironic, almost like we were a day late and a penny short, as the expression goes.

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Sitting in a patch I found.

We still really enjoyed ourselves. The reserve was really pretty and was filled with other flowers besides the red poppies. My favorite part was the lush green grass everywhere. There isn’t that much grass in Israel, or at least not the really nice thick grass I’m used to from New Jersey. I just wanted to roll around in it. Which I attempted until I learned the grass was filled with prickly things that hurt really badly when pierced through my jeans.

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I found grass!

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A nice lake in the reserve.

After we walked around the reserve we decided it was time to eat somewhere. We googled places in the area and found some restaurant on a Moshav about 20 minutes north, so 20 minutes in the direction of home.

Turns out the restaurant was pretty fancy and you could only order a business lunch. And let me tell you the business lunch was not cheap as it consisted of a starter, main course, and drink. We tried to only order one item but were told we had to order the whole meal. So we decided just to split them, thankfully the restaurant allowed us. We kept on pretending every time the waitress came by that we were discussing “important business” matters, laughing under our breath. The meal ended with Blake taking a shot of tabasco sauce off of a dare, so we clearly weren’t playing the part too well.

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Part of our fancy lunch, artichoke salad.

After the restaurant we drove to Holon and visited the Japanese Botanical Gardens there. The gardens weren’t that big but they were really peaceful and definitely had a zen like feel.

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At the Botanical Gardens

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So zen.

We were pretty exhausted at this point. We tried to see the Cacti Garden right next door to the Botanical Gardens but they were closed.

Overall it was a really fun day. I can now check seeing the red poppies off of my Israel bucket list. Even though they were almost completely gone, the few patches we saw definitely count.

We went to South Africa!!!

Well my roommates and I didn’t actually go to Sourh Africa, just a kibbutz in the south with a South African restaurant. Also it wasn’t only my roommates and I, we had a fifth adventurer with us. Blake from the apartment upstairs joined too. It was the first of our newly established “Adventure Sunday’s.” And let me tell you it definitely was an adventure getting to this restaurant.

Before I get into the disaster that was us getting to the restaurant, let me give you a little history about the place. Sharon and Mike moved to Israel from South Africa about 20 years ago. Once they settled on the kibbutz they opened up a little bistro which Sharon told us used to be the Ulpan classroom of the kibbutz. They started cooking authentic Soruh African food and it is now the only type restaurant in all of Israel. My roommate Kayleigh had her birthday a few weeks ago and although we celebrated on New Year’s Eve, we had planned to go to his restaurant as an extra celebration. As like all of us, Kayleigh misses the food from her home country. So the trek was a must and we set the date for yesterday when our calendars were free of programming events. So she got in touch with Sharon after someone else on my program went to the restaurant.

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My roommates and I!

The trek there was supposed to be simple, if your definition of simple includes 3 buses. The first two went smoothly. The first bus picked us up in Rishon right on time and dropped us off at the Ramle central bus station. We only had to wait ten minutes before our next bus arrived on time, dropping us off in the middle of Beit Semesh. Then we had a slight issue. We waited for twenty minutes for our bus to come and pick us up, supposedly to take us to the kibbutz. Kibbutz Galon to be exact. But unfortunately it never came and when we checked our transit app it said the next bus wasn’t due until 6pm. We has two options, take a cab (well actually two since there were 5 of us) or go home. The latter wasn’t really an option so we hailed two cabs and spend combined for both 250 shekels, so 50 each for the 25 minute ride to our destination.

I have to say the drive was really beautiful. I couldn’t believe how green everything was, I mean Israel is a desert right? The kibbutz was so quiet and peaceful and had a giant herd of cows there to greet us. We had some trouble finding the Mike and Sharon’s Bistro walking though muddy paths and backyards before we finally got in touch with Sharon who came to the main road to greet us.

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green!

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more green stuff!

 The restaurant itself was decorated in so many South African signs, pictures, and collectibles. There were masks hanging on the wall, signs for different sports teams, old food cans and boxes neatly stalked on shelfs, and interesting graffiti and paintings on the walls. Not to mention the picture hanging on the wall of Nelson Mandela with the owners’ children. The best part about the decorations were the sharpied messages visitors had left thanking Mike and Sharon for the wonderful food. We left our own message as well at the end of the meal.

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our message!

By this point it was almost 1:30pm and I was starving. We sat down and ordered some samoosas for us all to share to start. I ordered boerewors and pap, based on Kayleigh’s recommendation. It’s basically like sausages that are spiced so well with a side of pap. If you don’t know, like I didn’t, pap is made from maize meal. It’s kind of like the texture of polenta but combined with the texture of mashed potatoes. All in like a spicy tomato and onion type sauce. It was amazing. I liked the samoosas so much that after we finished our order I joking told Mike I could eat about 50 more. So he made us another order for free. For dessert we had melktert, which is pronounced milk but is spelled different because of the africanse language. I was so full after that I thought I was going to pass out. So when Sharon offered everyone a free shot of amaurla, a liquor that’s similar to Baileys in the United States, I had to pass.

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enjoying our food

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milk tart

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yum yum yum

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Kayleigh’s dish – potjie (like a beef stew)

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samoosas

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boerewors and pap

 After the meal Sharon invited all of us back to sleep on the kibbutz the weekend of Valentine’s Day. They are having a big party the night before on the 13th, and she really wants us to come. I think my roommates are definitely going, I’m still not sure as it is Valentine’s Day so I have to see if Ran and I will have any plans. Sharon is apparently a big match maker and plans to set the girls up with some nice kibbutz boys, while she already has someone in mind for Blake.

Overall the meal was amazing and Sharon and Mike were so sweet, even telling us they would adopt us all while we were here. It was definitely one of my favorite experiences in Israel so far. We told Sharon and Mike about our bus problems coming down so Mike graciously offered to drive us to a major bus stop only 15 minutes away where we could catch a bus right to Rishon. If only it were that easy. We waited at the bus stop for the 469 bus but once on board realized it would not in fact take us all the way back to Rishon. The 467, which stopped at the same station we got dropped off and and which we could have waited for and taken would have brought us home in once 30 minute bus ride, but of course that could have been to easy. So once again we had to connect at a different central bus station, then take 2 more buses until we finally arrived back in Rishon.  After leaving home at 10:20am, we got back home at 6pm, 5 buses, 1 cab, and 1 car ride later. I stopped at the grocery store and couldn’t move from the couch once I get home. Internet was of course not working so I read for a while and then went to sleep.

Hopefully next adventure Sunday will be just as fun but a little bit easier to get to.

That’s all for now!!