When in Rome, We do as the Romans do – 5 Things Travel Guides Will Probably Not Tell You

Location: Rome, Italy
No. of Days: 3.5

The first thing that struck me when I landed in Rome: THIS PLACE IS A MUST-VISIT BEFORE YOU DIE!
Ok my first impression of Rome wasn’t at all that impressive: we stepped out of the airport at about 9pm and for the first hour in the city it almost felt like zombie town. We hardly saw anyone and the 40min train ride out of the airport was just darkness, remoteness and quietness. It also didn’t help that when we arrived at Ostiense Train Station (supposingly a major train station) there was no one in sight and the next time we saw another human being, it was a good number of homeless people sleeping around the perimeter of the train station… Trying not to be judgmental but I can’t help being freaked out after being robbed twice in Europe and the tons of horror crime stories I’ve heard before arriving.

So from that we learnt that we really shouldn’t be out past daylight hours, and luckily for us, dusk only happens at about 9ish in summer…

The thing about Rome (I’m gonna use Roma from now on – just feel more comfortable using the Italian word!) is that the whole city IS a museum, full of impressive architecture and historical artifacts. And luckily for me, an architecture and history buff, I loved every minute of everything!

Key tourist spots we visited were:

  • Day 1: Colosseum, Palatine Hill, Roman Forum
  • Day 2: Vatican City
  • Day 3: Pompei
  • Day 3.5: Piazza del Popolo & Spanish Steps

Lesson 1: Pay For Guided Tour

If anyone tells you a place is full of tourists, they probably haven’t been to Roma. There is a minimum of 2 hour queue for everything if you didn’t pre-book your tickets and/or sign up for guided tour. Even with pre-booking we had a bit of queuing (about 15 minutes ?), but nothing like the throng who showed up unprepared. I don’t usually like to pay for guides, but in Roma, this is quite necessary because there are so much stories that not all are printed on the boards and you probably don’t have the time to read everything. Plus, you may not know what you are looking at… And not everything is in English. There are also SO MANY tourists that you never get to read everything because someone is blocking you all the time. There is next to no chance of taking a picture without any stranger in it. Guided tours also tends to bring you into more exclusive areas that normal ticket holders don’t get to go.
Colosseum, Palatine Hill, Roman Forum

The moment the guide talked about Gladiators, my brain woke up. You can read about the history and all elsewhere, so I will save you the pain of reading it here. Our guided tour brought us to the underground and the top floor which was not open to the normal ticket holders so I was a happy camper.

PS: Some places will spell Colosseum as Coliseum, it means the same thing!

The underground – View from the underground!

The underground – view from the top!

The Colosseum, Palatine Hill and Roman Forum are essentially next to each other, so it is necessary to dedicate one full day to them. So when you buy tickets, make sure it covers all of them.

This is the walk up to Roman Forum, and it is quite common for me to snap a picture at such a perfect timing (the flapping pigeon in the middle) so I thought it is worth a little brag. The pebble flooring is not easy to walk…
All ruined.. by what and how, I don’t know (didn’t get the guide for this one, thus the regret!)
In awe that people of almost 1,000 years ago can build something like that, and still standing! Brings a whole new meaning to “built to last”.

It was a bit sad to see the ruins and imagine what it looked like in its heyday…
I probably burned a lot of calories trying to take this view. Made all the pasta I ate worth it.

Lesson 2: Walk as much as you can!
Being a Singaporean, I know walking is not our favourite pastime especially it is 30+ deg C here was well BUT it will be worth it here because it is actually possible to walk this city and there are so many things to see along the way! There are only 2 train lines here (anyone remembers the days of EW and NS lines?) so that gives you an idea how small this city is. Doesn’t help that the Metro looks really dodgy… I don’t think I’ve seen more graffiti on trains more than in Roma.
Even the train station is not spared. I couldn’t even tell what station this is!
Vatican City

A proper visit usually consists of Sistine Chapel, Vatican Museum and St Peter’s Basilica. Again, this is one place where a guided tour is necessary – because there are too many people and there is very little signage to tell you where you are going. All 3 are almost linked internally, so having Google GPS is kind of useless. The Vaticam Museum alone is so big, it is probably second to the Louvre, so if you were to roam around yourself (with the human jams caused by the army of tourists) it will probably take forever. Sistine Chapel strictly bans cameras, so no pictures BUT silly me only found out this piece of art came from inside the Sistine Chapel…
So I sent a post card to myself! hur hur…<

Royalty’s bathtub… And they bathed in milk. Mmm I want!


 Too many items to post, but here’s a few teasers to demonstrate the grandeur…

Art on tiles, if this is not impressive, I don’t know what is

Map of Sicily – some kid once asked the guide how did people hundreds of years ago without Google Maps do this. Answer: don’t know!

 St. Peter’s Bascilica

 Everything is made of marble so it didn’t feel like 30+ deg outside. No wonder my parents loved marble tiles at home… It finally all made sense!

 St Peter’s Square: too big, too big.


The window that the Pope gives his blessings every Sunday. THIS IS IT!

And before there was Fiat 500… (and in case you don’t know, Fiat is Italian)

That Pharrell song ringing in your head yet?


I would totally get one of these if I lived here.

Lesson 3: Don’t dine at restaurants that have menus in 5 languages

This tip came from one of our guides. These usually mean: Italian, English, French, Russian, German and we’ve gone as far as to see one containing Japanese. These restaurants also tend to be more expensive – at the most expensive one we paid EUR 3.5 for a 300ml of Coke. A more reasonable restaurant price should be closer to EUR 2.

Nonetheless, quick snapshot of what we had for 3.5 days:
Lots of Vongole, every pasta imaginable, melons with parma and my favourite pinot grigio!


 And I must recommend this pasta place that was 3 min walk from my hotel, extremely friendly people and THE best Carbonara ever. (That’s the one on the top pic). And their menu is only in Italian and English, phew!

Pompei

This was a place that to me only existed in history text book. I only realised by chance that Pompei is a 3hr bus ride away from Roma and doable as a day trip. Its one of those things that I don’t even bother researching – I just knew I wanted and had to go. 

In case you can’t remember what your primary school text book taught you, Pompei was a town that was buried by volcanic ash when Mt Vesuvius erupted more than 2,000 years ago. People were so caught unprepared that many were fossiled in whatever they were doing at that time. It is not a tiny town, though.. I’d imagine it the size of… half of Tampines???

This one is better left for the pictures to do the talking…

 Gladiator School

Ampitheatre

 A fast food shop
 Pompei Forum

 The road to the brothel (not kidding) – look at the shape of the “arrow”
Brothel menu (really not kidding – the “menu” is painted on the wall)


 Immortalised – notice how small sized they are. Made me wonder what a long way we’ve come to evolve to the size we are today.

Street signs

And this is the volcano crater that destroyed it all – Mount Vesuvius.

Lesson 4: Eat gelato everyday. 

It is worth your calories (not much anyway) but don’t fall for the tourist traps. To be specific, I’m referring to pushcarts run by “Foreign Talents” with big banners claiming to sell gelato. A proper shop should look like this…

Any gelato shop that can grow to this size is worth a visit.

And very cheap too! EUR 2.5 for two scoops I think?

 Gelato cakes, anyone?


And I chanced upon this one around Piazza del Popolo. I think it must have been mentioned in some Korean tourist guide because there were more Koreans than any other nationality…

Piazza del Popolo & Spanish Steps

This is one of the shopping areas, but not the main one. But it was good enough, after all we were not there to shop… There are lots and lots of Piazzas around Roma but this is one of the key ones because it is one of the oldest and the grandest. Built around 1,000 years ago…

 With a impressive fountain in the centre, and two at the sides hence its tourist factor.

 Come here to people watch…

For the life of me I can’t remember why it is called the Spanish Steps, all I can remember is that it is built so that people can move up and down easily.

Spanish Steps from the bottom

Spanish Steps from the top

Lesson 5: Free drinking water everywhere!
This is not really a lesson but an advice to bring an empty bottle on your travels here. There is probably no other place on Earth that you get clean, ice-cold (despite the hot summer) natural drinking water spouting out from the walls/grounds. There are 600 of them around the city, and there is no faucet – water just flows out 24/7. Just wow. I love Roma!

Brussels and 10 things you need to know about losing your passport in a foreign land

Location: Brussels/Bruxelles, Belgium
No. of days: 2
So my first trip as a Londoner was to Brussels (Belgium). This is also the place my bag got stolen with my passport, phones, wallet, credit cards, cash and camera in it. So read on for my (realistic) advice on how to cope if the unfortunate befalls on you too. I emphasize on the “realistic” because most people will tell you “you should have done this, you should have done that”, but having felt like I went through hell and back, I can safely say no amount of preparation is ever sufficient.
On happy things first, this is my second time to Belgium. The first time was to Antwerp and Ghent in 2012 and although I don’t recall much of Antwerp (but I loved Ghent – another story for another day!), I felt like Belgium has way much more old buildings that date back to the 1200s than any other country in the EU. After a while, you will realise that Europe is all about 1) Museums, 2) Churches, and/or 3) Architecture. My favourite out of the 3 is architecture, so that’s the main thing I always look out for.
Other than the architecture, the only other (few) things I took away from Belgium was the chocolate (heavenly), moules and frites (mussels and fries) and of course, Belgian waffles! By the way, Belgian waffles did originate from Belgium…

In case you find the little boy below familiar, his name is Mannekin Pis (Pis as in Piss) and he is Belgian and he resides in Brussels.
So because my camera got stolen, I only managed to salvage those pictures I uploaded into Facebook before they were gone. So I don’t have other pictures of Brussels. And neither do I have much other memory of Brussels other than I spent the worst 2 days of my life (ever!) there.
A lot of people I spoke to (whether they had lost their passports before or not, whether they were Singaporeans or otherwise) sympathised with the fact that I suffered poor service and poor attitude at the Singapore High Comm (I will not go into details) but I went as far as to complain to MFA. I know that nothing would come out of it (nothing did), but at least it gives me (and friends and those of you reading this) a sense of what to expect or what not to expect from Singapore High Comm because whatever treatment I received was “by the books” and any better treatment received by the victim is their good luck (irony).
So, here is the interesting part.
LESSON 1: THE ABSOLUTE  FIRST THING THAT YOU SHOULD DO WHEN IT HAPPENS IS CALL THE LOCAL SINGAPORE EMBASSY/HIGH COMM.
Because you will need them to issue you a document called Document of Identity (DOI) that proves you are Singaporean. This document will allow you to get back to Singapore.
You will need a passport photo for this and a small amount of cash. So STUFF SOME SPARE CASH SOMEWHERE ELSE.

Oh, and make a police report. You will need it to replace your passport. Just bear in mind the language barrier…

LESSON 2: YOU WILL HAVE 3 OPTIONS AFTER COLLECTING THE DOI.
i) Stay in whatever country that you are stuck in and apply for a new passport there (this means if you are all alone and have nothing on you – in my case, alone, no phone, no cash, no credit card and literally nothing to save myself with) you’d probably end up begging. And without money, how are you going to apply for a new passport?
ii) In my case – try to return to the UK and have my passport replacement done here. Obviously this was far more palatable but this is a big risk because the UK is notorious for their strict immigration rules and it is a gamble whether they will let me in based on photocopied documents or calls to verify my background. Didn’t work for me.
iii) Go back to Singapore. Seriously??
The verdict on this point was: Singapore hasn’t realised that globalisation has taken place and the system assumes all Singaporeans who travel originate from Singapore.
LESSON 3: DON’T EXPECT THE HIGH COMM TO OFFER YOU A PHONE CALL, ZAPPING DOCUMENTS TO HELP YOU GET OUT OF YOUR SITUATION.
I literally had to argue with the handling officer why I needed to borrow a phone to call a friend to buy me a ticket to either go back to UK or Singapore. I had to repeat myself 3 times that I had no money, no phone, no credit card, no friend. So according to MFA, it was out of her kindness that she allowed ONE call in the end. Kindness much? You decide.
I also had to beg her to zap photocopies of my passport and visa to try to get back to the UK.  According to the handling officer, it is taxpayer money and they are not allowed to do it. (hello, I paid Sg taxes too and I literally needed them to save my life, do I really need to argue with you over taxpayer money?) Ditto point above, I got lucky she eventually agreed to zap them.
LESSON 4: THEY WILL NOT OFFER YOU A LOAN TO BUY TRAIN/AIR TICKETS.
You have to ASK, you cannot expect them to OFFER it to you. My handling officer went as far as to “encourage” me to be a fare cheat on the local tram.
I was too distraught to think of asking, but someone told me that there are 2 ways on getting money via high comm: a) Get your family to wire you some money and b) direct loan. But a) would be challenging if you don’t even have means to contact friends and family! and b) I’ve been told what happens after you arrive home will drive you crazy… 
So basically, you need to remember ask (in your tired, muddled, confused, scared mind after all that’s happened to you), not their job to offer it to you.
LESSON 5: THEY DON’T CARE IF YOU ARE FED OR HAVE A ROOF OVER YOUR HEAD. OR YOUR SAFETY.
‘Nuff said.

LESSON 6: FORGET THE SHIT ADVICE ABOUT PHOTOCOPYING YOUR CREDIT CARDS
Because the only thing useful about that action is to call the credit card company and cancel them. Obviously that means buying a train/air ticket online is therefore out of the question.
The correct thing to do, is to spread out your cards. Ditto with cash. Not in different pockets of the same bag, obviously.
But remember in most countries (especially outside of Asia), using your credit card requires photo ID so have another card (work ID?) that has your photo and name on it to use it in a physical shop.
LESSON 7: TAKE A PHOTO OF YOUR DRIVING LICENSE/ IC/ PASSPORT/ VISA ETC AND STORE THEM IN YOUR PHONE, IPAD, ONLINE EMAIL ACCOUNT, ETC.
Provided you have access to your email account. 
LESSON 8: KNOW AT LEAST A CLOSE FAMILY/FRIEND’S PHONE NUMBER BY HEART =.=
Luckily for me, I had my iPad (Thank god!) and I didn’t actually have to memorise numbers but I’ve come to realise we get so reliant on phones that we would be completely lost if we didn’t know any number by heart! – some people cannot even remember their own phone numbers… 
LESSON 9: BUY A TRAVEL INSURANCE
My insurance agent/friend always joked with me that this is just kopi money to him. Before this happened to me I never saw the value of why I should be buying travel insurance.  I reckoned I lost at least SGD 2k replacing my passport, camera, phone, penalties for the various replacement cards etc. And that’s not including my flights and visa costs. Chinese say 不怕一萬之怕萬一 but when the  萬一 happens…
LESSON 10: PACK AN EXTRA DAY’S WORTH OF CLOTHES/TOILETRIES

You never know when your plans will get delayed.
I never came closer to the fear that I may die that day. Financial losses aside, I was still having nightmares one month after that. So, what is the verdict when all the odds are stacked against you? In all honesty, I don’t know because my silver lining was that my employer saved me (where my own government failed). So let’s hope nobody has to have literally everything stacked against them.