When In Rome…Don’t book with Omni Tours

June 2nd, we are supposed to be the first ones off of the ship so we can meet the tour bus organized through Omni tours for our excursion into Rome, The Eternal City.  This is the only tour we have booked that is not a Celebrity Cruise shore excursion, but there was quite  a large group from Solavita going on this trip, so Dot and Russ signed us all up.  Brighid and I were in Rome in November of 2000 with Jim, and we’ve seen many of the highlights, but the sights here are so numerous and so amazing, I feel like you could visit here every year for 100 years and only touch on the things you must see.

As instructed, we are ready to walk off the ship first, as soon as they open the doors.  The Solavita group is literally the first group of people down the gangway, and we walk out to our awaiting bus.  Or so we think.  There is no bus.  We figure it will be here shortly, so we gather by the fence, peering out at the other tour groups like a bunch of orphans left behind as the other kids get adopted into new families. 

After giving Omni the benefit of the doubt, and waiting 45 minutes after the bus is supposed to be here, Steve goes back to the ship to call someone to find out what’s going on.  He is shortly back out, coming down the gangway with a long and frustrated face.  Our tour bus has allegedly broken down and is stuck on the side of some road, somewhere.  We are told that Steve has to give them about 30 minutes, then he is going to phone them again to check on the status of the replacement bus.  We can head back on board the ship, and Steve tells us to meet him back on deck 3 by guest services at around 9:00.  It’s a very chilly morning, and with more than a half hour to wait before we have to meet Steve, we all decide to go up to the buffet and grab  a cup of tea  and some doughnuts.  We are back on Deck 3 at our appointed time, and the Solavita crowd is gathering to wait for word on the status of our trip.  Brighid and I sort of resign ourselves to the fact that we will probably be sitting pool-side today, and while it’s okay for us, having seen some of the highlights of Rome, it’s an absolute tragedy to miss this gorgeous city – especially for the people who have never been here before.

Steve meets us at around 9, and instead of bringing us good news about the Omni tour we are supposed to be on, he tells us that there is no replacement bus available.  This is a holiday in Rome (Independence Day, again, just like in Croatia), and it’s virtually impossible to reach anyone, but Celebrity has jumped through a few hoops and they have thrown together a tour for us at the last minute.  They will have a bus here for the Solavita group in about an hour.  Everyone is relieved to at least have SOMETHING, as opposed to spending the day sitting on the ship stewing over what seems to be just another in a long line of Omni disappointments, but no one is really sure what exactly we have yet.  As this is all very last minute, Celebrity hasn’t given Steve a lot of information regarding what we are seeing, where we are going, or what we are doing.  On top of that, in spite of everyone already being paid for the Omni tour, we all now have to pay again for the Celebrity tour and hope that Omni refunds the money to the proper people.  As we are waiting for the Celebrity bus to come and get us, Steve makes the decision to cancel the tour scheduled with Omni for the next day.  We aren’t on that tour, but he calls out the names of the people in the group who are and asks them if they are in agreement and if they would mind if he schedules them on a Celebrity excursion similar to what they have booked with Omni.  No one says they do not want to cancel the Omni trip the next day, so it seems unanimous that the Omni tour will be cancelled.

The buses finally come in and we are loaded on and ready to go on the hour long drive from Civitevecchia to Rome.  Our guide seems very nice – Francesca – but she is not very good with the microphone, and I know most of the people in the back cannot hear her.  She seems to really only be talking to the people in the front seat of the bus.  It is at some point during our drive to Rome that the plans for the day are revealed, and it seems like there will be all out mutiny onboard the bus.

The Omni tour included a visit to the Sistine Chapel.  The Celebrity Tour does not.  The Omni tour included a stop at the Trevi Fountain, where we can all throw our coins and guarantee our return to Rome.  The Celebrity Tour does not.  The Celebrity Tour, it seems, is mostly an independent tour.  We are supposed to have 3 hours of time to do what we want, and then a 3 hour “taste” of Rome.  When I tell you people are angry and upset, I am understating the mood on the bus.  People are outraged.  There are people on this trip who have taken this cruise ONLY so they could visit the Sistine Chapel.  There are people on this bus who would not have booked this cruise at all had they known there would not be an in-depth, guided tour of Rome.  This is a real trip-buster for a lot of these people. 

Francesca suggests that if people want to visit the Sistine Chapel, they can use the 3 hours of free time at the start of the excursion to do so.  They are warned that the trip will go on without them if they do not meet us at the appointed time, and they are also told that the lines at the Vatican museum just to purchase tickets are often quite long.  Some people are willing to make the sacrifice.

When we arrive, we really don’t know what we are supposed to do.  The streets right where we are taken are mostly cobblestone, so it’s very difficult to maneuver the wheelchair.  Plus, it’s incredibly crowded, so not only is Russell having to navigate the difficult terrain, he is having to avoid running down careless pedestrians.  We go in to St. Peter’s Square for a quick look around, but since we do not know what the tour will be doing when we meet up again in a couple of hours, we don’t really know what to do or what to see.  The line for tickets into the Vatican museum is very long, and the tickets are pretty pricey for a quick run from one end of the museum to the other to glimpse the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  We decide to head back across the street where the bus dropped us off and grab a bite to eat at the little restaurant that is there.  Because of the holiday, we have been warned that few shops and restaurants will be open, so we don’t want to waste time wandering the very crowded city if we can get a meal right here.  Fortunately, just as we are ready to sit down, an outside table opens up and I jump at it. 

We all decide we want pizza, so we order two pizzas and a few drinks.  The waiter is the most laid back you will find anywhere.  There is no rush to bring the food, clear the plates, or bring the check.  He would easily let us sit here until the city closes down for the night and not say a bad word to us.  The pizza is very good – again, the thin crust, light sauce, fresh cheese, and a little basil.  While we are waiting there, a family with a newly baptized baby wanders by, heading off to celebrate the baby’s special day, and while I am in the shop looking for postcards and magnets, a wedding party passes by.  Adding to the excitement of the street, there are four people slated to be canonized the next day, so throngs of people are wandering around, wearing buttons and pins celebrating their candidate for Sainthood.  Also on the street are Cambodian women selling silk scarves.  They are the only people who get a rise out of our waiter, as they are chased away anytime they come near one of the restaurant’s outdoor tables.

After lunch, we are supposed to meet the tour with our new tour guide right here in front of the restaurant, so we are in the right place.  But because people are scattered every which way and Francesca didn’t keep up very well with who was going where and who was meeting us when, even though we are supposed to resume the tour at 2, it is much closer to 2:30 when we actually get in line to go into the Basilica.  Some of the people are very upset because, not knowing we would be going in with the group, they used their free time to tour the Basilica.  We wait in the long line to get through the security check points, and at some point, Dot and Russ are pulled aside to go in a handicapped accessible entrance.  By the time we actually reach the doors of the Basilica, we find out we have only 15 minutes before we have to be outside to meet the tour guide.  This is truly a shame.  There is so much to see and so much to appreciate inside St. Peter’s that there is no way with only 15 minutes you can begin to scratch the surface.  You need more than 15 minutes to stand and stare at the Pieta.  Brighid and I race around and see as much as we can in the little time that we have.  There are so many people in here, and we have no idea where they have taken Dot and Russ, so we just assume we will see them when we get out of the Basilica. 

Once our 15 minutes are up, we are heading out, but a few of the people have to use the bathroom.  Well, the line to get into the bathroom is nearly as long as the line to get into the Basilica itself, and I am a little frustrated that we have to wait for people.  Not only that, but we still don’t see Dot and Russ, and we have no idea where they are or who they are with, so I’m getting a little worried that we will get separated.  Finally, with everyone done their potty break, we start to head out of the Square, and we are rejoined by Dot and Russ and a few other stragglers (Angel and Eileen and Ken).  We get back on the bus for a short drive to San Pietro in Vincoli – the Basilica of St. Peter in Chains.  Dot and Russ stay behind, but the bus driver makes them get off the bus, along with the other people who choose not to continue with the walking part of the tour.

The history of St. Peter in Chains is basically there were two sets of chains that once imprisoned St. Peter.  When the two sets of chains were brought together, they miraculously fused together, and the fused chains are kept in a reliquary under the main altar in the Basilica.  Also in the Church is the statue of Moses created by Michelangelo.  It is a beautiful piece, and the chains are interesting to see.

We walk from the Basilica of St. Peter in Chains to the Coliseum.  It is completely mobbed here, and the suggestion is made by the tour guide that we go across the street to get a closer look.  About 6 people decide they do not want to do that, and I really would like to stay with them, but Brighid wants to go.  We take the walk across the street, clinging to each other for dear life in the crowd, and we watch as a group of firefighters repel down the side of the building.  Apparently, the only people in all of Rome that are capable of putting up the scaffolding high enough so that restoration can be done on the Coliseum are the fireman, and that is what they are doing.

A couple of ladies in the group decide to head back before our time is up so they can go to the bathroom, but after  a few minutes, we walk back to where the bus is supposed to be.  It’s not there, and we have packed up all of our tired non-walkers to wander down the street to see if we can find the bus.  It is about a 2 block walk from where it dropped us off.

We are the LAST bus to get back to the ship, and we have literally only minutes to spare.  They are pulling up the gangway as the last of our group gets on the ship.  Our waiter told us the night before that they know people will have long trips in Rome, so even though our dinner seating time is 6:15, they will allow us to be seated as late as 6:45.  We are onboard at about 6:43.  No time to worry about dressing for dinner, we make a mad dash for the restaurant.  Brighid had talked about just ordering room service, but she perks up a little for dinner.  But, we still decide between us to skip the show tonight and head right to bed.  On our way back to our cabin, we see Jennifer the shopper at her desk.  She is pulling out the magic bells of Capri, and that is the one souvenir I wanted to get each of the girls.  We stop at her desk and I buy a bell for Brighid, Eilis and Granuaile, and THEN we head to bed!

The lowlights of today are really the fault of Omni tours.  In an email later sent regarding this mix-up, a representative from Omni tours says that they knew at 6:40 AM that the bus was broken down, and between herself and another Omni rep, they took 4 and a half hours to phone 16 other bus companies to secure transportation for us.  Well, how did it take two women more than 4 hours to make only 16 calls?   And what were they intending to do with the three midi-buses they secured at 11:30?   Assuming it took them an hour to get to us, the buses would have picked us up at 12:30, we would not have gotten to Rome until 1:30, and we would have had to be back on the boat by 6:30 – meaning we would have had to leave Rome no later than 5:30.  That left us with only 4 hours of what was supposed to be a 10 hour trip.  I cannot fault Celebrity in any way for the tour we ended up with, as it was better than no tour at all. 

I also question the honesty in telling us the bus was broken down and they had no way to contact us at the port.  If they knew at 6:40 a bus was not going to make it, even if they did not have another bus lined up, the tour guide assigned to that bus could have taken a car to the port to let us know our bus broke down, but they were working on a replacement. 

Rome is a beautiful, memorable city.  When we visited in November of 2000, I knew I wanted to come back and see more – even see again some of the stuff we saw the first time.  Omni really robbed us of a very valuable part of the trip by not showing up for this tour.  If nothing else, we learned to never book with an outside agent again.  All of our future excursions off of a cruise ship will be booked through the ship itself.