Rome 2018 (BSides Roma & Sightseeing)

Posted on Thu 30 August 2018 • Tagged with Journeys

Back when I was traveling to Rome with my dad in January I took some notes and sent them as an informal German newsletter to a couple of friends and family. Since I thought there are quite some good moments in there, mixed with scenes that I’m sure will make you chuckle, I thought I’d polish this up a bit and finally publish the piece. Additionally, I added some context where appropriate and some more humor for flavor.

From Roma. To Roma. In Roma. Doesn’t matter, really.

Day Zero

We’re going there by airplane via Vienna. Immediately when dad picks me up in Graz with his car, I get both an e-mail as well as a text message that our flight will be delayed. As we arrive at the airport, so arrives notification #2 about a further delay. We sit down for breakfast and another delay arises. Two hours pass. Nothing special to report from the flight. Eurowings has you pay even for snacks, but I’m not that starved. And I can’t see myself wasting money on something so terrible anyway, considering an experience from a previous flight.

After we arrive at Fuimicino, we wait for the bus - which is also delayed but that delay is not announced. Rather, we idle outside and I’m freezing and shivering. Not that it would surprise anyone, I’m cold all the time.

Then the bus takes us to the central train station. Dad wants to take a cab from there to the hotel. The driver intends to bill us 25€ for one kilometer and refuses to write a receipt (I wonder why…), so dad and me walk to the hotel. He’s a bit sick and has quite a heavy suitcase with him. I, uhm, well, I am reminded of walking with my (former) girlfriend, who also always seems slow to me. That is unexpected and I mention it to my dad. He replies: “well, I am getting old, you know”. I don’t reply since I’m not sure whether there’s a good answer to that.

It is evening when we arrive at the hotel. The room is tiny. No, not what you’re thinking. It’s still tinier. The electronic safe has a malfunction. We point that out and are relocated to another room. That one is - at least in my opinion - even smaller but the safe works. But we manage to damage the light switch which gets stuck in the socket. Our patience for pointing out issues has run dry for one day and by the next day the problem has resolved itself. I assume the cleaning crew noticed and got it fixed.

Dad wants to take a shower before bed. There’s no hot water - lukewarm is the best the shower gives you. Hot water is only available in the morning. This repeats on several evenings, leading me to suspect that the hotel is only heating the water in the night hours.

We have dinner, with tiramisu. I like tiramisu a lot.

On the way to bed I notice that Italy uses different power plugs than Austria and I get a really bad feeling since we’re planning to rely on Google Maps on my phone for navigating public transport thanks to @viticci‘s assurance that this works well for Rome. Later, I realize that I can use the plug of my iPhone but not the one of my iPad, which is bad because it dramatically reduces my potential maximum reading time. Read: I cannot charge and read at the same time.

Day One

The next morning I wake up after little sleep and a lot of reading. No, I’m not looking for your sympathy, that’s okay. I’m not looking for your understanding either.

Breakfast provided by the hotel has cake, toast with jam, orange juice, coffee and tea. I can’t talk about the toast but the rest was between okay and terrible. So much for “breakfast included”. Nah, thank you, I’m good. (For context: I had argued that we don’t need a hotel with breakfast included since I tend not to have breakfast and suggested grabbing something at food carts)

View of city walls, taking from a bus stop we frequently used, Rome

Since we have some time left before our scheduled visit of the coliseum (pre-booked online to save queuing time) we get ourselves public transport tickets which are valid for a whole week. Well, after discussions with the clerks of various minor shops on where to get such a ticket. The answer is, unsurprisingly: the vending machine. (For context: That’s not how it works in my hometown where the vending machines provide only shorter durations) Then we go - heavily reliant on Google Maps and its awesome feature for navigating public transport - to Terme di Caracalla and enjoy the scenery. I am strongly reminded of Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood which is good and a prime reason I wanted to go to Rome. It’s constantly raining, but only lightly.

Next is the coliseum. We take the metro there but are wondering if our ticket is actually valid for the subway (at the point of taking the notes I didn’t know; at the point of typing this I still don’t know), but a friendly man waves us through after seeing our confusion. The moment we arrive the rainstorm CARROT warned me about started. Some minutes later though, everything around the coliseum is empty and only a few tourists stream back in. We are checking it out using an audio guide. Yes, one audio guide. My hearing is good enough that I can listen to the one that my dad wears without stepping closer and I opt to just ignore the one I’m wearing. It’s a strange feeling listening to the German guide after opting for English in just about everything for years due to excessive Internet usage and being scarred by bad video game translations.

The coliseum is indeed massive and extremely impressive. Due to the small amount of people who have not escaped the rain it’s possible to take lots of great pictures without being trampled or having to hurry. Where there is usually a waiting time of several hours, we manage to pass through in about ten minutes, for two queues.

View inside the coliseum, from one of the lower floors down into the basement area, Rome

Afterwards we’re looking for nourishment. I suggest #1 from the Tripadvisor suggestions (or was it #7?). Dad wants to sit though and not eat street food. Given this sounds smart, I stop arguing. The alternative restaurant is… okay. The chocolate cake is extremely chocolatey. They serve neither fruit tea nor mint tea and I’m annoyed. Nevertheless we sit down again and have a second serving to escape the second rain this day.

The rest of the evening consists of long conversations and reading time. In hindsight it’s likely I read until the iPad ran out of battery.

Day Two

I spare myself another disappointment and skip breakfast. Dad comments on how miraculous a skill it is to be able to burn coffee.

We spend the morning visiting Forum Romanum which is again, very impressive with all the ruins and temple structures. It is amazing that they are so well preserved. We are taking many, many pictures. Dad is mostly taking video scenes of a few seconds each which he will compose into a longer movie at home. I’m the photo guy, capturing everything with my phone’s camera. I’m a little disappointed by the garden on top of the Palatin but that’s to be expected when visiting in January. It’s a pity, really. I have seen many trees in and around Rome that are already bearing oranges and lemons. There are also birds chirping, something that happens much later in Austria.

Panorama of ruins on top of Palatin, Rome

We spend our lunchtime at the train station. It’s okay. There’s Fanta Lemon which is an exceedingly great find and suddenly my world is whole. Next we ~~hippity~~- hop over to the Hop On Hop Off bus, or at least we try. Despite my advanced mastery of Google Maps we’re not able to find the bus stop and go for the next one. (Since the Internet isn’t too great a medium for relaying tone: yes, that was indeed sarcasm.) We manage that and are taking the red line. We’re passing many sights, for example the Castel Sant’Angelo and I’m not sure which ones we want to visit next. The bus has an open roof with a panorama deck and - as expected - I am cold for 1.5 hours. I’d still recommend the tour with audio guide, though.

Dad mentions how well we’re finding our way around with Google Maps. I respond that would also be possible in Austria if the companies behind our public transportation weren’t so hard-headed about opening their routes and schedules. The keyword here is open data.

The following days were part 2 of the newsletter.

Day Three

Tiber Island. It’s not as spectacular as expected. Might be because that’s where my video game used a lot of creative freedom to make it more interesting to the players. In the game, the headquarters of the assassins is located here. The island itself is smaller than I remembered from the game - there’s only place for some buildings that make up a hospital, one larger church and one or two trattorias. I make photos of the currently used bridges as well as the damaged ancient one.

Pantheon. “That’s the big round thing with the hole”, I say. I explain the scene featuring the pantheon from the game where you’re climbing in through the hole in the roof. The conversion of the temple to a church is fascinating and the scale of the building is incredible. I am distracted and my thoughts revolve around tiramisu to come but I’m still taking a lot of pictures.

Mr. 100 Tiramisu. After delicious lunch at a baguette store with fresh bread - that happens not be part of a franchise like Subway - we’re finally getting to the main part of this day. This shop has 100 different variations of tiramisu. The ingredients for the one I wanted are both no longer in stock (mint, strawberry). They have a tiramisu template and that one is garnished with fresh ingredients before your eyes. I order one with orange zest and dark chocolate… and another one with lemon zest, rosemary and honey. Both are excellent. Dad complains that his one was too sweet. I look at him, puzzled and try to imagine how anything can be too sweet. Despite my best attempts I fail to integrate this view into my world view and give up. I neglect to take pictures of dad’s tiramisu but since it has nuts, I can’t have been good anyway.

Tiramisu with orange zest and dark chocolate, beautifully arranged on a clean plate with a silver spoon.

I praise the tiramisu and talk with Mr. Tiramisu about Tripadvisor (we’re sadly losing a joke due to the translation since “via Tripadavisor” and “about Tripadvisor” use the same words in German). Have I mentioned that I like tiramisu?

In the evening we’re eating at Tempio di Minerva again. I get a stew, dad goes for the delicious tomato soup I had the day before. That one was superb and most definitely one of the culinary highlights of this journey. The waitress smiles and laughs when I order a soup after the main course, stating “A nice dessert, yes”.

Day Four

Already in the morning there’s trouble brewing since ATAC (the public transport provider) is on strike (which is a regular thing on Fridays as I’ve learned later). Due to this a lot of the buses aren’t on their usual routes and if they are, they are packed. They are so filled that it’s literally impossible to fall down due to your fellow humans propping you up. In my hometown that’s when I just use the next line or go by foot…

Castel Sant’Angelo, outside. We spot a signpost detailing the changes made to the castel through the centuries. I am trying to figure out which of the pictures resembles the model I know from the game most.

We’re moving on to St. Peter’s Square but due to lack of faith we’re neither entering the unending queues to visit the Vatican nor the Sixtine Chapel. Instead, we head for the museum about Leonardo da Vinci. In their exposition, there are pieces known from the game like the parachute, the tank, the machine gun as well as multiple flying machines. Near St. Peter’s Square, we are having coffee and Coca Cola where the 0.5 liter bottle goes for 8€. Yes, there was actually a reason behind this. I think. Memory is a funny thing.

We walk into the Vatican’s area, though we are not strictly inside the walled off area. Technically we have a sandwich in the Vatican but it’s bland and I disagree with the decision of exchanging flavor for more sightseeing time.

Castel Sant’Angelo, inside. The whole building and the surrounding walls are extremely impressive. I remember a lot of stories from the whole Assassin’s Creed series and tell them to dad, whether he wants to hear them or not. We’re at the terrace on the roof and I take some panorama pictures. The place is awe-inspiring but we’re not going for the audio guide this time around.

View from the Castel Sant'Angelo down onto the Ponte Sant'Angelo, reminiscent of a famous scene from Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood

We have bad luck on the way back from the castel. Really bad luck. Due to the strike the bus is very late and extremely packed. I’m talking so packed that I cannot stand straight in there and I can only manage to grab something not to fall over while bending in pain. I would’ve exited immediately, that’s something I have to admit. Dad wants to go by bus. I would’ve preferred an eternity of walking to sharing basically no space at all with strangers. Especially when you’re pressed to each other already.

Dinner at an Indian restaurant (because that’s what you go to Italy for, right?). While the restaurant looks closed from the outside… it also looks kind of shady on the inside. It’s very dark, often black or purple with low ambient lighting. The food is awesome though. Ginger tea. Gumbo (also known as lady’s fingers). Despite my anger about the effects of the ATAC strike and going by bus I judge this a good day. It’s interesting how much effect the last impression of a day has on the overall impression of a day.

Upon returning to our hotel room I have to smile given that the cleaning crew has arranged my stuffed elephant I have with me on the pillow to look at everyone coming in through the door. I think that’s a cute gesture.

Stuffed elephant sitting on a pillow

The following sections are written for publication and not based on notes from the trip.

Day Five

I get up and use the mytaxi app to call a cab which works perfectly. I arrive quite a bit early and talk with some of the BSides Roma organizers. They are stumped that someone made the long trip from Austria as they expected mostly locals to show up. I ask which of their presentations will be held in English since I saw that one had an Italian title on the schedule. They aren’t entirely sure. They say they will talk to the speakers and let me know that the global BSides community told them not to expect too many internationals at the first event.

So, of the 8 sessions, only 2 are held in English. If you’re about to ask me if I didn’t expect this: No, I didn’t. This was my 3rd or 4th BSides and the first one that had any non-English talks.

Feel free to skip this part if you’re not here for the tech.

I Bootkit non sono morti, il ritorno di Pitou!

I have a vague idea of what is in this talk. That is because while the talk is in Italian, all the slides are in English. I don’t understand why the talk isn’t in English if the slides are. The topic isn’t that interesting to me but it has some nice refreshers on concepts I have forgotten.

JS Deobfuscation with JStillery

The JS deobfuscation impresses me a lot, as I have never seen such a thing before. Entirely unreadable structure are translated into code that can be reverse engineered for analysis and threat detection. The presentation is in Italian but easily followed due to good slides and demonstrations.

Red Team techniques, or how to expand your empire in Active Directory Environment

I spend the majority of this talk in a nearby café talking with, well, someone I cannot find anymore on Twitter. Or in another form. I was sure they had a blog too but I cannot find that either.

Network Hacks for Smart Attacks

This is the first talk held in English. The presenter only decided in the morning that he would hold the talk in EN. I really wish I had taken notes during this since the topic of routing protocols is fascinating and leads to some understanding of large scale attacks.

Routing: “Basically it’s broken at the protocol level.” All three times. (from the talk)

Supply Chain Attack Through CCleaner – Evidence Aurora Operation Still Active

I wish I took notes. According to my tweet this is the second talk held in English but I don’t remember it matching my interests too much.

Building an Effective Info Sharing Community

I leave because I don’t expect the following talks to be in English and it has been a long and exhausting day due to trying hard not to fall asleep when you can’t understand most of the content that’s being presented to you.

Day Five (after BSides)

I decide to walk to the hotel, taking a long detour and hoping my phone battery doesn’t die from all the tweeting at BSides since I need it to find back. I still take some pictures of the city walls in the gentle evening sun and pass by the Ministero Difesa Aeronautica. There’s a striking monument on top of the building shaped like a bird spreading its wings. Dad and I spend the evening with dinner, me with a lasagna and him with a risotto. I declare that I don’t have any inclination for long conversations on this evening, having had to listen to people talking all day.

Day Six

We visit the Pyramid of Cestius - another remarkable landmark that I remember from Assassin’s Creed. I am sad that we cannot get a tour. We meet people who are taking a tour despite arriving there on a day not listed for public tours. In a show of my brain not working, I don’t get the idea of asking to pay right there and then and joining. I really want to see the inside but that isn’t enough to try and be spontaneous. I take pictures, we talk a bit about the historical background of the pyramid and move on.

The Capitoline Hill has a nice view and some spectacular buildings. While the buildings are fine, I spend quite some time taking shots of seagulls who are okay with you walking as close as one meter, some even looking at the camera. I am half expecting one to ask me for food if I continue taking photos without asking for permission first. We have lunch in the vicinity and I eat the most disappointing lasagna I ever had, deep-frozen ones included.

Seagull sitting on a waist-high wall, looking into the camera

Towards the evening, we visit the Spanish Steps and walk down to the Piazza di Spagna which is incredibly crowded. If you were to try and take a shot of the fountain in its middle, you couldn’t see anything on the image due to the crowds. The view on the steps is very nice, with more orange trees already bearing fruit in a fenced off area on the steps.

Orange trees in a fenced off area at the Spanish Steps, Rome

I suggest stopping at the Mausoleo di Augusto on the way back, but that one is undergoing renovation and not open for public.

Day Seven

On the way back, I make the usual paranoid InfoSec jokes about public phone charging stations and their security implications. Dad looks at me confused and I go back to reading my next novel. I am very pleased with the diverse food offers at Fuimicino airport and the journey back to Graz is without any disturbances.