Rome, Colosseum and Forum

The Colosseum is the big time and I really can’t believe I’m sitting here telling you I touched it. (Who am I kidding, we stomped the yard.) It was heady stuff, after “seeing” ancient things, to be able to touch them. It was an interactive smorgasbord. Nick-named for a colossal bronze statue of Nero at the door – that no longer exists – the Colosseum is one of the “Seven Wonders of the World”. So naturally I showed up wondering several things.

    1. How do I get in there? Much like opening day in AD80, the hatbox was surrounded with spectators and lines and vendors. We swatted the vendors away and took our “skip-the-line” ticket (an online voucher, not a pottery shard) to the group entry area. Once inside, we followed the posted signs for a self tour, taking a staircase that led up to this breath-taking view:
    2. What am I looking at? True Roman organization at its finest. We hadn’t paid for the fancy marble seats, nor did we qualify for the Vestal Virgins box. Our area was at commoners level, which I suppose is better than the nose-bleed section. I couldn’t really see an American football game held in here, but definitely indoor soccer or ice hockey. It’s got a nice hometown stadium feel at ringside and there isn’t a bad seat in the house.
    3. How did they make this? Romans invented concrete. Then they added travertine, marble, bricks and about 100,000 slaves from the sacking of Jerusalem. Initially, the center was hollow and could be flooded for water entertainment. Overhead, sailors worked a canvas awning to provide shade and a breeze, which would have been very welcome, it was quite warm and muggy.
    4. Why did they make this? The idea was to hand out free tickets to the masses in order to curry political favor or demonstrate family prestige by providing violently gripping entertainment. Placing the finest stage on earth in the heart of Rome, serving peanuts, popcorn, and crackerjack, emperors enjoyed the absolute power of dispensing life and death. Citizens thrilled with that power when asked to contribute to the decision with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down.
    5. Why would anyone show up to watch death all day? It appears to have been as addicting as video games. Would crowds have formed to see great art instead? Music? Shakespeare could have made a mint here without anyone dying. It made me think further thoughts on humanity in general. But most of what happened here ended in death. So that makes me sad…
    6. What’s the cross for? Although scholars say actual Christian martyrs were killed at the Circus Maximus, popes put a cross (several) up here anyway and I’d like to think it commemorates everyone who died. Even the elephants.
    7. What? Can you fit an elephant in there? Yes, the Romans had a zoo but preferred to watch their crocodiles eat people instead of bask in a cage. The underground had passages, elevators, ramps and trap doors that delivered gladiators, animals, and stage settings on cue. Tunnels led to off-site gladiator training quarters, stables and personal pathways for the emperor who, like us, had no use for the throngs of tourists and vendors blocking the gate.
    8. What’s out the window? I went to get some fresh air. Across the way, the Arch of Constantine and the Forum hills beckoned. Our ticket included all of it, so off we went.

    Here is what it looked like as we lined up for entry near the Arch of Titus:

    Not two minutes later, a cloud rolled over and started to drizzle. We shook off the drops and walked in. Drizzle turned to rain. We ducked under a tree and waited. It began to pour. Tourists were running for shelter…but there wasn’t any. Ruins don’t usually have roofs. Hubby and I held each other tight, with my purse between us, attempting to save our phones. The road began to flood. Our shoes filled. Our clothes were sticky.

    We laughed a little in disbelief. Lightning flashed. Thunder reverberated from a deep purple sky.

    Why did we leave the Colosseum? Glancing back, we watched attendants slam the entry gate closed. There was no turning back.

    It was raining so hard that you had to blink fast to see. My hair was streaming.

    We ran.

    But where? We had no map, no idea where the exit or even a restroom might be. We huddled miserably with a few others under a stand of trees that was useless as the wind took the rain sideways.

    Suddenly, calling out frantically to us over the din of the storm, pressed up against the railing around ancient Rome – wearing halos – were the street vendors. They knew their people were in trouble and they’d found us, prepared to forgive our brushoffs from earlier and supply us with umbrellas and plastic ponchos.

    With a very soggy bill, Hubby bought our second umbrella in one day, a red one this time. He was surprised the price had not risen exponentially, considering the situation, and I was surprised they were trying to help at all. Heads bowed, we shared that wretched umbrella and waited for the tragedy to end.

    We could not have gotten any wetter if we had jumped into the Tiber. My pants were a misery. My pink blouse was completely sheer and clinging. It was something out of a bad dream. And although I’d like to think that is why people kept staring at me for the rest of the afternoon, you know it was my hair. It contorted into several shapes as it dried out.

    Because the rain eventually moved on to torment someone else and we slogged through the mud and the puddles to see what we had come to see.

    There are no selfies from the Forum.

    “Friends, Romans, and Countrymen…lend me your umbrellas”

Rome, The Vatican

We signed up to see the Vatican and the Colosseum on the same day. Which is ludicrous. But necessary. This is why espresso is the Italian drink of choice.

I warned you, you won’t see it all and you have to keep moving. Buying a tour is a great way to utilize time and stay disciplined. I would still be standing in the Vatican foyer staring at an urn if it weren’t for our tour guide, Leti. She got it done.

We dashed from our hotel that morning and caught the metro to the Ottaviano exit. At that point we were lost in a maze of wet streets with hundreds of other tourists, all searching for their particular group. If I hadn’t gone onto google maps at home and visually street walked the place, we never would have found it. You can’t do too much homework before a trip like this, because tour guides do not wait.

Leti led our earbud-fitted group of 25 through the mobs to the Vatican’s back door. It’s protected by a massive orange brick wall that goes to infinity in both directions, so you must wait in line with the other tour groups as each entrant is scanned for obelisks and other hazards to the Church.

The Vatican museums don’t open until 9am but groups can come in at 8:30. We shuffled along in line and unlike Disneyland, our entertainment began immediately. Leti told us history and interesting things about the Vatican while street vendors walked by shoving umbrellas at us. Yesterday, it was silk roses. 

Street vendors are pickpockets in disguise. If you let them, they will shove a thing in your hand and then demand your money, even if you try to return the item. Hubby and I prevented this by holding hands. Also, yelling “Stop it!” seems to work. They are sworn enemies.

Then it started to sprinkle. We knew it might, but it doesn’t rain on the Metro and it doesn’t rain in the Vatican and the afternoon was supposed to be sunny. We huddled together for another twenty minutes before we were the begrudging owners of a black five-euro umbrella.

My hair was mostly saved.

We are now going to move briskly into and back out of the Museum wing, leaving photos below for you to stop and stare at and block the way for everybody else because how many people can you cram down the corridor without knocking over a priceless work of art? Answer: an awfully lot.

At the end of this corridor, and bypassing so many other corridors that your heart breaks from the missing of them, you arrive at the Sistine Chapel. Leti told us everything we needed to know before going inside, because you aren’t allowed to speak, take photos, or otherwise rumble in the Pope’s personal space. He has really loud guards in there, telling you so.

Stare up at the ceiling until your neck cricks. It is outrageously fabulous. You can identify most of what you see, just keep in mind that Michelangelo didn’t want this job in the first place and he mostly did the first few Genesis squares and let an army of other painters work out the rest. Michelangelo was a sculptor, not a painter. But when the Pope demands you do a job, when he makes you leave your home in Florence and move to Rome for years to do it, well, as an artist, you get a bit moody. You think thoughts.

When he painted the Last Judgement on the wall, he went ahead and put the Pope’s face onto St Peter. After all, the Pope was paying for it. But he also painted his enemy’s face into the corner of hell and his own face into the flayed skin of St Bart. Talk about a statement. But most of all, he painted all of the patriarchs as nudes. Very healthy nudes. When a religious eyebrow raised, he explained that…he was a sculptor. And this is how he rolled.

Much later, after Michelangelo died, painters were sent up there to add strategic little loincloth swags and later during restoration, most came back off again. Today, the mural is a bit of everyone’s opinions.

You also very much need to know that Botticelli, one of the painters on the team, had a pet chihuahua that was inserted three different places in the chapel wall murals. Because he could. I’m sure there were purse dogs in the time of Noah, I just can’t show you chapter and verse. And now the Pope has them.

St Peter’s Basilica is a kaleidoscope of color and gold and movement. It’s like walking into a huge, hollow layer cake that has too many frosting roses on it. At first, it’s sweet, then it’s hard to swallow.

The Pieta is there, a very early Michelangelo sculpture of Madonna and Christ, so early that he felt compelled to sign the thing, to prove he’d made it. It continuously floors me that flowing, rippling motion and emotion can be evoked from naked rock like this. Leti had to prod us forward, past the areas of other popes, the latest of whom was lying, mummified, in his glass coffin, still handing out benedictions. His waxy face peeking out from sumptuous robes had no life in it whatsoever. In the Vatacombs below, where countless other popes lie, you can get an idea of their visage from the likenesses carved on the tops or sides of their sarcophagi.

I’m not convinced a live performance after you’re dead is a better plan.

Finishing the tour brought us out to the edge of St Peter’s Square, but Hubby and I had one more item to cross off the List. We bought ten-euro tickets to climb the Duomo. You take a lift to rooftop level where you find yourself on a small piece of the ledge that runs back around the inside of the domed Basilica ceiling…so we could look down…so far down it made you dizzy…on the places we had just toured with Leti. Swirling tourists, chanting priests, flickering candles, arches full of color and golden light are all around you. An immense space overflowing with opulence. My home feels quite bleak in comparison, but what a thing to see.

We walked away and entered the Dome. Don’t do this big climb if you have issues with claustrophobia, because although the beginning was an open curved pathway painted gold, eventually you are in a narrow, tilting passage, and then you are in staircases twirling straight up and you are hoping the guys in front of you don’t stop because the air is getting tight and there is no going backwards and now it’s stuffy and where is the top of this thing? The return trip is in the opposite side of the Dome and both are one-way traffic only. It’s a commitment.

We enjoyed getting back onto the rooftop, because the Pope had kindly provided us with a souvenir shop and a snack shack right there, with a view to die for. Do you know what all of those saints parading around the edge look like from behind?

Hubby got a bevmo and I went next door and wrote five postcards (with Papal stamps) for the kids and left them for the flying nun to deliver. Below us, St Peter’s Square undulated with multitudes waiting to begin their visit. We strolled past them on our way out, pausing to take a photo of the guards. Honestly, who else gets to wear a uniform this awesome outside of Hotdog-On-A-Stick?

Back in our hotel, Hubby was grateful to put on shorts and let his kneecaps out for some fresh air. We headed to the metro, our new best friend, and sped towards the Colosseum and the Forum.

We left the umbrella behind.

Let’s begin with the fine art: ginormous toes. Pedi time! When even ceilings make you gasp. The map room is this boring…! The Pieta is behind bullet-proof glass. The High Altar Bernini made. That’s the guy… Domes inside of domes. You could go on and on… From the Duomo top. St Peter’s Square is round.

Rome, A Walkabout

Like fish and company, touring new cities begins to stink after three days. We filled our days to the brim and left while we were still having fun.

Another travel maxim is: you cannot possibly see it all. Rome wasn’t built in a day, you know. It has layers. Three days forced us to prioritize The List into something manageable. As this was not our first rodeo, we also took into account a little regular down time and things out of our control like jet lag, weather, or mood swings. If gelato sounded better than climbing the campanile, then we had permission to rebel.

But usually, we did both. Simultaneously.

Today, I wanted to begin at the Galleria Borghese, but I had not booked this museum ahead. I read that you could go early and try for walk-up tickets, so although the website said “Sold Out”, I was hopeful.

Now, a hotel concierge is a fabulous resource and I recommend asking them all of your foolish tourist questions, even if you aren’t technically staying in their hotel. In Rome, ours was “George from Venice”, who was very helpful when our electricity converter wasn’t working. George opened a drawer and pulled out a dozen different types that didn’t match and finally sent Hubby across the street to buy a new one. Meanwhile, I told him my plan for sneaking up on the Borghese. George frowned. He didn’t recommend it. He called the Gallery, speaking in rapid Italian. “They are sold out completely until two weeks from now,” he said. “Yes,” I explained, “but perhaps if we show up in person, they will have room.”

George talked us out of it. It wasn’t until Florence, when we snuck up on the Accedemia and won, that I realized George just didn’t want a screaming disappointed tourist in his face later, so I guess I don’t blame him. My asterisk is that if you want to gamble, don’t involve the concierge.

Instead, we opted to follow Rick Steve’s Heart of Rome Walk, beginning at Campo di Fiori. I had already downloaded his maps and tours into my phone and although Hubby is not a fan, he went along with it, choosing to let me listen and guide him through town. Campo di Fiori is a beautiful little morning market selling flowers, veggies, and the daily bread.

Brooding Bruno.

Rick was telling Bruno’s story when Hubby decided there were two more men in my head than he was okay with. Rick and Bruno had to skip to the end and direct us forward, and it wasn’t until the train ride from Rome that I sat back and enjoyed the full tour, using the photos I had taken and hearing with delight about what I had already seen.

You can do it too, from home: ricksteves.com. I preferred to form my own opinions before hearing everyone else’s but perhaps you want do it before you go, to get some context.

Piazza Navona is wonderful. Here is a selfie per Jenni’s request:

Piazza Navona selfie.

I didn’t say I was any good at it.

We studied the fountains and practiced selfies and enjoyed the group of lederhosen that joined us. There were kilts and wimples and ball caps. We followed them to the Pantheon. Not the Parthenon. Not the Panthenon. It was funny listening to people try to figure it out.

And it is something quite special. I don’t have a lot of intuition or “gut feelings” about places. There are tombs here and layers of religion and history and architectural genius and undeniable art in every stone. But the oculus – the space where there is nothing – spoke to me. Our day was a bit drizzly and the wet came in and made the marble floors slick. The area was cordoned off. I read that during the right time on a sunny day, a palpable column of light forms in the center of the room.

Empty space that isn’t empty.

It made me think this:

Here are mans efforts over the ages, marching in circles, trying to reflect/create/become/reach something and that Something is this space at the Center. The Light fills the gap and floods down into the arena of souls instead of the other way around.

It made me ignore the beauty around me and admire the Light.

The oculus is the only light source in the building.

Oculus.

From there we accidentally detoured into Piazza di Pietra and worked our way back to the Piazza Colonna, each with columns worth seeing. We found a shopping mall, cleverly disguised as a piece of Rome and this detour brought us back to the Trevi fountain. Why not?

This day had been pretty fulfilling, but now there was a practicality to figure out: the Metro. We wanted to practice before our Vatican tour in the morning, so we bought tickets in a tiny shop on the corner and headed down into the belly, looking for thugs. Once we decided which direction we needed, it was easy enough to hop on and back off at Piazza Popolo. Efficient, light, clean, and easy to navigate. No thugs in sight other than a grandmother returning from her marketing. I wish SoCal had a metro.

The Piazza Popolo is a spacious place to unwind and it comes with it’s own obelisk, fountains, statues and tourists. There are thirteen obelisks standing in Rome today, many more were lost in transport or invasions. They are legit stolen from Egypt and covered in hieroglyphics.  At some point in history the church decided that they were just a bit too pagan and engaged in a struggle with the townspeople to remove them. Romans were having none of it. Obelisks are cool. In compromise, the church topped each one with a cross to make them more palatable. It’s an odd combination.

Obelisk. Updated.

We went up to the little park area and crossed a bridge to a residential side of town. A statue of Pietro Cossa met us there and invited us to walk along the sleepy Tiber. We looked down on riverboats identical to those that Audrey Hepburn danced on. Hmm. A couple of hours later and we might have joined her.

The metro brought us back to home base, and we finished the day in a half-underground little restaurant with a curving brick ceiling, sipping wine, eating risotto with prawn sauce, and capping it off with a creamy dreamy tiramisu.

 

Surprise! It’s been soaked in espresso.

Favorite bit from Piazza Navona.

“Trying to get up on a Monday morning.”

Marcus Aurelius’ story goes literally in circles.

Hanging out in Piazza Popolo.

Fancy architecture around the Piazza Popolo, but I love bells!

Walking along the Tiber.

Below are the flatboats for dining and dancing.

Welcome to Rome

The arrivals section of the Roma airport is crowded, dirty, extensive, and confusing. The passport line was hidden, the customs area was vacant, and I finally found a bathroom, leaving Hubby to guard our belongings and breathe into a paper sack.

We had planned for this first-day nonsense and arranged a shuttle from the airport to our hotel. As we were neither driving nor messing with taxis in Italy, this was a comfort. Our driver met us at the gate, commandeered my luggage, and led us through a maze of corridors.

Hubby fell into the procession as caboose and immediately had his first encounter with pickpockets. Of course, he was prepared for this. He had a manly money belt strapped onto his waist and a manly fanny pack strapped onto his luggage and a manly stink-eye for anyone who dared to move into his personal space. The three suspects got cozy with him for a minute and then moved on to prey on helpless widows and orphans.

Which was a comfort.

LaDonna commented “have fun and be safe” but little did she know how both were combined in the name of pickpockets. Hubby asked me every five minutes for fifteen days whether I “still had my effects” and he insisted on playing his own cards tight, although it made checking in to hotels a colorful event…concierge politely requesting passports and Hubby reaching down into his pants to retrieve them.

That’s fun.

We sat in the sleek black car and tried to relax as our driver pulled out into the Italian sunshine. He chatted nonstop about what to see in the city, about his daughter who packs much larger suitcases than I do, about my sad hash of the Italian language. Cars drive on the right side of the road, at proper speeds, with proper traffic signs. We could have been entering Dallas or Murrieta; same terrain, same random housing and business or industrial bits here and there.

But then we took an exit and right in front of me was an enormous ancient wall. Enormous. Ancient. As we drove by, burnt umber ruins peered through cypress at us, unflinching with arrogance or indifference, I couldn’t tell. Locals passed by, oblivious to the stones. We turned and drove past the Circus Maximus. Across the street, Palatine’s personal palapas stared down at us and I wanted to leap from the car and run a lap on the spot. I was an excellent charioteer in the third grade.

There was no mistaking that we had entered another space entirely.  Our hotel was on tiny one-way Via Torino close to the Piazza della Repubblica with her randy  fountain. After checking in, we went out to get our bearings, a good habit we did with every city thereafter. It feels dense and green and gray and rippling inside the Aurelian Walls, like standing in a waving flag. Rome has the pulse of a runner and it makes you breathe a little faster, lean forward, and prepare to do a thing.

Traffic in Rome is a writhing basilisk. If you know the proper way to approach it, it won’t hurt you. Double-decker tour busses, determined taxis, businessmen in three piece suits on mopeds, women on bicycles, all intertwine in the piazza, dancing around each other and the pedestrians who dare to join them. They slide past with a generous two inches to spare, with both a smile and a frown: “No hard feelings man, I have somewhere to be.”

There are no stripes on the cobblestone streets. Traffic lights are tolerated. A red light is an opportunity for four lanes of traffic to become six during the pause. They are so accustomed to pedestrians – aka clueless tourists – wandering into the road, that they compute it into their driving pattern and time their approach to the pace of the moving person.

If your mind is made up to cross a street, step deliberately and swiftly. If you hesitate for approaching cars, they will be super confused and crash on the spot. Try to step in behind a local lady pushing a baby carriage. Italians have great respect for moms, so you will be perfectly safe. Also, Italians have great fear of them. I watched a nicely dressed middle-aged woman launch a stream of violent curses at a man on a bike in Florence who came too close for her comfort. I then spent a half hour in delight, listening to her ongoing opinions of his family as she continued down the street and his loud mutterings of innocence as he pedaled slowly away.

I love Italy.

We found Bernini’s Triton fountain first, taking a few polite photos. All of ten minutes later, we put the map away and went rogue. The city tempo makes you lift your head, paw the ground, and look for something to climb, which is easy as the streets are narrow and wind around and go up and down hills. We went up one and bought our first gelatos: pistachio and mango. We went up another and found the obelisk at the top of the Spanish Steps. We puzzled at Bernini’s Boat fountain (Is that it?) at the bottom, then found another obelisk that was surrounded by Moses (which makes total sense when you think about it), then wandered downhill and saw a tunnel which we had to go through because something awesome was probably on the other side. We worked our way back down Via Nazionale and wandered up to Piazza de Quirinale.

Happily, Rome is smaller than it looks on the map. We headed for the Trevi fountain. It was all we wanted it to be and more. The tourists that pack in are entertaining once you aren’t worried about pickpockets. A lady walked out on the fountain for a photo, the permanent police patrol blew a whistle and scolded her back. She just smiled and shrugged and I wondered how much longer the public would be allowed to get near it. We did the coin toss thing for Becky, just in case.

There is a less crowded area to the right of the fountain, where you can walk up and fill your water bottle.

This is an important thing to know about Italy.

The water is drinkable and available and free. There are fountains of varying decorations along the streets, even in tiny obscure towns. It’s foreign to America, where you pay for water but the bathrooms are free. Here, the water is free but you pay to pee. Hubby filled our bottle and drank. I watched and waited for another hour to see if he would keel over. After that, we had free water on all of our adventures.

We finished our day with pizza, back on the Spanish Steps. It was dusk. The tourists were mostly gone and a bride and groom posed for photos in the golden light. Suddenly bells began to ring the solemn strikes of seven o’clock. Lamps flickered on and the city gave a sigh of contentment. Of a day well run. A kiss. A slow stroll back to our hotel, holding hands under a rising moon.

Welcome to Rome.

The Piazza della Repubblica is a show to itself.

Our scandalous fountain history  is fun to read.

 

When you look down the street and see…. …an obelisk at the top of the Spanish Steps!

And the fountain at the bottom gives you a sinking feeling…

Don’t be fooled. We are standing in an ocean of humanity around the Trevi Fountain here.

Golden light at dusk, bells ringing….