Little note before you start reading, this is probably going to be the longest entry yet. You might want to set some time aside if you plan on reading the whole post.
September 21st: Day Six
Had another bad night’s sleep, kept awake by a nasty cold that I must have picked up in Venezia the other day, I was fortunate to have slipped in 2-3 hours of rest because I knew I had a long day ahead. I also woke up with a bit of a hangover, which was deserved considering I had downed a decent amount of wine last night, I’ve had worse hangovers but combined with my developing cold it was doing a number on me. I got dressed and headed downstairs for a complimentary breakfast where I did my best to down as many Espressos as I could, a poor way to compensate for a lack of sleep but it would have to do.
I had outlined our route around Rome a while back and knew what we needed to do today. We would be visiting The Pantheon, Tiber Island, The Roman Forum, and The Colosseum – All in one day, on foot, in the blaring sunshine and sweltering heat. After freshening up we left our room and backtracked to Grotta Rossa station so we could get a ride to the inner-city. Upon arriving at Flaminio station we quickly found our bearings and reached Piazza Del Popolo, our starting point.
Piazza Del Popolo is situated 1 minute down the road from Flaminio station and is frankly impossible to miss; If you somehow miss the giant white arches and gates you certainly won’t miss the giant Obelisk. In 10 B.C Emperor Augustus uprooted this Egyptian monument and sailed it all the way back to Rome where he erected it as a testament to his victory over Mark Anthony and Cleopatra in 30 B.C (Dramatized by “Anthony & Cleopatra”). I could not help but draw comparisons of Saint Mark’s Basilica back in Venezia while I looked at it. I know the English are guilty of this as well but throughout history the Italians seem to have relished in collecting trophies from other countries. Still the Piazza itself is impressive, with white stone steps and a quad of churches each sporting their impressive artwork. This place used to be the go-to place for public executions in Rome, the last of which took place in the mid-1800’s so that might explain the churches.
Something I should compliment Rome on is that it is very hard to get lost, which for a capital city is saying a lot. If you were up for it you could easily navigate the streets without ever using the metro. A long road called Via Del Corso runs straight through the city center, starting at Del Popolo and ending near the Colosseum, and since the attractions are on side-roads branching off of it you’d be going out of your way to get lost. Our first stop on this road was the Pantheon, one of the most iconic structures of Ancient Rome.
The Pantheon was built around 31 B.C by Marcus Agrippa, built after the Battle of Actium as a tribute to the pagan gods of the Ancient Romans. It would eventually become a church sanctioned by Pope Boniface IV after Christians complained of a “Demonic Presence” whenever they went near it, go figure. It seems to me that they were just uneasy about it because it symbolized the pagan beliefs that their ancestors followed, but denouncing it because of that just feels wrong. If your forte is history and/or classical history you really should come visit Rome for a few days as it will have a lot to offer you. It’s interesting seeing a modern city developed, built around the remnants of it’s own ancient civilization. It’s enthralling seeing how a city and it’s people evolved, to me this is what the study of history is about and there’s something very ethereal about it. Surprisingly it did not cost us anything to enter the Pantheon and as I stood in it I looked to the ceiling. It’s must be one of the marvels of ancient architecture: The domed ceiling of the Pantheon, how on earth did they pull that off all those millenea ago?
After the Pantheon we figured it was time to get some lunch so we wandered back onto the Via Del Corso and soon enough found another Pizzeria – here is where I had a real Pulp Fiction* moment. The best way I can describe it is that this Pizzeria had a ‘Pick & Mix’ system in place but it’s not a buffet service like you might get in a Pizza Hut. Instead you have a very large and inventive selection of massive rectangular pizzas before you, ask for what you want and a hefty piece will be cut off and put on a plastic plate for you – your appetite and bravery are the limits. Take-away pizza on massive plastic plates was surreal enough but what made this really stand out is how it was cut: With giant scissors. This was the first time I’d ever had giant pizza cut with giant scissors for lunch, with giant bottles of Peroni beer to go with it, this was weird but simultaneously awesome. We still had places to go in the afternoon and considering how much walking still lay ahead we gave ourselves some time to chill in the shade.
*“They got the same **** like we got here, it’s just those little differences”
We headed towards Tiber Island, our next destination, while the heat intensified and I felt my neck begin to smart under the sun.
Despite it’s small size Tiber Island is one of the most culturally and historically significant locations in Rome. Since ancient times Tiber Island has been a place of healing; previously home to the temple of Aesculapius, the ancient Greek god of healing and medicine (The Romans adopted a lot from Ancient Greece). The temple was built around 300 B.C when a plague ravaged Rome, it stood for quite some time after that. These days Tiber Island is home to Fatebenefratelli Hospital, a hospital built where a synonymous temple once stood? That can’t be a coincidence can it? Part of me suspects there is more than just piety behind the Island’s extensive medical history because logically it would make sense to treat potentially infectious patients on an island separated from Rome itself. Hippocratic history isn’t Tiber Island’s only claim to fame; According to ancient Roman legends Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were raised by wolves along it’s river. We spent a little bit of time here taking in the good view of the gushing river and the partially demolished bridges. Looking at these bridges I felt the same sense of history that had been on my mind since the Pantheon. I cannot emphasize it enough, Rome has a very ethereal aura about it, an historical aura if you would. It is an odd feeling I know not everyone would grasp but I still feel it adds authenticity to the city, you can clearly tell that a lot has happened here.
The last stop on the itinerary was the Roman Forum & Colosseum, stopping by Circo Massimo (Circus Maximus) on the way. Some might remember hearing of Circus Maximus at some point but most might remember it from the 1959 movie “Ben Hur” which glorified the chariot racing the location is known for. In ancient times Circus Maximus served as a racing track for horse-drawn chariots, the Roman equivalent of Silverstone. Back then racing was considered a part of everyday life for both the peasantry and the Roman nobility. The entrance to the Roman Forum was down the road from here and after dealing with a very irritated ticket vendor we began our own tour of the site, not in the mood to hang around for an hour waiting for a guide. The Roman Forum is impressive and a treasure trove for an archaeologist: Ruins of sporting venues, debating chambers, bath houses, family homes, broken aqueducts, and museums housing unearthed artifacts litter the site. We spent a good 45 minutes roaming (hah) around the forum before we found ourselves in the shadow of a place I’d really been looking forward to seeing: The Colosseum.
From one movie reference to another, I’m pretty sure everyone has either seen or heard of Ridley Scott’s movie “Gladiator” released in the year 2000. The Roman Colosseum (Colloseo) is easily Rome’s most iconic landmark, it took a decade to complete: Started by Emperor Vespasian in 70 A.D and finished in 80 A.D by his son Titus. Stepping into the Colosseum felt overwhelming, the third such feeling I’d had today. Standing on the sandy arena I found myself thinking “How many people lost their lives for sport where I’m standing right now?”. I often get reflective in situations like this and since I’d learned so much about what happened here that it was hard for me to not consider it. Putting aside the Pankration fights of the Ancient Greek Olympics combat in the Roman Colosseum was about as brutal as blood sport has ever been. Man vs Beast or Man vs Man… it did not matter to the spectators – as long as there was a blood to be spilled they would be happy. Sport is not all that this arena offered it’s patrons, public executions also took place here, most notorious of which were when Christians were fed to lions on a regular basis.
Gratuitous violence aside the Colosseum itself is a marvel of ancient engineering. Trap doors underneath the arena could be operated to allow fighters or animals to join the battle quickly. The arena floor could even be flooded by channeling water from the surrounding aqueducts so spectators could watch mock naval battles (Seriously). On top of this list of astounding engineering feats the spectator seating was designed in such a way that it allowed people to occupy and vacate their seats quickly and easily. While here I learned something pretty ironic: Parts of the Colosseum were used in the construction of the Vatican. That’s a bit tasteless considering what happened here isn’t it? Maybe it was deliberate? Did they essentially martyr their own people?
By this point our feet were blistered rather badly from a day’s worth of solid walking so we figured it was time to head back to the hotel, stopping for some dinner on the way. I suggested on a whim that we stop by another Pizzeria but my dad wasn’t having any of it, we had to go for something else. We tried to drum up some inspiration on the way back to Flaminio station but in the end we fell back on Burger King, the first one we’d seen since we arrived in Italy. I got another genuine surprise here as I had the best Burger King meal I’d had for years. Come to think of it, I’ve noticed this about European fast food joints in general – our European neighbors put more effort into it than we do back home. Of course this applies to ‘higher class dining’ too but it means that when you find an outlet of Burger King for example you’re not disappointed by what you get. I’ve yet to visit Spain but I’d imagine that it’s a similar story there as well.
After our revelatory Burger King we arrived back to the hotel where I was too tired to really do anything else, turning on the TV to watch Walker Texas Ranger in Italian. I now sit here an hour later writing this after checking myself in the bathroom mirror, I’ve caught the sun pretty good it but I don’t think it’ll be too bad of a burn. Tomorrow we visit Castel Sant’ Angelo and Vatican City, another day of extensive walking awaits us so I’d best be rested and ready.