The Coliseum, the streets of Rome and the Roman Forum
The next day was packed. The plan was to start off with breakfast in town and exploring the coliseum. Since we only had the AirBnB for a night, we also had to coordinate with the owner and lock up our bags at noon. We wouldn’t be able to check into our next hotel until 5.
We quickly got ready, packed our bags and headed out to town. We made our way down onto the subway. It was still early, so the Metro was relatively clear of people. We were able to spot gypsy’s from a mile away and formed a protective circle to defend our valuables.
We arrived at the coliseum without incident and stepped out of the metro station. The area was pleasantly deserted as the monument was still closed. Arches rose majestically up level after level and curved off as far as the eye could see. The girls were impressed, and gasped at the scale of the circus. It was huge.
We headed down the street in search for food. We made our way to the neighborhood behind the coliseum, past rainbow-clad bars to Google’s suggested bakery. Our luck with Google’s suggestions has been spotty at best. It often guides us to places which don’t exist, or as was the case here, that were closed.
Ann looked at the closed shop with annoyance. I could tell she was getting hungry, and with a trip to the coliseum in our future, I didn’t exactly relish the prospect of becoming lion bait. She needed to be fed. We wandered down the streets and eventually found a bar / restaurant. After stepping inside to check out their assortment of fried dough (seems that donuts are a popular breakfast in Rome), we sat down at a table on the street and enjoyed espresso with an assortment of glazed croissants and fried doughy delights.
A quick tip: Eating in rome is a little like flying a discount airline. They ding you for all sorts of little extras – like sidewalk service. What should be a quick and cheap meal can quickly turn into something a little more expensive than anticipated.
We walked back to the coliseum where crowds of tourists (us included) had formed. Long lines snaked their way out and around the base of the monument as people semi-patiently waited to get their tickets. Ann, being incredibly savvy, had made sure we had purchased our tickets online ahead of time. Despite having had our bank account closed due to suspicious activities (e.g. buying tickets in Rome), I was happy we had gone through the hassle. We breezed through security and made our way directly to the ticket counter without a wait – bypassing onlookers who shuffled along holding their soon-to-be-invalidated debit cards.
We grabbed the audio guides and made our way up the stairs to the first level where we were greeted with sweeping views of the arena. The coliseum is an impressive monument. The circle of it’s arches are still intact on one side, and gradually decays down to the lower levels to form a ring. The center arena floor is long gone and the foundation of the holding rooms for the wild animals and gladiators is visible beneath. The stone bleachers that once covered the arches are also gone – long scavenged by the residents of Rome as an easy quarry for building materials.
I was blown away by how long it took to build the monument. Unlike the cathedrals of Europe, which took hundreds of years to complete, the Romans were able to build the coliseum in a mere 10 years. It’s unbelievable, given the sheer scale of the building and the degree of precision in the engineering that was required. It’s even more impressive when you stop to consider that they had no modern cranes or building materials like steel. Each stone had to be carved and laid by hand.
We walked around the arena listening to the audio tour and trying to recreate the scene in our imagination. I pictured white stone stairs resting on the inside arches, banners flying and canvas awnings blocking out the sun. Marble was everywhere, encasing the stone with polished smooth surfaces. Statues stood tall and defiant, calmly contemplating the scene below. Down in the arena, wooden planks lined the floor and were covered in sand. Men and animals looked at each other warily and circled, looking for a chance to make a kill.
The audio guide went into great detail about the thousands of wild animals and theatrics that took place at the Colosseum. The inauguration games in 81AD at the Roman Colosseum, lasted for one hundred days and during this time over 9,000 wild animals were slaughtered. During just one festival in 240 AD a staggering: 2,000 gladiators, 70 lions, 40 wild horses, 30 elephants, 30 leopards, 20 wild asses, 19 giraffes, 10 antelopes, 10 hyenas, 10 tigers, 1 hippopotamus and 1 rhinoceros were slaughtered.
I imagined how loud it must have been. Tens of thousands of people sat in the bleachers, yelling in excitement. The yelling and cheering surged as the gladiators engaged in battle. It would be rare at that time to have so many people collected in one place. The scale of the circus must have been overwhelming to a foreigner. The greatness of Rome could not be denied in this venue.
After an hour of touring, the girls were ready to leave. We headed back to our apartment, met the owner and dropped off our bags in a closet in the foyer. We had just enough time to hop back on the metro and head into town for lunch reservations near the Pantheon.
We arrived a few minutes before the restaurant opened. People were already lined up, hoping for a table. When the waiter finally opened the doors, everyone shuffled in and were kindly turned away. Every table was reserved for lunch.
We stepped up and the waiter showed us to our table. We settled in and perused the amazing menu of pastas and salads. We quickly found what we wanted and ordered. The food was excellent, but for whatever reason, the girls weren’t satisfied with their meals. What ensued was a game of musical pasta – in which I was extremely happy with my meal selection but only got to enjoy a single bite. My plate made it’s way to Josie, and Josie exchanged hers with Chloe. Soon I was eating Chloe’s, and looking longingly at Josie’s plate that was the meal I had originally ordered. While Chloe’s was good – it wasn’t nearly as delicious as mine.
On the plus side, we ordered their house wine and were delighted with the bottle. The wine was exceptional – and this was one thing in the meal the girls couldn’t steal from us. J
Following lunch we made our way through the streets of Rome back to the Forum. Along the way we passed the Altare della Patria, a huge white monument built in commemoration of Italy’s first king and the soldiers of World War I. We climbed the steps up to the monument, watched the changing of the guard, and then headed back down towards the Roman Forum.
The Forum is an amazing archeological site. Situated across the street from the Coliseum, it’s an amalgamation of ruins spread over centuries of construction, destruction and renewal. Columns from ancient temples have been incorporated into more modern-day churches, and a chaotic layout of foundations and roads hint at where the seat of Roman power once stood. The forum was the cultural center of Rome at the time of the empire, and included the Roman Senate, a place where orators made speeches, and tribunals were held.
It’s impossible to get a good feel for the space now. The entire area is a huge ruin and it’s hard to see where one building stops and another starts. The signage is rudimentary, and the site maps / info panels do a poor job of explaining the site. Different buildings had been built at different times, so it was even hard to know whether things existed at the same time, or had been paved over.
In all of this complexity is a simple opportunity for those smart and ambitious enough to grasp it. If I was a HoloLens developer, I’d create an augmented-reality tour of the Forum which recreates the buildings, famous historical moments and figures. How incredible would it be to see the ruins through a lense only to have it augmented with what the full building must have looked like? Or to see Julius Cesar killed on the steps of the forum… It would bring history to life.
It was tough for the girls to appreciate – so after an hour or so of walking through the ruins, we headed back to the AirBnB to pick up our bags, drag them onto the metro and head to our next lodging.
Well before we left to Rome Ann had booked us at Trinite de Monte, located at the very top of the Spanish steps. We heard about this location from a French couple in Aix. The Monastery is owned by the French government, and is available only to French or francophone travelers. Thanks to my French nationality, we were able to book a small private room for us in the monastery.
Both Ann and I had incredible fantasies of what staying in a monastery would be like. We’d walk through a cloister with a beautifully manicure garden and have a small cell-like room with bunk beds and rough wool blankets. Chanting would fill the hallways, and we’d join the monks for dinner in the great hall where we’d feast on dried bread and gruel served out of wooden bowls. It would be a formative experience for our girls – one which would teach them humility and an appreciation for the simple things in life.
We dragged our baggage to the entrance and rang the buzzer. We were greeted by a groundskeeper who led us up what felt like hundreds of steps to the monastery entrance. An kind Frenchwoman greeted us there, offering us fruit juice and iced water for refreshments.
After a brief discussion, we completed the necessary paperwork and confirmed our meal plans. We’d be having breakfast every day of our stay in the dining hall with the other guests, and we opted to join them for a dinner as well. We were assigned a small room located apart from the main hall. The Monastery was currently hosting a class of young French students, so they apologized in advance for the noise.
The facilities weren’t exactly modern, but they weren’t exactly medieval either. The buildings were modest but well maintained, and our room was very basic. It was large, contained a bunkbed and three single beds. Josie immediately grabbed the bunkbed, and Chloe one of the single beds. Ann and I looked at the remaining child-sized single beds separated by a table. There’d be no more romantic hanky-panky in this Roman monastery.
We settled in and relaxed before heading to the common room for Dinner. Rather than rustic arches and a vaulted ceiling, the dining hall was located behind the main facility in a modern non-descript room. Windows lined the walls and round tables and chairs were packed in tight. A single French nun greeted us and encouraged us to sit near the front of the room.
A few minutes before the meal the kids descended upon the dining hall, quickly shuffling in and filling up the tables. The volume surged as they settled in and the chaperones desperately attempted to control the mob of teenagers. It was clear that sharing a peaceful meal with monks was now nothing more but a fantasy. This was cafeteria fare.
Dinner was incredibly basic. Deviled eggs were served as an entrée (ironic given our location), pasta with red sauce as a main course, and yogurt for desert. To be 100% honest, I was disappointed we didn’t get gruel. The volume of the kids peaked and was crushed by the disapproving shouts of their professors. Dinner was concluded in a matter of minutes, and we shuffled out.
After dinner we walked down to the street to find some real desert (e.g. gelato). We emerged at the top of the Spanish steps, weaved our way through hoards of sitting tourists, and dodged selfie-stick vendors. I’m fairly certain they were the same ones we saw in Venice.
When we arrived at the bottom of the steps at the fountain, we paused to admire the view. The stairs rose up above us, and the fountain gurgled happily. Old buildings surrounded the square, horses and carriages were parked nearby and the evening sky was turning dark blue. It was a warm and beautiful night.
I stood taking in the sights with Chloe when a man appeared at my elbow with a bouquet of roses.
“Please, take a rose.” He pleaded.
“No thank you.” I replied.
“I insist – if not for you, than for your beautiful young daughter.” He slyly said, looking at Chloe.
“No, we’re good.” I replied.
“Oh then just take one as a gift from the good people of Rome. No charge!” He said, extending a flower to Chloe. She shrugged and took it, thanking him.
“Perhaps you’d like another for your wife?” he said. “Here, have another.”
At this point I knew we had been taken. I couldn’t take a rose for Chloe without one for Josie, so I took it as he assured me it was free.
We thanked him, and started to wander off. He followed us, all the while praising how generous and good we were. How much he loved Americans, and how wonderful it was that we were enjoying his roses that he had worked so hard to procure.
I gave him two euros to shut up and go away. It seemed like a fair trade. Of course, it’s not everyday that you have your own personal chorus following you through the streets of Rome exalting your virtues. Perhaps I had been too quick to dismiss him.
We wandered through the streets and eventually found a gelatoria. Chloe had grown tired of carrying her rose, and Josie didn’t really care for it to start with, so I took them and left them under the windshield wipers of a couple different cars. Either they would make someone happy, or break up marriages. Only the fate would decide.
We headed back up the Spanish steps, carefully avoiding men with roses and turned in for the night. It had been a long day packed with adventure, and we were ready for a good night’s rest.