Rome- mamma mia! We need a lot more time to even scratch the surface. I considered it a bonus to go at all, since we may not have gone but for AR and his flight home from there. Once there, I was just gobsmacked and wished we had more time because the city is bursting with history, art, food, architecture, and culture. Of course I had heard that my whole life but being there with limited time really proved the point.
We stayed about a block from the Vatican City walls in Rome. Apparently it is not high tourist season due to the hot weather in July and August, but the sites did seem crowded to me. We had an uncommonly gorgeous apartment with high ceilings, heavy wood doors, three large bedrooms, a deck, and vast windows looking out on busy streets. It was hard to leave that beautiful, air-conditioned palace but leave it we did to see a few of the major sites. St. Peter’s Basilica was nearby and a fairly easy morning trip. The large plaza was not packed with people awaiting the pope; he was out of town. The line was not too long to enter, and there is no cost. Inside, towering columns and many detailed works of art combine to inspire awe and humility. I felt so small and the crowd of people diminished in that cavernous space with religious art in every direction. The dome is lovely. It was cool inside, and dimly lit, starkly contrasting the blazing sun and heat outside even though it was early in the morning.
We went to the Colosseum and the Roman Forum (historic public plaza for elections and other events). Palatine Hill (most ancient Roman site, center of original seven hills) is nearby and also included in the three-site ticket* but we did not make it there. The Colosseum, more accurately called the Flavian Amphitheater, is the most popular of these three sites, but I found them all interesting. We had to wait to enter the Colosseum but not the Forum. I suspect even fewer people make it to Palatine Hill.
The Colosseum, built a few years before the volcanic eruption at Pompeii, was impressive. The structure inside the familiar shape surprised us as we learned the purpose of the maze-like walls which used to be hidden under a stage (the hypogeum, or underground area, pics above). The stage was not simply where gladiators fought animals and each other, it was a setting for elaborate theatrical productions (involving gladiators fighting animals and each other!). The structures we saw under the stage were for housing animals and for a pulley system for moving platforms to and from the stage. Animals were often exotic, were ultimately killed, and represented the dominance Rome held over the rest of the world. Alligators, hippos, elephants, wild cats, and bears were mentioned as examples of what might confront an unsuspecting gladiator. The presentations often had elaborate scenery and could reenact myths or battles, or serve as a venue for the public to view dramatic capital punishment as the condemned faced wild animals without weapons. The whole scene must have been so dramatic, especially when the crowd could decide someone’s fate with a thumbs up or down, if that really happened.
The Roman Forum:
The Forum had many buildings from classic Rome, and some had been adapted to later times. It was fun to imagine the people gathering to listen to politicians, celebrate festivals, or to welcome home soldiers and cheer the treasures and captives they brought from faraway lands. We learned that the Vestal Virgins were selected from noble families when they were younger than the twins and promised to remain celibate priestesses for thirty years. How a nine year old can be held to any promise is beyond me! If they succeeded, they were allowed to marry and were assured of wealth. If they failed, death. That must have stoked the gossip mill for centuries!
The Pantheon was also impressive. This is one of the best preserved buildings from Roman times and even today is the largest dome of non-reinforced concrete in the world!!!! All built without computers or fuel-driven machinery of any kind (of course, they did have slaves). The opening at the top of the dome (the oculus) is not covered at all, and the mostly original marble flooring is sloped towards a drain to handle rain. It was hard not to be impressed the more we learned about this building.
The Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel (ceiling and floor!) – BTW, talking and taking photos are not allowed at the Chapel but plenty of people were doing both:
Our last day, Fiercely and I braved the crowds to see the Sistine Chapel. We waited over an hour for the place to open (resisting ticket sellers who could get us in earlier with a special, more expensive of course, ticket. We figured gelato for us later instead!), we followed the horde through the long hallways of the Vatican and into the building with Michelangelo’s masterpiece. It was worth it. The museum itself was also excellent, but I felt we did not have the time to really appreciate its prodigious offerings.
We had amazing pizza, gelato, and sandwiches in Rome as well. I found a cafe early one morning that I suspect is enchanted because it was perfect and I couldn’t find it again after walking around and even using online maps. But such is travel, especially Rome for us, maybe we need to appreciate the ephemeral perfection of life and art during moments when we experience it, rather than trying to repeat it or experience more.
*Kids under 18 were free for this set of sites. A note to those without pre-bought tickets like ourselves: there was almost no line at the ticket area across from the Colosseum line. It is a set of three small glass booths with tan awnings, not clearly marked. I’m not sure why more people didn’t go there because the line at the Colosseum was immense. One cannot buy tickets at the Forum as a guide book had told us- only at the Colosseum and this ticket booth area. There are many combination tickets one can buy that could include these sites. The best deals seemed to be 3-day cards that include the metro but we could not take advantage since we were there less than 3 days.