When in Rome Pt. 1: The Ancient City
Hello again! Lisa here, with another fun-filled post about Italy! I’ve been home now for three weeks and already my trip feels like a distant memory. I’ve been finding myself trying to relive my experiences by looking through my photos over and over again and watching Italian documentaries and movies (the Italian Job, The Gladiator, etc). Writing these posts has also been helpful in reminding me what I loved about each place I went. I loved the relaxing attitude of Venice, the art in Florence, the rolling hills of Tuscany. But, if I had to pick one place in Italy to travel to, it would be Rome. Rome to me is the pinnacle of Italian travel, or any travel for that matter. It should be on everybody’s bucket list! It’s not for the faint of heart; there is a lot to see! But with a map and a good pair of walking shoes, you can see it all from the Coliseum to the Sistine Chapel!
But first, here are a few pointers that I think may be helpful to know:
The subway system in Rome is very easy to navigate. There is a stop for most of the touristy destinations and it’s not as confusing as say, the New York subway system. We bought the “Roma Pass” and we were very pleased with it. For €30, you get unlimited access to all of Rome’s public transport (rail and bus) and free entrance to two museums or archeological sites. This includes the Coliseum and Roman Forum (as one admission) and another museum of choice (sadly, this does not include the Vatican Museum). You even get to skip the line at the Coliseum, which is worth €30 in itself! I highly recommend getting this!
I also recommend not going in the summer high season. We went in May and already it was scorching hot and crowded! I can’t imagine it in the dead of summer. Most of the archaeological sites in the historical center of Rome have little shade and the heat seems to bounce off of the rocks and hit you smack in the face. If you can choose to go in the early spring or fall, do it! Your sweat glands will thank you.
We stayed in Rome for four days. It would be tough to see everything in less time than that. The historical center of Rome (the Coliseum, Palatine Hill, and the Roman Forum) takes about a whole day to see. The Vatican City (St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museum) also takes up a whole day. The next day can be used to see the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps and all of the great piazzas. If you can stay for longer than three days, even better! But I would recommend at least three.
Rome is a history nerd’s playground. Ruins lie everywhere, especially in the historical center. According to legend, Rome was founded on the Palatine Hill by two brothers named Romulus and Remus.
Abandoned at birth, a wolf found the brothers in a cave and nursed them back to health. In 753 BC, Romulus killed his twin brother and founded Rome.
Because of the Palatine Hill’s central location and proximity to the Roman Forum, the Palatino was the poshest neighborhood. Emperors built increasingly opulent palaces and complexes here. After Rome’s decline, it fell into disrepair and in the Middle Ages churches and castles were built over the ruins. What remains today are the ruins of Emperor Domitian’s vast complex and the Emperor Augustana’s private residence. Be sure to bring a map or a guidebook of some sort because there isn’t a whole lot of information once you enter the hill. Be sure to check out the little museum tucked away on the hill that includes archaeological artifacts that have been found around the site.
The Roman Forum sits right next to the Palatino. At one time, it was the heart of Rome and served as the public meeting space. It was a vast complex of marble temples and basilicas, but today it is an impressive pile of ruins and pillars. It takes a trained eye to envision the beauty and the glory that it once had. Truth be told, by the time we got to the Roman Forum, we were tired of looking at piles of rocks. It was pretty magnificent though!
Very close to the Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill is the Coliseum. The Coliseum is no doubt the most thrilling site in Rome! For anybody who has seen the Gladiator or knows the history of the Coliseum, it is easy to see why. It was built in 69 AD by the emperor Vespasian to house the violent games between the gladiators, condemned prisoners, and exotic animals. For the citizens of the time, it was prime entertainment. While it seems incomprehensible to us why anybody would want to watch this, we have to remember that they didn’t have cable television to supply them with their daily dose of violence.
The inside of the Coliseum has three parts: the arena, cavea and podium. The arena was where the gladiators fought. It would have had a wooden floor covered with sand to soak up the blood. Today the arena is only partially covered to give the tourists a view of what was underneath, a labyrinth of chambers and passageways that the gladiators and animals would use to enter the arena. The cavea are the three tiers of spectator seating. The knights sat in the lowest tier, the wealthy in the middle, and the commoners sat in the highest tier. The podium was the VIP section, where the emperors and senate sat. There is now a cross where the emperor would sit to remember the Christians that died.
There are guided and audio tours available. For an extra €5 we got the guided tour. I think the information varies with the person giving the tour. We were more interested in the gladiators and gory details and the lady giving the tour mainly focused on the architecture. You can also pay extra to get a private tour underneath the arena or you can get a night tour! But you have to book those in advance. We wish we would have known that! Make sure to see it at night. It’s lit beautifully!
The Arco di Constantino sits within stone-throw of the Coliseum. This arch was built in 312 to honor the Emperor Constantine’s victory in battle. It is said that the Arc di Triomphe in Paris is modeled from it.
Our Roma Card purchase also included an entrance to a museum. We chose the Capitoline Museum, the world’s oldest national museum. It was probably the most confusing museum I’ve ever been to. They give you a map, but I think a GPS would have been more appropriate. We walked around in circles for what seemed like an hour, seeing the same things over and over again! There were some beautiful pieces in the museum though. I liked the giant head, hand, and foot in the courtyard! They were all once part of a 40 foot statue of Constantine that stood in the Roman Forum. There was also a fascinating room with only busts of all of the emperors and philosophers. They just don’t make busts like they used to!
The historical center of Rome is only one portion of Rome, and I’ve only told you about bits and pieces of it. There is so much to see! I don’t know if it was the heat or the overload of history, but that day left me absolutely exhausted! It was nothing that dinner, gelato, and a good night’s sleep couldn’t cure though. No amount of aching shins and sunburns could stop us from going on our next adventure: The Vatican City! Stay tuned for my next post where I’ll tell you all about the breathtakingly beautiful St. Peter’s Basilica and the overwhelmingly large Vatican Museum.