Europe | Italy | Central | Rome – Roman Times
Rome, a city packed with two thousand years of history. Their empire once stretched over most of Europe, as well as parts of Africa and Asia. I don’t know how they came to lose all that, but if you’ve seen the way the Romans drive, it might give you some idea as to where their priorities lie. They always seem to motor along with reckless abandon, running red lights, always in a hurry. Maybe if they weren’t so busy running their chariots recklessly around, causing accidents no doubt, they may have diverted their attention to actually running the empire.
I arrived in Rome from Florence in the morning, and was able to find a hostel immediately just two minutes from the station. This was great as it gave me most of the day to start seeing Rome.
I took a long walk into the historic centre of town, arriving at a massive building which is a monument to King Vittorio Emanuele II. The thing about Rome is that when walking along streets you’ll come across various historical monuments and relics from an ancient past.
Gladiators at the Colosseum
After gazing at the massive building for a while, I looked down the Via Dei Fiori Imperiali and spied the Colosseum, standing there and beckoning like a football stadium. So I strolled towards it, and since I was there, paid for the entry and went in.
In the words of the slave from the movie Gladiator, “I never knew men could build such things.” Built in A.D. 72 by Emperor Vespasian, the scale of the building is difficult to fathom. It is like one of those American football stadiums, fifty metres in height. I couldn’t begin to comprehend how they built it two thousand years ago without the use of cranes. Walking out to the centre where gladitorial combats were once staged, I looked up into the stands and replayed the movie Gladiator in my head, imagining the 55,000 strong crowd chanting Maximus! Maximus! Maximus!
When I climbed up to the arena I then imagined I was one of the crowd, looking down at a spectacle. I wondered if they had the equivalent of popcorn vendors wandering amongst the crowd, or if they had those giant foam fingers like they do at the basketball, except they would be foam thumbs to indicate a thumbs up or thumbs down to a defeated opponent.
Most of the structure now resembles a construction site, crumbling with holes in the walls, but the sense of history is awe inspiring to think that this dates back two thousand years.
Old ruins at the Forum
Adjacent to the Colosseum is a set of ruins known as the Forum. Today it is a collection of crumbling columns, temples, statues and remains of buildings. It once was the site of the temples and basilicas of imperial Rome. For free entry, it was great value for wandering in and poking around the ruins, imagining toga clad Romans once strolling along stoically. A definite recommendation would be to get a guide book which tells you what each structure is, something I did not have at the time.
Sore neck at the Vatican
The next morning I rose early to line up outside the walls of the Vatican. Even though I got there right on opening time, the queue was already fairly long, such is the popularity of the Vatican with tourists. Nevertheless the line moved very swiftly. The Vatican is of course a separate country altogether, but I didn’t encounter any passport control or customs check.
Once inside I passed through a series of rooms and hallways with walls and frescoes decorated by artists such as Raphael and Leonardo. (Between here and Florence, I can now claim to have seen works of art by all four Ninja Turtles). The piece de resistance is of course the Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo’s masterpiece “Last Judgement” covering one wall and his biblical scenes decorating the ceiling. I spent quite some time here sitting on a bench just looking up until I got a sore neck. It is impossible to take in the whole scene at once, and is best to gaze at each panel one by one to admire its individual splendour.
Afterwards I strolled around the corner to the Piazza San Pietro, a square partially enclosed by two semicircles of columns leading to St. Peter’s Basilica. Once inside the cathedral I was again struck with magnificence. The interior is absolutely cavernous, with massive fifty foot pillars supporting the vaulted ceiling and Michelangelo’s dome, the second largest in the world. The floor space is so large that even with hundreds of people inside there was plenty of room for people to wander around in. The ceilings are decorated with carved sculptures and covered with gold. Various statues of popes are placed around the walls, as well as a 13th century statue of St. Peter whose extended foot is almost worn away by the kisses of pilgrims throughout the centuries.
As one tourist remarked to another, this is the ultimate cathedral, after seeing this everything else pales in comparison. And I’ve never spent so much of one day looking up.
Crazy Capuchin monks
For a totally different kind of attraction, one which isn’t found in any major guide book, I went to the Capuchin monks’ monastery on Piazza Barberini. In 1631 when the monks moved here from their old place across Rome, they took with them the bones of 4000 of their dead to be reburied here. However, some crazy monk had the bright idea of decorating the place with some of their bones. The result is five chambers all decorated with the bones of these monks. There are altars and arches, various designs on the walls built from vertebrae, and religious designs on the ceilings, all arranged with bones.
Especially morbid were the skeletons they placed in the brown Capuchin robes, posing there and grinning back at me from beyond the grave. In the last chamber was a sign which merrily informed me “What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be.” Is that just great or what.
Other relics and monuments
Rome is packed with historical structures to look at. I went by the Pantheon, Rome’s best preserved monument. It is a building with a massive dome on top, built in 27 B.C. The dome, in fact, is the largest in the world. When Michelangelo was charged with building the dome above St. Peter’s, he had that much respect for the ancients that he built the dome slightly smaller than the Pantheon’s. I actually overheard a guide telling this to her tour group, so I hope it is accurate.
Nearby is the famous Trevi Fountain with a statue of Neptune, where you have to throw a coin in to ensure your return to Rome. A few blocks away are the Spanish Steps, which I don’t particularly know the significance of, but lead up to the Spanish embassy. Behind this is Rome’s largest park, the Villa Borghese. I spent the better part of one afternoon strolling through it and looking at the marble busts of noted Italians which dot the park, although the only one I recognised was Galileo Galilei.
One afternoon I spent some time exploring the Castel Sant’Angelo, a massive fortress built in A.D. 130. A wall connects the castle to the Vatican, and in times of siege or attack, a secret passage lead the pope to the Vatican. I walked along the ramparts and bastions, imagining a time when arrows might have been flying overhead from some enemy down below.
When in Rome do as the Romans do
Rome is definitely one of the highlights of my journey so far. It is a large sprawling city packed with a surprising amount of sights to see. The streets are especially fun to walk around in, as you never know when you turn a corner you’ll see some historical relic standing there. I also found it to be tourist friendly in the sense that most of the attractions didn’t require a fee. At the time, I also never encountered any long queues, although I imagine this would be very different in the height of summer. I could definitely spend a lot more time here happily exploring every historical corner of it.