August 3rd – Florence to Rome
The Florence to Rome was a comfortable ride on one of the newer high speed trains that goes well over 200 mph. An hour and a half after we boarded, we emerged into Rome’s central station where we found our way to a subway map so we could figure out how to get to our apartment. Our place was in a great location in the historical center just south of Piazza Navona, but Rome being Rome, the closest metro stop dropped us about 1.25 miles away. We took the metro as far as we could and then used the river to guide us as long as we could. Half an hour later and we were at the door of the building where the host came up and let us in. Thankfully, this place was clean, had working internet, a washing machine as advertised, so it was a relief after the rough stay in Florence (Yeah, after this long on the road we want a clean place and a good bed.)
We went out for another over-priced, mediocre meal to get some food in our stomachs before going to the grocery store. After eating and shopping we came back to the room to cool off for the afternoon. In the evening, we went exploring to a couple of the main sites that were a short walk from our place. First stop – the Pantheon, an amazing domed building that we’ll talk about more about later. After a few minutes walking around the square, we walked west to Piazza Navona, a long square full of fountains, portrait artists, and street performers.
Each end of the square has a fountain, but Bernini’s impressive Fountain of the Four Rivers dominates the center, topped by an Egyptian obelisk.
August 4th – The Colosseum and the Forum
We got an early start (for us – early meant getting out the door before 10) and walked the roughly 1.25 miles to the Colosseum. There are a few sites in the city that you have to see, and the remains of an arena that saw the slaughter of scores of animals and people, and has survived wars, earthquakes, and being scavenged for building materials – is definitely one of them. Outside the building we waited for 1.5 hours, the longest line of our trip, before finally passing through the gates and into the Colosseum.
Even for all that remains of the structure, it’s still tough to visualize exactly what is what. This might help you imagine what it would’ve looked like in its prime.
75,000 people could fill the seats to watch men fight animals, animals fight animals, men fight men, and any other combination of man/beast/machine combat. Sailors were employed to work the ropes on the retractable cover, while more people worked the underground systems that raised men and animals from beneath the arena floor.
The day we went to the Colosseum was empty of clouds and full of August sun, so the few shady spots were crowded with people and the metal railings at the lookout points would give you a hot wake up call if you made the mistake of touching them. We did a loop around first level and then a loop around the second. The upper level had displays of stones and sculptures leftover from the period. Some of them showing what graffiti looked like in the days before spray paint. In addition to the regular information about the Colosseum, there was a temporary exhibit about Constantine, showing the transition of the empire from pagan to Christian belief systems.
The ticket into the Colosseum also gets you into the Forum and Palatine, so we left the Colosseum and made our way down the street to the entrance of those sites, stopping at a food cart along the way for a much needed beverage. The Palatine, which we didn’t go through (Steve was there years ago) is a hill where the first Romans lived and where the palaces of several emperors once stood.
What remains of the forum is a long stretch of buildings and ruins that once comprised the main street during the height of imperial Rome. Like so many other ancient places, over the years the streets of the forum were used, reused, repurposed, abandoned, used as a quarry for other buildings, and eventually just buried with generations of garbage and neglect. Archeologists came along and gradually pealed away the layers of dirt, returning the street level to that of the late empire.
Among the ruins are temples, houses, shops, and churches. Lots of churches, as once Christianity hit full speed they took over and converted large numbers of buildings into places of worship. Walking along the route, it might be helpful to imagine yourself in the scenes in Gladiator when the victorious Roman armies are marching in formation down the streets. That’s the Forum.
After the forum we went back to relax and wash the layers of sweat and salt off (did we mention that it was hot?). In the evening we met Vahid, the friend of a friend who happened to be living in Rome, and Megan, a coworker of Vahid’s that just arrived in the country the day before. We met in Piazza Navona and walked down a side street to Ristorante del Fico. We’d had a pretty bad record when it came to picking restaurants on our own, so having the recommendation of a local was very welcome. The restaurant had great Roman pasta dishes, and between us we had carbonarra, amatriciana, and cacio de pepe, along with some nice wine, fried zucchini, and melted cheese topped with prosciutto. Good food and good company definitely made this our best meal in Rome.
After dinner we walked to a busy gelato shop for dessert before parting ways (this was a Sunday night, they had to work).
August 5th – The Pantheon and the Basilica di San Clemente
We had no set plans for this day, so we took our time in the morning and decided to make a couple of stops outside. First, we went back to the Pantheon. When we went the previous time the inside was already closed, so this time we were able to go inside.
The Pantheon was originally built around 27 bc (later rebuilt after fires), originally as a temple and later converted to a church, which it remains today. The structure itself is a marvel whose design has been mimicked over and over again. The pillars in front are 39ft tall pieces of solid granite from Egypt. The main feature of interest is the domed roof, which to this day is the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. The Florentines actually tried to copy the design of the Pantheon’s dome for use in the Duomo, but the recipe for the concrete used had been lost and others were unable to support the weight. The dome itself has a hole in the center that opens to the sky. The floor has drains to disperse the water that comes in when it rains. This is one of those buildings that make you go “wow” when you first walk inside.
After the Pantheon we made the long walk past the Colosseum to the Basilica di San Clemente. On the surface, this is an 11th century Catholic church, decked out with all the fancy finishings and paintings you’d expect. But go into a side room and buy a ticket to the excavations, and you get to see what’s hidden beneath.
The Roman’s method of dealing with old buildings was generally just to build a new structure right on top. So a level beneath this 11th century church, there were excavations of what was a 4th century church. Some of the mosaic floors and frescoes are still visible, as are the many rooms and archways that made up the different sections of the church. Interesting, right?
Well it keeps going. That 4th century church was built directly on top of a 2nd century Mithraic site, of which the original Mithraeum can still be seen. (Mithras was another religion popular before the wide acceptance of Christianity, and this was a place to study and worship Mithras).
And below that – the Mithraic site was built on top of a roman house that they suspect burned down sometime in the first century AD. (Unfortunately – No pictures allowed inside the church or the excavations.)
August 6th – The Vatican
We walked across the river and used the high dome of St. Peter to navigate our way into Vatican City. We planned on going into the museum, which is notorious for its incredibly long lines, so when we got into St. Peter’s square and saw a line wrapping from the basilica along the columns around the square almost all the way back to the basilica, we figured we had found the right place. For 45 minutes we inched forward with the crowd until getting to a row of metal detectors and x-ray machines. After security, we realized that this was just the line for to go into the basilica, not the museum.
*Insert frustrated swearing here (but done quietly, it was a church after all).*
Oh well, going into St. Peter’s is a must-do while in Rome. Even after being in so many churches on this trip, nothing compares to the scale you encounter here. The top of the dome looks impossibly high when you stand beneath it, and becomes a more impressive feat when you consider the technology available at the time of its construction.
Immediately after the entrance you can stop to look at Michelangelo’s Pieta, the sculpture of Mary holding the body of Jesus (now behind glass so people can’t get close.) Other sculptures fill every corner of the church. The bodies of several popes lay in state.
Directly under the dome is Bernini’s bronze baldachin. Directly beneath that is the entrance to what we can only imagine are the tunnels and catacombs where countless popes and church figures are buried.
After a couple laps around the church, we wandered outside in hopes of finding the line that we were looking for in the first place. We found our way to familiar walls of the city and followed some signs for the museum. Not surprisingly, the line was went along the entire length of a wall. What was surprising, is that we ended up being right around the corner from the entrance and only had to wait about 20 minutes before being inside.
The Vatican Museum houses fantastic examples of art and historical pieces. Other museums might have pieces of ancient Egyptian jewelry, but the jewelry at Vatican is actually clean and in good shape. Sculptures from the Egyptians and Greeks and Romans fill the halls, and Raphael’s paintings cover entire rooms. Even though it was extremely crowded, it wasn’t a museum to miss.
There are various paths you can take in the museum, but most of them point to the crown jewel at the end – the Sistine Chapel. Another example of what papal orders and artistic genius can accomplish, you could easily spend a day staring at all scenes that cover the walls. The inside was filled with the murmur of the crowd and the constant demands of the guards to be quiet and refrain from pictures.
After leaving the museum, we made our way north of the city walls and toward another food recommendation, Pizzarium. Most of the pizza we’d had in Rome (or everywhere else in Europe) was more or less the same – thin crust with a couple of ingredients. Pizzarium had specialty gourmet pizzas, sold by weight, with eclectic mixes of toppings. We caught them when they only had vegan pizzas ready, so there was no meat or cheese, just different combinations of crusts with fruit and vegetable toppings. We sat on the curb, fighting off the occasional pigeon, and ate what was surprisingly good pizza (despite its lack of meat).
And then we got lost. Not lost like “I have no idea where I am” but lost like “on the map, this road takes us where we need to go, but in reality there’s a giant, impassible hill here.” It took us a while to find our way back to the Vatican city walls which we followed to what we thought should have been a turn to the river and wasn’t. Jenny finally asked (after the Steve gave up trying to navigate (silly men)) some German tourists with a map where we were and we were able to make our way back from there, an hour and a half later… for what should have been a 25 minute walk.
After that we were drained. We went back to the apartment, drank some beer, and went to bed early. The next morning would start another long travel day.