No trip to Rome is complete without seeing the Colosseum. Like any visitor I was eager to stand inside a structure that is world famous, has appeared in movies, and allows you to easily visualize the events that took place there thousands of years ago. Since I was rather lethargic in my first two days in terms of sightseeing, I was now determined to cram as much in as possible before moving on to my next city. Of course, in my typical fashion, I didn’t get out of the door until mid afternoon!
To avoid the long line at the Colosseum, I went to the entrance of the Roman Forum to buy my tickets. They let you buy one ticket for all three sights: The Colosseum, The Roman Forum, and Palantine Hill. I researched this in advance, which is invaluable in order to sightsee without wasting hours standing in lines. ALWAYS research how to get your tickets rather than just showing up. Even though my trip is all about “winging it”, I sill research tickets because standing in line with a bunch of sweaty tourists is as tolerable to me as swimming in a sewer.
Since I was already standing in front of it, I decided to explore the Roman Forum first. I had downloaded the Rick Steves Audio Tour Guide for my iPod in advance (Rick Steves is a traveler’s god) so I plugged in my headphones and followed his directions and quirky commentary. The Forum presents itself as a haphazard jumble of ruins. Without a proper guide, you’d have no idea what you’re looking at. It’s all about using your imagination, visualizing what this extensive public space must have looked like in its prime. Only then will you truly be able to appreciate it. Otherwise it simply looks like an ancient dump.
It was hot and humid under the Roman sun with practically no shade in the Forum. I found it interesting that Rome lets tourists trounce all over its ruins and finger its ancient art. For example, at the Vatican, tourists had run amok with their cameras, flashing, and touching. No one stopped them. Same at the Forum. I wondered if that was just the way Italy operated. Maybe Italy figures that since these works and ruins survived thousands of years of wars, destruction, and mistreatment, what’s a little manhandling from tourists going to do?
After an hour of sweltering in the Forum and imagining its former glory, I headed up Palatine Hill, supposedly the posh place for ancient Romans to live. It’s like the Bradford of Haverhill. Palantine Hill wasn’t as interesting for me. I didn’t have Rick Steves in my ear to tell me what to look for and most of the area was scorched and dusty from lack of rain with the hot summer sun firing down all day.
It was near 5:30pm and I knew that the Colosseum closed an hour before sunset. I had hoped to time my visit so I would be able to see the giant amphitheater at sunset and then lit up at night. I glided right through the entrance –bypassing the moderate line with my combo ticket– and stepped through a towering arch to look out over the oval arena. I’m sure the effect is the same for all visitors. “Wow.” Another site at which using your imagination significantly improves your experience, the Colosseum is an unsettling reminder that before football, U2, and TV, people entertained themselves by watching others get mutilated. As I sat on the steps of an old stairwell to the upper level, I tried to compare today’s current options for entertainment with those that took place thousands of years ago at the Colosseum. I don’t think too much has actually changed; instead of live violence and murder, we have pre-recorded violence and murder. The biggest difference is we can now watch the same actors die over and over again.
The best part of visiting the Colosseum in the evening was that the crowds and the temperatures were much more manageable. As I wandered the upper level, I was able to take pictures without a single tourist in view. It was strangely calming to have a site all for yourself. I continued to sit and contemplate all sorts of things as the sun sank lower, casting interesting shadows throughout the stadium. I did some people watching, relaxing, and imagining until finally an announcement echoed throughout the Colosseum that it was closing time –everyone must leave. I took my time toward the exit, trying to snap any last pictures worth capturing. The Colosseum employees had to get pushy with people since everyone had the same inclination as me, so we all essentially got kicked out.
I left the Colosseum to find its exterior brilliantly lit up with the setting sun. After enjoying that view, I decided to look for a place to have dinner. I wandered around the area until I found a restaurant on a side street with a fabulous patio view of the Colosseum. I ordered speaking as much Italian as I could manage, and lounged at the table while enjoying a carafe of white wine, salad, bread, and thick, saucy pasta. In the middle of my dinner, a group of six Italian men, who were obviously gay –rainbow flags were hanging overhead in the adjacent restaurant– sat in front of me and offered me delightful entertainment as they heckled the restaurant owner, who must have been a friend. They spoke slow enough at times so I could make out a few words and attempt to decipher what they were saying. They paid little notice of me and went about their business of being sassy, demanding, and dissatisfied with the service. Once guy just ditched the menus in the potted plant he was sitting next to. A gorgeous sunset emanated from behind the Colosseum as I finished my last sip of wine. I figured out how to pay the bill and started my journey home just as twilight faded to night.
On the way back I stopped for gelato at what seemed like a very friendly place. After washing my hands inside and getting water on my dress in a manner that looked like I peed myself –someone pointed and said, “pee-pee”– I ordered a mint and chocolate gelato. One of the older waiters recognized that I had an American accent and started chatting with me since he had lived in Chicago and Philadelphia for eight years. He asked me to have a seat so I could practice my Italian and he could practice his English when he wasn’t busy, so I figured it would be another great improvised opportunity to enjoy the culture of Rome. I even got a free slushy out of it. After an on-and-off twenty-minute chat, and a vague invitation to stop by the next day to go dancing, I finally left for my B&B.
As always, I stayed up late trying to plan the following day. I just couldn’t seem to get off East Coast American time. There were two more art galleries I wanted to visit on my last full day in Rome, The Borghese Gallery and The Capitoline Museum. Since I was just in the area of the Colosseum and Forum that day, where the Capitoline is located, I decided that the Borghese was the best choice. It was close to my B&B and is touted at the best art museum in Rome, also one of the top in Italy. Unfortunately, it is a pain in the ass to get into. The Borghese only lets a limited number of people in at a time and you practically have to reserve days in advance. You also must select a particular 2 hour time slot for your visit. Online, it was sold out for the day I wanted, but Marco, my B&B owner, suggested I just show up, smile, and hope they let me in.
I navigated to the Borghese using my phone GPS and offline map combo –as usual— but I underestimated how long of a walk it was. Scrambling to the ticket office just before the 1:00 start time, I explained my attempt to buy the one ticket online. The lady kindly gave me the one ticket with no questions asked. At this museum you have to check your bags, and the line was quite long. An impatient Jewish couple stood behind me; the old-ish woman was sharing criticisms with her knodding husband at the variety of lines people had to stand in. (Imagine your favorite New York Jewish accent) “Why don’t they just put everything together, you know, get your ticket, check your bags, get the audio thingy? This is crazy. First you stand in one line for fifteen minutes, then another line for ten minutes. Aren’t these people smart enough to consolidate?” I gave her an outraged shake of my head in agreement.
Okay, the Borghese Museum is awesome! It has some unworldly sculptures that blow you away with their realistic, dramatic poses. I wish they let me take pictures, but even still, I should have brought my sketchbook.
I was so enthralled by the Bernini sculptures on the first floor that I didn’t leave enough time in the 2 hour slot to see the paintings on the second floor. Security was trying to escort me to the door. “Quick! Quick!” I begged, making a circle with my finger and sporting my best innocent face. Yet another benefit to traveling alone, security let me stay past my timeslot and explore at my leisure. I was in the zone at the Borghese. They had an excellent audio guide that I purchased and a brilliant layout to all of their rooms. Definitely my favorite art museum experience!
For the rest of the day, I wandered Rome again, although this time with a general plan. I stopped by a couple of churches and piazzas to see their paintings and sculptures, had a scrumptious lunch, finally explored the interior of the amazing Pantheon, which had been closed every time I strolled by, then spent the night appreciating the roof deck of my B&B with a glass of wine. I seriously loved Rome!
Next on the blog agenda: Major disappointment in Florence –I can’t believe it myself!