10. The Pagan Rome bounces back: I paid the city tax first thing in the morning, some €12 for 3 nights I suppose.
‘Ciao! (Hello!)’, said the old woman. ‘Tu sono alzati presto oggi! (You’re up early today!)’
‘Sì sì, I have a long day ahead of me. The city tax is due. Here, is it €4 per night?’, I asked her (“Sì and Ciao” were the only words I knew in Italian).
‘No, sir. That’s €3.5 per night, and yours would be €10.5 in all’, said the lady checking the database on her desktop.
‘Of course. I just need some fresh towels in room number 104. As I’ll be leaving in 30 minutes, I’d also like to have my breakfast immediately’
‘Sure’, said the lady.
Early that morning, after studying my itinerary, I made a note of everything that happened on the previous day before it eluded my memory. Now that my head was clear, I was ready for another adventure.
After a quick breakfast, I came out onto the Via Marghera street at 7 o’clock in the morning (pretty early by Roman standards). The Colosseo or the Colosseum, as it is commonly known, was only 3 Metro stops south-west of my current location. I had two options: I could either walk some 300 metres to the Roma Termini Metro to my left or walk some half a kilometre north-east to the Castro Pretorio Metro station to my right; I took the longer route (As I’ve already mentioned in my previous post, walking is a pleasant experience in Rome). I arrived at the Metro station on Viale Castro Pretorio street at 7:20am. The Metro line B connects the north-east to the south-west of the city passing through the Termini station of course.
No sooner had I arrived at the station than the train came. Within 10 minutes, I was in front of Rome’s most enduring monument. I was humbled by the incredibly big structure standing grandly in front of me. Just when I reached into my bag to pull out my headphones, I was suddenly nudged by a security guard.
‘Mi dispiace (I’m sorry)’, said the man running towards the monument and disappeared before I could realise. Following in his footsteps, I reached the base of the monument (just a few feet away from where I was standing). ‘Something must have gone wrong with him’, I thought. Suddenly, at the entrance, there was a bit of commotion and the security guards were rushing to the spot. It seems that a South African tourist was caught graffiting his name on the outer stone walls of the Colosseum; he was taken over to the police custody immediately after authorities seized his passport and ID proofs.
There had been a similar case a few years ago: a 15-year-old girl bagged a brick from the ancient monument which had lain there for 2000 years (the brick was placed there when the amphitheatre was built). After that, the authorities have banned any kind of bags inside the Colosseum lest they should be blamed for their indiscretion. and the security checks are often rigorous.
The attraction was supposed to open to the public at 8:30am and I was 20 minutes early. The lines at the Colosseum are usually long and waiting will easily cost you a few extra hours of your precious time. The long line had gone snaking into the horizon even at this early hour. So, I bought the ticket online (of course, I had to shell out a few extra quid). Even after purchasing the ticket ahead of time, I had to pass through the security and that was long to my reckoning; long enough to last at least 30 minutes, I thought, looking at the pace at which it was moving. After producing my printed ticket and the usual security checks, I stepped into the 2000-year-old monument. Soon, I was confronted with huge oversized corridors running along the perimeter of the monument (with 3 such storeys stacked on top of this in perfect alignment.)
Unexpectedly, I met John and Helena who were also touring the Colosseum on the same day (they were the British couple I talked about in my first blog post; I met them for the first time in the Leonardo express on my way from the Airport).
‘Hello!’, said John gleaming with bewilderment and delight. ‘Welcome welcome. What a surprise! umm….what is your name again?’
‘Badari’, said I gleefully and with great satisfaction.
‘Come on in, Badari. Have you got your ticket?’, said John.
‘Yeah, I bought a combo ticket, to the Colosseo and the Palatine hill’, I said.
‘A fine job! Shall we jog along?’ said John
And I went with them for the rest of my journey in and around the Roman ruins.
‘So how’re you finding Rome?’, asked Helena trying to catch up, ‘Is it to your liking?’.
‘So far so good. In fact, my visit to the Vatican has been more than satisfactory.’, I said. ‘Is this your first time here?’
‘No, we’ve been here twice before this,’ said Helena.
Meanwhile, John opened a guidebook from his backpack. ‘Rick Steves’ Pocket Rome’.
‘Not again, John! you’ve read that book a hundred times’, said Helena. ‘Tell me something new’. ‘John’s mad about the Romans. So much so that his personal library is littered with books, DVDs, and all; he’s an ideal Roman born in the Christian era’.
‘Don’t mind her, Badari. She’s old’, whispered John. ‘many things have changed here since our last visit. Perhaps for the sake of restoration and this guide is almost redundant now. I’m only looking for information.’ I was indeed happy to share a common interest with a fellow traveller.
As we reached the arena inside, John began delivering his commentary.
‘Did you know that this structure was originally called Flavian amphitheatre as it was built by the emperors of the Flavian dynasty. Over time, it acquired its name from the colossal statue of Nero just outside the stadium. Imagine 50,000 people roaring from the stands as the gladiators killed one another and beasts alike in the arena down below’, described John.
Nodding my head, I followed the old man; I had but little part in the conversation. Helena, however, escaped what she thought to be a nonsensical talk. She wandered on the upper stands of the monument as we were touring the lower ones.
‘If you see the exterior of this amphitheatre, you will notice that only about a third of the original Colosseum remains.’, said John. ‘This arena has witnessed thousands of bloody battles. Some 700,000 contestants and hundreds of lions, elephants, hippos, and many other animals were killed.
The man was over-enthusiastic; he spoke as if he was living in the first century Rome and actually witnessed the games first-hand. I had no regrets, for this person actually replaced a paid guide. I did not need my audio-guide either.
‘The Romans,’, read out John ‘unlike the Greeks, were great engineers and not artists. With over 250 odd amphitheatres in the Roman empire, the Colosseum was the greatest man-made monument of the ancient world. They also incorporated the Greeks’ artistic touch on the exterior of the 3rd storey (‘after all, they both shared the same pantheon’, I thought). Back in the days, the whole structure was white in colour with monumental statues of Greek and Roman gods (Zeus, Venus, Heracles, Aphrodite among others) on the pillars encircling the structure. The top had wooden beams that sheltered the 50,000+ spectators inside the Colosseum’.
He talked about its construction, its use in the ancient past, early mediaeval age, until its modern usage. Everything in just under 3 hours. Although I was a Roman fanatic myself, I found that his role in this matter was pivotal in that his knowledge was vast when compared to my own. As our conversation was too long to record in this blog post, I have omitted the latter part of it. We could not visit the underground and the third ring as they were closed for restoration.
Coming out of the amphitheatre was a tough job. It was so humongous and ancient that it is held in deep admiration by all its visitors and leavetaking becomes a difficult task. The sheer size of the Colosseum is breathtaking even in our era of domed stadiums. Although I was in a rush, the British couple had enough time and money to spend on one attraction. So, they stayed back in the Colosseum until lunchtime (perhaps because of John’s refusal to leave). After the mandatory goodbye session, I left for the Roman Forum directing them to join me at 4pm near the Septimius Severus Arch on the other side of the Roman Forum that led to the Capitoline Hill.
11. The Roman Forum: It was time to pause the day’s trek for lunch. Not far from the Metro station I stumbled upon a restaurant called Hostaria Al Gladiatore and the lunch was about average. A few slices of Cipolla Pomodoro (a pizza) and an apple that I had brought with me made the perfect combination. Unless you’re a fan of Italian foods, it is difficult to get accustomed to Italian cuisines, especially if you’re a vegetarian. The lunch was meagre and my journey had many miles to go.
A few feet from the restaurant lies the Roman Forum (to the west of the Arch of Constantine). At 2 o’clock, on my way to the Roman Forum, I came across the famous Arch of Constantine to the south-west of the enormous stadium. Erected in 315AD by Constantine – the first Christian emperor – it is the largest and the last of all the triumphal arches. Heavily decorated collages on all sides of the arch depict the emperor’s victory. The inscription on the southern side of the attic reads the emperor’s greatness and his triumph over the tyrant and his followers.
‘Get ready for a long walk under the searing sun’, I told myself. Although the next part of the journey was short (less than a few kilometres), the various pitstops in between tired me out. To the west of the Colosseum is Via Sacra the ascending pathway that leads to the Roman Forum. The first among the many attractions spread across the Forum is the Arch of Titus; built to commemorate the victory of the Roman legions over the Jewish rebels in Israel, this arch marks the victory of Titus over the Jewish community. In fact, he brought home 50,000 Jewish slaves who were forced to build the arch. From the Arch of Titus, the ground ahead looked like a rubble littered landscape. This was the centre of ancient Rome said the guide. Also visible from the Arch was the domed tower of the Capitoline hill on the far side of the Forum.
Just a few feet ahead was the Forum’s biggest building: The Basilica of Constantine or the Basilica of Maxentius. At its peak, the basilica was as big as a football pitch. With 3 huge arched shelters, this was a meeting place; often the Roman hall of justice. Back in the old days, there must’ve been an enormous statue of emperor Constantine sitting on his throne right in front of these arches.
Strolling deeper into the Forum along the Via Sacra, I was at the heart of the Roman Imperialism. This area was the centre of the Roman empire. With the Capitoline hill to the north-west, Flavian amphitheatre to the east, Caesar’s temple to the south-east and the Palatine hill to the south-west: that day, I walked on the very pathway which was actually walked upon by Caesar Augustus 2000 years ago. Surrounded by temples and triumphal arches, this area was exactly where the abandoned twins Romulus and Remus were fostered by the she-wolf. The legend has it that 2700 years ago, some 700 years before the birth of Rome’s first emperor Augustus, the very foundations of the city was laid by the twin brothers Romulus and Remus. I’d made it at last! I was at the epicentre of the pagan West. The place that gave birth to the first organised civilisation which lasted for over a thousand years.
Just when I was meddling with my smartphone, John came from behind the Tempio di Cesare (Caesar’s Temple). ‘Are you done yet?’, asked John smiling at me.
‘I missed your commentary for 4 hours’, I said laughing at once.
– Immortal Chiron