Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Adventures in Italy, Part Three: Rome

Even though I had begged pleaded nagged wanted to travel to Italy for years before we actually went, I never really thought I would find myself standing in front of the Colosseum. No matter where you have traveled and what you have seen, it is simply awe-inspiring. The Colosseum was built in 70 A.D., and was initially covered entirely in white marble. Only 60% of it remains today--but that isn't because of deterioration. It's because the Romans were forced to loot it for the marble and bronze to make weapons and for building supplies. Otherwise, there a good chance the structure would still be completely in tact (save for some earthquake damage). How's that for amazing?

Our tour group in front of the Colosseum.

That was our first stop in Rome (after an al fresco lunch including a Caprese salad with the freshest mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil I've ever put in my mouth along with some delicious homemade pasta), and it was an impressive introduction to the city. Rome is an interesting juxtaposition of a modern city, full of highways, cars, and traffic right alongside ancient ruins from the first century. You really have to see it to believe it.

Historians estimate that the Colosseum could hold as many as 87,000 spectators, who came to watch plays, battle reenactments, and gladiator fights. The original stage is gone now, but it was made of a wooden floor covered by sand (the Latin word for sand is harena which is how we got the word "arena"). The stage covered an elaborate underground structure called the hypogeum which is still there today. This is the area where gladiators and animals were held before contests began. Eighty vertical shafts provided instant access to the arena for caged animals and scenery pieces; there were also larger hinged platforms that provided access for elephants and other large animals. Sounds like one heck of a show.

A portion of the stage has been rebuilt. I wanted to tap dance on it, but apparently, that is frowned upon.

Here is an up close view of the passageways under the arena floor
used to store props, animals, actors and gladiators.

The next day, we were up bright and early to head to the Vatican to see St. Peter's Basilica. The Vatican is its own city-state, which makes it the smallest country in the world (it's 1/8 the size of Central Park). We arrived early enough to see St. Peter's Square virtually empty, which is amazing in and of itself when you see the rows and rows of chairs that will accommodate 250,000 faithful for mass.

St. Peter's Square and the basilica, built over the site believed to be the tomb of St. Peter.

St. Peter's basilica is 18,000 square feet of the most beautiful mosaic portraits, sculptures, and carved ceilings I have ever seen. Everything inside the basilica is designed to last forever--so that it can never be damaged by fire or deterioration--which is the reason that all of the stunning artwork is made completely of mosaic tile. Even though the interior was crowded the day we visited, people seem to shrink when you are inside, because of the scale of everything that makes up the massive building. 

Michelangelo's Pieta sculpture of Mary holding the body of Jesus, inside St. Peter's Basilica.

Another mind-boggling thing we discovered on our tour of St. Peter's is that there are 100 tombs underneath the basilica. When a Pope dies, they are preserved with paraffin and buried below the church; if they are sainted, their body is moved and displayed inside the basilica:

The tomb of a sainted Pope, preserved and wearing a paraffin mask. A little unexpected, to say the least!

The Swiss guard has been keeping watch at St. Peter's for over 500 years.

After leaving the Vatican City, we stopped for lunch in one of Rome's popular piazzas and enjoyed a seafood pizza and a ham and ricotta calzone that was almost life-changing, while sitting in front of the Fountain of the Four Rivers, one of Rome's famous landmarks. Then we walked a few blocks over and found ourselves in front of the massive Pantheon.

Rebuilt in 126 A.D., the Pantheon is one of ancient Rome's best preserved buildings.

The Pantheon has been in continuous use since it was built, and is now a church. Inside are the tombs of the artist Raphael, Queen Margherita (yes, the one with the pizza named after her, and the first king of Italy. 

The oculus (eye to the heavens) inside the Pantheon acts as a kind of sundial
and also heats and cools the building.

Leaving the Pantheon, there are actors outside dressed as Roman gladiators. Tour guides will tell you to avoid this tacky tourist trap, but since when have we ever found a touristy gimmick that we didn't like? Of course we stopped for a photo (or five).

The actual cost was around 4 Euros, but I think the photo is priceless.

We continued our walk and made our way to the famous Trevi fountain,which sadly, was undergoing restoration. They say if you throw a coin into the fountain, you will return to Rome one day. I had to settle for throwing mine onto the sidewalk in front of the fountain, but I'm sure that counts, right?

The Trevi fountain, which I'm sure is even more impressive without the scaffolding.

The week before our trip, we set the tone for Italy by watching the movie Roman Holiday. In it, Audrey Hepburn plays a princess who is exhausted by her daily responsibilities, so she runs away and winds up spending two days touring Rome with Gregory Peck. One of the most well-known scenes from the movie is when he takes her to the Boca de Veritas, or Mouth of Truth. It is a large stone drain cover carved to look like a face, and superstition says that you put your hand inside the mouth, and if you tell a lie, your hand will be severed.

Here's the scene from Roman Holiday at the Mouth of Truth.

We walked away with all our hands, I promise. Clean living!

There are so many incredible things to see in Rome, I wish we could have stayed one more day. We did also manage time to see the Spanish Steps, and visited the church of Santa Croce (the Holy Cross) where we saw what is believed to be a piece of the cross Jesus was crucified on, as well as two thorns from the crown of thorns, and a nail used in the crucifixion. 

Our final evening in Rome, our group got an exclusive private tour of the Vatican museum and the Sistine Chapel. The Vatican museum typically has 25,000 visitors a day, so to experience it in a private group of only 24 people was absolutely surreal. I can't imagine trying to see the ornate ceilings of the Sistine Chapel with crowds filling the room; luckily, we were able to spend a quiet evening taking in the breathtaking beauty that Michelangelo spent four years painting.

Highlights of Rome: The Colosseum, Pantheon, and Vatican City, including St. Peter's Basilica and the Sistine Chapel.

Pros: Unbelievable ancient ruins, walking in the footsteps of Roman history, seeing one of the new seven wonders of the world (the Colosseum was named to the list in 2007).

Cons: Aside from having trouble catching a taxi (Rome can be exhausting!), the only negative was that we felt we didn't have enough time to see everything that the city has to offer. We would love to have visited the catacombs, the Cripta Capuccini or Bone Church, the Forum, and the Holy Stairs--stairs from Pontias Pilate's palace that Jesus climbed to meet his fate. I hope that, along with the coin we threw in/at/around the Trevi fountain, means there will be a return trip!

Overall rating: A+. I am still trying to process all that we were able to see and do, from the architecture to the history to the incredible art. 

Our adventures in Venice, Florence, and Rome were the trip of a lifetime. Writing these posts has been a fun way to revisit everything that we experienced--just don't expect this to be the last time I talk about the trip, okay? And as for you, Italy, here's hoping to a presto (see you soon)!

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