Italy - Day Four, Colosseum, Forum & Rain

Today was our “Enjoy Rome” tour of the Colosseum and Roman Forum, but that wasn’t until 2:00pm. So, despite more rain, we decided to head to the Capitoline Museum. We got off the bus where we thought the museum would be, and walked and wandered, and stopped and checked the map, and walked some more. We did manage to find an old synagogue, but just could not find the Capitoline Museum! (We learned later in the day that the museum was the enormous building on the hill from which we could have watched our aimless trek about in the rain. I think the pouring rain just prohibited us from looking up.)

So, abandoning the museum for now, we found ourselves at the Tibre River which was flowing furiously. We wandered on to Tiberna Island, and came to a small church (which is not hard to do in Rome, where there are more than 900 churches). This was the Church of St. Bartolomeo. It was built in the 10th century, allegedly over a Roman temple honoring a Greek god of healing. The alter currently holds relics from St. Bartholomew the apostle, and the side alters honor martyrs of the 20th and 21st centuries who fought against communism, the Nazis and other conflicts in Europe and Latin America.

After this, we continued on over Tiberna to the other side and found ourselves wandering through some small back alleys. We came to a small deli shop that sold meats, cheeses and pastries, but also offered sandwiches and pizzas and lunch items. We decided to squeeze in with the locals and we shared a piece of pizza before venturing out in the rain again.

After a fairly adventurous hike, which involved a lot of stopping and map-reading, asking police for directions, and hiking up to the front of the Capitoline Museum (finally), we met up with Valentina, our beautiful Italian tour guide, and the other five intrepid tourists, for our “Enjoy Rome” excursion. The tour was really good, and I’m definitely glad we did it for these sites in particular (so much history!).

The Colosseum was built by Emperor Vespasian and inaugurated in 80 AD. It was built over the previous palace of Nero and was intended to be for the Roman people to attend annual 100-day-long celebrations. It seats up to 75,000 people (receives 4 million visitors a year), and has 80 archways allowing quick entry and seating. In its heyday, it had a wooden stage (covered in sand to soak up the blood from gladiators and slaughtered animals - lovely), with trapdoors and an underground network of rooms and cages. It also had a system involving 240 masts to extend an awning over the spectators to shield them from sun and rain.

Next, we all trundled over to the grounds of the Roman Forum, which are really just a large plot of ruins. They are still conducting active excavations and continue to find things, layer after layer. The stones that made up the road we were standing on dated back before 1 AD. It was originally an Etruscan (pre-Roman) burial ground and was developed in the 7th century BC from which it became the center of the Roman Republic, where it remained in use until the 4th century AD. The history surrounding you as you stand here is amazing. We even got to see the site where Julius Caesar was cremated, and Augustus erected a temple around it in 29 BC (the temple was more like a lean-to currently, but it was still impressive).

We walked up in front of the Il Vittoriano. Known by locals as “the wedding cake” it is apparently not well-liked and considered too ostentatious (though in comparison to some of those Baroque churches, I’m not sure how they measure things). It was erected to honor Vittorio Emanuele II, the first king of Italy (who united the north and south into what we know as “Italy” today).

At this point, Valentina told us to be careful crossing the street. Ron and I just rolled our eyes. Yes, traffic in Rome is fast and furious, but unlike Cairo, they will actually stop for pedestrians, especially in crosswalks (we tested it). We wandered back through some side streets and came out at the Trevi Fountain! Yeah!! It definitely was impressive, and crowded! Despite the cold, and intermittent rain, Ron and I shared our first Italian gelato (yum!) and we even threw a coin into the fountain insuring a return trip to Rome (though we’re curious if the Egyptian piaster’s exchange rate will actually get us all the way here).

Our next stop was our old-favorite, the Pantheon. Excitedly this time the doors were open so we were able to actually go in. The current structure dates from 120 AD, however they have found remains of the original building from 27 BC. The dome above measures 43.3 meters in diameter, as well as interior height, and remains the world’s largest masonry vault ever built. The walls of the dome measure 5.9 meters thick at the base, and 1.5 meters thick at the top where there’s a hole measuring 8.7 meters in diameter allowing sun, rain and snow to enter in. (Yes, we sat there and watched the gentle Roman rain come in, which was actually quite peaceful providing you were warm and dry at the time.) The dome has been studied and using modern concrete it’s been determined that they could not replicate it without it collapsing under its own weight. The construction remains an engineering marvel and it’s said that Brunelleschi used it as a model for the Duomo in Florence (more on the ensuing panic attack later).

Our final stop on the tour was at Piazza Navona and the Four Rivers Fountain. At this point, Ron took the opportunity to pop into St. Teresa in Agony to get tickets for a benefit concert they were giving the following evening. While he did this, I wandered around and took photographs. At one point, as I was clicking away, a man approached me and held up his little finger, trying to get me to do the same. I smiled, but ignored his request and kept taking pictures. He tried again, looking ever so nice, albeit a little odd holding up his pinky like he was the Queen drinking a “cuppa.” I brushed by him, and didn’t think anything of it until later that evening when Ron handed me one of the free Rome magazines and told me to read about a local scam. Apparently men come up to women and girls asking them to hold out their pinky. If they do, then the man ties a cute little bow around it with a piece of string, and then within seconds, literally the article said seconds, they have a braided bracelet tied firmly around your wrist. As cute as it is, they are suddenly demanding money, sometimes 10-20 Euros, for the bracelet that you now cannot remove from your wrist (unless you carry a Swiss Army knife, which most of us avoid on trips involving airlines). So I’m quite glad that my inner caution kept me safe. But in general I think it’s a good thing to be wary of strange men approaching you with their pinkies in the air.

We hopped on the bus back to the hotel, where we warmed up, dried off and rested a bit before heading out to dinner back at Andrea’s, which we loved our first night. Ron had two glasses of the house red wine, which were much stronger than he had expected. So by the time we were walking back to the room, his burgeoning Italian had slipped back to basics and complaining about the wooden chairs at dinner, he muttered, “Butt hurto”. And I added, “Belly fullo.” At the hotel, he was futtering about by the elevator, so I muttered, “Follow the sound of my voice” in my baritone impression to get him to come to me, and as he came around the corner he said, “Did you hear that man?” Time for bed, dear.