Saturday, June 16th: Colosseum and Vatican
We started our day with a cool breeze, brilliant sunshine and a breakfast on the rooftop of our hotel. They provide a nice spread with yogurt, cereal, pastries, fruit, eggs, bacon, juice, cappuccino and tea. Fueled and out the door by 8am to meet our guide for the day. We booked a private tour of the Colosseum and Vatican in order to skip the lines that can easily be 3+hrs long. We used a tour company called Miles & Miles for this tour as well as our airport transport, and will be using them for a half-day tour of the city, transport to Pompeii with tour and final drop to our hotel in Sorrento. They have offices in several different cities and offer pretty good rates for clean fleet of vans, knowledgeable staff and simplistic booking. The only downside is they require you provide a credit card to hold your booking, but they request payment in cash at the time of service.
We took a quick 15 minute walk to the Forum Hotel, passing the Forum and the Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II. The locals call it the Wedding Cake and speak of it with disrespect because it doesn’t fit with the look and feel of the city. It is HUGE. The horse in the front of the building is so large that 23 men ate dinner at a table inside the belly of the horse before the closed up the statue when it was built in 1885. She showed us the picture.
We met our guide for the day, Alessandra. She was born and reared in Rome, but can’t technically call herself Roman because to be considered a true Roman you must be able to prove 7 generations of Roman heritage. She can only prove 2!
She filled our heads with fact after fact of Roman history with dates and details as we made our way to the Colosseum. She was playful and tried to engage the kids when their faces glazed over and made the walk feel short. The lines wrapped around the Colosseum even by 8:45a, but fortunately we were able to skip the lines with our pre-purchased tickets. I can’t recommend this enough.
Alessandra had this fantastic book showing how things would have looked in their original state. It really helped all of us visualize.
The Emperor Vespasian commissioned the construction of the Colosseum as a way to give back to the people of Rome to make up for high taxes from the previous bad and greedy Emperor Nero. The Colosseum was constructed out of melted down and recycled materials from Nero’s palace. It took only 8 years to build thanks to the many slave workers. So many of the materials – marble, iron, bronze- from the Colosseum were torn out and reused to forge weapons or to build the Vatican when Christianity took hold in Rome. Are we seeing a pattern yet? Everything was green in Rome – renew, reuse recycle! It wasn’t until the last 200 years that anyone recognized the importance of the ancient artifacts, so people took stones from buildings and made new buildings; they took stones from roads to build walls, they took benches from the Circus Maximus and put them in their gardens and so on and so forth.
Ancient Rome was also efficient. There are 80 entrances to the Colosseum allowing the facility to fill and empty all 80K patrons in 15 minutes with ease. Patrons were issued a stone ticket with a series of numbers corresponding to a gate, level and seat number. The higher your level, the lower your status. Women and slaves were allowed to attend, but only on the upper most 5th level. Fortunately, there was a canvas retractable roof to protect them from the scorching sun, but unfortunately, if they were blind like me, then they would not be able to see a thing. One entrance is wider than the rest and that one was solely used by the Emperor and his family. Directly opposite from the Emperor’s gate, the gladiators entered on foot and hopefully exited on foot. The floor of the arena was wooden, covered with sand to soak up the blood and filled with 60 trap doors allowing the starved and tortured wild animals access to the gladiators. The entire place was brilliantly engineered by an unknown Greek architect. The Greeks were first with everything and the Romans copied or adopted their existing practices for their own.
From the Colosseum, we took a taxi over to the Vatican and Alessandra spoke of sites as we passed by. The trouble with Rome is that everywhere you look there is a piece of history with a story. We could spend our entire trip here and still just scratch the surface. Not to mention our brains can only hold so much before they start to shut down.
Vatican City is in fact the smallest country in the world. It has its own police, postal service, residences, stores, restaurants, utilities – everything needed to be self-sufficient. You must work for the Vatican to live there, but once you do it is a tax-free existence. There is a wall completely encompassing the entire country, but there are points where you can actually be standing in two countries at once: Italy and Vatican City.
The Vatican also had lines wrapped around the outer walls at 10:30a and Alessandra said that we would easily wait 3hrs there. The entrance was jam-packed with people and there would be no escaping them for the entire tour. There is quite a lot to see at the Vatican, but we tried to hit the highlights: Pinecone courtyard, Egyptian Mummy, Imperial Marble Tombs, Trompe L’oeil ceilings, marble statues, hall of tapestries, hall of maps, Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s (took them 126 years to build St. Peter’s!), Pieta, Bronze alter. The big take away, is that the Popes throughout history were kings and like kings they wanted to surround themselves with beautiful items or have things created in their name to be remembered by long after they were gone. They either commissioned artists to create them or commissioned people to “procure” what they wanted. So, the Vatican and St Peter’s house an impressive collection.
The Map Room was my favorite. There were so many people everywhere, so it was difficult to get any decent pictures.
We wrapped up about 2pm and said goodbye to Alessandra before hopping in a cab back to the hotel where we all immediately fell asleep until 6:15p! Good thing everyone eats late here. We wondered around the cobbled stone streets and stumbled across the Pantheon. Seriously, there is something amazing around every corner here. We met up with our friends for a drink before heading to dinner. Despite our nap, we were all still exhausted or jetlagged and decided to call it a night after yet another stop for gelato. A lot-o-gelat-o in our worlds just now, and I see no end in site on that front.
Up next…a driving tour of Rome – including 2 stops dedicated to ancient bones.