Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Italy - The Colosseum, Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum

Inside the Colosseum
Monday morning, our first full day in Rome, started with breakfast in our room.  Can't beat that!  The places we stayed at while in Italy were some of the most unique we have ever experienced.  We didn’t seek unique out on purpose.  It just sort of happened.  Our main concerns when searching for a place to stay had been location (we wanted to walk to most of what we would see and do), size (needed to sleep four people in one room), price (we were in Italy for two weeks so we needed to watch the spending), and last but not least, it needed to be a decent place.  The hotel in Rome fit the bill and definitely fell into the unique category as well.  Remember, this use to be a convent which when converted it into a hotel makes for some rather unique rooms.  While the hotel itself was small (maybe four or five rooms total), our room was huge,

Mom and dad's side of the room - gotta love a king size bed!
with an almost too high to be comfortable ceiling and some strange nooks and crannies, and included a small kitchenette area and little terrace.  

The little kitchenette and the doors that led out to the terrace.
 I would not describe it as cozy, but it was eclectic, very clean and the beds were comfortable.  

Ellie and Leah's side of the room.
And an added bonus was that every morning promptly at 8:00 am there was a light knock on the door as the hotel staff delivered a delightful breakfast of fresh pastries (oh those sweet croissants were delish), sweet breads, yogurt, little toasts with an assortment of jams and Nutella, fruit, orange juice, and last but certainly not least, two frothy cups of cappuccino. 

After breakfast, we headed out the door and down the street.  

We passed this man using his windowsill as his desk and who can blame him when such a beautiful city with such beautiful weather are right outside his front door.

And this woman getting a café opened up for the day to welcome all those hungry and thirsty tourists and locals.  This is why we like to walk as much as we can when we visit new cities, to catch glimpses here and there of local life going on around us because after all, not everyone in Rome is on vacation.

Today's destination – the Colosseum and it’s lesser known sister properties, the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill.  The Colosseum wasn’t far from our hotel so it didn’t take long to walk there, but that wasn’t actually our first destination.  We were first heading to Palatine Hill.   

What is Palatine Hill you ask?  Good question because before I visited Rome, I didn’t know what it was either, so before I go any further, let me explain a little about the ancient Roman buildings and ruins that you can visit in Rome. 

A view of the Colosseum from Palatine Hill.
By far, the most well-known and recognizable of the Roman remains is the Colosseum, which was built around 2000 years ago to hold gladiator and other types of shows, public executions, etc. (let's not get into the gory details), but there are two other properties that are also credited to the Roman Empire that sit adjacent to the great Colosseum:  (1) the Roman Forum which was basically like the town center with government buildings, temples and other religious type structures, shops and marketplaces, etc.; 

A view of part of the Roman Forum from Palatine Hill.
and (2) Palatine Hill which is the center-most of the seven hills of Rome and one of the most ancient sites in the city with evidence that people lived there going back to 1,000 BC.  This was also the location of homes for several emperors during the Roman Empire era.  

Look at these beautiful statues we saw inside Palatine Hill.
One ticket gets you into all three sites.  By the time we reached the Colosseum, as we had been warned by our travel book and the internet, the line to get in was very long because it is the most popular destination of the three.  But, we had found out, you can also get tickets at Palatine Hill and usually, there is no line there because many people and tourist groups skip it.  We headed to Palatine Hill first and the information we had received was spot on.  No line and we were inside Palatine Hill within seconds.  

It would take us the entire day to tour all three properties.  The shear size of some of what the Roman’s built 2000+ years ago is amazing, and even though these sites and buildings have been ravaged over the many years by looters, earthquakes and mother nature, walking through the sites you still get an overwhelming feeling for what these buildings and public areas must have looked like back in their day.
The great city of Rome started on Palatine Hill.  

Many of the remains you see today on Palatine Hill were once grand houses for the aristocrats, including one that is believed to be the birthplace of Augustus, the first Roman Emperor.   

It’s quiet and peaceful up here on this Hill even though you are still in the city.  

Much but not all of it is in ruin, but it still looks like a postcard in every direction you turn.   

The grounds are beautiful, full of the majestic umbrella pines we would see all over Italy.   

No wonder the aristocrats chose this site for their residence because from up on Palatine Hill, you can look down into what was once the great center of city life, the Roman Forum. 

Another view from Palatine Hill of the Roman Forum with the Colosseum in the background.

It took us all morning to explore Palatine Hill (it’s huge).  We were hungry and needed to refuel before taking on the other two gigantic Roman sites so we headed down the street and found a narrow little shop selling pizza by the slice.   

Don't bother me with a picture.  I'm eating lunch.
There was room for about eight people to sit and lucky for us, we scored half of those seats so we could enjoy our pizza while resting our already tired feet. 

We somehow got pulled into a gelato shop on the way back to the Colosseum.  Darn those gelato shops!

After lunch we headed to the Colosseum, which is quite a sight to behold from the outside, so we all were excited to get inside and see what it looked like from there and again, I can’t think of any better word to describe it but WOW!   

The Romans really knew how to do big and extravagant.  No wonder this place shows up on the list of the New 7 Wonders of the World.   It's a bit strange walking into this great stadium because in many respects, it feels just like walking into an NFL stadium back in the states today - that same sort of "Man this place is huge and I am so very small but there is something really exciting about to take place here" sort of feel.  

Looking out from inside the Colosseum.
The entire structure was originally covered in marble, most of which has been plundered and reused in other structures around the city of Rome.  There are still signs of the great architectural work this Colosseum was though, such as the marble pillar pictured below that now lays on it's side.  Leah found it to be a good place to rest her head.

The Colosseum held between 50,000 and 80,000 spectators, and as I mentioned early, staged various types of grand shows from the reenactment of great battles to dramas based on mythology, but the most well-known events to occur here are no doubt the gladiator showdowns.  

What you see above, the labyrinth looking structure in the bottom half of the picture, is called the hypogeum and was actually the backstage so to speak for the shows that took place inside this mighty stadium.   Back in the day, the hypogeum was covered by a gigantic wooden floor, which intern was covered in sand.  This was one colossal stage.  Why was it covered in sand?  Well, because it absorbs blood and is easy to clean up, or so we heard.  I have to be honest.  I had a lump in my throat as we were touring the Colosseum because some, and maybe much, of what actually took place here was not pretty.  It’s hard to comprehend that watching gladiators hunt down animals and kill them inside an arena was a great spectator sport, but given the fact that this place is so big, it must have been.  Or how about the fact that they hunted each other down.  Even better, right?   Or what about the slaves and criminals, who often times were probably convicted of fairly petty crimes, who were placed inside the arena to fight it out with gladiators, each other or wild animals.  See why I had a lump in my throat?  

Despite what took place here, the engineering behind this structure is quite remarkable.  The hypogeum below the great stage floor was where all the gladiators, animals and their keepers, stage sets, behind the scene staff, etc., hung out and got ready for their performance or contest.  Eighty vertical shafts in the hypogeum were used to hoist sets, animals and people up onto the stage floor.  There were even some very large hinged platforms that were used to hoist elephants and other unusually large pieces onto the stage.  Several tunnels connected the hypogeum to outside areas of the Colosseum and were used to bring animals, performers, and sets into the staging area.   There is no denying the architectural and engineering brilliance the Roman’s put on display with the Colosseum.  And the shows here must have been quite spectacular, if you had the stomach for them that is.

It was now midafternoon and we still had the Roman Forum to explore.  It sits right next to the Colosseum so we didn’t have far to go.  It’s a beautiful walk and maybe not all that different than it was for the Roman’s 2000 years ago with great marble columns towering overhead and the Colosseum in the background.  I'm sure there were vendors selling their goods outside the Colosseum, just as there are today, although what they were selling was very different (if I never see a selfie stick again, I will be a happy, happy person). 

As mentioned early, the Roman Forum was basically the center of city life back during the Roman Empire and covers a very large area.   

Much of what you walk through today is just the ruins of the great city center, but as with Palatine Hill and the Colosseum, the ruins leave you with a feeling of awe and wonder at what once actually stood here. 

As you can see by the brilliantly blue sky in the background, it was very bright out that day.

For centuries, this was the center of Roman public life, the site of famous public speeches, criminal trials, and great processions celebrating Roman military triumphs.  It was the location of the main marketplace.   

 The Roman Forum contained temples and basilicas, some of which are still in use today.

It was on a public speaking platform in the Forum that Marc Antony gave his famous funeral oration for Julius Caesar following his assassination.  “Friends, Romans, countryman, lend me your ears.”  And it was at the Roman Forum where Caesar’s body was publicly burned.

Some of the stories you hear about life in the Forum back during the Roman Empire just make you go hmmmmmm.  Like the story of the Temple of Vesta.  Vesta, in Roman mythology, is the goddess of the hearth, home and family.  During the Roman Empire, Vestal Virgins were bestowed with the honor (or maybe burden depending on how you feel about it) of protecting the sacred fire within the Temple that was not allowed to go out.  Selection of those who would become Vestal Virgins took place in choosing ceremonies (does this sound at all familiar to you Katniss fans out there?), where girls between the ages of 6 and 10 were chosen and plucked from their families to live in the House of the Vestal Virgins (see photo below) and sworn to 30 years of celibacy.  As it was believed that the health of the Roman state depended on the Virgin’s maintaining their chastity, if one was taken in by a cute, charming young Roman man and broke her promise, the punishment was to be buried alive because spilling a Virgin’s blood was illegal.  This is the actual story – I am not making this stuff up.  When I read this I was like whaaaaat?  But then I read that they actually put her in an underground chamber with a few days of food and water cuz that makes it all so much more pleasant, doesn’t it? Wow am I glad I live in today’s world and not back then.

The remains of statues in the House of the Vestal Virgins.  We would see many statues while in Italy with missing heads and arms.  Seems to be a weak point in their marble physique.
By the end of the afternoon, we were all touristed out (is that a word).  We headed back to our hotel to rest before finding some dinner.  

Many of the restaurants in Italy don't open for dinner until 6:30 or 7:00, so we had a little time to relax.  We found a quiet little restaurant (I don't think I need to specify Italian restaurant, right?) just down the street from our hotel. 

To be honest, the food was just okay, but it was cute and cozy inside, the wine was good, as was the company - a great way to end our first full day in Rome.


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