There is evidence that humans have been living in the area for almost 14,000 years! However, legend tells us it all began in 753 BC. Born by a virgin and the god of Mars, Romulus and Remus were left to die. Against all odds, the Tiber river swept them to safety and the combined efforts of a wolf and a shephard nurtured them back to health. Eventually, they would fight to the death over where to found their new city that would soon become the birth of Western Civilization. If you haven’t guessed already, Romulus won the fight and on Palatine Hill he founded his city: Roma. Flash forward 2,000 some years and Rome is the 4th most populated and 3rd most visited city in the European Union. Known as the “Capital of the World”, the popular author Lord Byron once claimed “when Rome falls, so shall the world.”
But before it does, we just had to visit.
It was early afternoon when we hopped off the train and into the sticky heat. After a bit of a search, we found our AirBnB, a nice studio just minutes from the Vatican. It was a beautiful place, very modern with some wonderful amenities such as air conditioning and a flat screen TV. After being in hostels for so long, it was a huge upgrade! The owner even stocked it with some food and a bottle of wine. Since Glenna had been battling a sinus infection for quite some time, we decided it may be time to visit a doctor. This proved to be a difficult task. We attempted to enter a hospital along the banks of the Tiber River; however, after following both signs and a few shrugs from several employees we simply could not find the front desk to check-in. It was the weirdest experience of my life. After our “hospital” visit, we tried several pharmacies, but to no avail. She would just have to wait to get an appointment. In the meantime, we spent some time lounging in the air conditioning and watching Mr. Bean. It was the only channel that we could understand… everything else was dubbed. For dinner, we went to a nearby restaurant and had an amazing meal of risotto, pasta, scallops, and calamari. Italy sure is easy on the stomach!
The next morning we awoke early and headed to the city’s #1 tourist destination: The Colosseum. En route, we stopped at the Circus Maximus, an ancient chariot racing stadium. It was the blueprint for all subsequent stadiums in Ancient Rome and the largest of its kind. At over 2,000 feet in length and 380 feet in width, the thing was massive. Apparently, the Rolling Stones put on a concert here in 2014 to a crowd of 71,000. This was still only about half as many who showed up here in ancient days!
Nearby was the Flavian Amphitheater, better known as The Colosseum. Built by the slaves of the growing empire, the massive structure was completed in just 8 years despite needing to haul the essential blocks of travertine from a quarry almost 20 miles away. It was the largest amphitheater in history and could hold upwards of 80,000 people!
Nowadays, it is just a shell of its former self. Unfortunately, an earthquake in 1349 severely damaged the building, causing much of its outer shell to collapse. The resources did not go to waste though, as they were used in the construction of many buildings around the city including St. Peter’s Basilica. The line to enter the Colosseum was long, but we paid a bit extra to not only skip it, but also have a guided tour.Our tour was great and I would not recommend doing it any other way. Inside, I couldn’t help but envision Russell Crowe, the noble General Maximus, as he defies all odds and slays the evil Commodus.
While Hollywood made quite the epic tale, the real thing is almost more unbelievable. When the Colosseum was first finished, Titus, the emperor at the time, threw a huge celebration. The excuse may have been the completion of the amphitheater, but it was more to distract a distraught Roman public who over the previous months had suffered through the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, a 3 day fire that consumed the city, and the outbreak of the plague. Nonetheless, the inaugural games were incredible. For 100 straight days, all sorts of games were held. From animal entertainment, to hunting, to the popular gladiatorial combats, to simple executions, the show raged on. In all, 9,000 slaves and 5,000 animals died, with some accounts being much higher. It was quite the festival!
Outside the Colosseum, live gladiators were still all around. Unlike the originals, these were simply posers hoping to make a quick buck. Our tour continued among the ancient Roman ruins on Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum. Walking along the remnants of such a historical place was quite the surreal experience. There was so much going on it was hard to take it all in. The view from on top of Palatine Hill is fantastic!
From the center of ancient Rome, we headed south along the Appian Way. This was one of several arteries leading out of the ancient city and is still alive today. We toured the catacombs of San Callisto, one of around 40 in the city. It is an ancient burial ground for persecuted Christians, with nearly 12 miles of weaving tunnels and tombs. It was pretty darn creepy. After the tour, our stomachs led us to an amazing pizzeria for dinner. Then we took a strange metro ride back to the Vatican that required getting on two separate buses. Eventually we made our way back to our little studio.
The next day, Glenna headed to the doctor while I toured the Vatican. With a population of 800 some people and around 110 acres of land, Vatican City is the smallest state in the world. Tiny though it may be, it’s importance to Catholicism is felt far beyond its walls. Apparently, it is also harboring quite a few crooks. In 2012, it was listed among nations of concern for money laundering. What is the Pope really doing in there? This morning it was busy with tourists. When I walked by St. Peter’s, the line was already wrapped halfway around the square! Once again, I paid a bit extra to skip the line on a guided tour of the Vatican Museum.
It was very informative, though a bit long and dry. With thousands of other sardines, I entered the little can that was the Sistine Chapel. We shuffled around, shoulder to shoulder, taking in Michelangelo’s famous scenes, while guards shouted out “NO PHOTOS” every few seconds. When the crowds burst out the other side, I was herded into the airport hanger that is St. Peter’s Basilica. It was a relief after the tiny chapel. As the burial site of St. Peter, the very first Pope, the basilica was always going to be grand. I would say they went a bit overboard during construction. Seriously, I think a Boeing 787 could fit in there!
Needing some relief from the onslaught of religion, I headed out into the dirty streets. I walked along the Tiber River, past an enormous fortress called Castel Sant’Angelo. Further east, I hopped around crowds gathered at the famous Spanish Steps. I also found the Trevi Fountain, although it was currently under construction. Fear not, you could still follow the tradition and throw a coin over your shoulder into a slot that spilled into the construction site. Apparently, over 3,000 Euros are thrown into the fountain on any given day! This tradition is only one interesting part of the fountain. It’s history is even more fun. Legend has it that way back in 19 BC some Roman soldiers were incredibly thirsty. Led by a virgin girl (cause Romans would never have believed a whore), they found a source of pure water and quenched their thirst. They reported back to Augustus who proceeded to build a 22km aqueduct from the site to the city center. It became one of the city’s most important aqueducts, and at its terminal point a grand fountain was dedicated.
I spent the afternoon atop the Vittore Emmanuel Monument, dedicated to the man who was the 1st king of a united Italy. Despite being a goofy looking monument, it had incredible views looking across the entire city.
I also wandered some more through the Roman Forum and the neighborhood around the Pantheon before meeting up with Glenna for a nice dinner near our studio. All that walking made me hungry and I inhaled a massive calzone. Rome had been a bit too urban for us, but it was a great city nonetheless. And though I hadn’t thrown a coin in the fountain, I knew I would be back. For now, it was onto Sorrento, Naples, and more pizza!