A million people lived in ancient Rome. That’s the same number of people living in San Jose, California today. The famous Roman myth establishes the city in 753 BC, when Romulus killed his brother Remus and gave the city his name. In 509 BC, the city eliminated the monarchy and established a Republic. Fast forward through the second century and the triumvirate, to 27 BC when Augustus Caesar becomes the first Roman Emperor. Until it began to disintegrate in the 5th Century AD, the Roman Empire was the most sophisticated society in the western world. It’s (Constantine the Great’s) creation of Constantinople had a profound effect on Europe, as it was the defense against invasion and conquest from the East for close to 1000 years.
We took a taxi from the train station to our apartment, and our driver took us through Piazza Venetia and past the Italian Parliament building and the spindly Christmas tree that has become a national embarrassment – Romans were outraged in December over its droopy branches and general dowdy appearance, and have nicknamed it “the Mangy one.” They got even madder when it came out that the city council paid 48,000 euros ($60K) to have it brought to Rome from the northern mountains. But maybe it grew on them a little — earlier in the week, there was to be a decision on the next life of the tree: put it in a museum, make pencils for all the school children or make a shelter for women to feed and change their babies. A press conference is to announce the decision.
We stayed in a beautiful, sunny, modern apartment right near the Colosseum, where we had views of parts of the ancient forum and the arch of Constantine, one of my favorite structures from a college Roman art & architecture class.
We had a couple of hours of daylight left when we arrived, so we dropped our bags and hopped the city bus to the Pantheon before it closed. From there we walked to Campo dei Fiore and had dinner at a terrific Osteria, sampling amatriciana (tomato sauce with fried pork cheek; tastes like bacon), cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper), fiori de zucca (zucchini flowers stuffed with cheese and fried), and bruschetta. The traditional noodle in Rome is spaghetti. From there we walked to Piazza Navonna, which was surprisingly uncrowded and still had some of its Christmas market set up. We played games and won prizes and took lots of photos in the Piazza before grabbing some gelato, hopping back on the bus and crashing in our apartment.
Demetri went for a very cool run the next morning through the forum, under the arch of Constantine, and over to Circus Maximus. Tyler and I have nasty colds and tuberculosis-like coughs so we stayed home with the little guys and we all slept until almost 9.
Day 2 we toured the Colosseum. Originally known as the Flavian Amphitheater, the Colosseum held 50,000 – 80,000 people. It was commissioned by Vespasian in AD 72, then completed by Titus and later improved by Diocletian. Vespasian ordered the Colosseum to be built on the site of Nero’s palace, the Domus Aurea, to try to erase the memory of Rome’s most feared tyrant. The name likely came from the Colossus of Nero (a statue based on the Colossus of Rhodes where Nero was depicted as the Sun God) found nearby. Vespasian’s goal was to gain popularity by staging fights of gladiators and wild animals for public entertainment. At the first games, some 9,000 animals were killed. Animals from Africa were often brought in for the games: lions, giraffes, hippos, rhinos, ostriches and there was a very complex caging and entry system for the animals. Roman gladiators were usually slaves, war prisoners or criminals. Most were men.
There were different sections for the various demographics — the senators, rich men, poor men, and poor women (rich women were allowed to sit with their husbands in the good seats). We learned that ‘arena’ is the Latin word for sand, which they needed a lot of during the games because blood is so very slippery, of course. When the floor got too bloody, they would cover it with another thick layer of sand and continue on. The boys’ eyes got very wide when our guide explained this.
We left the Colosseum and picked up some sandwiches, then hopped the bus again to the gardens (a huge park, really) at Villa Borghese. We had a picnic there, and then walked and played in this park, which was turned from a vineyard to an extensive garden by Cardinal Borghese in 1605. Borghese was nephew to the pope and the patron of Bernini. In the 19th century, the gardens were renovated in the English style. The Spanish steps lead up to this park. The weather was the best in Rome — Sunny and 60 degrees for our entire visit. It was great to enjoy some sunshine.
That night we had dinner in a little restaurant near our hotel with a one man chef and waiter who kept bringing us little gifts — like bruschetta and meatballs. His food was great. We walked a bit, found some gelato and came home.
Saturday was our last day and we had about 4 hours to sightsee. We went over to the Trastevere neighborhood and walked through the streets there, along the Tiber River, on the backside of the Vatican, past Castel Sant’ Angelo and into Piazza Cavour, one of the nicest, greenest European squares we’ve seen. It’s name for the Count of Cavour, a statesman who helped lead the movement for Italian unification. Romans don’t like the palace of justice (supreme court building) that flanks one side of it –they say too gaudy — but it’s a grand, magnificent building.
Saturday was January 6, the feast of the Epiphany, a big holiday in Italy. The piazzas were packed; buses even more so. We hopped a bus back to our apartment where we were wedged between people and had to hold our breath. The bus came around a corner and hit a car that was double parked. While the bus driver and the car’s owner yelled at each other for a while, we got off the bus and high tailed it to the next bus stop, got back on, got our bags and to the airport with a little time to spare.
Demetri did all the logistics for this trip and he nailed it with every place we stayed. He chose apartments that were typical (or classic) to the city we were in and they were all special and beautiful in very different ways. We really love train travel, it’s so easy and so reliable and so darn comfortable.
We’re back in Athens, back in school (all 4 of us) and almost have the laundry caught up. And we have Tyler until Friday.