Monday, July 30, 2012

Day 11: When in Rome...

When in as the tourists do!  

Today was an exciting day filled with fun touristy activities! I would finally get to fulfill one of my dreams and enter that towering Colosseum practically calling my name from our window! Thanks to our newly acquired Roma Passes, we felt confident that we could zip thought the line pretty quickly the without waiting in line for hours.  However, we still awoke fairly early and walked a block to the entrance of the Colosseo  arriving at 8:30 am in order to avoid some of the afternoon heat.  There is absolutely NO shade in the Colosseum or the Roman Forum and very little on Palatine Hill. We showed our Roma Passes and went in a separate entrance. We were surprised to see that there wasn't even a security check, as was expected.  Waiting time: 0 minutes.  We pitied the very long line that still waited within the outside wall of the Colosseum.  
Immediately we hooked up our iphones to Rick Steves free audio guide tour (free on itunes) and listened as we toured the ancient monument. It was humorous because we passed several tour groups that I am sure people paid good money for that were practically mimicking what Rick Steves' voice was saying into my ear. We learned many interesting facts while we wandered the premises- awestruck. It was beautiful, but not as big as they make it look in the movies. 

The elliptical building is immense, measuring 188m by 156m and reaching a height of more than 48 meter (159 ft). The Colosseum could hold about 55,000 spectators.  The Colosseum was once covered with an enormous awning known as the velarium that protected the spectators from the sun. Emperors used the Colosseum to entertain the public with free games that were a symbol of prestige and power. They were a way for an emperor to increase his popularity.  Games were held for a whole day or even several days in a row and often included displays of exotic animals and ended with fights to the death between animals and gladiators. These fighters were usually slaves, prisoners of war or condemned criminals. Interestingly, the southern side of the Colosseum fell to an earthquake in 847. Parts of the building - including the marble facade - were removed and used for the construction of later monuments, including the St. Peter's Basilica.

After we left the Colosseum, we walked around the corner toward Palatine Hill.  There was hardly anyone here and it is obviously not as popular. The hill is the centermost of the seven hills that make up Rome. The hill has a strong link to Roman mythology. It is believed that on Palatine Hill, the twins Romulus and Remus were found in the cave by a she-wolf that raised them. Ultimately, this is where Romulus decided to build the city. Therefore, it is here when the foundation of Rome began. It was eventually the fashionable place to live due to the glorious views from atop the hill. Augustus, Cicero, and Marc Antony (Marcus Antonius) all had homes on the hill. Later, emperors built their domains here and, at one point, the entire hill was covered with imperial palaces.  It also includes the remains of the Circus Maximus (Remember Ben Hur?) and the very first Botanical Garden of Rome. 
The original huts of Romulus and Remus
Continual excavation on Palatine Hill
As we spent hours exploring the fairly large area, the temperature continued to rise.  It was so HOT!  Be sure to wear your sunscreen and bring lots of water to explore this area! There really is hardly any shade except on Palatine Hill where there are a few trees.  A path leads directly from Palatine Hill to the Roman Forum.  Again we listened to the Rick Steves audio tour on our iphones.  This was particularly helpful to make sense of the many ruins. Without it or a guide, the area would really just resemble a mess of knocked down walls and rocks.  A tour or guide of some sort really made it come alive. 
The Arch of Titus
The forum dates back to as early as the 7th century B.C. The Roman Forum began as a market place, but became the economic, political, and religious hub, town square, and center of all Rome.   On the northern end of the Forum near the Capitoline Hill are some of the oldest ruins of the Forum including marble remnants from the Basilica Aemilia; the Curia, where Roman senators assembled; and the Rostra, a platform on which early orators gave speeches, were built in the 5th century B.C. It also includes the Triumphant Arch of Constantine, the Via Sacra, the Temple of Venus and Rome, the gigantic shell of what is left of the Basilica of Maxentius, the Temple of Julius Ceasar, and much more. 
Did I mention that it was very, very hot? 
We left the forum and ventured across Via del Corso in search of a restaurant recommended by our Trip Advisor app. However, once we found it, we discovered it had since shut down.  Getting a bit cranky from heat, thirst, and hunger, we made our way back to the other side of the Colosseum and toward our apartment to cool down.  Along the way, we stopped at a snack bar for a quick lunch since we very hungry and thirsty.  We sat inside to take advantage of the air-conditioning.  The service was something to be desired, but not horrible. (I learned that very few places check back with you to see how your food is after you receive it.)  I chose the tourist menu that included a margherita pizza, a cold beverage and an espresso (which Sam wanted). Sam chose the canneloni con carne.  When the food arrived, it was all very mediocre.  It was fine, and we were hungry, but definitely not what you would expect to eat while in Italy.  The margherita pizza was actually very similar to a frozen cheese pizza and we joked that the canneloni tasted remarkably like Chef Boy'ardee!  
Canneloni con Carne- Chef Boy'ardee Style 
Our frozen cheese pizza
After we ate, we stopped by the local grocery store near our apartment and stocked up on some food and water for our place.  Aside from several bottles of water, we bought bananas, Italian brand potato sticks (they sounded good), fruit juice, and what we thought were peanut butter wafers, but they turned out to be hazelnut, which is much more popular there than in the states. 
Now it was nap time and time to refresh!
A couple hours later (and when the temperatures started to drop), we took off in search of the Pantheon. We desperately tried to figure out the bus schedule and stops, but we found this to be very difficult!  The map that came with the Roma Pass listed bus stops, marked with the bus numbers that supposedly stopped at each stop.  However, 8 times out of 10, when we would go to that stop and review the buses numbers that stopped there, it completely contradicted with our Roma Pass map.  After several failed attempts during the week (Read about trying to get to the Vatican by bus here...), we kind of gave up on the Rome bus system.  We found it very frustrating.  We were able to walk everywhere. Even if they were long walks, they were doable. Later we heard that you can buy a more reliable Rome bus map at the tabachi for about €6.  If we knew this, it would have been very helpful.  In other words, do not rely on the free map with the Roma Pass to plan your bus route. It is not helpful.  
The mini electric bus #117
However, this time we were lucky and found a very small electric bus (#117) that would eventually take us to a stop near the Pantheon. It was tiny!  It probably only fit about 10 people comfortably, but was small enough it could travel the small back alleys of Rome (and it did)!  It traveled a very round-about way.  From the Colosseum it drove up past the Spanish Steps and to the Piazza Popolo, which was very interesting!  It then traveled back down the Via del Corso toward the Trevi and the Pantheon.  We hopped off a few blocks too early and made our way along Via del Corso. Then we started to cut over to the Pantheon, following our map. Easier said than done!  *I forgot to mention that the Pantheon also closed at 7:00 pm (19:00) and it was now 6:00 pm (18:00), so we were trying to hurry. We got so lost and turned around! All of those tiny streets get very confusing especially when you are surrounded by buildings and cannot get any sort of bearing on what direction you are headed. I knew we had to be close, but every turn we took seemed to get us more turned around. The Pantheon is hidden back in a neighborhood and among many buildings, as most things in Italy are.  It is not like you can see where it is from the main road. We finally asked directions from a cop busy smoking (as everyone in Italy does) and writing parking tickets.  He directed us there, and as we expected, we were only one or two turns away.  Later, after leaving the Pantheon, we immediately recognized where we took one wrong turn when we were only about 500 yards away.  Regardless, the maze of small Roman roads was a fun and interesting adventure as long as you have had a nap and the temps are cooling. 
We finally found the Pantheon! We didn't spend much time admiring the outside, but went ahead in to make sure we would get to spend some time inside before it closed for the evening.  Admission to the Pantheon is free. Again we did a free Rick Steves audio tour. The engineering and age of this building were inspiring, and this was one of Sam's favorite stops. 
The Roman Pantheon is the most preserved and influential building of ancient Rome. It is a temple dedicated to all the gods of pagan Rome. As the brick stamps on the side of the building reveal it was built and dedicated between A.D 118 and 125. The original use of the Pantheon is somewhat unknown, except that it was classified as a temple. It is unknown as to how the people worshipped in the building, because the structure of the temple is so different from other traditional Roman temples. Probably one of the most fascinating features of the Pantheon is the architecture. The structure of the Pantheon is comprised of a series of intersecting arches and the dome itself is supported by a series of arches that run horizontally round. Romans had perfected the use of arches which helped sustain the weight of their huge projects. The oculus- an open hole in the ceiling- was never covered and rain falls into the interior and runs off the slightly convex floor. It supplies light to the entire building, as there are no other windows and it is a whopping 30 feet in diameter! The Pantheon now serves as a tomb for several Italian kings, as well as the artist Raphael. We then left to admire the outside of the building.  We loved this architectural masterpiece! 
The dome and oculus
Raphael's Tomb
The Pantheon at night
We then made our way (successfully) over to the Piazza Navona.  It was very pretty!  Once a stadium and then transformed to a marketplace, this piazza was abuzz with artists and salesmen selling their wares. We found it a bit touristy, however, and some of the vendors were quite pushy! We learned that at one time this entire piazza would be flooded every August to create a swimming hole for locals. We especially like the Fountain of Four Rivers by Bernini. The four men sculpted on the fountain represent four major rivers of the four continents through which papal authority had spread: the Nile representing Africa, the Danube representing Europe, the Ganges representing Asia, and the Platte representing the Americas. Learn more about the fountain here
The Fountain of Four Rivers
We heeded the many warnings not to eat on the Piazza Navona due to jacked up prices and lower quality food. After exploring this area, we ventured a few blocks west toward the Vatican and the Tiber River in search of Old Bear, a restaurant recommended on Trip Advisor.  See my review here. We found it fairly easily and decided to sit outside.  In retrospect, I wish we had decided to sit inside because it was cramped outside and the decor inside was beautiful. It is surprisingly lodge-like and woody.
We started with the bruschetta, but then the waitress also brought out a basket of bread. Combined, they already took up our tiny little table.  We bought a pitcher of sangria, which was tasty, but strong!  Sam ordered the steamed mussels and clams, which he was not crazy about, while I had a satisfying dish of chicken with spicy sauce served with rosemary potatoes. It was all very good, but we were very full. 
We then walked to peek in the Tiber River and got some great evening shots of Castello Sant'angelo and the Vatican, which we would be visiting the following morning. 
The Vatican at night...
On our way back toward Piazza Navona, we spotted Grom, a well-known chain for gelato.  We had heard good things so decided to stop in for a sweet treat.  There was a bit of a line, but worth the wait!  I saw something that I interpreted to be almond- one of my favorites and ordered that, but the girl kept thinking I was saying "mint".  When I corrected here, she let me know that the almond was not gelato, but actually flavored ice.  As much as I love almond, almond-flavored ice did not sound appetizing so I just let her pick a flavor for me.  She gave me a combination of chocolate and crema and it had graham cracker chunks in it that were so good!  Sam had a combination of chocolate chip (Straciatellaand coffee and it was also delicious!
We ended up walking past the Pantheon again as we ate our gelato, filled up at 
the public fountain in the square (There are several drinking fountains placed all 
over the city and the water is just fine to drink.). As we were heading back 
toward Via Del Corso, we heard music and followed it to the Church of Sant'Ignazio
where there was a giant military symphony taking place- taking over the tiny square! 
It was beautiful!  We stayed and enjoyed the music for awhile, and then caught a 
random bus by luck that took us straight to our place! 
The symphony and opera we stumbled upon on our way home... 
Later that night we sat on our balcony and enjoyed the view of ancient Rome and 
then laid in the cool air of our apartment while watching silly dog and cat videos 
on our iphones... 

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