Thursday, August 24, 2023

BFT23 - Another Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

If there is an iconic building in Rome it is the Colosseum. Built almost two thousand years ago and still the largest amphitheater in the world, it could seat about 65,000 people in its heyday – a respectable total even today. It’s the sort of place you have to go visit when you’re there even if you try to avoid touristy things because it is so much an emblem of the city. It would be like going to San Francisco and not seeing the Golden Gate Bridge, or going to New Orleans and not getting drunk.

We actually went to see the Colosseum twice. This involved some planning, since, like the Pantheon, they recommend that you get tickets in advance unless you want to stand in line for a very long time.

Our first visit was at night. It’s a separate thing entirely from the usual tour and it is only available to those who sign up for it in advance, though they do let anyone buy tickets. It’s not an exclusive club, after all. The ticket gets you a guided tour that lasts a little over an hour, and you have a choice of English and Italian. You can’t buy tickets until thirty days prior to showing up, however, and we very quickly discovered that the English language tours sell out in about a minute. But the Italian tours always have room, and since we figured we would have enjoyed the place without a tour guide at all, following a tour guide we didn’t understand would be more or less the same thing with the added bonus that we’d get to go on the tour. In the end our guide also spoke English, and while she didn’t do any of the tour that way she would occasionally let us know that it was time to move on to the next stop so we didn’t get lost, which was nice of her.

The tour started at 9:40pm, which is just after dinner in Italy. We found the 75 bus from Testaccio – which was packed, by the way, both there and back, as you would hope in a big city – and got off a few minutes later at the Colosseum. It’s lit up at night.

They – not sure who, but definitely “they” because it sure as hell wasn’t “me” – also host motocross races nearby, which was a fascinating thing to experience even from afar. We’d be walking along in this two-millennia-old stone building and every couple of minutes there would be a sharp-edged roar of buzzing internal combustion engines. I have no idea what these vehicles looked like – they sounded like dirt bikes but could have been dune buggies or Formula 1 racecars for all I know – but the incongruity of it all was interesting.

The Colosseum is closed to the public at that hour unless you’re on one of the night tours, so we found the one gate where we could get in, presented our tickets to the guard, went through security, and then headed off down the arched path to the little office where they gave us our earbuds. Tour guides don’t shout anymore. They wear these low-power microphones that transmit to your earbuds and you listen along that way, unless you’re me and earbuds just make your skin crawl in which case you just follow the crowd and hope for the best.

There are two things about the night tour that stand out.

First, you get to go down underneath the building to the lower levels and walk along what was originally the basement, where the caged animals were kept and the gladiators and such would stay before emerging into the regular level. They had elevators back then and everything. You go through the tunnels and hallways, explore some of the rooms and infrastructure of the place, and see the various displays of armor, artifacts, and video recreations that the staff have put together, all while the tour guide is helpfully explaining things to those who speak Italian.

And second, at some point you emerge into the open air to view the place, and it is just spectacular. We were there on a cloudless night when the moon was full, and you could tell.

That’s the tour guide in the middle of the photo below, in the white shirt. At one point she let us just wander around and take it all in, though you could ask questions if you wanted.

We went back the next afternoon after doing other things, so we could validate our daytime tickets. Those are good for 24 hours and get you into both the Colosseum and the Forum across the street. Our plan was to see the Colosseum by day for a bit – we got there toward the end of the day and stayed until they threw us out when the place closed – and then go back the following morning to see the Forum.

We arranged a meeting place and time, and scattered to go exploring on our own.

It’s an easy place to spend time in, really. It was hot that day, as it was every day we were in Italy – the highs were generally about 94-95F (34-35C) – and we were very happy to discover as we were leaving that the big water station that they set up outside the gate had both still water and fizzy water for those who wished.

It’s a universal law of human nature that the majestic sweep of history in the form of magnificent stone ruins and stunning vistas cannot compete with stray cats. Rome – and indeed all of Italy, as near as we could tell – is full of stray cats. And the Colosseum is definitely emblematic of Rome that way too. The first one we saw was across the way, delicately picking her way across the stone to find a shady spot. Look along the path to the right of the stone billboard and you’ll see her.

The next one was a lot closer.

They actually take care of them there, and you have to appreciate that.

The next day we went to the Forum, and if we thought it had been hot the previous afternoon we were right but it was even hotter that morning. Fortunately we all had bottles we could refill from the various fountains, one umbrella to use as a parasol, and a battery-powered fan that you could hang around your neck, and we stuck to the shade as much as possible which frankly wasn’t much but we tried. I also had a hat that I bought from a street vendor the previous day. It was a nice hat as hats go. I don’t really like hats when the weather is above freezing and for reasons I will explain in a future post the hat did not make it back to the US, but it did come in handy at the Forum.

The Forum is a vast collection of ruins that you can just walk through at leisure, though this was a Sunday morning so many of the interiors were closed. There were a few people who were still wearing masks, and I commend them for their dedication and their fortitude on a day like that. We cruised through the ruins and spent some time sitting in the shade, and there really isn’t more to say than that. You either like this sort of thing or you don’t and we do, though it has to be said that we were willing to cut that part of the visit short because of the heat.

We made a special effort to see the Palatine Hill, though. It adjoins the Forum and is part of the ticket but Kim and I didn’t actually get to last year because we’d spent so much time in the (much cooler in March) Forum. There’s a path up to it from near the entrance, and we hiked our way up – stopping to refill our water bottles at every opportunity.

Along the way there’s a little turnoff and it takes you up to a plateau overlooking the Colosseum. It used to be a vineyard, apparently. There’s not a whole lot there, but it is a great view.

The Palatine Hill was where the Roman elites lived way back when, and there are the remains of a fair number of large houses and other structures still there. Sometimes the floor survived even when the rest of the building didn’t and you just stand there and marvel at it. You do that a lot there.

Eventually you get to the end and find yourself staring at the Circus Maximus, which was a vast chariot-racing arena that could seat 150,000 people back when chariot-racing was a thing people did. It’s mostly a park now, grassy and serene, with the ground level about six feet higher now than it was then. They hold concerts there occasionally, and apparently we missed Imagine Dragons by just a few days. I think we’re good though.

We found a tree-lined path down to a different exit, one that took us directly through the gift shop. It was a small shop for a place like that, but it was air conditioned and we looked at pretty much everything they had to sell, sometimes twice. We may have even bought something just out of gratitude.

A quick bus ride back to the apartment, and then it was siesta time.


LucyInDisguise said...

Now wait just a dog-gone minute here! I refuse to believe that, as a recovering alcoholic, I won’t find some other emblematic thing to do in New Orleans should I ever lose what few marbles that remain rattling around in my skull and return to that City by the Gulf besides getting drunk. (Can I do a run-on sentence, or what???)

Carry on.


David said...

Well, one option would be to watch the people who are getting drunk, which as I recall was very entertaining. Speaking as a guy who has been to New Orleans twice and can count how many times he's been drunk in his life on one hand, there are a lot of other things you can do there besides get drunk yourself.

Have a muffaleta sandwich or some red beans and rice. Honestly you can't find a bad meal in that city. Municipal code or something, I don't know.

Walk down Bourbon Street and enjoy the human zoo parading by.

Visit the old mint (my favorite of the tourist sites there).

Listen to the buskers on the streets - the quality of the music on the streets of New Orleans is higher than you get at clubs in most cities in the world.

It's a fascinating city.

LucyInDisguise said...


Ya kinda missed that whole return to that City by the Gulf part of that run-on sentence, didn't ya? I suppose that's why I shouldn't do that ...

In the spring of 1973, I was stationed at Lackland AFB in Wichita Falls, TX, for training. One of our instructors implored us to take advantage of our proximity to New Orleans and make the trip over the long Easter weekend to attend Marti Gras. However, if you know anything about the celebration of 'Fat Tuesday', you know that it occurs something like 46 days before Easter. We didn't actually know anything about it. At all. So, ha, ha, good joke ... we did enjoy our time in the city that weekend despite missing Marti Gras by a country mile. If I ever do return to New Orleans, it will be during that celebration in some vain effort to put right that somewhat cruel joke from my youth.

The whole 'human zoo' comment had me in stitches, though. Truer words and all that.

On the more serious side: I am enjoying this particular string of posts immensely; keep 'em coming.


David said...

Oh, I saw it. I just assumed that the lose what few marbles that remain rattling around in my skull part was a valid option. My own continue to escape at an alarming rate. :)

Yeah, that was a harsh trick to play, though at least you had a good time. I've always wanted to go back during Mardi Gras - I'd try to get a room on Bourbon Street with a balcony and just observe as it all went by.

Glad you're enjoying the posts!