Saturday, November 14, 2015

Rome - The Eternal City

Rome – The Eternal City. The influence of this city on our lives, like it or not, is enormous. The Roman Civilisation, the arts – painting, sculpture, architecture – the alphabet as we know it, and let us not forget, religion. Remember that Christianity is the world’s largest religion.

We decided to spend 4 nights in Rome. There was just so much to see and so much to do. You really cannot do `justice’ to Rome in four days.

It was the second week of November that we were in Rome. It may have been a hot year, but let me tell you walking around during the day was hot and tiring. I cannot imagine how hot it must be in the summer months. Add crowds to the heat. We were told that in November Rome has about 50% of the tourists that visit in the summer months. I shudder to think how crowded it must be in summer and how utterly hot and uncomfortable. Thank God we were there in November. To give you an idea, during the day you could have worn a pair of shorts and no sweater or coat of any sort was needed. A good cap and a pair of sunglasses was what was needed. It was that hot. In the evenings the temperature dropped and you needed a light sweater.

This post is about what we thought were the big `3’ must sees in Rome. The mind boggling Colosseum, the Roman Forum and the Vatican City complex including the Sistine Chapel.

Let me tell you a bit about the magnificent Colosseum  Before reading any further, please imagine that you are living about 1950 years ago [not living in 1950 but living 1950 years ago]. The Colosseum was built in a short 8 years between 72AD and 80AD. The construction was without any mortar, but the large blocks were held together with metal clamps. All this construction was done without any machinery at all, only ropes and pulleys. It is believed that the Colosseum could seat between 60,000 to 80,000 spectators and, if you can conceive this, the place could be filled and emptied of spectators in some 20 minutes with 80 entrances of which 76 were used by mango people [Aam Aadmis]. It is believed that today the Colosseum is only 50% of what it originally was. There were 5 tiers where people were seated. Obviously the lowest which was closest to the stage seated the royalty and as the levels rose the priority fell. Teachers were highly respected, so teachers were allowed to enter the lower levels. The uppermost level was reserved for women. Each of the levels was covered with a roof. All the roofs have now gone. The Colosseum towers some 150 feet. An awesome structure.

The games went on for hours 12 to 13 hours and were held some 150 times a year. It was a public holiday when the games were held, so that all Romans could have a chance to attend. This part really boggled my mind. Every spectator got a ticket. This ticket was in the form of a stone tablet. Each tablet had 3 numbers, the first giving the gate number, the second the tier and the third the seat number. So going to a game was not a simple matter with a paper ticket you kept in a pocket, or, God forbid, an e-ticket. You carried an actual stone tablet. Absolutely incredible. I cannot even imagine the logistics of the box office storing tickets. Imagine 75,000 stone tablets! You carrying the tablet to the show. Did the usher take it from you? Did he tear it in half like we love doing in India? Probably not with a stone tablet!

Some of the restored sections 

The number above the gate

We had the option of buying a combo ticket valid for two days that entitles you to see the Colosseum as well as the Roman Forum. The Roman Forum is the original city centre of Rome. The place where the market place was, where the kings lived, where Caesars body was kept after the assassination. Here there were temples, Senate House, government offices and tribunals. Most of this is now ruins, but you can still see a lot. Some of the old temples are in pretty good shape primarily because Churches were built inside the Temples. One can only imagine what the glory of this are must have been 1950 years ago. You will see a photo of a temple with huge pillars. These pillars are single piece stone carvings, excavated from Greece, carved in Greece and shipped to Rome. Yes slaves did the work but the sheer logistics of all this.

The Arch of Titus

The remains of the Temple. Each colum was one piece brought from Greece. Inside is the Church

I overheard one very American tourist guide saying “the streets of Rome are a lasagne of Western Civilisation”. How utterly clever and correct.

Across the Roman Forum is the now abandoned and seemingly neglected Circus Maximus.

Seeing the Colosseum and the Forum is possible in a day. It will be a long hot and tiring day. Far better to do this over two days. This sort of tourism is hard hard work.

The other big `must see must do’ in Rome is, of course, Vatican City and the Vatican Museum which houses the Sistine Chapel. This requires a bit of research and planning. But here I am giving you the information for free. Of course, there will be someone else who will tell you a better way, and they may well be correct in that, but this is how we did it. Please bear in mind that the Vatican City is the `Mecca’ of Christianity. Christianity, like it or not, is the largest by number of believers/followers, of all religious orders. This is where the Pope is, Christianity may not have started here but the head office is here. Christianity is larger than Islam [both types Shia Sunni combined] and Hinduism. The rest of the religious orders are simply dwarfed by the numbers who follow Christianity. The number of people visiting is very large. And, they come from every part of the globe. 

In the Vatican City you have the Saint Peters Basilica, which is for lack of a better description, the Popes Church and the Vatican Museum. Visiting Saint Peters Basilica is free. Mind you the lines to get in are long. This is primarily due to the security that you have to pass thru. All the same it will take you time. Once inside, Saint Peters Basilica is simply mind boggling. It is the `Daddy’ of all Cathedrals and Churches. Its scale, its size, it beauty, its religious significance, its carvings, its statues are all at a level that is truly amazing. This is an absolute must see.

The more problematic and challenging site is the Vatican Museum. This is a huge museum and with the large number of people your patience is severely tested. Progress is slow and the exhibits are many and seemingly unending and repetitious. You need a ticket to get in. This itself is a challenge. You can buy tickets at a ticket window, but that means that you have to stand in the legendary lines. To skip the queue you can buy a ticket from the several `touts’ hanging about. I use the word tout loosely. They are actually accredited travel agents. Or else you could buy your ticket online from an accredited agent. You cannot buy a ticket directly. The problem in using an agent is that you have to pay a premium. The official ticket price is € 16. Our hotel charged us € 20. I saw the touts asking for € 30. So you can take your chances. But I seriously suggest that you pay the premium and buy the tickets online from an agency whether your hotel or travel agency.

The Vatican Museum is in the same complex but is located outside Saint Peters Basilica. Once you get in you will be treated to so many works of art that you will be left numbed. The final attraction is the Sistine Chapel. This is where Michelangelo’s famous painting Creation of Adam is on the ceiling. Fantastic.

Statue of Hercules

The visit to the Vatican Museum ended, for me, on a very emotional note. Just as you exit the main Vatican Museum there is an extension which houses the various carriages and cars used by the Pope. There are horse drawn ceremonial carriages, the cars the Pope has used and the open car in which the Pope was shot by Mehmet Ali Agca in 1981. But for me the most emotional was a photograph of the great Michael Schumacher giving the Pope the steering wheel of the Ferrari which won him the F1 world championship. The caption said that the steering wheel was given by Ferrari to the `Pilot of Christianity’. 

The car in which the Pope was when he was shot

The Pantheon is another wonderful building in central Rome. The Pantheon was probably constructed about 126AD and is in super shape. Its classic design elements are contemporary even today.

The Pantheon

We also visited the hugely popular Trevi Fountains. They had opened after renovation and restoration and the crowds were huge.

Of course - The Trevi Fountain

The best way to move in Rome is probably by the subway. You get a pass which is integrated, so trains and busses can be used on the same pass. The pass is for varying lengths of time. This is the best way about. At a pinch you can use a Taxi which I thought was not that frighteningly expensive.

To see Rome you have to be fit and filled with a lot of determination. You have to tackle the heat the hordes and the distances. You remember that movie “No Country For Old Men”? Well, honestly, Rome is not for old people either. It is a serious challenge.

Do visit Rome. Remember when planning to keep a lot of time for it. My only bit of advise, do not visit in summer. It’s no fun.

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