Walking Back in Time to Ancient Rome
Today, we embarked on one of the highlights of our Italian Trip, visiting the Colosseum. Visits to Rome or Italy for first-timers will not be complete without visiting Colosseum, the ultimate icon of Italy and Rome and one of the world’s new seven wonders. I thought a guided tour of the Colosseum would give us more context and history during our visit to such an important monument left behind by the ancient Romans. Several companies organise tours to the Colosseum, and few offer Colosseum underground tours. The underground of the Colosseum has been open to the public in recent years. However, access to the underground is only possible with guided tours. On September 22, I received an email from the tour company we booked stating that the Italian government is starting to restrict the number of underground entries daily. Therefore, being able to see the Colosseum underground becomes more precious. After some research on the internet, I read rave reviews of the tour company – the Roman Guy (access the Colosseum tour that we booked here) that offers the Colosseum underground tour at a reasonable price. So we went ahead and booked our underground tours with them. Our tour of the Colosseum starts at 9.30 am. We left our hotel early for breakfast before our tour. Unfortunately, it began to rain at the time we left our hotel.
Colosseum – Arena Built for the Romans
After breakfast, we went to the meeting point to meet our guide, Serena, for the Colosseum Tour. The rain started to get heavier as we walked towards the Colosseum, and by the time we reached the Colosseum, it had started to pour very heavily. Serena, while walking us towards the entrance to the underground access, explained in detail what the Colosseum looked like and how it was built. We learnt from Serena that the Colosseum was decked with a marble facade, and marble statues were installed on each of the arches of the world’s largest amphitheatre. As we approached the underground entrance, Serena went to check out the situation for underground access as she explained there were rumours that the underground might be closed due to the flood caused by the rain. She went to ask other tour guides and started asking the staff. Finally, one of the staff announced the underground was closed due to the flood level. Serena explained the underground of the Colosseum has been prone to flooding since ancient times due to the poor waterproofing design, the flood would have been dangerous for visitors due to the possibility of electrocution from the electric cables installed in modern days for lighting.
Inside the Colosseum
After receiving the bad news, Serena changed the plan on the fly. She started the tour with the second level of the Colosseum, followed by the arena floor. The stairs to the Colosseum’s second floor were higher than your usual stairs. Serena reminded us to hold on to the handrails when making our way up. Despite the staircase being higher, compared to the ones in Ang Kor Wat that I visited years ago, the stairs in the Colosseum are wider, making climbing easier. On the second floor, before she brought our attention to the artefacts on display, Serena brought us away from the crowd to an opening that looked out into a building across the road. This was where the training school for the gladiators used to be. A tunnel brought the teenage gladiators from the school to the Colosseum for battles.
Serena started introducing the artefacts on display, from the carvings to the columns that supported the Colosseum to how the enslaved people worked manually to lift the platform from underground to the arena floor. Serena was very detailed and only focused our attention on the important artefacts. As we walked through the artefacts, Serena pointed to carvings on some stones. Next, she explained the graffiti left behind by the spectators, and from these graffiti, we can make out the scenes on the arena floor during gladiatorial battles. There is even one graffiti showing the street food that spectators would buy during the show. Serena then brought our attention to models of the Colosseum in its full glory and even one showing the plan for converting the Colosseum into a church.
Seating Area and the Arena Floor of the Colosseum
We were led outside to the seating area of the Colosseum. Serena was very detailed in explaining who would sit where in the world’s largest amphitheatre. As we were walking one round on the spectator level of the Colosseum, Serena started to explain the exposed underground system in the Colosseum. The entire Colosseum is oval, and we can see the entirety of the amphitheatre at certain spots. Today, we can hardly make out the seating. Also gone were the awnings used to shade the spectators of the elements, but the Colosseum still emits a sense of masculinity and power. It is very different standing in the 2,500-year-old monument and seeing it in pictures and videos. Time has not been kind to the Colosseum, the amphitheatre has gone through flood, earthquakes, lootings and vandalism, but yet after 2½ millennia, the monument still stands firmly in the heart of Rome.
After giving us time to take pictures on the second level of the Colosseum, Serena brought us to the Arena Floor of the Colosseum. Here, Serena explained the underground system in greater detail and even pointed out where we would be if we were underground. She also pointed out the floods that can be visible on the Arena Floor. Although the Colosseum was past its prime glory, standing on the arena level of the monument, we can imagine it must be daunting for the gladiators to put up a performance, literally fighting for their lives in front of 50,000 spectators. I can spend more hours here on the Colosseum, and the views will not get old. It is a shame we have only mere hours here, and soon we were led outside the Colosseum, marking the end of our 2-hour tour of the Colosseum.
Palatine Hill – The Birth Place of Rome
The Roman Forum and Palatine Hill were the next part of the tour. As we were walking to the entrance, it started to rain again. Our first stop is Palatine Hill, one of the seven hills in Rome. Here, the legend of Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, was found and raised by a she-wolf. This hill is also where the Roman Kingdom was found. Serena wanted to bring us to the terrace on Palatine Hil, which she claimed to be the best view of the entire Roman Forum. She introduced us to the Teatro Del Fontanone, where she started from the base, a sheltered and fenced-off area. Next, Serena brought our attention to the painting on the roof. From here, I couldn’t make out the fountain, and the painting on its ceiling was barely visible. As we climbed the stairs to the top of Palatine Hill, Serena introduced the Basilica di Massenzio. Though most of the basilica is gone, we can still make out the massive size of the basilica based on how tall the remaining structure is. As we were moving up the stairs, the top part of Teatro Del Fontanone was visible. I thought there was nothing spectacular about the fountain; it was merely a pool with water flowing from the top of the building. We continued to the terrace, where the view wowed us in front of us. Being the highest point in Roman Forum, Palatine Hill offered us a view of the entire Roman Forum and as far as Capitoline Hill right across from where we were. Although the whole Roman Forum today is reduced to a vast archaeological dig site and tourist site, we can still make out the streets and the remaining buildings. Serena pointed to us the central street in the Forum that cuts across the Forum. From there, she briefly told us what each building was. We did not stay on the terrace for long (and I think we saw what we were meant to see, so there was no need to stay here for too long), Serena brought us to the Roman Forum next.
Roman Forum – The Heart of Ancient Rome
There are tons of ruins on the Roman Forum, most of which are insignificant residential buildings. I thought one of the advantages of having a guided tour is that the guide would point out the more significant buildings and explain what that was. Serena did just that. It started raining as we were being led to the first building. Despite the rain, Serena remained dedicated to continuing narrating stories of the next building we saw. The first building we saw was Tempio di Romolo, with the distinctive feature of a round foyer and its huge bronze doors. The next building we saw was the Tempio di Antonino e Faustina. Serena drew our attention to the Roman columns in front of the temple and the level it was built on. Serena explained the Roman Forum used to be on a higher elevation, but due to the earthquake, part of the elevation collapsed to where it is currently. We did not enter the temple as it was closed for restoration work.
As we were being led to the exit of the Roman Forum, walking through the district’s main street, Serena pointed out an inconspicuous single-storey structure. This is where Julius Caesar’s body was burnt after he died. As a group was there, plus the rain, we did not go nearer to see. Our tour ended at around 1.30 pm. By this time, we were drenched, and the rain had stopped. After bidding farewell to Serena, we walked around the roman ruins to take more pictures and to dry ourselves. At this point, we appreciated the presence of a guide as they could point to us what the essential ruins were. If not for Serena, we would be looking at a bunch of rumbles and thought all of these ruins were crucial landmarks.
Capitoline Hill – The Epicentre of the Roman Empire
At this point, we were getting a little bored with the ruins and were hungry. We exited the Roman Forum and ruins and wanted to look for food. Coming out from the exit, we were immediately targeted by some black guys trying to sell us overpriced souvenirs. I told my friends to ignore them and keep walking. These sellers only paddled their wares at the exits of the sites and did not follow us. We walked around looking for Osteria or Trattoria for an authentic Italian lunch. Near the Colosseum area, all we saw were Ristorante, which we recalled the reception at our hotel reminded us to avoid. As we were walking further from the Colosseum, one of my friends suggested we head down a flight of stairs to see if we could find something to eat there. Luckily we heeded his suggestion, we found an Osteria that served authentic Italian food. The restaurant was simple in its decor, but the food was terrific. We hardly saw any tourists and were the third table of foreigners.
After lunch, two of my friends returned to the hotel to rest as they were not feeling well. The reminding four of us headed back to explore Capitoline Hill, located next to the Roman Forum. We made our way to Campidoglio on Capitoline Hill. I read that we will be able to see a beautiful sunset from here. Unfortunately, we were soon disappointed as all we saw was a Bronze statue surrounded by buildings. These buildings are museums that we did not bother to check out. But we thought the Campidoglio looked beautiful, with the night lights illuminating during dusk. As we were walking downs a flight of stairs, we spotted another flight of stairs that seemed to lead to a white marble building supported by tall roman columns. As we headed up the stairs, we saw people walking around behind the fenced-off area under the columns. Thinking there might be an entrance at the top of the stairs, we headed up the stairs. On top of the stairs, we came across the Basilica di Santa Maria in Ara coeli. We went into the basilica, thinking we could enter the fenced-off area inside. The interior of Basilica di Santa Maria in Ara coeli was grand, and the church has intricate carvings on its ceilings and vibrant paintings on the walls and ceilings where the main altar is. As we were more interested in looking for the entrance to the fenced-off area, we paid little attention to the artwork in the basilica. After walking around, we were disappointed that we did not find any entrance to the fenced-off area. We left the basilica soon after.
It was already getting dark, and we wanted to revisit the Pantheon and see if we could get inside. We saw a structure that looked much like the Colosseum, the Temple of Apollo Sosianus. My friend remarked that it is the building that Serena had told us about earlier, which the Colosseum is modelled after. Indeed we could see the “complete” oval shape that the Colosseum looked when it was in its prime and the many of the iconic arches that gave the Colosseum its character. However, there seems to be a building built on top of the temple, which might have been built many years after the building was in ruins. We did not venture further and took some pictures instead, as we wanted to get to the Pantheon before it closed. Not long after, we reached the Pantheon and were delighted to find no queue to enter the building. At first, we thought we were lucky, but after asking a staff guarding the entrance, we were told there was a mass inside the Pantheon, and the attraction will be closed for the next 45 mins. What a shame. For the second time, we missed the opportunity to enter the Pantheon to marvel at the unreinforced dome. We could stand there and wait for 45 mins, but we thought this was a waste of time and headed to the Spanish Steps.
Spanish Steps – Heart of Rome
This time, we again put our trust in Google Maps to lead us to Spanish Steps. Google Maps did not disappoint us this time, and we were led past a busy shopping area with luxury boutiques. We did a little shopping while making mental notes on where to shop in Rome if we needed to come back in the next few days while we were in Rome. Soon after, we found ourselves in front of the Spanish Steps, a flight of stairs leading to the church of Trinita di Monti. One cannot miss the white church that shines even brighter under the night lights. We headed up the stairs and went into the church. Inside the church, there were motives for Christ’s life after his crucifixion and ascension to heaven. The main altar is fenced off, which could be opened if there is mass. We did not stay here for too long as our main goal is taking pictures of the Spanish Steps. Heading outside the church, the view of Rome from the top of the Spanish Steps was amazing, especially the night streets lit up with Christmas lights. A few more pictures later, we decided to return to the hotel and once again put our trust in Google Maps. We followed the directions given by Google Maps, which led us to the banks of the Tiber River, the river that flows through Rome. After walking along the banks for 20 mins, following the directions given by Google Maps, we found ourselves back where we started. Google Maps brought us one big round!! Well, I thought this might be a blessing in disguise. If not for Google Maps, we wouldn’t have come to the Tiber River. We got our bearings using the landmarks we had passed by previously and headed back to the hotel, only using Google Maps to confirm we were on the right track.