Friday, October 30, 2009

Here’s the thing about Rome: it’s been here for a really long time. Romulus settled down around 753 BC, and the Roman Republic was founded in 509 BC. And it’s not like the ancient Romans were particularly concerned about preserving their own history. Like us in modern society, they tore things down and re-built over old things and used the stones from one temple to build a new temple and so on. People have been building and tearing down and rebuilding and abandoning and reclaiming and thoroughly inhabiting the place for about 2700 years. This means that just about everywhere you turn in Rome is a mix of modern and ancient, which can be incongruous and startling and fantastic. What can I say? Rome is a city of contrasts.

For instance, the Colosseum looks like the ancient Romans built it in the middle of a roundabout. And the Area Sacrea di Largo Argentina is, as the LP says, “more of a traffic hub than an historic monument.” Discovered in 1926, it’s sunk about 20’ lower than the current street level and covers a city block. The site contains the remains of four Roman temples and a paved square and is apparently the spot where Julius Caesar was murdered in 44 BC - “Et tu Brute” and the Ides of March and all that. It also includes an impressive collection of feral cats, and convenient bus and tram connections to the rest of the city. There’s stuff like that all over. I walked a lot, and I kept stumbling on chunks of marble columns tucked away in vacant lots.

See what I mean? Ruins, buses, buildings...

It's a a bit like that at the Forum. My visit to there was… confusing. It’s a huge site – it must be acres and acres of ruins, incongruously surrounded by a bustling, modern city. I got the audioguide but (as I Tweeted) it was less-than-impressive*. The commentary was very good, but it was virtually impossible to tell which particular heap of ruined what-not the friendly voice was talking about (and let’s remember that I’m not some wet-behind-the-ears audioguide neophyte - I’ve practically got an advanced degree in audioguidery at this point). Every other audioguide I’ve used to this point has worked the same way: you walk up to whatever site you’re interested in, punch in the number that’s prominently displayed on nearby signage, and listen to what the nice voice has to say. At the Forum you do this:

  • Consult tiny 6” x 6” map that encompasses the entire site and attempt to orient yourself.
  • Locate a number on the map and position yourself in approximately the same area.
  • Punch in the number and listen attentively, trying desperately to determine if the heap of red brick on the left is the Basilica Fulvia-Aemilia, or perhaps the Temple of Castor and Pollux. Or maybe the Castor and Pollux thing is those 3 broken columns on the left. And wait a minute, did he say “Arch of Septimus Severus” or “Temple of Saturn”?
  • Repeat 30 times, until you’re ready to insert your audioguide device into any available orifice of the guy who designed the map, or, most especially, whatever Hell-bent committee decided that they wouldn’t bother to put up a few discreet signs to give the tens of thousands of tourists who visit the site a fighting chance of knowing what they’re looking at. As I said in my Tweet – whoever designed that system should suffer death by a thousand paper cuts and then be forced to use his own guide to find his way to the afterlife. (“Ok, if that’s the River Styx then the boatman should be just over here… oh, no wait a minute. I must have this map upside down…”)

Here’s the map that came with the audioguide.

And here’s a good overview of what the site looks like. You can see why I was a bit confused.

So the Forum was frustrating. The Colosseum, on the other hand, was quite excellent. I took a guided tour there, and that was a much better choice. It’s much more contained, so it’s not as confusing. And come on, who wouldn’t be impressed with a sight like this?

The Colosseum was great, as was my guide who was full of useful tidbits of information, like the fact that the floor contained sixty trap doors with counter-weighted elevators operated on pulleys by slaves. This meant that 60 gladiators could appear through the floor all at once. Very impressive.

The remains of the understructure of the arena floor.

Also, there were originally no barriers between the wild animals fighting in the arena and the prominent citizens in the best seats close by. Apparently one or two senators became tiger chow before they realized they should put up nets. Hee hee.

I saw lots of other “biggie” sights too. For instance, the Trevi Fountain. And here's something weird: it turns out that I’d apparently never seen any image of the Trevi Fountain in my life before I encountered the real thing on Sunday afternoon. Honestly, when I came upon it after wandering through the maze of streets all I could think was, “Really? This is it? This is the Trevi Fountain? Well, I’ll be.” It wasn’t that it’s not lovely; in fact I lied it very much. It’s just that it was completely unexpected. Not at all the many-tiered circular wedding cake-like affair I had in my head. And on that afternoon it was positively heaving with people.

Heaving, I said. (Sometimes I wonder how many other people's pictures I've appeared in by this point...)

It turns out that the best time to see the Trevi is at 12:30 am, on a long walk back to the hostel, after having a few friendly drinks with Roman hashers. At least that was my experience. Your mileage may vary.

Much better

It’s also true what they say about the traffic in Rome. It’s a bit crazy, and getting to the other side of the street is kind of a cross between a game of Frogger and an extreme sport. There are crosswalks marked on the roads, but cars seem to obey them only when a critical mass of pedestrians develops and spontaneously surges across the the road, forcing the traffic to stop. In fact, I realized it was time for me to leave Rome when I found myself leading the charge across an intersection, right into oncoming traffic. Obviously I survived, but think it might be best to hit the road, figuratively speaking, before I ended up doing so literally.

Of course I also saw the Pantheon, which, like the Trevi Fountain, was not what I as expecting. I thought it would be smaller and sort of more run down. In fact, it’s huge and really impressive. Actually anything Roman that was subsequently taken over by the church is generally preserved much better than the rest of the Roman stuff. (The most intact sites at the Forum were also buildings that had been turned into churches.)

The dome of the Pantheon, my favourite part (of course) Legend says that they built it supported by an enormous heap of earth salted with gold coins. Then when the dome was complete they invited the citizens of Rome to come and cart away the dirt and keep whatever they found in it. Clever Romans.

I could go on and on. I haven’t even mentioned the Vatican at all, and that's a whole other country. And there was the Piazza Navona (And accompanying navigational nightmare on the evening of the drinks with hashers. Let’s just say that approaching the Piazza Navona from the east looks and feels remarkably similar to approaching the Piazza Navona from the west, and leave it at that.) And there were free aperitivi at the Campo de’ Fiori, and there was that stumbled-upon intersection where the buildings on each of the 4 corners were adorned with fountains, and there was running in the park at the Villa Borghese and lots and lots and lots of walking. And of course there was more gelato (new flavours: bacio, pinioli, amarena)

But now it’s time to say arrivederci Roma and hop the train for Cassino, and another Canadian War Cemetery, and another Great-uncle lost too soon. Stay tuned for that, and Naples, and Pompeii, and the big hop to Greece for the most unprepared-for marathon of my life.

* I found out too late that Rick Steves has a big selection of free audioguides for major sights in Italy, that can be downloaded for free from iTunes. Damn!


Mitch said...

Never having been to ITaly, there is alot more green in the ruins that I expected!

Lisa said... THAT's what the Trevi Fountain looks like with water...When I was there in 1989 it had been drained for cleaning/repairs or something or other...I chucked my coin in and heard it "clink" rather than "sploosh" and knew I would be coming back..I just hoped it would be sooner than's been 20 years now...(WHA?)

Kathryn said...

So glad you tried my gelato recommendation!

Unknown said...


No people pics in Rome?

What about some of those Hashers?

No pics or stories about Sienna?


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