This is the first of two articles on Rome we are publishing this week on the blog.
Planting the seed
This scene takes place on March 6, 2014: In true Inception fashion, I spur Jarelle on trying a Gladiator outfit, as we get ready for the record-setting QUT toga party. Looking at his roar of happiness, I know he is ready for what will come. Little did he know that he would get to re-enact this role 3 years later in the theatre of so many tragic Gladiator deaths: the Colosseum. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this story is about Rome, the Eternal City.
Like a Gladiator breaking his chains (most gladiators were slaves captured during the Roman Empire’s military campaigns) and joining Spartacus’ army of escaped slaves, Jarelle escaped the servitude of his Californian sedentary existence and took a flight to Europe for the first time in his life… With little food & sleep, he kept moving in search of his freedom, just like his illustrious gladiatorial ancestors. History is an endless cycle, a little bird told me.
I first went to Rome exactly 2 years prior. While I had mixed feelings about the Northern part of Italy (I visited Toscana, Firenze, Sienna, Milan, the Swiss border lakes and Venice), I instantly fell in love with Rome, further south. Rome is the quintessential museum city. Everything feels so authentic here; I remember it was hard to find something else than tourist pizzas in Venice. In Rome, authentic food is the norm, not the exception, through this delightful concept of cucina romana. We’ll come back to that in part 2.
Panem et Circenses: bread and circuses
After arriving at the Rome airport, we headed straight to our accommodation in Trastevere (skipping the Square Colosseum, which I would advise you to stop by if you’re coming from the international airport), a spacious renovated apartment in the heart of Trastevere. Holiday accommodation in Rome is fairly expensive, but curiously this lovely homestay was amongst the cheapest (around 90-100€/night). You can book it on Booking.com.
Chief in our mind was getting food, so I took Jarelle to one of my favorite places nearby, Bir & Fud: in a country known for its wine, this is a temple for craft beer, and they also serve delicious food. Plus, they have a painting of the Last Supper with Jesus drinking a cold one. ‘Nough said.
As we watch the NBA Finals throughout the night, my wild imagination entertains comparisons between famous Gladiators of yore and NBA players:
- Spartacus is LeBron, who led the Cavs revolt from 3-1 down. However, Spartacus suffered huge losses and was eventually killed by superior warriors. Similarly, LeBron will likely end his career with a god-awful 3-10 Finals ratio.
- Claudius is Durant, for joining the Warriors and making the finals matchup even more unfair.
- Mevia is Curry: did anybody expect one of the few female gladiators to kill beasts with a spear… time and time again? Likewise, did anybody expect a baby-faced sniper to drain 402 three-pointers in a season?
- Carpophorus: “Specializing in Bestiarii, Carpophorus was the best gladiator who combated beasts. Most of the time, he would fight many creatures at one time. Carpophorus is known for taking down a bear, leopard, and lion during the same battle at the opening of the Flavian Amphitheatre.” Sounds like Draymond to me.
Immersing ourselves in 2,000-year-old history
The following morning, to get us ready for the day, we headed down to our local barista to have an espresso and a cornetto. I love how, in Italy, barista are not your typical 20-year-old temp workers but old experienced men. They take their coffee seriously there! You might even see 50-year-old black and white photos on the wall with the original owner shaking the hand of a movie star or local politician.
We walked half an hour through the cool morning streets, as Italians started going to work on their Vespas, to arrive at the Palatine Hill to take in the sweeping view of the Roman Forum and shoot some amazing photos.
The Roman Forum use to be the center of civic and political life, being where the Congress, religious and commercial buildings stood. We didn’t have time to visit the Forum (it took me 3-4 hours last time I did it), but the view is more majestic from the top of the hill anyway. We still went to the entrance ticket booth, to buy our tickets for the Colosseum (one of my top tips to avoid the queues at the Colosseum).
And so we walked on to the imperial Colosseum, built 2,000 years ago! Like any young men who has seen the movie Gladiator, visiting the Colosseum is always a thrill! However, the movie (like most Hollywood productions) doesn’t do justice to the history of this place.
Originally used as an amphitheatre for gladiatorial games, this was the Entertainment center of the city. You can see the strategic importance of this place, as it allows the Roman Emperors to keep the mass content and prevent unrest (leading to the phrase Panem et Circenses – “bread and games”). The gladiator games were quite a unique spectacle, that would rival any of today’s Broadway productions. The only difference is that they involved warrior slaves captured from the Empire’s military campaigns in Europe and Africa, in a fight to the death with other gladiators, or for more pzazz: elephants, lions, rhinoceros and other wild beasts. But like Broadway, the Colosseum had its complex system of moveable platforms, such that the beasts could rise up in the arena from underground, or that they could flood the entire arena and recreate the Empire’s naval battles with mock ships (picture the same scene today, set in the Levi’s Stadium: a squadron of combat drones flys over the field at the speed of sound, drop a few targeted bombs on the 50-year line, and call it a day. All done under 10 seconds. Oh, how wars have changed! On this very topic, I’d advise you to read the book The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker. I won’t delve on it as this is a happy travel article).
In later centuries, the Colosseum was used as housing, a storage space, a quarry, a fortress, and a Christian shrine… Talk about a multi-purpose building!
Next to the Colosseum, we took the opportunity to run laps around the Circus Maximus, this 250,000-seat arena used for epic Ben Hur-style chariot races back in the day.
After this active matinée, we walked to the Altare della Patria, the massive monument built in honor of the first King of Italy, Victor Emmanuel, which stands in the center of the city next to Piazza Venezia.
After shooting some unauthorized workout footage, we went onwards to the Pantheon. With the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome, which still stands after two thousand years, this is one of the most impressive historical building in Europe. However, Jarelle was hungry and didn’t want to visit any more things. Knowing my friend is prone to throwing kid-like tantrums when he wants food, we prioritize feeding him over seeing a very high ceiling. We headed to a fancy restaurant close by, where we had small portions of expensive food. However, I can’t complaint: it was eccellentissimo.
Quite tired from our lack of sleep the previous night and our day of walking, we headed back to our apartment by way of the Trevi Fountain and the majestic Piazza Navona, to rest for a bit.
In the evening, we strolled through the charming Trastevere, and headed to one of my favorite restaurants in the city: Il Antico Moro. Delicious homemade local food at reasonable price, with a relaxed vibe. It is almost as if time slows down in this place, and we feasted on many dishes, until midnight, when the friendly waiter still had the time to joke about bitcoins with us.
How the Pope ruined our Vatican visit (Just kidding. Please God, don’t hurt me)
The following morning, we decided to wake up at dawn and walked half an hour to the Vatican, hoping we could get inside the St Peter’s Basilica before the throng of tourists. Do you know how to recognize when you’ve officially crossed the border to the Vatican? When you pass by a group of secret agents wearing designer suits and sunglasses… It always amuses me how stylish Italians are under all circumstances.
But we arrived to a packed audience waiting silently under the morning heat. This was weird, as we were expecting less of a seated audience and more of winding queues. Alas, it all made sense soon enough: guards told us the Basilica was closed this morning, as the Pope was giving Mass at noon. And the crazy thing was that there were these hundreds of people at only 7:30am…
So after a small sensual dance that made the nuns in our vicinity faint from their accelerated heartbeat, we walked back all the way to our apartment.
With our bags on our backs, we took a bus to the Spanish Steps. This is an unremarkable overcrowded tourist spot (basically some stairs), so we walked to the esplanade above it. This led us to the entrance of the Villa Borghese gardens, while offering a panoramic view of the city.
In my opinion, the gigantic Villa Borghese gardens are one of the best public parks in Europe. The park has a calm and soothing charm which allows you to escape the hustle and bustle of the city below. We sat down on a bench next to the small lake, and relaxed for an hour, while observing the almost cinematic scenes playing out around us: as a man on the bench next to us was playing his enchanting mandolin like a magician, a snotty-nosed little boy stood there fascinated while a grandma was dancing and rocking a stroller at the same time.
As the afternoon was starting, we made a small detour to see the Quartiere Coppedè, small and whimsical district with fantasy architecture, including a fountain with statues of frogs, palazzi with mosaics and frescoes, and intricate ironwork. We then walked the long way to the Termini train station to catch our train to Naples and bid farewell to Rome.
We only had about a day and a half in Rome, which is not how I would advise to visit this city. However, since I already knew the highlights and what we should check out, our visit was quite efficient and we could still see a lot. The way I would advise to take in all of Rome in (as a tourist, not if you’re planning to live 1 month there) is this: spend a full week. Have a few famous sights you plan on checking out, so you know when to go and what to expect.
But most importantly, keep 50-60% of your time to wander around aimlessly and discover what joy it is. This is how I did it the first 2 days I was there (starting during the night no less). You’ll walk from piazza to piazza, see unbelievable fountains and monuments, and wonder ‘what is this? It’s amazing!’
In Part 2 of our Rome coverage, I’ll share all my tips and tricks to enjoy Rome to the maximum, including how you should organize your day, what to look out for when eating at the restaurant, places to stay, little-known attractions to visit, and even my private map of the city’s best gelaterias. Stay tuned!