Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Mediterranean Madness Part VI: Rome, Italy

Day Four; Port Three
Roman Roaming
The next port was Civitavecchia, Italy (saveeta vekya) which is the port that services Rome.  We were really looking forward to our day in Rome, and, once again, Seth could hardly stay in his skin for excitement about visiting the Colosseum.  This tour had me and my group of four, Sarah's parents, Mike and George Anne, and Sarah's sister and her husband, Chris and Micah.  Our guide's name was Octavio, and he was a friendly, professional man who spoke very softly.  But what he lacked in volume he made up for in knowledge.  He was a wealth of information and never seemed to tire of us asking what are probably dumb tourist questions.  I enjoyed his random observations such as, "Those hills over there were probably the first settlements of the Etruscans."  I'm really into trivial details like that.

He intended to take us first to the Colosseum, but he immediately changed his plans when we asked if we could fit in the catacombs.  It didn't matter to him, but we had to stop there first and then proceed to the Colosseum.  He did mention that it might be busy by the time we got there, though.  As you get closer and closer to Rome, you see no end of ancient walls, old watch towers, and aqueduct ruins.  I was determined to get up close and personal to some of those ruins and examine them.  I'm simply amazed that something could stand for more than 2,000 years, when I can't seem to get my bedroom door to stop squeaking.  We arrived at the Catacombs of St Callixtus, and the tours were guided in whatever language you spoke, and they left every few minutes.  It cost 8 Euros per adult/ 5 Euros per child (so 26 Euros for our family of 4).
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The entrance to the catacombs

While we were waiting for our turn to enter the catacombs, I spotted an old building near the restrooms.  It might have been small, but I'll bet it played a significant role in history.  I walked over to it and placed my hands on it, finding that emotional connection that comes with personally and physically interacting with a piece of history.  How many other people had touched this small building over the last 2,000 years?  Had Julius Caesar himself leaned upon these very stones?  Had gladiators possibly breathed their dying breaths in this very soil?  I saw a placard on the building and, in my limited Italian, read, when the building was erected, in Roman numerals, no doubt. MCMXXIX. Let's see, when a C comes before an M...  What the?!?!  That small shed was built in 1929?  I was emotionally connected with a tool shed that didn't even see WWI?  Moving right along...
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We bootlegged a few photos.  You're not supposed to take pictures, but the group behind us was flashing away, so we snuck in a few.  Not only are these an opportunity for you to see how incredibly good looking we are, but you can get a feel for the tunnels.

Our turn came to tour the catacombs, and I have to say, it was an incredible place to visit.  The words cryptic and labyrinth are the only true description that actually instills the proper image.  We saw frescos that chronicled the desperate lives of the 1st century Christians, and marveled at how they developed codes to avoid the Roman authorities, and how they preserved their faith through the worst prosecution the Christians would ever face.  Despite all they endured, their tombs were celebrations of life rather than the sufferings of meaningless deaths.  Our guide even let us go off trail for a moment as we crawled over a dirty wall and emerged in a tomb in another corridor.  The only reason he allowed us to do that was because we were a small, private group.  Cool stuff!  Our guide reminded me of an Italian version of James Spader.  I'll let your imagination take you where it will...  Unfortunately, Mike was unable to enter the Catacombs (he was expecting this), as they are most definitely not wheelchair friendly.  He spent his time wandering around the rather lovely park that surrounded the catacomb entrance, and though he was disappointed, didn't seem to be too upset by his limitations.  The kids absolutely loved the underground tour, and all of us were very grateful we took time to visit the Catacombs.
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A crypt we were allowed to view that had remains in it.  The grounds were very pleasant and Mike enjoyed touring above ground while we toured below.

As we were getting back into the van, I asked Octavio if he was familiar with the La Bocca della Verità, which is a sculpture at the church of Santa Maria and is thought to be from a first century AD fountain.  It has an open mouth, and it was believed that if one told a lie with one's hand in the mouth of the sculpture, it would be bitten off.  It was also made famous by the movie, Roman Holiday.  It was also featured on one episode of Castle.  When I asked Octavio about it, he shook his head sadly.  "I was saving that as a surprise for you."  Great!  I have a knack for spoiling tour surprises.  When we arrived at the sculpture, there were so many people standing in line and pretending to have their hands bitten off that we were forced to skip it.  Too bad.  Now we will never know if I'm a liar.

Okay, now it's time to go see the Colosseum.  Octavio loaded us up and before we knew it, we were driving through some magnificent arched gates and we entered the old part of Rome.  We were driving on Appian Way, one of the earliest roads ever built, dating back to 312 BC.  And I suppose this is the proper time to get it over with: this road did lead to Rome.

Now we were in the heart of the historic district, and emperors really did travel this path.  Entire armies marched down this road as Rome continued to advance with each passing year.  And, our guide pointed out, Sophia Loren also passed this way.
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Suddenly, there it was!  Can you see the hoards of barbarians forming?
We drove along for a moment gazing from one ancient building to the next.  There was a church from the 2nd century AD, here was a wall built in 100 BC, and then we turned a corner and there it was.  The Colosseum was suddenly right in front of us, and the pavement wrapped around it like it was always intended to do so.  Cars and scooters flew past it like it was a sycamore tree on Main Street back home.  But Octavio paused a moment and let us appreciate what was happening.  He then circled around and he hurriedly parked a hundred yards from one of the most impressive historical sites I've ever seen.  We climbed out of the van and simply marveled.  I looked around and tried to imagine what life was like when this masterpiece was constructed.  I allowed my mind to drift and I activated my imagination.  I envisioned Roman soldiers standing on the cobble stones, their presence both seen and felt.  It was so real to me.  I watched as one soldier, a centurion, in fact, turned from his companions and lifted his cell phone to his ear and drew deeply on a cigarette.  Wait a minute!  Those weren't the product of my fertile imagination; they were re-enactors who posed for photos.  But, it was a nice touch!  We had pre purchased our tickets, so Octavio told us which line was ours in order to visit the site, and we headed out with a full hour to see as much as we could.
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Mike was able to access almost every part of the Colosseum with his scooter.

At that moment we realized why Octavio mentioned that it might be crowded and that we were no longer ahead of the barbarians.  Holy sardines packed in a tin can, Batman!  I had never seen that many people in all my life, and I've ridden the subways in Mexico City, where they hire people to push on passengers butts to press them into the car so the doors will close.  Every person in the European Union was trying to press their way into the Colosseum at that very moment, and the entrance was completely overwhelmed by a sea of humanity.  In actuality, there are three lines for the entrance to the Colosseum.  There is one for those who need to purchase tickets on the right.  There is a line for those who have already purchased tickets in the middle, and the third line if for large tour groups.  But there was no way to tell where the lines were because every person on the planet, and all of those who were yet to be born were packed in so tightly that no one could move.  I'm not a crowdy kind of person.  I like things to be simple.  We stood somewhere near the crowd trying to figure out just how to get inside that building.  I turned around for a moment to see if there were any signs telling us where to be and when I turned around again, my family group was gone.  Every last one of them.  And I was all alone in that ocean of barbarians.  And I was deliberately wearing a bright orange shirt so I could be easily seen!  In the distance I could hear Micah yelling my name, but I wasn't sure where.  Finally, I saw her waving at me, and I was immediately grateful that Mike Brown had at least one tall child.  I began wedging myself into the crowd and bullied my way through several thousand people until I was caught up with my family group.  It was at that moment that I said, "I can see now why the gladiators were so willing to kill people."  We continued to press our way to the scanners that would read our tickets and grant us entry.  After several more minutes of pushing through, we finally made it into the Colosseum and discovered that it was worth the pain to do so.  Take a tip from me: pre-purchase your Colosseum tickets.  It will save you a ton of time.
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Once we pushed through the gate this is the crowd inside.  Can you see the three lines?

The Colosseum is considered one of the greatest works of Roman architecture for a reason.  It is the largest amphitheater in the world, and it was built in only 10 years, and was completed in 80 AD.  It had a series of tunnels and chambers that allowed the gladiators and animals to come and go without being hindered, and it had the first retractable dome.  Well, sort of.  There were retractable canvass shades.  It was supposed to have a seating capacity of around 80,000 people.  I can attest to that, as all of them were standing in there with me.  I counted twice to confirm the number.
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If you want to become emotionally invested in a piece of Roman history, this will fit your bill.  Try to imagine the crowds swelling into the stadium to watch blood and gore, all in the name of Rome.  Here on these grounds, countless Christians were sent to be slaughtered for refusing to worship Caesar.  Here, on these grounds, countless bulls, lions, and tigers were slaughtered to entertain the masses.  Here on these grounds, the gladiators fought, hoping that they would eventually win their freedom and be released from slavery.  And one little tidbit of information: Most gladiator battles did not result in the death of a warrior.  Many were allowed to live if they fought valiantly and were honorably defeated.  It was more common for a gladiator to live to fight again than it was for him to be sacrificed.  Okay, enough reminiscing, back to the tour...
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I promise we didn't wear orange to be a cutesy couple.  We did it so we could find each other in the crowd!

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The inner ring, and the view from the second level.  Behind the arches is where the Roman soldier was smoking and where Octavio met us with the van.

We stumbled across a small space that surprisingly had no one standing in it, so we seized the moment and we all took turns posing for family photos.  We then fought our way around the outer ring and even managed to work our way to the second level, which was a little less crowded.  We ambled around a few more minutes, but we were tiring of the competition for real estate, and decided that we had seen almost everything we wanted to see.  Really, an hour was plenty of time, even considering how long it took us to get in the gate.  I swore to never return, but Sarah insists that when we DO return, we will take a tour that is exclusive to the restricted areas where the public is not allowed.  Those tours explore the underground walkways and the subfloor of the stadium.  She is right, of course.  When you go, pay the extra for that tour and don't fight the crowd.  They even have their own entrance!
Liquid Courage to keep fighting the crowd.

Seth found his snow globe in the souvenir shops just outside the gates, and I found a small bottle of wine at a concession stand near the souvenir stand.  We each grabbed a snacky type of item and pressed on with our tour.  Try not to judge me for buying the wine before noon.  Numerous studies have been conducted on men who have been subjected to large crowds in malls at Christmas time, and they concluded that the stress they feel is somewhat akin to that experienced by a fighter pilot in a dogfight.  Check it out! 
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From there, we went to the Forum, where the remains of the senate stood tall and proud.  The Forum was located just across the hillside from the Colosseum, and you can see one from the other. It was a great place for us to get out of the van and walk around for a few minutes.  We found the prison were the Apostle Peter was held, at least according to legend. 
The view from the Forum
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A building called the Wedding Cake and me drinking from a public fountain.

From there we drove past the site where Julius Caesar was murdered and I was proud of my kids for knowing that Brutus killed Julius.  At least according to Shakespeare.  My kids love to say, "Et tu, Brute?" and someone usually responds with, "No, we ain't et yet."  I guess it's funnier if you grew up in the South.  But this reminded us that we had not yet had our lunch, and the Colosseum had taken it out of us.  We were all starving, and asked Octavio to take us to eat.  He nodded and explained that we were on our way, but there were a few places to stop first.  Okay, but make it quick.  We were hungry, and getting cranky.

We next stopped at the Pantheon, which is practically indescribable, and free to enter.  But, Octavio stopped the van in a square with a statue of an elephant and pointed down across the rather large square.  "That is the Pantheon.  Please try to be back in about 30 minutes."  We looked and looked, but couldn't see it.  We asked him again, but he pointed across the square.  "That building right there."  We looked at it, but it in no way resembled the Pantheon, which is a stately structure with massive columns and large doors.  We could only see an old brick building.  But, we trusted our guide and set out across the square and followed the street as he instructed us.  Half a block later we emerged in a larger square and suddenly realized that we had been walking along the edge of the Pantheon the entire time, but we had approached it from the back side, which looks nothing like the front. 
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Trust your guide.  That round building turned out the be the Pantheon.

Again we were befuddled by the shear mass of barbarians.  They were everywhere.  By the thousands.  But, we pressed our way into the impressive doors and entered what proved to be one of the most spectacular ancient sites in Rome.  The enormity of the building was inspiring, and I have no idea how the ancient people were able to build such an elaborate structure.  The temple was circular with a dome, and had an open roof, which allowed rain to fall into it, but today we only had sunshine.  This is still the world's largest unsupported dome, which is 147 feet from floor to ceiling.  We spent several minutes wandering around with the rest of the barbarians who were crammed into the building.  We found Rafael's crypt and by that time the crowd was so massive that we decided to return to the van.  Don't miss the Pantheon.  What a marvelous structure.  And it is very old, having been built 2,000 years ago.  It is also unique in that is has been in continual use since Hadrian had it rebuilt.

We were most assuredly ready for our lunch by this point, and we asked Octavio about it again as we loaded up, and he assured us he was headed that way now.  Only we had to stop at Trevi Fountain before we could eat.  The Fountain was only a few blocks away, and we didn't want to miss that.  So, according to legend, if you toss a coin into the fountain over your shoulder, you are guaranteed to return to Rome some day.  But when we arrived at the fountain, the sea of Barbarians just about overwhelmed me.  Whoever was not at the Colosseum or the Pantheon was at the fountain.  An exceedingly large mass of barbarians were pressed in so close that we almost never found a way to get down to the water's edge.  But we did.  And we tossed our coins.  Great, now I have to go back.  But I want it to be on a slower traffic day!  Oh my goodness!  I was so frustrated with the number of people that I was growing very crabby.  And we wanted to eat.  To make matters worse, we walked right past two glorious looking restaurants as we walked the street to the fountain.  I will stop complaining long enough to say that Trevi Fountain is a really cool place to visit.  It is simply wonderful, and I would dearly love to see it again…someday. 
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Money well spent?

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Grandma throws in a coin for Mike, who couldn't get to the fountain.  See the barbarians?

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There is no way I'm fighting that crowd.  The Spanish Steps and (finally!) our restaurant!

From there, Octavio promised that we were now on our way to eat.  But, did anyone want to drive past the Spanish Steps?  It would only delay us by five minutes.  FINE!  (How do you say no to the Spanish Steps?  Right?  I mean, were already there, and all we have to do is delay our meal by five minutes.)  So, we headed that way.  The steps are so named because that is where the Spanish Embassy is, and if you climb the steps you can see an awesome sunset.  But as we approached the steps, there was no way on Earth we were going to get out of the van and fight that crowd.  So, we scooted past and made our way to the restaurant.  Octavio promised that it would be an easy place for Mike to get in and out with his wheelchair/scooter.  And he was right.
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See how grumpy we were becoming?  For those who are counting, that is my second glass of wine for the day...  And this is a salami pizza.
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We had to cut every pizza with a knife.  And that lasagna?  Incredible!

The restaurant was a lovely place.  And it was a busy place.  Many locals were eating there, along with several other tour groups from Rome in Limo tours.  We had pizza again, and it was wonderful.  The salami pizza I ordered was absolutely amazing, and it went great with our bottle of wine.  Seth had his Margherita pizza, and Caitie ordered something with mushrooms.  Sarah had lasagna, and it was jaw dropping amazing as well.  Getting some food into our bellies made us all feel better, and we were now ready to continue facing the mob of barbarians who were awaiting our arrival at Vatican City.
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The Vatican.

Much can be said about the Vatican.  One thing that stood out to me was the sea of humanity.  Thousands upon thousands of barbarians meandered about the grounds, and we jumped right in with them.  St. Peter's Basilica was open, but the line to get into it was four hours long, and we simply didn't have that much time.  We desperately wanted to visit the Sistine Chapel, but as it was a Sunday, it was closed to visitations, so we were out of luck.  We simply didn't have enough time to do anything other than casually explore.  So, we wondered around for a little while until we decided that we really needed some gelato.  We found a small gelato stand just beyond the barrier for the Vatican and tried their wares.  The kids smiled when they saw the gelato came with wafer, which was stamped with a likeness of the Pope.  I have to say, that gelato was the most unimpressive of all that we had tried.  So far, Italy was falling short in the search for incredible gelato. 

It was now time to head back to the ship, but I wanted to visit the restroom before climbing aboard the van.  I found a gift shop very close to the gelato stand and saw that there was a public restroom.  I was expecting there to be a very long line for the restrooms, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that only a few people stood in line ahead of me.  Within a minute I was walking into an open stall and noticed that one old woman was fussing at me with a vengeance.  I figured that she must be desperate, so I stepped aside and allowed her to pass.  When I did, another woman rushed up and began fussing.  Well, I needed to go, but she looked like she was in a bad way, so I granted her passage as well.  But, my own needs were pressing me to hurry, so I dashed into the next open stall.  When I emerged, a man commented something to me in German, but I have no idea what he said.  And then I turned the corner and saw the line for the restroom.  It stretched down the hall and out the door, and onto the street.  I had cut in line, and everyone knew it but me.  You would think that the people at the Vatican would be more forgiving, but those folk were a bit testy, and they were looking me over.  I could see no good reason to hang out, so I found the van and advised Octavio that now is a great time to start driving.  I certainly didn't want to wait around for the next Inquisition. 

Thus concluded our day in Rome.  We really enjoyed seeing the sites and touring the culture of the ancient city.  What we were not expecting was the volume of barbarians who were in the city with us.  We mentioned it to Octavio, but he shrugged.  "It's a Sunday," he explained.  "It's usually much busier."  Holy smoke!  How could it have been busier?  Well, regardless, we had a great time and enjoyed a great meal.  We would go back to Rome, but next time, we won't be on such a tight schedule.  This will allow us to not feel so rushed.  We were all exhausted from the day, but we had two sea days ahead of us, and we desperately needed some down time.

When we started the day we decided that we needed to attack Rome with a vengeance and see as much as possible in the few hours allotted us.  Who knew when we would ever get back to Rome?  Now that we've seen the highlights, we know what to do when we return.  And even though the crowds were insane, it was well worth it.  Rome was incredible!

And tomorrow we will discuss the sea days.

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