Rome wasn’t built in a day… (But it was visited in one)

Posted by jswt | Posted in General, Italy - Rome | Posted on 27-03-2010


Last I wrote, we were headed off for a couple nights in Rome… Hopped a train on Thursday night after work, and got in around midnight. Could have gone out, but opted instead to chill out and make the most of the luxuries of the Grand Hotel (read: comfiest bed *ever*)… Glad we saved our energy because the next day set some serious personal records for sightseeing.

So Rome itself feels kind of like any other major busy city (NY, London, etc) except that it’s old. And by old, we’re not talking some cobblestone and brick. We’re talking about old pieces of the city sitting at the side of the road that are older than the country from which we call home. We’re talking affirmative proof that redneck zealots who think the world was created 7000 years ago have really just never left their backwood shacks.

We started the day early with some espressos and pastries before hopping the metro to the old city region. We’d learned that your entry pass is good for all the sights in the area, so instead of waiting for over an hour for a ticket at the Coliseum, we started with a 10 minute line over at the old city site on the hill. The entire hill is ancient ruins that you can stroll around and through, and descend down into a main drag of seriously old and massive structures. There’s temples, arches and ornate architecture dating from BC. Of course, a lot of the original meanings were wiped from our collective past by the church, and the whole area was off limits for centuries to try and prevent unwanted ideologies from surfacing. Luckily, strong technological architecture lasts longer than passing belief systems.

After coming to grips with the ancient nature of the place, we hopped over to the Coliseum, which is a giant stone structure that used to hold 50-60,000 people for gladiatorial competitions. It was also a theatrical and technical masterpiece, in that the area under the floor was hollow and consisted of a complex system of pulleys and elevators that would allow props and elements to appear magically on the stage. The astounding complexity goes so far as to have allowed the flooring area to be flooded and filled with water, and they could actually sail ships within and have battleship competitions, before draining it away for the next event.

Of course, the events were mainly gladiatorial (man vs man) or hunting (man vs animal), in the name of sport. Exotic animals were frequently hunted and killed during the events, including bears, tigers, hippos… As someone with animal cruelty trigger issues, my initial instinct was to recoil, but then I realized that our ‘civilized society’ might actually be better off to turn hunting back into a spectator sport – if animals are going to be killed for food anyways, might as well not pretend it’s not happening, and milk some entertainment value out of what’s an inevitable dinner-based fact (see also: bullfighting vs feedlots and what’s actually a more cruel punishment). UFC is an example that we’re really still all just wishing to observe structured violence in the name of sport — the Romans just actually went of the money-shot rather than pussyfooting around it and acting like it’s not what everyone really just wants to see…

After the Coliseum we went and found the site of the old forum (a horse racing track that used to house 250,000 spectators), and wandered through some old ruins in the jewish part of town before a nice lunch (as standard, maybe courses, with wine, and all fantastic).

We wandered deeper into an old neighbourhood and though I’m not sure we were supposed to, ended up inside some official looking library-esque building that had an amazing collection of statues and intricate carvings on all the walls. The statues were old enough that all their dinks had been cut off (seems there was an overzealous pope in the 11th century who had all the genitals cut off of male statues to prevent the immoral decay such indecencies would incite), and it was stunning to see such historic artifacts just hanging out subjected to the elements in their natural habitat.

More wandering took us through squares and down alleys and past palaces until we ended up at the Pantheon, which has the biggest concrete dome ceiling in existence, and it was built 1700 years ago. Of course, wikipedia will tell you all you need to know about the historical context of the building, and how like every other building of note it was offered up to a pope or church body as an offering, but what struck me as most interesting was a bit about concrete. Romans figured out how to make concrete around the year 300AD and built this giant dome which is still a modern marvel. Around the year 400, people were dying so quickly from plagues and for “having ideas or beliefs not in accordance with the church” (such as many of the technological masters of the time) that the recipe for concrete was actually lost for about 1000 years. It got me to thinking that if something like concrete could be forgotten about, imagine all the millions of things people have learned over time that have disappeared from our collective consciousness. How many home remedies weren’t passed down to the next generation? How many equations and calculations are lost in stacks of paper? How many revelations weren’t shared by the ruling party of the time and revoked from existence?

Sorry if I’m obviously embedding bitter bias throughout, but it’s been really hard for me to digest a country that’s 98% Catholic, and that every single piece of history on display has a Christian tale woven into it, because otherwise it’s been literally destroyed or had it’s history re-invented. It’s also disturbing to see the blasphemous wealth poured into churches and their expenditures – funding for classics all came through the church (ceiling frescos, statues, architecture). As someone who considers Christianity to be a passing fad and just a distraction from any actual connection to God, the bitchslapping that history and culture has taken is immeasurable and simply another occurrence of a recurring cycle through history (see also: Aztecs, Conquistadores, Native Indians. etc…) It just saddens me to imagine what could have been produced by humanity without the timewasting distraction and if we’d collaboratively pooled our knowledge.

I digress.
Let me get back into fluffy Lonely Planet mode here…

After the Pantheon we wandered from square to cafe to stunning beauty to more old world to fountains to the Spanish Steps and then back to our hotel for a short chill-out.

We had the concierge recommend something up our alley for dinner, and he nailed it – great multi-course gourmet fiasco paired with delicious wines that left us feeling fabulously gluttonous.

From there we went to a place I’d been wanting to check out for years – a bar modelled after the Moloko Milkbar in A Clockwork Orange. As someone who happens to have a tattoo related to the work, it seemed more than appropriate… Great atmosphere, and after a couple Chocolate Absinthe Amaretto Milkshakes (Diablo – #66 on the menu – mmmmm) we stepped back into the night… Since I heard about it, the visit’d floated around in my head as “one day” knowledge, and it was a great feeling to be able to look at it as a memory rather than an item on the wish-list.

Of course, nothing tops off a little Milk+ like a trip to the vatican to visit the Pope. We’d hoped he’d pop out to bless our engagement, but St Peter’s square was quiet at that late hour and we had it mostly to ourselves.

Back at the hotel we sunk again into the “comfiest bed ever™” and slept until it was time to get up and catch our train back so Chris could make it to work on time…

At the time, seen through the distorting filter of new experience, it didn’t sink in how much we actually did in Rome or how much we saw, but after realizing that there were over 250 photos on the camera from the day the memories triggered and settled in.

Unbelievable day.
Kick-ass adventure.
And a new personal best for self induced touristy overload 😛

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