Italy Moblog #4

I was too tired to write yesterday. Here’s yesterday’s account. Day started around 7.45 am after breakfast. From the tour bus, we checked out the Vittoriano again. Then we got down near the ruins of the Roman Forum.

The Roman Forum is the marketplace of the Romans. Not much of it is left of it. Some of the temples in the area have been converted to churches and for that reason are better preserved. Al though, we’ve heard about this spot a lot, nothing could prepare us for the next spot – the Colosseum.

It was built from 72AD to 79AD (right around the time Pompei was destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vezuvius) and opened to the public in 80 AD. It was built by Emperor Vespasian as a give-back to the people to compensate for his predecessor Nero’s excesses. In fact, Nero’s private pond was emptied to serve as the site for the stadium.

The Colosseum stands as the very definition of the term engineering marvel – it could seat 70, 000 people (this is not a typo) and its design is so well done that any modern day stadium adheres to the principles laid down by the Colosseum. To build something as complex as this 2000 years ago is mind-boggling.

The entrances and exits have been designed such that it could be emptied in 9-11 minutes! There was an elaborate system of ramps, pulleys and cages under the arena for managing the wild beasts that duelled with the gladiators. You can see the ruins of that system. Romans loved this gladiator stuff so much that the games were shutdown only after 100 years passed since the conversion to Christianity.

Obviously the church frowned upon this pagan practice. Then we went to the St.Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City (technically a different country with 400 residents and the smallest in the world) – the holiest church of the Christians. It was around noon time when reached there, so we waited for the Pope to come out and give his blessings.

Due to the thronging crowds (this is supposed to be off-season!) We barely managed to see the Pope’s outstretched hand from the window through which he gave his daily appearance. Once inside the Basilica, we were taken in by the sheer splendour of the mosaics, sculptures and tombs inside there. The Basilica was designed by none other than Michelangelo. The structure has served as the inspiration for the St. Paul’s in London and also our very own Capitol in Washington DC. We also saw the Bernini-designed canopy for the main altar. The highlight was Michelangelo’s Pieta (Deposition of Christ). This sculpture stirs your soul. Mary’s sad face with Christ lying in her arms is unforgettable. Michelangelo was only 25-years-old when he made this masterpiece. Apparently, people remarked that someone that young couldn’t have created such an emotion-laden sculpture. Upon hearing this, Michelangelo carved his name on to the ribbon on Mary’s chest overnight.

We then came back to the hotel, took some rest and then started on the walking tour of Rome around 3.30PM. We walked through the Spanish Steps, saw the Senate, Parliament and some old temples converted to offices in use currently etc. We then reached the next highlight of Rome – the Pantheon. This was built around 120 AD by Hadrian and has been modified several times. But the domed structure – the largest masonry dome in the world (as of 1960) is another engineering marvel. The Pantheon like other Pagan temples has also been converted to a church and also serves as a repository of the tombs of Raphael, Vittorio Emanuel II (first king of unified Italy), Umberto I (another king) etc. Interestingly the eye of the dome is open to the sky and has always been that way.

The walking tour culminated at the Piazza Navona which contains the famous Fountain of Four Rivers (Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi) designed by Bernini. The 4 rivers representing the 4 continents known at that time – Nile from Egypt/Africa, Danube from Europe, Ganges from India/Asia and Rio de Platta from South America. Throughout the tour, we were amazed at the sheer number of people everywhere. We also passed through what’s known as the Fifth Avenue of Rome – filled with designer stores like Armani, Versace and others. Many people also said that it was one of the coldest days they’ve seen in Rome. It was actually quite bearable with a jacket, hood and gloves on.

Our guide was good, but this whole Spanish steps is vastly over-rated and could have been skipped. Given a chance, we would go straight to the Pantheon, spend some quality time there, then walk to the Piazza Navona and end it there.

We finished the day with a 5-course dinner at a local restaurant. The Tiramisu we had for dessert – very light and fluffy, is a world apart from the sugary sweet ones we have in the US.

I had mentioned earlier that Rome reminded me of Athens. I take that back. Rome is quite different and is more beautiful. More to come.