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  • Writer's pictureBil

When in Rome....


Gladiators could be slaves, captured prisoners or Roman citizens trying to improve their popularity, fighting exotic animals or each other. (Pollice Verso ("With a Turned Thumb"), an 1872 painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme)
Gladiators were typically "top billing" on game day

When someone mentions ancient Rome, visions appear of heroic gladiators battling exotic beasts and each other, while screaming crowds watch from the stands. (Sounds like World Cup soccer, eh?) The Colosseum was just the place for that, with plenty of blood & guts & gore from humans and animals both.

The Colosseum was a technological masterpiece of its time, another example of Roman engineering and ingenuity. Built to appease a growing and often impatient population, the structure was built on property previously appropriated by Nero and seen as returning it to the people. Able to hold 65,000 people, it is the largest stadium still standing in the world.

Bloody & violent entertainment for the masses
The Colosseum could hold 70,000 spectators

Once again using our Rick Steves audio tour app we set about to tour this amazing structure. The Colosseum had 5 levels of seating, with the emperor and his entourage sitting in the first level along with senators and VIPs. The second level was reserved for nobles & knights, and the upper levels open to lower class plebeians. The many openings to the streets could purportedly empty the area in 15 minutes! Long wooden shafts protruded inward from the top level, supporting large awnings that provided shade.

The floor of the area was made of wood planking, usually covered in sand. This floor concealed an elaborate series of tunnels and passageways below that contained stagehands, scenery, props, animals & contestants. An ingenious series of ramps and elevators could deposit or remove different gladiators, animals, scenes and props for every performance.

During highly active periods there might be “shows” at the Colosseum several times a week, that might consist of plays, re-enactments, executions, wild game hunts or man vs man. If the emperor was in a good mood and one of the fallen contestants was still breathing, he might allow the audience to decide the hapless person’s fate: thumbs up – or thumbs down! Sometimes the choice was given to the Vestal Virgins to decide. During Trajan’s reign there were reportedly contests involving 11,000 animals and 10,000 gladiators over the course of 123 days!

Exiting the Colosseum on the westward side, it is a short walk to the Arch of Titus, marking

One of the greatest emperors, he was cremated, so this is actually the site of the Temple of Caesar
The grave site of Julius Caesar

the eastern end of the Roman Forum, the bustling center of the Roman Empire. Now mostly ruins, the forum was the epicenter of the empire back then: a central spot for public speeches and debate, the senate, judicial offices and other government buildings, along with merchant stalls and stands. We stood there between the Palatine and Capitoline Hills, imagining what it would have been like when all the structures and buildings were brightly painted and gilded, and the Roman Legions would come parading through from their latest conquest, bearing treasure and slaves.

My good friend Dan recommended we try the Taste of Testaccio walking food tour to sample cucina Romana (genuine Italian cuisine) where the locals live, eat & shop. Friday morning, we hoofed it south to the rione of Testaccio and met our small group about 10:30.

A very short walk to our first stop at Panificio Passi bakery, family run since 1975, which smelled heavenly. Everyone sampled 2 small pieces of pizza – very thin crust and almost crunchy. Potato and um, red, which was spicy. Both tasty, but kind of dry for us. Then to a family-run deli/butcher shop where Arturo explained about many types of meats & cheeses. I was surprised by the tasting of aged balsamic vinegars (5, 10 & 15 years),as I have never been a big fan - but I am now! Wow!

Care for a slice of prosciutto crudo?

Next up was a visit to Mercato Testaccio, a covered market with many enticing food booths – from fresh fruits & veggies to pasta to butchers to seafood. Here we sampled some delicious bruschetta, made with sweet tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella. Yes, from buffalos! Italian water buffalos that are raised near Napoli. Our guide Arturo was quite versed in the Italian foodie scene and was quick to laugh and joke with all the vendors and visitors, making our trip quite enjoyable.

Making our way down the street Arturo points out the large hill to our left. Monte Testaccio! It is actually a man-made mound constructed of shards of broken amphorae, pottery containers for olive oil. Strategically distributed and dumped over centuries, the remaining mound (about 20% remains) is about 1 km in circumference and 35 m tall.

Natural air-conditioning!
Ristorante built into Monte Testaccio - see the shards?

Arturo guided us to a new restaurant built into the side of Monte that is not yet open. Everyone enjoys the cool a/c as we enter, but our guide explains that the hill exudes cool air at the bottom, and this place is channeling it through the rooms to cool them. There are several sections of wall with plexiglass panels where we can see the pottery shards inside.

Back outside and around the corner to another Monte-cooled trattoria that is in operation. Now we can sit down & enjoy some wine, and three traditional pasta dishes: carbonara, cacio e pepe and amatriciana. All good, but I am getting pretty full! Don’t have to eat it all….

Last but not least is Giolitti, where we get a lesson on how to tell real gelato from imposters. Then a test to see what we learned when we can pair two gelatos in one cup. I failed – wasn’t paying attention! Can’t mix gelato with sorbet, which is what the iced coffee was! Oh well, I switched to mango & lemon – and it was delicious! My fav of the whole day.

Best, and most expensive part, is in the middle
Arturo describes a wheel of Parmesan cheese

Arturo cut us loose after that, so we bid him ciao and joined Brian & Jess to walk up a road near Capitoline Hill to see the Aventine Keyhole. Set into a large green door in front of an elegant building owned by the Knights of Malta, this keyhole perfectly frames Saint Peter’s Basilica in the distance. Very tiny – like looking into the wrong end of a telescope! Fun.

OK – enough fun. Back to the room for a nap! 6.4 hot miles today

Saturday morning, we get up early to record our “morning show” at Trevi Fountain before the crowds show up. Plenty of people there already, but still we have fun! For some reason our local bar was closed, and we had need of a bathroom, so into the nearby "Mickey Dees" we go. The cappuccino was surprisingly good, and served in glass cups! The rest of the day is spent wandering leisurely, enjoying some of the many magnificent churches throughout the district centre. Big, tasty sandwiches at a tiny bar to finish the day.

Sunday is the last in Rome and Susie is excited to visit the Sunday Flea Market, located west across the river from Testaccio. After riding the bus down we find the market going strong about 11:30, but some vendors are already packing up. Sitting down at a nearby pizzeria, we enjoy the best pie so far while watching the world go by. Afterwards we stroll through the streets which are still filled with hundreds of vendors selling everything you would expect, and Sus picked up a couple of light tops.

Italia wins Euro 2020! (in July 2021)

Hop on the bus Gus, and back towards “home” to meet our new friend Julie, who has just got into Rome for a day or two, on her way back to Zanzibar via Croatia. We are all excited to see the Euro 2020 finale tonight, as Italy is playing UK for the title. We get some drinks & dinner and walk around looking for a spot. Every trattoria has a TV outside and inside, and all are jammed. The Piazza Venezia has a huge screen & bleachers setup but it was full long ago. Julie actually finds a place where the server brings out a couple chairs where we can watch - as long as we buy some drinks. Yay!

Great game, tied 1-1 at the end of two overtime periods. But Italy wins in the shootout! Of course, the crowd goes wild, and all the side streets surge towards the Piazza Venezia, carrying us along. Everyone is jubilant, dressed in the team colours, waving flags, blowing horns and shooting flares & fireworks. The funniest thing was groups of them chanting the main riff from Seven Nation Army! (the main riff had no words!) So they go “po, po po po po po, po” or something like that. Hilarious! Apparently, it’s a thing at many futball meets.

So it’s 1:30 am. Exhilarated but exhausted. Over 11 miles walked today! Tomorrow we have to pack & get the train to Pompei.


Under the watchful eye of Sylvester Stallone's cousin (haha)
Gelato school at Giolitti

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