Go on a Roman holiday to the Vatican City

This is where the lions and other wild animals would be caged. Then the guard would pull a lever and the animal’s cage would be elevated to the ground level. The doors would swing open and the wild beasts let loose on the gladiators.”

This was drama at high noon at its best. There we stood with soft sand all around us, in the midst of the broken yet majestic stony remains of one of the oldest stadiums of the world — imagining the chill that must have run down the spines of those thousands of wildly cheering fans as they watched those bloody fights.

The Coliseum makes for an imposing picture even today. Pics/AFP

Two thousand years later there are no lions at the Coliseum. But despite the onslaught of many centuries and ugly concrete structures coming up around it, the massive concrete and stone structure rises like a colossus in the centre of Rome.

We arrived in the Italian capital for a three-day trip, on a day when it was drizzling. There was a chill in the air, unusual for August in this part of the world. But having reached here from neighbouring Switzerland where we had our first brush with snow at 10,000 feet, it felt nice to shed ourselves of the extra woollens.

An hour after we checked in at the Hotel Eden Le Meridien on top of a hill overlooking the valley, six of us (two other couples and us) decided we would skip lunch at the luxury resort and instead head into town to do some sight seeing on our own.

St Peter’s Basilica inside Vatican City, is clearly visible from across the Tiber in Rome

Having experienced the clockwork-like precision of the transportation system in Germany and Switzerland before this, we were in for a shock. The bus stand was reminiscent of a slightly cleaner version of the ones we have in Mumbai. The bus, when it arrived, was no better. We wondered why some of the locals on the bus smiled when we bought our tickets to the tube station.

After a 30-minute ride we arrived at the tube station, bought a return ticket and hopped on to the train till the Forum — where the Coliseum awaited us. An Indian packaged tour guide, assisting a group of wide-eyed Indian tourists, waved to us as we stepped out into open air. “Where are you guys headed?” he asked. “Coliseum? That broken down building…why?” he seemed genuinely curious, instead offering to take us on a tour of Rome’s famous shopping area for a small fee.

Wisely, we opted to keep shopping for the last day, feeling a bit sorry for those poor packaged tour members who (as we learnt later) were doomed to see this magnificent structure only from the outside as part of an open bus tour that would not even stop to let them get off and pose for a few photographs!

The colossal Coliseum
The skies had cleared and a steady crowd seemed to be headed towards the ruins. Once we had bought the tickets we were introduced to Pieto, a tall, balding Italian man with striking looks and, as we discovered later, a flair for dramatics. He was to be our guide for the next hour.

We learnt the basic first: Occupying a site just east of the Roman Forum, work for the Coliseum (originally called an amphitheatre, this was later named the Coliseum after a colossal statue of the emperor Nero which came up next to it) started in 72 AD and took a decade to build. At its peak, this ancient wonder of the world could seat 50,000 people. That’s more than the Wankhede Stadium can seat even today!

But the real fun was hearing Pieto explain how the Coliseum was used during the height of the Roman Empire for gladiatorial contests and mock sea battles, animal hunts and dramas. Today, the huge structure is in ruins, though careful conservation has ensured that when curious students of history like me come calling, they are never disappointed.

As we walked on the sand, Pieto dramatically declared, “This is the same sand on which many gladiators fought those life and death battles with the wild beasts or amongst themselves.” And just to make sure those of us who still did not look impressed enough were also converted soon, he added: “You know why they put sand in the arena? Because sand soaks up blood the fastest.” Eww! The hunger building up in our tummies for a while was lost in a flash.

Yet, curiosity got the better of us. So we dutifully accompanied him to the basement level where we came face-to-face with those iconic cage-elevators, which, by a mechanism lost to world for the next 1,800 years, were pulled up two levels to the arena by cranking a lever.

Back on the ground level, we climbed to the upper level of the stadium. Sitting on a stone chair on the second level I had a great view of the entire stadium — eerily silent today save the few hundred tourists talking in hushed tones. Behind me, near the top of the stadium, large open ‘windows’ gave us a lovely view of the historic Roman Forum as well as of the busy street down below. In ancient times, the windows made sure that even when the top sun beat down on them, spectators had access to cross ventilation.

A little bit of home
Photos clicked and soul satisfied, we headed quickly to a nearby trattoria (restaurants that dot the footpaths of most Italian cities, which often have tables on footpaths and offer home-style meals). We ordered pasta with all kinds of meat thrown in. Yum! The house red wine which the trattoria owner insisted we have, was served in a decanter, another trademark of trattorias!

Now truly happy, having had a lazy Italian lunch, the six of us ambled down to the tube station and headed back to the hotel. And finally we learnt why those locals had suppressed their giggles when we bought the bus tickets on the way down to the valley. For no one buys tickets for these short rides it seemed! “You spent 6 Euros on a bus? On a bus ticket?” even our hotel front desk manager sounded shocked. “A little bit of home even in Rome,” observed one my clever companions.

Land of the Pope
The next day there was a trip to the Vatican planned and we were suitably dressed for it too: heads covered, full sleeved shirt and camera battery double-checked. It was a Saturday, a day before the traditional Sunday mass where the Pope would wave to his followers from a third floor balcony on the top right corner of the Apostolic Palace. But St Peter’s Square was a sea of humanity, most waiting to catch a glimpse of the Pope and of course to visit the world famous St Peter’s Basilica, one of the largest churches in the world and considered the holiest of Catholic sites.

We also visited the adjacent Sistine Chapel where the entire ceiling was painted by Michelangelo, and where among other things, he also painted his iconic ‘Last Judgment’. Tell you what: you are likely to get a sprained neck (or at least a royal pain) here by the end of it, just from looking up and continuing to look up for several minutes, in complete awe of the genius of Michelangelo.

The Sistine Chapel is in the news this week, for this is where the Papal Conclave took place before Pope Francis was elected the next Pope. It is here that we also learnt that traditionally, on each Good Friday the Pope leads a torch lit ‘Way of the Cross’ procession that starts in the area around the Coliseum!
One last thing. There are some superb restaurants in and around Vatican City, especially those on the banks of the river Tiber. We dropped into one of them after our exhausting walk around the city, our senses soothed by some great house wine, olives and seafood salad as we soaked in a panoramic view of the river with the Basilica forming a majestic backdrop.

The last day, we promised ourselves, would be reserved for just lazing around town in true Italian style.

Things to Know
Nearest airport: Rome
Summer: Temperatures may rise to the early 30s (Celsius) between June and August
Winter : While snowfall is rare, expect average temperatures of 10 degree Celsius.

What else to see
Trevi fountain: It would be criminal to go to Rome and not visit the Trevi Fountain. The faithful believe wishes come true if you drop a coin here and pray.
The patheon: This is the best preserved building of ancient Rome with a spectacular dome. Admission is free but the place closes at 7pm. For dinner drop into the Armando al Pantheon restaurant next door. 

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