By the time we reached Rome I was starting to feel like a seasoned traveller. I felt like I was picking up the language, and felt a small thrill each time I managed a successful exchange in Italian, no matter how brief.
Me: “Due biglietti, per favore.”
Ticket person: “Due Euro.”
Ticket person: “Prego.”
It’s not much, but it’s enough to get me where I’m going, and I haven’t yet had any need to say “nello zucchero” (“it’s in the sugar” – thanks, Duolingo app!).
Rome was an exhilarating whirlwind of motorbikes, scooters and Smart cars rushing by in every direction. I soon learned that to cross the road, even at a pedestrian crossing with a flashing green man, you must show no hesitation, otherwise drivers will happily speed through a red light.
After risking our lives on several main roads, we walked down a narrow cobbled street and crossed a footbridge that provided a rare bit of safety from the traffic. As I crossed, I looked up and saw the Colosseum right in front of me, gleaming golden in the fading sunlight. My first thought, was, “oh my god, it’s so big!”
I don’t know why I was so surprised by its size, but I was completely awestruck, and couldn’t stop gaping as we walked up and did a lap around it. I was still looking over my shoulder at the ancient structure as we left and walked up the street to find a restaurant with a view. I don’t care how touristy our restaurant was, the pasta was delicious, the glasses of wine large and the view of the Colosseum as the sun set behind it was amazing. Well, it was for me anyway. Richard unfortunately got the seat with his back to the view. But I told him regularly how amazing it was, so he didn’t really miss anything…
Learning the important bits of history
The next day, we came back to the Colosseum, intending to buy a ticket and go inside. Unlike the peace and quiet of the night before, in the morning it was surrounded by tourists and hugged by several long queues. We stood for a few minutes blinking cluelessly at the chaos and made ourselves easy targets for a fast-talking tour salesperson. Not knowing what to expect but hopeful at the promise of skipping the queue, we joined the tour, which was a small group led by a jolly guide called Roberto.
Roberto told us that the Colosseum’s pockmarked appearance was the result of people centuries ago digging into the stone to steal the iron bars that held the structure together. They also stole the marble slabs that once covered the seats and some of the walls. He pointed out a crude drawing of a penis carved high into one of the outer walls, explaining that this was a prostitute’s sign, an advertisement to men of the day who were looking for a good time. Roberto said we probably wouldn’t remember much of what he told us, but we would remember this. He was right.
He also gave us some of the gorier details of the Colosseum’s history, such as the fact that the Romans sometimes used live criminals, covered in tar and burned alive, as human torches to light the stadium for evening shows. We all shuddered with a thrill at the horror of it and leaned closer to hear more of the Romans’ barbaric practices.
After a fascinating tour of the Colosseum, we moved onto a tour of the Palatine Hill and Roman Forum, something about which I knew nothing whatsoever. Luckily we had another excellent guide, called Francis, who was funny and knowledgeable, and a little like Chris Rock. He had one rule – he would teach us the history first and we could take photos later, “so we would at least know what we were taking photos of”, he said. After a quick photo break, he would yell, “ok, no more selfies! Too many selfies make you selfish!”
Oh my god, we’re at the Vatican
Very impressed with our two guides, we handed over €55 to the same company for our tour of the Vatican the next day. The day didn’t start very well. I wore the wrong shoes for the long trek from our accommodation to the Vatican, so before the tour had even started my feet were shredded with stinging blisters that made me wince with every step. When we joined our group, we found that it was not small like our other tours, but comprised of around 50 people. We were given headphones to hear our guide, but they kept cutting out as he dashed from room to room, losing half the group in the crowds. He was also hopelessly dull, so even when I could hear him I struggled to listen.
Despite not getting much from the tour guide, the Vatican museums seemed to house some interesting paintings and very impressive tapestries and frescoes. The real reason everyone is there, of course, is to see the Sistine Chapel. It didn’t disappoint. I forgot remove my hat, so I was told off as I went in, then guards repeatedly shushed the crowd over loud speakers.
I squeezed into the busy room, found a place to stand and, with a huge amount of anticipation, looked up at the ceiling. At first it was too much to take in, there was so much going on up there. But as I took my gaze from corner to corner, I was drawn to the largest figures. Their legs hung out of the painting so realistically that it was both disconcerting and beautiful at the same time. Their faces were lit by paint, giving them a glow as real as if spotlights were pointed at them. It was incredible.
Shuffling out of the Chapel, still grimacing from the pain in my feet and now with a crick in my neck to add to my woes, I felt pleased that I had experienced one of the world’s great artworks for myself, and instead of simply seeing it and taking a picture (you’re not allowed to anyway) I’d had a real, emotional response to it.