Timeless is perhaps the description that best suits Rome—the cradle of ancient ruins DETOUR
The gargantuan Circus Maximus which runs along the base of the Palatine Hill is today a grassy shadow of its past glories. It was the venue for chariot races in Roman times (think Ben Hur!). As we walk with our guide on this desolate stretch of grass, we imagine the days when more than 3,00,000 spectators crowded this racetrack, watching chariots careen around the huge oval, with two ancient obelisks in the centre. Today, on one side there is a multi-million-euro excavation going on; the other side is the venue for the Euro Beach Soccer League. A taste of the contradictions that modern Rome is so full of.
As we walk through the streets of Rome, we admire how the ancient and modern intermingle so easily—historic buildings stand adjacent to apartment blocks; Bangladeshi hawkers sell Dolce&Gabbana fakes near Bernini fountains; ancient ruins lie a few feet from modern Metro. Designer jeans hang from ornate balconies and an old nun speaks on her state-of-the-art mobile phone. Graffiti is an integral part of Rome—on walls, shops, buses, and even churches. Our Roma card ensures us free transport for three days and it’s on the Metro and the buses that we get a real slice of Roman life—flirtatious Italian men, women who look straight out of fashion magazines, and elderly nonnas discussing the latest excesses of Silvio Berlusconi.
We climb the Palatine Hill—the Beverly Hills of ancient Rome—home to the emperors of Rome from Caesar to Septimius Severus except Nero. According to legend, this is where Rome’s mythological founder Romulus was born. This was the site of an octagonal fountain (Romans associated octagons with power) and one of the oldest botanical gardens. Exquisitely frescoed rooms in Emperor Augustus’s home have been opened to the public recently after years of restoration. In 2007, excavations unearthed a cave 50 feet under Augustus’s house, which archaeologists claim to be the actual place where the she-wolf raised Romulus and Remus.
Lonely columns, triumphal arches, cypresses, weeds and blood-red poppies, ornate friezes, pieces of stone and marble—the Forum is a bewildering maze of structures and, without a guide, it can be a stupendous task to understand and appreciate. We pick up an audio guide and a copy of the book sold all over the city in souvenir carts—‘Archaeological Rome’—which has transparent overlays over each building, showing how it would have looked thousands of years ago. The Forum was the commercial, political and religious centre of ancient Rome. We see the Temple of the Vesta, where six virgins kept the sacred fire. These were the chosen ones with special privileges—they had special seating at the Colosseum, could pardon prisoners and rode in special chariots. They had a 30-year vow of chastity and if they broke it they were buried alive! What we find irresistible: a photo-op on a marble fragment, giving the “Friends, Romans and countrymen” speech with upraised hand. With a melon gelato in hand, we spend a few moments in quiet contemplation here.
Five thousand beasts were slaughtered during the inauguration of the Colosseum in AD 80. Today, the easiest way to beat the serpentine queues here is to sign up for an English guided tour. We enter the Colosseum—named after a colossal bronze statue of Nero which stood here—the place where there was entertainment, fights and gory spectacles; where the gladiators contested before a bloodthirsty crowd.
I imagine that I am a plebeian spectator, waiting to watch the spectacle of man against beast. Seating was divided based on hierarchy of class and gender—the senators had special podiums and the ordinary folks, the highest tiers. We see the arena which used to be covered by a wooden board—our guide tells us that exotic animals and slaves remained in cages below this and were hoisted on to the floor and released in battle. We are dismayed to note that after the fall of Rome, the Colosseum was scavenged for materials to build palaces and churches. Our guide claims that most of the marble is today in the Vatican. Modern gladiators stand outside to pose with the tourists for a few euros—attempts to photograph them without paying are met with stern rebuke.
Everywhere we go, there are pretty fountains in myriad shapes—like gargoyles, tortoises, nymphs and mermen spouting clear water from centuries-old aqueducts. We learn to fill our bottles with this sparkling water and save ourselves the exorbitant cost of bottled water. We pretend to be locals and eat tramezzino (large triangles of sandwiches stuffed with cheese, olives and vegetables), catch the pre-dinner aperitivi (a happy hour when free finger food is given for the price of a drink) and drink the local Vino Rosso at enotecas.
En route to the Pantheon, we pass through a lively piazza with ebullient Italian youth on the ubiquitous Vespas, drinking and eating on Saturday night. The venue: Hadrian’s Temple built in AD 145, which today houses the Stock Exchange. The word Pantheon means ‘all gods’. The Pantheon was originally a pagan temple where Romans, who had a multitude of gods, could pray to all gods at one time. This later became a Christian church. Today it is in the centre of a lively piazza with an ancient fountain and a string of al fresco restaurants and serenading musicians. We are entranced by the Oculus on the ceiling, the inspiration for many domes that followed. The Pantheon has the most perfect dimensions—141 feet high and 141 feet wide and is the only building from ancient Rome which is fully intact.
Close to the Pantheon is Da Bafetto, a pizzeria strongly recommended to us for pizzas baked in a searing wood oven. It is not what we expect—a serpentine queue outside a nondescript restaurant with no ambience, crammed with people of all ages. Smoking is not allowed, and credit cards are not accepted. Once we are seated (actually squeezed in with another family), we wait for an unduly long time, and in response to my discernible impatience, the waiter tells me, “This is not assembly line pizza, pop in and pop out. This is an authentic baked pizza which takes time.” Finally when the pizza arrives, all our doubts and complaints vanish like early morning mist. The pizza is baked to perfection, thin as a papad and the artichokes and zucchini flower toppings are to-die-for.
The eternal city is filled with catacombs, built outside the walls of ancient Rome. We visit the Catacombs of St Calixtus, the biggest and the most popular, with a network of galleries about 19km long. We drive through the Apia Antica, the most ancient cobblestone road in Rome, past the Porta San Sebastiano, the largest and best preserved of the famous Aurelian wall that surrounded the Seven Hills of Rome. I can almost imagine the legions of soldiers tramping through, like in the movies. We reach the catacombs, set in the middle of a green and picturesque field, replete with wildflowers. Serendipity! Our guide is a priest from south India, who now works for the Vatican. He engages us in an informative and witty discussion about the catacombs and Rome. We enter the catacombs from a flight of stairs, and are met by the chilly, subterranean temperatures.
There are skylights or air shafts everywhere, but our guide advises us to follow him closely (I am tempted to leave a trail of bread-crumbs a la Hansel and Gretel). He assures us that he has not lost anyone, so far. The word ‘catacomb’ is actually derived from the Greek word ‘Kata combas’, which means a hollow in the ground. The ancient Christians from the 2nd to the 5th centuries laid their dead to rest here. Vast multi-layered catacombs, dug into the porous Tufa soil (which is soft to cut and hardens when exposed to air) under the ground, were a clever solution.
We walk through miles of eerie, musty smelling labyrinthine tunnels which are electrified. Walls and ceilings have been painted with early Christian symbols and scenes from the Scriptures, like Jonah swallowed by the whale, and there is graffiti on the walls, scratched by pilgrims. The catacombs, neglected and forgotten for many years and unearthed in 1852 by an Italian archaeologist, are rich in early Christian symbolism. Our guide explains that the catacombs were never places where Christians hid from persecution, as believed by many. We re-emerge from the eerie silence in the bowels of the earth, into the world of the living.
To the ancient Romans, a bath was a ritual, a chance for social interaction, and the public baths had massage rooms, libraries, even art galleries! We visit the ruins of one of ancient Rome’s luxurious public baths—The Baths of Caracalla, opened in AD 217 and used till the 6th century. The ancient Romans never used soap—they just sweated it out first, in the Sudatoria-rooms, like in saunas. Our guide tells us that in summer, this is the venue for cultural shows and opera.
What we enjoy most is the fact that Rome is a living city built around ancient ruins—an opportunity to stare, discern and assimilate history at every corner. What is even more exciting is the thought that as we walk on these roads, there might well be some treasures below that have not yet been unearthed. And, if they are, history may be rewritten.
PUBLISHED IN THE WEEK DETOUR, 2009