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Food and Travel Writing Italy

Wrong Turn on a Friday

The problem with being exhausted, nursing tired feet, and in dire need of a restroom, is that for someone who had never been outside of the United States in their twenty years of life, this is a recipe for mistakes to be made. Being without a reliable GPS doesn’t lessen my fear of ending up somewhere that I’m not familiar with – or as familiar as I can be after only being in Italy for a day and a half for the first time ever. Coming to Italy for a food and travel writing class and having to learn how to navigate these foreign streets quickly has been an adjustment, and still being jetlagged doesn’t help either.  Who knew that staring at a bus route sign while struggling to not pass out from exhaustion, pain, or some combination of the two would lead us to a different part of Rome that we had yet to go to?

Out of all the sights to see in Rome, the Colosseum was high up on my list of places to see. As a history major, ruins are some of my favorite things to study. Imagining how much time and effort these artists – because who else could chisel stone into masterpieces like those found in old cities like Rome – put into creating these sculptures and buildings that remain for future generations to come and stare at in wonder amazes me. I’ve always been fascinated with old and decaying buildings, of seeing the beauty in crumbling architecture, but when seeing the remains of ancient Rome in person and not through a page of a textbook or on a computer screen, it’s something I want to cherish for a long time.

 

In the heart of 80 AD, Rome stands the Flavian Amphitheater, or the Colosseum as it would be better known as centuries later. This massive structure was manually constructed out of limestone (travertine), a porous stone called tufo in Italian, clay tiles and bricks, a mixture of ground limestone and clay that is known as “Roman Cement”, and later lead clamps that held the foundation walls and pillars together. Though it may not look like it today, this structure was originally covered completely in white marble, which was later looted.

Originally constructed to provide a permanent arena in the center of Ancient Rome for staging various forms of entertainment for the Romans, the Colosseum conveyed the wealth, might, and the power of Rome for outsiders to see. Though only a third of this structure remains, it was once able to hold at least 50,000 people; roughly 100 people per each of the five levels with an unobstructed view of whatever might be happening on the arena floor at any given moment. The upper-class men, or those with the most influence in Rome, were seated at the lowest level, for front-row views of the action. As each level got further away from the ground, the wealth and power of those men sitting there declined. Half-way up would be the equivalent to today’s middle class; they have wealth, but not as much as the higher class, and less influence in the happenings. In true misogynistic ways – like most things were in Ancient times – the top tier seating was where the women sat. At least they were even allowed to go to the Colosseum in the first place.

 

When we were informed that Friday morning that our tour of the Colosseum and the Roman Forum would be lengthy, and we’d need to stick close to the tour guide, I wasn’t putting into consideration that this tour would be upwards of five hours of standing on, in my case, feet with knee, hip, and back problems. After walking that entire time, it’s no wonder logical thinking wasn’t going to be my strong suit. I was, after all, hunting for a place to sit for the majority of the tour, even going as far as to sit on a marble slab on the ground in the Roman Forum.

The grumbling of stomachs towards the end of the tour was beginning to become a problem for some students. I, for one, was more in pain from my throbbing feet than I was hungry, but I wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity to get something to eat, especially if it meant I could finally sit down for more than a handful of minutes as the tour guide rambled on about one thing or another. As we split into groups, ours dubbing ourselves the Avengers and divvying out nicknames to everyone, Permenter said to us, “If you go in front of the wedding cake and go down the street perpendicular to it, somewhere down there are places that you can sit down and eat at.” Taking her word for it, we began our trek in the supposed correct direction after stopping to take pictures, of course.

Weaving in between the hordes of people and the tourists rummaging through the bins and hangers of clothes and other magnets, keychains, and various knick-knacks vendors like ancient Romans looting the Colosseum of the marble it was once coated in, we’d already passed by two banks and a sign for the Trevi Fountain, but no place to sit and eat. Had we gone down the right street? Did Permenter tell us the right place? If I had data on my phone, I’d have quickly searched, and since this was only my second day in the city I wasn’t as familiar with restaurants as a native or frequent visitor might have been to the area, so it was either rely on a not-too-detailed paper map, struggle to ask someone for directions, or get back to common ground – in this case, our hotel across the street from the well-known Termini. In the end, my safest bet was the latter, so going back to the hotel was what I wanted to do, so I let the rest of my group know that after continuing further down the road to no new options.

“Ok, well you guys can do that, but we’re going to keep looking around here and get something to eat.” Patrick, one member of our group, tells us, breaking off and leaving our group of eight down to three. Maddie, Jamie, and I scan the street, determining that the easiest way, and the closest, is to take the bus back to our hotel. It seemed, easy enough, considering we’d already taken the Metro a handful of times, and how different could the bus be? Once we’d established which bus we needed to board to get back to the hotel, the waiting game began. Bus after bus came and went, none of which was our number.

“Do you think we should be at the bus stop that’s going the other way?” Maddie brought up, but the thought was quickly shut down when in the distance we finally saw our bus approach. Cramming ourselves onto the bus to keep as close as possible, there was barely enough space to hold on to a bar, though I barely needed to do so to remain upright. Stop after stop, and more and more people got on. Pushed up against the window, I glanced out to see the Roman Forum and the Colosseum once more. If I knew where we were going to end up, I would have said it would have been easier to get off then, and just take the metro back to Termini.

 

The most common image of the Colosseum to those who have either never seen it, or just don’t know about its history, typically conjure up an image of the Colosseum is the sight for many deaths of gladiators by fellow fighters or by lions, but that isn’t entirely true. Yes, there were gladiator combats held in the arena that was a form of entertainment to the Romans; and yes, there were exotic animals brought from all corners of the Roman Empire to showcase the extent of Rome’s conquests of different countries.

What many don’t realize is that gladiators were professional fighters. They were given more food than the typical Roman, so they could stay in shape and be able to be in peak fighting condition. It was not the goal of the fight to kill these men, if only because they were seen as valuable aspects of Roman society, though it is said that only 15% of these gladiators died due to casualties of fighting (infection, loss of blood, etc.).

Part of the purpose of constructing the Colosseum in the first place was to ensure the support and popularity of the Emperors Vespasian and Titus (who were members of the Flavian dynasty of the time) and to showcase the latest Roman engineering and building techniques. This included a labyrinth of tunnels under the arena containing thirty-two animal pens (where they kept the exotic animals), and at one point, purposely flooding the arena to reenact famous Roman battle victories. While there were public beheadings of non-Roman criminals held within the walls of the Colosseum, it was the vastly popular Gladiator Games that had massive crowds of Romans flocking to the Amphitheater, making the seventy-six separate entrances come quite in handy to control the crowds.

 

It wasn’t until the bus riders dwindled to the point that all three of us could sit down in three separate chairs that I knew we were lost. Sure, we had only been in Rome for a day and a half at this point, but none of the pastel orange, peach, and pale-yellow buildings flying by though the bus window looked like any of the buildings I remember seeing on the charter bus to the hotel from the airport. The rattling of a partially detached light cover on the back of the bus rattled aggressively after the bus went over the cobblestone roads and various potholes.

As the bus pulled into the bus terminal that was resolutely not Termini, we had to admit defeat and ask the bus driver in our very limited Italian how to get back to our original destination. With an amused and confused look, the driver tells us in broken English that around the corner is the Metro, and that would take us to Termini. Stopping to take a few pictures of the sunset on our way, we went down the steps to what we hoped would be an easy trip back to familiar turf of our hotel

Relaxing into a vacant metro seat, I was never more glad to be getting onto the stuffed car. As the stops came and went, I couldn’t help but wonder how similar being crammed on the metro car would be to crowding in to get entry to the Colosseum to see gladiators battle each other. I knew how it must have felt to have climbed all those steps to get to the designated seating section from having mountain-climbed them earlier that morning. How in the world they were able to evacuate the Colosseum in six seconds will forever be a wonder to me. Though having to get around without technology and dealing with a language barrier some of the citizens – and gladiators, most likely – faced without the possibility of Google Translate is something that I felt personally acquainted with that Friday evening when we went the wrong direction.

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