Ask just about anyone which country is older – the United States or Italy – and most would answer Italy without hesitation.
They would be wrong.
Italy, as a nation, is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. (The United States was working on its 16th president and warring over whether slavery was really a good idea when Italy was born.)
The Kingdom of Italy had a rocky beginning, with many lands being reclaimed from colonial powers like France, Prussia and the Austrian Empire over the middle decades of the 19th century. Italy shed itself of a monarchy and flirted with fascism under Mussolini before becoming the republic it is today.
Ask anyone also to name the huge Roman amphitheatre in the center of Italy’s capital and they’d answer without hesitation “The Colosseum.”
Right, but also wrong.
The Colosseum is the now-accepted name of the structure, but only through errors of history.
Construction began in 72 AD under Emperor Vespasian on what we now call The Colosseum next to the massive Colossus of Nero statue, which over the centuries became known simply as The Colosseus. The Colosseus of Nero is believed to have been destroyed in the sacking of Rome in 410, but the name stuck and was eventually, and incorrectly, used to describe the amphitheater.
Those who built her and those who enjoyed the array of often bloody events inside her knew her as The Flavian Amphitheater, taken from the family name of both Emperor Vespasian and Emperor Titus.
Unless you’re merely here for one of Silvio Berlusconi’s famed sex parties, you can’t come to Rome without visiting the Colosseum.
I’ve been three times (to the Colosseum, not to Berlusconi’s sex parties) and it’s awe-inspiringly cool. It’s also a pain in the rear to get into, with lines snaking around the ancient structure that during peak season can be more than two hours long.
Your only option is to pay double the entry fee (normally 12 €) and go in with one of the guided tours.
An extra 10 Euros to avoid a massive line is a no-brainer for me.
The only downside is the risk of being stuck with a tour guide who is not only immensely pleased with his vast knowledge of the history of the Colosseum, but also eager to share every single painful detail with you, even if it’s freezing outside and your toes are turning to ice as you wait for him to shut up.
We, of course, got this guy.
I’m not sure we actually made it inside any faster than the people in the line, but I can now tell you one hell of a lot about every damned stone used in the construction of the Colosseum.
Once inside, and mid-way through another agonizingly long description of the stone quarries from which the materials for the Colosseum were taken, we lost all patience with our guide and wandered off on our own.
I’d wager even money he’s still there blissfully yammering away.
Tragically, much of the original Colosseum has been destroyed over time, by earthquakes, marauding invaders and locals needing materials. Over the years the Colosseum has been used as a castle, as a church, as a cemetery and at times as housing and workshops. Pope Sixtus V even wanted to turn it into a wool factory to provide employment for Rome’s prostitutes in the late 1500s. Seriously.
What remains of the structure, however, is stunning. That engineers 2,000 years ago could design and build such a massive cathedral to leisure boggles the mind. Walking amongst the ruins of the Colosseum is like stepping into a scene from “Gladiator.” I half expected Russell Crowe to hop out wielding a sword and shouting “strength and honor!”
Much to Soo’s disappointment he didn’t, but she did stop to pose with some of the men in authentic legionary garb patrolling the Colosseum’s exterior.
Walk north from the historic amphitheater a hundred meters along the Piazza del Colosseo and you’ll come to the ruins of the Roman Forum, the old city center during the height of the empire. A little farther down the Piazza you find Trajan’s Market, possibly the world’s first shopping mall, encircling Trajan’s Forum.
Lining the Piazza del Colosseo on a Sunday afternoon you’ll find an eclectic mix of occsionally delightful street performers. The Italian Michael Jackson seemed to be most popular, while the largely uncoordinated break-dancers appeared to be doing little more than falling down a lot. I briefly considered tossing them a few coins to help pay their medical bills.
The Piazza also sports a slew of merchants selling “authentic” Roman souvenirs, my favorite of which were the “genuine Roman coins,” made from a material that looked suspiciously like gold-painted plastic.
Across the street from Trajan’s market is the Monument of Emmanuel II, the first king of Italy. Though little more than 100 years old, this magnificent palace has no trouble competing for attention with the much older and more famous landmarks scattered about the area.
It’s hard not to experience a little sensory-overload trying to take in the endless spectacle of so much history. We walked, and gawked, for more than five hours.
By sunset we were all tired and eager to rest and grab a drink. We set off in search of a café, and were delighted to discover that there seemed to be dozens close at hand. Our friend Riccardo, however, was having none of it. He wanted us to get out of the touristy area and experience a real Italian café, which he assured us we’d find within a few short blocks.
“A few short blocks” to an Italian apparently means “something we can reach before tomorrow.”
I think we walked another four miles before we found a place Riccardo deemed suitable.
Riccardo will no longer be permitted to select where we stop.
The strawberry daiquiri I ordered tasted nothing like strawberries. Or daiquiris.
The vodka/ orange juice Soo ordered was red and had more in common with dish soap than vodka. Oliver’s fresh apple juice was bright green and smelled like a jelly bean, and Riccardo’s drink seemed to have been mixed with cat urine.
Ask anyone if an authentic Italian café is always better than an American one and they’ll probably answer “yes” without hesitation.
But it was still a pretty amazing day.