My birthday was coming up. Again. And it would be the first one my husband would not be there to take me out to celebrate the day. I knew I would feel it in my bones. To start a different tradition in the new normal, I decided to take myself out. Way out. I would go to Rome for my birthday.
I would take the Red Arrow, Frecciarossa, from Milan where I had been working. Two hours and 55 minutes from city center to city center. 297 km/h. In birthday style.
After a hearty breakfast and a short nap, I arrived…to a different time.
I took a red double-decker ‘carriage’ to the Colosseum. I was intrigued by this massive amphitheater measuring 190 by 155 meters (620 by 513 feet) built in the city center on the grounds of the former palace of the decadent emperor Nero. It was opened by Emperor Titus in 80 A.D., only a year after the eruption of Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii.
Traveling through the city center, I passed many beautiful structures. When I could see the walls of the Roman Forum, I knew I was approaching my destination.
I got out of the carriage. The horses looked exhausted after navigating through the city.
It was a gorgeous late September day. I admired the great works of the Romans, and was in no hurry at all …
…to enter the Colosseum. I decided to linger outside for a while. I knew the hunts and wild animal fights usually took place there in the mornings. I could almost hear the cheers of the crowd, over 50,000 people packed inside…watching the combats and waiting for the public executions that usually started around noon. Later, in the afternoon and early evening, they would witness gladiator games and combats.
Finally I went inside.
Looking up from the ground floor, I could ‘see’ the elaborate private boxes where the noble and upper-class families enjoyed non-stop entertainment. The more gruesome, the better. The plebs tightly packed on the marble seats of the upper tiers.
Although there were about 100 drinking fountains for the spectators sprinkled on the upper floors, the underground hosted most of the facilities.
There were fresh water pipes of lead, cisterns for gathering rain water, latrines for the patrons and an elaborate system to handle all the waste generated at the arena on daily basis. The stalls housing wild animals and the gladiators’ chambers were also underground.
Most of the gladiators were slaves, condemned criminals or prisoners of war, but there were also a few freed men who wanted to become famous and rich…by keeping up a winning streak. Looking up from the lower levels at the ecstatic spectators must have been frightening. The masses expected bloodshed.
I climbed stairs and walked the ancient corridors pondering about the four centuries this arena was in active use. The entertainment here was elaborate and expensive. At some point the cost accounted for about 1/3 of the Roman annual revenue.
Over the centuries, this amphitheater was damaged by storms and earthquakes. It fell in disrepair by the 6th century, and finally became a quarry for building materials for forts, palaces and churches, including the St. Peter’s Basilica.
As a result, about 2/3 of the original structures were destroyed, until the restoration efforts started in the 1990s.
Now I needed to balance all these past horrors with some beauty. I hopped on my ‘carriage’ again and traveled through the city center past the impressive Parliament building.
I hopped off at the Castel of St. Angelo and decided to walk to the Vatican.
It was quite a walk, but luckily I am well-trained by Dylan. Approaching the St. Peter’s Basilica, I was suddenly thrown back in time.
I briefly ‘saw’ my husband happily sitting in that square all those years ago.
But that picture had already been taken. He was not there. Instead the place was very crowded. Hundreds of people were lining up for entrance.
I decided to continue my walk and visit the Vatican museums instead.
I needed to experience beauty. Art. Food for my soul. And there was plenty. Like this famous painting of Adam and Eve by Wenzel Peter.
Fantastic paintings in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
And many sculptures, ancient and modern, like the “Sphere within Sphere” by Arnoldo Pomodoro in the museum gardens.
Not to mention a large collection of icons and other paintings.
What surprised me was the sizable collection of Egyptian artefacts.
At the end of the day I had seen a lot. I had also walked a lot, over 20,000 steps. I was completely ready for a meal freely allowed on birthdays. Quattro Stagioni. Pizza at an Osteria next to my hotel.
I wish you all…a Happy Birthday if you happen to have one, or just solid, ordinary days this coming week. Those days are the best. Be here and breathe deep.