October 29th & 30th, 2014
Our main objectives for our last two days in Rome were to see the piazze that we had missed and go to the Colosseum and the Forum. Our first stop: Piazza del Popolo.
The obelisk in the center is from ancient Egypt and used to be in the center of the Circus Maximus. That big entryway in the back is the Porta del Popolo, which was built in the fifteenth century on the site of an old gate in the Aurelian walls.
Next we walked over to the Piazza di Spagna and the Spanish steps. In front of the steps is the Fontana della Baraccia by Bernini. The obelisk is a (bad) Roman copy of the one in Piazza del Popolo. Evidently some of the hieroglyphs are upside down because the workmen were copying the obelisk while it was horizontal!
The first time we saw the sign for the McDonald’s by the Spanish steps, we laughed about their advertising. The second time, we laughed about how ridiculous it would be to come to Rome and eat McDonald’s, for crying out loud. The third time… we followed the sign and went in. By this time, we had been walking around for a few hours and had several coffees, so we needed a bathroom pretty urgently. And when we saw the McDonald’s sign… is it just some sort of unspoken American agreement that McDonald’s bathrooms are basically free public toilets? I wonder when we collectively began to think that we are allowed to use the facilities at all McDonald’s everywhere, regardless if we are currently paying customers?
As soon as we entered, we wondered if we had gone in the wrong door. A quick peek back at the sign on the door, and nope, this was McDonald’s, just not as we knew it. This wasn’t just a place to order at the counter, grab your fries in a greasy paper bag, and be on your way: this was an experience. The store was on two floors, with the first floor housing a McCafe and a gelato shop. No fake-wooden booths here: plush seats and cafe tables were spread out with people drinking their lattes and espressos out of real, maybe-even-porcelain cups. And gelato? Those lucky Italians! No McFlurry’s and frozen yogurt for them, no. They got thick, delicious-looking gelato in a host of exotic flavors, like pistachio, raspberry, and stracciatella. We stood in the doorway for several seconds, taking it all in, before we went up to the next floor. Upstairs was more of the same design: sleek, functional and stylish- like the Armani of McDonalds. You had two options to order: either at the counter or on self-service machines. By this point, it was clear that this wasn’t the type of McDonald’s where you could just go to the bathroom and leave again without ordering. This place was classy. Since we were getting a bit hungry anyway, we chose the counter. When we got there, they were still serving breakfast, and they had some of the old favorites, like McMuffins and hashbrowns. In addition to the normal food that we were used to, they had pastries like chocolate brioche and a much more espresso-laden coffee menu. Actually, it might have all been espresso. I think if you want American filter coffee, you would have to settle for an Americano, which is kind of fitting, since you are an American in Italy, after all.
After filling up on McMuffins, we walked to Capitaline Hill, the lowest of Rome’s seven hills. In early Rome, traitors were thrown off the hill onto the sharp rocks below. Michelangelo designed the square, and today it houses government buildings. Most people walk to the edge of the piazza for the wonderful view it gives over the Forum.
After snapping some quick photos, we had to rush to the Colosseum for our tour. Based on the advice of a friend, we had pre-booked a guided tour of the Colosseum, which I highly recommend. Not only do you get to skip the line (the long, long, long, interminable line) but you also get to see areas that are usually closed off to visitors. We got to go underneath the Colosseum and see all of the hallways, rooms, and pulley-systems that made the games possible.
The area underneath was beautiful and white, and it absolutely shocked me when the guide said that this was the exact same stone used for the rest of the Colosseum. Pollution has discolored the stones to that grimy grey/black color, and if the underneath weren’t sealed off like it is, then it would quickly follow suit.
We also got to go up the stairs to the highest level which provided an excellent view of the entire structure and the surrounding area.
After the tour, we walked around inside, including a wonderful temporary exhibit on the history of libraries, and all sorts of displays showing Roman picnic leftovers, oil lamps, and other interesting finds.
Since we had the rest of the day free, we walked around and explored some more before we went to our dinner reservations. This was the first time that I had cinghiale, and it was not my last. I think after that first meal, I had it for dinner every subsequent night except for one. It was absolutely wonderful: wild boar stewed in a rich tomato sauce, served over noodles or polenta, or just by itself. Delicious!
The next morning we woke up bright and early to get to the Forum ahead of the crowds.
Our overall impression of the forum was that it was better seen at a distance. Once we paid a fortune in entrance fees and audioguide costs, we walked around, trying to understand what we were looking at with almost no direction. There were very few signs, our guidebook had even less information, and the audioguide only said things like “Turn to the ruins on your left,” which is about like someone saying “Look at the tree on your left” when you’re in a forest. Besides the lack of signs and information, some of it was undergoing restoration work, which just added to our confusion.
We walked around the Forum and Palatine for hours to try to get our money’s worth, but we left in a bad mood, knowing about as much as when we entered. I personally think that the audiovisual show in Foro di Augusto and the ruins of Ostia Antica are a much better value for your money.
After the Forum, we had just a couple of hours before we had to catch our train out of Rome. We had already gone to Pizza Florida the day before based on TripAdvisor reviews, and man, was it fantastic! They had large rectangles of pizza with more toppings than you could possibly count. The pizza was priced by weight, so you would tell them how many grams you wanted of each type. After they cut out approximately that much, they would weigh it and put it in the oven to heat while you paid. Since we had no idea what a reasonable amount of pizza would be in grams, we spent a lot of time miming pizza sizes, while the nice guy behind the counter laughed and cut. This time we got the pizza to go, and we walked across the street to eat it by Lago di Torre Argentina so I could see my cats one last time. (I really do have a very nice husband.)
After eating, we picked up our bags and headed to the train station to catch our train to Florence!