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I Touched the Coliseum …and other thoughts on Rome

You know that list you have tucked in the back of your mind of things you’d like to do before you die?  Things like hold a lion cub, drive a team of Clydesdales, take a ride in a blimp?  Well, today I checked one off the list.  I touched the Coliseum.  I flew to Rome, got off the plane and made a beeline for the big C.

And there it stood, looming before me, seeming much larger than in my childhood history books.  Faded and powerful and crumbling and grand all at the same time.  I climb the steep steps (did Romans have long legs?), and marvel as my twenty-first century shoes touch stones from the year AD 79.  I look around…and I see 50,000 spectators in their togas, and Emperor Titus sitting proudly in his Imperial box.  The gladiators are grunting and shiny with sweat, fighting lions and tigers and each other for their lives as the crowd cheers wildly.  A gladiator is wounded, bleeding badly, and so he is finished off with a sword, destroyed as if he were a lame horse.  Men drag the body away with a hook and a rope and throw sand over the pools of blood.  People from the lowliest of citizens to the priests, senators, magistrates and dignitaries are frenzied with excitement.  The grand finale is here.  Dozens of exotic giraffes and ostriches are being released into the arena, running wildly from their dark imprisonment.  Archers appear and the sky rains with arrows, piercing the bodies and heads of the surprised animals.  They fall, bleeding in the dirt, making horrible noises and jerking with pain.  They die.  All of Rome celebrates, drunken with lust.

…I reach out and touch the Coliseum, pressing my hand firmly on the stone for a good, long minute.


I decided that if I were ever homeless (knock on stone), I’d live in Rome.  Not because of the flowered parks or the enchanting squares or the surprising number of trees that make Rome seem like a forested city.  It’s not the buildings painted in warm shades of pale yellow like thick cream, or the orange of an unripened peach or the sunburnt sienna of a summer sunset.  Nor the cozy shops, crammed and inviting with soft leather purses and brilliant painted pottery and books too pretty to read.  Or the fact that around each and every corner lies art - stone carvings of soulful people frozen in time and beautiful churches with elegant steeples and ancient, faded columns.  It’s not even that embracing feeling that Rome gives all who love it, that sensual sense of having one foot in the ancient past and the other in the vibrant present.

No, I’d be homeless in Rome because of the fountains.  Old fountains, tiny fountains, thundering fountains, dribbling fountains, Baroque fountains, rococo fountains, frog fountains, lily fountains.  Trevi Fountain.  Lots of euros in the bottom of those fountains.  Why, I could clean them out every day and in a month’s time probably have enough to buy a little place out in the country.


I’m watching the pigeons here in Vatican City, in the square in front of the largest church in the world.  Papal pigeons, I call them.  Going nowhere, really, just spending the afternoon walking in circles and trying not to get stepped on.  Not one of them stops and so much gives St. Peter’s a glance.  Not a one looks up and thinks Wow, what a church.  I wonder if the Pope ever looks at them from that little window, third one over from the right, and blesses them.  And I wonder why they would want to hang around a place that draws 100,000 humans at a time instead of a nice, green park by a babbling brook?  Maybe they feel safe surrounded by religious people not wanting to harm God’s creatures.  Maybe there is a Catholic PETA convention going on.  

I watch little girls tiptoe up to them, cooing, with fists full of cracker crumbs to feed and nurture them, hoping they’ll have the chance to pet their undersized heads.  And then I discover their only enemy.  Little boys.  Little boys everywhere, racing up to them and waving their arms, hoping to give them little birdie heart attacks.  Kicking at them as if they were feathered soccer balls.
So is the life of a papal pigeon.

My husband and I leave the preoccupied poultry and approach St. Peter’s, only to be stopped by a team of Proper Attire Police.  They tell Eric he is not permitted in the church dressed in Bermuda shorts.  (As I watch a hefty woman waddle through the doors wearing a skin-tight yellow Mickey Mouse tee shirt with day-glow pink flowered stirrup pants.)  The Bermuda Bouncers point to several vendors along the side of the piazza selling navy blue paper pants at seven dollars a pop. 

We enter the holy doors of the basilica, instantly overwhelmed at the high, arched ceilings; the massive mosaics; the gloomy tombs.  Six priests are singing mass in Latin, their voices eerie and echoing.

I become uncontrollably choked up, my eyes welling with the beauty of the moment…even with Eric standing beside me, his shorts bulging through his ill-fitting Capri-length paper pants.

I have never dined in a city where so many baskets of bread were plunked on tables. Bread at breakfast, bread at lunch, bread at dinner – it’s always there.  You can order a pizza and they’ll bring it with bread.  You can order a sandwich and it comes with a side of bread.  Bread is often served even before an order is placed.  Once, right after a very Italian waiter with a thick crown of curly black hair placed a basket piled high with slices of bread in front of me, I asked him if he had any more bread.  Without hesitation, he turned around, marched into the kitchen and returned with another basket of bread.  He didn’t even blink.

Not to say that’s the only food worth mentioning in Rome – oh no, great food is everywhere.  My favorite restaurants are the tiny, closet-sized ones hidden on side streets, where the waiter is also the owner and chef.  The ones with three or four round tables the size of Frisbees that spill out onto the sidewalk during warm weather.  Each tiny table has a tablecloth and a single flower in a vase.  The waiter-owner-chef wears black pants, a white shirt and a bow tie as if he runs the Ritz.  The house wine is cheap and quite drinkable.  In the background is a cave-like oven filled with red-hot embers for cooking paper-thin pizzas.  The pasta is simple and rich.  The bread, of course, is plentiful.

I would like to tell you about one such restaurant, not because it is extraordinary in any way, but because it is not.  It is ordinary, typical, and makes you feel as though you’re in the real Rome.  Tucked away on a side street in the neighborhood of Trastevere, my husband and I lazed away an afternoon there with another couple.  Stone and tile floors, a dozen neatly dressed tables, a glass case off to the side displaying homemade tarts and cakes like objects d’art, a crackling open oven in the back.  We sat outside, enclosed under a thick green arbor, oblivious to the outside world except for the sound of the birds.  A scattering of local families sat around us.  Our waiter, Albino, plump from pasta, looked like a charicature of an Italian waiter I saw on a cocktail napkin once.  His eyes completely disappeared in his perfectly round face when he smiled and he wore a pink satiny tablecloth as an apron.  Somehow, through a few Italian words, a few French words, a German word or two and a round of charades, I asked him if he had fried squash blossoms, something I had never tried.  He went in the kitchen and made them just for me, covered in a golden tempura-like batter with an anchovy buried in the middle of each one.  We ate tender pillows of ravioli stuffed with ricotta, pizza piled high with thin slices of buttery mushrooms, and herb-laced tomato salad, all washed down with two bottles of the house red.  The total tab was $40.  Including the bread.

Ristorante da Albino il Sardo, 00153 Roma, Via della Luce, 44-45 (Piazza Mastai).  Telephone: 06-58-00-846.  Open for lunch and dinner.  Closed Monday.

“O lucky Rome, born when I was consul!”
            -63 BC, Circero, Roman orator

“While stands the Coliseum, Rome shall stand; when falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall; and when Rome falls – the World.”
            1812, Baron George Byron, English poet

“Hail Caesar, we who are about to die salute you!”
        -traditional for gladiators when saluting the Emperor

“I’ve finished that chapel I was painting.  The Pope is quite satisfied.”
-1512, Michelangelo in a letter to his father after painting the Sistine Chapel.

“This is my answer: not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.”
    -1599, William Shakespeare (Brutus, explaining his reasons for
    killing Caesar, from ‘Julius Caesar’)

“The play is over.”
    -AD 14, Caesar Augustus’ dying words (first Roman emperor)

And finally, should you decide that touching the Coliseum is something you want to do before you die…some advice on packing and pickpockets for your trip to Rome:

“Travel light and you can sing in the robber’s face.”
    -circa AD 120, Juvenal, Roman lawyer and satirist


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Copyright © by Robin Benzle. All Rights Reserved