Italy, Chapter Four: ROME!


This is the final installment of a four-part series of blog posts covering our recent trip to Italy. If you haven’t already done so, check out Chapter One: Venice, Chapter Two: Florence, and Chapter Three: Siena!

Our final three and a half days in Italy were spent in Rome, which was our favorite city that we visited! We arrived on a Sunday afternoon after a bus ride from Siena and immediately set out for the Roman Forum and the Colosseum. We experienced some scattered showers, but nothing significant enough to keep us inside.

For a brief time the road leading to the Colosseum was shut down. I snapped this photo from the middle of the street.

The Roman Forum is an incredible place. This was the center of the Roman republic for centuries, and the surrounding area includes the Colosseum, Palatine Hill where Roman emperors had their palaces, and Circus Maximus. Here I am checking out some ruins from the sidewalk of a five-lane wide city street. It’s almost certain more ruins rest 10 feet below the street I’m standing on.

Because it was a Sunday afternoon just a couple hours before closing and it had been raining, the Forum was practically deserted. We took advantage of this, bought tickets, and walked the grounds.

The ruins in the foreground of the photo below were once part of the Temple of Vesta, which may date back to the 7th century BC (more than 2,500 years ago!) and where a sacred fire burned that symbolized the health of Rome. Vestal Virgins guarded this temple and the fire within it.

This statue is located in the ruins of the House of the Vestals where the vestal virgins lived.

Check out the guy in the blue jacket for scale in the photo below. Ancient Romans built upon the ruins of older structures, which is why you can see columns standing so much higher than nearby brick walls. Being in the Forum was awesome because we were able to walk around ruins and look up at them, trying to imagine what it must have been like in the same spot two thousand years earlier.

The Arch of Septimius Severus was built in AD 203 to commemorate an emperor’s battle victories. This was built 1,800 years ago!

Another shot of the Arch of Septimius Severus, but also check out the nondescript brick building to the far right of the photo. This is the Curia Julia, a Senate House first built in 44 BC at the direction of Julius Caesar himself. It was completed in 29 BC by Emperor Augustus following Caesar’s assassination. We walked inside; today it contains artifacts and features displays about the Forum.

I was geeking out big time. I’m no history buff and I didn’t know anything about most of what I was looking at, but I was able to recognize some structures and was absolutely thrilled to be walking amongst ruins I’ve read about and seen images of since grade school.

The Temple of Romulus is about 1,700 years old but was restored and is in great condition because it was used as a church after Christianity became prominent. This is the case for many old structures that are still standing: Their value to the church prevented them from being destroyed or stripped for their building materials over the years.

Check out how small Julia appears in this photo. She’s standing inside what was once the largest building in the Roman Forum, the Basilica of Maxentius. This required state-of-the-art engineering 1,700 years ago and is still impressive today.

It was approaching closing time for the Forum, so we headed over to Palatine Hill for a different view of what we had been walking through. Palatine Hill is where Rome was figuratively born. Roman mythology states that Romulus and Remus were born here. These two brothers raised by a she-wolf would later found the city of Rome. This is also where wealthy Romans lived and several emperors built palaces on the hill.

From Palatine Hill we were able to spot the Colosseum.

The Roman Forum was closing, so we exited and walked about three minutes to the iconic Colosseum. We walked around the circumference of the structure and made plans to return the following day to check out the interior.

Here’s a shot looking into the Roman Forum at sunset. The structure to the right is what’s left of the Temple of Saturn, the location of which has housed temples dating back 2,500 years.

A group of tourists saw me taking photos and asked me to take a photo of them. They were German and assumed I was too, so in my best high school German I agreed and said “eins, zwei, drei” and took the photo. Then we asked them to get one of us. My former teacher Frau Marek would be proud.

Here’s what really blew my mind about the Roman Forum: These structures were magnificent, featuring exotic marble and arched domes at a time when most people in the world lived in thatched huts. After the fall of the Roman Empire, some buildings were transformed into churches but most were just left to deteriorate. Once-glorious monuments from the center of Western civilization were buried under debris and trash, and at one point the Forum was used as a cattle field. In medieval times, structures were torn down and materials were used as a quarry for other buildings as the ground continued to rise due to debris and trash being left behind. Ancient temples and buildings that required incomprehensible engineering for people of this time were covered up and buried. This lasted nearly one thousand years. It wasn’t until the renaissance and more recent centuries that the historical significance of the Forum was recognized and excavation and renovations were begun. It boggles the mind to contemplate how close humanity was to forever losing all the history here, and to imagine what ruins from other civilizations have been lost.

On our second day in Rome we visited the Colosseum. On the way there we walked by the Forum again. We experienced much better weather than the previous day.

On the other side of the Roman Forum is the massive National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II, who was the first king of a unified Italy. It’s an interesting juxtaposition to have such an imposing structure resting next to ancient ruins. Locals have funny nicknames for it based on its appearance: “The Wedding Cake,” and “The Typewriter.”

We continued on to the Colosseum. Because we bought tickets the day before we were able to avoid a massive line and walk right in.

Everyone knows about the Colosseum and the legendary battles that took place there. Here’s a view from one end looking down at what used to be the main floor. The rows of columns in the center of the image were actually beneath the floor. This is where gladiators and animals were moved around and sometimes brought into the arena with elevators.

From this angle you can see a tour group standing above the subterranean columns on a rebuilt floor of the Colosseum. I found it interesting that during our visit archeologists were doing an excavation on the grounds. You can see them standing around a blue tarp towards the bottom of the image.

The opposite end of the Colosseum. Being inside the structure it feels just like being in a modern football or baseball stadium. Nearly all of our contemporary sports arenas are modeled after this ancient template.

From the Colosseum one can look back at Palatine Hill and other monuments. This is the Arch of Constantine, a 1,700 year old structure commemorating a victory of the Emperor Constantine. Constantine was the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity, which later became the official religion of the entire Roman Empire.

An image from the ground level of the Colosseum looking at the ruins that were beneath the floor of the arena.

I like the reflection of the sun and clouds in Julia’s glasses.

What Julia saw nearly every time she tried to get my attention during our visit to the Colosseum.

Ground level, looking at the arches supporting the rest of the structure.

After visiting the Colosseum for an hour or so we grabbed some crackers and a couple cans of beer from a nearby vendor and had a mini-picnic with an incredible view. Yes, that beer is 12oz. I am a giant.

While sitting there we contemplated how many thousands of people lost their lives in the Colosseum for sport. The building was able to hold more than 50,000 spectators; by comparison, AT&T Park where the San Francisco Giants play can hold only 41,503. It’s impossible to know how many people died there while the Colosseum was in use, but it is estimated that during the inaugural games alone more than 5,000 animals and thousands more humans were killed there. Sand was used on the floor to absorb blood: In fact, the word “arena” comes from the Latin word for “sand.” Today only 1/3 of the original Colosseum remains after centuries of Romans using the structure as a quarry for building materials. Interesting facts!

We left the Colosseum and walked to the nearby Circus Maximus, which was an ancient venue for Chariot racing and mass entertainment. Today the dirt track is still present, but the hills that used to be covered with bleachers that could seat 150,000 Romans are now covered with grass. The area was nearly deserted while we visited, except for several groups of picnickers and sunbathers. Julia snapped this photo of one of the many public water fountains in Rome, with Circus Maximus in the background.

We explored some more, walking back to Campo de Fiori where our hotel was and then through neighborhoods and past historical sites on our way to the Spanish Steps. Here’s Campo de Fiori’s daily market and statue of Giordano Bruno, a philosopher who was burned alive at this spot in 1600. He was executed by the Roman Inquisition; the statue of him defiantly faces the Vatican.

Walking through the narrow alleys of Rome allowed us moments of quiet enjoyment while taking in the city.

We passed the Pantheon, built in 126 AD, where I snapped this photo of Julia.

A couple blocks away I spotted a businessman walking through an alley eating gelato.

Eventually we came to the Trevi Fountain, one of the most famous fountains in the world and probably the most jam-packed tourist attraction we saw on our trip.

Yes, look at us, but also look at the woman on the far right. What kind of a pose is she doing here?

Eventually we made it to the Spanish Steps, a popular and romantic place to end the day. We sat for a while and watched the sun go down while people watching and sipping on a couple cans of Peroni.

The view from the very top.

Looking back at the Spanish Steps.

After dinner, we retraced our walk through the city and saw the same popular sites at night.

It must have taken about 20 attempts by three tourists and me before we got this mediocre photo of us at the Trevi Fountain at night. Thanks, friendly guy from Chicago!

The Pantheon at night.

On our third day in Rome we visited the Vatican, but not before eating the best lunch of our trip! Before our departure we watched several episodes of Anthony Bourdain-No Reservations where he visited Venice, Tuscany, and Rome. In the Rome episode he raved about a pasta dish – cacio de pepe – at a local restaurant and broke with his usual style by refusing to name the restaurant. Fortunately for us, Meghna was able to find the restaurant’s name and address with some Googling. The restaurant is only open for lunch for a few hours, and while we were there it was uncrowded and everyone was ordering this signature item – cacio de pepe contains pasta with cream sauce, pepper, and cheese. Simple ingredients put together in a way that creates a dish far greater than the sum of its parts.

With full stomachs we made our way to the Vatican.

The Vatican Museums get notoriously packed with lines sometimes lasting multiple hours, so we took the advice of our Rick Steves guidebook and arrived in the late afternoon an hour or two before closing time. We lucked out and there was no line at all to enter! The museums are the most impressive of any I’ve ever seen:The Catholic church has collected and saved countless works of art spanning the course of Western history. Unbelievably, they allow photography in many of the rooms!

Julia posing with the bust of an ancient Roman woman named “Giulia.”

The famous statue of Laocoon and His Sons. This sculpture is more than 2,000 years old, was lost for 1,000 of those years, and inspired Michelangelo and by extension the Renaissance. It sits unceremoniously beneath an awning in an open-air courtyard.

Different sculpture, amazing detail.

View of Rome from one of the windows of the Vatican Museums.

Walking down corridors we found tapestries and paintings hanging on walls, statues and mosaics on the floors, and frescoes on the ceilings. The museums feature art everywhere, making for a three-dimensional experience.

Being a foot taller than other tourists is great in crowded museums: I was able to take this photo of Raphael’s The School of Athens in an insanely packed room. Seeing this and later the Sistine Chapel were highlights of our trip. The subject of this 500 year old painting has always appealed to me and it’s one-point perspective really creates the illusion of depth. I was amazed they allowed photography in this room, even without flash.

The one place where photographs were strictly forbidden was the Sistine Chapel, where we looked in awe at Michelangelo’s frescoes on the ceiling and The Last Judgment. We were fortunate that a bench opened up for us to sit on as we took in these masterpieces. We’re all familiar with these works; just click on the links above to see what I mean. Seeing them in person was an incredible experience. To provide an idea of what they look like, here’s an image from Wikipedia of the interior.

We exited the Sistine Chapel into St. Peter’s Basilica. The late afternoon light allowed me to take some really great photos of this immensely impressive church.

For scale, check out the tops of the heads of the people at the bottom of this photo. The altar in the center is 98 feet tall. The Latin letters are each seven feet tall. St. Peter’s Basilica has the largest interior of any Christian church in the world. Oh, and this might be the best photo I’ve ever taken.

Upon exiting the Basilica, the overwhelming size of the Vatican continues to be impressive.

The Vatican’s Swiss Guards in their funny uniforms.

After spending the afternoon at the Vatican, we stopped by Piazza Navona, a site that was once used a stadium but today is a large plaza with artists, street vendors, statues, restaurants, and apartments.

Finally, we made our way home to our hotel and Campo de Fiori where we saw Bruno again.

We had one day left in Rome after seeing the essential attractions on our itinerary, and we spent it revisiting places and relaxing. We started the morning at a cafe near our hotel, where we went each morning for cappuccinos and croissants.

We revisited the Trevi Fountain, where we joined all the other tourists in throwing coins over our shoulders with the hopes of returning to Rome one day.

Apparently I make funny faces while throwing coins over my shoulder.

In the afternoon we wandered back alleys and enjoyed our last day exploring Rome.

We also made a final trip to Sant’Eustachio Il Caffe. a coffee shop famous for its delicious product and the secretive way they make their drinks: Partitions prevent customers from seeing how it’s done. We came here several times during our stay in Rome, including twice on our final day.

It should be obvious from the photos, but we had an absolutely fantastic vacation to Italy. We enjoyed experiencing the culture and seeing famous works of art and places that we’ve heard about throughout our lives. While planning this trip there were plenty of practical reasons why we shouldn’t have gone to Italy (wedding planning, I’m going back to school, taking two weeks off work is a hassle, etc.), but we have no regrets whatsoever. The way I saw it, there are always plenty of reasons not to take a vacation to a place I’ve always wanted to visit, but if it’s something I truly want to do I owe it to myself to make the trip as long as I can do so responsibly. When I lived in London for five months as an undergraduate I intentionally did not visit Italy, knowing I wanted to return later in life. I’m glad I had the opportunity to do so with Julia, and it turned out better than I imagined. There’s a whole world out there, and it’s all there right now. It’s up to you to go and experience it.

Thanks for reading about Italy! In the coming weeks I’ll post updates about places closer to home!


  1. This is so great…and I’m looking forward to MORE.

    I remember a young man wanting to be an archiologist. Remember that? Maybe you should have gone down that path…

  2. Fantastic-I so enjoyed your photos and hearing about your trip, and, of course, the history lesson. It’s obvious you two did a lot of planning and a special thanks to Rick Steves (aka…).

    Timing was perfect–you’ll have memories of your post-engagement trip to Italy forever.

  3. Matt – this is such a gift. Thank you so much. I know we would eventually see the pictures, but not in all their glory and with the interesting tidbits to treasure and save. I’m so glad you waited for Julia to visit Italy…

  4. Super cool.

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