For our first full day in the Eternal City, we decided to go to the Colosseum. So after Heather had opened her cards and prezzies (it was her birthday, after all) and we'd eaten our breakfast of weird bread with ham and and even weirder cheese, we left the hotel and went to Ciampino train station via the hotel's shuttle service, which is basically a pissed-off elderly Italian driving a people carrier.
We got on the train, which was a double-decker ( why don't we have those here in Blighty? I'm sick of paying through the nose for train tickets only to stand up all the way there. I better stop before I go off on one about public transport again!) and off we went into Rome.
As you go into Rome on the train, you notice three things. One, there's history all over the place. You'll see an apartment block, then a bit of ancient aquaduct, a football pitch, then a bit of ruined castle. The town planners have just built around what's left of Ancient Rome, whereas here, if we discover some Ancient Briton burial site, we'll let some archaeologists dig for a couple of weeks and then tell them to piss off and put a multi-storey car-park on top of it.
Two, there's loads of graffiti. All the bits that aren't ancient have got some toerag's tag on it. I'm used to seeing graffiti here in Brum, but it's everywhere in Rome. Then again, 'graffiti' is an Italian word, isn't it? I suppose it's not surprising then, if you think about it. There was an interesting piece of graffiti at the Colosseum, but I'll tell you about that in due course.
Three, it's fucking sweltering. Apparently, we'd arrived during a heatwave, and even the local Romans were moaning about the heat. There was a digital display on the train that tells you what the temperature was, and it was just shy of thirty-five degrees Celsius. I'm not good when it's too hot. I'm not a big fan of sweating. I'm also not a big fan of other people's sweat, especially when the train was as humid and as smelly as the inside of a Chelmsley Wood postman's sock on giro day.
After about twenty minutes in the sweatbox, we got off at Rome's Termini station and because the receptionist at the hotel told us isn't wasn't far, we decided to walk to the Colosseum. To be fair to the receptionist, she had given us a map, and it's not that far really. But to us, who don't know our way around and are very hot indeed, it seemed a fair old distance. Another thing about the inhabitants of Rome, is that they like to dawdle along. Put them on the road, in a vehicle, they go mental, but if you take them out of their car or off their Vespas and put them on a pavement and make them walk, they just saunter along. That's if there is a pavement, of course.
Anyway, after about half an hour of frequent stops to look at the map, and trying to navigate around five dawdling Italians walking side-by-side, we found the Colosseum. It's pretty hard to miss, actually. It is a very impressive building. I'm always amazed when I see something I've only ever seen in films or on telly with my own eyes. When you're there by the Colosseum, you're also surrounded by ancient arches and the remains of the Forum, and you do really get a sense of what ancient Rome must've been like.
Outside of the Colosseum, there's shitloads of tour groups, usually led by someone holding up a stick with a flag on it, there's also loads of blokes dressed up as gladiators or Roman centurions that charge you if you want your picture taken with them. Spoiling the effect, however, is the fact that most of these 'gladiators' are about sixty and smoking a roll-up. There's also quite a few market stalls, selling the usual shite you get at any tourist trap. I'm normally against giving any of these arseholes my money, but Heather talked me into going round the Colosseum with a tour guide, and I'm glad we did because our tour guide was a headcase.
So we sign up for a guided tour and we get given a little blue sticker to show that we've paid, and we join the rest of the punters who have also signed up for the tour. Along comes our guide, who looked a little bit like a younger Fabio Capello, holding what appeared to be a children's picture book about the Colosseum. Because our group wasn't as big as he'd like, he starts waffling on about any old shite to kill time while the group gets bigger.
He was an Italian, and a proud Roman. He began by asking us where we all came from. It was like a word association game for him. One of our group was from New Zealand (which didn't surprise me as looked exactly like Bret McKenzie from Flight Of The Conchords. We asked him about it later on and he said 'we all look alike in New Zealand, probably because we're all related.') When finding where he was from, the tour guide said 'Russell Crowe! Gladiator!'
When he found out where we were from, he replied 'Fish and chips!' and on he went, shouting out the national dish or footballers or film stars relating to the answer of the punter he'd just asked, until he came to one guy who was Dutch, and he was stymied, and decided to start the history lesson.
He started off telling us what it was like in Ancient Rome. About food, and orgies and slaves and the Vestal Virgins and about how badly women were treated. In fact, every time he mentioned any misogynistic acts the Romans did, he high-fived a man in the group in celebration. He then went on to tell us how clean the Romans were and are. He looked at us and said 'We Romans are so clean, when we invade your Breetan, we name a 'ole city 'Bath'! Not like French. French are Steenky, like skoonks!'
Then he told us that the films Ben-Hur and Gladiator are full of mistakes, most notably, both of those films show chariots being used in the Colosseum, which was never the case, as it was too small for any chariots. If you wanted chariots, you had to go the Circus Maximus, a much bigger venue down the road. (we had a look at the Circus Maximus later in the week, and it's just a vast green field these days, but you do realise how massive it must've been.)
For all his casual xenophobia and sexism, though, he knew his stuff and told us lost of interesting facts. For example, two million people were killed at the Colosseum. And of those two million, guess how many were Christians? Just one, Saint Ignatius. Apparently, persecution was big business, so all the Christians were murdered at the Circus Maximus instead, where there was a bigger audience to see it, as it had a capacity for 120,000 spectators. In fact, they set fire to Christians and used them as human torches so the spectators could see where they were going.
Also, the word Colosseum is an English name, coined by the Venerable Bede in the 9th Century. It's proper name is the Flavian Amphitheatre.
Another interesting fact is that the number four being represented by 'IV' in Roman numerals, came along after the empire became Christian, to save space and chiseller's carpal tunnels because it was 'IIII' when the Colosseum was built, as you can see when you look at the numbers above the gates into it.
Every time he gave us an interesting fact, he would back it up by showing us a picture from the children's book he was holding. At one point, he roped in one of the blokes dressed as a gladiator to help him. He looked authentic until his mobile phone went off. He fished it out of a little drawstring bag and proceeded to have a little chat. When he finished, he pointed to his phone and said 'Cleopatra'.
Anyway, after about half an hour of this, he'd got enough people for his group, and after a free photo-op with the gladiator, which I declined ,as he was far too tanned and good looking, and I'm always nervous around people holding swords, but lots of the other members of the group had their pictures taken with him, we were off into the Colosseum.
The first thing he pointed out to us after we got through the gates was a bit of ancient graffiti. An ancient Roman had carved a big phallus into one of the walls. 'See the penis?' he shouted. 'Look at the penis! Take picture of penis!' I hope he was referring to the graffiti, anyway. I'd hate to think he had a fetish for getting tourists to take a snap of his pudendum.
There was a middle-aged American couple in front of Heather and I, and the husband asked the tour guide 'Why's it so small?' The tour guide smiled and gave him a high-five.
You get an eerie feeling when you walk around the place, which isn't surprising, considering the amount of people killed there. This feeling was abated a little bit by the tour guide pointing out ancient bidets and saying ' Look! Arse-washers!'
So, we walk around for another forty minutes or so, looking around the place in the stifling heat, until we get down to where the fights actually took place. There's not much left of the floor now, but you can see where they had the lifts that elevated lions and other ferocious beasts into the arena. The tour guide pointed to a picture of a lion in his book, in case we'd all forgotten what the king of the jungle looked like. 'Lions are bastards,' he said. 'Capisce? BASTARDS!' and then he went on to explain how they had archers on standby should the lions decide to attack and eat the spectators. It was alright to eat the gladiator, but not the punters.
He then told us about the big crucifix that's there now, put there by some pope or other who came and blessed the place and prayed for the two million or so who died there. Like that's going to help them, seeing as all but one of them were pagans.
Afterwards, he took us to meet the other tour guide, who was taking us around the Palatine hills, but I won't dwell on her as she was informative, but a bit dull, but the area is lovely, and we came away, having looked, amongst other things, at the remains of the forum, well educated about ancient Rome, but also very sunburnt. And we'd been walking for miles. As soon as we got out, we headed for a pizza and a beer in a restaurant overlooking the Colosseum, and despite there being a whole boiled egg in the pizza, it had been a good day.