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A Roman Holiday

Rome today is a contemporary metropolis that reflects the many periods of its long history - Ancient times, Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the Modern Era.

travel Updated: Oct 08, 2010 14:14 IST

I reach Rome on a Sunday with visions of Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck whizzing about Rome on a scooter. My hotel receptionist throws up his hands in surprise. Scooter, whatever for? Walk lady, he advises, there is no better way to drink in Rome. 

I follow his advice and after two minutes of walking come upon the church of Santa Maria Maggiore. The receptionist has insisted that I must go in. I do and find the church houses the relics of the holy crib, shards from the holy manger, a piece of the true cross. Well, and to think that I was going to just walk by. I learn that every church in Rome has some treasure or the other. It may be a holy relic like the chains of St. Peter at San Pietro in Vincoli or the tomb of Saint Catherine in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva or an exquisite Moses by Michaelangelo at San Pietro. Every church has an altarpiece by a famous Renaissance artist , every street and corner has a church. So a walk through Rome can enrich your soul in unimagined ways.

Rome was not built in a day, my English teacher was fond of saying. It was founded by Romulus who later killed his twin Remus in apower struggle. There is archaelogical evidence of its having been inhabited since 8th century BC.

But I am set for the Coliseum, spurred on by stories read in childhood and never forgotten. I ask a passerby if I am on the right track and he laughs. Lady, you can't miss it. Its too big.

Now that's a good point. The coliseum was not so named because of its size. Apparently Emperor Nero ( of the mistimed music fame) placed a simply immense statue of himself in front of the amphitheater. The statue towered over the stadium and people began to refer to the area as colossus, then coliseum. Once inside you have to allow your imagination fly. Else all you see are terraces of broken stone seats around an equally ruined central arena. But in the first and second century AD, the subterranean part of the arena was like a huge green room with separate areas for gladiators and animals. Mornings were reserved for plays. The arena would be set up like an African forest. Giraffes, zebras and lions would be let loose and people in hunter costumes stalked them through the forest finally making a kill. In the afternoons, the arena was used for public pronouncement of punishments for offenders. And the Hollywood stuff, the gladiatorial encounters, were all reserved for the late afternoon. How do I know all this? The Coliseum has many well situated boards to explain its once upon a time working to present day gawkers like me.

Exit the coliseum and walk across to the right next door Roman Forum which was the ceremonial, legal, social and business hub of Rome for several centuries. The same ticket allows you admission to both the coliseum and the forum. The forum circles the capitoline hill and its highlights are the temples of Antonia and Flavius ( remarkably well preserved), the temple of Saturn ( not so well preserved) and the cremation site of Julius Caesar. Shakespeare told us he had been buried but all guide books and signs insist on cremation. . If you walk up the Palatine Hill area, you see the Domus Flavia and Domus Augustana which were the official residences of Emperors for almost 300 years.

While in Rome, do see its two most important fountains. The first is in the Piazza Novana and is a baroque masterpiece by Bernini. It represents four rivers, The Ganges, Nile, Rio de la Plata and the Danube. Each river is shown by a huge figure surrounded by its flora and fauna. The second fountain...yes, you guessed right...is the Fonata de Trevi. Be careful not to get trampled as hundreds of visitors jostle to throw a coin into it and be sure of returning to Rome soon.

If I don't tell you about the Pantheon, it will be a crime. This was built by Emperor Hadrian in AD 118 as a place of worship for pagan gods. The early Christians converted it into a church. Its dome is breathtakingly beautiful. It houses many tombs including that of Emperor Vittorio Emmanuel.

The piazza in front of the pantheon has many cafes . As do most of the piazzas everywhere in Italy. I am told that Roman specialiteies include a good deal of fresh vegetables served deep fried or simmered in a sauce. Try the Alla Guida, fried artichokes. Fiori di zucca is another speciality..deep fried zucchini florets. The pasta and main courses look more or less the same as in different parts of Italy. Fish is less common on menus. I went ballistic over the maritozzi, another name for heaven on earth. These are soft buns stuffed with raisins and candied orange peels. Served with a big helping of fresh whipped cream, they take you to a level of wellbeing where you just want to sit in your chair and smile at everyone.

But the intriguing sign of Le Spagna beckons. This is the widest staircase in Europe and was designed to link the Spanish Embassy with the Trinita Dei Monti church on the hill near it. It was built in the 18th century to link the embassy to the church which was under its patronage. Today it is generally crowded with tourists, reclining alllover the steps and is also the place for hosting many cultural events, The road next to it is the home of many designer-wear stores.

Dr.Ajjanta Chakravarty is a management consultant and an avid globe trotter. She can be reached at

ajjanta@ajjanta.com