Italy: Rome in 31,415 steps – Jewish Quarter, Colosseum, Forum, Pantheon, Trevis Fountain, Vatican City & More

colosseum rome

As my teenage daughter and I turn the corner into the street of our Airbnb I look to my left and ask our Uber driver: “Is that the Forum?!”

“Si”, he says.

I’d never been to Rome, but I’ve watched enough ancient history shows to instantly recognise the crumbling centre of Ancient Rome. I somehow missed when I’d booked that it was right at the end of the street where we were staying, something I put down to the luck of my Irish ancestry.

We’d taken the train from Napoli earlier in the evening after a hastily arranged day trip to Capri, off the coast on Naples. Our AirBnB host was a bit annoyed that we were arriving so late to Rome and said she may have to charge us a late check-in fee. We’re on tour, enjoying la dolce vita, we apologise and I say we’ll likely be there by 9 PM, depending on the trains. If they need to charge a fee, then they could charge a fee. She said she might be able to arrange for her uncle or father-in-law or someone to come great us. After finding the door, which is often an adventure in itself with AirBnBs, we buzz up and are greeted by a charming Italian man who doesn’t seem to have any of the time hang-ups that our host had. Despite being tired from the day’s trip we listen eagerly to what he thought were the highlights of Rome. There are so many highlights you would need weeks to be able to see them all properly. But we were in Rome for only one full day, so we’d have to fit in what we could. Apart from visiting the Colosseum we had no firm plans, we were just happy to see what we saw after that, and as long as I could get an espresso at the start of the day, and  pasta and red wine at the end, I’d be happy.

I asked the charming man whether he could recommend somewhere to eat at that hour. Coming from the small pueblito of Canberra, Australia, where finding late night eats can be a struggle.

“You should try the Jewish area, it is open late, and not far from here. Just a few minutes.”

So with that we grab the key and dump our bags and trundle around a curvy road. It’s just 10 minute’s walk away. Along the way we see a hole in the ground for some construction which looked like it was a gateway into an Ancient Roman villa or some such archaeological site. It may not have been for construction, just a hole in the ground for the sake of excavation.

The Jewish quarter is a bustling little few blocks with a nice number of restaurants with alfresco dining around Via del Portico d’Ottavia. I ordered lasagna and my daughter the beef carpaccio, some raw minced beef with lemon juice and olive oil. I craved cheese sauce on my lasagna but being a Kosher restaurant they don’t mix cheese and meat. Something I did know having worked in Jewish kitchen in Melbourne for a few years back in the early 2000s. Better for my cholesterol.

“What should we do tomorrow?” my daughter asks as she risks mad cow disease, parasite invasion and salmonella, “I just want to see the Colosseum.”

“Ok, let’s just go with the flow, go to the Colosseum and then we can just walk around a look at stuff. The Forum should be really good as well.” I drink more Sicilian wine, still craving some cheese.

“Cool”, my daughter says.

Another father-daughter team sits at a table near ours. We chat a little. They’re from Israel. The daughter takes one little taste of her hummus and screws her face up. “It’s not good. The hummus in Israel is much better”. From her twisted expression I don’t doubt her. She doesn’t eat any more. I wish she was my daughter for a moment, not that there was anything wrong with my daughter that meant anything as drastic as swapping her for an Israeli one, it’s just that I was still a bit hungry after my lasagna and so would have finished off her hummus. And maybe a piece of cheese.

We finish our food, and I my wine, and we head back to sleep. A few drops of rain fall. It’s October. I heard somewhere that the Romans used to say ‘Wet as October’, which might indicate it’s a wet month. I haven’t been able to verify this. It might just be a crass phrase with dubious double meaning. Those Romans were known for their sauciness.

On the way back we climbed Capitoline Hill, the campidoglio, which includes a hill top square which only now I find from Google was designed by Michelangelo. Not even knowing that as we walked past I had a few wow moments when we took in the magnificent buildings there, perhaps proving Michelangelo was as special as his publicist make out. I’m surprised I don’t have a photo of it, I was in a bit of non-photo type of mood during our time in Rome. There’s a general dearth of photographic evidence of our time there, and my daughter’s since deleted most of hers. On the way down from he hill we get our first glimpse of the Forum, lit up. We admire it for as long as our weary eyelids can tolerate that late in the day, before heading back to bed.

archway in rome

The next day we rise early. For a brief moment I forgot what city I’m in. It’s happened a few times throughout my travels around the world, scary and exhilarating at the same time as you look around the room and try and get your bearings. My daughter’s already rushing me to get to the Colosseum.

“It’s been there for thousands of years, it’s not like it’s going anywhere.” I say and, “I’m not going anywhere until I’ve had some coffee and breakfast”. It was the only firm rule I had when travelling with my daughter the last week or so since I’d picked her up from a school exchange in Munich. Coffee and some breaky always comes first, the rest was negotiable.

We head back to the Jewish quarter and I get an espresso for a Euro or 1.50, and a few sweet bread thingies for a couple of Euros more to take with us as we walk around. After drinking the coffee, the day could begin!

We head to the Forum and near one of the entrances find out it’s cheaper to get a ticket for the Colosseum and Forum together, which also includes entry to the museum (which we never ended up using). The ticket only allowed entry to each site once, so we had to decide whether to go to the Colosseum or Forum first.

“Colosseum”, My daughter says. I agree as she obviously needs to get the Colosseum out of her system before she’ll focus on anything else, and I don’t want to spend a nanosecond at every building in the Forum as we rush through.

Tickets in hand, we skirt the Forum’s perimeter fence down to the Colosseum – it’s a bit of a detour and would have been much easier had we been allowed to just go straight through the Forum.

We wait in line. We seem to have missed the really big crowds I was expecting, perhaps October is the month to go, and as we’d already bought our tickets we manage to get into the Colosseum pretty quickly. Maybe not that surprising given it was always designed to have thousands of people get in and out quickly.

We turn some corridors and climb some stairs and then we are greeted with our first live view of the inside of the Colosseum.

colosseum rome

I find it magnificent, though somehow my expectations of such familiar sites are always different based on what I’ve seen on TV. This is the real 3D version, with smell-o-vision and surround sound auditory immersion, which you can walk through and everything! One of the main things I first notice is that the Catholics have been in and consecrated the place due to the Christians being burnt and fed to lions there, so some huge crosses are there spoiling the ancient vibe. I swear I’ve never seen them crosses on the tele! Just gladiators and the like. For a supposedly meek bunch the Catholics sure know how to stamp their authority on things. I suppose the Romans did literally nail Jesus to a cross, so perhaps it’s still on theme.

They’ve reconstructed part of the main arena with a wooden floor, and what looks to be sand, which is something like the old days I imagine. I also imagine great naval battles, death match spectacles, chariot races and the crowds of thousands on top of the action eating their porridge gruel. My daughter, who has been in silence for the time I’ve been imagining all these things, which isn’t long, is less impressed.

“Is that it?” She asks.

“What do you mean?”

“It’s all like ruined.”

“It hasn’t been used much for centuries. What did you expect? Gladiators to be hacking away at each other?” I’m sure I didn’t say those exact words, but something along those lines. I wish I’d had the quick wit to exclaim Russel Crow’s famous line from Gladiator, “Are you not entertained?!”.

“I thought it’d have a floor at least.”.

“Well, they’re working on that bit I think.”

“Pompeii is better”.

I can’t argue with that, Pompeii is much better.

I listen in on someone else’s tour guide for a while while we look around a little more. The tour guide’s explaining much of the magnificent past of the place. Her enthusiasm for the place is not infecting my daughter, who doesn’t appear to be as keen to shamelessly eavesdrop into someone else’s private tour. I insist we should stay there a while longer since we were in such a rush to get there, and besides, we shouldn’t waste our free tour guide. But my daughter’s clearly seen enough. Her face says, we’ve had our photo, what other proof do we need that we’ve been here? There’s an emoji for exactly that face, I’m sure you know the one.

I hold out a while longer listening to the tour guide’s description, but I loose interest as well and we walk around a bit more to gain a different vantage point of the arena. I’m keen to explore the underground section. We head back and try and see if we can get a tour of the underground chambers, but I don’t think it can be arranged that day, or it was too expensive, or in the end we couldn’t be bothered, whatever the case we’d had our fill of the Colosseum and decided to head to the Forum after something like 45 minutes at what was one of the most impressive and well-known structures of the ancient world. I note I will definitely book in an underground tour on my next visit. With a real guide.

Entry to the Forum is easy from the Colosseum end. As with the Colosseum, it’s also very crumbly and ruined. Ancient Romanologists are probably pulling their hair out at the moment saying ‘der!’, and it’s not like I don’t know it would be ruined, but I’m surprised just how ruined it is. In Mexico, for example, you go visit the great Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan, or the Mayan jungle city of Palenque, and you can still imagine a Teotihuacan or Mayan priest will pop out at any moment and go up the top of a pyramid and pull someone’s heart out in offering to the great Feathered Serpent or other gods, and the sacrificial person’s poor decapitated body rolling down the steep stairs.

roman statue rome

At the forum there’s a brick. A single brick and you’re meant to imagine it used to be a magnificent senate building or something. I’m exaggerating of course. There’s more like 10 bricks in several piles, and a few collapsed marble column bases, that stand where some magnificent building once stood. Hardly the grandeur of Mexico’s Teotihuacan. Rome, you really have let yourself go, but I suppose Goths, or Visigoths or Ostrogoths, and or Gauls and Vandals – again apologies to Ancient Romanologists for mixing all these groups up – have probably had a go at it. The armies of the Emperor Justinian headed by his general Belisarius, also trashed the place some more around 536 AD and left it even a  bit shittier with only a few thousand (or perhaps hundreds) of residents left in the old dilapidated capital of the Roman Empire that had centuries earlier been moved to Constantinople.

rome forum roman

Shame really, you’d think the Romans with their love of concrete could spruce the place up a little. There are definitely enough of the buildings left to be awe inspired, or at least quite interesting, but I won’t overdo it and say I can imagine some senator walking down the street ready to pass some law or whatever they did at the Senate – stab Julius Caesar a bunch of times maybe. More like, yeah, some cool stuff, probably best described in pictures than words.

roman forum rome

I feel we spend another 45 minutes walking around the site reading a few interesting plaques that stood where an interesting building or temple once stood. From the Colosseum you can walk all the way through the Forum back up to the Capitoline Hill. Which we do. The walk up the hill, for me is the coolest part of the place. The walk takes you up the Gemonian Stairs, which I later found out is a place where ancient executions took place. There I could definitely feel the ancient vibe and you also get a very nice view of the entirety of the Forum with the Colosseum in the distance.

roman forum

We admire the magnificence of Capitoline Hill, feeling spoilt that within in a few blocks we can travel centuries between the ancient and renaissance. After this I don’t really know where to suggest going. Luckily we’d started with the disappointment of the Colosseum so anything would be a highlight from here one in. I throw out a few names of random places I know off the top of my head: The Trevi Fountain, some Spanish stairs that I feel I’ve seen in a Woody Allen movie, some pool Mussolini built (which I have no idea where it is and no serious intention of visiting). I’m sure there’s just nice places all about, so we decide to head for the famous fountain. My daughter manages to get some wifi access and uses some maps she’s dowloaded earlier to head us off in the right direction.

Trevi Fountain

We find the Trevi Fountain, it’s only a 15 minute walk away. It’s overflowing with tourists, as you’d expect. I give my daughter a coin to throw in the fountain, she’s facing the fountain, I’m between her and the fountain, she immediately lifts her arm and the coin flies past my ear.

“Jesus! Hang on, you’re meant to like throw it over you shoulder or something, not like take my head off with it”, she has a small denomination Euro coin she got in Germany which she pulls out, “and wait till I get out of the way” I add seeing the coin tossing fury in her eyes.

She laughs and turns and sends the coin into the stratosphere, we don’t see where it lands, perhaps it’s still orbiting the Earth,  so we gingerly sleek off to the edge of the plaza to mingle with the crowd before some irate German with a coin shaped lump on his head accosts us. There’s police everywhere blowing whistles to stop tourists sitting on the fountain or littering and other misdemeanours, such as throwing coins at their father’s head.

Trevi fountain Rome breaking bad los pollo hermanos

“So what’s the coin toss mean?” my daughter asks.

“Dunno, I think you make a wish or it makes sure you come back to Rome or something”. I’d done as much research as I had done for my Papua New Guinea day in geography in year 9 when we’d inappropriately dressed as cannibals. So I wasn’t much help.

It’s hot, the fountain cools the air a little. We admire its ornate decorations, I’d like to say I remember it being very blue, but my photos and Google search tell me it’s all marbly white, and the water a bit green, so never rely on me to be a witness at your murder trial or anything. Perhaps my mind was elsewhere for a moment. Through the crowds I spotted some gelaterias . I’m sure the water at least was bluer than it is in the pictures. That’s why you need to go to places.

trevi fountain

“I want a gelato”, I say, “but let’s head a little way from here, things are always more expensive around these touristy places.” I was always one to avoid being too badly ripped off since I was convinced to buy some sapphires in Bangkok in the early 90s.

Our poorly planned walk had thus far proven that the centre of Rome was such a touristy place that one didn’t really need to plan much to see all those things that you’ve heard about on the TV. As a tourist who only had one day to spend in Rome, I say that in a good way.

We put a pin in for the Spanish Steps, which I’d still been calling the Spanish Stairs, that I knew about from Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love. We took a slight side route, where I continued my search for gelato, when we came stumbling across the Pantheon. Yes, the actual Pantheon. I wasn’t sure what the actual Pantheon was with great certainty, though I knew I’d seen a documentary about it. I don’t know how we managed to stumble across it without looking for it, but again, as with other ancient sites of the city, I immediately recognised it.

“I think that’s the Pantheon!” I declared to my daughter.

“The what?”

“The Pantheon.”

“What is it?”

“Some important ancient Roman building for the pre-christian gods, I think. I have the feeling it’s one of the few buildings that actually survived intact from ancient times (I’m sure that fact came almost verbatim from a documentary that I’d watched which I’d stored somewhere deep in my brain for such an occasion). Let’s just go look.”

We line up to go inside, and to our delight find it’s free! Because it’s a church, which means there’s not much evidence of the old pagan gods about. Thanks pope from ages ago again! Though the pope’s probably like, well screw you guys for burning us at the colosseum!

It has a domed ceiling. I’ve never been in a place that has a domed ceiling that has failed to impress.

Anyway, we look around for 20 minutes, and then my craving for a pistachio and chocolate gelato returns.

We head out of the Pantheon Square and I think we pass a restaurant where a lady is making fresh pasta (it may have been between the Trevi Fountain and the Pantheon). “You want some lunch?” the man outside the door asks.

I didn’t include lunch in the budget so I say, “Not now, but we’ll be back!” Unlike the Terminator, this is usually something I say and then never really come back, I’m sure you’ve done that too. But in this case I fully intended to return! If I could find the place, or didn’t find somewhere that looked more promising to eat.

So we make our way to the Spanish Steps and on the way we pop into a Gelateria.

Usually steps help people get up and down, from and to, places, but in this case the steps themselves are the attraction so tourists loiter around taking photos and eating gelato and the such, not knowing whether they should be going up or coming down, or walking sideways, or where a step becomes a stair. The steps have become a Foucauldian discourse, where the steps, or stairs, have taken the power away from humans to know whether they are walking on a functional object, or whether that object is enticing them into a world where they no longer know whether to go up or down, hence the concept of ‘steps’ has lost its meaning and is a mere reflection of the ideas that we once thought of as steps, or stairs. The Steps, rather than a means to traverse two separate and distinct areas have become a destination in themselves, a world where you feel like you should be going somewhere but also you’re not going anywhere at the same time. Like a broken escalator.

the Spanish Steps Rome

I spill a little gelato on the steps which I feel bad about, but it’s hot and the gelato is very melty. The photo below may not be at the Spanish Steps, but it’s there abouts.

gelato rome

Having not had enough of steps and stairs we see another hill close by, with stairs leading up, and decide to climb them. Many more steps later we’ve weaved our way up to the top of the hill and take a quiet walk around the parks of the Villa Borghese before wandering over to the terrazzo del pincio and taking in the panoramic view of the city, with its terracotta tiled roofs and the River Tiber winding its way through. A fresh breeze mixed with the slight acrid smell of Rome wafts up.

A few minutes rest later I spot another domed building across the Tiber. I point over to it.

view of Rome and Vatican City from terrazzo del pincio

“I reckon that’s the Vatican.” I say.

“Are you sure?”

“No, I don’t really know where it is, but it kind of looks like what I think it should look like, and I think the Vatican’s in Rome somewhere, but I didn’t think it was right in the middle of Rome like that, I thought it was off somewhere else on the side or something.”

“Are we going to go?”

“Yeah, let’s do it.”

Uplifted by the lofty views of the city we make our way down more stairs. The Vatican is on the other side of the Tiber so we find a bridge to cross, where we, for the first time, come up close and personal with the famous river. It’s not much to look and I’m guessing the centuries of human occupation of the area haven’t made it any prettier. Still, it’s the Tiber.

It’s a decent walk from the hill to the Vatican and with our phone batteries running low we rely much on the force, and the top of St Peter’s Basilica to guide our way there. We find a long straight road that seems to go the right way and then just walk, and walk, and walk some more, a little gingerly now given our trek up and down hills, Colosseums and Forums thus far.

Eventually we reach the limits of the city and find our way in. Nuns and priests abound, plus Catholic knick-knack shops. It’s like a red-light district, only opposite, so maybe a green-light district, with rosary beads and virgin Mary’s rather sex workers winking at you enticingly from windows. One of the Mary’s was a sex worker though. Jesus didn’t mind. We spot a Swiss guard down the street. My daughter tries taking a sly photo of the guard which doesn’t turn out so well, just in terms of the quality of the photo. He’s guarding what looks to be an alternate entrance into the city which may be reserved for the Pope’s pizza delivery guy and naughty nights with the knights templar.

Pushing nuns, priests a Catholic pilgrims aside, like a zombie horde, with mumbled ‘sorry fathers’ and ‘excuse me sisters’ which hark back to my catholic school days at Marymount college on the Gold Coast, plus a few Hail Mary’s owed for mumbling impatient profanities to get the heck out of our way, we reach St Peter’s Square, and admire the Basilica through the long lines of people waiting to get into the Sistine Chapel.

“So this is where the pope lives”. My daughter says.

“Yep. Should we try and see the Sistine Chapel”.

My daughter looks at the line. “The line’s too long”.

“You sure? We might not get back here ever”.  But I’m not that keen to tackle the line that day either.

“Yeah, I’m too tired.”

Vatican City

We rest among the marble columns drawing in the holy glow of the Holy See. I contemplate doing a confession to confess to what I used to confess to at my old Catholic school. Particularly when I confessed to stealing a classmate’s pen which I don’t think I even did but which I made up so I’d have something to say at confession. I guess I’d have to confess to lying about the pen. Anyway, I’d done away with confessions by year 8.

We make our way back to our Airbnb for a rest before dinner.

On the way back we come across the Piazza Venezia and the Vittorio Emanuele II memorial, surrounded by a moat of cars and buses circling it endlessly. It honours the first king of a unified Italy. I feel I came across Vittorio in my studies of modern Europe and that he had something to do with Garibaldi in unifying modern Italy in the late 1800s. Of course, at the time had no idea what it was commemorating, just looked like a cool building which you had to cross huge street to get to.


We stop for a few more minutes, almost at the limits of sightseeing, and continue on our way. We haven’t gone far when we discover Trajan’s Column. I was leaning on a fence looking at something as we stopped again for a few minutes for my daughter to take a photo, or just because we we knackered, and then I turned around and somehow I knew.

“That’s Trajan’s Column”, I say to my daughter.

“What’s that?”

“Some commemoration to some victory of Emperor Trajan, maybe over the Gauls or some Germanic tribes, I can’t remember”, I say.

I look around the column and find confirmation of my hunch. It’s actually to commemorate victory in the Dacian Wars fought in modern day Eastern Europe, with the Dacian’s who lived around Romania and Moldova ( the later regularly being a worthy entry into the Eurovision Song Contest, despite the country’s modest size). The Roman victory resulted in 100,000 Dacians being brought to Rome as slaves and the Emperor hosting over 3 months of games at the Colosseum which included over 10,000 gladiators. I’d say many of whom may have been Dacian. Next time I’m there I’ll now have to picture the Dacians as well.

The column itself reinforces the scale of the victory.

“Look there’s pictures of Romans crossing the Danube and vanquishing their enemies and their enemies dying, and horses and shields and people being captured and turned into slaves”.

The column is tall, so without being able to see the stuff at the top clearly I think the theme goes on and on in such a matter. Romans killing Dacians, Dacians now slaves, Dacia itself is part of Rome now. Rome is great, don’t forget that. Et Cetera. There’s even a bit showing how Trajan put up the column, which seems more like filler than an important thing to commemorate. Very meta.

Probably be considered a bit tasteless in modern times and perhaps even confusing. I imagine a monument to the battles of the Somme in World War One, French killing Germans, Australians killing Germans, Germans killing Australians, British and French, and in the end, there’s not even much conquered territory, Dacian gold, or more violence of gladiatorial battles to tell you it’s over and someone won. Modern wars really suck. I’m sure ancient ones did as well.

We’ve reached the very limit of our sightseeing, we dare not even look up again as we head back the the Airbnb in case there’s something worthy of stopping at. We just can’t look anymore! We climb Capitoline Hill again, and head back to sit for a bit, charging our phones and ourselves a little.

After a couple of hours we head back to the restaurant. Amazingly we find it without too much difficulty. The pasta is indeed good. This time I have lasagna with cheese. And red wine of course.

Patrick Leigh Fermor walked from Holland to Constantinople in the early 1930s – see A Time of Gifts: from the hook of Holland to Constantinople which is the first book he wrote in the trilogy outlining the feat. We hadn’t done quite that, and I’d left my phone at the Airbnb when we went for dinner, so the last steps of the night aren’t counted. But my phone still records an impressive 31,415 steps. A record I’ve not broken since in a single day in a city. We hadn’t found any swimming pools built by Mussolini, but we’d seen everything else we could think of, and it turns out we may have caught a glimpse of the Fascist School of Physical Education opened by Mussolini in 1928 in the distance when we were looking down from the the terrazzo del pincio. Even though the ancient Romans were a bunch of fascists themselves, it’s probably not cool to visit modern ones anyway. Even Italian ones.

The next day we headed to Bangkok.

father and daughter Spanish Steps Rome