European Vacation – August 20

“Oh my god, that’s not a bed, that’s a religious experience!”

It has been a long time since my last good sleep, but something about the several hundreds of  dollars of bed linens (the Hilton sold them, and supplied us with a price list in the room. One pillow went for 300 euros!) and a mattress that defies imagination seemed to do the trick. I could happily have spent the rest of my life in that bed.  But today, we had Roma to explore, so I dragged myself from the comfy confines.

As Jill and the kids were getting ready, I explored the room for a bit. Thank God for Hilton Points, because this would never be a hotel that we could ever stay at on our own tab. Prices in the mini bar started at 10 euros for a small bottle of water. Room Service breakfasts started at about 50 euros per person. The bottle of Spumante supplied by the hotel was also 50 euros. And the rooms we were in went for almost 900 euros a night at rack rate. This was not a hotel for the economically challenged.

First  stop, the Executive club room for breakfast. It proved to be as delicious as last night’s supper, with fresh fruit, real eggs and bacon (a rarity on the continent), along with the staples of hotels breakfasts we had become used too, cold cuts and cheese, breads and pastries. The hotel also offered champagne to accompany the freshly squeezed orange juice. This was dangerously addicting!

After breakfast, we caught the hotel shuttle down close to the train station, with was also the main transit plaza in Rome. Rome operates an open air tourist bus called the A110 Trambus, which did a circuit of the major attractions. Our plan was to get tickets, do the full circuit and then get off close to the Colosseum and the Palatine Hill.

On the shuttle, we met another family from Minnesota and Toronto who had a similar plan. We waited in line for the bus and finally climbed aboard one ready to do the circuit. The bus hit the major stops, including the Piazza Venezia (close to the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Palatine Hill and Circus Maximus), Vatican City and St. Peter’s, the Trevi Fountain and assorted other monuments and ruins. After doing the complete circuit, we got off and the Piazza Venezia, the main heart of Rome, and started off for the Colosseum. After seeing a rather imposing line up, and learning that we could get on a guided tour and skip for line for 9 euros per person, we decided to go this route. The tour guides were supposed to be English speaking, but we got a native Roman who spoke with a rather thick accent and who’s primary English “go to” phrase appeared to be “okey dokey”. Still, it was interesting, although it was insufferably hot (about 38 degrees Celsius). We did the tour, then exited the Colosseum for the second half, a tour of the Palatine hill with another guide, this time an Australian named Amanda.

In my opinion, the Palatine Hill was the more interesting of the two. Amanda seemed to be the reincarnation of Mary Poppins but she was understandable and had a lot of interesting facts to share. Lauren whispered that she must have been a kindergarten teacher and I suspect she was right.

A quick background on the Palatine Hill. It seems to have been the founding location of Rome, one of the seven hills that formed the early city, and the one that legend says was chosen by Romulus himself for his new home. From that day, it was the location of most of the imperial palaces, just up from the Forum, which was the heart of the ancient city. In every major language, the word for palace is derived from “Palatine”. Left to fall into disarray in the middle ages, most of the marble that formed the facades of the huge palaces was looted for the construction of the Vatican, a practice that has left just a few crumbling ruins and foundations of the once mighty location. Still, it offers a fascinating glimpse of the excesses that eventually led to the downfall of the Roman Empire. Huge dining halls next to the aptly named vomitorium (not a myth, but a real practice), private stadiums for gladiator games, massive living quarters cooled by adjacent fountains, this was “La Dolce Vita” at its extreme. As we wondered around the ruins, picturing what once was, I was struck again by the embarrassment of historic riches that typifies Rome. As Amanda was talking in one section, a few of the group sat on the first available seat they could find. In this case they chose a toppled roman marble column that had to be 2000 years old. In any other city in the world, this would be a priceless treasure locked behind glass in a museum. Here, it was a handy park bench.

I couldn’t help but think about the lifestyles that typifies the rise and decline of the Empire. In the beginning, guided by the ambition and astuteness of Julius and Augustus Caesar, the empire flourished. But as lands were conquered and slaves become plentiful, the Romans no longer had to work and the culture fell into a several century long downward spiral of boredom, excess and senseless gratification. The stratification of the society became extreme, with the highest classes (noble families, senators) living in unimaginable luxury and the slaves being considered a renewable resource to be used and discarded as they lost their usefulness. In between, there were the Plebians, the Roman citizens that were entitled to the privileges (i.e. not having to work) that came with their birthright, but who were perpetually stuck to the “cheap seats”. It was for this class that the Colosseum was built. The more bored they became, the more potentially dangerous they became as lawlessness took hold. The solution was to provide a never ending cycle of festivals and celebrations, entertainment (like the gladiator games), complete with free food and wine. Of course, this lower class was well separated from the higher class, restricted to the upper most levels of the Colosseum.

Another interesting insight was to realize the lowered status of women in Roman society. They were basically possessions, with no rights and little status in society. Of course, this is not that different from our society as recent as a 100 years ago.

Somewhere, there’s an interesting line to be drawn from these roots of Italian culture to the attitudes of today, but I lack the expertise or knowledge to be the one to do it.

By the time we wrapped up our tour of the Palatine hill and walked down through the remains of the Forum, we were exhausted and hungry. We turned a nearby corner and grabbed a quick dinner at a nearby trattoria, then caught the metro back to our shuttle stop to return to the hotel.

At the hotel, we grabbed a shower, then resumed our place in the Executive club for a late night drink and dessert  Tonight, we managed to grab a table out on the balcony overlooking the pool, where we could hear the poolside pianist and sipped a glass of wine as we watched the lights twinkle down below in Rome. A perfect night cap.

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