Home > Stupidity, Travel > A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

December 30, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

I started this post weeks ago, and even then I started it by observing that I should stop writing about our time in Europe already. With that in mind, I have let it sit, but now I will finish it and post it. Then I can move on.

One reason to push forward with it is that I can’t resist making use of the title. How often can one write “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and mean it literally? (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, of course, is the title of the great 1962 Broadway musical starring Zero Mostel, with book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim — the first musical for which Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics. My parents saw it, as they saw many Broadway shows of the time, and brought home the Playbill, which I looked at, as I would do whenever they saw a show. I couldn’t make much sense of the title at the time.)

Our version of “A Funny Thing … ” revolves around something we did that was really stupid. I could blame those crazy Romans for being disorganized, or insufficiently clear in the information they provide. And they didn’t exactly help. But I’ll take responsibility.

We need to go back to November 4. We arrived in Rome from Venice in the late afternoon of the 3rd, a Tuesday, and would have three full days to explore Rome before departing on Saturday for Florence. We had made reservations for the Vatican Museums for Thursday the 5th, with 9:00 entry, anticipating that we would spend pretty much the whole day there, between the museums and St. Peter’s. It seemed natural to start our visit on Wednesday by exploring ancient Rome. Roughly, the outline would be ancient Rome on Wednesday, the Vatican on Thursday, art and churches and squares and whatever else we had time for on Friday.

We had a late night Tuesday, taking a long walk from our hotel (Hotel de Russie) at Piazza del Popolo to explore the city and have dinner. As a result, we got a late start Wednesday. After breakfast in the hotel, we arranged with the hotel concierge for a reservation Friday at the Borghese Gallery. And then, at 10:30, we finally headed out to discover ancient Rome.

Now came our first stupid mistake. I didn’t want to rely too much on taxis to get around, mostly because of visions from too many movies filmed in Rome of impossible traffic. Maybe the subway would be more efficient, as well as cheaper. It would have helped if I realized, as I later did, that from Piazza del Popolo, it’s a quick shot straight south on Via del Corso to Piazza Venezia, and then the Colosseum and the Forum are just around the bend. Still, despite my taxi reluctance, I was thinking maybe we should just do it, whereas Gail suggested we consider getting a bus-subway pass and get around that way. The subway system consists of two lines forming an X of sorts, with us on the upper left diagonal and the Colosseum on the lower left. The intersection is the train station, Roma Termini. Why not give it a try? Not everything is near a subway stop, but the Colosseum is, so we could see how it works. We walked through Piazza del Popolo to the nearest station.

There was an electrified sign at the top of the stairs warning of something. We had seen the same sign the night before, when we considered taking the subway back to the hotel after dinner, but the sign scared me away. That morning, we weren’t scared. We went down the stairs, walked down long passageways, finally reached the station itself, and bought two three-day passes. We then took the subway to Roma Termini. And with another hundred people, some of whom must have been Romans who could have read the warning sign, we found our path from the one subway line to the other, only to be stopped by a closed gate. There was a people pileup, no one sure what was going on. Obviously, some knew what was going on, but they weren’t the ones stupid enough to stand against the closed gate and stare through the gaps, hoping. It eventually emerged that an accident had led to the closure of the second line for several stops, so we couldn’t get any farther by subway.

We made our way up to Roma Termini, outside of which is the start of at least a dozen bus routes, so Gail suggested we find a bus that goes to the Colosseum and use our passes. We went down the street, identified a bus that seemed to go that way, and stood for 10 minutes with a mob of others. Even if it was the right bus, when the next one came, we’d never get on. Not that we could even tell how to queue. We bought a bus map from a vendor nearby, despite my suspicion that we were being taken and the map wasn’t really a bus map. I eventually figured out that it was.

By this point, I was frustrated beyond belief, complaining repeatedly to Gail that we should have taken a taxi. I was also getting hot. Studying the map, we realized that if we were simply to walk from Roma Termini to the Colosseum, we would pass the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, which we had hoped to see. We therefore abandoned the busses and headed off to the basilica. It is, of course, a must-see place. We spent an hour there, then found our way down a couple of lovely side streets and over to Via Cavour, which after a short walk west led us to the street that goes south to the Colosseum. There it was, in the distance, a thrill to see for the first time. It was about 1:00 when we finally got there, 2 1/2 hours after leaving the hotel.

We hadn’t thought to reserve an entry time, but saw right away that this would have been a good idea. There was general chaos at the lineup area, with signs not being clear on where to go. Someone was explaining that if you wanted to rent a headset, you could skip the general admission line and go straight to one of the windows to pay for entry plus headset. We weren’t planning to rent headsets, but this sounded like a good deal, so we took it. We got on a short line, then paid for our tickets and headset rentals. We were told something about the tickets being valid for both the Colosseum and the Forum, and good for two days, until 3:30 PM the next day. This, it turns out, was a crucial point, but one we weren’t too focused on at that moment. We just wanted to get our headsets and enter the Colosseum. Nothing is simple when you’re in a foreign land. We were directed to yet another window to get our headsets. This window does double duty, as the pickup and return site. When you pick your headset up, you have to trade in a photo ID, and when you return the headset, you wait for the person to go through the files and find your ID. There was still more chaos. Eventually, we made it. We had our headsets and were in the Colosseum. That’s when it began to rain. And when we pushed buttons to play the headsets before orienting ourselves and realizing that the explanations started on the other side of the Colosseum. They don’t really make it easy for you.

The rain was light, eventually stopping. And the recorded explanations on the headsets were mostly useful. We had a fascinating time, walking around on the upper and lower levels, studying everything. About three-fourths of the way around on the upper side, facing out to the south and southwest, you are led by the audio guide to a viewpoint over towards the Arch of Constantine, which sits just outside the Colosseum to the southwest. And to the west is the Forum and Palatine Hill. We looked them over and figured we would head there afterwards. I saw lots of people walking up a gentle slope toward the Forum, straight west of the Colosseum, and made a mental note.

We headed out of the Colosseum around 2:30 and needed some food before tackling the Forum. The Forum is to the west, but the only restaurants are to the east, so we headed that way, eventually finding and eating at Pasqualino al Colosseo. Not a bad meal, a little pasta and house wine. Then we went back to the Colosseum. When we smelled the panini sandwiches being made for tourists at temporary little trailers, we looked at each other and both thought they smelled so good that we could have had a perfectly satisfactory quick lunch there, if only we hadn’t wanted also to rest our legs for a while. And then we continued westwards to Constantine’s Arch, on the southwest side. After suitable study and taking of photographs (such as the one below from the south side), we headed across the street to the walkway into the Forum that I had seen earlier from the Colosseum.

There was a sign indicating that this was an exit, not an entrance. Yet people kept going up the ramp. We did too, for a few steps, then decided this was a foolish waste of time, so doubled back and took note of the sign that indicated the proper entrance was some 200 meters to the south. We sensed no particular urgency, taking time on our southward walk to take a look at the sanduwich stand and photograph it.

Another hundred meters later, and we saw a small gate to our right. Closed. So we kept going, but within seconds we realized we wouldn’t find anything more, as the road curved westward, so we turned around and headed to the closed gate. It was 3:32 PM now, and a man, perhaps eastern European, was screaming from our side of the gate at a guard on the other sides. There were two guards, a man and a woman, but the subject of the man’s screams was the man, who stared blankly at him, then said — this was all in broken English on both sides — that he doesn’t make the rules and there’s nothing he can do, they’re closed. We were too fascinated by the scene to fully absorb just yet that that meant we too weren’t getting in. The man on our side must have had the gate closed in his face two minutes earlier. It took still more time for us to fully absorb the meaning of the fact that our two-day Colosseum-Forum combo tickets were valid until 3:30 the next day. I get it! They close entry at 3:30 every day! The tickets were valid for entry equally long on both days. Until 3:30! And since the next day was Vatican day for us, we were not going to get in at all! Sigh! We didn’t see much point in joining with our fellow tourist and screaming, but we understood why he might.

Let’s see. If we took one fewer photo of the Arch of Constantine, if we hadn’t bothered taking a few steps up the exit from the Forum, if we didn’t allow ourselves to be waylaid by the sanduwich sign, if we were content to stand and eat panini sandwiches rather than walking halfway around the Colosseum and down a block to find a restaurant, if — to go to the beginning — we had taken a taxi rather than experimenting with the subway, if for that matter the subway weren’t broken down, … . I can go on, but you get the idea. How many stupid decisions did we have to make to ensure that we would arrive at the lone Forum gate two minutes after it closed for the day? If we had simply understood the import of the ticket seller’s comment that the tickets were valid until 3:30 the next day.

All we could do was laugh, right? (Hence, the post’s title.) This was our first visit to Rome. We would be back. We couldn’t do everything. And our decision first thing that morning to reserve space two days later for the Borghese Gallery guaranteed that we wouldn’t have time on any remaining day for the Forum. It would have to wait. But we had plenty of other activities to enjoy.

And we did see the Forum from the outside, as we walked around the east and north sides, getting quite close at times, pushing our faces against the fence repeatedly as we watched others happily prancing around on the hallowed hill of the Palatine. (Entry may close at 3:30, but once on, you can stay a while.)

Plus, as it turned out, our day had barely begun. We would walk around in the area for over an hour, arriving in due course at Piazza Venezia. Then we took a short taxi ride to the base of the Spanish Steps, climbed up in time to see the sun set,

visited the French church at the top, then walked north along Villa Borghese with views west toward St. Peter’s in the distance and the darkening sky, descending to Piazza del Popolo and our hotel at 6:00 PM for a well-deserved rest before heading out at 7:45 for dinner at a pleasant restaurant next door. We were in our room again by 9:30, but the evening was young. At 9:50, Roman native Sergio, a friend of a friend, arrived in a Mini to drive us around the city. Off to the Vatican for a walk through St. Peter’s Square and environs, then back over to the Colosseum, followed by a late-night walk through the Chiesa dei Santi Nereo e Achilleo, which was still open to visitors, and a drive around Circus Maximus. More driving, more talk, and a return to the Hotel de Russie just before midnight.

What a day!

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Categories: Stupidity, Travel
  1. Jingle
    December 30, 2009 at 6:58 PM

    cool photos!

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