Roman Forum: Rubble was once the Center of the Civilized World

IMG 0551 300x225 Roman Forum: Rubble was once the Center of the Civilized World

The Forum, seen from Palatine Hill.

There are very few complete buildings left at the Roman Forum. Much of what is there is drab, gray rubble, broken statues, and the stubby remains of columns. But with some imagination and a good guide (human or audio), you can re-create what was once the bustling, gleaming, prosperous and decadent center of the Roman Empire–the civilized world back two thousand years or so.
My husband, daughter and I had Rick Steves’ free audio guide (available at RickSteves.comor on iTunes) to make sense of the rubble. After getting a bird’s-eye view of The Forum from atop Palatine Hill, we began our tour at The Arch of Titus.

IMG 0558 300x225 Roman Forum: Rubble was once the Center of the Civilized World

The Arch of Titus marks the beginning of our tour.

This arch commemorates Rome overthrowing Judaea (Israel) in A.D. 70, where Solomon’s Temple was destroyed and 50,000 Jewish slaves were brought back and forced to build this arch and the Colosseum. Talk about adding insult to injury!
Next, we came to the massive Basilica of Constantine, the most prominent remains in the Forum, and yet, they are only 1/3 of the original structure. Take a look at the detail in the coffered ceiling (once gilded in bronze) of this huge hall of justice, and you get a feel for the grand opulence of ancient Rome.
Stroll a little farther and you come to the Main Square, an open area where crowds congregated in the city center. Nearby is the Temple of Julius Caesar. There isn’t much to see here–a metal roof covers the spot where Caesar’s body was burned following his assassination.
The Temple of Antoninus Pius (emperor) and Faustina (his wife) is one of the more well-preserved buildings, but when we were there (April ’11), it was covered in scaffolding. We could not go in or really even get a good look at it. Guess I’ll have to catch it next time I go, along with the Basilica Aemilia and Caligula’s Palace, which I missed somehow.
The next ruin of note (I’m skipping some things from the guide because, frankly, I don’t remember seeing them) was the Temple of Vesta, a circular temple said to be one of the most sacred places to Romans. Inside, a fire was kept burning continuously by the Vestal Virgins (we’ll get to them later). As long as the fire was burning, Romans believed that their city would not fall.
Behind the Temple of Vesta lie the remains of the courtyard of the House of the Vestal Virgins (house is gone). This is interesting not really because of what is left here, but because of the story of the Vestal Virgins. Six young women were chosen from noble families to serve 30 years as celibate priestesses in Rome. If they served their terms faithfully, they were then given a huge dowry and allowed to marry. Any Virgin who broke her vows was publicly humiliated and then buried alive in a crypt. Many suffered this fate. But hey, in exchange for the “honor” of giving up the prime years of their lives, these women were given some of the best seats in the house at the Colosseum–right across from the Emperor. Good trade? I think not!
As we made our way to the end of the Forum, we visited The Curia (Senate House), the most important political building here, and viewed the remains of the Temple of Saturn (only 8 columns are still standing).

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The entrance columns are all that remain of the Temple of Saturn.

The oldest temple in the Forum, it once housed a statue of Saturn, and was the place where the spoils of war were deposited upon the return of the victorious soldiers.
It’s amazing to me that so little remains of the political, religious and economic center of the once flourishing Roman Empire. But when I think of all the time and wars and natural disasters that have occurred in the past 2 thousand years, maybe I should be amazed that so MUCH remains!

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Palatine Hill

Palatine Hill, right next to the Colosseum, holds the remains of what was once a 150,000 square foot emperor’s palace.  Emperor Domitian, who built this palace in about A.D. 81, had a grand view of both The Forum and the Circus Maximus.  Though not much of the palace remains, you can still get a sense of the opulence and excess of the Roman emperors.  The place had a heck of a backyard, complete with a sunken stadium, gardens, fountains, courtyards, a banquet hall with a heated floor, and a spectacular view of the The Forum!

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View of the Forum from Palatine Hill

While looking at The Forum from this bird’s-eye view, you can get oriented to what’s what before you descend for a closer look.  We listened in on a tour guide’s description and then went down to do our own tour.

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An Emperor-sized backyard-the stadium at Palatine Hill

Your entrance to Palatine Hill is covered as part of your Colosseum ticket, or by your Roma Pass, which will also save you standing in line.  The entrance to Palatine Hill is on Via di San Gregorio, or from within The Forum.  Don’t make the mistake we did of trying to enter near the Arch of Constantine.  This is an exit only, although it looks like you can get to Palatine Hill from there — you can’t.

In addition to the ruins of the palace, you will want to visit the Huts of Romulus and the House of Augustus (aka Octavian), the first emperor of Rome.  This modest dwelling is a stark comparison to the Imperial Palace built by later emperors.  Some of the frescoes in this house have been restored, and, though I did not see them, I hear they are worth the wait to see.   Legend holds that the Huts of Romulus mark the birthplace of Rome, founded by none other than Romulus himself.

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The Colosseum

The movie, “Gladiator” gave me a good idea of what the Colosseum must have looked and felt like at the height of its glory nearly 2000 years ago, with 50,000 screaming spectators watching “barbarians” fight to the death against other barbarians or exotic wild animals.  But it is no less amazing to walk among the ruins today and imagine the scenes in my own head.

It was very crowded on the April day we were there, but our Roma pass got us quickly through security and saved us at least an hour of standing in a BIG, LONG ticket-buying line.  Once inside, we followed the free Rick Steves audio guide, which we had downloaded to our ipods from his website.  The guide led us through the Colosseum in an organized and efficient  manner, giving us interesting information about the ruins as we went.

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View of the underground tunnels and partially restored arena floor of the Colosseum.

I could just imagine the noise, activity and smells (not good) that must have been present there during the days of gladiator contests.  It’s easy to picture the animals and gladiators pacing the underground corridors, waiting to be killed (or succeed and find fame) in a public spectacle above on the arena floor.  Today a part of the floor has been restored so you can see where the level of the arena once stood.  Some of the marble seats reserved for emperors and other VIPs have also been restored, giving you an idea of where the best seats in the house were located.

Only about one third of the original structure remains.  Some of it was destroyed by earthquakes, but most of the structure was taken away stone by stone during the Middle Ages by “enterprising” Roman citizens to use for other buildings, including St. Peter’s Basilica.

Our self-guided tour lasted about an hour, and before leaving, we took pictures of some of the great views from the upper level of the Colosseum.  From there you can see the Arch of Constantine, Palatine Hill, and the Temple of Venus and Rome.   Next stop – Palatine Hill.

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When in Rome, Stay with the Nuns!

Rome hotels are expensive. As I was looking for an economical way to stay there for 4 nights, my friend, who had lived in Italy suggested staying at a convent. Many convents rent rooms to tourists for a reasonable price, and most include breakfast. That is what her family of 8 did, and not only did they save a few bucks, they got a little taste of culture, too. She recommended Fraterna Domus, near the Vatican. The nuns were very friendly, kind and helpful, the rooms clean and comfortable. If you stay at a convent, however, be sure to ask about curfews. Some of the convents have curfews, and it would be a real bummer to get locked out for the night!

My husband, daughter and I could not get a reservation at Fraterna Domus, but we found another hotel run by nuns (not a convent) in a good location in Rome. We were glad that we did not stay near the Vatican because most of our sightseeing took place in and around Rome–not close to the Vatican. We stayed at Albergo Giusti ( We also found it to be a pleasant place to stay, convenient to many of the popular tourist sites, with a clean, relatively spacious room with a private bath. The room only had twin beds and was sparsely decorated (it IS a hotel run by nuns, after all!), but we were hardly there except to sleep and shower. Breakfast was included, though it was somewhat meager–plain bread, yogurt, some packaged pastries and fruit juice. Still, it served our purposes, and the nuns were more than helpful in giving directions and/or recommendations for restaurants, bus routes, and anything else we needed. It was well worth the 120 euros per night during peak season (for 3 people).

For a list of convents that rent rooms, go This website is run by an American Catholic diocese in Rome.

For accommodations at authentic monasteries or convents throughout Italy, try:

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Rick Steves’ Guide Books: Priceless

I’ve visited four cities in Europe now, and I have to say that without the Rick Steves guide books, I would have been lost–literally and figuratively.  Rick Steves is an expert on European travel, and his guide books are a priceless tool for planning a trip there.  The books are organized, easy to follow, hold a wealth of information about all the major tourist attractions (and some off-the-beaten-path places too), and will tell you everything you need to know, from booking hotels and flights to where to find the least crowded restrooms (or WCs–that’s water closet in Europe).  By using his books, I was able to plan all the details of my trip in advance and execute them while I was there.  I took the books with me everywhere I went and referred to them again and again.  You can also get the books online, and many free (excellent) audio tours and other information on his very helpful website  Don’t leave home without Rick!!


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Roma Pass Saves Time & Money

If you’re going to spend more than one day in Rome, buy the Roma Pass. For €25, you get free admission to two tourist sites and a discount (about 30%) at many more of the most popular attractions, and unlimited use of the metro and buses for 3 days.  You can also bypass long lines at some of the busiest sites.  Definitely worth the money!  You can buy the pass at any of the participating sites, tourist information offices or the tabacchi near the Colosseum.

To get the most from your pass, go to the 2 most expensive places first–the Colosseum and the National Museum.  We were delighted to bypass a huge ticket-buying line at the Colosseum and go right in.  Your Colosseum admission also covers the nearby Palatine Hill and Forum.  Admission to the National Museum covers all four branches of the museum and counts it as one admission.

If the pass just covered admission to the tourist sites, it would be worth the money, so the 3-day use of the metro and buses is a bonus!  Be aware, however; although the metro can get you to most places easily, there is one section of Rome it doesn’t cover–the west section.  You can take the bus from there–it’s just a little harder to navigate.  A taxi is always an option, too, if you don’t want to mess with the buses.


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Booking hotels online: Watch out for 3 things

Booking hotels online is convenient and easy–that is how I book most of my hotels–but here are 3 things to watch out for.

1.  Rates–it used to be that you could always find the lowest rate available online.  But that’s not always the case.  On a recent trip to Oregon, I booked 4 different hotels.  After checking online rates, I got a lower rate at 2 of the 4 by calling the hotels directly and using my AAA discount.  So, while online deals can be really good, it’s worth a couple of minutes to call the hotels directly and ask for their best rate.

2.  Refundability–Many online hotel reservations are non-refundable these days–which may save you a few bucks on your rate.  Just be sure you won’t need to cancel.  Also, some of these non-refundable reservations will say, “Breakfast not included”, even though the hotel routinely offers free breakfast.  Make sure you read the fine print!

3.  Cancellation policies–Make sure you know what they are BEFORE you make the reservation.  Most hotels allow you to cancel a reservation up to 24 hours before your arrival date without a fee, but some have much less flexible policies–especially if you book online.  Some require you to cancel as much as 7 days in advance or they will charge at least one full night, sometimes more.  Again, read the fine print!

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Hotels-Suite deals and free breakfast make a great value!

I’ve spent a LOT of time booking hotels in my life–too much time–because I agonize over finding just the right hotel with just the right amenities for just the right price. And I want all those things for a screamin’ deal (which I sometimes- but not usually-get). When all I need from a hotel is a clean room with a comfortable bed, a shower, and breakfast, I don’t want to pay for a bunch of amenities I won’t use. On most trips that I go on, I don’t spend very much time at the hotel. If, however, a resort were my destination and I was going to spend a lot of time there, I would be willing to pay more for amenities. But that’s a topic for a different day.

Recently, (May 2011) my husband and I took our 4 kids on a week-long trip to Oregon. When our kids were little, we could get by with one room with two queen beds. We could put 3 little kids in one bed, and the youngest one on the floor or in a port-a-crib. But now we have 3 “adult kids” and only one real “kid”, and that just doesn’t fly. So, I had to choose between trying to book 2 regular rooms or 1 suite that could comfortably sleep 6. I reasoned that I could probably find 2 decent rooms for $50 or less in Portland, but they might be “iffy”. I wanted to be sure that our accommodations on this trip would be pleasing to all. I opted for the suite so we could all be together, which turned out to be very nice, and everyone was happy. We stayed at 3 different suite hotels, and all of them were great. First, we stayed at Embassy Suites, for about $125 per night, but the fabulous breakfast makes it worth paying a little more. They offer made-to-order omelettes, pancakes or french toast, eggs, bacon, sausage, muffins, pastries, yogurt, cereal, oatmeal, and all kinds of drinks. Certainly, a full breakfast for my family of 6 was worth at least $60, probably more.

We also stayed at Homewood Suites, for about $110 per night. The rooms were just as comfortable, but included a kitchenette and full-size refrigerator. The breakfast was just as good, although without the made-to-order omelettes. Homewood Suites also offers a “light” dinner M-Th. That makes it a real value. If you eat a late breakfast and an early dinner at the hotel, you could get by without spending money on food. We never were there for dinner, though, so I can’t say what the food was like.

We stayed one night at a brand new Springhill Suites in Irvine, CA on our way home, for $117. It had the best room of all the places we stayed, and a comparable breakfast. I love the waffles! They make up for no omelettes. The room had 2 queens and a sofa sleeper (as all the suites we stayed at), but it had a separate bathroom with a sink and a toilet, as well as a bathroom with a shower and a sink. That was very helpful for our large family. All in all, I felt that an average of $117 per night for our family of 6 was not a bad price to pay, especially since that price included some very nice rooms and all-you-can-eat breakfast!

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The Citadel & Pyramids at Giza

First stop this morning is at The Citadel, the castle and mosque of Muhammad Ali (the original–NOT the American boxer!).   His tomb is located within the mosque.  It is on a hill, high above the city of Cairo, where we get a good view of the, uh, black cloud of pollution hanging over the city.  In spite of the pollution, we can see quite a bit of the city from up here, and, though it is more peaceful than down below, the constant sound of honking horns floats up to us.  The mosque is very pretty, with its domed ceiling and intricate detail work.  Pretty lights are strung across the ceiling.  We enjoy a few minutes inside, and then it’s on to the Giza Pyramids!

IMG 0836 200x300 The Citadel & Pyramids at GizaI am so excited for this!  Coming from the USA, where a building that is 200 years old is really “old”, it is amazing to me to be looking at structures that are nearly 5000 years old!  The pyramids at Giza are astounding!  I wonder, “How on earth did they build them, when each stone block weighed, on average, 2.5 tons?”  Cheops’ pyramid (the biggest one, though it doesn’t appear so) alone is built from an estimated 2.3 million blocks.  No one knows how they did it, but according to the ancient historian Herodotus, “it took 100,000 workers over 30 years to build this pyramid.”  (from LDS TravelStudy Guide, “Egypt”, p. 87)  The pyramids of Chephren and Mycerinus are smaller, in deference to their fathers, but no less spectacular.  Chephren’s pyramid still has a portion of the original limestone casing at the top.  I can only imagine how beautiful the three pyramids must have looked with their original polished limestone and granite faces.

Near the big pyramids, but not as grand or noticeable, are some smaller pyramids, built for the wives of the pharoahs.  This contrast in size and grandeur symbolizes in stark reality the lesser role of women throughout Egyptian civilization (and ancient civilizations in general).  It is repeated over and over in the pyramids, tombs and temples.  (Just an observation–not a political statement)

We have the option of going inside one of the pyramids, with the warning that it is not a particularly pleasant experience.  But I am in Egypt, most likely for the one and only time in my life, and I am not going to miss seeing the inside of a legendary pyramid because it is hot, stinky and cramped!  If you are truly claustrophobic, don’t go inside, but otherwise, it was worth a few minutes of discomfort.  The passageway is only about 4’ X 4’ (I’m estimating), so you have to hunch over and walk down for a ways until you come to level ground, where you can stand up straight for a few feet.  Then you have to hunch over again and go up to the sarcophagus room.  This is a fairly large room, with an empty stone sarcophagus (box) on one side.  It was hot and stuffy in there, and I was very glad to get out, but hey, I had to see the inside.  Once upon a time, that room would have been stuffed with treasures of all kinds, but the pyramids have long since been robbed of their treasures.

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Cairo – Old World Mixed with New

We hit the ground running, bright and early on our first full day in Egypt, although we have spent the previous 36+ hours traveling without much sleep. We learn quickly that sleep has a low priority on this jam-packed adventure, if we want to get all the “fun stuff” in. We can sleep when we get home (and on the buses, every time we have more than 5 minutes’ travel time). We fill two large travel buses–Drew and I are on Bus 1 with Steve and Gayle Halversen as guides, while the other 42 in our group are on Bus 2, with Chal and Janeen Halversen (Steve’s son and his wife).

At 8:00am we’re on the bus in Cairo–a sprawling, bustling, NOISY city of about 17 million people–in a Third World Country. This is most evident in the contrast of old and modern modes of transportation and dress visible everywhere on the crowded streets. Donkey-powered wooden carts loaded with fruits, vegetables, breads and other wares share the roadways with buses, bicycles, and old cars, many of which are crammed full of more bodies than seems possible (or prudent). The traffic is downright frightening, the noise from car horns deafening. I am grateful to be aboard the biggest vehicle on the road as I watch cars darting every direction and making 5 lanes out of the 3 painted lanes on the road. Now I understand why all the honking. I see very few traffic lights or stop signs, and I wonder, “Do they have traffic laws? Speed limits? Seat belt laws?” (They probably do–I just can’t read Arabic. I’m skeptical about those seat belt laws, though.)

The people on the streets are more fascinating than the crazy traffic. Many of the men wear turbans and lightweight robes, but many also wear modern pants and shirts. Virtually all of the women wear veils on their heads (but not over their faces), with traditional dresses or more modern pants, skirts and blouses. The older women wear plain black veils, but the veils of the young women are noticeably different–they are varied and brightly colored, often embellished with sequins and rhinestones. Like their veils, their demeanor is markedly different from that of the older women–they are smiling and animated in their conversations, in contrast to the stoic faces of their elders.

I have the urge to be turned loose in a street market, to be able to interact with the people, taste their bread, and look at their wares, but we never get the chance to do this because of time (and probably safety issues, too).

In addition to Steve Halversen, our guide from LDS Travel, we have an Egyptian guide and a security guard packing a serious weapon (which is supposed to be hidden in his suitcoat, but I can see it sticking out), This is a requirement for every tourist group in Egypt, for safety and other reasons (control). Our guide, , is friendly and knowledgeable and answers all of our questions in good English and with patience. (Bus 2 is not so lucky–their guide is very hard to understand).

As far as I can tell, the masses live in poverty. They don’t seem to have a “middle class.” I see no houses, no suburban neighborhoods like what I am familiar with–only row upon row upon row of drab red brick apartment buildings, with laundry hanging from practically every window. Most of these ugly buildings are in some state of construction. We are told this is because the people can avoid paying taxes if their dwelling is “unfinished”, and also because whenever a child marries, an apartment is built on to the rest of the structure for their new “home”. Seeing these living conditions makes me feel very blessed. We just don’t realize how much we have in America!


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