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Roman Holiday

Ginda Simpson

Named for its proximity to the Colosseum, the ancient stadium used for gladiatorial games, the Hotel dei Gladiatori, is a small, 17-room, four-star hotel in the center of ancient Rome. The view of the ancient arena alone makes a stay here memorable, but so does the management's dedication to the comfort of their guests - a good base for rediscovering Rome, YET AGAIN.

The Colosseum, constructed under Vespasian in 72 A.D., is named for the colossal statue of Nero that once stood in front of it on the site that was once a lake near Nero's house. Underground passageways were used to hold wild beasts until they were released from their cages and carried upwards by elevator to the arena floor, where combat entertained the bloodthirsty crowds.

Looking at the Colosseum from my hotel bedroom window, and then again from the rooftop terrace, I am awed by the majesty of this ancient structure, dominating and dwarfing modern Rome. It requires little imagination to envision it in its grandeur, filled with tiers of spectators clothed in white togas, Caesar in the Imperial box and senators and the aristocracy in privileged seats along the railing. As I ponder its ancient past, the soundproof window of my room blocks out the modern roar of traffic as it speeds around the splendid arena. Two thousand years ago, when the games were being held, it would have been difficult to ignore the sudden roars of applause and the throaty gasps of exhilaration from the seventy thousand people gathered there to applaud the savage suffering and death of gladiator and beast alike.

Gladiators, disciplined in one of four state schools, were fed on a special diet and trained in every kind of weapon. The most merciful combats were those in which the beaten gladiator had the right to appeal for his life. If he had fought well, the crowd might save him from death. No mercy, however, was possible in the combats known as fights to the death. The professional gladiator was idolized by the spectators and if lucky, would emerge the winner of hundreds of fights and live to retire with honor. Gladiatorial contests gradually fell into disuse as Christianity replaced pagan beliefs and practices. The games were abolished altogether in 405 A.D.

The amphitheater was severely damaged by an earthquake in the fifth century and became a rich source of travertine marble for the Popes constructing buildings and monuments. Over the ensuing centuries, it served as a fortress, a stage for occasional pageants, and was eventually abandoned. The site was seen as one of the most romantic ruins of Rome. Amid its weeds and flowers, Victorian ladies would set up their easels to paint. In the evenings, it was a popular place to stroll by the light of the moon.

As we stroll around the time worn arches of this colossal monument, a new kind of gladiator greets us. He is a modern-day Roman, who probably has a cell phone behind his breastplate and drives a Fiat to and from work. He acts as a gladiatorial stage prop for the many tourists who wish to be photographed at his side. This 21st century gladiator is said to "make a killing" from the fees he charges for his gimmicks. He is quite handsome in his gear and offers a touch of humor to the scene. We decline his invitation to be photographed and continue towards the center of old Rome.

My husband and I are in no hurry. "Festina Lenta," to make haste slowly, was a motto that Pope Paul III personally believed in and traces of his favorite maxim can be found in corners and on ceilings of Castel Sant'Angelo. Romans know how to take life slowly. They linger at their windows watching life play out in the busy streets. They prolong their coffee break at the bar, chatting with old and new friends. They sit at their dining tables long after the last course has been served and finally they rest, closing their shutters to block the heat and the noise from entering their world of dreams. It is August, and during this month, like no other, they celebrate Leisure for as many days as they can, and they do it ever so slowly.

As Ferragosto approaches, Italians head to the sea or to the mountains for their summer holiday. Romans flee the city and leave it to the tourists, who have an itinerary that doesn't allow for much "festina lenta." I, on the other hand, am committed to spending several hours in one of my favorite piazzas in Rome, the Piazza Navona. It is hot and the air is still. No breeze to create even a mist from the central fountain of the four rivers. Sightseers and backpackers circle the long oval of the piazza, where vendors sell T-shirts and cheap keepsakes, much of it dollar-store merchandise, manufactured in Asia, and sold for inflated Euro prices. Artists are at their easels, some working; some just weathering the clime in the hope of a sale.

Mike buys a newspaper and settles down at one of the cafe tables. I circle slowly, lost in thought about what I have just read about Piazza Navona. It still preserves the exact circus layout of the stadium of Domitian, built in the first century A.D. for athletic displays for the Circus Agonalis – a name that was altered over the centuries to n'Agona and eventually to Navona. The arena still existed as late as 1450; banked by tiered seating from which the Roman populace cheered the victories of their favorite athletes. In 1477, Sixtus IV relocated the market that once stood at the foot of the Capitoline to the arena site, which by then was in ruins. The ancient seats were removed and the center was paved. By the middle of the 17th century, Innocent X initiated a plan to rival the Barberini Palace built by his predecessor on the Quirinal. Bringing the water of the Acqua Vergine to the piazza, work was begun on the famous central Fountain of the Four Rivers – the Nile, the Plate, the Danube and the Ganges.

Without realizing it, I have strolled the length of the old arena, lost in reflection. I now turn back determined to study the sculptures that represent the four rivers. But there is so much to see and I find myself pulled into the present to study the paintings on display. I meet Paolo, a watercolor artist creating truly original paintings of his beloved city, his pieces both imaginative and well executed. He is a handsome man, dark-completed, dancing carbon-black eyes with an inner light, rakish in his white Panama straw hat. Within a few minutes of conversation, we connect, as artists and lovers of Rome. "The Romans don't deserve Rome. They are vulgar and uncivilized – their whole focus in life is thoughts of what they will eat and drink. Pensano solo alla pancia," he emphasizes, repeatedly tapping at his belly.

I cannot help but smile. Didn't I just read a similar lament in my history book? Yes, I remember, it had to do with the Fountain of the Four Rivers. The cost of creating the fountain was raised by taxing bread, causing a great protest in the city. Vehement complaints were often posted on the fragments of Domitian's obelisk while it lay in pieces on the Via Appia, waiting to be transported to its destined position in the center of the fountain. One complaint, in particular, cried, "God, if only these stones would turn into bread!" "Paolo, I think to myself, Romans have always cared more about their stomachs than about beauty."

I encourage Paolo in his denunciation of Roman citizens, their faults and failures. I am interested in getting to know the Rome of today – a city whose face is transforming even as we stand on her ancient bones. More than anything else, the faces of her citizens are changing, as Italy rapidly absorbs new ethnic groups into its melting pot. Africans, Moroccans, Indians, Philippine, Russians and Bangladeshi are seen everywhere, working the bancarelle in the markets, displaying wares on sidewalks, waiting tables, taking care of the elderly - each of them trying to carve out a new life and earn a living. Paolo sighs, "The Romans don't take care of their city yet complain bitterly about its poor, immigrant population. They are grandi racisti, big racists. If one is rich in Italy, then he is a welcomed guest. But Italians close their doors on the poor."

The cobbles of this old piazza are torching the soles of my sandals - time to sit idly at the cafe. I join my husband who is doing a fine job of Festina Lenta. We have plenty of time and we are feeling extravagant today. Our drinks will cost us dearly, but we will drink them slowly before we head to a nearby restaurant for dinner. As I sit in the shade of the big ombrellone, I think of Paolo and his changing city.

For a typical Roman meal, we choose Antica Trattoria Polese, in business since 1960, now managed by the second generation of the Polese family, brothers Paolo and Lorenzo. Located not far from Piazza Navona, in the historic 15th-century Palazzo dei Borgi, the restaurant includes several intimate rooms inside on the ground level as well as a beautiful basement level with vaulted ceilings. It also has a characteristic canopied dining area set up outdoors in the piazza for fair-weather dining.

The trattoria's history started in 1961 with a dream and plenty of hard work by two brothers from the province of Molise. Biagio and Vincenzo ran the eatery until the 1980's. Paolo and Lorenzo carry on the dream and the hard work began by their father and uncle, with the assistance of ten employees, half of which are immigrants from other countries, reflecting the changing faces of the Italian population in general. What hasn't changed is the quality of their culinary offerings, which have earned them the Cucina Romana Award in recognition of their long-standing tradition of typical Roman cuisine. Giovanni, the chef who produces these many flavorful dishes, began as a dishwasher in 1965.

Paolo Polese is a gracious host, and a very busy one. The trattoria attracts a large crowd of both Romans and visitors to the city. We follow his recommendations for our dinner selections and it is a good decision on our part. The tonnarelli (fat spaghetti noodles) con cacio e pepe are delectable, the tagliata (thick veal cutlet) is grilled to perfection and is as tender as can be. The meals ends with their homemade specialty dessert, semifreddo al amaretto, a frozen cream dessert made with amaretto. The house wine, a white wine from the Castelli Romany near Castel Gandolfo, was a tasty companion to our meal.

We linger long after our meal has ended. There is no need to hurry. Soon enough we will return to our hotel. We will close our shutters and sleep peacefully, but before we do, we will gaze out our window and view the Colosseum beneath a moonlit sky. Festina Lenta!

Where to Stay

Hotel dei Gladiatori

Via Labicana, 125
00184 Rome
Tel: 06-775-91380

Where to Eat

Antica Trattoria Polese

Piazza Sforza Cesarini, 40
Tel: 06-686-9543

About the Author

Ginda Simpson is an American artist/writer now living in the Umbrian countryside. It has been said of her work, "her paintings tell stories, her stories paint pictures." For more information, please visit www.gindasimpson.com.

© Ginda Simpson, 2007

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