Mr. & Mrs. Penfire Start Out Early, Arrive Late

If there is one iconic structure that symbolizes Rome—and Italy—more than any other, it’s the Coliseum. Along with the Vatican and Saint Peter’s Basilica, it was at the very top of our “things to see in Rome” list.

My guidebook recommended purchasing a tickets* or Roma Passes** in advance to avoid long lines. Another suggestion was to get “day-of”tickets at the Palatine Hill entrance, where lines tend to be much shorter. This was our plan, until I spoke to my friend Cheryl, who has been to Rome before and said she thought we’d get a lot more from a guided tour. With her words ringing in my ears, I sat right down at my computer.

A search for “tour of Coliseum” brought a long list of options. But, after clicking around a bit, I quickly realized that the best and least expensive choices were to be found on the Coliseum’s own official web site.***

We were flying to Rome in less than a week. I had waited too long. But tickets for the hour-and-a-half tour that included the underground (think “backstage”) and belvedere (think “nosebleed section”) were sold out. But I was able to purchase two tickets for a 45-minute version with pre-scheduled admission.

Our tour time was 10:30 a.m. We thought we’d have plenty of time to get up, get ready, have breakfast, and get ourselves there. The Coliseum was less than a mile away. We wanted to walk so we could see the sights along the way. And believe me, when you’re in Rome, there are sights to be seen on every block and around every corner. I didn’t want to miss the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, and the massive (famous) monument, jokingly referred to as “The Wedding Cake.” Its official name is Altare della Patria. (Altar of the Fatherland? I thought only Germans referred to their country the Fatherland). Built in honor of Victor Emmanuel, who unified Italy and was the country’s first king, it’s an incredibly ornate multi-tiered edifice with double towers that are topped by massive bronze sculptures of racing charioteers. This landmark, turned out to be just a couple of blocks from our hotel. (I needn’t have worried; it was impossible not to see.)

We walked Via del Pie di Marmo along Piazza del Collegio Romano and Via Lata and turned onto Via del Corso (the street for window shopping in Rome!). Just one block down, and across the treacherous Piazza Venezia, (which we managed to traverse without getting squashed by speeding cars). And there was the “Cake” in all its overblown immensity.

From there, it was an easy half mile stroll down Via dei Fori Imperiali to the Coliseum. And all the way, we time traveling. On both sides of the roadway were jumbles of buildings, and remnants of buildings. Churches that had been in continuous use for centuries among ruins that had been there even longer—swards of green grass wrapped around reddish, brownish stones fragments of walls; structural skeletons or sometimes just foundations. We were literally looking back over 2,000 years… and seeing what was left. On the left side of the road, Trajan’s Forum marked by its remarkable column, and Trajan’s Market, a massive semi-circle of brickwork still well preserved, Augustus’ Forum with the remnants of the once spectacular Temple of Mars, additional Fori (the proper Latin plural) built by other Emperors.

Off to the right, Caesar’s Forum, then most ancient of all The Roman Forum, its origin dating to 509 BC. All of this was abandoned after the fall of the Empire and forgotten until more recent centuries, neglected, and in fact deconstructed, mined for its stone, brick and marble that were used to build many newer landmarks, not least of which includes Saint Peter’s Basilica.

We arrived about 20 minutes before our tour was to begin. But judging by the mob scene that confronted us, we hadn’t allowed ourselves nearly enough time!

As soon as we turned into the pedestrians-only Piazza del Colosseo, we stopped dead in our tracks. It was a human beehive: people swarming everywhere, school groups, tour groups, couples like us, clusters of visitors milling about. Marching among them, hawkers waving selfie-sticks for sale, a costumed “Gladiator” offering to pose for pictures—for a price.

Where to go? Who to ask? Tucked into the brick-front space under the sidewalk we had just been walking on: three wide doorways, each topped with a blue sign shouting “COLOSSEO” in huge white letters. Signs indicated this was the place for Bigileti (tickets) and Informazione (no translation needed). New arrivals had sorted themselves into at least two lines, both frighteningly long. There a very long line for those waiting to purchase tickets, a shorter one (but still long) for those with ROMA passes.

Even though we held skip-the-line, pre-scheduled tour tickets, we certainly needed informazione—and fast. But that line was long, too. We waved our computer printout and a young man wearing a badge on a lanyard. He looked official. With an off-hand, irritated, flick of his wrist indicated that we should get in the ticket line. There, we waited impatiently (the clock was ticking). Should one of us stay in line while the other searched frantically for someone to who could tell us what to do? I was nominated to go find help. Luckily, I found a second badge-on-a-lanyard guy.

“We have a reservation for a 10:30 tour,” I said.

He walked over, studied John’s printout for a moment; then his eyes popped a bit. “Follow me!” he commanded. “You’ve got to hurry!”

With that, he dashed over a to gate where hordes of people were standing in dutiful order within a maze of belts and stanchions (you know, like Disney World). Our savior reached over to a retractable barrier belt, unclipped it to create and opening, and waved us inside.

“Hey!” a woman at the front of the line indignantly shouted, “We’re a tour group.”

We glanced at her pityingly, and I thought, “You should have booked an ‘official’ tour like we did.”

Oops! But now the truth of the matter became clear. More than 5 million people a year visit the Coliseum. That averages out to more than 13,000 a day. And they all seemed to be jamming this entryway. I should have looked these statistics up ahead of time. Then, for sure we would have started out earlier.

Because now, we had to get in line behind all those who had entered ahead of us, and pass through the security checkpoint. After that…finally…we were in!

* A combined ticket covers entrance to the Colisseum, the Roman Forum, and the Palatine Hill; it’s good for two days, but allows just one entry into each site.

** Sponsored by the City, the ROMA Pass, available for 48 (or 72) hours, offers free admission to 1 (or 2) sites, lots of discounts, free access to public transportation for the chosen duration, “direct access” to the Coliseum and other busy sites, and more. (But even Roma Pass holders have to wait in line, albeit a shorter line, to enter, and after that everybody has to line up to go through a security checkpoint).

*** This became obvious when I saw that tour operators actually purchased their tickets on this very same site. Think about it: tour operators are only going to do what you could do yourself—purchase entrance tickets online; then, of course they have to pay a guide, and mark up both the cost of the ticket and the cost of the guide. How else can they make a profit? (From that point on, “official site” became my go-to wording when researching any point of interest.)