The Colosseum is the most visited site in Rome but most of the day visitors only see a third of the story. Walk up to the gate and purchase your combined ticket with the Roman Forum over the way and you will get access to the middle tier.
The Colosseum, however, comprises 3 tiers. The ground level used by the Gladiators under the original arena floor commonly referred to as the the utility system, the middle tier used by the general public and the one open daily to visitors today plus an upper tier that offers true panoramic views over the arena floor.
Access to these other floors though is only by another tour, The Colosseum Underground Tour that normally gets booked up in advance so it pays to do a little planning in advance and get a space on this tour.
With a full price day ticket to the Colosseum currently just over €15 for an adult is the cost of the Underground Tour worth paying roughly 5 times more?
Even factoring in a combined ticket for the Colosseum and the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill (which is included in the Inderground Tour), the Underground Tour works out at double the cost.
This would be enough to put some people off but the old adage that ‘you get what you pay for’ applies here. Normal group tours to the Colosseum are, on average, 25 people. The Underground Tour is only half that because of the restricted space on the other floors. That accounts for some of the price increase. What about the rest?
Access to the other floors of the Colosseum are restricted and you are accompanied all the way by an official, who unlocks and locks gates whenever they enter or leave a given area.
With that being said, if you only want a glimpse of what the Colosseum has to offer the general entry is fine. There are plenty of displays on the main floor for you to look at although not all of them, frustratingly, are translated from Italian. This is one thing the Inderground Tour could address; there isn’t enough time on the main floor to view the exhibits.
After a quick trip around the main floor it’s time to leave the crowds behind as you pass through a previously locked gate and down a couple of flights of stairs descending into the dark underworld of the Colosseum previously only inhabited by gladiators and their helpers as well as the odd animal.
Before you arrive at the bottom there is one more stop. A small section of the arena floor has been renovated and you are allowed to walk out to the edge to get a full 360 degree view of the Colosseum and see it as the Gladiators would have so many years ago.
Looking over the railing you can appreciate what a maze of tunnels there were underneath and the manpower it would have taken to keep the shows running smoothly for the Emperor and his people to watch. Its still possible to make out where some of the animals would have been hoisted to the show floor in their cages.
Down here, even with the newly installed lights there is still an air of the past. Standing in the dimly lit corridors you can imagine the thousands of gladiators that called this place home, however briefly. The stench of death must have been pungent as the blood of the fallen seeped into the walls.
You even feel like you can smell the past. The walls are still damp, even the some of the aquifers that once fed this colossal building with water are still working. It’s one of the first things you can hear when walking down the corridor from the stairs.
Currently only a tiny proportion of the underground floor space has been made safe for tours to enter but it is the most tantalising glimpse of what is to come as the Colosseum is entering the next phase of its restoration.
The contentious issue of restoring the Colosseum to its former glory has come to the fore in recent years. Renovation of the Colosseum was badly needed by the time work started on the north and south facades in 2011. The work to preserve the crumbling outer facades is now complete and work is shifting to the next phase, replacement of the arena floor, at a cost of €18m and tidying up of the vaults and passageways of the utility system and installation of a visitor centre.
Whether you agree with this or not it would be wise to head to the Colosseum sooner rather than later to view it as it has stood for the past 1500 years (albeit without the mosses and weeds that had reclaimed the site after hundreds of years of abandonment)
Closing the gate behind us, emerging back into the bright light of mid morning on the main floor, we could appreciate how isolated people on the arena floor must have felt. Dark, damp and cold, the distinction between worlds is obvious.
Crossing the main floor and passing through another set of locked gates to the gaze of several confused bystanders we were confronted with another set of menacingly steep stairs this time heading up to a dimly lit corridor on the third level.
Restoration has yet to reach up here but a small section has been made safe on one end of the arena to give a full panoramic view over the entire arena floor and also, looking out over the exterior walls, towards the Roman Forum and down the famous Via dei For Imperiali.
Heading back down the stairs to the main floor, the Colosseum had left its mark on me. Even in it’s ruined state it is so huge you can almost feel the gladiators around you, the thousands strong audience screaming for blood. So many sites you visit, it is difficult to picture the reality but the opposite is true of the Colosseum.
Yes, it is in ruin. There isn’t even a proper floor to the place, something that many tourists are unaware of thanks to the amazing work of special effects wizards on some of the biggest movies of the past 15 years, most notably starting out with Ridley Scott’s Gladiator in 2000.
So much of the Colosseum remains that it’s almost impossible not to imagine what it was like here in it’s heyday. Restoration has been slow and methodical, as it should be, but thanks to the painstaking work that has hidden much of the outer facades behind scaffolding since 2011, it is here to educate generations of people for years to come.