A Walk with the Ghosts of Ancient Rome; IMPRESSIVE: The Forum, Left, and, above, the Marcus Aurelius Statue THEATRE OF DEATH: The Decadent Heyday of Rome's Magnificent Colosseum Was Recreated in the Movie Gladiator, Starring Russell Crowe, Right

Article excerpt

Byline: BEN KANE

IT'S EASY to tell that you have arrived in Italy. For a start, the sun is shining as you get off the plane. The journey into Rome by train or bus also reveals clear differences to the UK. Rather than neat rows of houses, there are endless blocks of brightly coloured, tiled-roof flats.

Two-and-a-half thousand years after its foundation, Rome's residents still live in apartments.

Thankfully, these are improved versions of the Romans' dangerously built wooden insulae. With no fireplaces or running water (only the rich had those), most ordinary flats were death-traps waiting to happen.

Today, the streets are full of scooters, cars and buses rather than ox-carts and herds of livestock.

Yet busy roadside stalls still restrict the pavements.

Instead of ironmongery, pottery and amphorae of wine, they now offer handbags and shoes, clothing and suitcases.

Even closer to the centre, tangible evidence of Rome's heritage starts to appear. A great protective wall that enclosed the ancient city weaves in and out of view and the arches of a long dry aqueduct march uncaring past parked cars, just as they would have past slaves waiting beside their masters' litters.

Checked in at my hotel, I immediately head out on foot - the only way to see Rome. With its narrow streets and reasonably concentrated sights and museums, this city is perfect for walking.

All you need is a map, comfortable shoes and a sense of adventure.

Those and a healthy respect for Italian motorists, many of whom race like rally drivers.

Hundreds of hotels cluster around Termini, the main railway station, making it a good focal point. The wide Via Cavour runs south-west from here and after a few hundred yards, at the Santa Maria Maggiore church, you can cut down to the eastern side of the Esquiline Hill.

Formerly where the excess city waste was discarded, with the bodies of animals, slaves and executed criminals, it is now a pleasant park filled with the overgrown ruins of a palace erected by Nero.

Soon the unmistakable shape of the Colosseum looms into view. Five storeys and 160ft high, it remains an incredible feat of engineering to this day. Begun in 72AD, it was finished ten years later. Before this fixed site, gladiatorial games took place inside temporary wooden structures thrown up in the nearby Forum.

REDOLENT with centuries of bloodshed and suffering, the atmosphere is still palpable inside the Colosseum.

Recreated so dramatically in Ridley Scott's film Gladiator, the famous circle of sand stood witness to the deaths of thousands of people and animals.

Nearby is the huge Arch of Constantine, built by the emperor who made Christianity the state religion.

Both structures also lie within easy walking distance of the Forum and the Palatine Hill. Stroll first to the Palatine, site of the Augustan palace complex.

It provides good views over the Forum and is home to the newly opened House of Augustus. Four painstakingly restored rooms reveal some of the true glory of Rome's artistic achievements. Dating from 30BC, the find consists of a dining room, a bedroom and a reception hall, with a study on the first floor.

After decades of careful repair, the brightly coloured plaster breathes life on to walls that so often in ancient ruins remain dull and bare. …