Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Rome in Context: Roma Antica Tour

I was introduced to Context Travel guided walking tours by a friend with whom I was traveling to Rome and Paris. She took one of these in-depth, scholarly led tours a few years back and raved about how well-done they are. The small (no more than 6 to a group) tours are led by local historians, professors, and scholars, able to put the city's history and development into CONTEXT through guided tours and commentary. I did a double-take when I read the length of tours range from two to sometimes four or five hours and was a bit hesitant to commit. I feared my attention span might conk out after a couple hours- especially "so early" in the morning. But seriously, who am I kidding? I adore history, architecture, and learning--- so Sherri and I registered for not one, but two different tours in a single day. The four hour Roma Antica Tour offering a comprehensive look at the Coliseum and Forum and a two hour Underground Coliseum tour of its recently opened subterranean levels where the gladiators and animals dwelled. 

Ambitious seeming- yes. But it turned out to be one of the most memorable parts of our two week trip, and by far the best guided tour I have ever experienced...ever.

 Roman Forum and Coliseum- 4 hours

Livia Galante, our most amazing tour guide:
The only downside to this most brilliant tour was the weather. It poured. All day. Non-stop from 8 AM until 4 PM (except for the fleeting moment captured here). Our small group of six gatheredat a designated coffee shop across the street from the Coliseum to meet our guide, Liva Galante. After securely establishing her expertise and Roman Archaeological background, we headed straight for the Coliseum. Now, Sherri and I had visited the Coliseum earlier in the week on a beautiful sunny day, but there was something about this morning's gray skies and deary weather that created an ominous backdrop to the arena in which men, women, children, and animals were sent to almost certain death. We entered the hulking skeleton of a building-- bypassing the lines -- and launching into an immediate architectural education. 
Looking down over the arena playing field, into the underbelly.
Livia did something cool that I imagine not all guides provide (which is not a reflection of the other's level of expertise), but she brought along a back pack full of reconstructions, overlays, and images to help us visualize the building as it once was in various phases. A very nice touch-- and so were the sugary snacks handed out from time to time. Absorbing all this historical information requires brain fuel. Livia led us around each Coliseum level, explaining the architecture, customs, games, and answering every question in unbelievable depth. The one thing that really sticks out to my mind is her debunking of a famous myth-- Contrary to popular belief, early Christians were not fed to the lions as religious persecution, but rather due to their political descent. No less justifiable, but still intriguing! 
The Arch of Constantine (unbelievably with NO tourists in my shot!!)
After an exhaustive tours of the arena, we raced out into the rain, getting schooled on Constantine the Great (Rome's first Christian Emperor) while dodging mud puddles, torrents of water, and sopping wet tourists. Our group bee-lined it for the Palatine Museum, but not before poking around ruins which were once the Imperial Palace of the Ceasars. The view from the museum overlooks the legendary birthplace of Rome-- the spot where Romulus established Rome in 754 BCE. The Palatine Hill became the best address in town for 300 years of Roman Emperors and the museum sits within a palatial complex. The collections are extraordinary, encompassing everything from bit and pieces of palatial mosaics and tiles to monumental statuary and busts of emperors (and their mothers).

The Palatine Museum


After an eye-opening education at the museum, we walked down ancient Rome's main street- Via Sacra- to the heart of the Forum. Despite being mostly ruinous, with a little imagination (and Livia's fabulous reconstructions) it's easy to envision the hustle and bustle that was once the heart of Rome. She pointed out interesting architectural elements from among the thousands of bits of rubble and ruin; helping us understand construction and engineering techniques; sculptural propaganda, and told a few tales of scandal and intrigue.


We walked past the shells of ancient temples, triumphal, arches, basilicas, and the House of the Vestal Virgins, into the Curia (Senate House) where we again got schooled in the way things worked 2,000 years ago. The Senate was much smaller and more claustrophobic than I imagined, but we were fortunate that an exhibition of glass and sculpture was taking place, which isn't always the case. It was pure awesomeness. Not to mention, the mosaic floors were spectacular. I wish I had time to photograph every square inch.  
A view of the Forum & Senate building to the right
The Curia hosts changing exhibitions

After the tour, we were in fact, permitted to stay in the Forum as long as we wanted. Livia graciously left us to wallow in the mind-boggling amount of information she passed along. 

My Wanderlust Tours wheels started spinning. Given our penchant for cultural and heritage tourism, partnering with Context Tours seems a natural fit. There is a reason they have been receiving rave international reviews (Read here for reviews by Conde Nast, Wall Street Journal, Nat Geo, and others). 

I have zero concerns directing my clients to their tours, completely trusting they will make for an extraordinary experience-- worth every cent. In fact, I have already sent a few people their way and have received incredible feedback. Just today, I booked a few tours for myself, husband, and friends for an upcoming trip to Istanbul
If you would like to book a Context Travel tour, drop me a line. They offer a broad spectrum of tours in many of the major European cities and are expanding their offerings in the US and Asia. 

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