Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Rome in Context: Underground Coliseum 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, scholars, and others able to put a city's history and development into CONTEXT through tours of historic sites and user-friendly commentary. 
Fueled by a love for history, architecture, and learning, we 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 newly 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.  

Platform reconstructing part of the arena playing field. 
We embarked on our first Context tour of The Forum in the morning hours, and after a quick lunchtime excursion to St. John in the Lateran, we reconvened at the Coliseum for our second tour with docent, Patrizia Sfligiotti. Another archaeologist who serves as Rome's attache for the Italian National Trust. Yeah. She's kinda a big deal...
Thankfully, the rain relented! This tour ended up being just Sherri and me, so we had Patrizia's undivided attention. The new Underground Coliseum tour features the subterranean levels never before open to the public as well as the third tier, where the middle class folk sat (a.k.a. peanut heaven). We learned the lower you sat (higher class) the better chance you had of escape should the place catch fire...
This tour generally includes an overview of the Coliseum's engineering and history, but we fast-forwarded having already been given that lecture on the earlier Forum tour. Patrizia led us down the familiar corridors of the entry level (weren't we just here!!?) and went straight onto the platform of which we had the birds-eye view earlier.
Standing in the arena level platform
We stood on what was once the arena playing field. This is where is all went down. Beasts, Gladiators. Children. Women. It was a bit haunting being the only two out there. Hailing from Columbus and having been to plenty of Buckeye games at Ohio Stadium, it wasn't difficult to envision a full house of rabid fans watching craziness unfold in the arena. I couldn't imagine... I felt very small.
Entrance from the gladiatorial school
This archway led to the gladiatorial school and barracks of which you can see ruins across the busy street. They only exited this gate if they could walk out of their own accord. The dead were unfortunately raked away through another archway-- the one through you didn't want to pass. This archway also took us to the staircase leading down to the hypogeum (or under ground areas).
Model of the winch and lift system used to elevate players onto the field

Model of the winch and lift system used to elevate players onto the field
These two models helped us to visualize the man-powered winch and lift system (see image below). There were something like 60 different types of trap doors through which the men, beasts, and stage props could be hoisted. Whoever choreographed "the games" had his work cut out for him.
Holes for the man-powered winches
The hypogeum is not handicap accessible and a bad rain might be cause for tour cancelation, but we slugged through puddles into the underground parts. The lowest levels, built by Emperor Diocletian, put an end to the flooding of the arena for water battles. We also got to peek into the eerie cells which held everything from men to bears prior to the fights. Note the sloping stone in the image below which accommodated a ramp onto the arena floor. Our Context docent pointed out the intricacies of engineering in ways we would have never known on our own. 
<< My camera battery died before we climbed to the highest level for a breath-taking view over the Coliseum  >>
If you have a chance to take this seasonal tour, Underground Coliseum is very high on my list of recommendations for visitors to Rome.
It seems a natural fit for Wanderlust Tours (specializing in cultural and heritage tourism) to partner with Context Tours. 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
Context Tours has received rave reviews by Conde Nast, Wall Street Journal, Nat Geo, and others-- and with reason. (Read here for press). 
If you want 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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1 comment:

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