When you think of Rome or Italy in general, what is the first image that pops into your head? Ok, after the pasta and wine. The Colosseum. It is arguably the most recognizable structure in the world. This will also always be on our list of places to see while in Rome.
The first time we visited Rome we were on our honeymoon and preferred to be alone and do things a bit more independently. We did our own research and had a good handle on the best way to enter the Colosseum to avoid lines and navigate the Roman Forum. The part you cannot do on your own is visit the underground. A guided tour is required if you want to dig a little deeper into this structure that holds thousands of stories. So, it was an easy decision to book a tour for this go around.
We typically use Viator to find a tour that best matches what we are looking for. They do endless research on tour providers and only offer the best. An underground tour of the Colosseum was a must for Craig and the Roman Forum was a must for Jen. Since the two destinations go hand in hand it was simple to find one that fit us perfectly. We also wanted a small group, less than ten for this outing. The tour company was Touriks, and our knowledgeable, friendly and witty guide was Sara.
Is This Real Life?
When you book any tour there is a meeting place generally near your destination (if within city limits) with a time window in which to arrive. As you may have guessed, we were early. We have never been happier to arrive with time to spare. There was a small cafe right next to the designated meeting area where we grabbed a table for two and enjoyed cappuccinos while gazing upon the Colosseum.
There are times in your life that you are amazed you are living this life. Am I really sitting here right now? Am I really sitting with my perfect partner sipping on a delicious cappuccino with this historical building in front of me? Is this real life? We live for those moments and soak up every second.
This was a great start to our day!
Ok, on to the main event. Some tour guides will give you the facts and major details you can find in any standard travel book. The good ones will add some personal details or add a little humor. The best ones will weave a story together for you so that you have a better understanding of those that have walked these cobblestone streets long before you. We had a great on in Sara!
The Roman Forum
To get the story right, you need to start at the beginning and not jump around. With that said, we headed to Palatine Hill, the birthplace of Rome. Full disclosure, we skipped the hill portion directly next to the Roman Forum before. It was recommended as a skippable part if you did not have the time, so we skipped. What a mistake.
We followed behind Sara as we climbed the picturesque hill leading to the most ancient part in all of Rome. Her story weaving began with the tale of Romulus and Remus, the twin orphans nursed by a she-wolf that some believe founded Rome.
This city is in constant excavation and this site shows you exactly why. When we finally reached the top, we believed we were at “ground” level. The remains of several buildings that mostly served as residences to Roman leaders can still be seen on the outlying edges. The large walls still standing separated the public area from the private estates of Emperors. Trees and bushes surround the other edges indicating this is clearly the ground level.
Sara pulls out her book, which she references several times throughout the day, to show us a sketch of the original layout. We were in fact standing where the second story was. Time, winds, grand gardens and the environment had buried an entire story.
The Home of Emperors
We continued through an entryway that led to a massive terrace overlooking the excavated remains of The House of Livia, the wife of Augustus. Her water garden can be clearly seen below. This also gave us a view of Rome we had never seen. We were given time to take our photos and attempt to wrap our heads around where we were standing and the fact that we thought this to be skippable last time. We were standing in Emperor Augustus’ private chambers. Incredible.
One of the most unique (in our opinion) parts was coming upon a colorful stone floor that appeared to be curved as if waves below were frozen in time. This was originally a meeting place for the Roman Senate with spots still clearly marked for their designated seats. This brings the history to life as we can imagine the area filled with food and wine as they argue their points on the best possible path for the Empire. Our imagination can take flight at places like this.
The View of Emperors
We continued our trek upward past several stone monuments. While affected by time, they are still standing thousands of years later. The final part of Palatine Hill was the very edge that overlooks the Roman Forum. On our previous trip we walked the Roman Forum itself and had to use our creativity to restore the buildings in our minds.
From this perspective above the entire area, we could truly see what was below. Sara pointed out each notable building and, in some cases, just the outline of the foundation is all that remains. Again, we were given time to take pictures. I mean, just look at what we captured. We cannot put into words the views from this vantage point.
If you read our previous blog, we can safely say the sparkle of Rome was back in full force! We were only halfway through our tour for the day and our faces hurt from smiling. This city has endless possibilities.
The underground tour of the Colosseum was next. This was the part that Craig was most looking forward to, since he is convinced Russell Crowe played him in a movie…. Jen, of course, was always in the stands waiting for the Emperor to give the thumbs up or down for him. More on that later.
As always is the case with a popular tourist attraction, the line is wrapped around the building (that is quite a long line!). If you booked a tour, you quickly pass the queue and start your travel back in time. With the underground portion you will have to wait for an employee to come and unlock doors for you. This really gives you the feeling that you are getting VIP access unlike anyone else.
We made our decent down the stairs and can feel the air thickening and the walls trying to tell us what they have seen. With the Colosseum floor gone, the former dark and humid halls are brightly lit by the sun and cool with the fresh breeze freely flowing through. Sara describes what it must have been like almost 2,000 years ago. We were walking the same passages as criminals and exotic animals that were being forced into a battle to the death. The heat, darkness and smells must have been horrific. Imagine facing those conditions moments before you entered your event.
Architectural Engineering in Rome
All was not death on this tour. Of course, the architecture and engineering genius that went into this also took center stage. The maze of tunnels below kept the animals apart from the criminals. There was a separate area for the Gladiators. The elevator system to lift the animals through the trap doors was extensive. In the year 80 AD, they had fifty (yes 50!) elevators below the floor. One of the many myths debunked for us- the fighters used the stairs and never dramatically busted through the trap doors.
They have rebuilt a portion of the floor which we were able to walk on as part of our special pass with the tour. This part alone was worth the price of admission. We stood there, looking up at the stands, imagining 50,000 people screaming and cheering. It was an incredibly moving experience, one that we think belongs on every bucket list.
When you enter the Colosseum under the regular admission ticket you walk along the outer edge of the stadium trying to find an opening among the thousands of people to get a look down below and get your photo op. On the floor space we had room to roam without fighting for a spot to get a view.
After some time taking in our fill, we joined the rest of the minions to go upstairs. In a shaded area, Sara pointed to another set of ruins visible from one of the many openings. This was the Gladiator training area. Here is another myth smashed. Gladiators were trained fighters and were an investment for the wealthy citizens of Rome. As an investment, they did not die in the fights. It was the criminals and animals that fought to their deaths. Sorry Russell Crowe, you were not a true Gladiator.
We must share one more myth since the image of Joaquin Phoenix with his thumb down is forever ingrained as death in our minds. In fact, a thumbs up was the signal the Emperor gave to issue death as that meant sword up. A signal with his fist down (no thumb out) meant the fighter will live another day to signal sword sheathed. To us, it was a bit more dramatic the way it was portrayed in the movies, but what do we know?
It was time to join the throng of people to walk around the perfectly constructed oval and gaze down on where we had been. We had a wonderful conversation with another couple in our tour that hailed from England. We thanked our incredible tour guide, Sara, for a one-of-a-kind tour that we will never forget. Looking at each other we said “Now THIS is Rome!”
As we were walking back towards our hotel area, we decided to stop for a late lunch. We saw a restaurant that had a pretty outside seating area, with vines and flowers growing overhead. It seemed like a good way to get out of the sun for a bit.
If you have an opportunity to eat at Angelino Ai Fori, take it! This by far was the best pizza Craig has ever had in his life. And he’s had lots of pizza! Jen had asparagus risotto which was amazing! We enjoyed this restaurant so much we tried to go back again later in the week.
Day 2 in Rome brought back all of the magic and all of the sparkle. We were home again.
Thank you for reading. Make sure to check back to read about the rest of our trip. #NeverStopPlanning
Jen and Craig