Walking Bones – Catacombs Tour with Kids

Walking Bones – Catacombs Tour with Kids

We were looking for a Catacombs tour with kids in Rome, and found a gem in Walks of Italy’s “Crypts, Bones and Catacombs” tour. We were guests of Walks of Italy on this tour.

My daughter keeps a collection of artistic skulls and my son has a thing for zombies so we thought the “Crypts, Bones and Catacombs” tour offered by Walks of Italy would be the ideal thing to allow my wife and I to learn about some of Rome’s religious past without rattling the kids’ bones too much.

CAPUCHIN CRYPTS AND BONES

The tour began in the Piazza Barberino, named after one of the powerful families of Renaissance Rome, where headsets were distributed and our tour guide, Andrea, explained directly into our ears the agenda for our tour. The headsets turned out to be a nice feature because crypts and catacombs tend to be tight spaces; knowing that you would be able to hear Andrea no matter where you stood minimized jostling for position with the other tour participants.

The Capuchin crypt is in the basement of the Church of Santa Maria della Immacolata Concezione, a short walk from the piazza. Prior to descending into the crypt, we spent some time in the attached museum looking at a few artifacts while Andrea covered the history of the Capuchin monks, a branch of the Franciscan order. The artistic highlight of the museum was a painting of a monk that was formerly attributed to Caravaggio, but is now believed to be a copy. Andrea is a student of art and he gave us a short biography of why Caravaggio, who was hiding out in another part of Italy after having killed a man, could not have completed the painting on the date attributed.

In the crypt on a catacombs tour with kids

In the crypt on our catacombs tour with kids.

The highlight of this part of the tour, and what we had really come to see, is in the basement of the church; six crypts filled with the bones of 4,000 Capuchin monks who have died since the 16th century. The decorations fashioned by the monks from all those bones included chandeliers, skeletons dressed in Capuchin robes, bones arranged in patterns on the ceilings and walls, skulls with shoulder blades for wings, and just plain old piles of bones. This is all very interesting to see – my daughter nearly salivated at the sight of all those skulls – but after visually absorbing it, the two obvious questions are – why would they do this and what is the significance? It was critical to have Andrea there to explain the symbolism of the motifs – I won’t take away all of his thunder, but I will put a little meat on the bone for you – Christianity, the cycle of life, and rebirth.

THE CATACOMBS OF PRISCILLA

The second part of the tour required us to take a shuttle bus outside of the city walls to the Catacombs di Priscilla. The site comprises nearly 7 miles of underground tunnels, and my kids were glad we didn’t have to hike through all of them. The parts we did walk through, carved out of the soft volcanic tufa stone that provides the foundation for Rome, were well lit to highlight the thousands of shelves where bodies of early Christians were laid to rest. No bones remain because at some point the tunnels were looted, and the bones were either returned to their families to be interred on more sacred grounds (for example, in a cemetery next to a church) or sold as souvenirs. Though, Andrea did show us one femur bone that had been left behind.

What struck me from Andrea’s dialogue during this part of the tour was his contrast of Christianity as a lower cost alternative to paganism. He also drew parallels between the two from imagery in the several frescoes that have survived from the early days of the complex. It was fascinating to hear, but much deeper than either of my kids cared to delve. They were more interesting in exploring the maze of hallways – some of the corridors run off into infinite darkness. It was easy to imagine how dank, dark and scary a place this must have been when it was full of bodies, and how easy it would be for the current curator to freak everybody out by pulling the plug on the lights for 30 seconds!

There were two other interesting points for me to this leg of the tour. First, it required a journey outside the city walls. Because our accommodations were in the city center, this was our one and only foray outside the walls of the ancient city into modern Rome. It was interesting to get this perspective on the city. Second, Andrea showed us some graffiti done by U.S. soldiers who were obviously in a celebratory mood a few days after the liberation of Rome from the Nazis in 1944. We wondered if they had ever been back.

PAGAN CRYPT

After another bus ride, we made the final stop of the tour – back in the city center at the 12th century Basilica di San Nicola in Carcere. The purpose of our visit here was, again, a visit to the underground. This time to the basement to see the original columns of the pagan temple that the church was built over. But the highlight was about fifty feet worth of an original Roman pedestrian market, with recesses where the merchant stalls would be in the walls on either side of the sidewalk. Even the kids perked at this – to realize that this was the original level where the hustle and bustle of ancient Rome took place; far removed from the bustle going on above our heads. It reminded us of what Andrea had said when introducing the tour – Rome is like a lasagna. It has many layers – and by going into its crypts and catacombs we had gotten a taste of the religious foundation on which it was built.

OVERVIEW

The Crypts, Bones & Catacombs tour cost 160 Euros and lasted about three hours – with about 30 minutes of that spent in a bus going to the different sites. It is a group tour, but due to the small spaces of the sites visited, groups are kept to a maximum of 15 persons. We never had a problem hearing Andrea through our headsets, and he added a lot of depth and history to the sites in good English and with humor. It was because of Andrea that my wife and I learned a lot. But this tour is not tailored for kids nor is it advertised as such. Our kids were more interested in the novelty of the bones and wandering in the underground spaces than listening to what the guide said, so although they liked the tour overall because it was spooky, they got bored.

There were two other children on our tour. One, a 12-year old boy, felt the same way as our kids. The other boy on the tour was 16 and a self-proclaimed history geek. He loved the tour but recognized that not every 16-year old would feel the same. If you think you have a child or children who would be interested in listening to a lot of history and interpretation of art and its meaning, you won’t be disappointed with what you see and learn on this tour. However, if you think this tour is not for you and your family, it is obvious to us from our experience that Walks of Italy is a reputable company that employs high-quality guides. You can find information about other tours offered by Walks of Italy in Rome and throughout Italy at www.walksofitaly.com.

DETAILS

  • Walks of Italy
  • From the US (toll-free): +1-888-683-8670
  • info@walksofitaly.com

Pompeii Tour for Kids

Pompeii Tour for Kids

We took a Pompeii tour for kids and the whole family got an education. And a great time!

Pompeii – Risen from the Ash

On the morning of 24 August, 79 A.D., the residents of Pompeii rose to a sunny day and went about their daily business. The slaves opened the city gates to the port to let in carts laden with goods. The gladiators swung heavy clubs in their training complex for an upcoming event at the stadium. The bakers baked and the food stand operators prepared the days menu – lentils, barley soup, baked fish – in anticipation of the lunch crowds. The rich merchant families breakfasted on the leftovers from the previous evening’s sumptuous feast. Perhaps a young couple stole away from their chores to meet in one of the city’s many alleyways and carve their names into the wall – Julius loves Claudia – never guessing their sentiments for each other would be preserved for the world to see.

The theater we visited on a Pompeii tour for kids

Rossana, our gregarious guide from the company “Pompeii Tours with Lello & Co.” set this dramatic scene for us under the clear blue sky of a November afternoon in passionate, engaging, and clearly understandable English. Then she described how later that morning, Mt. Vesuvius would blow its top on the unsuspecting populace – literally – catapulting molten rock tens of thousands of feet into the air and creating a tremendous cloud of rock and dust that would block out the sun. For three days, the remnants of this sudden blast would rain burning hot pumice down upon the city – suffocating people under a 20-foot deep blanket of ash and offering no chance for escape.

The evidence of how unexpected this catastrophe was can be seen in the various plaster molds the first archeologists cast of the dead – the young girl with her arms raised to shield her mouth and eyes; the baby cradled protectively in its mother’s arms; the guard dog twisted in agony, helpless to escape its chains. As compelling as these casts are as macabre – capturing flesh and blood persons in their last, terrified moments – the legacy of the eruption is that it gave an otherwise inconsequential city and its inhabitants everlasting life. Twenty feet of ash preserved the city in a type of saran wrap that protected it against the erosion of time. Thus, when Pompeii was rediscovered by archeologists in the late 1800’s, many of the everyday items, graffiti, marble works, and even bread and food was preserved. This offers a unique glimpse into Roman society that informs our views of them as a class of people that none of the ancient sites in Rome can provide.

THE CITY TOUR

Rossana explained to us the complex history of Pompeii – from Ossian rule, to Greek, to Roman – and this set the stage for our tour. She is a trained art historian with a passion for archeology and architecture that she shared with us in pointing out differences in Greek construction of the Gran Teatro as compared to Roman techniques, and in other places as we wove our way through the city. Her background in art was helpful in understanding the magnificent frescoes and other artistic flourishes that are so well preserved and decorated the wealthier homes. For example, in the Casa del Menandro, Rossana led us to the artwork that lends the house its name (it is not named after the owner) and pointed out elaborate mosaics inlaid on the floors.

Her understanding of architectural design gave life to the layout of the homes – where the families ate, slept, and partied. She also taught us Latin names for the different rooms and shrines – Pompeii and the Roman Empire at this time still practicing pagan worship. She pointed out features of the different buildings of the thriving city that helped inform what it had been up until that fateful morning – the terracotta pots at the food counters that kept foods at proper temperatures, the operation of the mill stones at a bakery, the way steam was dispersed at the public bath houses, the obsidian mirrors at the barbershop, the way sound was amplified at the theater. These were all details that we would have missed, or that we may have been able to glean after hunching over our guidebook while our kids tugged at our sleeves, which Rossana was able to relate as easily as features of her own home. That is the real benefit of the tour – Rossana’s familiarity and knowledge of the site and subject matter allowed her to direct us to the sites that would most interest our children and to have the knowledge at hand to inform and intrigue.

The author and his son try out the public urinal on a Pompeii tour for kids.

We didn’t actually use the ancient public urinal in Pompeii, but we had to get the pic.

Rossana also added historical tidbits that enhanced our visit. When we were in Rome, my kids heard stories about the Emperor Nero, who had a wife from Pompeii. Rossana took us to her home and dramatically said, “You are walking on the same marble floor where Nero walked two thousand years ago!” In pointing out the lead pipes that supplied water to the home, she guessed that maybe Nero went crazy from lead poisoning. Not a bad theory. She also showed us centuries-old graffiti on city streets and encouraged us to spend time looking for familiar symbols, like a ship, gladiator, or fish, to which she then gave some context. She made a point to note that the rudimentary art was done at waist level, allowing the kids to conclude that they had been scratched by children. These types of asides kept the interest of our kids, who tend to get quickly bored at the more typical “look at this and let me explain” type of group tour. Rossana deftly engaged the kids throughout our time with her, calling them by name to ask a question or point out an interesting feature.

OVERVIEW

This was a quality, worthwhile tour which we highly recommend. The tour cost was 160 Euro, which did not include the cost of entry to the site (13 Euro per adult; children under 18 free).

Pompeii is a vast complex. Wandering around on your own is a recipe for tired children who have seen too much and cranky parents who didn’t get to see what they wanted. Pompeii Tours with Lello is a Pompeii tour for kids, and they can provide context to the otherwise overwhelming site. If you have preferences, the company can tailor the tour to meet them. The first thing Rossana asked us after meeting was if there was anything that we wanted to see – thereby ensuring that we would walk away satisfied. In addition to all the cool information that Rossana shared with us, including the colloquial Italian phrase “allora ragazzi” (okay, guys), she lent direction to the time we spent at Pompeii. And this was the greatest value added. After all, we wanted our tour of Pompeii to be remembered as a fun and enjoyable family time.

Thanks to Rossana and Pompeii Tours with Lello it was a blast, and the magnets she gave as parting gifts to the kids will ensure every time we open the refrigerator, we will remember it.

DETAILS

Rome Tours with Kids

Rome Tours with Kids

We are a traveling family, but we do not travel extravagantly. We don’t do fancy resorts, will spend an hour studying local transport options from the airport to our budget hostel, rather than hopping a more expensive taxi or private shuttle, and definitely don’t do guided tours. This last habit is directed as much by our frugality as it is by our failure to ever find a guide that added much value to the historical sight we were seeing.

But after a decade of my wife and I dragging our 14-year old daughter and 12-year old son to various parts of the globe and trying to instill in them the same appreciation for differences in time and place that we have, we’ve come to know what they like – ice cream – and what they don’t – anything having to do with learning, especially learning directed by mom and dad about architecture, art, or history. So when we decided we were going to take them to Rome, we knew we had to do something different.

Rome Tours with Kids turned out to be a great solution. Our kid-oriented Colosseum tour satisfied my wife and me because it was a tour with a knowledgeable guide who spoke good English and introduced our kids to the wonder of ancient Rome in a fun and educational way. It satisfied our kids because the guide was engaging and conveyed the right amount of information to pique their interest without boring them with details and the tour lasted just long enough to keep them entertained without tiring them out. And because Rome Tours with Kids employs only guides who have passed a rigorous certification test administered by the Tourism Department of the Italian government, our guide was able to draw from a deep-based knowledge of many areas that added to what my wife and I had already learned from our own research.

Rome Tours with Kids also offers kid-friendly tours of the Vatican museum and St. Peter’s Basilica, and although we arranged to be reimbursed for the cost of our tour in exchange for publishing this review, we are not biased in whole-heartedly recommending any of the tours offered by this company based on our experience with the Colosseum tour. We would have taken advantage of their expertise for another tour if we were in Rome for a longer period of time. Fortunately, we threw coins in the Trevi Fountain, so it is guaranteed we will be returning.

Colosseum tour for kids

THE COLOSSEUM TOUR

We were scheduled to meet our guide, Francesco, at nine a.m. in front of the Colosseo metro entrance, but we showed up 30 minutes late. We were certain he would already have left since we had pre-paid the tour cost, but Francesco was there, waiting and ready to go. After friendly introductions, he led us past the lines of those “unguided souls” who were waiting to purchase tickets and through the “vomiturium:” the portals that allowed 50,000+ free Romans, foreigners, and slaves to enter the arena and find their seats in less than 15 minutes. ”They didn’t have to go through security,” Francesco quipped in explaining how quickly folks could be seated. It was just one of the ways he easily contrasted ancient Rome with real-life experiences that are familiar to our kids.

Our first stop was the upper level of the arena and a view from the balcony over the streets leading to and the piazza in front of the Colosseum. Francesco explained the significance of the nearby Constantine Arch and pointed out buildings from ancient Rome, the Renaissance and Reformation, and contemporary construction – in explaining Rome’s nickname of the Eternal City. The kids remembered that point as we strolled the streets several days later and found the ancient ruins where Julius Ceasar was stabbed to death in 44 B.C. parked next to a taxi stand.

After viewing history outside the Colosseum, we wound our way back down to the lower bowl of the ampitheater. We stood for a moment gazing with wonder at the magnitude, in both size and legend, of the structure, Francesco said, “I come here just about every day and still feel the same awe. This place does that to everyone on sight, I only add the words.” He then entertained us with stories that combined myth and fact and compared them to modern realities. For example, he pointed out the similarity of the design and capacity of the nearly 2,000 year old Colosseum to most current football stadiums and noted how the seats closest to the action tended to be occupied by the more wealthy.

The original floor of the arena was constructed of wood and is long gone but a reconstructed section gives us an idea of how it may have looked in gladiator times. Most of what is visible now is the underground labrynth of passages where animals and slaves were kept before it was their turn to take part in the games being played above their heads. The basement looks bright and somewhat inviting as a refuge now, with moss growing on the brick walls, but Francesco drew a vivid picture of the damp, dark, and desperate conditions that existed in 80 A.D. He explained how slaves worked the trap door system to bring animals and gladiators to the arena floor to surprise the audience and combatants, or as a complement to one of Rome’s foreign conquests that was being reenacted as entertainment.

In a more philosophical moment, Francesco asked us to imagine what it would be like to have your homeland conquered by the Roman army, then be marched in chains to the magnificent and opulent Rome – which you had likely never seen anything like before. You would be thrown into the dark cells under the Colosseum floor for days or weeks, and then have to listen to the roar of the bloodthirsty crowd as you waited your turn to be forced into a life or death battle. He asked us to think how many thousands of souls had left a piece of themselves behind.

The kids actually responded to this with due solemnity. But the highlight of the tour, especially for a family as competitive as ours, was a trivia contest proxied by Francesco that pitted parents against kids and required us to tally the points we scored for correct answers in Roman numerals. Hint – know your Greek and Roman gods!

We spent most of our time with Francesco in the Colosseum but also visited a few sites within the adjacent sprawl of ruins that is the Roman Forum. It was in the Forum, in front of the Curia, the seat of the Roman Senate, that the kids were awarded their prize for prevailing in the contest: a mini-replica Colosseum and gladiator helmet keychain. It was here that we parted ways with Francesco as my kids, glowing with the exhilaration of victory, placed their gladiator helmet keychains over their pinkies and drew smiling faces as if they had just prevailed in a battle to the death.

Kids Tour of Roman Forum

OVERVIEW

Our Colosseum tour lasted two and one-half hours and cost €200. This did not include the cost of the entry ticket that allows access to the Colosseum and to the nearby Roman Forum and Palatine Hill complex.

We really enjoyed this tour and feel it is worth the cost. It was a high-quality tour with an engaging and knowledgeable guide. It was probably the highlight of our time in Rome. This is an introductory level tour, however. I consider myself an armchair historian and at several points during our tour we passed by informational signs or sights where I ordinarily would have stopped. I realize this was the trade-off I made for a fun and enjoyable experience for our family. The company does suggest the content of the tour is tailored to the level of the tour participants, which suggests that the tour can be as deep or shallow as your family wants. Our own guide, Francesco, was always willing to answer any questions I had about sites or things that were not part of our tour specifically, which is evidence that the engagement level of your family will dictate how the tour proceeds. As a bonus, the Colosseum/Forum/Palatine Hill entry ticket can be used on consecutive days (but not for the same attraction), which allowed me to go back the next day to Palatine Hill and linger over this amazing time in history.

Rome Tours with Kids

Hosted

The writer of this piece was hosted by the destination, which means that they did not pay for their experience. They also were not paid by the destination, which means that they are free to express their honest opinion of the experience, which they do here. We just thought you should know.

The Dark Legacy of the Shining Path in Ayacucho, Peru

The Dark Legacy of the Shining Path in Ayacucho, Peru

“So… where are we going, exactly?” I asked, or at least I think that’s what I asked, in my halting Spanish. The bus we were on had been more crowded than any we’d experienced anywhere in the world, but now we were just about the only ones left on it. A large building surrounded by high barbed wire fences loomed ahead of us. The dirt road we had been following became more of a suggestion than a direction. Dust clouds seemed to move across the barren ground of their own accord. Karina answered, “Wait until we get there. It will be easier to explain.”

“There” was a broad field in a valley, pocked with holes the size of cars, and marked on one end by encroaching houses and on the other, an austere concrete tower. As we followed Karina down a path between rows of houses with walls crowned with broken glass, nails, or other painful deterrents, the mood was bleak. We wondered whether we should have perhaps asked a few more questions before leaving the house with this small young woman we had only met a few days earlier. She stopped next to a small chapel overlooking the valley and began to speak.

The field known as the Ollado or Hoyado, where the remains of hundreds of men were found.

The field known as the Ollado or Hoyado, where the remains of hundreds of men were found.

“Over there, on the other side of the valley, there was a military prison. In the days when the Sendero Luminoso (or Shining Path) terrorist group was based here in Ayacucho, the military would round up men whom they suspected of being involved with the group and put them in this prison. There, they were tortured and beaten to try to get them to give up information about the movement. But most of the men had nothing to do with Sendero. A great majority of the men who were imprisoned were Quechua speakers. Most were never heard from again after being imprisoned.

“The military came in with great force to the area, and they were under great pressure to stop the Sendero Luminoso movement. They arrested more and more men. The wives and mothers who were left behind started to ask questions. They banded together, as much to support each other as to demand answers, and created the Asociacion Nacional de Familiares de Secuestrados, Detenidos y Desaparecidos de Peru, or ANFASEP.

“What ANFASEP pieced together from stories told by some soldiers who served in the military prison, is that the military, realizing that they could not rationalize all the prisoner deaths that they had caused, built an incinerator to dispose of the bodies. When the first one proved ineffective, they built another. But even then they could not incinerate the bodies fast enough, and they simply dumped the bodies in a large hole in the valley.

“A few years ago, a construction crew found human remains while they were digging to build a home in the valley. They alerted the authorities, and ANFASEP, to see if this was what they feared. ANFASEP and others excavated the site, which is now marked by a pattern of depressions in the earth. THey dug and found a few bones, but not the numbers they expected. By chance one day a man who lived in the area said that when he was a boy he had seen the military dig a very large hole near the concrete tower that still stands today. When they dug there, they found the remains of nearly 500 people.

“Today the survivors are still trying to find out exactly what happened to those who were lost. Last year, survivors were invited to take a look at the remains that had been retrieved, to see if they could identify clothing or other identifying marks on the remains. But of course this was not a foolproof method, as clothing also deteriorates, or it might have been shared, or the survivors may not remember what their loved ones were wearing when they disappeared 20-plus years ago.”

I noticed tears forming in Karina’s eyes.

“My mother and my aunt and I were able to identify some clothing that belonged to my father and my uncle last year, and now we are waiting for the results of DNA tests, which should come next week.”

There were now tears in my eyes, too. I had known Karina was involved with ANFASEP, but I didn’t know that it was because her father was one of the disappeared. I looked at my daughters. I wasn’t sure they had understood all of what Karina was saying, but I was sure that Karina’s tears had alerted them to the gravity of the situation. John and I quickly recapped Karina’s story for them. As we walked back up toward the dusty field where we would catch the bus, we walked in silence.

This was raw. This was recent. This was hard to process. This was during my lifetime, and I had no idea that this had occurred, and most likely with the silent approval of the United States, which was still trying to stomp out communism wherever it appeared in the world. It was one of the most difficult days of our entire trip, but also one of the most moving.

Walking across the Ollado (or Hoyado)

Walking across the Ollado (or Hoyado)

To get to the site of the mass burial, known as the Ollado or Hoyado, take bus 13 to the prison complex, which is nearly the end of the bus route. Walk past the prison and head down the road that leads downhill. Take the first road on the left toward the valley, where you will find a small chapel on the left side, and the valley in front of you. Looking to your right, you will see a field marked with square dug-out areas, and a concrete tower.

For more information visit the Museum of Memory, run by ANFASEP, which is about 8 blocks from the central square in Ayacucho. Ask at the tourism information office on the square for directions and hours. Be advised that there are some very graphic depictions of violence in this museum and it may not be appropriate for younger children.