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 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.
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.
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.
- Walks of Italy
- From the US (toll-free): +1-888-683-8670
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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)
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.