Two weeks into our family Eurail adventure, we had a big decision to make: should we stick with our original plan to take the train and Couchsurf through Romania and Bulgaria to get to our December destination in Istanbul? Or should we make a lightning fast trip to see Christmas markets in Austria and Germany and up to Scandinavia and then fly to Istanbul? It was tempting to make the most of our first class pass to use the sleek trains in Western Europe and see the postcard-worthy scenery in the Alps. We weren’t sure what they might be like to the east. If you Eurail with kids you want to know what you’re getting into. But in the end, we decided we wanted to see some of the cultures of Eastern Europe that we had never experienced before, and even though we knew it was going to be a little less comfortable – physically and otherwise – in the end we were glad we did.
The beautiful and infuriating Budapest Keleti Station
Our trip from Zagreb to Romania started well enough. We were up on time, our cab came on time, our train left on time, and we had the entire first class car to ourselves. We got into Budapest Deli station just a little late, and we rushed down to the Metro. We needed tickets. The ticket seller didn’t accept credit cards, and we had no forints. She motioned to another window and said “ten minutes.” Agh. I went around the corner and changed some Euros for forints and went back to buy the tickets. OK. Metro to Keleti station. Why oh why are there no escalators in the train stations? Or ramps, at least? And why isn’t the Metro station connected to the train station it is named for? When we finally get into the train station, we don’t see our train on the board. At all. We go to the information desk to see if we can get reservations for the sleeper. No – you need to do that at least 6 hours in advance. You must ask the conductor. OK. Where’s the train? She can’t help me – her computer is down. We think we spot a promising one on Track 11 – all the way on the other side of the station. We get there and they say, “Try Track 6. Or 1.” Both are ALL the way on the other side of this massive station that is beautiful but so poorly designed. We have to walk several hundred yards from one side to the other, our suitcases dragging behind us.
Finally, finally, after our third visit to the information desk, the woman there takes pity on us and calls someone to find out the track number for our train. We get on, and I go in search of the sleeper car. But the very polite porter straight from central casting tells us there is no room. And no room in the couchettes (although I strongly suspect that this less polite porter is just not willing to make up more beds, because it does not look anywhere near full. So we head back to the First Class car (thank you Eurail). We find an empty compartment with plenty of room for us to stretch out, and Magnolia figures out a way we can arrange ourselves for sleeping. BUT. The conductor comes in to tell us that this car will only be going as far as the border. Ugh. We figure we might as well set ourselves up in a Second Class car and try to make the best of it. We find several seats together in a quiet car and settle in. But just as the train pulls out of the station, a boisterous group gets on and argues loudly with the conductor. I can’t tell what the issue is, but these people do not seem pleasant at all. Sure enough, they talk loudly, without stopping. Once in a while one will leave, and the others will do something annoying, like the young couple making out across the seats just behind our girls. Yuck. After it becomes clear they are not going to shut up, we decide to move. We move to a car closer to the café car, which is the only place on the train where people can smoke, and it’s starting to get a little rowdy.
At around 1:30 am, as I looked at my miserable family around me – Calla coughing, Magno curled up like a pretzel on her seat, John sweating and twitching with bad dreams – I wondered what on earth I had been thinking. Well, I had thought we’d be in a sleeper car, but that was not to be. But why did I think we should go ahead and take this horrible overnight train without the sleeper berths? To add insult to injury, I happened to read an article while on this train about someone’s heavenly overnight train in Switzerland, with champagne and nice sheets and blah blah BLAH! I switched off the data connection on my iPhone and slumped back in my seat to try to sleep sitting up.
But then, we wake from a not-very-restful sleep at dawn to a totally new landscape in Romania. The rolling hills are just barely green on this misty November morning. The grays and browns of winter are taking over. We approach a red-roofed town that – aside from the electrical poles – looks like it could have been unchanged for centuries. Smoke pours from every chimney in the town of Agustin as the sun comes up. It’s all very charming and picturesque, until we come upon a splatter of plastic garbage tossed from a back garden towards a stream, as if the house vomited up the indigestible bits its owner had overconsumed.
Just say “no.” I mean “yes.”
We arrived in Brasov, and as we disembarked I saw someone trying to help Magnolia with her bag. We had been coaching the girls on how to say “No” firmly when someone tries to help them with their luggage, because it could turn out to be a scammer who will demand a tip for their often paltry and unhelpful efforts. In this case, though, the perpetrator was our Couchsurfing host, Zsolt, who was actually trying to help. He had a good sense of humor about it. We would come to find out that he had a great sense of humor about everything!
Zsolt drove us from Brasov to their home in Sfintu Gheorghe, where we met his wife Ildiko and their daughters Hongo (which means Heather – another flower girl) and Anna-Villo. We talked for a while, and then they offered us breakfast. And Zsolt offered us shots of Palinka – a plum brandy – to start it off. We were surprised, but we rolled with it. Zsolt offered me a less-strong version he had made with blueberries. We had sausages and bread and an amazing dish made of grilled eggplant and homemade mayonnaise that I can’t wait to try to make at home.
The family is of Seckeler Hungarian descent, and the area is a majority-Hungarian-speaking area within the larger Transylvania region of Romania. They taught us quite a bit about their heritage, and we went to several museums about this culture during our stay.
Zsolt, a biology teacher, showed us around his school in the town. They had very nice facilities, especially his biology lab. The place was astounding! Filled with more stuffed animals than most museums, and several human skeleton models. Great old diagrams and charts. Who wouldn’t want to be a biologist with this classroom, and this teacher? We then went to meet Zsolt’s class. The students crowded around the girls, and they did a great job of answering and asking questions.
We really enjoyed our first Couchsurfing experience as a family, and just couldn’t get over the hospitality of our hosts. If you’d like to learn more about Romania, why not join a small group tour of Transylvania with Unquote Travel? Full disclosure: I’m a founder of Unquote Travel, which was started with the intent to bring more people to experience the wonders of off the beaten path destinations. .
The next leg of the trip was to Sofia, Bulgaria, a place we knew nothing about before arriving. We had made reservations for a four-person sleeper car on the train from Bucharest to Sofia. Our train from Brasov to Bucharest was fine, but we dreaded the three hour stopover in Bucharest. We had heard nothing good about this train station. We read about pickpockets, drug addicts, stray dogs and the like, with no waiting area to speak of. We found it to be not so bad in reality, but we did resort to sitting at the McDonalds to wait instead of the grim fluorescent-lit waiting room.
When we boarded the train, we discovered that it was coming from Moscow, where it had left 36 hours prior. The reservation we made 30 hours prior, then, didn’t really carry much weight. The two Russian ladies in charge of the sleeper cars took a look at our tickets and then pocketed them and pointed us to two separate compartments with other passengers. Sigh.
Our compartment-mates were nice enough, though neither they nor the porters mentioned that the bedding we were offered did not include sheets. We made the best of it and actually managed to get a pretty good night’s sleep. Maybe we were getting the hang of it.
The next morning, we arrived in Sofia to a very very grim station. It was a massive communist building that should have inspired but now sat crumbling and dark. We booked our tickets for the next night’s train and bus to Istanbul and parked our baggage at the station with a friendly handler, who was the first indication that Sofia might be nicer than this station made it out to be. We found the brand new (3 months old) Metro nearby, which whisked us to the center. We were late for the Free Sofia Tour, which our Couchsurfing host had recommended, but managed to find it 30 minutes into the tour. It was a great tour – very informative, with an enthusiastic and friendly guide. (We enjoyed it so much, we went back the next day to catch the beginning of the tour.) We were surprised to find out that most large cities in Europe now offer these free tours, that it’s something of a movement. I wish we had known about them earlier in our European travels, but we’ll pass along the information in case you can use it.
The city is very very old, but none of the buildings are. There are Roman ruins everywhere – the discovery of which delayed the building of the Metro, in some parts. There are mineral springs, with public fountains where people bring their water jugs to fill regularly, but no baths. Seems like a missed opportunity to me!
There were little hidden gems and surprises everywhere in Sofia, like Lavanda, an incredibly charming restaurant where we had one of the best lunches of our trip. I still don’t know how John sniffed that out. He had remarked on it the day before when we walked by, But when we tried to go back for lunch we found only a bar. The girl there pointed up and around toward the back of the building. We went around the building but didn’t see an entrance. We saw someone else go in a door that looked like it led to apartments, so we followed. (Always follow the locals!) We still weren’t sure, but we went up the stairs and found Lavanda, a place that wouldn’t be out of place in Paris or New York. Fantastic meal.
Another surprise was the huge number of super-flashy new gun shops in the city. There seemed to be one on every block. Not sure what that was about. But we wandered around the city and found interesting little scenes all around that piqued our interest and made us think that we might want to come back and spend some more time one day.
Finally, the four of us
For our final train in Europe, we booked a four-person sleeper car on the train to Istanbul. This time, for the first time, we actually got what we were after: just the four of us in a compartment. Of course, this train was only going to the border of Turkey, which we would reach at 2 am. Next year, the train line (and the Eurail pass) is due to be extended all the way to Istanbul, but for now, you must switch to a bus after going through the passport check at the border. The trip was comfortable, and because we knew the routine, we went right to sleep as soon as we boarded the train. The border crossing was painless, and the bus to Istanbul was comfortable. And I will never forget pulling into Istanbul, under the aqueduct, at the break of dawn.
Eurail with kids
And so our Eurail adventure draws to a close. We had some incredibly wonderful times on the trains, and in our travels across Europe. We had frustrations and some uncomfortable moments, too, but above all we had a great adventure on Eurail with kids, and we have some memories that will last us a lifetime. And our kids have learned how to navigate not just the train stations but the metros and buses across Europe like the backpackers they may emulate one day. It’s been a great journey, Eurail, and we thank you for it.
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.
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
The Gates Hotel South Beach
I’d never been to Miami before checking out the newly relaunched Gates Hotel in South Beach this December, and the four-star Hilton hotel offered the perfect entrance into the eternal summer of South Beach.
Located right on the busy Collins Avenue, the Gates Hotel South Beach a short walk to the beach, the surrounding city, and several peaceful residential streets. Within the span of an hour, I strolled down the boardwalk at sunset, gazeed over the pond from a bridge, and got a drink in the upscale pool-flanking bar at The Setai. The hotel is also a short walk from The Bass, a museum full of quirky modern art.
When I got to my room, the first thing I noticed was the giant bed. “King size” would be an understatement — I could sleep diagonally on it. I’m a terrible sleeper, but the soft mattress and soft, luxurious pillows let me rest better than I had in a while.
The top-floor room was spacious, with a desk, a board to put my stuff on, a separate segment for the toilet and shower, and a view of the pool outside the lobby. The WiFi was not super speedy but fast enough and easy to access with my name and room number, and there were outlets all over so I could plug in my computer from the desk or bed. There was no mini-bar, but there was a fridge and a coffee and tea maker. The only downside was that there was another room perpendicular to mine, so the people in it could see me if I left my blinds up.
One of the hotel’s biggest standouts was its food. When I checked in, the staffer at the front desk greeted me with a hot chocolate chip cookie. From room service, I got a surprisingly delicious cookies and cream milkshake, zucchini chips, and shrimp Caesar salad. Later on in the trip, I ate at the hotel’s restaurant Agaveros Cantina, which features unique Mexican dishes like Tamale Bites and Elote Fritters. The same restaurant also served breakfast for an extra charge, including a continental buffet and a menu with omelettes and other hot dishes.
“Welcome to Miami” played through my head as I walked through the halls. Between the Gates’ convenient location, luxurious accommodations, and friendly staff, I felt welcome, and I’d trust them to welcome me again.
King rooms and double queen rooms are available with or without pool view and with or without terraces.
King suites with separate living room also available.
Free wifi throughout hotel
This hotel is not explicitly family-friendly, but you can bring children. Cribs are available, but no extra beds.
Swimming pool on the terrace.
The onsite Mexican-inspired Agaveros Cantina offers breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Pool bar and lobby bar offer lunch and dinner until 10pm.
Deals and Activities Nearby:
Valet parking available.
Suzannah Weiss is a freelance writer and editor currently serving as a contributing editor for Teen Vogue and a regular contributor to Glamour, Bustle, Vice, Refinery29, Elle, The Washington Post, and more. She authored a chapter of Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World and frequently discusses gender, sex, body image, and social justice on radio shows and podcasts. Whoopi Goldberg cited one of her articles on The View in a debate over whether expressing your desires in bed is a feminist act. (She thinks it is.)
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 “Tours of Pompeii 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.
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 240 Euro, which did not include the cost of entry to the site (15 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.