Ancient Ruins, Virtual Reality: Archaeological Sites Embrace VR For Enhanced Experiences

Last weekend the Domus Aurea, also known as Nero’s Golden Palace, became the latest attraction to offer visitors the chance to wear virtual reality headsets while touring the site. Continue reading Ancient Ruins, Virtual Reality: Archaeological Sites Embrace VR For Enhanced Experiences

The Atlas of Ancient Rome: Your New Favorite Coffee Table Book

The Atlas of Ancient Rome, a gorgeous, new two-volume set edited by Andrea Carandini, promises to be an “authoritative archeological survey of Rome from prehistory to the early medieval period.” The slip-cased set is available now. Continue reading The Atlas of Ancient Rome: Your New Favorite Coffee Table Book

Rome’s Ancient Pantheon to Begin Charging Admission

The Pantheon, one of the last major landmarks in Rome with free entry, will soon begin to charge admission.

Continue reading Rome’s Ancient Pantheon to Begin Charging Admission

A Little Greek / Yogurt in Paestum

If you tell a Roman that you are going Paestum for the weekend, invariably he or she will tell you: “Make sure you pick up some mozzarella di bufala.”

Paestum is a sight to see without the culinary pit stop. A city known as “Poseidonia” when it was part of Magna Grecia, Paestum is home to three extraordinarily preserved Greek (Doric) temples that date from 600 to 450BC. The two temples to Hera and the temple to Athena sit on a wide, grassy plot of land that is much easier to navigate than the not-too-distant Pompeii, the more famous ruins an hour north of here. Continue reading A Little Greek / Yogurt in Paestum

Natale di Roma: Rome Celebrates Its Birthday

This post is about the birth of Rome, not about the birth of Christ. Both occasions use the word “Natale” in Italian. For posts about Christmas in Rome and Italy, click here.

Most city foundation stories are pretty straightforward. But the origin story of the city of Rome is more akin to something you would read in a comic book about superheroes.

According to city legend, Rome was founded on April 21, 753 B.C. by Romulus and named after him. The Natale di Roma, the birthday of Rome, is quite a complicated story.

Continue reading Natale di Roma: Rome Celebrates Its Birthday

The Colosseum, On High and Down Low

"Are you not entertained?" - I couldn't help but ham it up for this once-in-a-lifetime shot! (Note to self: get your roots done!)

One of the things you need to know about touring Rome (and many other places in Italy) is that if you want to see something really special, then you’ll have to pay extra for it by going on a guided tour. While tours can certainly eat into your travel budget, they can also transform a trip into something extraordinary.

I had always wanted to see the dungeons of the Colosseum, those underground niches where once were housed thousands of roaring, barking, gnashing, lumbering wild animals primed for gladiatorial showcases and death matches. The Colosseum dungeons are a gruesome, if not key, part of the Flavian Amphitheater’s history. And the only way anyone can see them today — meaning, walk down into and around them — is by booking a tour with a private guide. This limits the number of visitors into the bowels of stadium, thereby keeping wear and tear on the nearly 2,000-year-old monument to a minimum.

There are a number of reputable tour companies that can take you down into the dungeons (in groups of 12 or fewer). Last month, I was lucky enough to join The Roman Guy, a small but growing tour guide company, as a guest on its Colosseum-Dungeon tour.

Continue reading The Colosseum, On High and Down Low

Ancients Doing Modern Things

I posted this silly tweet on my personal account one week ago and people are still retweeting it. Some replied with suggestions that it was Marcus Aurelius attempting a selfie. While quite a few suggested photos like this could become a trend. Is this a meme in search of a hashtag?

Either way, I hope to be doing more of these while I’m in Rome. Stay tuned for photos and musings posted on my personal and italofile twitter accounts. I’ll also be posting more Italy stories, how-tos, and travel news as I get settled.

Do You Know the Way to Pompeii?

About a year ago, I posted some information about going to Pompeii from Rome on a day trip. Just a few days ago, I was alerted of a new way to get there. When in Rome Tours has private and semi-private minibus tours to Pompeii. They’ll pick you up in Rome, drive to Pompeii via Cassino (site of the Montecassino Abbey) and Naples, take you to lunch, provide you with a Pompeii guide, and get you back to the Eternal City all within the same day (about 13 hours). They also provide walking tours of Rome and smallish bus tours of the Rome environs (no giant motorcoaches here!). So if you’re trying to put together a little jaunt down to Pompeii while visiting Rome, consider checking out When in Rome Tours. Thanks for the tip, Marie!

Photo by Paul Vlaar

Rome’s New Archeology Czar

News outlets are reporting that the Italian government has appointed Guido Bertolaso, of Naples garbage crisis fame, to head a new effort to address the poor state of Rome’s archeological treasures. According to the International Herald Tribune, Bertolaso will be in charge of whipping into shape some of Rome’s most famous – but crumbling –  buildings, particularly those on the Palatine Hill (including Nero’s Golden House) and in Ostia Antica. The czar will only have until December 31 to set a plan into action, so it’s not sure how much will get done. On the other hand, after he was appointed to handle the trash problem in May 2008 the emergency was over by July. Good luck, Mr. Bertolaso!

Aerial Views of Ancient Rome

Leave it to Google to continue to make geography cool and engaging.

Yesterday, Google revealed the new Ancient Rome 3D layer, which allows viewers to “fly” over the city as it was during the heyday of the Forum and Colosseum. With this new layer, Google is also encouraging educators to use Ancient Rome 3D in their lesson plans and submit such curricula for a chance to win prizes such as a MacBook, digital camera, or $500 for school supplies from Target or Office Depot. According to the Google LatLong blog, this is the “first time” that Google has “incorporated an ancient city in Google Earth.” So, does that mean that fly-overs of Pompeii are not far on the horizon?

Further endearing Google to me more is the company’s recent release of Street Views for Italy. Again, the LatLong blog provides examples of Italian streetscapes, with many more in the works.

Ah, technology…what a wonderful thing.

Pompeii By Night

Pompeii By Night
Pompeii At Dusk

Question: What’s eerier than surveying the ruins of Pompeii? Answer: Visiting them at night.

According to the news service, Pompeii will once again offer its popular “Sound-and-Light” tour, a one-hour look at the ancient Roman city complete with ambient music, flood-lit ruins, and a video simulation of the eruption of Vesuvius that destroyed the city in 79 AD. The tour will be available in English, Italian, and Japanese.

Sognopompei, as it is called in Italian, promises to be an unforgettable night and will show the “poetic side” of the must-see tourist trap:

The tour kicks off at the Terme Suburbane, a once-neglected district that has become a big draw for its frescoes graphically depicting a variety of sex acts – presumed to be an illustration of the services on offer at the local brothel.

It then winds its way up the main road, pointing out the curious cart ruts, craftsmen’s shops and famous villas.

The grand finale comes in the heart of the old city, the forum, when four giant projectors beam a special- effects-laden video reconstruction of the wrath of the volcano Vesuvius, which smothered the city and its lesser-known but equally fascinating neighbour Herculaneum in ash and cinders.

Sognopompei tours will run this summer, Fridays through Sundays, through November 13. Prices start at €20 per person, with discounts for Campania Artecard holders and families with children under 16. Reservations are required.

Photo by Pirate Alice

Day Trip to Pompeii from Rome

My friend Tom recently asked me if I knew of any good day trips to Pompeii from Rome. When I last visited Pompeii, I did it myself: taking the morning train to Naples then Pompeii and doing the reverse in the evening. My tour of Pompeii was solo and without a guide; quite frankly, being alone added an extra eerie element to the ruins around me.

Nevertheless, I know that there’s a better way to “do” Pompeii because I am sure that I missed a lot in my quest to be self-sufficient.

Tom’s question put me in research mode. Unfortunately, what I found were fairly expensive tours, the lowest of which started at $173 for a one-day trip or €115 (about $176) for a guided tour of Naples and Pompeii. The In Italy website had trips starting at a ridiculous €728 for a two-person tour. I’m sure that their guide is quite knowledgeable, but their trip still has travelers riding the same train that they could book for themselves.

I took a look to see what it costs today to ride the train from Rome to Pompeii. Currently, a train trip to Pompeii (transferring at Napoli Centrale) on the Ferrovie dello Stato costs €37.90 (or about $58) each way. The earliest trains depart from Rome’s Termini station to Napoli Centrale is 6:45 a.m.; total travel time is about 2 1/2 hours.

Once in Pompeii, travelers will no doubt come upon authorized and non-authorized Pompeii tour guides, whose expertise could cost about €50 for a two-hour tour of the archeological site. Alternatively, once inside the entrance, visitors can purchase an audioguide for €6.50 and pick up free maps of the excavations from the Information Point. To ask about additional services offered by the Pompeii Archeological Site, send an e-mail to [email protected].

In sum, a self-guided trip to Pompeii – taking the train, €11 admission, and using an audioguide – will cost a traveler about $142.50 a day, not including breakfast, lunch, and other knick-knacks. Add in those extras, and you may as well book one of the above trips. That, or find a friendly Italian guide who can drive you there and give you a tour for less. Good luck with that one.

So, Tom, I hope that this little bit of research comes in handy for your travel planning. I wish I could have found a better deal for you. Perhaps someone else has a tip? If so, please comment below!

One other idea that I write about in the Unofficial Guide (and that I was reminded of when reading about In Italy’s Pompeii tour) is to consider a daytrip to Ostia Antica. Located about 30 minutes by local train outside of Rome, this ancient ruined city is Pompeii in miniature. Sure, Ostia Antica didn’t die the dramatic death that Pompeii did (the silting up of its outlet to the sea and rampant malaria drove its populace out), it is still a beautiful, awe-inspiring, tour-worthy site.

Photo © Paul Vlaar

What’s Old Is New Again: Rome’s Via Appia Antica

The Via Appia Antica in RomeNow that we’ve entered the Holy Season, tourism to Rome is going to start heating up again quite quickly. Of course, you can follow the pilgrimage throngs around the Lenten Station circuit. Or, you can travel outside the city walls to check out the Via Appia Antica.

David Farley’s one-day itinerary along the ancient road recently published in the NY Times is a great break from the crowds of the Trevi Fountain, the Colosseum, and the Vatican Museums. Known in English as the Appian Way, Via Appia Antica is unfortunately left off of many tourists’ agendas. Blame Rome for having too darn much to do and see.

One hassle-free way to “do” the Appian Way is by taking the Archeobus, a tour bus service run by Rome’s municipal transportation company. You can hop on the Archeobus at several stops within town, including the Termini Train Station, the Circus Maximus, or the Baths of Caracalla, and travel to the attractions of the Appian Way, including the Catacombs. Once you get to the Appia Antica park, you can even rent a bike for a couple of euros.

The price for the Archeobus starts at €13. You’re lucky to even get a gelato at that price these days!

Photo from Parco Appia Antica website

Et tu, Brute?

Friends, Romans, countrymen…I’ve been wanting to study Latin for a very long time, but keep shifting it down on my list of priorities. This NY Times editorial from Harry Mount titled “A Vote for Latin” is a good argument for learning more about the classics and the language that spawned Italian.

Now, does anyone know of a good book or online program for studying Latin? If so, send a tip to [email protected].

Ancient Romulus Cave Found

If you believe the legend that Rome was founded more than 2,000 years ago by the twins Romulus and Remus (who are seen suckling a she-wolf in Rome’s famous “logo”), then word that scientists have found the Lupercale will astonish you.

According to Reuters, archeologists restoring the ancient Palace of Augustus on the Palatine hill found “an underground cavity decorated with seashells, colored marble mosaics and pumice stones” and said they are “‘reasonably certain’ it is the long-lost place of worship sacred to ancient Romans and known as Lupercale, from the Latin word for wolf.”

Such a find is amazing, but maybe not surprising. I happened upon the History Channel’s “Cities of the Underworld” series “Rome” episode a few weeks ago and learned about several other new archeological finds that I didn’t know about. By the way, you can download “Rome’s Hidden Empire” and other episodes of Season 1 of CotU from iTunes for $1.99 – a steal.

Rome’s big dig is hardly over…I’m excited to see what they discover next!

2,000 Years of Style in Rome


Way back in 1999, I remember walking up to the pile of rubble and marble that was the Ara Pacis and feeling amazed that such an ancient monument had been left so lonesome on the banks of the Tiber to weather the elements. Most of the rest of Rome’s monuments were under scaffolding at that point, getting ready to shine for the new milennium.

Shortly after that, it was announced that the Ara Pacis would undergo a huge refurbishment by American architect Richard Meier. His winning proposal would envelop the Augustan memorial under an ultramodern glass and steel structure. Romans were outraged, the project was on-again-off-again-on-again. Finally, in spring 2006 the Ara Pacis complex opened to mixed (mainly negative) reviews.

According to Newsweek, by way of this Ara Pacis blog, “the building has become a flash point for…disaffection for efforts to modernize the ancient city.” This is one reason why it seems fitting to me that the Ara Pacis will host an exhibit about a man who has singlehandedly kept Rome on the map through his modern approach to traditional style: Valentino.

From today (July 6) to October 28, visitors to the Ara Pacis will have the chance to enjoy “Valentino a Roma: 45 Years of Style.” The exhibit will display more than 300 of the design legends garments and other items. Of course, the anniversary itself is being greeted with all sorts of fanfare in Rome, including fashion shows at Santo Spirito in Sassia and at the Villa Borghese. For those not on the guest list, a stroll by the Valentino mother shop at Via Condotti 13 will not be disappointing because it, too, will be decked out for the occasion (not that Valentino or its affiliates need any occasion to be decked out…that’s haute couture for you).

Romans can argue all they want about how Meier’s Ara Pacis complex destroys the cityscape with its modernity. But then those Romans who complain about “the new” don’t deserve the innovative designs of their native son.

While I am a huge Valentino fan, I am wont to laud him here in hopes that I can get on the guest list for the 50-Year retrospective. Please oh please. Oh yeah…and throw in a dress, too. Thank you.

Ancient Rome Rebuilt

Thanks to historians, architects, archeologists and other scholars at the University of Virginia and UCLA, ancient history buffs can virtually explore the wonders of Rome, including the Colosseum and the Forum. Rome Reborn 1.0 is a digital model of Eternal City, and one of the most comprehensive representations of the ancient city ever assembled. The naming of this undertaking is important, too, as the 1.0 indicates that the city will be “updated” whenever any new discoveries are made.

To check it out for yourself, go to the project’s website, click on “Gallery,” then on “Still Images.” Pretty cool, eh?

Going Underground

Wow…here’s a link for the more morbid – or more scholarly – Italophiles. The International Catacomb Society, based out of Massachusetts, has an impressive website full of information on Roman catacombs within and outside of the Eternal City. Be sure to check out the interactive map section. Simply fascinating.

Exploring Etruria

Affreschi: Exploring Etruria

Never underestimate the treasure trove that is your local used bookstore. While browsing idly yesterday, I came across the book Affreschi: Exploring Etruria, the only book I know that focuses on the once Etruscan domain that stretched from Rome to southern Tuscany and east to Umbria. Profiled, for example, are the towns of Civitavecchia, Cosa and Tarquinia, as well as the villages around Lakes Bracciano, Bolsena and Vico.

My copy, published in Italy in 2001, is unfortunately out of print. But apparently a revised edition came out in fall 2006. So, if you’re interested in ancient Etruscan culture or unique day trips from Rome, this may be a great supplement to a general guidebook. Information is available on the website Elegant Etruria. Also check out the Italo Shop for more specialty guides to Italy.