Archive | Destinations

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!)

“Are you not entertained?” – I couldn’t help but ham it up for this once-in-a-lifetime shot!

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.

Nero, the Colosseum's resident black cat, knows how to pose © Melanie Renzulli

Nero, the Colosseum’s resident black cat, knows how to pose © Melanie Renzulli


I’m a fairly new convert to going on guided tours and I think that may be one reason why I may be able to assess them in a way that is helpful to less experienced travelers. I’ve always been one to do things on my own because I like to dwell on the little details, sketching out info in a notebook, taking photos, reading descriptions from my guidebook or from online. On the other hand, I love how a good tour guide can make sure you learn about things that are not in a guidebook or that are glossed over. The Roman Guy’s Rafaella was an enthusiastic guide who knew how to point out the details as well as keep the three-hour tour on track.

At the beginning of the tour, Rafaella handed our small group headsets; these marked us all as tourists, of course, but they also made it easy to listen to the tour as we wandered. Not only that, but I felt free to lag behind and wander a bit off course to inspect a ruin or take a photo so long as I stayed in the range of the headset. The headsets were fairly discreet and they also allowed Rafa to speak as she regularly would rather than yell to be heard. In some ways it felt as if I had my own tour guide, even as I strolled around with six other visitors, teenagers to seniors, who hailed from Florida and California-by-way-of-London. They were a bright and inquisitive group, which always helps on a group tour. Another bonus of going on a group tour is when another traveler asks a question or questions that you’d have never thought to raise.

The route of the tour was also a delightful surprise. We started at the Forum, walked up the hill to the Palatine, then entered the Colosseum. Even though I have toured all three of the sites before, I had never followed this itinerary myself. But it made sense chronologically to learn first about the Forum, the center of public life in Ancient Rome dating as far back the 8th century BC; then the Palatine, the hill on which Ancient Roman aristocracy built their palaces; and then the Colosseum, which was built in the early years of the Imperial Roman era (between 70 and 80 AD). Many tourists, including myself, tend to head straight for the Colosseum and then try to fit in the Forum and Palatine; Rafaella’s itinerary was smarter and better.

While I could fill several posts with the things we learned about the Forum and Palatine, I will cut to the chase here and tell you about visiting the Colosseum and the thrill of getting into the parts of it that are off-limits to the regular visitor.

After our group arrived in the Colosseum, we proceeded to walk around the outside corridor until we reached an area with an elevator and a locked gate. We waited for a docent from the Colosseum to come with the keys to let us through the gate (how cool is that?!). Then we followed Rafaella and the Colosseum docent to the platform that feels as close to a rock star stage as most people will ever get to experience. Big groups were gathered above us taking photos of one of the best views of the Colosseum available to regular visitors to the stadium. Indeed, the 10 to 12 of us who were standing on the Colosseum platform away from the masses couldn’t help but feel special.

A Colosseum docent opens the gate © Melanie Renzulli

A Colosseum docent opens the gate © Melanie Renzulli

Following that rush, we headed down under the stadium. It’s easy imagine the gladiators following the same paths, listening to the roars of crowds and animals and smelling the stench of blood, sweat, manure, as they readied for battle. The feeling was not unlike what you see in behind-the-scenes shots of footballers loosening up prior to heading out to the pitch under the gaze of thousands of spectators.

Walkway out to Colosseum platform © Melanie Renzulli

Walkway out to Colosseum platform © Melanie Renzulli


Out on the Colosseum platform © Melanie Renzulli

Out on the Colosseum platform © Melanie Renzulli

It was cold and slightly eerie under the Colosseum but never especially dark. We could see that some of the marble that once covered the entirety of the monument was still visible in these underground halls. Then we got to the niches where the beasts had once been housed. Tall niches and wide niches held everything from lions and tigers to elephants and giraffes to even slaves. Approximately 9,000 animals were slaughtered at the Colosseum during the inaugural games alone. Consider that gladiatorial contests continued for another 300+ years after that and animal hunts continued for almost another five centuries, you can just imagine how haunted these dank lairs must be. Rafaella also pointed out at least one of the ancient hydraulic lift mechanism that would have allowed the caged animals to be lifted up to the arena floor and released. Though we were consigned to only a half-moon portion of the underground, it was still fascinating to take all of this history in without the usual noise and jostling that comes with touring the Colosseum.

Animal niches in the Colosseum dungeon &copy Melanie Renzulli

Animal niches in the Colosseum dungeon © Melanie Renzulli


View of Colosseum underground from dungeon area © Melanie Renzulli

View of Colosseum underground from dungeon area © Melanie Renzulli

After the underground, we took the lift to the almost-top of the Colosseum. There is a set of stairs that goes up even farther than most tourists are allowed. This upper section is where one gets the full near-aerial view of the expanse of the stadium and its ruins. It’s where you take photographs like this one.

Colosseum from on high © Melanie Renzulli

Colosseum from on high (with late day shadow) © Melanie Renzulli

I would like to thank The Roman Guy for hosting me on their Colosseum Dungeon tour. If you are the type of traveler who is obsessed with Ancient Rome or who wishes to go beyond the gates to see something not many get to see (who doesn’t want to do that?!), I highly recommend booking this tour. I’ve visited the Colosseum on numerous occasions but this was the best visit of them all.

Tour Details

The Roman Guy Colosseum “Dungeons, Third Level and Arena Floor”, Roman Forum and Palatine Hill

Cost: €79, adults; reduced price for seniors, students, youth (7-17).

The cost of a regular ticket to the Colosseum, Forum, and Palatine is €12, which is valid for two consecutive days. Kids under 17 get free admission with valid ID. Advanced purchase of regular tickets to the Colosseum/Roman Forum/Palatine Hill is available online for an additional €2 service fee.

Note: These prices are subject to change at any time. Consult the corresponding websites for details.

Will the Vatican Museums finally limit the number of visitors?

A very crowded Sistine Chapel ( (c) The Economist)

Last week, I finally had a chance to revisit the Vatican Museums. It had been more than a decade since I had gone and I hadn’t jumped at the chance to go once I arrived in Rome because the crowds, which wrapped around the block, were daunting. But my mother was in town, so I had a good excuse to go.

Getting in was easy enough, as we had reserved tickets through the Vatican Museums online ticketing system. Rain poured down on us as we got off the tram and walked uphill to the entrance. Most everyone there at 9:30 a.m. were part of a group or had reserved online so we were all kind of in the same line (scrum) to get in. Getting through the main doors, queueing up at the ticket window to get our “real” tickets (our printed reservations were just that), and walking through security took about 10-15 minutes.  No big deal.

But honestly, the Vatican Museums left me wanting this time. Or rather they left me with the feeling that I never want to visit again.

Although it was early March, not exactly peak tourist season, we were getting jostled from all sides, particularly from large tour groups who were muscling in to take photos of every main attraction they saw. “I swear it didn’t used to be like this,” I assured my mother. And it turns out I wasn’t imagining things.

According to the latest report from The Economist “four times as many people visit the Sistine Chapel as did in 1980; on the busiest days more than 25,000 visitors a day pass through.” The crowds were noticeable in every room and corridor, save for the contemporary art wing (and I think most people who end up there do so because they are lost).

One section that I was most excited to revisit was the Niccoline Chapel, which I once listed on this site as being one of my favorite places in the museums. I followed the recommended course through the Museums, all the while mentioning to my mother how much I loved the chapel but I just couldn’t find it. Finally, I asked a guard where it was.

“Chiuso,” he said. Closed.

“Temporarily or forever,” I asked in Italian.

“Probably for forever. The chapel was too small for so many people.”

I was bummed. I was also disappointed that the Hall of Maps felt more like a long queue instead of a room where one could step back and observe the early maps of Italian regions and cities. People were everywhere. My mother and I were also part of the problem, of course. But the whole experience was too much like a cattle drive.

The Economist again:

The Vatican is starting to grapple with the problem. Last October Mr Paolucci, a former Italian culture minister, unveiled a €3m upgrade of the chapel’s climate-control and lighting systems, which was paid for by the manufacturers. A virtual Sistine Chapel pavilion is now being planned so that visitors spend less time inside the real one. Whether this will be a full-sized replica or a digital simulation is still to be decided. Mr Paolucci has also been talking about handing out intelligent eyewear (Google Glass-type accessories) that would allow visitors to explore the chapel in 3D.

Another plan is to limit the number of visitors. Once they reach 6m—probably some time next year—only those with reserved tickets will be allowed in. Walk-in travellers, even pilgrims coming from afar, can now queue for €16 tickets. In future, they will be turned away. That would further undermine the chapel’s identity as a place of worship, which the Vatican Museums are already struggling to preserve by constantly urging visitors to be silent.

The Sistine Chapel as a place of worship has already been compromised as far as I was concerned. Nothing about the current set up, where the Sistine Chapel is highlighted as the ultimate destination on the slow or fast route through the museums, gives the space its due. The crowd flows into this room through only one door, with the exit door depositing you into a no man’s land of blank stairwells back down to the entrance hall. I understand the security reasons for controlling the crowds in this way, but the Sistine Chapel was probably the least hospitable, most crowded place I have been since returning to Rome. And I’ve been in Termini Station at rush hour.

Pope Francis Soccer Display

Pope Francis Soccer Display

This is going to be a tough call for the Vatican. Francis is a very popular pope. (The photo above is of a display case with Pope Francis addressing visiting soccer stars and various “Francisco” jerseys that were given to him.) He has certainly helped to increase the number of South American visitors to Rome and Vatican City. Plus, Chinese/Asian and African visitors who are now starting to set out on their own grand tours, has made the wonders of the Vatican Museums (and especially the world famous Sistine Chapel) more popular — shouldn’t they, too, have the freedom to see this magnificent art?

But something should be done. I haven’t even touched on how the Vatican Museums left me with a strong distaste for the church as a whole. All of that concentrated wealth in one place, all the spoils of worldwide campaigns and whims of wayward popes (cough cough Borgia), did not fill me with awe but rather disgust. Certainly being prodded and processed through an assembly line didn’t help.

The word Catholic comes from the Greek word “Katholikos” which means universal. There’s a big difference in feeling like you are part of something bigger than you and feeling like you are just one of the unwashed, paying masses. I hope to visit the Vatican Museums again during my time here. In the meantime, there are plenty of other places to go and so much more to see.

Read more: Vatican Museums: Full to bursting | The Economist.

Rome Revisited: What Has and Hasn’t Changed

Rome in one photo

Rome in one photo © Melanie Renzulli / Instagram

Rome is changing. Rome has changed.

You hear those phrases around Rome all the time these days. Crime, corruption, unemployment, immigration, unreliable public transit, trash collection, the euro – Italy is in crisis and the prevailing mood among its citizens is one of resignation and exhaustion. This was most recently expressed cinematically with La Grande Belleza, which plays like a more mature sequel to La Dolce Vita. Romans are no doubt still enamoured with what Rome represents. Today, however, when Romans hold up a mirror to the city, they are more likely to see Jep Gambardella’s malaise than Marcello Rubini’s confident swagger.

As part of the renewed writing initiative of the Italy Roundtable, I wanted to write about the mood of Rome and Italy and how it has changed since I last lived here. But I realized as I waded into my commentary that I was not qualified to talk on such complex socioeconomic issues. This month’s unifying topic is “change” and, well, I changed my mind.

While I am neither an economist nor a historian, I am a travel writer who has been lucky enough both to visit Italy on numerous occasions and to live in Rome – twice, during two very different life stages. So I want to discuss some things that have changed in Rome but also how my approach to seeing Rome has changed.

I’ve seen Rome change, for the better and for the worse, in numerous ways since I first began writing about it more than 15 years ago. In those first years, it was free to wander inside the Forum and up onto the Palatine Hill. The site has charged admission since 2008. The Ara Pacis, the ancient Augustan altar to peace, was once exposed to the air and practically abandoned; I remember a friend and I walking right up and into it in 1999. Work on the swanky, controversial Richard Meier building that now surrounds the altar had yet to begin.

Rome has become even more popular and crowds seem more numerous than ever. I have been inside St. Peter’s only once since I arrived six months ago as the line to get inside, even on wintry days, extends from the entrance and curves around to at least the top of St. Peter’s Square. In some ways this is heartening, as I lamented many years ago that the security process to get inside such an important landmark was too lax. But still, I groan when I think of travelers who only have a few days in Rome wasting time standing in that line, especially when the rain is heavy or the sun is strong.

Two other sites, the Pantheon and the Bocca della Verità, are more popular with travelers today than they were 15 years ago. Going inside the Pantheon, one of the few remaining ancient sites in Rome that doesn’t charge an admission, can be stifling because of all the touristic milling about and the loud speaker repeating on loop in several different languages that visitors be quiet. Nevertheless, I still recommend a visit if you’re never been inside of it; such ancient architectural mastery, particulary a glimpse at the coffered ceiling and oculus, is astonishing up close.

I am not sure why the Mouth of Truth has surged in popularity, as it has been there, free of charge, for years. Has there been a renewed interest in the film Roman Holiday? Oh, I know what it is – camera phones and selfies. At any rate, the recent line for a photo op with the Bocca drove me inside the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, which I had never fully explored.

It is not lost on me that my job as a travel writer has contributed to this mess. I am sorry.

Meanwhile, the Colosseum and the Trevi Fountain, two of Rome’s most popular attractions, are undergoing needed changes. Both are under scaffolding and are both undergoing privately-funded restorations. The Colosseum renovation has meant little to zero inconvenience for those who want to tour it. And its cleaning has also led to new discoveries at the ancient site. On the other hand, the Trevi Fountain area is going to be unappealing for the next few years, as it has been drained of its water (and grandeur) and scaffolding obscures most of it. There is a walkway that allows visitors to get near the marble statues in the fountain – who knows when you’ll get to do that again? – but there is also a designated spot to toss in your coins like a good tourist is supposed to do.

My approach to seeing Rome has also changed over the years. When I first started writing about the city, I saw it as no challenge to walk from Trastevere to the Spanish Steps, for example, or to see site after site with no time for rest or reflection. I was in my mid–20s and knew little about what it meant to travel as a parent or as a person with finite stores of energy or low thresholds for noise or crowds. Sitting in Piazza Navona recently, it occurred to me that my favorite places in Rome had changed, either because I have learned more about their history (see the Turtle Fountain) or have grown weary of the hordes.

Rome has changed. But so have I.

Luigi Barzini noted in his 1964 book The Italians: “The Italian way of life cannot be considered a success except by temporary visitors.” Rome puts on a beautiful show for its guests. And the longer one lives here, the more one learns about the façade and how it’s held up with equal parts of pride and necessity – as well as a few dashes of contempt.

One of the reasons I wanted to shift gears on the direction of this piece is because I rediscovered this Barzini quote and realized that even though as a current resident I can understand the modern challenges that Romans are facing, I still have the mindset of a temporary visitor. Having the opportunity to see Rome evolve – ever so slightly – over multiple visits and stays is a privilege I am grateful for every day. However, I often feel I need to conceal my naive optimism about the city for I know that I am experiencing a far different Rome than most Romans.

But maybe Rome thrives on the wide-eyed optimism of its tourists? I often hear complaints that Rome neglects the needs of its citizenry in favor of maintaining the parts of the city that only travelers see. Tourists are disruptive, sure, and a burden on infrastructure. But what would Rome be without its visitors? Beyond the monetary reasons and the impetus for maintaining its ancient structures, tourism helps Romans remember what is beautiful and special about their city. As a writer specializing in Rome and Italy, I want to continue to hold up that mirror and hope the city (and my readers) see what I see. It is all I can do.

So, yes. Rome is changing. Rome has changed. But it has always been in flux. Rome will weather this storm as it has countless others. Change is eternal and so is Rome.


Italy Blogging Roundtable

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  2. Gloria – Changing climate, changing tourism in Tuscany
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  5. Kate – Getting residency in Catania – a story

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