In short: While it's incredible to see such perfectly-preserved frescoes, buildings and graffiti, there's something more than disturbing about it all.
For the past eight years, Jason Spiehler has been a top name in the world of Rome walking tours, written up by both Rick Steves and the New York Times. Now, he’s started a company that focuses on offering tours by well-informed, passionate guides of Italy’s top sites. In Rome, that includes not just the Colosseum and St. Peter’s Basilica, but gems off the beaten path — like tours of the Galleria Borghese, the catacombs, and the city’s finest small churches.
(Full disclosure: I work for this company. But hey, I think that means I know the quality of our guides and the work that’s put in pretty well, too!).
The company just launched a website, www.walksofitaly.com, giving full information about all of the tours offered. So far, they cover Rome, Florence, and Pompeii. One top seller is the “Pristine Sistine” tour, which takes visitors into the Sistine Chapel first thing in the morning, before the crowds arrive. Another neat feature: All of the private tours give you the option of having “add-ons,” like another half-hour on the Palatine Hill or in the Imperial Forums. Convinced your tour’s the right one? You can book immediately online. Still have questions? You can shoot the tour coordinator, Linda, an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, call, or even Skype.
Okay, enough plugging for one day. But seriously. Check out the website. I know I’m biased, but I still think it looks pretty good.
Ostia Antica, the ancient town just 20 miles from Rome, might not have the dramatic past of its Vesuvius-vanquished neighbors to the south. But if your interest is in getting a feel for the daily lives of the Romans, not the notoriety of a particular disaster, then head to Ostia Antica.
Before being abandoned in the 9th century, the ancient Roman city had 50,000 inhabitants. Today, the vast site is chock-full
of the remnants of houses, restaurants, and bars. There’s even a hotel. It’s still two stories tall — and you’re still allowed to climb the ancient stairs to the second floor.
Like other high-quality ancient sites, if Ostia gives you one thing, it’s the sense of how little times have really changed. Not only could visitors to town stay in a hotel (with the more expensive, seaside-view rooms those on the higher floors), but they could walk across the street for a tipple at the bar and restaurant. Here’s an image of that bar, left, complete with the marble shelving for various bottles and, above it, a fresco depicting exactly what the restaurant served — an ancient predecessor to the current menus with photos you see in Rome today. (Although, avoid those).
And you can get a sense of ancient advertising. Take this shop, its floor a black-and-white mosaic of fish and seafood. What was this shop? The fish-monger, of course.
You can get to Ostia by taking the Metro, line B, to Piramide, then following the signs to the Roma-Lido station. From there, you can get the train to Ostia Antica, using the same metro ticket. For a map, click here.
I love Rome’s ruins: the forum, the Palatine, the scattered bits of temple and theatre and bath. But I’m the first to admit that you need some imagination, and historical background, to look at “ruin” and see “ancient city.”
Not in Herculaneum.
Destroyed (or preserved), like Pompeii, by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., Herculaneum shows you more than the shape of the ancient town. It shows you the town itself. The site boasts two-story buildings, colorful frescoes, and near-perfect mosaics. And because it was dumped mainly with a dense, volcanic stone called tuff, rather than the ash that felled Pompeiians, it’s only here, not at its more-famous neighbor, that you can see remnants of actual wood. There’s nothing like seeing an ancient bedframe to feel uncomfortably close to the townspeople who died here nearly two millennia ago.
Even so, Herculaneum hasn’t managed to usurp the hold that Pompeii has in the international imagination. Why? It’s a lot smaller, for a start: about a third of the size. It’s also somewhat less grand. But with better-preserved buildings, less crowds, and a closer location to Rome, it’s also a rewarding alternative to its more-notorious neighbor. And don’t underestimate the site: It takes the thorough visitor a good three hours to peek into each house’s nook and cranny.
To get to Herculaneum from Rome, take the train to Naples. The fastest train is 70 minutes and starts at €44 one way; the slowest, at 3 hours, costs €12.40. Go to Trenitalia’s website for times and fares, but remember to put in “Roma” and “Napoli,” not “Rome” and “Naples.” From there, grab the local train, the Circumvesuviana, to “Ercolano.”