Walks of Italy: Intro Tour of Rome

We met Amy, our guide, in front of the obelisk at the top of the Spanish steps. We’d been sent an email that told us exactly where to meet (with clear images and a selection of maps) and Amy was standing with a ‘Walks of Italy’ sign (bright yellow) so she was very easy to spot.  We were pleased to find that we didn’t have headsets and earphones offered to us as there were only 11 of us in the group so there was no need. In so many tours they have this method of communication between guide and tourist and sometimes in more crowded places it’s really needed but regardless of this I find it blocks out the sound of the city too much and insulates me from the reality of life. Instead Amy just spoke in a loud and controlled voice which ensured we heard everything she had to say.

Amy’s Australian and has been visiting Italy since she was 14 (she now lives full time in Rome). She started off by giving us a brief history of Rome as we stood on the top tier of the Spanish Steps. There were a lot of facts and figures which were slightly difficult for us to take in as we’d just flown in that morning and our heads were a little fuzzy but Amy made it fun and I think a bit of it soaked in, especially certain names and dates as we were to hear them a lot over the next 2.5 hours.

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Amy explained that the Spanish Steps were actually built by the French but became known as the Spanish steps because they were the route that the Spanish ambassador would take from the embassy below to the church above. There were lots of little snippets of information that we hadn’t known about before our visit (even though I’ve been to Rome 4 or 5 times before and have a keen interest in history), I won’t list them here as I don’t recall them all plus if I did list them I don’t reckon the tour would be as much fun for you when you take it!

We walked down the steps, past the house that John Keats lived and died in and turned left past the Spanish embassy…

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…and then right onto the long street that was to lead us past several churches and photography-worthy sites (the names Bernini and Borromini kept cropping up as Amy spoke and during the next 7 days we were to hear them a lot from various guides as these two men were the main architects of the city of Rome that we know today) to an ancient fountain.

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The fountain marked the end of one of the series of aqueducts in ancient times. Amy explained that there were over 800 kms of aqueducts at one time with many of them running underground.  That was news to us as we thought aqueducts were always above ground channels. We were encouraged to drink and fill up our water bottles at the fountain; we really enjoyed this, it was as if we were making a direct connection with Ancient Rome, drinking from the same fountains as Romans had done for the past two thousand years.

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The tour definitely wasn’t just about Ancient Rome though. As we passed through the many alleyways and side streets of central Rome, Amy explained the difference between Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo, telling us about the life of those two great architects/sculptors Bernini and Borromini who had such an influence on the Rome we see today.

We passed by the Trevi Fountain which was sadly covered in scaffolding under a renovation project. This is how it looks (probably best to expect the scaffold to stay until at least mid 2015).

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We were encouraged to look up (“always look up when walking around Rome!” urged Amy) where we saw a house had extended its rooms over the top of a church.

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Then we walked through a shopping mall…

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…and past several more churches and notable sights…

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…before we popped into one of the city’s best gelato shops, where Amy told us to order whatever we wanted. Lamia had never had gelato before, she’d always avoided it in other countries as she wanted to save the experience for Italy.

“I knew that it’d be something worth waiting for, to try real gelato in Rome,” she said. As we walked into the gelato shop, we were faced with an L shaped refrigerated counter behind which were 60 to 70 different flavours of gelato, including some made from soya instead of cream. Perhaps the hardest choice a tourist will have in Rome is choosing which flavour to have on their cone or cup.

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It took the two of us a good 10 minutes to finally make our decision (Lamia had Cream Pistachio and Roché whereas I had rich, Dark Chocolate topped with a second scoop of Vanilla Raspberry).

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“I found the gelato so tasty that I’m going to have a difficult time enjoying ice cream from now on. After tasting real Italian gelato, the ice cream we have back in Canada is nothing!” said Lamia.

It’s a strange thing that in this era of easily transported foods, the best gelato is still always found in Italy. We actually went to one of the best, most authentic Italian restaurants in London a week before Rome and even though the chef was born in the south of Italy and was an experienced gelato maker, it still wasn’t as good. Perhaps it’s because it’s been changed to suit western taste, like Indian or Chinese food, which is never the same in England or Canada as they are in their home countries, or perhaps it’s just that the ingredients can’t be gotten as fresh overseas, or even because people don’t eat as much gelato in England or Canada and since the real thing can’t be kept for more than 3 days perhaps preservatives have to be added in order to stop it going off. Who knows, there could be many more reasons. One thing’s for sure though, gelato in Italy beats any sort of ice cream made anywhere else, hands down.

After the gelato stop we walked down an alleyway towards the Pantheon which gave us a view that highlighted the great dome. We stood there for about 10 minutes as Amy explained the unique history of the Pantheon and in that time, no other tour groups walked or stopped there, so it was clearly a special view point that only an experienced and passionate guide would know.

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Amy was greeted warmly by the waiters that stood outside of the many restaurants in that area. She’s obviously well known and liked by the locals, it was good to be guided by somebody like that. We had five minutes inside the Pantheon to look around (not enough time but this was just an intro tour to show us places we might want to revisit during our time in the city) where we saw the tomb of Raphael…

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…and took a couple of snaps outside…

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…before passing a church that is rarely open (it’s not usually on the tour but since it was open we popped in to see the vast courtyard)…

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…before finally finishing up in the vast Piazza Navona.

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Lamia really enjoyed this final stop as she had seen the grand fountain in the centre in the film ‘Angels and Demons’ and really wanted to visit it in person. The fountain was built by Bernini, Amy explained, and the four figures holding up the grand obelisk represented the four major rivers of the world known at the time (Ganges, Nile, Rio Plata and the Danube). Each of the figures held different positions and had unique facial expressions and, like all the sites we had seen on the tour, there was meaning behind this that you just wouldn’t know if you weren’t guided by a passionate historian.

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Our final act as a group was to circle around the fountain as Amy explained the hidden meanings and then we were free to do as we liked. Some stayed for a meal at one of the many outdoors restaurants surrounding the piazza but we were tired – it had been a long day (flying in and getting settled in our hotel, etc.) so after getting directions back to the hotel from Amy we made our way back, after posing for a few snaps, of course.

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Alongside the Walks of Italy ‘VIP Colosseum and Ancient Rome’ tour that we took later in the week, this Intro Tour to Rome is a must. It’s suitable for everybody – a few of us had flown in that day and were pretty tired so we didn’t walk at a fast pace and one couple had walking difficulties but they were fine as apart from the Spanish Steps (where there’s a lift if needed) there were very little, if any, ups and downs – and also it’s cracking value at only 29 Euro considering it’s 2.5 hours long, the free gelato and all the insider tips and knowledge that Amy gave us which really enhanced the rest of our stay in Rome.

Check it our yourself here - http://www.walksofitaly.com/tour_bookings/tour_all_listing/1/40

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