Walks of Italy VIP Tour of The Roman Forum and The Colosseum

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Wet met Sylvia, our guide, early afternoon outside of the Colosseum and were given headsets. We don’t usually like headsets (they’re a little impersonal) but in this case they were essential considering the huge number of tourists that throng the Roman Forum and Colosseum area each day. Our first stop on what was to be nearly a 4 hour tour was the Forum, a 10 minute walk away.

The Forum is spread over a large area so there was a limit to what we could see but having spent a few days in there 3 years ago making pinhole photos, I was well acquainted with the place and afterwards felt that Sylvia had given us a decent overview of it all.

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By the way, if you’re wondering what sort of alternative process photos you can get in the Forum, Palatine and Colosseum area, here’s an example of what I did with pinhole cameras. They took between 12 seconds and 3 minute to exposure and taking them was easy; there always seemed to be somewhere to balance your camera to keep it steady and if by chance there wasn’t, nobody minded me using my tripod.

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One of the highlights for me on this part of the tour was the House of the Vestal Virgins…

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…and the place where Julius Caesar was cremated.

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This is the rock, apparently, upon which Caesars dead body was lain.

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Rome is known as an archaeological lasagna, Sylvia explained, as there are so many layers of history clearly visible after excavation. The Forum lies 7 or 8 metres below modern street level in some places and Sylvia pointed out stark evidence of this by highlighting a church door that was a few metres above us with no steps leading to it. Here you can see it, the green door visible through the pillars.

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That green door was the street level in the Middle Ages when this church was built within the ruins of a Roman temple, and obviously the question occurred to me, where did all the dirt come from to cover the old city? Did the wind blow it in?

Well, not all of it, Sylvia explained. Before the early part of last century the River Tiber didn’t have good flood defences so whenever heavy rain fell upstream the river would burst it’s banks and flood the city. The older parts, where few people lived, would remain covered with the silt that the water had deposited, and over the years that had built up until it covered all trace of the old world.

It tough to cram so much history into such a short time but Sylvia tried; names of emperors cropped up as we passed ruin after ruin – Caligula, Nero, Augustus and of course Caesar – and stories were told that breathed life into the stones. Such as the tale of the sack of Jerusalem, depicted clearly on the arch of Titus in the image below that shows the Romans carrying off the golden Menorah from the Jewish Temple.

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From the Forum we walked up to the Palatine Hill, where palace ruins were revealed and views were had.

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I’ve been to Rome many times and have photographed the ruins over a period of 27 years but despite having a keen interest in history, I learnt more from this tour than I have ever done before. I could recount some of the stories that Sylvia told us that really illuminated our experience but I’m not going to for two reasons. Firstly, I’m not as good a storyteller as Sylvia is, and secondly, if I tell you now you won’t get such a thrill when you go on the tour and hear if for yourself, standing in the very spot where the legends were created. A bridge can be just a bridge, a story just a story, but when the story is about Caligula walking over the bridge to his private island, and you’re looking at the bridge and the island and feeling the same Roman sun beating down on your neck as he did, then the whole becomes more than the sum and has to be experienced first hand to be truly appreciated.

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As we left the Palatine Hill, my opinion was that this first part of the tour is a good intro to the area but if you’ve got time you should go back and spend the whole day in the Forum after learning about the highlights. There’s so much to see, to ponder over, to photograph.

This is not particularly true of the Colosseum part of the tour, however, where we went next and had ample time to enjoy it, access to areas not open to the general public and perfect light to photograph it all. What followed was certainly the best insight into the Colosseum I’ve ever had and I saw more in the hour that we were there than in previous times where I’ve spent whole mornings or afternoons wandering around the terraces in search of photos.

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The first clearly noticeable benefit of being on a VIP tour was that we walked past the huge lines of independent travellers and tour groups who hadn’t chosen the VIP tour and went straight into the ampitheatre. Here’s the queue that we didn’t have to stand in.

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Our small group then walked to the arena floor entrance, an area out of bounds to the general public. What a thrill to look down that tunnel, as though we were gladiators about to enter the arena!

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I must confess that I also felt pretty special. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of other tourists crammed into the open access areas of the ampitheatre but here on the arena floor it was just us. We had the view that the gladiators would have had 2,000 years ago, looking up at the crowds in the stands of this magnificent stadium. It was memorable, exciting, and a great opportunity to get decent photos.

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We had 15 minutes there on the arena floor and then worked our way down to another area that was out of bounds to the general ticket holders, the underground. This was the series of passageways, Sylvia explained, that the gladiators and animals would have actually used to enter the Colosseum, walking from their barracks and holding areas over the road to the rooms hidden under the arena floor, from where wooden lifts would have been used to bring them into the actual arena.

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It was cool down there, a watercourse ran underneath the Colosseum that bought the temperature down, and more stories were told. We’d been led to believe that the Romans flooded the arena at times and staged naval battles but Sylvia disputed this, although later we met other guides who said it was true. There’s a limit to what archaeology can teach us, especially when much of it is managed by professors who have one eye on the truth and another on furthering their own reputation, so who knows if the river we were standing over was used at one time to actually flood the arena. But regardless of the truth, it was fascinating to hear the stories and look ahead of us into the ruins of the holding rooms, imagining the people who had stood there before us. Some say that strong emotions can hang around for centuries. That you can ‘feel’ something if you visit the scene of a great battle, or an even greater love affair, and if this is true then perhaps you can also feel something here, under the Colosseum floor, where thousands of humans and animals alike must have exuded the most intense emotions as they stood waiting for the lift to carry them to near certain death.

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The tour finale was incredible. We walked through the crowds and up to the third tier of the Colosseum which, like the arena floor and underground area, you can only visit whilst on a VIP tour after passing through a series of locked gates. The lack of crowds and relaxed time schedule was the perfect conditions in which to take in this iconic view.

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From our 8 days in Rome we concluded this; that if you want to visit a major Roman attraction you have 3 choices: you buy a general entry ticket, guide yourself round at a slow pace and miss out on the best bits; you sign up for a VIP Tour and get intimate access to everything that it’s possible to visit in 4 hours; or, and this is our advice to photographers, you go on a VIP Tour and then return to the sites the next day, at a more leisurely pace to add photographs taken through the day’s varying light conditions to your experience.

Now we’ve been on several Walks of Italy tours, we couldn’t imagine seeing Rome without them. And coming from a hardcore backpacker who’s spent his life guiding himself around most of the world’s great sights, that’s saying something.

To discover more about this Walks of Italy tour, please visit http://www.walksofitaly.com/tour_bookings/tour_all_listing/1/65

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