Getting under the skin of Rome with Context Travel

What lies beneath these ancient streets but millennia of stories. Rome. The ultimate treasure trove of history. In this city more than any other, there's truly more than meets the eye. Layer upon layer of history, generations of cultures, over 2000 years of life, concentrated in one chaotic miasma of stone. It's overwhelming, but soon after arriving in Rome, you'll want to start piecing it all together, to understand at least a little of how this great city has grown and changed over the years, of how much remains in view, of how much we owe to ideas first conceived before Christ.

Copyright @Mordredsoul

Thankfully, Context Travel, with an enviable 'who's who' of docents, can help. They contacted me earlier this year offering the opportunity to take one of their tours. I looked through the list, all the regular tours are there, the Vatican, a food tour, a tour of the Roman forum. All interesting. Great, if you want a flavour of Rome, but what if you've visited a few times, you've done the main sights, had your fill of carbonara and alla gricia? That's when you need a tour which is going to go further, deeper into Rome. That's where this tour, Rome Underground with Context Travel, comes in.

La Chiesa di San Lorenzo in Lucina. But what lies beneath?

Meeting outside la Chiesa di San Lorenzo in Lucina, our small group (numbering just 6) listened as our extremely well qualified docent Philip Ditchfield showed us paintings and pictures of the church and square, slowly taking us back in time, explaining how the local area had formed, which buildings date from which period, and indeed, how the whole area appeared at various stages of the Roman civilisation. I won't spoil it for you, but suffice to say, it was truly fascinating. What I will tell you is that it's the second church on that site, and dates from around the 1100s. The first church, dating from around 400AD, was demolished, possibly by the Normans (under instruction from the pope), but was still visible, if only we could get underneath the church...

Granted, my phone isn't the best camera, and I'm not the best photographer.... but here's a live shot of the tour
Through a nondescript wooden door, we descended a few steps underneath the altar. Here, the history of church was laid out before our very eyes. Approximately 1m below the current floor of the church, the arches from the earlier church are visible, along with two earlier structures, that of a Roman apartment block, and of an ancient Roman house. With each layer, we are told anecdotes of life at the time, from that of a slave revolt to why you really want to live on the 1st floor of a Roman apartment block, rather than the penthouse. Deep under the church, fragments of the original flooring of the Roman house are visible (that's flooring from the time of Christ), along with the plumbing and steps of the apartment block. Amazingly, most of central Rome is like this, layer upon layer of history, right under people's feet. Under every street is another street, a few feet down, and then another, further still. This of course explains why Rome isn't blessed with the most efficient nor comprehensive metro system, but also explains the ancient layout of the streets, and the prevalence of ancient stones and artefacts turning up in the middle of pizzerias and bars.

Roman floor under San Lorenzo in Lucina in Rome, Italy. Copyright -
Guess how old that mosaic floor is?

After a thorough exploration of and underneath the church, we headed outside into the glaring Roman sun and through the throbbing Roman alleyways towards the next site. En route, our guide couldn't help but continue to explain everything around us, from the architecture of the most beautiful police station you're ever going to see, to the presence of a masterpiece by Andrea Pozzi in the second ever Jesuit church in the world, la Chiesa di S. Ignacio. Go there, even if you don't take the full tour, and look at the ceiling and tell me it's not at least as good as the sistine chapel (and without the crowd or cost).

We headed past the Trevi fountain (with another fascinating tidbit of history, this time about the ancient Egyptian columns now holding up the Benetton store), past all those tourist trinkets and luxury shops, towards the Crypto Balbi. Once there, we descended once again below the tourist-filled streets into the well-preserved depths to discover a medieval Rome, and beneath that, another real Roman floor. We must have been 25m below street level, but thanks to the complete excavation, museum-style lighting, and spacious feel, it wasn't claustrophobic or particularly adventurous.

Do you know what that slab of stone on the wall is for, or how old it is?

As you may be able to deduce, the tour was excellent. Our guide was a walking encyclopaedia, fascinating, without being too bookish (although I am a scientist so maybe I'm not the best judge), and really gave us an insight into ancient Rome. The tour also both satisfied and fed a thirst I have to understand more about Rome. By providing glimpses of the past, the tour allowed me to understand much better the tangled, inefficient streets of the centro storico. It's truly mind-blowing when you consider the amount of life that has passed through (and I guess now, below) those ancient streets.

I totally recommend this tour, especially if you're spending a few days in Rome, so you can do the main sights yourself, or if you've been to Rome before. This tour will take you further. Consider it the intermediate course, after your beginner of the colosseum and Roman forum. I, for one, can't wait to apply for the advanced course...

Details of the tour (as of July 2014):

Duration: 3.5 hours
Cost: €75
Incidental costs: up to €15 entrance costs, depending on where exactly is visited (dependent on season)
Venues: San Lorenzo in Lucina, Vicus Caprarius, Crypta Balbi

Disclaimer: While a guest of Context Tours, I can't be bought and opinions are my own and are honest. If I didn't like it, I'd tell you straight.

The other photos are mine, taken on my less-than-stellar camera phone

Build an infiorata in Genazzano this weekend

Ever wanted to take part in local life in Italy? You know, join in with the ancient traditions, give something back while enjoying something that you couldn't normally participate in? Something that has even entered the Guinness book of records?

Well now's your chance...

La strada di fiori, genazzano

This coming Saturday night (the 5th July), the little town of Genazzano will be a hive of activity as young and old, locals and visitors, all work together to create masterpieces of art using the humble petal. This tapestry is made every year to celebrate the sacred heart, the week after corpus domini, and given the religious significance, the locals also don various biblical costumes for a solemn procession through the town. The infiorata, almost 2km in length, has even entered the Guinness Book of Records (in 2012) as the longest infiorata in the world.
Infiorata sulla strada Genazzano

Genazzano is a small town of around 6000 souls and is located on the top of a tuff spur 375m above sea level, about 45km south-east of Rome. This Saturday, around midnight, they plan to paint the town red, green, and indeed all the colours of the rainbow, using coloured flower petals, salt, and water. In collaboration with Rome-Countryside, tourists can now join in the fun. 

The programme is as follows:

Check-in at accommodation.
Evening - each guest is assigned a neighbourhood group and begins their work preparing the infiorata
Guests can continue working until the tapestry is finished, or can go to sleep when they're tired
Lunch at a specially selected restaurant with traditional, local food
6:00pm - procession through Genazzano
Cost per person (2 nights accommodations, Sunday lunch): 80 euros
Cost per person (1 night accommodations, Sunday lunch): 59 euros

It's a great opportunity to join in with a local tradition, experience real Italian life, and get a glimpse of the countryside outside Rome. All-in-all, it sounds fantastic, and if I didn't already have a stag-do to go to on Saturday, I'd be there.

For more information, and to make a reservation, click through to the Rome-Countryside website.

Vino Intorno - wine tasting in the hills of Lazio

June is a wonderful time of the year in Lazio. While many tourists throng around the many sights of Rome, the more adventurous have many great opportunities to get out and explore the stunning surrounding countryside. What better then, after doing the Forum, taking Selfies at the Colosseum, and queuing around the Vatican, than getting out to a wine-tasting 45km from Rome?

Vino Intorno, in collaboration with Slow Food Lazio, is over two days at the end of June (21st-22nd) and covers both history, culture, and of course, wine. For €79, which includes accommodation for the Saturday night, entrance fees, tour costs and some meals, you can experience a fully immersive weekend away.

Here's the full programme.

June 21, 2014

Arrival and check in
15.00 Meet in Olevano Romano (RM)
15.30 Tour of Villa Pisa
17:00 VINO INTORNO wine and food tasting evening

June 22, 2014

10:00 Meet in Bellegra (RM)
10.30 Visit to the Arch Cave karst system
13:00 Lunch at a restaurant based on local products.

Included in the €79:

Entrance and guided tour of Villa de Pisa
Coupon for a tasting of food and wine at VINO INTORNO
Overnight stay (breakfast included) at a local B&B
Entrance to the caves and caving Guide Arc Bellegra
Lunch on June 22
Socio-card Rome Countryside

The weekend starts in Olevano Romano, with a guided tour of Villa Pisa and the Museo Centro-Studi di Olevano where, thanks to the impressive work of the "Friends of the Museum of Olevano Romano"over 2000 works are collected and stored, including oil paintings, watercolors, drawings and sketches.

At 5pm, the tasting starts, with both locally sourced food and wine, including the locally-grown Cesanese grape. A coupon for tasting is included in the price. Continuing on the Sunday, we meet in Bellegra for a guided tour of the nearby karst system. First explored in 1925 by two cavers from the Speleogical Club of Rome, the caves can be visited more comfortably today via a catwalk. The caves have a constant temperature of around 7-8 degrees, so it's advisable to bring a jacket.

Frankly, it all sounds lovely! For more information (in Italian) and to book, click through to

This post has been supported by funds from the organisers of this event and is hereby marked as an advertisement. However, any opinions stated within the post are those of LazioExplorer alone and are  independent of this funding. If you have a sagra or festa of your own that you would like to advertise on LazioExplorer, please complete this form.

World Nutella Day Recipe - Banana and Nutella Muffins

It's Nutella Day! A day where you can (legitimately) stuff your face with Nutella and not feel guilty! To celebrate, along with our customary Nutella on toast breakfast, we've decided to honor the day with a sweet treat that can easily be paired with a coffee, used as a dessert, or simply for breakfast...