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