I was introduced to Context Travel guided walking tours by my Wanderlust Tours partner with whom I was traveling to Rome and Paris. She took one of these in-depth, scholarly led tours a few years back and raved about how well-done they are. The small (no more than 6 to a group) tours are led by local historians, professors, and scholars able to put the city’s history and development into CONTEXT through guided tours and commentary.

I confess. I did a double-take when I read the length of tours range from two to sometimes four or five hours and was a bit hesitant to commit. I feared my attention span might wane after a few hours- especially “so early” in the morning. But who am I kidding? I adore history, architecture, and learning—- so we registered for not one, but two different tours in a single day. The four hour Roma Antica tour offering a comprehensive look at the Coliseum and Forum and a two hour Underground Coliseum tour of its recently opened subterranean levels where the gladiators and animals once dwelled.

Ambitious seeming- yes. But it turned out to be one of the most memorable parts of our two week trip, and by far the best guided day tours I have ever experienced…ever.

Part of the Wanderlust philosophy is to help our guests develop a ‘sense of place’ while traveling and taking a Context tour is a great way to do that- especially if you have limited time in a city. We appreciate having that same experience when we travel.

Our small group of six gathered at a designated coffee shop across the street from the Coliseum to meet our guide, Livia Galante. After securely establishing her expertise and background in Roman Archaeology, we headed straight for the Coliseum. Sherri and I had visited the Coliseum earlier in the week on a beautiful sunny day, but there was something about this morning’s gray skies and deary weather that created an ominous backdrop to the arena in which men, women, children, and animals battled to certain death. The impending doom could be felt. We entered the hulking skeleton of a building— bypassing the lines — and launching into an immediate education.

Livia led us around each Coliseum level, explaining the architecture, history, and customs in unbelievable depth. The one thing that really sticks out to my mind is her debunking of a famous myth. Contrary to popular belief, early Christians were generally not fed to the lions as religious persecution, but rather due to their political descent. No less justifiable, but still intriguing. My brain’s historical wiring has been re-routed!

Livia did something very cool. She brought along a back pack full of reconstructions, overlays, and images to help us visualize the building as it once was in various phases. A very nice touch— and so were the sugary snacks handed out from time to time. Absorbing all this historical information requires brain fuel.

After an exhaustive tour of the arena, we raced out into the rain, getting schooled on Constantine the Great (Rome’s first Christian Emperor) while dodging mud puddles, torrents of water, and other sopping wet tourists. Context tours go off rain or shine. This day, Mother Nature gave us all a non-stop dousing. Our group bee-lined for the Palatine Museum, but not before poking around ruins which were once the Imperial Palace of the Ceasars. The view from the museum overlooks the legendary birthplace of Rome— the spot where Romulus established Rome in 754 BCE. The Palatine Hill became the best address in town for 300 years of Roman Emperors and the museum sits within a palatial complex. The collections are extraordinary, encompassing everything from bits and pieces of mosaics and tiles to monumental statuary and busts of emperors (and their mothers).

After an eye-opening education at the museum, we walked down ancient Rome’s main street- Via Sacra- to the heart of the Forum. Despite being mostly ruinous, with a little imagination (and Livia’s fabulous reconstructions) it’s easy to envision the hustle and bustle that was once the heart of Rome. She pointed out interesting architectural elements from among the thousands of bits of rubble and ruin; helping us understand construction and engineering techniques; sculptural propaganda, and told a few tales of scandal and intrigue.

We walked past the shells of ancient temples, triumphal, arches, basilicas, and the House of the Vestal Virgins, into the Curia (Senate House) where we were enlightened as to the way things were done 2,000 years ago. The Senate was much smaller and more claustrophobic than I imagined, but we were fortunate that an exhibition of glass and sculpture was taking place, which isn’t always the case. It was pure awesomeness. Not to mention, the mosaic floors were spectacular. I wish I had time to photograph every square inch.

After the tour, we were in fact, permitted to stay in the Forum as long as we wanted. Livia graciously left us to wallow in the mind-boggling amount of information she passed along. My love for history, architecture, and travel was fueled in such a way that I want to go back right then and there to hop aboard other in-depth tours… luckily, another 2 hour tour of the Underground Coliseum awaited us later that afternoon.

Read more about our tour of the subterranean levels of the Coliseum– which were something else!!