Rome's most famous site, the Colosseum
Despite this being my fourth visit to Italy, it was a first in a number of ways. I was taking a group of middle school students and their parents as part of an educational tour. One additional teacher, 10 students, and 10 parents and grandparents made up our group. We had booked the trip through EF Tours, the leader in educational travel. They handled all the money, logistics, and guides. We had a local, Italian tour director who accompanied us from start to finish. EF Tours also arranged local, onsite guides for just about every day of sightseeing. My job would be to help coordinate things for our group, make sure all of my travelers were where they were supposed to be, and fill in the holes on our free time.
Sound simple? Well, everything went smoothly, but it was a lot of work. Since our group filled up only half a bus, we combined with two smaller groups to make roughly 45 travelers. Both groups were high schoolers, one of mostly boys from Houston and another of mostly girls from Des Plains, Illinois. Instances of drama between the groups were rare. My group got along with the Houston boys really well, and did okay with the Illinois girls, for the most part.
The travel group ready to board our flight: 2 teachers, 10 students, 10 parents/grandparents
Our group gathered at Port Columbus about two hours before our initial flight to Detroit. Two of my adults had designed tour T-shirts, so we all showed up matching. An experienced group leader had recommended this as a way to make it easier to keep together in the airport, through security, and so on. Everyone seemed in high spirits for a week of sightseeing in Italy. Of course, can you blame them? I had picked this tour because it visited some of the highlights of Roman, Medieval,,and Renaissance history that I taught them in 7th grade. All five of my 8th graders were my former students, as was one of my 7th graders. Throughout the trip, I would quiz them and review what I'd taught them. It was gratifying to see how much they remembered of my class.
Our layover in Detroit flew by fairly fast, and before we knew it, we were lining up to board our flight to Rome. Delta treated us great, allowing us to board as a group right after their first class and priority flyers. Our Boeing 767 had a great selection of movies with screens in the setbacks, so most of the kids and adults occupied themselves watching movies. Most of us tried to sleep. Most of us were about as unsuccessful as I was. Despite having my earplugs and eye mask, I couldn't sleep one minute. I watched a movie, tried to sleep, gave up, watched another movie, read some, and generally passed the time as uncomfortably as I usually do on planes. Despite the lack of sleep, most of my travelers were excited and seemed fully awake as we deplaned in Rome.
Ostia Antica, Rome's ancient port on the Mediterranean Sea
We went through passport control and reclaimed our luggage without a hitch. We were met by an EF Tours Rep immediately, We had known for a couple weeks that we would be the first of the three groups arriving. The second group was scheduled in two hours later, and the third three hours after us. We also had known for months that our first day in Rome was a "free day," with no scheduled sightseeing. In our monthly meetings leading up to our departure, we had cobbled together a list of sights we wanted to see that were not part of our tour. I had finally heard back from our local tour guide, Elvira, a week prior to departure. I let her know in no uncertain terms we did not want to start our week in Italy sitting around in an airport for three hours after having just spent the previous day sitting around on planes and in airports! The EF Rep said that we would have to wait for the other groups, though. I insisted she contact Elvira and that this plan was not acceptable to us. She called Elvira and we went back and forth on the phone for a bit. She finally agreed to pick us up and take us somewhere at 11:00, which meant everyone had about 45 minutes to change clothes, grab some food, or change money.
The Roman bath complex at Ostia -- check out the great mosaic floor of the tepidarius (warm room)
Elvira and I picked out Ostia Antica -- the Mediterranean port for Ancient Rome -- as our sight to see while we were waiting for the others to arrive. The Rome airport is only about 10 minutes from the site, and it would be a nice introduction to Roman antiquities. As it turned out, the second group was running late, so we would have an hour of wandering around the sprawling site before we had to be back on the bus. Elvira said she was not permitted to guide us through Ostia, so we made do with reading the signs, and wandering amidst the ruins. I felt I could personally have done so much more to allow my students to get more out of it if I'd been given a chance to prepare for the visit. As it was, most were impressed with their first, up-close look at 2,000 year old ruins. The theater and Roman baths impressed them the most, I think. It was hot and sunny. You could see the vitality draining out of them by the end of our hour. Although I could have wandered there for hours, more than a few were happy to get back into the bus' air conditioning. Everyone said they enjoyed the visit, though, and were impressed with Ostia.
After swinging by the airport to pick up the Houston group (the girls from Illinois had missed their connection and were still in Madrid), we headed into Rome. As we drove through the city, Elvira pointed out the sights. We saw the city's ancient walls, the dome of the Vatican, and a number of churches. We stopped outside of the sprawling, brick shell of Diocletian's Baths. The frigidarium, or cold bath, was converted into a Christian church in the 1500's by order of Pope Pius IV. Some of the combined group went inside the church to check out its frescoes, while those whose stomachs were growling sought out one of the restaurants or cafes for dinner. From there, we headed to the hotel to check in. After dinner, I organized a search for a local gelato place based on the recommendation of the hotel desk. The placed ended up being closed, and a couple dozen students trekked back to the hotel disappointed. I assured them it had not been an elaborate trick to tire them out so they would sleep!
The Vatican and St. Peter's -- simultaneously the smallest country in the world, yet the largest church in the world
The next morning, after breakfast, we began our exploration of Rome. First, it was off to the Vatican. We met our local guide and were introduced to the Whisper technology EF Tours would employ. Each student was given a cellphone-sized receiver to be worn on a lanyard around their neck. Ear buds would allow them to hear the guide, who would speak into a microphone he or she wore. In theory. Unfortunately, the device was not perfect. Sometimes, we could hear the guide well enough. Other times, it was distorted. I'm not sure if some guides were better at knowing where to wear the microphone than others, or what. Our Vatican guide often sounded like Charlie Brown's teacher, "Whant, wah wah wah..." We urged the students who had the most difficulty to stick close to the guide so they could hear her voice without the earbuds.
As an aside, I want to take a moment to praise the 10 students I brought on this trip. They were excited, engaged, and eager to learn from our guides. Sure, from time to time, some would get tired, worn out or cranky. Heck, most adults would struggle to stay focused on the long days under the hot, Italian sun. Our kids persevered like champs, though. All of the adults who went along on the trip praised my 12-14 year olds over and over. I was so proud of them. They did a great job representing their school and parents.
An interesting insight for me was comparing the kids' experiences with my own. Often, their novice traveler eyes were open with wonder, while my own veteran ones looked at a situation differently. Our Vatican tour was the prime example. Many kids considered it a highlight of the week, while I mentally picked out ways it could have been better. After assembling outside the gates and bypassing the several hour line (score one for EF Tours), our guide led us onto a rooftop terrace where she explained what we would see. She then led us into the Vatican Museum, which was a crush of people. We would spend the next 20-30 minutes elbow to elbow, weaving our way through the museum's corridors towards the Sistine Chapel. Our group of 40+ was slowly stretched and intermingled with the mass of humanity all seeking to glean something from the works of art we were walking past. I stayed near the back to make sure no one got left behind, which stretched the range of the Whisper Device. The audio cut out as she rounded corners. Eventually, we were ushered into the Sistine Chapel. All the guides stopped talking and visitors were shushed as everyone gazed upward in awe at Michaelangelo's masterpiece. It was inspiring to see, even though it was my second time.
The fountains in St. Peter's Square, designed by Bernini and Moderno in the 1600s
Next, our guide led us into St. Peter's Basilica, the largest church in the world. Here, the crowd was much less oppressive, and we gathered around her as she pointed out the sights. I was surprised and pleased to see Michaelangelo's La Pieta, which I teach the kids about in my Renaissance Art lesson. I posted it out to students, reminding them of the lesson, and letting them drink in the glory of his work. His ability to render emotion in Mary's face and feeling in his depiction of Jesus' drained, lifeless body as he is cradled in her arms, is stunning. After the church, we entered the vast and impressive square of St. Peter's. Unfortunately, the guide hurried us through this architectural masterpiece, giving little time for pictures. Everyone scrambled after her, but you could see in their eyes and body language that they wanted to linger and take photos. I was furious when we reached the destination of her frantic march: a gift shop. I laced into Elvira who was awaiting us there. I told her it was unacceptable for us to be rushed past one of the world's wondrous sights to get to shopping. We were then given an hour and a half to shop, eat lunch, or (like I urged students to do) return to the square for photographs.
Designed to hold 50,000 spectators, the Colosseum is one of Rome's most amazing sights
We reboarded the bus and headed next to the Colosseum. There, we would have a different local guide for our visit to Rome's most famous sight and the Forum. Our guide led us inside the amphitheater and found a secluded corridor to give the kids a 25 minute review of Ancient Rome. I wasn't convinced of the need for this and would have rathered she jumped right in to talk about the Colosseum. This guide was better, though. She varied her pacing, spiced it up with questions to the kids, and made it more engaging than the last. She then led us up stairs and pointed out how the Colosseum was used as a quarry for building material through the centuries after the fall of Rome, during the Middle Ages. Finally, we ascended a final set of steps and Rome's greatest amphitheater -- and the inspiration for modern stadiums today -- was laid out before us. The kids were suitably impressed, and snapped and posed for pictures at a rapid pace. I unrolled the vinyl banner with the words "Orange Middle School" I'd had made and the students lined up holding it for a shot with the Colosseum in the background. You could tell the kids enjoyed the Colosseum through their smiles and wide eyes.
The travelers pose in front of the panorama that is the Colosseum
Next, we were led into the Roman Forum for an abbreviated, introductory tour, with 45 minutes of free time afterwards. I offered to take the OOMS group on a continuation of the tour, and they all accepted. I pulled out my DK Eyewitness guidebook for reference, and then launched into a half hour exploration of Rome's downtown district. I ended with a visit to the House of the Vestal Virgins, one of my favorite places in the Forum. The peristyle garden lined with statues of various priestesses of Vesta is a quiet, atmospheric place that allows visitors to picture what life may have been like.
The travelers listen to our guide talk about the Roman forum
After a delicious pizza dinner (a description I consider to border on redundant), we drove towards the Piazza Navona. We disembarked and walked towards the Piazza di Spagna, and the nearby Trevi Fountain. Unfortunately, it is under reconstruction. There is a small fount for visitors to toss their coins over their shoulder in hopes of a return to Rome. It was getting late, which meant by the time we arrived at my favorite Roman building, The Pantheon, it was closed. I talk to my students extensively about what I consider Rome's greatest engineering marvel, so this was a true disappointment. We took pictures outside, but nothing can compare with a visit to the inside and staring up at the largest concrete dome the world had seen for 2,000 years. I felt bad for those who had been my students as they clustered looking up at, wanting to be inside. If there had been a guard instead of merely locked doors, I would have offered him hundreds of dollars to open it up to them. Finally, we walked to the Piazza Navona where Elvira pointed out the best gelato shop. Our group took advantage of it, assuaging any disappointment with excellent, Italian ice cream.
The Pantheon -- believed by many to be Rome's greatest architectural achievement
Our sightseeing was capped off with our first "add on." All three groups had agreed to a night tour of Rome at the cost of 10 Euros each. We boarded our bus and whipped around various parts of Rome, taking in the sight of the ancient and medieval sites illuminated by floodlights. I pointed out Trajan's Column to the kids as we passed it -- another monument I talk about extensively in class. We disembarked only once, to get a picture of the St. Peter's lit up at night. Finally, our long day of drinking in Rome's ancient glory was over. We headed back to the hotel to rest up for our next day.
we embarked on our first "add on" to our tour