A “Tapsy Tours” of Rome
Arriving in a city like Rome with young children in tow, you’re bound to find yourself torn. There’s so much to discover and learn, history surrounds you in all directions, including right under your feet. But children, or at least my children, quickly tire of dry facts read from a guidebook or lengthy labels describing historical sites, full of instantly forgettable names and dates.
Tapsy Tours have come up with a way to keep everyone happy. Their aim is to engage the entire family and ‘make Rome fun’ for children and adults alike. We eagerly signed up to try out their three-hour tour of the city on a cold and drizzly day in early January.
Tess watching the world go by from our luxury van
I didn’t envy our guide, Jan (think Dickens’ Fagin), when he met us at the Constantine Arch next door to the Colosseum. My son is eleven going on seventeen and just starting to cultivate that super cool, nothing interests me, hands-in-pockets attitude to life. My daughter, eight, is a self-declared hater of historical sites and museums, ‘those old places’ as she calls them, and detests walking more than anything else. At least my husband and I were feeling positive, though even that was a struggle as the temperature dropped and the rain begun to pour.
Thankfully we headed straight for a van – a luxury one at that, complete with sweets, wet wipes and an activity book and pencil for each of the children. We began with a leisurely drive around the city, stopping first at Circo Massimo, the world’s largest arena ever built (the size of six football pitches!), where Jan conjured up images of wild chariot races and athletic contests, all overlooked by the rich and famous emperors in their lavish palaces on the Palatine Hill above.
The Vatican City
Next stop the Vatican city, a miniature state of just 0.3 square kilometres, making it the smallest country in the world. I defy anyone not to be spellbound by the approach to Saint Peter’s church and the marvellous colonnade that surrounds Piazza San Pietro. My family were no exception. We listened attentively as Jan pointed out the window of the Pope’s apartment from which he blesses the waiting crowd on Sunday mornings, and described in detail Bernini’s intent that the colonnades surrounding the Piazza appear as outstretched arms welcoming pilgrims to the heart of the church.
After glimpses of other sites en route, and various facts and stories thrown out by Jan about the ancient city lying twelve metres below us under layers of rubble and silt, we arrived at the Colosseum and said good-bye to our luxury car and friendly driver. However, we immediately sighed a collective heavy sigh as we caught sight of the long line of people waiting outside in the rain for tickets. Not our problem, our group ticket allowed us to smugly skip the queue and head straight for the entrance!
Once inside, Jan’s stories of ancient Rome picked up pace. We heard tales of frustrated young men arriving in Rome from the countryside to make their fortune and being drawn into the violent world of gladiatorial contests; morning shows at the Colosseum attended by women and children (not permitted to view the more violent gladiator battles in the afternoon); and contests between exotic animals from all over the world pitched in unlikely battles against one another – a bear versus a hippo for example, or a rhinoceros versus a bull.
Jan explained that the empty ground-floor arches we were passing were once full of arcade stalls renting seat cushions and selling ready-made meals to hungry spectators. The brick walls and benches we were looking at were covered with dazzling marble slabs. And the open space above our heads was once a vaulted ceiling that kept the space dry but dark and full of atmosphere. In short, the empty shell of the arena, impressive enough all by itself in terms of scale and design, came to life and we could imagine ourselves there amongst the crowds of the ancient people of Rome, caught up in the excitement of gladiatorial combat and watching attentively as various wild animals were released from hidden trap doors in the floor.
The Roman Forum
The family Lattimer at the Roman Forum
With Rome’s main attraction of the Colosseum done and dusted we continued our tour with a leisurely walk through the Roman Forum. On route we learned about the life of the ancient people of Rome – what they studied at school, what they ate, how they coped with illness and hardship. And we heard fantastic stories of Roman emperors, good and bad, including Caligula who had his horse appointed as a senator in order to ridicule and provoke the conservative Senate and impress his young fans and friends.
What better place to finish than the beautiful Capitoline Hill overlooking the Forum, designed by Michelangelo and home to the Etruscan bronze statue of the twins Romulus and Remus – legendary founders of Rome, suckling from Lupa the she-wolf. Time to say goodbye to Jan. ‘What, already?!’ said my son – fine praise indeed!
Time for Pizza!
From there it was straight to a local trattoria for warming minestrone soup, pasta and pizza. Over lunch, my husband and I asked the children what they remembered from the tour. To our surprise, they were easily able to rattle off several impressive facts that they’d retained eg. the planets of our solar system are named after Roman gods, and the interior of the Colosseum hasn’t been cleaned since it was built. I too was able to zoom in on certain details of the city around me in a way that I hadn’t before – recognising a Corinthian column here and a Baroque style of architecture there.
My only criticism, and it’s a small one, is that the activity booklet could have used in a more interactive way. Leafing through it later I discovered that it contained some fun ‘treasure hunt’ style activities that I think my children would have enjoyed doing during the tour.
Other than that, though, it was an excellent way to discover the many layers of history and appreciate the stunning beauty of this eternal city. Thanks to Tapsy Tours for succeeding in doing what they set out to do: making Rome fun for all the family.
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Disclosure: Charlotte Latimer and her family were offered a complimentary three-hour tour of Rome by Tapsy Tours; all opinions are entirely independent.