Did you know there is an entire city below the modern city of
After two millennia of accumulated dust and dirt, building and rebuilding, filling in old buildings with sand and dirt and rocks and building something new on top, the current city sits as much as 25 meters above the various old cities.
If you stand at street level and look down into the Roman Forum you will see what I mean. It seems as though every time they go to build something new or dig up the basement of a property to do routine repairs they find some new site dating back to antiquity. In fact, 90% of the old city hasn’t been excavated and probably never will be.
In my new book Glam Italia! 101 Fabulous Things To Do In Rome (available worldwide on Amazon.com) I have an entire chapter on Underground Rome, with 10 really cool places to go below ground and experience the ancient, ancient city.
It is honestly one of my favorite things to do. Walk around the city below the city, seeing 2000+ year old mosaic floors and inlaid marble floors.
First century frescoes and frescoes that date back to the Republic. Plaques and columns and sarcophagi – they’re all down there!
I take my Glam Italia Tour groups to a variety of these places. One of them is a 4th century chapel below a current day working church. It still has frescoes dating back to the 300’s on the walls.
Normally we are the only people down there. This nice old man who has been working there for as long as I can remember has to unlock the door and turn on the lights to let us in.
Meanwhile right up the street there are thousands of tourists waiting in line to get a postcard photo of a famous site (albeit with a bunch of other people’s heads in the frame), completely unaware of what is quite literally beneath their feet!
If you are making a trip to Rome, be it for a day or for a month, I highly recommend picking up this book and using it to find all manner of totally fascinating places, most of which will be a short walk down the street from where you will be going anyway.
Read the chapter on Underground Rome and do your best to get
to at least one of the places to experience the subterranean city. I can pretty
much guarantee there will be almost no one down there, so not only will you get
to experience something really sensational but you will also get to escape the
See you in Rome!
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Are you heading to Rome anytime soon and want something new and cool to see? I just found out about a new ancient site that has recently re-opened that I absolutely have to visit, and maybe you will want to too!
Let’s Talk Nero…
I didn’t know too much about Nero until somewhat recently. I knew he was a madman and an emperor, but not much more. During a visit to his golden palace in Rome (you can read about it in the Underground Rome section of my new book Glam Italia! 101 Fabulous Things To Do In Rome, available on Amazon.com) I was asking my guide, an archaeologist from the site, some questions about him. She pulled me to the side and very emphatically told me Everything you know about Nero is wrong! I am down here with him every day. I know him! They have lied about him and I know the truth.
Which is why I say I didn’t know too much about him until then. It would appear the senate changed the stories of more than one emperor once he died, so maybe we will never know the full truth, but her urgency got me interested in Nero and I plan on tracking her down when I get back to Rome to get the next part of the story.
Nero was the last emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. He was born December 15 in 37 A.D and died June 9th in 68 A.D at the age of 30. He ruled the empire for 13 years and 8 months.
A Guy With Mommy Issues…
Nero’s mother, Agrippina the Younger was an interesting character. He was adopted by his great uncle Claudius and became the her and successor upon Claudius’ death. Agrippina is thought to have had a hand in the death of Claudius and in Nero’s nomination to be emperor. Apparently she dominated his early life and weighed heavily on all of his decisions a.k.a. controlling mother/stage mom. Five years into his reign he had her murdered.
… And A Guy With Many Wives
The story of Nero’s marriages is intriguing by itself. First he married his step sister Claudia Octavia, daughter of Emperor Claudius.
It was a very unhappy marriage (because he was nuts) and he tried to strangle her on more than one occasion. While married to her he had many affairs including one with Poppaea Sabina, the wife of his friend Ortho.
Poppaea divorced Ortho and became pregnant with Nero’s child,
which in turn prompted Nero to divorce Claudia and banish her to Campania. The
baby died at 4 months old.
Claudia complained about her banishment, so Nero had her maids
tortured. The people of Rome like Claudia and marched in the streets to have
her returned to them, which scared Nero so he not only had her brutally
murdered but also had her head chopped off and sent to Poppaea.
Nero and Poppaea had a tumultuous relationship but it would
seem that she was his favorite wife, even though he ended up killing her too.
In the summer of 65 A.D Nero kicked a pregnant Poppaea in the belly, killing
both her and the child. After her death he went into deep mourning.
While married to Poppaea Sabina Nero had been having an affair
with another married woman, Statilia Messalina. When Poppaea died in 65 A.D
Statilia’s husband was forced to commit suicide so that Nero could marry her.
And then things got even crazier.
In sometime around 66 A.D-67 A.D Nero also married a young boy
called Sporus, who bore a remarkable resemblance to Poppaea. Nero had Sporus
castrated and paraded him around dressed in the clothing of a Roman Empress,
and called him Lady, Empress, Mistress, and Poppaea. It is thought that he used
his marriage to Sporus as a way to assuage his guilt for killing Poppaea.
After Nero’s death Sporus was then taken on by Praetorian
Guard Prefect Nymphilius Sabinus who treated him as a wife and also called him
Poppaea. Nymphilius wound up getting killed by his guardsmen, and the story got
even crazier when in 69 A.D Poppaea’s ex husband Ortho, who now became emperor
albeit for only 3 months, then took up with Sporus!
Sporus ended up committing suicide to avoid being used as a
victim in a gladiator show. He was probably not even 20 years old at the time.
But back to the wives of Nero, there was actually one more. Back in 64 A.D after a series of banquets during the Saturnalia Nero married one of his former slaves, a freedman named Pythagorus. Except this time Nero was the bride and Pythagorus the groom. Nero even wore a bridal veil! After the ceremony the witnesses had to watch the consummation of the marriage too.
Nero’s time as emperor is generally associated with tyranny,
compulsive behavior and extravagance. (As well as lunacy). Many historians
believe he started the great fire of Rome in 64 A.D to clear the way for him to
build his gigantic pleasure palace, the Domus Aurea. Apparently he blamed
Christians for the fire and had them burned alive.
There are modern historians however who believe the ancient sources who wrote about Nero were unreliable. The archaeologist I went through Domus Aurea with is convinced that the history we know of Nero is in fact based on lies and hatred, not the truth.
The Domus Transitoria
Nero’s first palace, the Domus Tansitoria is now open to the
public after a 10 year renovation.
Transitoria was a lavish palace decorated with marble, inlaid
marble, porphyry, mother of pearl, frescoes and mosaics, dating back to 54 A.D.
It connected the Palatine Hill with the Esquiline Hill, which is how it got its
name. It was built partially underground to help Nero beat the Roman heat.
Most of the Domus Transitoria was burned to the ground during the great fire of Rome in 64 A.D. The ruins were discovered, robbed and looted during the 18th century.
What remained has been restored, so you can see the floors, frescoes and structure. One of the best preserved areas of the complex contains the 50 communal toilets thought to have been used by the slaves and workers, almost 2000 years ago.
You can take a guided tour of Domus Transitoria, but the tours
are for small groups only, around 12 total. There is new lighting down there,
so you are not wandering in twilight. There is also a virtual reality component
to the tour. This is something that Rome is doing so brilliantly, the
multimedia and V.R. components to the newer tours are just sensational.
Domus Transitoria is open Friday – Monday and is part of the new SUPER Foro-Palatino ticket. Check the website for more details and ticket options.
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Are you planning a trip to Tuscany, or maybe just dreaming about one? Any trip to Italy is defined by the food you eat while there. Food (along with wine) is at the heart of Italian culture. Italian life and history all begins at the dinner table, so to understand this magnificent country you need to understand the cuisine.
First it is important to understand that food here is entirely
regional. It is not like “Italian Food” in America, which is typically made up
of heavy pasta dishes drowned in cheese and sugary tomato sauce, and doesn’t
vary much no matter where you are.
One thing I have learned from years of private tour guiding is
that many travelers expect to find lasagna, fettucine alfredo, baked ziti and
foods like that everywhere we go. Fettucine alfredo is American, not Italian.
Lasagna, although readily available at tourist restaurants is not a national
food, and I have never seen baked ziti anywhere in Italy!
My book Glam Italia! How To Travel Italy: Secrets To Glamorous Travel (On A Not So Glamorous Budget) has an entire section on foods and wines by region, and tells you what to order, where. The food is vastly different in Florence and Rome for example, and you don’t want to miss out on an incredible local dish because no one told you! My new book GlamItalia! 101 Fabulous Things To Do In Rome tells you all about what to order in the Eternal City, and goes into much more depth.
If you are heading to Tuscany (ever) you need to know about the cuisine and what you absolutely must try while you are there. Tuscan cuisine is one of my personal favorites. Known as cucina povera, (poor people’s food), Tuscan food is locally sourced (nostrale or ours) tends to be quite simple with few ingredients. It started as a cuisine forced by economy or poverty but has remained that way by choice.
The Top 14 Tuscan Foods You Need To Know
I spend a great deal of time in Tuscany and just love the food there! You see provincial differences as you travel across the region but the following foods tend to be available in most areas and are definitely worth seeking out. Lets start with cheeses:
Every local market will have vendors selling slices of pecorino from giant wheels. It is fantastic on its own or drizzled with a little local honey. I also love the piquant pecorino with peppers or chilis, and the pecorino tartufo flavored with local truffles.
One of my friends serves this every time I come for dinner.
Don’t confuse Tuscan ricotta with the stuff you buy here at the supermarket –
that’s like comparing a beat up ’81 Fiat Panda with a tricked out brand new Ferrari.
The 2 ricottas share a name only.
You can find fresh Tuscan ricotta at local markets as well as on the menu in many restaurants. Ideally you want fresh ricotta from the farm. It almost looks like a cake or a jello mold, and you slice it and drizzle fresh local honey over it. Sometimes it is sprinkled with nuts. You will be hooked at first bite – it is unbelievably good!
One of the reasons I just love being in Tuscany in the winter or early spring/late fall is because of their hearty soups. Even in the summer if we get an overcast or rainy day I always find my way to a bowl of Tuscan soup. Both the soups below are very traditional and in my opinion can also be filed under Tuscan comfort foods.
3. Pappa al Pomodoro
You can’t get more cucina povera than this soup! Yesterday’s leftover oven baked bread, olive oil, garlic, basil and tomatoes. Sometimes it has more of a mush than soup consistency, but however it comes it is incredible.
This is another peasant soup that will fill you up and warm your soul. This time yesterday’s leftover oven baked Tuscan bread is mixed with cannellini beans and vegetables.
5. Fagioli con Salsiccia
This is a soup made of beans and sausage, normally a local spicy sausage.
Every area within Tuscany has its own breads, and really, you
should try as many as you can! Before you panic about gluten and swelling up
from eating carbs – don’t worry it’s all good! Unlike here in the U.S. wheat in
Italy is uncompromised. They don’t have Monsanto filling the wheat with
pesticides and they don’t have GMO’s, so even the most sensitive digestive
systems seem to do just fine. Personally, I can’t eat bread in the USA, I swell
up, get an upset tummy and feel like hell. In Italy I can eat it every day with
I love buying breads at local markets to take home to my apartment, but if you’re not doing the vacation rental thing at least make sure you always at least try the bread in restaurants.
Before we leave breads behind you need to know about this bread salad. Once again it uses yesterday’s bread, this time soaked in olive oil, mixed with fresh tomatoes and basil and dressed in olive oil with maybe a little vinegar. I’ve had it with olives in there too – I think it varies depending on where you go. Sometimes when lunching at friends’ homes they have served up variations on the traditional panzanella with sliced red onion, cucumber and lettuce. However it is served, it’s fantastic!
Each area of Italy has its own types of pasta. The size and
shape of any given pasta is based on the type of sauce it is served with. One
traditionally Tuscan pasta that you will find on almost every restaurant menu
is pappardelle. This is a wide,
ribbon type pasta, served with heavier meat sauces.
Tagliatelle is another local pasta seen on menus everywhere. Also found all over neighboring Emilia-Romagna, tagliatelle is a narrower ribbon than pappardelle.
8. Pappardelle con Cinghiale
This is the king of pastas in Tuscany! Cinghiale is wild boar, the taxidermied versions of which you see everywhere. Don’t panic – it doesn’t taste gamey, it’s just incredibly hearty. Every restaurant has its own recipe and way of preparing its cinghiale, so you can have it every day (as my son has done) and never have it quite the same way twice. This is really, really good, and if I were to recommend only one traditional Tuscan food for you to try, Cinghiale would be it.
9. Tagliatelle con Tartufo
Tuscany is truffle country, so when truffles are in season you
will find this dish everywhere. Again, each restaurant seems to have their own
recipe, so you can eat it everywhere you go and it will always be different,
but also will always be super good.
About pastas: I’ve seen cinghiale served with either pappardelle or tagliatelle, so it may also be a restaurant’s personal preference.
Italians typically eat multiple courses, way more than I can handle. If I am ordering pasta I normally don’t order anything else. That bowl alone will fill you. Also, if planning on ordering pasta I exercise extreme caution with the antipasti when it comes out – it is so easy to fill up snacking on meats and cheeses and olives!
You will see giant steaks in restaurant windows all over Florence and nearby town. These are the famous steaks from the Chiana Valley. Each one is 3 to 4 lbs on its own – they really are enormous! So big in fact that they not only cook them front and back but also on the sides. If you are a meat eater this is a must try food.
This is a Tuscan fish stew, and you are more likely to find it closer to the coast, especially around Livorno. Traditionally it has 5 different types of seafood, from fish to shellfish, one for each C in the name. Fishermen would clean out their boat at the end of market day, and whatever was left in the bottom would be thrown into Cacciucco. The stew would have broth, garlic, pepper flakes and red wine vinegar and would be served over toasted bread.
To this day it is served the same way, the bread soaking up the broth. If you love seafood, this one is amazing.
12. Tuscan Pizza
Pizza is different everywhere you go in Italy, from the chewy
base in Napoli to Rome’s super thin crust to Tuscany’s not-quite-as-thin crust.
Always cooked in a wood burning oven, you have to try pizza in Tuscany at least
once. This could not be more different to typical American pizza. Not drowned
in sugary tomato sauces, and not weighed down by heavy melted cheese, Tuscan
pizzas tend to be fresh and light.
Don’t expect American pepperoni – pepperoni in Italian means
giant bell peppers. Don’t be surprised to see raw rocket (arugula) scattered
across the top of a pizza. It tastes so amazing!
Most of the time you won’t find pizza served at lunchtime.
Pizza is prepared in wood burning domed ovens that take hours to heat up to the
correct temperature of 485 Celcius/905 Fahrenheit. When thinking about having
pizza plan it for no earlier than 8:30 at night, and ideally at a restaurant
with an outdoor patio.
My favorite evenings in San Gimignano are spent on the terrace at Il Trovatore around a large table with my Glam Italia Tour ladies or local friends, eating their insanely good pizza, drinking jugs of wine, and talking all night long.
I have 2 favorite sweet foods in Tuscany, one is a day time food and one happens at the end of a long, satisfying Tuscan dinner.
This is not a strong bread (pan-forte), it is a spicy cake. Its origins date back to 1205 when
servants had to take it as gifts to the nuns of Montecelso Abbey in Siena.
Overtime it became a Christmas gift to the nuns and a treat aristocrats would
enjoy on special occasions. Made from sugar and honey and nuts and dried fruits
with pepper and spices (cloves, ginger, cinnamon) panforte is typically cooked
in a shallow pan, dusted with powdered sugar, and served in narrow slices with
This is a Sienese specialty, and in my humble opinion it is a
crime to go to Siena (or Florence) and not at least try it. Panforte is my
favorite thing – I love it with coffee in the morning. Despite the sugar and
honey it is a guilt free food because you walk so much over there you burn it
off before lunch!
Note: you can actually eat it all day and night. The morning thing is just my favorite. If I allow myself one sweet thing, in a toss-up between having a gelato at some point in the day or a slice of panforte, the panforte will always win.
At the end of a long Tuscan dinner you may be served with a
couple of cantucci and a short glass of dense dessert wine called vin santo.
Cantucci are small crunchy almond cookies that look like mini
biscotti. (The word for cookie in Italian is biscotti, so if you want to get technical, they are biscotti). You dip the cantucci (or
cantuccio?) into the vin santo ad then take in your final calorie hit of the
day, as if your tummy wasn’t already about to explode.
I have learned over the years that I cannot eat like an Italian. As in I can’t do all the courses they do. I’m good with just antipasti! Truth be told, on most nights out in Tuscany I don’t have room for cantucci unless I have planned it in advance. If you, like me, feel like you cannot possibly ingest even one more mouthful, then I am sorry my friend because at least once while you are there you’re going to have to take one for the team and at least try cantucci and vin santo
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