Ancient Rome. It is hard to stand in the paved streets of Pompeii or in the Colosseum in Rome and not be in awe of the achievements of the Romans more than 2000 years ago. From the aqueducts to the architecture, the senate to the steam heated floors, this civilization left an imprint that can still be felt today. While I didn’t love the modern day Rome as much as the ancient one – it is still one pilgrimage that everyone needs to tick off the bucket list.

We took the Circumvesuviana line train from Sorrento to Pompeii Scavi station. After our experience at Plitvice Lakes, we were happy to store our bags downstairs 3 euro per bag rather than lugging it to the entrance. Joining the line coming out of the train station – there was a person directing people up the stairs for what we thought were tickets to enter Pompeii. Heading upstairs we found we were actually in a tourist centre. Pompeii is a huge site and since we had limited time we decided to go along with the upcoming guided tour for 12 euro each not including the cost of the entry tickets (another 13 euro each).

Aside: If you don’t want do a guided tour just head out of the train station and to the right – you literally can’t miss the entrances. Be wary of picking a guide up off the street – quality may not be what you expect. Grab a map from the ticket office and make sure to bring a water bottle (there are fountains on site), sunscreen and a hat as it gets hot and there is limited shade. You can also do one of the 4 other excavation sites (Herculaneum is the next most popular) or visit Mount Vesuvius while in the area.

It was still pouring so we put on our ponchos and headed inside. Even before you enter you begin to see the ruins – and entering into the cobblestone streets with the wagon wheel ruts still evident – is an experience that transports you through time. Despite learning about the fate of the city when I was younger – being buried under meters of ash and pumice from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD – nothing really brings it home like emerging into the main square and seeing what is left of the mountain looming large in the distance.

The weather started to clear as the tour took us around the key sites – starting at the second entrance we saw the Quadrico Portico, the small and large theaters, the thermal baths, a number of houses, the Forum and temple of Venus and Apollo. We even visited the brothel which retained artworks showing each of the ladies’ specialties. It was incredible to see how well the ruins are preserved and learn how advanced the Romans were for their time. We saved the real attraction of the Pompeii site for last – the plaster casts of the victims.

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Hidden away in the corner of the site is the amphitheater which, instead of being filled with gladiators, is now the site of a huge wooden pyramid. Inside, the walls tell the story of the discovery of Pompeii and the pioneering techniques of Giuseppe Fiorello, who used plaster of Paris in the cavities left by bodies to get a cast of the final resting position of some of the victims. In the centre of the ring are some of the original casts – it is surreal to see so clearly the features and body positions of the men, women and children of the city.

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After grabbing some lunch we headed back to the train and continued on to Naples to take the high speed train to Rome.

Rome Termini was packed as we navigated our way to the hostel. The tourist info was really hard to find – hidden away behind platform 23 – but once there you can get a city map for 1.5 euro. We walked from the termini to the hostel  – though oddly it was signposted as something else – and once we checked in they annoyingly moved us to another building a few blocks away from reception. After a long day of traveling we layed lowed that night and slept in the next morning before setting out to explore Rome. Walking along via Nazionale we literally stumbled into the monument known locally as the “wedding cake” – the immense Altare della Patria. The huge white marble structure is dedicated to Victor Emmanuele II, the first king of a unified Italy. Walking up the stairs we took in the panoramic view from the first terrace (free) and paid the 8 euro each to see the view for the second terrace (not worth it at all – better view from the first terrace in my opinion). Rome is a very flat city and you can see absolutely everything from the Colosseum to the Vatican.

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From the “wedding cake” we walked to the tourist information adjacent the Roman Forum to find out about tickets. Walking there, it was surreal to just see the Colosseum looming at the end of the road – although it was spoiled by being propositioned every step along the way by people offering guided tours (again be wary of guides off the street – find a good one through tripadvisor). We wanted to do the guided tour around the Forum, Palatine hill and the Colosseum and were lucky enough to find that the official tour had space for the afternoon. Killing time before the start of the tour, we went in search of food and found an absolute gem. Hidden in an alleyway just near Cavour metro station was Zia Rosetta– a little French cafe. They not only make great juices and healthy burgers but are also affordable – absolutely made our day.

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We joined the tour group, skipped the line (what little of it there was at 3 pm) and began to explore the ruins. Unfortunately for us our tour guide was a little older and often trailed off but it was enjoyable nonetheless being in a place steeped in so much history. I won’t go into all the details – but the Colosseum was definitely the highlight and if I had my time again I would have purchased the entrance ticket (for all three sites only 12 euro) and explored on my own. Funnily enough, it was seeing a kids pop up book in the book store that really put the ruins in perspective. The book, Archeolibri, has photos of the site as it is today, which you can overlay with illustrations of how it would have appeared in Roman times – truly only fragments remain.

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While in Rome I was lucky enough to work with Italian photographer Andrea Mete. Having worked together previously in the US we were both excited to reconnect and create something special. We ended up doing two shoots – the first was at a hotel out in the country. Hanging by the pool, meeting and working with the amazing team (fashions styled by Carolina Turra and hair and makeup by Claudio) and indulging with a little prosciutto and cheese the day couldn’t have been better. For the second shoot we head back to Rome to La Lanterna to shoot a lookbook for Autumn Winter ’16. Can’t wait to share the final products with you!

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photowxFinishing up a long day of shooting, we grabbed dinner and walked through the city at night. Walking past all the designer stores on Via dei Condotti, I caught my first sight of the incredibly packed Spanish steps, linking Piazza Spagna and the Trinita dei Monti church. I even headed back in the morning to get a photo without a huge crowd.

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For our last day we wanted to see Vatican City, the smallest city state in the world. When we arrived to Rome we tried to book tickets for the Vatican museum – unfortunately we were too late and the online tickets (which allow you to skip the line – book ahead here) were all sold out. We tried to wake up early to make it before the line got crazy – but even getting there before 9 am the line was already 3 hours long (down to the set of traffic lights). That wasn’t even the worst part – there was an endless parade of people with tickets passing us and even more trying to sell us tour packages that would allow us to skip the line for extortionate prices.

We toughed out the line and got tickets for 16 euro each. The museum was started by Pope Julius II at the start of the 16th Century and has accumulated an incredible wealth of artefacts. The complex is huge – 5.5 hectares worth – and the former residences of different popes have been converted to house different exhibitions – but nothing can beat the grandeur of the Sistine Chapel. Entering, there is a hushed silence and all eyes are raised to the to the frescoes and tapestries by master artists on the walls and roof. The work is incredible in its detail – the most well known is the “Creation of Adam” which is the centrepiece of the ceiling – but many were more intrigued with the more controversial “Last Judgement” by Michelangelo. Heading out of the museum at 3 pm there was no line – so if you miss out on tickets go in the afternoon.

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Starving after exploring the museum, we went in search of a bite to eat. We he had heard that Piazza Navona and the narrow old town streets hidden behind the plaza are full of little cafes and restaurants so that was our first stop. Unfortunately we were there too early to check Lonley planets’ pick for pizza in Rome, Bafferto’s, but we were able to grab a simple meal and capped our evening with a lavish gelato from Frigidarium.

Next Stop: Florence

Written by Aimee C