Students & Faculty Explore Sites of Ancient History on Spring Break Trip to Italy
Liz Torrey

Students and faculty traveled to Italy over Spring Break, and explored sites of ancient history throughout the country. Trip leader and classics teacher Phil Walsh wrote the following diary (with photos!) of the group's experiences for parents and faculty while they traveled.

February 28

We had a very smooth flight into Frankfurt and then Naples, and this afternoon, with perfect weather conditions, we visited Cumae (pictures below). The students marveled at the natural beauty of this sanctuary site, and we talked about various mythological figures who are attached to this ancient place: Aeneas, the hero of Vergil’s Aeneid; divine Apollo and his twin sister Artemis; and the master builder, Daedalus. Not pictured are a friendly dog who followed us around while we walked the site and various skink-like lizards whom the students enjoyed pointing out… We just finished a hearty meal at our hotel, and we are all ready for bed. In the morning we will hike Mt. Vesuvius and travel to Herculaneum, one of the towns buried by the eruption in 79 AD. 

The group, a little bleary-eyed, in front of the Cave of the Sibyl at Cumae:

All of us, overlooking the coast at Cumae:

March 1

We had a great day of exploration and wonder. In the morning we visited Villa San Marco at Stabiae, on the south side of the Bay of Naples. This large and beautiful mansion was built during the Augustan era (c. 27 BC-14 AD), and its opulence was truly impressive. We then drove to Mt. Vesuvius and climbed to the summit (elevation around 4,000 feet - see pictures below). It was a thrilling experience for all, and while on site, we had the opportunity to read from an ancient letter describing the eruption of 79 AD. After lunch we toured the ancient city of Herculaneum, so well-preserved because it was buried by lava. 

Tomorrow we visit Pompeii and the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, a world-class museum that holds much of what was found at Pompeii and Herculaneum. Hopefully we sleep well from all of the walking, climbing, and talking. 

Here’s a photo of Mt. Vesuvius from our hotel window this morning:

Here’s a picture of us at the top: 

March 2

Today was a full day of learning, walking, and eating. We spent the morning exploring the excavations of Pompeii. Among the highlights were experiencing the ancient theater and lingering in the Villa of the Mysteries, with its enigmatic “frieze” of frescos depicting the rituals of the god Dionysus. After a big lunch near Pompeii, which included a delicious dessert called sfogliatella, we drove to the National Archaeological Museum of Naples (MANN), which holds many of the artifacts found at Pompeii and Herculaneum. Finally, on the way back from dinner, we had our first taste of gelato! 

Tomorrow we are taking a boat to visit the island of Capri. The weather should be ideal (around 65 degrees), and we’ll stay quite busy.  

Here’s a picture of the students at Pompeii (with Mt. Vesuvius looming in the background):

March 3

We’ve been doing a lot of hiking, but today may have been a record. My phone estimates that we walked 10.5 miles or 24,132 steps! Almost all of that exercise occurred on the gorgeous island of Capri, about a 30-minute boat ride from the port city of Sorrento. We arrived in the mid-morning, bussed from the marina to the town center, and hiked to the Villa Iovis [Villa of Jove], where the Roman emperor Tiberius lived for over ten years. Along the way we stopped at Astarita Park, where all of us marveled at the quiet sublimity of the steep cliffs and azure water. In the afternoon we hiked down to Arco Naturale, a huge Paleolithic limestone formation, and to the Grotta of Matromania [the Cave of the Great Mother]. We ended the day in Anacapri, where we explored Villa San Michele, a beautiful house built by the Swedish doctor, Axel Munthe. 

Tomorrow we drive to Rome, where we will visit the Colosseum and the Basilica of Saint Clement. It is also Piper’s 16th birthday! 

Our group in the town of Capri: 

A view from Astarita Park (truly breathtaking!):

In the Cave of the Great Mother:

March 4

This morning we left the bay of Naples and arrived in Rome. After checking in to the hotel, we walked down to the Colosseum and explored this impressive Roman amphitheater. After refueling at a comfortable cafe (the coffee, hot chocolate, and fruit smoothies hit the spot!), we toured our first church, the Basilica of Saint Clement. The students then had some free time to wander before dinner, which allowed us some time to buy a chocolate-hazelnut cake and cannoli to celebrate Piper’s 16th birthday. 

Tomorrow we’ll spend the day getting to know the city of Rome. Sites on the agenda include the Palatine Hill, the Roman Forum, the Pantheon, and the Piazza Navona.

Here is a picture of us enjoying dessert. Happy birthday, Piper!   

March 5

It was another day of 25,000 steps! We made our way all around Rome, starting in the morning at the Palatine Hill and Roman Forum. After lunch we toured to Largo di Torre Argentina, where Julius Caesar was killed in 44 BC; the Campo di Fiore, with its bustling daily market; the Piazza Navona, famous for its grand fountain with obelisk; the iconic Pantheon; and the Ara Pacis [the Altar of Peace], a monument in honor of the emperor Augustus. The phrase of the day was “civic identity”: how ancient Rome understood itself through myth, ritual, and history; and how it articulated this vision on its triumphal arches, temples, and public spaces. We had some great conversations inspired by what we saw and what we read… In addition, we had the pleasure of meeting up with SAS sophomores Izzy Nielsen and Nia Cross, who happened to be around the Pantheon when we were! 

Tomorrow we visit another one of Rome’s seven hills: the Capitoline, with its famous museums. We will also walk around the Forum Boarium, Tiber Island, and Trastevere (Rome’s version of Brooklyn).

Sitting on the Palatine Hill, talking about Romulus and Remus: 

At a coffee shop with Izzy and Nia: 

March 6

The English word, "museum,” derives from the Greek noun μουσεῖον, a place holy to the Muses. These μουσεῖα can be schools of music, libraries, institutes of philosophy - in other words, places where we can "think with wonder." That phrase, which I borrow from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, is how I would describe our Wednesday in Rome. We began at Villa Farnesina, a remarkable Renaissance villa full of beautiful mythological paintings. We then walked to the Capitoline Hill, where we explored the Capitoline Museums, home to so many world-famous pieces of art. After lunch in the Jewish Ghetto, we toured the Great Synagogue of Rome and learned about Jewish communities in the ancient and modern city. We ended the day by doing laundry and eating delicious pizza in Trastevere.

We are very much looking forward to tomorrow’s agenda: the ancient Baths of Caracalla, the Keats-Shelley House, the Villa Borghese (Rome’s Central Park), and the Galleria Borghese (a most spectacular museum). We’ll also see the Trevi Fountain at night - always a special and memorable experience. 

Seeing the Capitoline Lupa (wolf):

Inside the Great Synagogue of Rome: 

March 7

At the risk of sounding repetitive, it was another amazing day of walking, talking, and learning. We started at the Aventine Hill, on the way to the Baths of Caracalla, a huge public bathing complex that dates from the 3rd century AD. We then had the opportunity to visit the Non-Catholic Cemetery, where the Romantic poet John Keats is buried, and where we studied two poems: Wordsworth’s “The World is Too Much with Us” and Oscar Wilde’s “The Grave of Keats.” After eating delicious panini from a well-known salumeria, we took the metro to the Spanish Steps and visited the Keats-Shelley House. From there we walked through the Villa Borghese to the Galleria Borghese; all of us, I think, were stunned by the beautiful paintings and sculptures found in this museum. From Bernini’s Daphne and Apollo to the Caravaggio Room, we experienced both awe and inspiration.

Tomorrow we will explore Vatican City: first touring St. Peter’s Basilica and then the Vatican Museums. We anticipate—wait for it—an amazing day!

On the Aventine Hill this morning:

At the Non-Catholic Cemetery (I think this photo makes tangible what “thinking with wonder” is. Piper happens to be sitting on the bench, but each student, it seems to me, has experienced a moment like this during our tour.)

March 8

As the ancient Greek philosopher, Diogenes, once wrote, “Give up philosophy because I’m an old man? It’s at the end of the race that you break into a burst of speed.” This idea fits the narrative of our trip. We walked at least 32,000 steps today, more than any other day thus far, and we thought big thoughts as we toured St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums. I was thinking about Diogenes because he lounges on the stairs below Aristotle in Raphael’s masterpiece, The School of Athens. We saw this painting near the end of the day, and we were very fortunate to have the room essentially to ourselves. (Typically, it is overstuffed with visitors and quite noisy.) The Vatican Museums are spectacular, but we also had the opportunity to climb the 551 stairs to the top of St. Peter’s Basilica. We enjoyed the view looking down at the nave of the church, as well as the views of Rome and Vatican City on the outside. 

Tomorrow is our last full day in Italy, and we will visit Hadrian’s Villa in modern Tivoli (about an hour outside of Rome). It should be a relaxing and fun-filled day, and I hope the students will begin to reflect on their experiences abroad. 

A view from the top of St. Peter’s: 

Discussing the famous sculpture, Augustus of Prima Porta:

March 9

We spent a gorgeous day in the resort town of Tivoli, where the emperor Hadrian built a massive villa in the 2nd century AD. We walked around the remains and enjoyed the warm sun, and in the afternoon we toured the sublime Villa d’Este, known for its verdant gardens and grand fountains. Once we returned to Rome, we had a final meal downtown; visited the Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, and Piazza Navona; ate gelato one last time; and walked back to the hotel.   

We will depart from Rome tomorrow morning at 9:50 am, transfer at Frankfurt, and arrive in Philadelphia around 5:10 pm. We look forward to coming home, but Rome will always have a special place in our hearts.

This morning on the grounds of Hadrian’s Villa: 

March 10

We’ve had a long list of experiences since I last wrote you: visiting beautiful early modern villas in and around Rome, exploring more archaeological sites that I can remember, embracing the juxtaposition of old and new, seeing and discussing masterpieces of art and architecture, and reading poems and prose on the very sites that inspired them. It’s been a life-affirming and life-changing experience for all involved. 

We depart Rome this morning, but we return enriched and inspired. I know the students look forward to sharing their stories with you, and I want to thank Chris Sanchez for his hard work, energy, and generosity of spirit. Here is a final picture of the students in front of the Pantheon last night.

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