Diving Deeper Into Antiquity While Touring Around Europe

If European travelers have “been there, done that” when it comes to exploring such popular ancient sites as Rome’s Colosseum or Athens’ Parthenon, what’s next for a repeat trip to Europe?  

Thankfully, Europe offers an amazing array of ancient sites from spectacular Roman villas to Greek temples and cave tombs, from well-preserved city gates to creative frescoes. Travel Agent talked with several travel advisors and tour operators for insight.  

Sicily’s Ancient Treasures

Taormina Sicily Italy

Taormina, shown in the photo above, is one of advisor Lynn Tyger's favorite "ruins" sites. // Photo by Getty.

Sicily is a treasure-trove of ancient Greek and Roman sites. “One of my all-time favorites is the amphitheater in Taormina, especially if the trip can be timed to experience an event there,” says Lynn Tyger, independent travel advisor with FROSCH in Houston, TX. “Also, the villa and Roman mosaics in Armerina are stunning,” and “I saw Selinunte at sunset and that’s a favorite memory.”

Desire a private tour led by a local archaeologist to see that villa and Piazza Armerina? The highlight for many is the 38,000 square feet of gorgeous Roman mosaic flooring.

Cosmos includes that type of private tour for guests traveling on its escorted, eight-day “Small Group Discovery Tour” around Sicily. Operating roundtrip from Palermo, this tour in 2022 starts at $1,319 per person, double occupancy.

Another option is Trafalgar’s nine-day “Colors of Sicily” tour, which in September 2021 will take travelers to Taormina as well as the spectacular UNESCO-listed Valley of the Temples, where they’ll see seven magnificent Doric temples overlooking the city. This tour also visits Syracuse (ancient Siricusa), birthplace of Archimedes, where guests will visit the Archaeological Museum and island of Ortygia.

Trafalgar’s guests also will overnight at Mercure Siracusa Prometeo. “Colors of Sicily” departures for 2022 start at $1,882 per person, double occupancy.

Iberian Delights

In the heart of Segovia, Spain, visitors will gaze at one of the world’s best-preserved Roman aqueducts, built in the 1st century A.D. The high aqueduct transported water into the city and its elegant arches—still standing—remain a testament to Roman engineering.  

“I think Spain has some of the best ancient sites outside of Italy,” believes Tyger. She cites a Roman theater dating to 15 B.C. in Merida in western Spain; Lugo’s ancient city walls; another Roman theater in Cartagena; the ancient town of Baelo Claudia near the Strait of Gibraltar; and the Roman-Greco ruins of Empúries.

One escorted, upscale option for viewing Merida’s Roman theater is the 13-day “Spain and Portugal in Style,” offered by Luxury Gold. At press time, three 2021 departures—September 3, September 17 and October 1—had availability, with pricing from $5,558 per person, double occupancy.

On Day 11 of this tour, travelers will explore Merida’s ruins, including the Roman theater, in which plays were once performed for the theater goers of ancient Lusitania, a Roman province on the Iberian Peninsula that encompassed parts of both Spain and Portugal. Merida also has the world’s longest, still-standing Roman bridge.

Tyger also mentions the draw of a Roman temple in Evora, Portugal. Guests traveling on the “Spain and Portugal in Style” tour will also visit Evora.

The Romans in Germany  

One of Germany’s best places to see Roman influence is Trier, Germany, the country’s oldest city. Founded in the late 4th century B.C. by the Celts, this settlement along the Mosel River was ruled for centuries by the Romans.

Today, it’s top draw today is the magnificent Porta Nigra or “black gate,” constructed between 186 A.D. and 206 A.D. It’s considered the largest, best-preserved Roman city gate north of the Alps.

Visitors to Trier also can explore the Barbara Baths and Imperial Baths. In fact, lingering everywhere in Trier are touches from the Roman era—from a fortification wall’s remains to Romerbrucke (a Roman bridge that’s also Germany’s oldest), from an amphitheater to thermal springs and storehouses.

Most notably, the humongous Constantine Basilica, today a protestant church, was formerly the 220-foot-long throne hall of Roman Emperor Constantine I.  

A multi-day city stay in Trier, less than 120 miles from Frankfurt, Germany, is an appealing independent getaway for those with a passion for “ruins.” It’s also visited on such escorted tours as Globus’ nine-day “Catholic Central Europe with Oberammergau – Faith Based Travel” itinerary, operating between Munich and Frankfurt in 2022, with pricing from $3,799 per person, double occupancy.

Globus’ guests will visit Germany, Austria and Switzerland, attend the once-a-decade “Passion Play” in Oberammergau, and on Day Seven, spend a bit of time in Trier to view the Porta Nigra and other city sites, as well as visiting the city’s cathedral.

Cologne Germany

Cologne has an excellent Roman-Germanic Archaeological Museum, adjacent to the cathedral, which towers over the city as shown above .// Photo by Getty.

This Globus tour will also visit Cologne’s cathedral, which is adjacent to an impressive Roman-Germanic Archaeological Museum, well worth a visit for history buffs. Alternatively, just stand outside that museum’s glass window, peer down and view the basement’s large Dionysos Roman floor mosaic.

Paestum and Matera, Italy

“As an Italy specialist, I love Paestum which is very off-the-beaten-path but makes a great side trip while on the Amalfi Coast,” says Tyger. Nestled inland about 22 miles southeast of Salerno, ancient Paestum was founded in about 600 B.C. by Greek colonists, who called it Poseidonia.

Renamed Paestum by the indigenous Lucanians, it then came under Roman rule before being ransacked by raiders in 871 A.D. Abandoned for centuries, the ruins were rediscovered in the 18th century, and in 1969 a farmer uncovered an ancient Lucanian tomb with early-classical-style Greek frescoes.

Many artifacts are now displayed in a local archaeological museum, but the well-preserved Paestum temples remain a highly visible “wow.” Jerry Lang, president, House of Travel, a BCD affiliate and member of the Signature Travel Network, in Aventura, FL says that Paestum is “home to the best-preserved ancient Greek ruins in the world.”

Two sacred areas contain three remarkably preserved Doric temples. The Temple of Athena (or Temple of Ceres) and the Temple of Hera I (Basilica) date from the 6th century B.C., while the Temple of Hera II (Temple of Neptune) dates from 460 B.C.

Another tip for antiquity lovers? Lang also suggests travelers planning a southern Italy vacation consider Matera. People have lived at the site since 10,000 BC. Over the centuries, it’s been occupied by Romans, Germanic tribes and Byzantines. “Matera was destined to be the hot spot of Italy” and then the pandemic hit, Lang says.

One interesting aside? Resembling an ancient Middle Eastern city, Matera has gained fame as a movie filming backdrop, such as for Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” and the newest James Bond movie, “No Time to Die.”

One escorted tour visiting Matera is Insight Vacations’ nine-day “Country Roads of Puglia and the Neapolitan Riviera,” departing on multiple 2022 dates and priced from $2,914 per person, double occupancy for a classic tour, or from $3,439 per person, double occupancy for a small group tour. Tour goers will visit Matera with a local expert for in-depth exploration of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Sassi—a labyrinth of cave dwellings, churches, staircases and arches, hewn out of the solid rock.

In 2022, Globus also will visit Matera on its nine-day “Southern Italy Escape” escorted tour between Sorrento and Naples, with rates from $1,199 per person, double occupancy.

Globus’ guests will overnight in Matera and take a guided walking tour to visit Casa Grotta; its re-created interior will show visitors how residents of the casa lived “back in the day.”  

Roman Split and Pula, Croatia

In the early 4th century A.D., Roman Emperor Diocletian completed construction for a massive waterfront palace—resembling a fortress—in Split, Croatia. He retired there in 305 A.D.

Split, Croatia

Split, Croatia has impressive ruins of Roman Emperor Diocletian's Palace. // Photo by Getty

Today, those ruins and the remains of Roman walls and gates comprise Split’s “Old Town.” Home to 3,000-plus residents, this historic area bustles with shops, cafes, restaurants and also apartments. The foundation and lower floors of Diocletian’s apartments have survived, while the emperor’s octagonal mausoleum was later reconstructed into a Christian church, now one of the world’s oldest.  

At the crossroad of the old palace’s two main roads is a Peristyle, a rectangular, colonnaded rectangular open court, which was the trendy spot for powerful Romans “to see and be seen.” When night falls, the palace’s marble and granite columns are illuminated, and at times, actors in Roman togas perform.

Among escorted tours including a Split visit is Trafalgar’s escorted, 11-day “Best of Croatia and Slovenia” tour between Zagreb and Dubrovnik, Croatia. In Split, tour guests will hear commentary from a local expert, visit Diocletian's Palace, and overnight at the upscale Atrium Hotel.

An added perk is that this Trafalgar tour also visits Pula, Croatia, home to one of the world’s largest surviving, multi-story Roman amphitheaters; it once accommodated 23,000 cheering spectators. This tour is priced from $2,093 per person, double occupancy.

The Oracle’s Allure in Greece

United Vacations offers many air/hotel packages for Athens, Greece. Travelers can opt for a stay at the Grand Bretagne Hotel, Crowne Plaza Athens City Center, Athens Hilton, or other properties. Repeat Athens visitors can easily travel beyond the city on day outings, such as to ancient Delphi on Mount Parnassus.

The ancient Greeks considered Delphi the “center of the universe” and home to that civilization’s most famous “oracle” or soothsayer. Sophocles and Alexander the Great were among world leaders, philosophers, noblemen and other VIPs who consulted the Oracle or “The Pythia,” a woman tasked with serving as the high priestess of Delphi’s Temple of Apollo

Today, visitors can see the Temple of Apollo, Temple of Athena Pronaia and other historic structures, including many focused on sports including a large stadium. The Delphi Archaeological Museum also displays an impressive collection of ancient artifacts.

Beyond a Delphi day tour, several tour operators offer “around Greece” tours that include stops at Delphi and other ancient sites. Among those is Collette’s escorted, 15-day “Exploring Greece and Its Islands,” which explores sites of classical Greece, as well as Mykonos and Santorini. Pricing begins at $3,299 per person double, occupancy.

During the Greek mainland portion of the tour itinerary, guests will visit Delphi, as well as Mycenae, Olympia, Themopylae, Nafplio and other destinations. Guests then will take a high speed ferry to Mykonos, stay both on that isle and Santorini (home to the archaeological site of Thira) for another week, prior to flying back to Athens. 

While staying on Mykonos, Collette’s guests can opt for half-day visit to nearby Delos, believed by the ancient Greeks to be the birthplace of the gods Apollo and Artemis. One highlight is Delos’ House of Dionysus, dating from the 4th century B.C. One mosaic floor depicts the mural of a tiger

Other Ancient Draws

Throughout Europe, from the Baltic region to the Mediterranean and beyond, many other ancient sites beckon, including these:  

  • Malta fields prehistoric Megalithic Temples, the oldest dating from 3600 B.C.
  • Serbia was the birthplace of 16 Roman emperors, and the ruins of ancient Viminacium are just 60 miles east of Belgrade
  • Ireland is home to ancient Celtic sites
  • Cyprus’ Salamis, an ancient city-state, dates from the 11th century B.C. and was inhabited until the late Roman period
  • Finland’s Sammallahdenmaki is a Bronze Age burial site
  • Slovakia is home to the Limes Romanus, frontier defenses/antique monuments on the Middle Danube

And the list goes on. So, if travelers have “been there, done that” in seeing the most popular European ancient sites, there is a cornucopia of ancient sites to discover around every corner of the continent. 

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