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Episode #214: Rome’s Best Kept Secrets – Explore the Eternal City with Liv Tours

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Ditch the tourist crowds and embark on a journey through the Eternal City with a twist! Rome is a city that you can return to again and again as there’s always something new to discover, with layers of history and stories, but whether it’s your first time or tenth time, there are ways to experience Rome that work to provide you an unforgettable experience and leave a gentle footprint on the city. We’ve teamed up with Liv Tours founder Angelo Carotenuto, to reveal a whole new way to approach visiting Rome. Discover ways to visit the main sights away from the crowds and with a different tilt and about unique itineraries and fascinating combinations that go beyond the well-trodden paths.

Show notes

We welcome back Angelo Carotenuto, co-founder of Liv Tours, a family-owned Italian tour company with guides who all share an unbridled passion for Italy. Liv Tours offer 350+ tours in over 22 cities in Europe. Their expert guides will help you fall in love with Italian history, culture, and food. It’s no secret, that Liv Tours are one of our favorite tour companies, offering wonderful experiences for private and very small groups across Italy from Rome to Venice, Florence to Milan, and also across Europe.

Liv Tours are based in Rome where Angelo was born and raised. What we love about them is that they’re constantly innovating and finding ways to pay respect to the cities they operate in – especially Rome where things have never been busier. They are such a creative and passionate team full of wonderful ideas and new ways to experience Italy. We talk about embracing the unique ways to experience Rome and exploring the city with a gentle tourism touch. Whether it’s your first time or a return visit, find inspiration on what to explore on your next Roman adventure – from art to archaeology, architecture to religious artifacts, to the joys of being outdoors, as well as sometimes being indoors (enjoying the air-conditioning)!

Liv Tours special new off-the-beaten-path tours include National Etruscan Museum and Villa Giulia – Private Tour, Major Basilicas of Rome – Private Jubilee Tour, Capitoline Museums – Private Tour and Palazzo Massimo & Diocletian’s- Baths – Private Tour.

Special Liv Tours offer for Untold Italy listeners

save 5% on Liv Tours with code ‘untolditaly’

Click here to browse Liv Tours now!!

About our guest – Angelo Carotenuto

In 2012 a world-renowned Italian-American tour guide and classically trained opera singer meets Swedish logistics expert Kristin in Rome. They fell in love and then created what they love – an eco-tourism company focused on the country where Angelo was born and the same country that brought them together. 

Liv Tours rapidly grew to be a leader in the industry thanks to the high-quality services, unique small group tours of max 6 people and private experiences that allow the traveler to not just visit Italy, but to live it! Sustainability has always been a key factor for Liv Tours and the company is now a member of GreenStep Sustainable Tourism, a GSTC-accredited certification body. Where large group tours are exploiting the country’s heritage, Liv Tours’s small group tours are exploring it and always give back to the local community. 

For over 10 years travelers have loved the huge selection of tours and experiences, the intimacy of the small groups, and the extraordinary tour guides. And after a lot of requests, Liv Tours has expanded to France, Spain, and England.

You can find Liv Tours on these channels:

Check out their unique and exciting new tours tours: National Etruscan Museum and Villa Giulia – Private Tour, Major Basilicas of Rome – Private Jubilee Tour, Capitoline Museums – Private Tour and and Palazzo Massimo & Diocletian’s- Baths – Private Tour.

Special Liv Tours offer for Untold Italy listeners

save 5% on Liv Tours with code ‘untolditaly’

Click here to browse Liv Tours now!!

What you’ll learn in this episode

  • Angelo was born and raised in Rome, though his mother is from California, he was raised bilingual and he has a couple of degrees from a US University. After finishing college he returned to Rome and started tour guiding by chance. After 6 or so years of being a guide, he realized that he was experienced in catering to more or less all types of clients – visitors from cruise ships, big tour operators, small private tours, B.A.P clients and even high school kids who are seeing 12 cities in 8 days. After gaining that experience, he realized how fast the activity side of tour guiding was going and how it also can make or break somebody’s vacation – perhaps more so even than hotels or restaurants. People really count on the guides to give them a great experience
  • At Liv Tours they talk about the ‘Dreamers’ – those who explore or wish to explore Italy in all of its many facets – be it food, wine, culture, art, fashion, Ferrari, soccer, mountains, islands – even volcanoes. Italy has a lot to offer
  • The original name of the company was Liv Italy, but as it has expanded across many countries, it became Liv Tours
  • At livitaly.com, the site was set up to cater for activity seekers, but to begin with, Angelo was treating the business almost like a hobby because he was tour-guiding for other companies during the day to pay the rent. A couple of years later into this project, he met Kristin, who would later become his wife, and together they decided that they were going to risk putting every last penny and all of their efforts into making Liv Italy the success it is today
  • Thanks to a mix of Kristin’s input, instinct and networking and some of Angelo’s creativity the company expanded and they found they could provide for the dreamers – not just the boat trips, cooking classes and Ferrari test drives but the major sights like the Colosseum, Vatican, Doges Palace, Academia and Pompeii. Even though these places are tremendously crowded at times and hard to appreciate, they wanted to make a visit to them as close as possible to somebody’s dream so an important part of their business model is that they limited their group sizes to just 6 people
  • When you daydream about your first visit to the Sistine Chapel – you’d likely picture yourself standing inside the Chapel surrounded by Michelangelo’s beautiful, fresco ceiling admiring everything around you. That dream probably does not include trying to make out what your tour guide is saying through a dirty headset, with static – or having to chase that tour guide in the back of a 30-people group, to ask a question. You are probably wanting to have a conversation  – to hear the stories, clearly and in detail and to be transported by the guide’s knowledge and passion but also to engage about it with a back and forth of questions
  • Angleo and Kristin have found that 6 people have provided the perfect number to enable the tour guides to perform at that level. That group size, along with the variety of services and quality control on these tours (as well as the private tours) – it’s proved a winning formula and is why Liv Tours gets such great reviews, has great customer retention and is an Untold Italy favorite
  • They have grown organically
  • Katy will certainly vouch for the wonderful, creative, passionate guides on Liv Tours team. She’s done many Liv tours and finds the guides have so much enthusiasm and knowledge and are also noticeably adaptable too. Katy has been on tours in many different contexts. – with her young children, with her father, who has mobility issues and with a younger crowd – it always works well. A personal favorite of Katy’s was Marco on the Borghese Gallery Tour!

Visiting Italy

  • There is no getting around it – post covid, travel has changed. The demand, for whatever reason, is extraordinary. Whether it’s because people got a travel itch during lockdowns or they changed their mentality and realized to seize the moment and take the trip they’d always dreamed about – the number of visitors to Italy’s main destinations (which were already huge) increased
  • It is pretty much impossible for travel to be done in the traditional way to these places – it’s just not sustainable. Anybody who is really interested in caring for a place and cultural traditions will evangelize the importance of protecting the treasures but also about how much more a destination can offer

Visiting Rome

  • Some rather mind-blowing stats – Rome sees 230,000 tourists a day. Rome has 2.3 million inhabitants, but phone records tell us that every day in the city, there are 4.6 million people. The city’s capacity literally doubles
  • In the winter, there are a lot of Italian-local travelers but for the rest of the time, on average, half of the 230,000 are foreigners
  • The average night stay in the city of these 115,000 foreigners is only 2.4 nights. Angelo likes to say that “Rome wasn’t built in a day and not even in 2.4 days”
  • The reason why stays are so short is that the majority of visitors believe they only need to stay 1 or 2 nights because they have frequently been told that you can do Rome in 2.5 days – the Vatican, the Colosseum, have a couple of meals, wander around a bit, have some gelato – bang you’re done! But that doesn’t really scratch the side of Rome and whilst you can never really have done Rome, adding a couple more days will open up so much to you

Visiting the Vatican and the Colosseum

  • Each of these two sites has a capacity of only 20,000-25,000 people a day – so straight away there’s too much demand
  • Angelo’s advice for first-time travelers – is if you’ve only booked a couple of days in Rome and wish to have a chance to go see the Vatican or the Colosseum, do consider extending your stay. Statistically speaking, to find an opportunity to go see the Vatican and the Colosseum, you need at least 4 or 5 days of probability
  • If you’re a second-time traveler, perhaps consider not visiting the Vatican or the Colosseum at all and experience one of the myriad of other things you can see or if you are really keen to go again – experience it differently/in an alternative way
  • You could do an early entrance to the Vatican, or the very special, first entry – with the Keymaster experience of the Vatican. You could do a visit that includes secret rooms. You could do an evening tour. You could not do the Vatican museums and just do St. Peter’s Basilica which generally speaking, is under-visited in comparison to the Vatican museums
  • Similarly for the Colosseum. At the Colosseum they have just reopened the beautiful terraces at the very top –  the 4th and 5th tiers (the lodges) where servants, slaves and women would stand to participate to watch the games of the arena at the Colosseum. If the night tours become available again in 2024, they are a great experience. Or visit the archeological park of the Colosseum – spend some time in the Roman Forum, which has 5 Super Sites. Super Sites are places that have recently been restored and reopened to the public –  temples, secret passages, underground areas, or parts of ancient homes
  • Katy has been to Rome for about two weeks this year – spread out through different trips. She’s been back to both sites and finds there’s always something new to discover even though she’s been many, many times
  • She particularly loves going to the Roman Forum because you are just surrounded by the places where so much history happened. A guide can tell you stories that can bring it to life and get you hooked on the history and stories of the Roman Empire
  • With the Vatican museums she sometimes swears she’ll never go back because it is so crowded – but then when you find the right way to do it and you can perhaps go into the Raphael rooms and you have an intimate experience, it’s amazing

Away from the Colosseum and the Vatican

  • These sites are must-sees for a reason, but if you have seen them once or a few times, then definitely consider diverting away from these and trying other things. Try and explore a destination like Rome, with everything that it has to offer at 360 degrees, not just focussing on the same sites
  • Angelo is obviously speaking as Liv Tours, but there are very many options out there from other providers too. Look at a company’s portfolio and see how much they support different ways of doing things. If a company only concentrates on 2 or 3 sites within a city, it probably means that they found a golden egg and they’re literally putting everything into that, and their tour guides are probably great and knowledgeable at doing that one place
  • But once you decide to be a little different, maybe those standard companies can’t fulfill that, and maybe you need someone who can provide the outside of the box options
  • The Golf Cart Tour has become a well-known thing in Rome and has been extraordinarily successful for Liv Tours who came up with it. Katy has done the Golf Cart Tour and despite initially thinking it was only suited for people who couldn’t get about – but absolutely loved it and realized it is for everyone and is a great way to get to places you can’t access usually
  • It’s a tour that is great for everybody – it can be for people with walking difficulties, youngsters, families, those who just want to relax and have fun or those who are jet-lagged. It allows you to see angles of the city you would not see and cover ground that you would not be able to cover with a mix of off-the-beaten-path sites with on-the-beaten-path sites. You will see the Pyramid of Cestius in Rome and the Pantheon, you will see the Janiculum Hill or perhaps the Keyhole at Aventine Hill and toss a coin in the Trevi Fountain – all in the same tour
  • A similar tour that Katy and some of her Untold Italy team have done is the fabulous Vespa Sidecar Tour or if you want to be a bit more active you can do a bike tour. Kristin and Angelo even used to do jogging tours
  • You can find a way to taste your way through the local culture of Rome. There are food and wine tours and those that combine trying the local food to give you perspective, with doing it in amazing sites
  • The Liv Tours Food Tour goes from the Jewish Quarter to the Pantheon to Largo di Torre Argentina to Piazza Navona. You’re hitting the sites while enjoying and tasting food!
  • The advantage to some other sites/museums in the city as opposed to the Vatican and Colosseum is that they have air conditioning. You get to experience and learn with the added bonus of staying cool. There’s the Modern Art Museum, The Etruscans Museum at Villa Giulia explores the true origins of Rome, pre-Romans. One of the new Liv Tour offerings is a Private Tour of the National Etruscan Museum and Villa Giulia
  • If you want to learn more about gods, goddesses, empresses, and generals, you can go to the Capitoline Museum and see amazing works of art on their Capitoline Museums – Private Tour
  • The Palazzo Massimo is next to Termini station, right in the center of the city. On the top floor of Palazzo Massimo there is a part reproduction/part imported reconstructed of the home of Livia, wife of Emperor Augustus. You get to be stood in an aristocratic home at the top floor of a museum – you can’t really have that feel/experience at the Roman Forum or Pompeii. Liv Tour’s Palazzo Massimo & Diocletian’s- Baths – Private Tour offer an in-depth dip into these past worlds
  • In Angelo’s opinion, the number one museum in Europe is the Borghese Gallery. Katy is a fan herself and thinks if you’re interested in art, go there and not the Vatican museums because you’ll get a much richer experience
  • It’s a tiny museum and they only allow you two hours inside – but you don’t really need more. You could not find such a concentrated art collection of Canovas, Berninis, Rafaels, etc elsewhere. It’s right in the middle of the beautiful Borghese Park, which is Rome’s  Central Park. You can combine beauty and arts with nature and outdoor activities. Enjoy what Romans would enjoy on their jogging trip or evening walk. Enjoy this treasure with Liv Tour-s Masterpieces at the Borghese Gallery Tour
  • You can do many things for free or cheaply. There are churches in Rome that are free, open museums. Inside San Luigi dei Francesi between Piazza Navona and the Pantheon, there are two Caravaggios. There are churches that have both Berninis and Caravaggios inside. If you want to spend a little money, there are the catacombs, there are the baths – the ancient Roman baths of Caracalla and DiocletianLiv Tours offers tours of all these unique places
  • In 2024 and the upcoming 2025 Jubilee year, Liv Tours are looking to concentrate, not on the Vatican and Colosseum, but in trying to prove that there are a lot more opportunities to see amazing things and unique things around Rome. There’s a lot less crowds if you spread yourself out
  • If you are someone who cares about the impact that trip is going to have upon your and your family or friends, whether it’s an educational or relaxing trip or a once-in-a-lifetime because you come so far and you doubt it’s ever going to happen again – then you need to do it the right way
  • A good friend of Katy’s was in Rome in September. She’d dreamt of going to Italy her whole life and is obsessed with Julius Caesar. She made up her own little tour to go around some major sites in Rome to see the places that were significant in his life – ended up in Largo di Torre Argentina which has only recently reopened for people can access and is where he died. She was very emotional and Katy was so pleased that she’d set her own path focusing on what she was really interested in
  • There’s so much in Rome – it’s almost overwhelming and people tend just to go down the same beaten paths because it’s what they know, but do consider seizing the day and trying something new or different

A unique cocktail of a tour

  • Angelo and Liv Tours have used their experience and network to come up with ideas for tours that will incorporate many of the different aspects that make Rome so special. They have a newly created and very unique tour that mixes religious sites with art, the underground world of ancient Rome and views to die for
  • There are four major basilicas in Rome: St. Peter’s at the Vatican, St. John the Lateran (old headquarters of the Pope), St. Paul Outside of the Walls (built on top of where St. Paul’s head was decapitated and rolled down) and Santa Maria Maggiore in honor of the Holy Mary – all explored in the Major Basilicas of Rome – Private Jubilee Tour
  • Santa Maria Maggiore is on the Esquiline Hill between Termini train station and the Colosseum
  • Santa Maria Maggiore, it’s an amazing complex and inside of Santa Maria Maggiore, there is the tomb of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, one of the greatest artists, and contributors to what Rome looks like today
  • Under the high altar is a piece of the crib of Jesus Christ kept in an urn
  • Beneath the Santa Maria Maggiore,  there is an entire underground area of a Domus – an ancient Roman home that you can walk through and see the rooms. You can see the roof tiles under this basilica and on the top floor, the tour allows you to access this beautiful balcony overlooking the square of Santa Maria Maggiore, with a gorgeous mosaic
  • Further, there is a square room with doors to the apartments of the priests and cardinals that live and work there – the grand Papal Room. In this room, there is a beautiful, tiny spiral staircase, which would have led the clergy from the Church to their apartments and all the way up to the bell tower of the church to ring the bell. This spiral staircase was built by Bernini himself so is a complete treasure – a hidden gem that nobody gets to see
  • Also in the Papal room is a tiny little door which in March is going to be opening to those accompanied by only partnered guides like Liv Tours and from there you get to a terrace over the main aisle of the church and at the very end of that terrace you access a dome which leads to a very tight, narrow staircase, taking you all the way to the roof of Santa Maria Maggiore – one of the four major basilicas of Rome with a panoramic view and angle to the city like no other. You’re behind the Colosseum, you can see the river, St. Peter’s Basilica, the hills – it’s a very special, unique opportunity
  • This is a church that is not visited by the mainstream, with at least 4 or 5 things that anybody in their right mind would want to experience once – religious connections, the staircase and tomb of Bernini, ancient Rome in the underground Domus and to (literally) top it off, rooftop views to die for
  • You need someone to take you on this kind of tour – firstly, you’re not going to find out about all the elements in any guide book and even if you did, you would not have the understanding or the access. There’s so much history and so many layers – it just takes the historians, archeologists and professionals at companies like Liv Tours, to pull out those stories and that details and package them in a way that becomes exciting
  • You need somebody to give you the context, to entertain you. You need to rely on local resources to access these things and back it up with the knowledge and also know the way to respectively visit these very special places
  • Find out more about the Major Basilicas of Rome – Private Jubilee Tour which encompasses all these unique experiences with a talented story-teller guiding your way

An evening in the catacombs

  • There are a number of catacombs around Rome and some of the daytime catacomb visits can get pretty crowded. By their nature, they are narrow spaces underground, and all you need to do is have a couple hundred people there trying to enter at once, and it gets messy. It can also be hard to enjoy the catacombs on a tour because due to the narrow hallways, you can end up at the back of a group, unable to hear your guide – with a group behind you
  • Liv Tours decided that in order to give people a quieter, more relaxing and intimate experience why not visit these after hours? So they have created an amazing evening tour of the catacombs by entering a unique partnership with the Basilica di Sant’Agnese
  • There are a lot of catacombs in Rome: San Callixtus, San Sebastian, Domitilla, Priscilla, etc – the well-known, mainstream catacombs. Very few people know or understand about the catacombs of Sant’Agnes, which are not on the Appian Way as most others are, but on the ancient Roman road – Nomentana
  • The reason why they have chosen this very special location for their Small group Catacombs night tour is not only does it have the amazing catacombs, but the Basilica di Sant’Agnese is a huge, monumental complex. The church itself is gorgeous. As you cross the complex, you’re in the middle of a school environment with a playground, a bocce ball, because people live in the area – it has a neighborhood context
  • There is the mausoleum of Costanza, the Mother of Emperor Constantine. Her mausoleum is a big, beautiful octagonal room that you visit as part of this tour – they open the door for the group, you go inside and they lock you into this church dedicated to Emperoress Costanza. These experiences you feel in your heart and soul – it’s not just about information and history
  • When you head home and look back at the list of things you wanted to do  – you’re going to look at that list as not things just to be ticked off but knowing that an experience has brought a fulfillment and happiness that you should always feel after you travel

Do it properly and do it in the most fulfilling way you can!

  • When thinking about what you want from a trip to Rome, you just really have to follow your heart because you can’t do everything, but there’s something for everyone
  • You can’t do everything in Rome but do your best to extend a 2-night trip to at the very least 3/4 and try and divert your attention from the usuals
  • Wherever you travel – look out for companies with local knowledge that are resourceful and are providing unimaginable, usually unreachable opportunities
  • Angelo and Katy both work in travel – and in a world where the impacts of travel are having major effects on the environment eco-friendly – they are both aware that the culture of tourism has to change as it’s not sustainable as it is. But they know if people change their travel course from the ‘norms’ – in terms of where they go and what they do, not only will have a lesser impact, it will be a much more rewarding experience. Angelo’s advice is to ‘Do it properly and do it in the most fulfilling way you can!’
  • A great goal as you travel is to want your experiences to give you a different perspective – so when you go back to your life at home it has had an effect on the way you think about things. Open your eyes to these unique experiences that really talk to you and feed your interests and passions

Want to find out more about Liv Tour’s experiences?

  • At Untold Italy, we love partnering with Liv Tours, because we have similar values and goals. In a country like Italy and a city like Rome, there are endless wonders and it simply can’t be explored in a couple of days. And it’s always best discovered with an expert who’s passionate about the history and culture and knows how to uncover those stories to make their places come alive. Katy has done many tours with Liv Tours and always finds the tour guides exceptional – no matter the make up of the group or the location their storytelling engages all
  • You can find all their tours at their website livtours.com. Angelo and Kristin and are very lucky to be surrounded by an extraordinary team of great humans who are passionate, knowledgeable, resourceful. If you don’t find what you’re looking for, aren’t sure what might be of interest to you or have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact them through the website or by emailing info@livtours.com. Alternatively give them a call, text or What’s App them (details here) – they are available most hours of the day and night

Liv Tour’s new, off-the-beaten-track experiences

Special Liv Tours offer for Untold Italy listeners

save 5% on Liv Tours with code ‘untolditaly’

Click here to browse Liv Tours now!!

Places mentioned in the show
  • Vatican Museums – a whole complex of museums attached to the Vatican, including the Sistine Chapel
  • Raphael Rooms – the four rooms known as the Stanze of Raphael formed part of the apartment situated on the second floor of the Pontifical Palace worked on by Raphael between 1508 and 1524
  • Pyramid of Cestius – a Roman Era Pyramid mausoleum built in the middle of Rome
  • The Pantheon – former Roman temple and, since 609 AD, a Catholic church in Rome
  • Trevi Fountain – iconic monumental fountain
  • Aventine keyhole – unique scene and line of sight through the rooftops of Rome to St Peters
  • Janiculum – ancient site on Janiculum Hill in Trastevere, Rome
  • Piazza Navona – beautiful, central piazza in Rome
  • Largo di Torre Argentina – the spot in Rome where Julius Caeser was murdered. Now a cat sanctuary
  • Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna (National Gallery of Modern Art) – created in 1883, housing contemporary works of art 
  • Palazzo Massimo – former palace now containing a museum of classical art
  • Capitoline Museum – a single museum containing a group of art and archaeological museums in Piazza del Campidoglio, on top of the Capitoline Hill
  • National Etruscan Museum – museum at Villa Giulia all about the Etruscan civilization
  • Borghese Gallery – art gallery in Rome, Italy, housed in the former Villa Borghese Pinciana
  • Villa Borghese – the largest park in Rome 
  • San Luigi dei Francesi – church near Piazza Navona
  • Roman Catacombs – around 40 ancient catacombs, underground burial places in and around the city
  • Baths of Caracalla – Rome’s second largest Roman public baths first built in early AD 200s and operated until the 530s
  • Baths of Diocletian –  public baths in ancient Rome, built between 298 CE and 306 CE and named after emperor Diocletian
  • St Peter’s Basilica, St John in Laterano, St Paul Outside the Walls and Santa Maria Maggiore (Mary) Rome‘s four major papal basilicas
  • Esquiline Hill – one of the Seven Hills of Rome
  • Catacombs of St Agnes – Catacombs in Rome where the young Roman martyr Agnes was buried in the 3rd/4th century
  • St Calixtus, St Sebastian, Domitilla, Priscilla – mainstream catacombs in Rome
  • Via Nomentana – ancient road  which leads North-East from Rome to Nomentum (modern Mentana)
  • Santa Costanza – a 4th-century church around the reign of Constantine I as a mausoleum

Resources

  • Etruscan civilization – civilization of Italy, with the earliest evidence of a culture dating from about 900 BC
  • Antonio Canova – sculptor, famous for his marble sculptures
  • Gian Lorenzo Bernini – architect, city planner and sculptor who helped shape Rome as we know it
  • Caravaggio – amazing painter who mostly worked in Rome, who died in 1610
  • bocce – a gentle ball sport similar to boules and petanque

Resources from Untold Italy

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