Special Access Tours: Going Beyond the Velvet Ropes

Posted by on Feb 4, 2016 in England, Italy | No Comments

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Whenever I see the words “special access,” I get really excited. The promise of minimal crowds, a small group and a peek into a world beyond the typical tour is almost always worth the price of admission. Sometimes billed as skip the lines, early access, late admission or even secret access, these tours offer the chance to immerse yourself in the moment rather than bumping elbows with the person next to you as you crane your neck to capture a photo.

Here are three places where Special Access Tours are especially special

1.“Pristine Sistine,” Walks of Italy, Rome.

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They had me at pristine. My fingers literally flew across the keyboard as I signed up for Walks of Italy‘s early admission tour to the Sistine Chapel. It was my husband’s and my first visit to Rome, and being enveloped in Michelangelo’s masterpiece was one of those experiences I had always wanted to savor.

We I met our guide at 7:30 a.m. at the Vatican entrance. It was a sunny morning in early May, and a line was already forming for the regular admission at 9 o’clock. As soon as everyone in our group of 12 had arrived, we were ushered inside and invited to take our places in the intimate space. We shared the chapel with several other small groups, and photography was not allowed. Our English guide brought the Sistine Chapel to life with stories, history and information we never would have known on our own. I soaked it all in – the colors, the beauty, the quiet – grateful for the chance to feel like we were the only ones there.

The minutes flew much too quickly, and soon it was time to move on to the Vatican Museums. Unlike the slower, whisper-like experience in the Sistine Chapel, the museum tour was fast-paced. It would have been completely overwhelming without a guide to navigate the maze and explain what we were seeing. We toured rooms and corridors filled with more art than I could have imagined. Tapestries, sculptures, maps, paintings and decorated ceilings seemed to appear at every turn. There was literally so much to cover – and we were only seeing the highlights!

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The ceiling of the Map Corridor.

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Detail from the Raphael Rooms, commissioned by Pope Julius II in 1509.

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View of the Papal Parking Lot…not a Popemobile in sight!

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Stairway leading to the corridor where the Pope greets his visitors.

Our last stop was St. Peter’s Basilica: Michelangelo, Bernini, more incredible art and more great commentary from our guide. “Pristine Sistine” had gone far beyond our expectations – special access or otherwise. The morning had been an almost four-hour overload for the senses. And as we made our way back outside into the bright blue, cloudless day, it was very clear to me why Rome is called the Eternal City.

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Bernini’s 1678 Monument to Alexander VII cascades over a doorway. The four statues represent Truth, Charity, Prudence & Justice, and the hourglass represents death.

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Michelangelo’s 1499 masterpiece, Pieta. After an attacker damaged the sculpture in 1972, it was placed behind a protective bulletproof glass panel.

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Michelangelo’s dome.

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The clock on the left side of the facade of St. Peter’s Basilica.

2. “The Colosseum & Top Tier and Ancient Rome,” Walks of Italy, Rome.

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The next day we had signed on for a second Walks of Italy special access tour. Another early morning, another Roman treasure, another terrific guide, this time an American. We began at the Forum, ruins of the ancient city that, like our Vatican tour, came to life with our guide’s history and humor. We walked to Palatine Hill, past olive trees, richly hued porphyry columns and stunning remnants of the long-ago time.

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Walking through the Forum.

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Under the Arch of Titus.

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Ancient copper doors and porphyry columns.

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The stone pine trees on Palatine Hill provide umbrella-like shade… and  pine nuts!

It would have been a lovely place to linger, but we had come for the main attraction: The Colosseum and our special access onto the arena floor.  Our group of 12 walked through the entrance used by the gladiators – “the walk of the living,” as our guide called it – and suddenly we were inside, all alone on the arena floor, looking up at the magnificent structure. It was clearly one of those I can’t believe where I’m standing moments for each of us.

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After a flurry of picture-taking and a few minutes to take in all in, it was time to move on to the second part of the Colosseum special access extravaganza – the underground level. This was the place the ancient Roman crowds never saw, where the gladiators and the animals waited before their battles. We walked past stone columns and ruins that marked the individual rooms under the Colosseum. Although there were no ceilings, allowing sunlight to filter through the spaces, it was easy to imagine that this was not a place you would want to be.

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The final stop at the Colosseum was a climb to the upper third tier. Our guide had warned us that the Colosseum guards were sometimes unwilling to allow the special access tours – well, special access. Occasionally there were safety issues because of damage from weather. Other times “real VIPs” were there, trumping any chance for regular tours to get to the top. But the ancient Roman gods smiled down on our group that day, and the guard lifted the rope. We looked out over the Colosseum and beyond, taking in the views of a city that was quickly capturing my heart. We looked back toward the ruins of the Forum, past the stone pine trees atop Palatine Hill, past the stately Arch of Constantine that seemed even grander from that vantage point. We saw Rome in all its majesty laid out before us. And that was the best special access of all.

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3. “Stonehenge After Hours,” Wiltshire, England.

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While doing research for our family’s trip to London in 2004, I was excited to include a day trip to Stonehenge, a place I had visited on my college study abroad program. I had been fascinated with the experience of walking among the stones, and I wanted to share that with my family. But I soon discovered that a lot can change in 30 years – even with ancient ruins. It was no longer possible to get up close and personal with Stonehenge. A rope now separated visitors and stones, so close but yet so far away.

As I dug deeper into my research, I discovered that a few companies were doing special access tours to Stonehenge, some from London and others from nearby Salisbury. They were very limited back then, but I found one that offered a tour when we would be in London. The company was called Astral Travels,* a name that seemed to me a perfect fit for touring Stonehenge.

The tour would take place after Stonehenge had closed, and we were instructed to meet in front of a London hotel mid-afternoon.  About 20 of us plus a driver/guide headed to the English countryside in the Astral Travels van that day, ready for our adventure. The first stop was the village of Avebury, home of another stone circle, a haunted pub and an abundance of sheep. Our kids tried their hands at the ancient art of “dousing,” using two metal rods to locate underground treasure (nothing was found). Next we stopped to see the Neolithic burial tombs of West Kennet Long Barrow and Silbury Hill, a prehistoric, pyramid-like “chalk mound” whose origins we were told hold as much mystery as the great stone circle itself.

And then, as the hour had turned later and the crowds had left for the day, it was finally time for Stonehenge. I was immediately struck with the same fascination I had remembered from my long-ago visit. The way Stonehenge suddenly appears on the horizon, rising up in the middle of the countryside. How the light dances in and out of each stone column, creating shadows in constantly changing patterns. As we walked closer and watched our guide lift the rope for our small group, I smiled to myself, knowing that like that circle of stones, I was experiencing my own a “full circle” moment.

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The “inner circle” at Stonehenge in 1974…

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…and in 2004.

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With my family at Stonehenge. 2004.

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*Astral Travels is no longer around, but a quick check of the internet shows a number of companies offering special access tours of Stonehenge, before and after hours.