During our first two visits to Rome we knocked ourselves out, like all tourists do, to pack as much in as possible in order to check off the “must-sees” on the long list of remarkable Roman sights. This last time however, we afforded ourselves the luxury of forgoing the craziness of tourism in the old city and opted instead to experience the Roman countryside for a day of biking along the ancient Appian Way. Phenomenal experience – well worth every penny and every minute.
The Ancient Appian Way (Via Appian Antica) was begun as a military road in 312 B.C. by Appius Claudius, a Roman statesman. Linking Rome with the Adriatic port of Brindisi (near Naples), it was the longest, fastest, widest (and straightest) highway of its day and was aptly dubbed, the Regina Viarum, “Queen of Roads.” Alongside it ran the Claudian aqueduct which supplied Rome of fresh water for its countless fountains, gardens and baths. “Rich Romans built villas, tombs and mausoleums here, against a backdrop of the purple Alban hills. Under ivy-draped walls, early Christians dug catacombs, which were tunneled graves for their dead. Helmeted Roman legions marched off to war along the road, trading caravans passed through, and visiting princes paraded here, riding elephants and bearing gifts of caged lions for the circus games.” (European Travel, msnbc.com)
Today the road is preserved within a regional park and the most popular stretch of road begins at the Colosseum and heads south out into the beautiful Roman countryside.
On Sundays, the road is closed to all motorized vehicles so we took advantage of the beautiful weather and quiet surroundings to ride along this amazing stretch of history. We signed up for a 6 hour tour with a very informative and fun-loving guide who took us down the cobbled road (made from “basoli” – huge stones), past sepulchers, funerary monuments, and expansive villas.
Detouring through green fields, past eerie catacombs, under giant aqueducts and over ancient bridges, we rode with a strong sense that we had stepped back into the past probably largely because we were not interrupted by a steady stream of modern day traffic and tourists.
The 30 km ride took us past many historical sights and included a wine and cheese stop as well as a tour of San Callisto catacombs, one of the largest and most important Christian burial places in Rome. Its walls were lined with paintings, frescoes and graffiti of early Christian symbols (such as the dove and the fish) providing a sense of what it was like to live as an early Christian in pagan Rome.
All along the park there were glimpses of Sunday afternoon fun, frolicking and refreshment as families and friends gathered to picnic, ride bikes, hike and fly kites.
We returned to the city tired yet rejuvenated and ready for a glass of wine and plate of pasta at a back street trattoria. We capped the night with a stroll to Piazza Navona where the hum of the city and soft light of the Roman evening was almost sweeter than the gelato we shared.