I woke up in time to snag a cappuccino before boarding the Archeobus to the entrance of the Via Appia Antica. If you haven’t noticed, I rather enjoy visiting places where there are fewer tourists and more Italian being spoken. Especially this summer, when I have previously visited the majority of the cities I am traveling to, I like to venture a bit off the beaten path. I had heard that the Via Appia Antica was one such travel experience not to be missed, so I put on layers of sunscreen, my cycling shorts, and my sunglasses and prepared to sweat. Upon arriving at the entrance to the park, I made use of my research and got off of the Archeobus to head into the Tourist Information Center at the beginning of the park. I rented a bicycle and obtained a map before taking off about 2 miles to the Catacombs of St. Callisto. I woke up really fast because about 2 minutes into my ride I faced a steep uphill climb. My heartrate went up and I was sweating before I knew it. I arrived at the catacombs in less than 10 minutes feeling quite awake, and purchased my entrance ticket. Other tourists arrived via the bus stop directly in front of the catacombs and glanced curiously at me as I locked up my bicycle. Let me tell you that if you visit the Appia Antia, you can only see 1/10th by bus of what you can see by bicycle. However, this great tourist adventure does not come for free; you will be sore afterwards and it will be painful, especially in summer. Wear biking shorts, bring lots of water and snacks, plenty of sunscreen, and a good attitude because as I later found out, biking the entire length of the park is not exactly a Sunday stroll. At the beginning, there are many people on bikes, but at the end of the 10 kilometer stretch, I was all alone.
But anyways, I and my fellow English speaking tourists were ushered into the catacombs for a tour at 11am. For about half an hour, we visited a tiny section of the catacombs which stretch on beneath the earth for some 12 miles; the largest catacombs in Rome! It used to be illegal to bury the dead within the city walls, and early Christians did not believe in cremation, so they buried their dead along the Via Appia Antica. Many martyrs and popes were buried in the catacombs of St. Callisto. Now, all of the bodies and bones are gone but it’s possible to see the thousands of holes along the walls which served as a final resting place for so many. The saddest part of visiting the catacombs was the frequent smaller tombs, in existence because of the high death rate amongst babies and children. One must use some imagination to picture the catacombs as they were during their heyday, because many of the mosaics and art lining the walls of the tunnels has now crumbled and faded away.
After visiting the catacombs, I continued on the single-track bike path along the Via Appia Antica until I reached the Mausoleum de Cecilia Metella. Mausoleums were a way for wealthy and influential Romans to catch the attention of travelers on the Appia Antica and attest to the greatness of their family lineage. This mausoleum is one of the best preserved sites, and is impressive in size. Once I left the Mausoleum, the bike traffic slowly thinned out. I completely understand why; the Via Appia Antica is NOT a pleasant bike ride. Sure, you are surrounded by some nice scenery and ancient history, but there is no smooth path. If you bike on the road, it’s guaranteed to be bumpy. If you bike on the single-track, you never know when your rental biked might puncture a tire or flip due to sand flying out underneath you. I have absolutely no idea how some travelers do this route without proper biking attire. I will repeat my earlier warning; cycling shorts, tennis shoes, and plenty of water are a MUST.
I kept bumping and sweating along until I arrived at the Villa dei Quntili, which turned out to be my favorite site along the road. The Villa was once a very grand home of a very wealthy Roman family. Now, it’s possible to see the remains of the old bath house, residential and cooking areas. Some of the original floor tiling is still intact and evidence of the below the floor heating system is visible. It’s incredible how comfortably this family lived and how far advanced the technology behind the functioning of this villa was! Exploring the villa is a bit like exploring a miniature Forum all by yourself, because not many casual tourists make it that far down the road. After leaving the villa, I applied more sunscreen and continued to use colorful language to bump along the road for another 2 kilometers. Finally, when the old aqueducts came into view, I decided it was time to head back to the start. Off to one side was a huge herd of sheep with some sheep dogs, while to the other an Italian family sad in the shade of a tree enjoying a picnic. I turned back and struggled my way along the biking path. The crazy people who have written reviews about biking the Via Appia Anntica must have been smoking something not to notice what a terrible bike trail it is. I would have appreciated a fair warning, but at least now you have one. If you have time, hike or walk – do not bike!
Finally, I reached the tourist center and returned my bike. Then I devoured a Panini and a Peroni before waiting for the ArcheoBus to return. Finally it did, and made a gelato stop on the way back into town. The Appia Antica Caffe makes a delicious almond gelato! On the way back, I deliberated what to do, and decided to visit the Capitoline Museum. The museum takes your weekly paycheck in return for a visit and an audio guide, but I paid it because I very much wanted to see one of the most famous museums in Rome with the original Marcus Aurelis golden horse and the original bronze she-wolf. Luckily, the museum was not very crowded and was definitely enjoyable. Some of the oldest art in the world is houses within its walls. I also enjoyed visiting the Tabularium, the back part of the museum which looks out over the Forum. I made the right choice to visit the museum, because about 30 minutes after I entered, the sky opened up and it began to pour. This was closely followed by hail, even though it was 90 something degrees outside. Strange, strange weather, but at least I was inside. I took advantage of a break in the rain to power walk back to the apartment and grab my things at the train station after spending about 2 hours at the museum. I made it just in time for my train back to Pisa, wishing, as always, that I could have had just a little bit more time to explore the treasures of Rome.