Cycling down the Via Appia, one of ancient Rome’s arterial roads, could be the best way to discover the eternal city, finds Sukanya Ramanujan
The Via Appia Antica stretches from Rome to Brindisi in Italy. It is an ancient road and often missed by tourists, but it has surprisingly more to tell you about 2,500 years of history and civilisation than a lot of other tourist destinations in the eternal city. So, it was with much excitement that I joined eight other cyclists on a sunny afternoon in June for a cycling trip down the ancient road.
Our guide was Bruno from Topbike Tours, a quintessential Italian, full of motivation, humour and historical facts to help us through our 30 km itinerary in a leisurely six hours. After a quick briefing session about our 21-gear bicycles and the safety gear, we slowly made our way out of the city past the famous Colosseum and Circus Maximus before exiting through the gates of Saint Sebastian to enter the Via Appia.
The Romans were not the first in the world to build roads. However, as in other spheres, they took the art of road-building to a completely new level and laid the foundations for what is the existing road network in many parts of Western Europe to this day. The Via Appia, one of the most strategic roads for the Romans, was built in 312 B.C. to facilitate easy movement for troops and ordinary people and was called the Regina Viarum or The Queen of Roads. Amazingly, parts of the old road are still in use today.
However, cycling along the road was no easy task. The cobbled basalt stone stretches made for a very jerky ride and we often had to stick to the sidewalks.
However, the road is lined with monuments and tombs on both sides, and Bruno stopped every few minutes to give us insights into Roman history and a much welcome respite from cycling.
Our first stop was at the Catacombs of San Callisto. Ancient Roman law forbade preserving the remains of the dead within city limits, so there is a plethora of tombs lining the roads going out of the city. The catacombs are the largest and oldest Christian cemetery of Ancient Rome, spread across four levels and about 15 hectares under the ground. A guide took us through the narrow passages and tombs of the second level, telling us how early Christianity survived in the second and third centuries of the Roman Empire.
Riding on, we cycled past the tomb of Caecilia Metella, daughter-in-law of Crassus, part of the Roman Triumvirate with Julius Caesar; past the chariot race track of Emperor Maxentius; and past numerous other tombs.
We soon reached what was the highlight of the journey, the aqueducts of ancient Rome, at the Aqueduct Park of Cafferella, a stretch of reserved semi-forested park. Aqueducts are another marvel of Roman engineering, bringing water from natural springs into Roman cities. We were now cycling on dirt tracks along the aqueducts, with sometimes trees and sometimes meadows of multicoloured flowers on either side. To cap the experience, Bruno conjured up a quick picnic with pizza, bread, and homemade cheese. It was a welcome break to sit and enjoy the cool evening, watching the shepherds herd their flocks of sheep.
Back to Rome
Our adventure was far from over, though the latter part of our itinerary was much easier as we cycled along the length of the park and not along the basalt road. We came up to an ancient alcove containing a fountain to the nymph Egeria. It had been lost for centuries before being rediscovered in modern times.
Although we would have loved to spend more time at the park, the evening was drawing on. Riding back along more modern roads, we soon reached Rome and our last stop for the day — the Baths of Caracalla. These public baths built in the early 3 Century AD are mind-boggling in their sheer size and scale, and could hold an estimated 1,500 bathers at once. Although we could see only the skeletal remains, we were told that the buildings were once covered in gorgeous mosaic, gilding and marble work.
When we finally got back, the sun was still shining at 8 p.m., as we ended the wonderful day with much reluctance. It was a ride we would remember for life.