Our daughter Eliza and her wife Jessica arrived last Sunday, with only five days to spend in Rome. They had set some priorities: colosseum and forum, yes; Vatican, not so much. Appian Way, definitely. A day out of Rome, yes. Lots of walking around. So we sketched out an itinerary: an orientation walk the first day; an Appian Way day; a colosseum and forum and ghetto day; a day in Orvieto; a day to pick up the odds and ends we had missed, like Piazza Navona.
They arrived in the evening, and after a good dinner at our favorite neighborhood ristorante, got a full night’s sleep and were ready to go the next morning. We took a bus to Rome’s huge central park, the Villa Borghese, and walked down to the Pincian hill to give them a view out over the city. We walked to the Spanish Steps–mobbed–and the Trevi Fountain–even more mobbed.
We knew that this was the week that two former popes were to be canonized, but we hadn’t realized how many millions would flood into the city for that event. Nevertheless we pressed on to Trastevere and a little café sitting. A fine Roman orientation tour.
The second day we roused everyone early. It was Appian Way day. John and I had never walked the Appia Antica, and we were looking forward to this; we had been delighted to see it listed as a priority for Eliza and Jessica. The Appian Way, of course, is one of the ancient Roman roads leading into the city, this one from the southeast. The route is now followed by a modern, if narrow, road on which travel cars, buses, scooters, motorcycles, bikes, and pedestrians. (On Sundays, it is closed to all traffic except pedestrians.) Small sections of the ancient road remain intact, as do multiple remnants of various imperial structures. Also along the way are several of Rome’s largest catacombs, and the setting for the Christian tale of St. Peter’s encounter with Jesus as Peter was fleeing from the city.
Getting to the Appian Way is not complicated: You take the Metro to the bus–but, as is often the case with public transportation in Rome, it can involve considerable waits along the way. For us the wait was at Piramide, across from the Protestant cemetery, and we didn’t mind too much. Eventually the bus came, and we clambered on; at around 11:30, we disembarked and started down the road. The “new” road is narrow, bordered by occasional ancient-looking buildings–homes, small shops–and fairly heavily trafficked. We stopped to look at a very old paper mill, stopped for water, stopped again at the quo vadis church where, according to Christian apocrypha, Peter, intent on escaping from threatened crucifixion in Rome, met the risen Jesus, and asked him, “Quo vadis?”–where are you going? Jesus responded, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again,” and Peter, shamed, turned back and was indeed crucified some days later. The church has a stone embedded in the floor with the outline of footprints sunk into it–perhaps those of Peter, perhaps those of Jesus. Or not.
We were taking our time. We saw the sign for the San Callisto catacombs, and we turned off the main road to follow a quiet route through open fields, slightly uphill, for a mile or so. It was a relief to be away from the traffic. We were surrounded by something close to silence. We walked on. Eventually we reached the church of San Callisto and then the catacombs–which, it turns out, close, as much in Rome does, from 12:30 to 2:30. We had ambled. It was 12:40. We sighed heavily, checked our watches again, and then decided to move on; there was another catacomb, San Sebastiano, just down the road, after all, and it was open all day, we were assured.
We walked on, along more open path, and then back onto the main road, and there was San Sebastiano. We had a quick sandwich and waited for the next English tour. (You are not permitted into any catacombs without a guide. Wisely so. Wandering through miles of underground labyrinth is not for the faint of heart.) We were a small group–a Danish family, a German family, and us–and our guide, Pino, was playful and knowledgeable. We learned the origin of the word catacomb; we learned that the tale of Christians hiding from pursuers in the catacombs is simply untrue, a myth propagated by the makers of the 1950s epic Quo Vadis. We saw an astonishing wall of grafitti dating from 1st century B.C.
We walked on, along the Appian Way, to the ruins of the Circo Maxentius, the most complete of all Roman circuses, and the second largest after the Circo Massimo in Rome.
I sat on the remains of a pillar while Eliza and Jess and John wandered through the fields, essentially alone, picturing chariot races.
Now we turned back to San Sebastiano, took a left, and walked on to the Fosse Ardeatine memorial. Here is the story of the Ardeatine caves. On 23 March 1944, some nine months after the Allied invasion of Italy and seven months after the Germans occupied Rome, members of the Italian resistance planted an explosive device that killed 33 members of a German patrol in central Rome. The German Command decided that a 10 to 1 ratio would be appropriate for their reprisal. Within 24 hours, they gathered a motley group: prisoners already sentenced to death; prisoners serving long-term sentences; prisoners deemed worthy of death for obscure reasons; Jews; suspected partisans. And when this didn’t get them to the requisite 330, they rounded up some more: residents of the street where the attack on the Germans had taken place, shopkeepers, even a priest. All were taken to the caves at Ardeatine and shot in the back of the head, 335 in all; the bodies stacked a meter high; and the cave dynamited closed. By the time the populace of Rome learned of the initial attack, the reprisal was already completed.
The memorial to the 335 who died in the cave is extraordinary. Built in 1949, it is bleak, compelling, overwhelming. We enter through a metal grate, as if climbing into an illicit space, and then move slowly through a narrow opening in the cave into a dark grotto.
More metal-work gates mark the space where the actual killings were done. (Reports suggest that many of the German soldiers were appalled at the task they were being ordered to do, that they drank heavily during the day as they shot victim after victim.)
Then we move on through another narrow stone passage and enter the mausoleum–a large, low, stone space filled with row after row of sarcophagi, one for each murdered man, each with a name plate and a picture of the victim. Most have flowers placed at one end. Row after row. On the wall facing the coffins is a book of metal plates listing all the names. This is a place of horror but also a place of peace.
By now it was late afternoon. We were overwhelmed by what we had seen, but we had one more destination: the Parco Acquedotti, a large public park where several of the great Roman aqueducts come out of the ground to enter Rome. We went off in search of a taxi. Just down the road, everyone kept telling us, was a taxi stand. Yes. If you consider a mile and a half just down the road. We refreshed with a caffe, found our taxi stand, and headed to the park, which proved to be considerably farther away than we had anticipated. But it was a joy: a huge open field with playgrounds and ruins, and everywhere the great concrete tubes through which the Romans brought their water supply into the city. Here and there were the elegant remains of above-ground aqueducts, with their arched supports and graceful lines. We walked along the pipes, watched the teenage Roman boys posture on top of the arches, averted our eyes from the lovers kissing in the shadows, delighted in the mamas and their bambini.
I’m not sure at what point I decided it would be a good idea to end our day with a visit to the Pantheon and dinner at the best restaurant in Rome. Really? We boarded the Metro and emerged into the crowded streets of central Rome, elbowing our way through as we had the day before. The Pantheon was full to overflowing (what did we expect, really?) and of course the restaurant, Armando al Pantheon, was fully booked for the evening. They could fit us in at 10:00. Our spirit was waning. We knew that was too late.
We walked on once again, finding dinner across Vittorio Emanuele near the Campo de’Fiori. We arrived home after 10. We slept in the next morning.