All roads lead to Rome
Picasso and la dolce vita might be fading memories, but there’s still something special in the air, as would-be Fellinis wander along in Panama hats, antique shops display polished antler horns, and the stonecarver passes the time of day. As Valentina concludes, gesturing in the direction of the hubbub in the surrounding streets: ‘Just one block away from Via Margutta, it’s a completely different world.’
Via Appia antica: Gateway to an empire
Via Appia Antica stretches out south of Rome, as straight as a die, its steppingstone cobblestones disappearing into the distance. Monumental Roman structures line the road, but the rest is hidden-away country mansions, rolling fields and distant hills. The first section of the road, as far as the tomb of Cecilia Metella, is still in use by vehicles hurtling southwards out of Rome (though it’s closed to traffic on Sunday), while the 10-mile section enclosed by the Parco dell’Appia Antica is mostly free of cars.
Francesca Mazzà from the Appia Antica Park shows the way. ‘The main purpose of the Appia Antica was military,’ she says, ‘as it was for the majority of Roman roads.’ Work on the street began in 312 BC, when it was the first proper road leading out of Rome. Today it’s still worthy of the ‘Queen of Roads’ nickname it has borne for millennia. By 191 BC, the Via Appia was complete, reaching as far as Brindisi in present-day Puglia.
It’s uncannily straight. How did they build a road so straight? ‘There were massive road engineering works, altering the topography, overcoming obstacles such as the Pontine Marshes.’ The Romans conquered nature before conquering anything else, reclaiming land and using terraces and viaducts to build across different altitudes.
Besides having enormous military and political importance, the Via Appia Antica was also the road of tombs. It’s lined on both sides by monuments to death.
Francesca explains: ‘Roman law forbade that burials should occur within the confines of the city.’ This was for practical reasons, to try to limit disease. ‘There are aristocratic tombs, such as that of Cecilia Metella (daughter of a Roman consul), but also the more simple collective tombs, with open niches for urns.’ Some of the memorials have portraits carved into them, with ordinary, almost recognisable faces that somehow bring the past closer.
Like the billboard-lined highways of today, Via Appia was a place to advertise: here, the aristocracy showed their wealth via their tombs,and the Roman Empire showed their might through engineering and punishment. In the seventh century BC, when the slave revolt led by Spartacus was defeated, 6,000 slaves were crucified and left dangling on crosses that lined the road from here to Capua, 132 miles away.
Christians were buried by the Via Appia too, in the catacombs that run for miles underground. St Peter and St Paul were buried here briefly in the third century during a time of persecution.
Even without considering the millennialong march of footsteps along here, it’s one of Rome’s most singular experiences to cycle down the Appia Antica on a Sunday. People are walking dogs, cyclists whizz past and tourists examine maps, their footsteps following where Roman soldiers forged and Christians scrawled still-visible commemorative graffiti in the catacombs.
Francesca adds: ‘I’d recommend a guide, a good book and copies of famous paintings such as those of Gianbattista Piranesi. You’ll feel part of the history of Appia.’
Via del Pigneto: The heart of bohemia
This isn’t the Rome that most visitors usually see. It’s la dolce vita, 2011-style, where sharp suits have been replaced by trilbies and beatnik leather jackets. Here, in Pigneto, traditionally a poor workingclass neighbourhood full of higgledypiggeldy, 19th-century low-rise buildings, the alternative has become the mainstream and graffiti-covered shops are fast turning into off-beat boutiques.