Rick Steves Rome 2016 - Rick Steves, Gene Openshaw (2015)
Trastevere—the colorful neighborhood across the river from downtown—is the place to immerse yourself in the crustier side of Rome. This half-mile walk is designed to train your eye to see Rome more intimately. In Trastevere (trahs-TAY-veh-ray), you’ll discover a secret, hidden city of heroic young martyrs, lovers kissing on Vespas, party-loving Renaissance bankers, and feisty “Trasteverini”—old-timers who pride themselves on never setting foot on the opposite bank of the Tiber River.
(See “Trastavere Walk” map, here.)
Length of This Walk: Allow 1.5 hours. With limited time, taxi directly to Santa Maria in Trastevere. You’ll still capture plenty of ambience.
When to Go: This walk can work well at any time of day, but it’s best mornings or evenings (afternoons aren’t ideal because many churches are closed, and Villa Farnesina closes at 14:00 Mon-Sat and is closed Sun except on the second Sun of the month). Mornings are cool and relatively quiet. Strolling through Trastevere at dusk is especially atmospheric. Consider combining this walk with a meal or as a prelude to my Heart of Rome Walk (see here).
Getting There: Trastevere is on the west side of the Tiber River, south of Vatican City and across the river from the Forum and Capitoline Hill area. To get there by foot from Capitoline Hill, cross the Tiber using the bridges linked to Isola Tiberina: the Ponte Fabricio and Ponte Cestio. You can also reach Trastevere on tram #8 from Piazza Venezia or Largo Argentina, or on express bus #H from Termini train station or Piazza della Repubblica (on the northeast side of the square, near the entrance to the Baths of Diocletian); if taking either of these, get off at Sonnino/Piazza Belli, just after crossing the Tiber. From the Vatican (Piazza Risorgimento), take bus #23 to the Lungotevere Alberteschi stop (a short walk from Isola Tiberina).
Church of Santa Cecilia: Free, Mon-Sat 9:30-12:30 & 16:00-18:30, Sun 16:00-18:30; crypt—€2.50, Mon-Sat 10:00-12:30, Sun 11:00-12:30; choir loft with frescoes—€2.50, Mon-Sat 10:00-12:30; tel. 06-4549-2739.
Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere: Free, daily 7:30-21:00.
Villa Farnesina: €6, Mon-Sat 9:00-14:00, closed Sun (except open 9:00-17:00 on second Sun of the month).
Tours: Download my free Trastevere Walk audio tour.
Eateries: Several recommended restaurants are on the map and described in the Eating in Rome chapter (see here).
The Walk Begins
(See “Trastavere Walk” map, here.)
✵ Start halfway across the Ponte Cestio (Cestius Bridge)—called the “Ponte Fabricio” on the east side of the river—which connects Isola Tiberina (“Island in the Tiber”) to Trastevere.
Isola Tiberina and the Tiber River
Rome got its start 3,000 years ago along the Tiber River at this point. This was as far upstream as big boats could sail and the first place the river could be crossed by bridge. As a center of river trade, Rome connected the interior of the Italian peninsula with the Mediterranean. The area below you would have been bustling in ancient times. Look down and imagine small ports, water mills, ramshackle boats, and platforms for fishing.
The island itself was once the site of a temple dedicated to Asclepius, the god of medicine. Ancient Romans who were ill spent the night here and left little statues of their healed body parts (feet, livers, hearts...) as thank-you notes. This tradition survives: Today, throughout Italy, Catholic altars are often encrusted with votive offerings, symbolizing gratitude for answered prayers. During plagues and epidemics, the sick were isolated on the island. These days, the island’s largest building is the Fatebenefratelli, the public hospital favored by Roman women for childbirth. The island’s reputation for medical care lives on.
The high point of the bridge (upon which you’re probably leaning) is an ancient stone with a faded inscription dating from about A.D. 370, when this then-400-year-old bridge was rebuilt. The eroding plaque is stapled into the balustrade like a piece of recycled scrap. Run your fingers over the word “Caesar” (top line, just right of center). This part of the Tiber River flooded frequently, which devalued the land on the north bank; in time it would become the site of the Jewish ghetto (started in the 16th century, but now long gone, though Rome’s synagogue remains. (For a detailed tour of this area, take my Jewish Ghetto Walk, available as a chapter in this book and as a free audio tour.)
In the 1870s, the Romans removed the threat of flooding by practically walling off the Tiber, building the tall, anonymous embankments that continue to isolate the river from the city today.
✵ Head south to leave the bridge. If open, the green riverside Sora Mirella kiosk on the right (run by Mirella’s son, Stefano) is the most famous vendor of Rome’s summer refresher called a grattachecca (pronounced grah-tah-kek-kah, €4), a concoction of shaved ice with fruit-flavored syrup and chopped fruit (similar to a granita). Cross the street and go down the 12 steps into the car-filled piazza.
Piazza in Piscinula
As you descend and enter the square, look directly ahead. Rising up among the buildings is a cute little church bell tower. Dating from 1069, this is the oldest working bell tower in the city.
✵ Facing the tower, turn right and exit the trapezoid-shaped square from the far corner, opposite where you entered, going uphill on Via dell’Arco de’ Tolomei. At the top of the small slope, pause and look around.
Via dell’Arco de’ Tolomei
The buildings around you are mostly apartments. The ochre-and-yellow buildings with green shutters and draped with vines are characteristic of Rome, especially Trastevere. Find the olive trees in planters, and look up at the plant-covered rooftop terraces—the Roman equivalent of a leafy backyard. An attico con terrazzo (penthouse with a terrace) is every Roman’s dream.
Glancing up, you’ll notice an elegantly restored, freshly painted tower incorporated into the apartments. In medieval times, the city skyline had 300 of these towers (about 50 survive). Each noble family competed for the tallest one until, in about 1250, city authorities got fed up and had them all lopped off. Later (mainly Baroque) construction incorporated most of the remaining “stumps,” and you can still see these remnants of medieval Rome all over the old center. Incorporating old structures into new ones was always considered more economical and practical than demolishing and starting again from scratch. In the Middle Ages, Rome had regressed to being a big village; any idea of town planning was lost until the Renaissance.
Now look down the lane ahead of you, where there’s a low-arched passageway. Lots of aristocratic buildings were connected by these elevated passages. Imagine herds of sheep shuffling through here in medieval times while smoke billowed from the windows and doors of homes that lacked chimneys.
✵ Continue on, passing through the arched lane. Turn left immediately, and walk a few steps along…
Via dei Salumi
This is called “Cold Cuts Street.” Being close to the river, Trastevere was always a commercial neighborhood, and many of its alleys were named after the dominant businesses that were based here. The streets—rarely paved—were clogged by shop stalls.
The red-brown building on your right (pretty ugly unless you’re a fascist) is a school from the Mussolini era. The fascist leader believed in the classical motto mens sana in corpore sano (“a healthy mind in a healthy body”), and loved being seen fencing, boxing, swimming, and riding. He endowed school buildings with lots of gyms. It’s still a school, and you might hear the cheerful noise of kids pouring out the windows.
✵ After passing the school, turn right again, heading up…
Vicolo dell’Atleta (“Alley of the Athlete”)
This little alleyway is too narrow for cars—only people and a few scooters. Notice how quiet this makes things. Check out the latest fashions in underwear hanging out to dry. Apartments in Rome tend to be quite small, and electricity is more expensive than in the US, so few have clothes dryers. The small apartments also explain why young people tend to hang around outside in streets like this.
Notice the variety of doorways in this unplanned community. Some structures have ancient fragments recycled ingloriously into medieval buildings. Halfway down the alley on the right (at #14) is a restaurant that, a thousand years ago, was a synagogue. Find the Hebrew faintly inscribed on the base of the columns of the exposed brick structure (on the upper floor). A large part of Rome’s Jewish community, the most ancient outside Palestine, lived in Trastevere until the popes moved them into the ghetto on the other side of the river in the 1500s.
✵ Continue, turning left on Via dei Genovesi, then go right on Via di S. Cecilia to reach Piazza di Santa Cecilia. Here you’ll find the Church of Santa Cecilia by passing through the impressive, white, Neoclassical structure that encloses the convent courtyard. Enter the courtyard, sit by the fountain, and take a moment to enjoy the peace and quiet.
Church of Santa Cecilia
The church stands on a spot where Christians have worshipped as far back as the second and third centuries. Trastevere had early Christian churches like Santa Cecilia because foreigners tended to settle here, including early Christians from Greece and Judaea.
Notice the church’s eclectic exterior. Its mismatched columns were recycled from pagan temples. The typical medieval bell tower sports an 18th-century facade.
The church was supposedly built atop what was St. Cecilia’s home. Cecilia was a pagan Roman (third century) from a wealthy family, who converted to Christianity in a time when Christians were intensely persecuted. Cecilia revealed her faith to her pagan husband only on their wedding night and told him of her aspiration to remain chaste (uh-oh...). An angel appeared to reason with the frustrated groom. Once converted, he devoted himself to carrying out Christian burials in the catacombs, until he himself was killed. Cecilia was soon condemned as well. The Romans tried unsuccessfully for three days to suffocate her with steam in her bath to make it appear accidental. They finally lost patience and beheaded her.
Before her death, Cecilia had used her lavish house to host Mass, as churches were forbidden. She bequeathed the house to the neighborhood community, and it’s been a place of worship since then. A church was built here soon after her death, though the structure we see today dates mostly from the early ninth century and was extensively restored in the 18th century.
Church Interior: Inside, enjoy the cool elegance of the white-and-gold nave.
Cecilia is the patron saint of musicians and singers (notice the fine organ on the left). Legend says she sang at her own wedding. Ever since, the church named for her has been popular for weddings. Of Rome’s 40 medieval churches, many have two-year waiting lists for weekend weddings. Most young Roman couples favor the more sober elegance of medieval churches over Baroque, which they dismiss as troppo pesante—“too heavy.” (On the other hand, there’s nothing understated about the typical Italian wedding gown.)
The white-marble canopy above the altar (dating from the 1200s) is by Arnolfo di Cambio. Its innovative fusion of Roman styles (realistic statues) and French Gothic architecture (pinnacles and rows of flamboyant “flames”) shows that the artist knew his classics and had also been to Paris.
The mosaic in the apse dates from the ninth century. It shows Pope Paschal on the left—the man who built the current church; he holds a little model of it in his hands. His square halo (the “halo of the living”) signifies that he was alive when the mosaic was made.
The church’s highlight is the evocative statue of St. Cecilia by Stefano Maderno (in the case below the altar). In the 1600s, Cecilia’s long-buried remains were discovered. When her tomb was opened, Maderno himself was present. He claimed, along with other bystanders, to have seen her body perfectly preserved for an unforgettable instant before it turned to dust. He created this touching statue from his memory of that scene.
It shows Cecilia as she would have appeared just after her martyrdom. She lies with her face turned and hidden, the violence of her death suggested only by the gash in her neck. She died professing her faith. Notice the position of her fingers—showing three fingers on one hand (including the thumb, which Italians today also count with) and one on the other. Three in one—the oneness of the Trinity.
Maderno’s statue—though made of hard stone—captures the limpness of Cecilia’s lifeless body and the softness of her intricately folded robe and head scarf. It’s typical of Counter-Reformation art—charged with great emotional impact to enhance faith.
More Church Sights: The crypt contains the so-so remains of a complex of ancient buildings (an insula or apartment house) that includes what is thought to have been Cecilia’s house (a domus). The series of rooms is extensive but pretty bare. You’ll see ancient fragments of sarcophagi with inscriptions and early Christian iconography (crosses, shepherds, anchors, doves). You’ll walk over patches of original mosaic floors. One room was used for grain storage, and you’ll see holes in the floor where the grain was stored (€2.50, entrance at the bookstore located to the left as you enter the church).
The choir loft (“Il Coro”), where cloistered nuns would view the Mass while hidden behind a screen, contains a fragmentary but extraordinary Last Judgment fresco painted by Pietro Cavallini, a contemporary of Giotto (c. 1300). Scholars debate who influenced whom: Giotto or Cavallini. But there’s no debate that the art here shows cutting-edge realism in the expressive faces of the apostles who sit believably in their chairs (€2.50, accessed from outside the church through a doorway to the left of the facade; press the buzzer, and the sisters will let you in). If you’re here at 18:00 on a Wednesday, you’re welcome to read the Lectio Divina with the nuns.
✵ Leaving the church, backtrack left, and take the first left onto Via dei Genovesi. From here we’ll walk straight along this street several blocks to the busy boulevard of Viale di Trastevere.
Walking Along Via dei Genovesi
This is one of Trastevere’s main streets, yet it’s barely wide enough for a single car (as you’ll notice whenever you have to step aside to let a car pass). Buildings, people, and cars compete for the precious little available space. Strolling here, you’ll understand why the Italian language has no word for “privacy” (they use our word and roll the r). Reading a letter on the Metro attracts a crowd. If someone has a fight (or a particularly good orgasm), the entire neighborhood knows. Young lovers with no place to go are adept at riding motorini...while parked.
As you walk, you’ll pass the back side of the Mussolini-era school we saw earlier. Looking to the right, you’ll see the low arch we walked under near Via dei Salumi.
After about 100 yards, detour right at Via della Luce. Walk a half-block to #21 (on the right) and pop into Biscottificio Artigiano Innocenti, the last traditional cookie bakery in the area. Here, in the face of modern efficiency, humble Stefania Innocenti, who was “artisanal” long before it was cool, keeps the tradition of seasonal cookies alive in Rome.
✵ Return to Via dei Genovesi, turn right, and continue hiking straight ahead to where it meets a busy street.
Viale di Trastevere
The wide, modern boulevard called Viale di Trastevere bisects Trastevere, which was otherwise spared most of the demolishing and rebuilding suffered by other traditional neighborhoods when Rome became the capital of a united Italy in 1870.
Across the street, notice the four big, red columns on the facade of the venerable Basilica di San Crisogono (fifth century). Also notice the trams that pass along Viale di Trastevere, including the convenient #8, which can take you back to Largo Argentina or Piazza Venezia after our tour is over.
✵ Cross to the other side of Viale di Trastevere and turn right, then left into the square called Largo San Giovanni de Matha. Pass by the textbook Baroque facade of the faded yellow church and continue along...
Via della Lungaretta
Here you’ll notice a change in atmosphere—the quiet, mystical charm of the first part of your walk has given way to livelier, more colorful, more touristy (and higher-rent) surroundings.
A small crafts market is often open along here, and street-corner artists display their work. You’ll pass lots and lots of restaurants and boutiques and swim amid a sea of strolling people—tourists and locals alike.
✵ Walk several blocks until Via della Lungaretta opens up into the big square. Take a seat on the fountain steps.
Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere
You’re in the heart of the neighborhood. Piazza di Santa Maria—in the shadow of the big brick bell tower of the Church of Santa Maria—is the district’s most important meeting place. With its broad and inviting steps, the 17th-century fountain was actually designed to be the “sofa” of the neighborhood. During major soccer games, a large screen is set up here so that everybody can share in the tension and excitement. At other times, children gather here with a ball and improvise matches of their own. For more on soccer, see the sidebar.
Soccer: The National Obsession
One of Rome’s most local “sights” is a soccer match. Winston Churchill said that Italians lose wars as if they were soccer matches and soccer matches as if they were wars. Soccer (calcio) is the national obsession: Everyone, regardless of age or social class, is an expert, quick with an opinion on a coach’s lousy decision or a referee’s unprofessional conduct. Fans love to insult officials: A favorite is “arbitro cornuto!”—the referee is a cuckold (i.e., his wife sleeps around).
Rome has a special passion for soccer. It has two teams, Roma (representing the city) and Lazio (the region), and the rivalry is fanatic. When Romans are introduced, they ask each other, “Laziale o romanista?” The answer can compromise a relationship. Both Roma (jersey: yellow and red; symbol: she-wolf) and Lazio (jersey: light blue and white; symbol: imperial eagle) claim to be truly Roman. Lazio is older (founded in 1900), but Roma has more supporters. Lazio is supposed to be more upper-class, Roma more popular, but the social division is blurred.
The most eagerly awaited sporting event of the year is the derby, when the two teams fight it out at the Olympic Stadium (Stadio Olimpico). All of Italy acknowledges that team spirit is most fervent in Rome. Fans prepare months in advance, and on the day of the match they fill the entire stadium with team colors, flags, banners, and smoke candles.
Witty slogans on banners work like dialogues: A Roma banner proclaimed, “Roma: Only the sky is higher than you.” The Lazio banner replied, “In fact, the sky is blue and white” (like its team colors). The exchange revealed that there had been a Lazio informer on the Roma side, which traumatized Roma fans for weeks. Tourists go to a match more for the action in the stands than the action on the field—for some, it’s the most Roman of all experiences.
Both teams call the Olympic Stadium home, so you can catch a game most weekends from September to May (Metro line A to Flaminio, then catch tram #2 to the end of the line, Piazza Mancini, and cross the bridge to the stadium). If you’re coming from Termini train station, take bus #910; from the Vatican, take bus #32 from Piazza Risorgimento. It’s best to buy tickets in advance (which is often the only way to get them) at www.listicket.it or in town at a team store (bring ID).
✵ Dominating the square is the...
Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere
One of Rome’s oldest church sites, this building stands where early Christians worshipped illegally in a home until the year 313. It was made a basilica—probably the first church in Rome dedicated to the Virgin Mary—in the fourth century, when Christianity was legalized. The tower survives from the 12th century, when the entire church was rebuilt.
Step into the portico (the covered area just outside the door). It’s decorated with ancient stone fragments, some from the earlier church. Filled with early Christian symbolism such as the dove and olive branch, many of these stones were lids to burial niches from catacombs. In the fragment at the far-left end of the portico (left of the door), notice how early Christians prayed with both hands raised, as evangelical Christians do today.
Now go inside. Make a U-turn left (to the back of the nave), and find a gold-and-white plaque on the wall dedicated to “Olea Sancta.” This “holy oil” was actually a small petroleum deposit discovered here in 30 B.C. The black liquid was almost magical in its ability to power lamps and was incorporated into the lore of this church.
Grab a pew. Most of what you see dates from around the 12th century, although the granite columns are from ancient Roman buildings. Later architects tried hard to match them, but notice how the capitals are mismatched (some have tiny pagan heads of Egyptian gods), and the shorter columns have taller bases. The ancient basilica floor plan (and ambience) survives. The intricate coffered ceiling has an unusual image of Mary painted on copper at the center.
Approach the main altar for a closer look at the fine mosaics in the apse. Pop a coin in the box (to the left) to light them. The central scene is one of the few surviving examples of an early medieval mosaic (8th-10th century) in Rome. It’s rich in symbolism. Christ and Mary sit side by side, enthroned in majesty. They wear rich gold robes, and Mary has a crown. Notice the stature Mary is given. Tour guides claim this is the first mosaic to show her at the throne with Jesus in heaven. He has his arm around his mother as if introducing her to us. Christ’s almond eyes and the elaborate folds in the robes show the influence of Byzantine icons. Flanking Christ and Mary are early bishops of Rome, including the first one, St. Peter (in gray). Beneath them, the row of sheep is not just any flock—it represents Jesus in the middle (marked by a halo with a cross in it) and the 12 apostles. Sitting on the ground below all of these mosaics is the throne-like chair of the bishop, giving legitimacy to the Church leadership.
The mosaic panels below the sheep show scenes from the life of Mary. These more “modern” mosaics (from the late 1300s, also by Cavallini, who also did the Last Judgment at Santa Cecilia) are impressively realistic and expressive, yet predate the Renaissance by a hundred years. The first panel (far left, facing out from the curved apse) shows Mary (in the lower corner of the scene) as a baby. A servant prepares to bathe her, but first she checks the temperature of the water with her hand, introducing an element of human tenderness almost unheard of in medieval art. The next panel shows the angel arriving to announce Jesus’ coming to Mary (and Mary asking, “Who, me?!”). Next, Mary reclines, having just given birth to Jesus in a stable, while shepherds arrive to admire him. Next comes the Three Kings, who kneel to adore the babe, followed by the presentation of the child Jesus in the temple. The final scene shows Mary’s eternal sleep (not “death”). The gold mosaic backgrounds show buildings that, while not fully realistic, are a good step toward accurate 3-D representation.
The incredibly expensive 13th-century floor is a fine example of Cosmati mosaic work. The Cosmati family specialized in piecing together different colors of stone (in this case, made with marble scavenged from Roman ruins) to make intricate interlacing patterns of geometric shapes: circles, squares, triangles, and diamonds. The Cosmatis’ work set the tone for the pavement in the rest of the church.
As you leave, spend a moment with St. Anthony (the statue in the back corner, opposite the entry). He was a favorite of the poor and is inundated with prayer requests on scraps of paper. The Community of St. Egidio operates from this church. They feed the local poor and care for young drug addicts. Each Christmas they take out all the pews, move in tables and chairs, and put on a huge dinner for those in need.
✵ From here, enjoy simply exploring Rome’s most colorful district. Saunter around the streets to the left of the church as you leave. The farther you venture from the square, the less touristy and more rustic the neighborhood becomes. Wandering the back lanes and pondering the earthy enthusiasm people seem to have for life here, I can imagine that bygone day when proud Trastevere locals would brag that they never crossed the river.
On the other hand, if you’d like to soak up expansive views over the city and sample some interesting architecture, you can extend this walk from Piazza di Santa Maria up to the Gianicolo Hill park and viewpoint (see here).
Or, to cap off your Trastevere stroll with one more sight, consider visiting Villa Farnesina, a Renaissance villa decorated by Raphael (see here for a self-guided tour). To get there, face the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere and leave the piazza by walking along the right side of the church, following Via della Paglia to Piazza di S. Egidio. Turn right and exit the piazza near the church—you’ll be on Via della Scala. Follow through the Porta Settimiana, where the street changes names to Via della Lungara. On your right, you’ll pass John Cabot University. Look for a white arch that reads
Another way to extend this walk is to head to the river, cross the Ponte Sisto pedestrian bridge, and make your way to Campo de’ Fiori, where my Heart of Rome Walk begins (see that chapter for details).
From Piazza di Santa Maria, to get back to downtown Rome by public transportation, backtrack along Via della Lungaretta to Viale di Trastevere to catch tram #8. Or keep going straight down Via della Lungaretta to reach Ponte Cestio and Isola Tiberina, where our Trastevere walk began.
ANCIENT APPIAN WAY TOUR
Via Appia Antica
The Tour Begins
Map: Ancient Appian Way
The wonder of its day, the Appian Way was the largest, widest, fastest road ever, called the “Queen of Roads.” Begun in 312 B.C. and named after Appius Claudius Caecus (a Roman official), it connected Rome with Capua (near Naples), running in a straight line for much of the way, ignoring the natural contour of the land. Eventually, this most important of Roman roads stretched 430 miles to the port of Brindisi—the gateway to the East—where boats sailed for Greece and Egypt. Twenty-nine such roads fanned out from Rome. Just as Hitler built the Autobahn system in anticipation of empire maintenance, the expansion-minded Roman government realized the military and political value of a good road system.
The Hollywood-created image of the Appian Way as lined with the crucified bodies of Spartacus and his slave rebels is only partially accurate—Spartacus was killed in battle after a two-year conflict. But historians do believe that after his defeat in 71 B.C., 6,000 slaves were crucified on crosses spaced about 30 yards apart along the length of the Appian Way—a distance of over 100 miles. As a warning to other slaves, their bodies were left to hang for several months. Imagine the eerie welcome this provided visitors arriving in Rome.
When the Christian faith permeated Rome, the Appian Way became a popular underground burial place for Christians. It later falsely entered Romantic lore as a place where Christians hid from persecution. Today the road and the landscape around it are preserved as a cultural park.
For the tourist, the ancient Appian Way offers three attractions: the road itself, with its ruined monuments; the two major Christian catacombs open to visitors; and the peaceful atmosphere, which provides a respite from the city. Be aware, however, that the road today is very narrow, busy with traffic, and actually quite treacherous in spots. I recommend following this tour’s route, which avoids the worst of the traffic, making the area a pleasant place for strolling or biking.
(See “Ancient Appian Way” map, here.)
Length of This Tour: Budget five hours to get to and from the Appian Way, to walk or bike the stretch of sights, and to visit one of the catacombs.
When to Go: Visit in the morning or mid-afternoon (note that the Catacombs of San Callisto shut down from 12:00 to 14:00), but don’t go too late; the last tours at both catacombs depart at 16:30 (and other sights close as early as 16:00). All the recommended sights are open on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. On Monday, several sights are closed, including the Tomb of Cecilia Metella and the Circus and Villa of Maxentius. On Wednesday, the Catacombs of San Callisto and the pedestrian path through the park are closed. On Sunday, the Catacombs of San Sebastiano are closed; however, the Appian Way is closed to most car traffic, making it a great day for walking or biking (see “Bike Rental,” later).
Getting There: Several buses run from Rome to the Appian Way, and some can also be used for connecting the dots along this tour—though there are some challenges. Stops are squeezed onto the very narrow (sometimes nonexistent) shoulder of the road, and the specific locations of the stops can change. Use this chapter’s map as a guideline, but be flexible, and ask around to find the current locations. There are only a few places to buy bus tickets on the Appian Way (including the TI and the shop at the Catacombs of San Sebastiano)—have one in hand for your return trip.
Bus #660 is the best way to reach the Appian Way, since it drops you off right where our tour starts, at the Tomb of Cecilia Metella. In Rome, take Metro line A to the Colli Albani stop, where you catch bus #660 (2/hour) and ride 15 minutes to the last stop—Cecilia Metella/Via Appia Antica (at the intersection of Via Cecilia Metella and Via Appia Antica).
Bus #118 runs from Rome’s historic center down the Appian Way, linking the major stops, making it a good alternative if you’re not close to a Metro line. In Rome, catch #118 (4/hour) on the Via dei Fori Imperiali (Piazza Venezia or the Colosseum); going away from the city center, it stops at the Baths of Caracalla, San Sebastiano Gate, Domine Quo Vadis Church, Catacombs of San Callisto and San Sebastiano before ending at the Villa dei Quintili. You could use this bus to get to the starting point of our walk: Ride bus #118 to the Basilica San Sebastiano stop, then walk 500 yards (less than 10 minutes) to the Tomb of Cecilia Metella.
Sebastiano vs. Callisto
Which of the two catacombs is the best? They’re actually quite similar. Both include a half-hour tour that takes you underground to see the niches where early Christians were buried (but no bones). Both have some faded frescoes and graffiti with Christian symbols. Both have small chapels and a few memorial statues. Most people pick one catacomb to visit, and either will fit the bill.
I lean slightly in favor of San Callisto, but only because of its historical importance, not because it’s inherently more interesting. San Sebastiano tends to be less crowded, is historic in its own right (as the relics of Sts. Peter and Paul and St. Sebastian were kept here), and—most significantly—offers an experience with a bit more variety, since it also includes several remarkably well-preserved pagan Roman tombs and a Baroque church with a bust by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
(Note that the Catacombs of Priscilla—more intimate and less crowded than these two more famous ones—can be found at the other end of town, northeast of the Villa Borghese Gardens; see here.)
Bus #218 goes from San Giovanni in Laterano to Domine Quo Vadis Church and the west entrance of the Catacombs of San Callisto, but isn’t useful for reaching Appian Way sights farther south.
A taxi will get you from Rome to the Tomb of Cecilia Metella for about €20. However, to return by taxi, you’ll have to phone for one; there are no taxi stands on the Appian Way.
Getting Back: No matter how you arrive at the Appian Way, the bus is the easiest and cheapest way to return to Rome. Bus #118 has many stops along the Way and takes you quickly to Rome’s historical center. But be aware that the return route for bus #118 skips the Catacombs of San Sebastiano; catch this northbound bus just up the road at the Catacombs of San Callisto or near Domine Quo Vadis, where this tour ends. Bus #218 also is handy to the northern part of the Way (including a stop near Domine Quo Vadis Church), and brings you to the San Giovanni in Laterano Church, where you can hop on the Metro (San Giovanni stop, line A).
Information: The Via Appia Antica TI near Domine Quo Vadis Church is a resource for the entire park, which stretches east and south of the visit outlined here (daily 9:30-17:30, Nov-March until 16:30, often closed for lunch between 13:00-14:00, rents bikes, good €1 map, Via Appia Antica 58, tel. 06-513-5316, www.parcoappiaantica.it, general info at www.archeoroma.beniculturali.it/en).
The archaeological site of Capo di Bove has a small info center that sits deep in a tranquil, inviting garden surrounding active excavations (Mon-Sat 10:00-16:00, Sun 10:00-18:00, closes earlier in winter, good place for discreet picnic, clean WCs, Via Appia Antica 222, tel. 06-3996-7700).
Tomb of Cecilia Metella: €6, includes entry to the Baths of Caracalla and Villa dei Quintili, April-Sept Tue-Sun 9:00-19:00, closes earlier Oct-March, closed Mon year-round, last entry 30 minutes before closing, tel. 06-3996-7700.
Circus and Villa of Maxentius: Free, Tue-Sun 10:00-16:00, closed Mon, last entry 30 minutes before closing, tel. 06-780-1324.
Catacombs of San Sebastiano: €8, includes 35-minute tour, 2/hour; Mon-Sat 10:00-17:00, closed Sun and late Nov-late Dec, last entry 30 minutes before closing, handy café and WCs, tel. 06-785-0350, www.catacombe.org.
Catacombs of San Callisto: €8, includes 30-minute tour, at least 2/hour; Thu-Tue 9:00-12:00 & 14:00-17:00, closed Wed and Feb, tel. 06-513-0151, www.catacombe.roma.it.
Domine Quo Vadis Church: Free, daily 8:00-19:30 (until 18:30 off-season), tel. 06-512-0441.
Bike Rental: Some may find the old paving stones too bumpy for biking. But if you’d like to try it, the best day for biking is Sunday, when the Appian Way is closed to traffic (though a few cars with special permission can still sneak through). Take bus #660 to the last stop (Cecilia Metella/Via Appia Antica), and you’ll find Appia Antica Caffè, where you can rent a bike (€4/hour, €10/3 hours, 10 percent discount off bikes and food with this book, daily 9:00-sunset, at corner of Appian Way and Via Cecilia Metella, near Tomb of Cecilia Metella at Via Appia Antica 175, tel. 06-8987-9575, www.appiaanticacaffe.it). You can also rent a bike from the Via Appia Antica TI (€3/hour, €15/day; see “Information,” earlier). If you don’t mind heavy traffic, you could even bike from the Colosseum or Santa Maria Maggiore out past the wall and down the Appian Way. For bike rental in the city center, see “By Bike,” on here.
Services: Free WCs are at the San Sebastiano and San Callisto catacombs and at Capo di Bove, and WCs for paying customers are at the Tomb of Cecilia Metella and the Appia Antica Caffè. There are several fountains along the way for refilling water bottles.
Eating: Appia Antica Caffè (see “Bike Rental,” earlier) makes big salads and abundant sandwiches and has a shaded, restful seating area in back; tucked even farther back in their garden is a fine little gelateria. If you’ve brought your own goodies, great picnic spots are just a half-mile farther south from here. Several pricey restaurants are along the stretch between the Tomb of Cecilia Metella and the Catacombs of San Sebastiano (which normally has a sandwich-and-drinks cart).
Starring: An old road, crumbling tombs, and underground Christian cemeteries.
Our tour begins near the Tomb of Cecilia Metella, at the far (southern) end of the sightseeing highlights, and works northward for a mile-and-a-half to Domine Quo Vadis Church, toward the center of Rome. Sightseers share the road with speeding drivers talking on mobile phones (except on Sundays, when it’s off limits to most cars), but there’s really only one bad stretch—between the Catacombs of San Sebastiano and Domine Quo Vadis Church. We’ll avoid that traffic by taking a pedestrian path through a quiet park that parallels the busy road (except on Wednesdays, when the path is closed).
The Tour Begins
(See “Ancient Appian Way” map, here.)
✵ From the café near the Tomb of Cecilia Metella, head south (away from downtown) 200 yards, where you walk (or rattle your bike) over a stretch of the...
Original Paved Road
Huge basalt stones formed the sturdy base of a road 14 feet across. In its heyday, a central strip accommodated animal-powered vehicles, and elevated sidewalks served pedestrians. The first section (near Rome) was perfectly straight and lined with tombs and funerary monuments.
Back near where you started (to the right of the entrance to the Tomb of Cecilia Metella) is the original mile marker III, one of more than 400 such stones that counted the distance from Rome to Brindisi. Emperors knew that a fine network of roads was key to expanding and administering the empire. This road, from c. 312 B.C., kicks off the expansion period.
✵ You can’t miss (on the right side) the...
Tomb of Cecilia Metella (Mausoleo di Cecilia Metella)
This massive cylindrical tomb, one of the best preserved of the many tombs of prominent Romans that line the road, was built in the time of Augustus (c. 30 B.C.) for the daughter-in-law of Crassus, Rome’s richest man. Faced with white travertine and situated on the crest of a hill, the tomb was an imposing sight. This grand tomb in the suburbs rivaled Augustus’ own round mausoleum in the city center (see here).
Since no one was allowed to be buried inside the city walls, the Appian Way was a popular place to have a tomb where everyone could see and admire it. Later, Christians were buried here, though not in tombs (they preferred to be buried underground). Picture a funeral procession passing under the pines and cypresses, past a long line of pyramids, private mini temples, altars, and tombs.
In the 1300s, the area was turned into a fortified compound for an aristocratic family. The circular tomb was used as a tower (notice the crenellation on top) and a wall continued across the street, enclosing the newly built church and other structures (since destroyed).
If you pay to go inside, you’ll see the tomb’s eerily hollow interior (il sepolcro); a few statues of deceased Romans that once adorned tombs; and, in the cellar, a former paving-stone quarry with a preserved wagon-wheel groove.
✵ About 200 yards farther along (north) from the tomb, on the right, are the ruins of the...
Circus and Villa of Maxentius (Circo e Villa di Massenzio)
This was the suburban home of the emperor who was eventually defeated by Constantine in A.D. 312. The main sight to see here is a whole lot of nothing—that is, the expansive stretch of open space contained by this huge former chariot racetrack. You can walk between the entrance towers to the long central spine, and imagine chariots racing around it while 10,000 fans cheered. Maxentius watched from the building rising up above the bleachers, where the chariots made their hairiest turn. At the far end of the 260-yard track is the triumphal arch under which the winner rode to receive his reward.
Also, just down the Appian Way from this circus is a square wall of ruins enclosing a modern building. Behind that modern building, you can glimpse the circular mausoleum of Maxentius’ son, Romulus.
✵ About 300 yards farther down the road (on the left) are the...
▲▲Catacombs of San Sebastiano
This underground cemetery is named for the Christian soldier who was tied to a column and shot through with arrows because of his faith—a subject depicted by many artists throughout history. A guide takes you below ground to see burial niches, frescoes, and graffiti. It’s said that the bodies of Peter and Paul were kept here for several decades in the third century. You’ll also see the underground chapel (in its original location, but spiffed up in the 17th century) where the relics of St. Sebastian were originally kept. But what distinguishes this from other catacombs experiences is the chance to also see some pagan Roman tombs, which provide an interesting contrast and a fascinating finale to the tour.
Besides the catacombs, the site also has a basilica (free) containing various relics. In the first chapel to the left are St. Sebastian’s supposed remains, marked with a statue of an arrow-pierced corpse. On the opposite side of the nave, a chapel displays an arrow he was shot with, a section of the column he was tied to, and the (supposedly) original footprints from the Domine Quo Vadis legend (see below). Nearby stands a curly-haired bust of The Savior (Il Salvatore) by Bernini—his final creation, carved when he was in his eighties.
✵ The stretch of the Appian Way beyond the Catacombs of San Sebastiano is the least interesting and most crowded (and dangerous). Avoid it by taking the pedestrian and bike path (open daily except Wed), which begins just past the Catacombs of San Sebastiano, at the intersection with Via delle Sette Chiese. To reach the path, go through the arch at #126. The quiet path parallels the Appian Way and takes you directly to the Catacombs of San Callisto. On Wednesdays, when the gate is closed, you’ll have to stay straight on Via Appia Antica, being careful of traffic.
▲▲Catacombs of San Callisto
Named for the first caretaker, St. Callixtus, this was the official cemetery for Rome’s early Christians and the burial place of nine third-century popes, other bishops of Rome, and various martyrs. The most famous martyr was St. Cecilia, patron saint of music, a Roman noble who was killed for converting to Christianity. Her tomb is marked with a copy of a famous Maderno statue. (For more on Cecilia and the statue, take my Trastevere Walk, available as a chapter in this book and as a free audio tour.)
Buy your ticket and wait for your language to be called. They move lots of people quickly. If one group seems ridiculously large (more than 50 people), wait for the next tour in English.
The catacombs are burial places for (mostly) Christians who died in ancient Roman times. By law, no one was allowed to be buried within the walls of Rome. While pagan Romans were into cremation, Christians preferred to be buried (so that they could be resurrected when the time came). But land was expensive, and most Christians were poor. A few wealthy, landowning Christians allowed their properties to be used as burial places.
The 40 or so known catacombs are scattered outside the ancient walls of Rome. Catacombe means, literally, “near the quarry”—as some of these were dug into the exposed walls of existing quarries. From the first through the fifth centuries, Christians dug an estimated 375 miles of tomb-lined tunnels, with networks of galleries as many as five layers deep. The volcanic tuff that Rome sits atop—which is soft and easy to cut, but hardens when exposed to air—was perfect for the job. The Christians burrowed many layers deep for two reasons: to get more mileage out of the donated land, and to be near martyrs and saints already buried there. Bodies were wrapped in linen (like Christ’s). Since they figured the Second Coming was imminent, there was no interest in embalming the body. They called this place a dormitorio—a “place to sleep” while awaiting the rapture. After each corpse was laid to rest, it was covered with a stone slab—though most of these are now long-gone, shattered by looters and vandals.
When Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in A.D. 313, Christians had a new, interesting problem: There would be no more recently persecuted martyrs to bind them together and inspire them. Instead, the early martyrs and popes assumed more importance, and Christians began making pilgrimages to their burial places in the catacombs.
In the 800s, when barbarian invaders started ransacking the tombs, Christians moved the relics of saints and martyrs to the safety of churches in the city center. For a thousand years, the catacombs were forgotten. In early modern times, they were excavated and became part of the Romantic Age’s Grand Tour of Europe.
When abandoned plates and utensils from ritual meals were found, 18th- and 19th-century Romantics guessed that persecuted Christians hid out in these candlelit galleries. The popularity of this legend grew, even though it was untrue: By the second century, more than a million people lived in Rome, and the 10,000 early Christians didn’t need to camp out in the catacombs. They hid in plain view, melting into obscurity within the city itself.
The underground tunnels, while empty of bones, are rich in early Christian symbolism, which functioned as a secret language. The dove represented the soul. You’ll see it quenching its thirst (worshipping), with an olive branch (at rest), or happily perched (in paradise). Peacocks, known for their purportedly “incorruptible flesh,” embodied immortality. The shepherd with a lamb on his shoulders was the “good shepherd,” the first portrayal of Christ as a kindly leader of his flock. The fish was used because the first letters of these words—“Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior”—spelled “fish” in Greek. The combination of an X and a P was actually a chi and a rho—the first two letters of CHRist’s name in the Greek alphabet. And the anchor, a cross in disguise, symbolized how true believers felt anchored by their faith. Some fragments were stamped with the hallmark of the mason who created it. A second-century bishop had written on his tomb, “All who understand these things, pray for me.” You’ll see pictures of people praying with their hands raised—the custom at the time.
✵ From the catacombs, continue along the pedestrian path another three-quarters of a mile, where you’ll spill out at a busy three-way intersection. There you’ll find the small...
Domine Quo Vadis Church
The tiny ninth-century church (redone in the 17th) was built on the spot where Peter, while fleeing the city to escape Nero’s persecution, saw a vision of Christ. Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, where are you going?” (“Domine quo vadis?” in Latin), to which Christ replied, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.” This miraculous sign gave Peter faith and courage and caused him to return to Rome. Inside the nave of the church, stumble over the stone marked with the supposed footprints of Jesus. You’ll see a fresco of Peter with keys on the left wall and one of Jesus on the right. A bust depicts Nobel Prize-winning Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz, who wrote a historical novel that was the basis for the 1951 Hollywood movie Quo Vadis.
✵ The tour is over. “Quo vadis, pilgrim?”
To return to central Rome, it’s another two miles north along a busy stretch of road, not recommended on foot or bike. Instead, catch bus #118 from the bus stop about 75 yards past Domine Quo Vadis Church (beyond the TI and across the street). Bus #118 makes several interesting stops on its way to the center (see “Sights on Bus #118 Route Back to Rome” at the end of this chapter). Note that another bus, #218, also goes from here to San Giovanni in Laterano.
For those with more energy, there’s more to see, especially if you’re renting a bike and want to just get away from it all.
Other Sights on or near Appian Way
Consider these diversions if you have the time and interest.
More of the Appian Way: Heading south (away from downtown Rome), past the Tomb of Cecilia Metella, you’ll find the best-preserved part of the Appian Way—quieter, less touristed, and lined with cypresses, pines, and crumbling tombs. It’s all downhill after the first few hundred yards. On a bike, you’ll travel over lots of rough paving stones (or dirt sidewalks) for about 30 minutes to reach a big pyramid-shaped ruin on its tiny base, and then five minutes more to the back side of Villa dei Quintili. Usually, you can’t enter the villa from here, but you can admire the semicircular nymphaeum, or fake grotto. Enjoy a picnic, then turn around and pedal up that long hill to return your bike. Note that bus #118 also serves the Villa dei Quintili, stopping at the main entrance (far side) on the Via Appia Nuova.
Aqueduct Park (Parco degli Acquedotti): Rome’s mighty aqueducts kept water flowing into the thriving and thirsty ancient city of one million. (They also eventually provided a handy Achilles’ heel for invading barbarians: Simply break an arch in the aqueduct, and life becomes very tough within the city walls.) This sprawling, evocative park is a favorite these days with Roman joggers, picnickers, and anyone looking for a break from the big city. From the Appian Way, start at Appia Antica Caffè (near the Tomb of Cecilia Metella), take bus #660 to the Colli Albani Metro station, and catch the Metro to Giulio Agricola. (If you’re coming straight from Rome, take Metro line A to Giulio Agricola.)
As you exit the Giulio Agricola Metro stop, follow signs for Viale Giulio Agricola. This street has trees in its median strip and ends at a modern church several blocks away. Head for the church, passing a number of cafés and grocery stores (good for picnic fare). To the right of the church, enter the park and pass through the squat brick arches of the first aqueduct (actually two aqueducts—the 16th-century Acqua Felice piggybacked on top of the Acqua Marcia, which dates from the second century B.C.). Continue across the field and up the small hill where you’ll see fragments of the more impressive Acqua Claudia (first century A.D.). Follow the path to the left for about 10 minutes; you’ll come to the best-preserved section, which stretches into the distance and makes for an easy walk. Loop back to the church and Metro when you’re done. If you’re not afraid of traffic, you could bike from the Appian Way to Aqueduct Park (takes about an hour; get directions when you rent your bike).
Sights on Bus #118 Route Back to Rome: On the way back, about a half-mile from Domine Quo Vadis Church, the bus stops alongside Rome’s ancient city wall. The San Sebastiano Gate and Museum of the Walls offers an interesting look at Roman defenses and a chance to scramble along a stretch of the ramparts (free, Tue-Sun 9:00-14:00, closed Mon, last entry 30 minutes before closing, bus stop: Porta San Sebastiano). The Aurelian Wall (c. A.D. 270) was built in five years because of the threat of invasions. At 12 miles around, it was the biggest building project ever undertaken within the city of Rome.
A few minutes farther on, bus #118 stops near the Baths of Caracalla (described on here). Next, it makes a stop at the east end of the Circus Maximus (the Circo Massimo Metro stop is nearby). The bus continues on to Piazza Venezia before looping back to the Colosseum.