All roads really DO lead to - and from- Rome.
Julius Ceasar, Saint Peter, Spartacus, and now the team from Turnipseed Travel.... there's been more than a few legends who've walked, rode, and peddled their way down the Appian Way. This ancient highway, nearly 400 miles of engineering marvel, connected Rome with southern Italy and the sea, forming a critical trade and communications link with Greece and Egypt.
Considered the world's first super highway, everyone who was anyone traveled along the Appian Way, along with over two thousand years of worth of anonymous citizens too. We were happy to start our first day in Rome by following in their footsteps!
For one of the world's oldest roads, the Appian Way is in remarkably good shape but there is one unique obstacle - chariot ruts! I wasn't kidding when I said that Julius Caesar traveled here. It doesn't get much more "ancient Rome" than this.
The Appian Way was the first of nearly 30 roads that were built around Rome to connect the heart of the empire to its conquered territories and trade partners. Nicknamed "The Queen of Roads", it's easy to imagine how awe inspiring the Appian Way was thousands of years ago. You can just picture the legions of emperors and senators and military leaders who rode in and out of the world's most powerful city.
Alas, Ryan and I, being mere mortals, were denied the opportunity to ride in chariots but we were more than happy to settle for a short term bike rental. Not far from the main bus stop is a small cafe, some tourist info, and a small table serving as a bike rental office. For just a few Euros each, we had our choice of rusty contraptions (we were thankful for the surplus selection... We had to turn around after one minute for Ryan to get a new bike as his chain kept popping off).
It was a good thing that he got an improved bike, as good gear counts for a lot here. The chariot wheel ruts, so beguiling when we first saw them, were a bit of an nightmare when it came to cycling. And the ancient paving stones, still serving the city after two thousand years, were heaved and uneven in several spots. Like everyone else, we soon took to the makeshift dirt path alongside the Appian Way for a slightly improved ride.
The first ten miles of the Appian Way are part of a park, which is closed to non-pedestrian traffic on Sundays. The tall trees, which must be rather elderly themselves, and distant views of the Roman hills, are worth the trip alone. In addition to the main roadway and all that lovely scenery, there are plenty of other things to explore, including a good assortment of intriguing lanes and side streets.
However, I was a bit hesitant to explore very far. Sometimes I couldn't determine if I was looking at the entrance to a private estate or a public road. Looking back, I should have been bold and just went for it. What would Caesar or St Peter think of my timid heart?
Even if you stick to the beaten path, there's plenty to see. We couldn't get over the amazing collection of Roman ruins, casually scattered on the side of the road. Broken bits of statuary, crumbling support structures, assorted broken pieces of marble and granite with faded inscriptions, and the occasional grime-encrusted relief - the once white stone rendered black from millennia of exposure - served as sentries to our journey.
It was unbelievable that these remarkable treasures were not safeguarded in a museum but were instead just lounging around, waiting for a visiting hand to trace their letters and lean against their base.
Our main enjoyment lay in riding the road (okay, walking our bikes on the side path....) admiring the broken works of art, and generally marveling at such a magnificent part of Rome but we did pause towards the end to take in a few sights.
The park surrounding the Appian Way is home to several churches, catacombs, tombs, and monuments. While we didn't get to most of them, we were able to take in a few and they were fascinating. We didn't explore as expansively as other travelers might but we did enjoy every moment of it.
I was deterred from further exploration by two things (well, three, if you consider my concern about wandering onto private estates!) The first is that we were visiting Rome in August. Just about everything you do in Rome in the peak of summer is blistering hot! The Appian Way made for a nice escape from the crowds and concrete of the city center but it was still very dry and hot.
The second is that I woke up that morning with a generous assortment of bed bug bites. The previously undetected bites, acquired days earlier, suddenly erupted into vicious welts. I was thrilled to be exploring Rome, but boy was I uncomfortable! Sweaty skin and bed bug bites do not mix.
But even though the day and I were not optimal, the excursion was worth it. I absolutely would return to retrace my steps and hopefully go even further afield.
(In Rome, we stayed at The Beehive and loved it. No bed bugs there! You can read reviews on Trip Advisor, Hotels Combined, and Expedia.)
Screaming, sweltering skin aside, exploring the Appian Way felt curiously triumphant for me on this, the morning of our first full day in Rome. Maybe I was channeling the spirit of Julius Caesar after all! It may not sound like a big deal, but I tend to stick to a certain unwritten formula when I discover a new city. First I do the orientation activities like a general tour, then I discover the main attractions more in depth, and then I do some specialty activities like cooking classes. And after all that maybe I'll tackle things outside the city center. Or maybe not. Suffice to say, DIY bike tours on the outskirts of town usually come last, if at all. Definitely not on day one.
For reasons that seem a bit silly when I write them down here, it somehow felt foolhardy, even risky, to discover a city in reverse order, tackling Rome from the outside and working my way in. How could I possibly take a metro, and then a bus, and then walk with only vague directions to a no-name bike stand when I still didn't know my Colosseum from my Spanish Steps? And (it's actually embarrassing to admit this) I had never once sought out bike rentals on any other trip. Ever! I had borrowed bikes from hotels, I had been a part of organized bike tours, but I had never gone out of my way to rent them independently, for no other reason than just to explore. Given my inherently wimpy nature, could I really turn my travel plans upside down AND take on a travel "first", no matter how tame, without stressing out? Just the thought of it would bring out my anti-adventurist whimpers. But that was before Rome.
As I look back upon the trip, it seems especially fitting that I became acquainted with Rome the same way that over two thousand years worth of explorers did, sharing an ancient road and a sense of adventure and even trepidation with those who went before me. I loved our time exploring the Appian Way (even with all the itching) and I'm so glad we mixed up our time honored travel style and broke our usual mold to try something new.
Looking for more inspiration for your trip to Rome? These article will help:
Rome as a Lasagna: Touring the City's Many Layers.
Roman Recipes: Cooking and Life Lessons from Nonna.
7 Tips To Get The Most From Your Vatican City Tour