Downtown Ostia

On the 5th day of our Rome trip, we headed out of the city again, this time to the sea.
Our destination was Ostia, the ancient city that used to sit as the mouth of the Tiber and through which flowed all shipments to Rome (since writing this I discovered that Ostia comes from the Latin word for ‘mouth’. I swear I didn’t know this before I wrote the previous sentence). Even though the coast and the river have since moved, the ancient streets, shops, warehouses, apartments and temples remain, worn but in many cases amazingly intact.

A mosaic floor in the bath house

A mosaic floor in the bath house

Our journey to the coast took us through parts of Rome that we wouldn’t otherwise have seen, the outer edges beyond the suburbs, even including what looked like a bayou, complete with rotting trees and similarly decaying shacks. The trains themselves also got more graffitied as we went further from the city, until at last we pulled into the Ostia Antica stop and stepped out among a crowd of other tourists heading for the ruins.

Remnants of the Forum temple

Remnants of the Forum temple

Appropriately, the approach to the ruins is via the ancient road, which still has clusters of graves and memorials, more intact than the ones I’d seen on the Appia, though on a smaller scale. The paving stones throughout the town were the same that I’d seen in the Forum, along the Via Appia and around the Colosseum, and I wonder now whether that’s due to some more modern preservation work rather than all being ancient remnants. In any case, it does make it all nicely Roman and orderly.

The theatre

The theatre

We were soon wandering along the main street, with ruins of warehouses and a huge public bath complex on either side. Enough remains that we could imagine how it would have looked, as a visitor entered through the gates and peered around at the bustling hub of commerce. Not very far up the road we took a right and found the Forum of the Corporations, a large rectangular area with the base and pillars of a temple in the middle, with the ruins of arcades surrounding it. Along the ground of the arcades are intricate mosaics, mostly in black and white, with fix, ships, wheat and amphorae, perhaps illustrating the stalls that once stood there. Facing onto the Forum was the theatre, which is very well preserved, though sadly closed at time. It was interesting to see for myself the real heart of a Roman town, commerce and business gazing up to a temple and with a theatre backing onto it.

The sign of a businessman

The sign of a businessman

Further down the road, we managed to get lost among ancient streets, finding ourselves suddenly in the residential areas among fancier villas and street-side shops. Many still had mosaic floors and enough of the walls remained to make out the rooms and imagine what it must have been like living in them.

Lunch, when our hunger finally overcame our curiosity to explore every single house we came across, was basic and carby, just the sort of food that had been keeping us on our feet all day for the past week. Fortunately the carbs and exercise balanced out, else we would have returned significantly more spherical.

Re-energised and slightly heavier we headed back out, and soon found another eatery. It had an impressive marble bar, a nice area around the back to sit and enjoy a meal in the sun and some nice paintings on the wall. It would also have gone out of service about 1.5 thousand years ago. It was astonishing how intact it was, from the mosaic flooring, arched ceiling and broad bar, including a little shelving unit and even a fountain in the courtyard. We spent a bit of time posing on the bar as helpful and pushy bar-keeps, and then even longer just staring about at the place, as the space under the bar for washing dishes and the cosiness of it all.

The bar interior

The bar interior

It was a perfect example of what I love about exploring historical sites; an everyday place where people lived, relaxed and that we can recognise today. In the corner perhaps three labourers from the harbour, having enjoyed a show at the theatre, would have sat at a table snacking on olives and pastries. A barmaid brings them a top-up of wine and then continues to the next table, where a young couple sit close together, flirting and too preoccupied to notice the offer of a top-up. The bar-keep is watching from the bar, checking that a particularly rough looking customer, a slave extending the time given for an errand, doesn’t make off with the bowl he’s furtively emptying of lentil soup.
All imaginary lives, obviously, but standing there I could feel the echoes of lives like them, still chattering on amid the ruins.

A shelf in the bar

A shelf in the bar

Across the street from the bar stands an apartment building, which to my delight was intact enough to explore and climb. Three floors remain, each floor getting slightly less neat as you climb the stairs, until you find yourself on the open space at the top. From there we could see out over the whole town and beyond. We also had a good view of the bar. Perhaps someone living here could have watched the customers coming and going, smelt the food on sale and yelled down an order before descending down to the street. I suppose once more floors would have stood above, getting still more crowded but with better views if you could afford the rooms by the windows.

View from the apartment

View from the apartment

After this we tried to head towards the exit, with a brief attempt to enter a part of the city that was closed off, and much sidetracking into interesting sites we’d missed. As with Pompeii, or the Villa of the Quintilli, you need at least a day to properly explore Ostia.

A panorama of downtown Ostia

A panorama of downtown Ostia

Back in Rome we headed to the Museum of the Ara Pacis, the altar built by Augustus the celebrate the peace of his principate. I’d somehow missed it the last time I was in Rome and was looking forward to rectifying that. The museum building itself is grand and open, with glass walls and spotless white floors. The building almost seemed to dwarf the monument, huge though it is. It’s made of beautifully carved, white marble (the bright paint has long since gone), with details of tiny lizards among lush vines and processions of ancient VIPs.

VIPs on the Ara Pacis

VIPs on the Ara Pacis

Elsewhere around the museum there were other fragments of statues and altars, and reconstructions of the altar. It was all very grand and well presented, with a loop of an Einaudi tune giving the room a sense of mystery, but the sense I got was more related to the intention of the construction, rather than the beauty of the art. Both the altar and the museum that housed it emanated self-aggrandisement, the first of Augustus and the second Mussolini. Yes, pretty much all Roman monuments are a testament to someone, but the open, white space of the museum seemed somehow less graceful than the Pantheon and less laced with history than the Forum.

Menu or decoration?

Menu or decoration?

This isn’t to say that it isn’t a fine piece of art and history, but for me, there is no comparison between a masterpiece of marble and a bar in downtown Ostia.

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A way from Rome

The day of my birthday dawned bright, and for once we were up early, rushing to catch a bus back to the airport. Going home already, you ask? Thankfully not, though we were about to have a change of scenery.

Soon after arriving at the airport we were leaving again, hitting the road quite carefully in a cute little Fiat 500, and managing to stay on the wrong side of the road. (I fear that no matter how long I spend overseas, the right side will always be the wrong side) We headed back towards the city looking out for the Porta San Sebastiano, from where the Via Appia Antica begins. After a bit of misdirection, we were pootling along, the vine covered walls of villas leaning over the old road giving the impression of a little country town. Soon the bitumen turned to cobbles, and bumped along though we were, could see now and then a plaque or worn slab of marble that had once been part of the forest of monuments that had lined the road. Though occasionally rising and falling, the road never diverged from a straight line, and though I’m not absolutely sure, I think most of the cobbles may be original or at least from Roman times.

The Appian Way

The Appian Way

They were the same wide, grey stones from the Forum, and I hope that they would have been better maintained in ancient times, because anyone regularly driving a cart or chariot up the road would have eventually lost their teeth or sanity to the jolting. Fortunately the traffic slowed as the land on either side of the road opened up, and we were able to roll along gazing around for landmarks. The first one that we found was the Circus of Maxentius, the most intact Roman circus in the world, which was probably only used once.

Starting gates

Starting gates

The park where it sits is mostly grassy fields with little white flowers, the perfect first stop on our first trip out of the city. For most of the time we were there, we were the only visitors, and so I was able to walk along the spina, occasionally surprising basking lizards.

The spina, in a field

The spina, in a field

We then made out leisurely way to the Mausoleum of Caecilia Metella, which is interesting in a number of ways. It’s the way of history to have very little pattern in the things that are preserved, so rather than a tomb to Cicero, Cornelia Africana or Vespasian, we were left with a towering monument to a woman known only as the daughter in law of Crassus. The monument is more a dedication to the Licinii and Metelli families than the woman herself, and any indication about who she was, if there ever was anything, is long gone. In the time since it’s dedication, the tomb had been looted, and converted into a tower from which to guard the road that passes under it’s shadow. If all the old mausoleums of the old families were this size, it must have seemed to travellers that they were passing through a strangely abandoned town, rather than graveyards.

Remembering Caecilia Metella

Remembering Caecilia Metella

Continuing onwards we came to a stretch that looked like the romantic pictures of the road, with tombs lining the sides and pines towering above. We marched up and down for a while, admiring the remains of mausoleums and fragments of tombs from which faces sometimes watched us. The sun gradually began to fade, so we climbed back into the car and rolled onwards over the ancient stones, imagining the sights that this road must have seen, from marching hob-nailed sandals heading out to the edges of the empire to a cart carrying a small family hoping for a better life in the world’s first big city. I forgot on the day that the road would also have seen the 6000 slaves caught when Spartacus was defeated, crucified along either side for miles. There’s no trace left of them, though I suspect Spartacus would have been a bit pleased to be known all these years later, if baffled at the justice, freedom and liberty heroics ascribed to him.

A not-forgotten family

A not-forgotten family

The final stop before we started climbing the hills to the south was the Villa of the Quintilli, a massive estate – no really, it’s huge. We only spent about an hour and a half, in which we only saw about half, and that while repeating, ‘no, we really must move on now,’ ‘this is the last little detour’ and ‘absolutely, the last one, yes.’
The estate is a large area of land with the Villa in the centre, perched on a hill. People used to think it was an ancient town due to it’s size, but apparently it was originally a Republican villa that was expanded by the Quintilli brothers around the 2nd century and was grand enough that the emperor Commodus decided he’d quite like it himself, actually, and had the brothers killed.

An ancient mosaic

An ancient mosaic

Even though we only have the ruins of the baths, dining rooms, servants quarters, halls, exercise arenas and other areas, I think I can understand why he did it. I’m surprised it isn’t more well known, actually, and though it doesn’t really compare to Ostia and Pompeii in terms of size, the impression of a grand villa, with mosaics and marble still lining the floors and giant arches above the baths have more of a sense of completeness and grandeur than many of the tenement blocks in those towns.

Bathhouse arches

Bathhouse arches

Unfortunately by this stage we were getting peckish, so we reluctantly headed back down the hill, and onwards on our journey.

Following the recommendation of the woman from whom I’d bought a painting, we were heading to Nemi, a volcanic lake nestled in the Castelli Romani region just south of Rome. To get there we wound our way up the hills, passing the beautiful Lake Albano and snatches of lake side towns and then further upwards through tree-lined roads, until a steep descending road to the right indicated that Nemi was close. We came through a small tunnel, and found ourselves in a picturesque town perched on cliffs above an almost perfectly circular lake. The sun had come out again, and the surface of the sheltered lake seemed completely calm, reflecting the tree lined valley sides. I could wax even more poetically, but I fear I have not the adjectives.

Nemi

Nemi

Having parked our cars we wandered along the main street overlooking the lake, looking for somewhere to eat and wondering where the sound of a waterfall was coming from. We settled on a restaurant that had a balcony sticking out over the valley, from which it was hard to draw out gazes away. Down by the shores of the lake we could see strawberry farms, and a few houses, but otherwise the hills seemed bare. I’d read something about a temple of Diana being built here (thank you again Lindsey Davis), and I can imagine why.

Nemi on the cliff

Nemi on the cliff

Another claim to fame were two giant pleasure ships that Nero had built there, which were then sunk after his death. Much later Mussolini had the lake drained to retrieve the ships, and they were moved to a nearby museum, which was soon after burnt down by Nazi forces, as if people needed further reasons to be annoyed at them.

A local delicacy

A local delicacy

There was no sign of emperors, ships or armies as we ate lunch and drank wine, and enjoyed local strawberries, soaking in the beautiful scenery. We eventually had to leave, buying a little bottle of strawberry liquor and mixed berries and staring at the view as we went.

Heading back to Rome we drove around the other side, passing the Pope’s holiday estate by Lake Albano and winding streets in the town close-by. Soon we were dropping off the car and catching a bus back into the city, where we had a stroll through the streets before a dinner at home, including some very tasty and fresh mixed berries.