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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.