My friend Julia likes walking. She walked from Canterbury to Rome once (and wrote about it here) – a journey of 3 months and 1,600 km. I was there to meet her when she arrived in Piazza San Pietro, looking surprisingly well for someone who had spent more than 80 days trekking across France and Italy with a heavy backpack.
Last week Julia walked from Rome to Terracina (southern Lazio) on the Via Francigena with a group of students from her university. The journey is 140 km and takes only 6 days. Compared to the Canterbury-Rome journey, it’s a breeze.
I agreed to join Julia on the first stretch of the walk, starting at Circo Massimo and ending at the hill-town of Castel Gandolfo. 24 km is manageable, I thought. I occasionally walk to work (Testaccio to Montesacro – 11km in 2 hours), and doing just over double didn’t seem too ambitious. Although my boyfriend, friends and colleagues thought I was mad for wanting to spend my entire Sunday walking, I was sure I could do it. If Julia could walk for an average of 20km a day every day for three months, I could certainly cope with a single day of walking.
The route was another incentive. Most of the walk is along Appia Antica, perhaps my favourite place in the world. I usually reach a certain point of the road and then turn back, resisting the temptation to keep going on forever. This was a chance to discover what lay beyond…
We met at Circo Massimo at 9am on Sunday – Julia and her fellow Kent students, miscellaneous friends, and me and my flatmate Tom. We walked past the ruins of Terme di Caracalla and through the ancient gate of Porta San Sebastiano which now marks the beginning of Appia Antica. The first part of the road was surprisingly busy, filled with Ancient Roman soldiers and people handing out flyers. There was a kind of “open day”, with everything from fancy dress to folk music to food stalls. On any other day I would have stayed to check it out, and spent more time exploring the archaeological sites, but we had to stay focused and keep walking. There was a long way to go…
We went past the familiar landmarks – the enormous, castle-like mausoleum of Cecilia Metella (daughter of a Roman general), headless statues, the lonely ruins of Villa dei Quintilli, the farmhouse that sits surreally on top of an overgrown tomb – until we reached a stretch of the road I’d never been to before.
Approaching Ciampino, there’s a strange blend of city and countryside. The road is lined with olive groves and fields, but you can see warehouses and the airport in the distance. When the planes are landing, they drown out the birdsong and the bleats of the sheep.
(A side note – while most of Appia Antica is kept clean and well-maintained, part of the road near Ciampino is absolutely filthy. Beer bottles, paper plates, plastic bags and condom wrappers everywhere. It’s almost as if someone’s torn open a hundred bin bags and scattered the contents along Rome’s most beautiful road. Very sad…)
Beyond Ciampino, Appia Antica became more rural. In some parts the ancient cobblestones disappeared, and the road became a mere dirt track. Nothing but long grass, dirt, wildflowers, wind, and the midday sun. No other people, apart from the occasional cyclist. The last group we’d seen – a yoga class stretching on the grass in front of an ancient wall – seemed like a distant memory.
It was around this point that I began to suffer a catastrophic hayfever attack. “Catastrophic” is not an exaggeration. It was an hour of sneezing my head off, sneezing until my throat hurt and my head ached and I could barely see the road in front of me.
Appia Antica comes to an abrupt end in the town/suburb of Santa Maria delle Mole. We stopped at a bar for lunch, though none of us were hungry. The heat meant that an ice-cold Fanta was a much more tempting option. Still sneezing, I considered the possibility of ending the walk and returning back to central Rome. I was such a wreck that I couldn’t imagine getting any enjoyment out of the rest of the walk, and the combination of physical tiredness, mental tiredness and the heat meant that I was reluctant to continue, especially as the rest of the walk would be uphill.
But it was obviously fate. Julia had Claritin, and I would have had to wait an hour and a half for the next train to central Rome. “Besides,” said Julia, “we’re nearly there. Only a few more kilometres.”
Those last few kilometres were the hardest. We were in the rural hinterland of Rome, an area that’s too close to the city to be considered true countryside, but which nonetheless feels like the middle of nowhere. We trekked through pseudo-country lanes, past sort-of-farms, very vicious dogs and countless signs giving directions to Damiano’s birthday party. At one point we reached a dead end that shouldn’t have been a dead end; the farmer had decided to block access to the main road by arbitrarily constructing a high fence. Half the group decided to take the risk and climb the gate, while the more cowardly half (me included), fearing possible dog attacks/angry farmers/fence accidents, turned back and went the long way round.
We climbed. We passed the villa where Damiano’s birthday party was being celebrated. Then we climbed some more. And then, at last, we saw the sign that said “Castel Gandolfo”, and we crossed the road to admire the view of Lake Albano – a very inviting shade of blue.
Then, because Castel Gandolfo was built by sadists, we climbed some more to reach the historic centre, before collapsing in the piazza and drinking some very well-deserved beers.
After nearly seven hours of walking, none of us really had the energy for sightseeing, but Castel Gandolfo is a pretty little place – the Pope’s summer retreat – and easily accessible from Rome. If you don’t fancy walking, you can get the train from Termini (40 minutes).
Those of us who weren’t continuing to Terracina got the train back to Rome. Typically, there was no ticket office, only a broken ticket machine. We explained the situation to the guard on the train, who sold us tickets with a mandatory €0.50 fine per ticket. He acknowledged that it wasn’t our fault, but apparently there was no way of selling us the tickets on board the train without including the fine.
That’s Italy for you. Dysfunctional, beautiful.
Bring on the next adventure…