Italy I – Rome and Ostia Antica

[Wonder if blogging about a trip you went on 4 years ago is cheating. In my defense, I have pictures from the trip sorted by day. So I can reconstruct the trip. Either way here we go.]

We (a friend and I) went to Italy in October of 2011 and this is the first post in a series about it. It was my first trip to Europe and a dream come true. I’m obsessed with Roman history for some reason, so seeing Rome was like a trip to Makkah for the believers. The rough plan was to stay 5-6 days in Rome, move south to the modern town of Pompeii, and use it as a base to visit Pompeii (the archaeological site), Herculaneum, Naples and Amalfi Coast.

We flew out of Toronto on Friday evening after work and landed in Rome Saturday afternoon. The first thing I did after landing was buy the Roma pass while still at the airport. This pass gives you free transit ride for four days as well as free/reduced entry into some archaeological sites. The details of the Roma pass have probably changed since then, so do look for updated information. But I imagine getting it is still as good an idea as it was when I was there.

I’d rented a place near the Punte Lungo subway stop off of Airbnb. The whole rental experience turned out to be quite an adventure in itself (more about that as we go on). I’d printed off directions to our apartment which seemed straightforward enough. From the airport, we hopped on the train which delivered us very close to where we were staying.

And now the fun began.

I started following the directions except we were getting nowhere close to our destination. We went round and round in a circle literally for hours. Ultimately, we abandoned the directions from the landlord, picked a direction and started walking. And soon we started seeing the landmarks the landlord had mentioned. Except we had come across the landmarks by doing the opposite of what the landlord’s directions said! Turns out something was lost in Italian to English translation. Every time the landlord said “go into street xyz”, we were supposed to go past it. When the landlord said “cross the street”, he meant turn into it. So, instead of 20 minutes, it took us 2.5 hours of walking around in circles with our luggage before we found the destination. That was a lot of fun.

We got to the apartment building around 5 PM. I rang the bell. A lady answered in Italian. I assumed she said she was coming down to get us except I was already starting to get confused. We’d rented the place off of an Italian gentleman who was an IT professional. But there was no sign of him. We went up the apartment and it seemed nice enough at first. We had a room and the use of a washroom at the end of the apartment. We dropped off our luggage and rested up for a bit. The first surprise was the lack of proper beds. Instead, we were welcomed with two beanbag beds.

First order of business was food as always. I asked the landlady about food options and she clearly had no clue what I was saying/asking. And then she started banging away on her laptop and asked me to come over and look at the screen. She wanted to communicate with us through Google Translate! I asked her about the guy who we had rented the place from. She replied (through Google Translate) that he was her brother and lived in Switzerland. So, basically we were stuck with her laptop and Google Translate for the duration of our stay. That was an interesting bit of detail that her brother had omitted to mention on Airbnb.

Anyway, back to food. The lady recommended a pizza place downstairs. I had such high expectations of pizza in Italy. So off we went to find the shop and expected our lives to be changed forever thanks to authentic Italian pizza. We ordered a couple of slices to go. And as I bit into the slice, I almost threw up. It was vile. God knows how long it had been sitting there for. We were heading towards the Pantheon for the evening and decided that we’d get food there.

The Pantheon looked majestic under the moonlight. I went back to the Pantheon at least 4 times over our stay in Rome. But for the first night, we wrapped up early so we could properly start our Roman adventure the next day.

Pantheon at night

Pantheon at night

We were up nice and early the following morning. The plan for today was to visit Ostia Antica which literally means Ancient Port. As the name suggests, Ostia was the port of ancient Rome. Eventually the water receded and the harbor silted up. The town lost its commercial importance. The archaeological remains of the town are magnificent. A lot of people say that you don’t have to see Ostia if you’re going to Pompeii. That is true to an extent but if you have any love for Roman history/archaeology, you owe it to yourself to see both. Ostia is not as big as Pompeii but it is definitely less busy and probably better preserved than Pompeii.

Getting to Ostia Antica required taking a regional train from one of the subway stops (I forget which one) and took us about an hour to reach. We crossed the busy road through the overhead bridge and landed in front of the archaeological site’s entrance.

Ostia Train Station

Ostia Train Station

Ostia Antica blew me away as we walked in. I can’t express in words what it meant to me to walk on the road of a 2000 year old Roman town. The site was majestic.

Plane flies above 2000 yr old town

Plane flies above 2000 yr old town

Like all Roman towns, the first little bit of the site actually lies out of the official borders of the town and consists of ancient tombs and burials. Romans did not allow burials to take place inside the boundary of the city, so all tombs were built outside. Ostia was no different. We slowly walked through the various structures that constituted the tombs of ancient residents of Ostia.

A statue in Ostia

A statue in Ostia

The main road of Ostia is called Decumanus Maximus. Roman roads were an engineering marvel back in the day and were a big part of the success of the Roman army – allowing it to cover territory much faster than most of its opponents of the time.

A street in Ostia

A street in Ostia

Ostia was a port and a commercial town. So there are lots of warehouses and stores for storing goods around. But you still get have the essential elements of Roman towns – a theater, a bath complex and public toilets. The baths of Neptune in Ostia feature a breathtaking floor mosaic that still exists in great shape.

IMG_0600

Baths Ostia Antica

Past the baths, we came across the theater. Most of these theaters have been restored extensively so that they’re a mixture of the ancient and the modern. This theater like most is still used for concerts, performances, etc.

Theater

Theater

Theater (from bottom)

Theater (from bottom)

Right opposite the theater is the massive agora aka market place. The fascinating thing about this square marketplace is the beautiful mosaics on the floor that cover the pathway. One theory is that these mosaics indicated the kinds of goods sold at individual shops in the marketplace.

Agora

Agora

Floor mosaics in the agora

Floor mosaics in the agora

Floor mosaics in the agora

Floor mosaics in the agora

Floor mosaics in the agora

Floor mosaics in the agora

Further into the site, we got to see something that still intrigues modern tourists – the public toilets of Ostia. No comment needed.

Public toilets of Ostia Antica

Public toilets of Ostia Antica

The other thing that fascinated me was the existence of multistory apartment buildings further into the site. As someone who was born in a third world country and who always heard about roofs collapsing in nearby villages when it rained too hard, it still amazes me that the Romans were able to build multistory buildings 2000 years ago that still stand today.

Ancient flour mill

Ancient flour mill

For the rest of the day, we kept wading through the site and were the last people at the site. The sun was starting to set and the staff told us that it was time to go which is when we started to head back.

Ostia

Ostia

We got back to Rome around evening time and once again headed back to the Pantheon. And that capped off a great first day in Rome. So far, Rome was living up to everything I had imagined/hoped it would be.

Somewhere in Ostia

Lost in Ostia on a beautiful day

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