We cycled past ancient monuments such as the Aurelian Wall and the Porta San Sebastiano, the gate through which the US Army entered Rome at the end of WWII. Roberto explained that the Tomb of Cecilia Metella was erected in 69 BC, but transformed into a fortress during the Middle Ages. I noticed that heads of various statues had been cut off and Roberto explained that they were stolen over the years by noble Roman families for their private collections.
A bit further we stopped at the Catacombs of San Callisto, underground burial places for about 500,000 people that were built after 150 AD. Our guide took us down into a cool dark environment of narrow walkways, recessed niches, crypts and family tombs decorated with ancient frescoes from the early third century. 16 popes are buried in the catacombs and many early Christian martyrs.
Entrance to the Catacombs of San Callisto
No filming or photography was allowed in this area, but our guide provided us with informative commentary. In ancient times small oil lamps lit the way. It was often assumed that early Christians lived here to avoid persecution, but the air was too humid and damaging to human lungs. From about 300 AD Christians were allowed to bury their dead above ground due to the Edict of Milan, and that’s when the catacombs were covered over and forgotten until their rediscovery in 1865.
As we cycled south on the bucolic country lanes of the Via Appia, I had a chance to get to know my tour guide Roberto a bit better. In addition to leading guided bicycle tours he is also an actor and just came back from a theatre performance in Bologna. We also talked about the Italian way of life, which includes significant corruption and political apathy. Apparently there is a new law that politicians can request a police escort at any time and get the right of way wherever they go.
The serene landscape of the Via Appia
I had already witnessed that yesterday when I saw a big black limousine being escorted by police vehicles through the streets of downtown Rome. Immigration is another complicated issue in Italy where a lot of illegal immigrants enter into the country from different parts of Africa. Labour unrest and frequent strikes are another set of issues that plague the Italian economy on a regular basis.
Beautiful vistas in Aqueduct Park
At the southern end of our bicycle ride we reached Aqueduct Park (Parco degli Acquedotti) which derives its names from several aqueducts that used to transport water from the Alban Hills on the outskirts of Rome. It is a very scenic park that is often used by Italian film production companies due to its proximity to the Cinecitta movie studies.
Signora Maria from the Azienda Agricola La Caffarella
We turned around and cycled into the Park of the Caffarella, another large green space at the southern outskirts of Rome. We stopped at the Azienda Agricola La Caffarella, an old, quite dilapidated-looking farm that used to be owned by the powerful Caffarelli family. Signora Maria, the lady of the house, served us a large plate of sheep cheese and some home-baked bread with some locally grown wine. The sheep were bleating in the background and different groups of sheep were being taken out to the pasture while others returned. It was amazing to see such a rural scene barely 10 kilometers from the heart of downtown Rome!
Freshly shorn sheep a few kilometres outside of downtown Rome
Now appropriately strengthened we cycled back to the city and traffic was quickly getting denser. We passed the Baths of Caracalla, public baths built between in the early 3rd century, whose design was used as the inspiration for a variety of modern structures, among others New York City’s Penn Station. Roman art and architecture still has a pervasive influence on modern Western architecture.
A peek at Santa Maria Maggiore Church
Back past the Colosseum we started riding up the Esquiline Hill to get back to the offices of TopBikeRental where we finally arrived at almost 8 pm. Both my co-traveller Allen and I had had a fantastic time on this tour and we thanked Roberto for his expert guidance. I then walked past the impressive church of Santa Maria Maggiore back to my bed and breakfast, and turned in after a quick stop for ice cream on the Piazza Emmanuele II. I needed to catch a good rest because tomorrow I was going to head out for another bike ride: the Panoramic Tour of Rome, which would cover all the major sights inside the city…
Piazza Vittorio Emmanuele II