After some research I decided a trip to Ostia Antica was in order; an ancient Roman harbor town (and Port of Rome), now several miles in land and long ago silted over to 2nd floor level. Various excavations have uncovered plenty to see of a fully functioning Roman town of say 400 BC – 400 AD. To me this is just as impressive as any of the more famous sites of Rome itself, but much less populated with tourists so it’s easy to sit and ponder how life must have been all those years ago.
But before I could get there, I first had a long walk to collect my bicycle I'd deposited for repair the previous day. For just €10 I had a replaced gear cable, and a little TLC from a fantastic Italian 'Mario Brothers' type character; I engaged in some mime of extreme appreciation, and set off on my way.
From my map it seemed Ostia Antica wasn't too far to go. It isn't, but unfortunately the compound is really big (think major Airport size plot of land) and fenced in - and the entrance was on the opposite side. I had to try and skirt the edge but have suspicions I was on a motorway, and going the wrong way in order to do that... A few police passed and nobody honked, but I was very scared. There were lots of nasty bends and recent evidence of plenty of cars leaving the road - right where I was walking (since it was way to frighting to cycle in the road).
15th century Castle and town of Ostia Antica
EVENTUALLY I peddled into the current town of Ostia Antica. Just across the road from the entrance to the ruins is a small but impressive castle, but first I was exhausted and went looking for food. I walked/cycled a little further into the town to avoid the tourist traps and found a little shop that sold pizza by weight - I ordered myself a slice and a couple of biscotti type biscuits (they had a name beginning with T) and waited for the total - €1 - brilliant! At the next shop I brought some fruit and was set for the day with my water I was already carrying (plenty of water taps are also provided in the towns and even the Ruins for tourists, so it's easy to top up your bottle).
Closer up and the movie set 'Alimentari' or Grocery store!
Around the 15th century castle is a town that grew (presumably in it's protection) that was very picturesque and seemed to have a film crew breaking down the set of a fake shop. The castle seemed private, but I ventured towards it and noted on the door that it opened at set hours for a guided tour.. The next tour was in just 15 minutes time, so I waited while enjoying the activity of the square.
The tour itself was one of the strangest I've ever undertaken. It was a guided/supervised walk through the castle, but in silence (at least the guide didn't speak, even to the Italians in the small group). We were not allowed to take pictures (even of the views from the castle ramparts). The castle is triangular in shape with a central courtyard and 3 circular towers. Inside there was an active team working to clean up some of the many frescoes on the remaining plasterwork; but the most impressive thing to me, was in one of the basement rooms, we were shown a bathroom with sunken marble bath-tub/jacuzzi. I've never seen that in any castle I've ever been to. The Italians were just a cleaner kind of people that my own forefathers I guess.
So by 1pm I was at the Roman ruins and not quite sure what to expect. Audio tours advertised don't seem to exist any more (??) but you can buy a book or a map (both very overpriced) – so with an expensive and flimsy map off I went wandering.
Grand public buildings - The Capitolium and Theatre
You first enter the oldest area - an avenue of a cemetery - with cremation earns all long evacuated, and pretty soon come across the 'new town' which you can still see was impressively grand. Almost every 3rd building appears to be some kind of baths, and I was feeling particularly jealous, as I'd love a bit of pampering right now.
A 'normal' ancient street in the commercial area of town
I can't quite understand why the town was abandoned and the inhabitants are all believed to have simple moved out; maybe the changes in the river course, who knows? (some reports suggest malaria and other outbreaks of sickness).
Fishmongers and bar/restaurant
It's quite difficult to navigate your way around (even with the map), and much of the area has no information boards, or is still (or has become) overgrown and inaccessible. The site seems so much bigger than the caretakers can manage to keep; they are clearly losing the battle with nature, it's (recently) overgrown and crumbling in places, and not supervised to prevent tourists climbing on things they probably should know better than climb on, etc.
There is only one toilet block in the whole place (remember I said how big it was), but it was baking hot and with little shade, so I was trying to use my water carefully. There were a few people, but mostly I could get photos of great avenues or theatres without anyone to interfere with the view. Amazing!
Natty 'machines' for grinding grain into flour
Naturally there are mosaics aplenty, along with amphitheatres, guild schools, temples, and shops. I especially loved the fishmonger shop which had appropriate mosaics and it’s original sink and cutting table still in place. There was also a giant building set aside for the town bread making industry, complete with original contraptions for grinding the grain. I spent about 5 hours at the site left through exhaustion (and an approaching closing time) rather than boredom or any sense of having fully understood the town.
On the way back to the boat I got lost (trying to leave the “motorway”, I managed to take a wrong turn and double back on myself practically!) - so it took about 1.5 hours of cycling... I really was exhausted by the time I got home.
It amazes me how well built a structure can be from 2000 years ago! It also makes me realize how fragile our current ‘’civilization’ might be when I ponder the fall of the Roman Empire – which for the UK plunged us backwards again for many centuries. I found so many emotions and questions evoked from a simple visit. Wow is the best word, just wow.
Some of the many views of Ostia Antica