Having confidently reported in the last episode that we are feeling no pressure to visit some of the best known (and most heavily trafficked sites in Rome), it is undoubtedly ironic that I launch my morning's activity with a hike to the Coliseum. When I awoke this morning I had a burning desire to add photos of this famous Roman landmark to my collection, so off I went through the pre-dawn streets. A twenty-five minute walk brought me to the Coliseum. Traffic was already flowing along the Via dei Fori Imperiale and I quickly set up the camera to get a few shots before dawn warmed the low-hanging clouds. There were few people around, although the men who offer horse-drawn carriage rides had already staked out positions near the front entrance. Is there a big demand for carriage rides at 7:00 AM?
There wasn't enough time. There's never enough time. I had only managed a couple of shots when the lights snapped off and I was left admiring a dull, gray half-cylinder under a cloudy gray morning. Time to pack up and return to the flat.
The full Euro2008 Team was out the door by 10:30. We were on our way to Ostia Antica, one of Italy's premier archaeological excavations. We caught the number 30 bus outside the Piazza Navona, and rode to the train station (Stazione Ostia Lido). Here we transferred to an Ostia-bound train, about a thirty minute journey. How much did these two rides, of about 45 minutes in duration cost us? Five euros each? Ten? No. Our tickets were one euro, a bargain that allows you 75 minutes of bus travel and one subway or train ride. Rome's public transport is brilliant and stunningly affordable.
The last time we went to Ostia, we spent at least half an hour wandering up and down the street looking for the “good” restaurant recommended by a guidebook. This time, seasoned Ostia visitors, we breezed right past the Sword and Sandals gladiator restaurant into the park, knowing that the “good” restaurant was the site's cafeteria (it really isn't that great, but it beats the old Sword and Sandal, where they charge 20 euros for a plate of spaghetti). We took our noon meal at the cafeteria, and then, full of food and optimism, we ventured into the site.
Ostia was once Rome's seaport. It lost its role after the Tiber filled with silt and the course of the river was altered. In 113, the Emperor Trajan built an alternate harbor (Portus), and competition from this new port also robbed Ostia of some of its shipping. Over the centuries, the town was dismantled, its marble and brick hauled away to build the villas and churches of Rome. Malaria discouraged potential inhabitants, and it wasn't until the twentieth century that archaeologists began to excavate the site. The present estimate is that two-thirds of the city has been uncovered. What is exposed is huge―about 84 acres of land. The exoskeletons of the red-brick houses, villas, shops, and temples stretch to the horizons.
If I was asked to recommend one archaeological site to visit in Italy, I would choose Ostia. It is a good deal less crowded than Rome's Forum, Pompeii, or Herculaneum. Moreover, the walls and foundations of the buildings give a real sense of how the city looked during its second century prime, when 75,000 people lived here and it was one of the centers of Mediterranean commercial activity. Ostia is vastly underrated, a largely overlooked wonder.
The girls enjoy Ostia because the maze of walls and half-roofed buildings offer a huge number of hiding places for their version of Ostian Hide and Seek. One person hides among the ruins, and then, when the seeker despairs of finding the hider, the hider blows a short blast on her flute, offering a clue. Great fun.
After wandering aimlessly around the ruins for a spell, I went back to the book store and picked up a copy of a guidebook to the site. This was a double-edged ruler. On the one hand, I was able to deepen my appreciation for what Ostia had to offer, but on the other, I began to realize just how much was there and the futility of trying to see everything in an afternoon. It can't be done. When I set off to find the Bath of the Seven Sages, hoping to see the mosaic in the floor and a fresco of the sages, I stumbled into a huge area that I didn't even know was there before. There just wasn't time, and we were forced to pull out before we'd even begun to scratch the surface of the mosaics.
Back to Rome with the evening commuters, but still with enough time to grab my tripod and head out onto the Ponte Umberto for some twilight shots of St Peter's. I had admired some postcards of the church earlier in the day and used our map to work out that they had been shot from this bridge. It proved a marvelous vantage point, and my telephoto was able to bring the cathedral in postcard close.
While I waited for the sky to darken and for Pope Benedict to turn on the lights, I watched an avian display playing out overhead. Great clouds of swallows wheeled and spun over the banks of the Tiber. They must be preparing to migrate, for they are flocking together by the thousands and cavorting as one, as if they are practicing formation flight. Some of the birds soared far overhead and their clusters looked like amoebas against the darkening sky, spherical bags of protoplasm expanding and contracting, coalescing and mutating. As I enjoyed the show, a splatter of bird feces fell out of the sky and landed on my shoulder. I wasn't happy, but with the sky saturated with birds, it was surprising that it wasn't happening more often.
The lights came on, I took my photos, then hurried back to our flat. Another fine day in Rome.
Is there any other kind?