Why the walls? What’s the back story to this?
Well, I’m a sucker for the punishment of a long, hard walk. But I do think it’s one of the best ways to tap into the soul of a city, and I came across a story about how the NATO Defence College in Rome uses the walls as an exercise circuit for its recruits. I thought I’d road-test this walk for a couple of reasons. It struck me as a unique way to tap into Rome’s astounding history and also to get a better handle on the city’s layout.
How lengthy is the walk? It’s a 19 kilometre circumnavigation around Rome and mostly flat terrain. If Rome is a clock, I started at 6 o’clock and walked anti-clockwise. The walls you are tracking were built in 270 AD, when Rome was starting to fear invasion. 80% of the walls remain intact, with the best preserved watchtowers rising over 20 metres in height. The full circumnavigation will take you a good 6 hours, although I mixed that up with plenty of gelato and sightseeing. However, to sample just the best bits of the walk, you could break it up, into two 90 minute circuits. There’s a step by step circuit guide further down the page.
Let’s look at some of the highlights, starting with the Appian Way.
Starting out from Porta San Paolo, one of the 18 gates of the wall, a marquee attraction is the legendary Appian Way – the oldest of all roads leading to Rome, which ends at the Wall.You can stroll along the ancient gateway, or admire an aerial view of its long span, at the Museum of Walls, which is on top of San Sebastian Gate.
Next stop is San Giovanni Piazza and the Pope’s first church.
The piazza holds Rome’s oldest public structure, the Egyptian obelisk which dates from the 15th century BC. But the big drawer is the Pope’s first church, San Giovanni, which was originally built in the 4th century by Constantine. It is second only to St. Peters in importance. The architecture and interior design is jaw-dropping. And the big main bronze doors originally hung from the hinges of the Senate House, at the time of Caesar. It’s a must-see.
What about Santa Croce Church? Don’t they have Rome’s most precious relics?
Yes, a short walk from the piazza brings you to Santa Croce Jerusalem church, where you can view some of the Catholic Church’s treasures. They include a wooden fragment of the original cross, a nail from the cross, thorns from the crown Christ was forced to wear, and the wooden tablet that Pontius Pilate inscribed with Christ’s death sentence.
Borghese Gardens and the Via Veneto.
For a complete change of scenery, once the walls get past the train station, you’ve got Renaissance Rome to enjoy at the Borghese Gardens, and the spirit of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, on the swanky Via Veneto.
Wall’s resume across the Tiber, in the amazing district of Trastevere.
South of Piazza del Popolo, a 3km section of the walls was bowled, but they resume across the river, just past St. Peter’s, winding their way up Janiculum Hill, with offers helicopter views across Rome. Then the walls tumble down into the rustic, sexy and authentic residential district of Trastevere, which is a cracker.
The wall walk finishes, just across the river, in Aventino by Rome’s artificial hill, which was ancient landfill site, where the Romans would biff all of their old wine and olive jugs. Millions of them. While you’re in the area, Also check out the emerging food district of Testaccio, and the fabled Mouth Of Truth. This sculptured stone face was a medieval grate cover, and legend says that if you put your hands in the mouth, and you’ve been untruthful, the mouth will snap shut. It’s a great fidelity check for couples.
Did the walls actually serve their purpose and save Rome from invasion?
The walls have repulsed the ravages of time incredibly well, and they would have safeguarded the Romans. But human greed was Rome’s undoing. The city was invaded and sacked by the Visigoths, after the gatekeepers were bribed to open the gates and let the barbarians in.
STEP-BY STEP TIPS.
1. Imagine historic Rome is a clock. I recommend you start your walk at 6 o’clock from the Piramide metro station. The pyramid in question is a 27 metre high tomb of Gaius Cestius, who died 2000 years ago, but little is known about him. This is the biggest private tomb in Rome.
2. Follow the walls to the right from Piramide, where you will see the Porta San Paolo. ( One of the wall’s 18 gates, which actually leads down to the ancient port of Ostia.) You will come to the next gate, Porta San Sebastiano, which is where the Appian Way meets the wall. For a birds-eye view of the Appian Way, check out the Musuem of Walls, which is built into Porta San Sebastiano, or walk some of the storied road for yourself, as a side-trip.
3. Venture inside the next gate, Porta Metronia and head right down Via Aradam to check out the treasures in Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano. ( Obselisk, San Giovanni Church, and past the piazza but still inside the walls, Santa Croce Church.)
4. Next stop is Porta Maggiore, where you can see the tomb of an ancient baker, Marcus Eurysaces, who was a freed slave and a fine baker. The tomb is in the shape of a bread oven. Also, check out the water aqueducts in the wall, complete with marble cladding to prevent leaks. From there, take the underpass and follow the walls up the right hand side of Termini station. You will notice some houses have been built into the walls.
5. The walls head north up Viale Pretoriano to Porta Pia, before turning west on Via Italia, which takes you into the Borghese Gardens and to the top of Via Veneto. Once you emerge from the Borghese Gardens into Piazza del Popolo, the walls disappear for 3km, which is the only chunk missing.
6. I suggest you head down Via Ribetta, past the Tomb of Emperor Augustus ( excavation is pending) and then track the Tiber around to Castel Sant’ Angelo. Walk across the bridge and head for St. Peters.
7. Behind St.Peters square, on the left hand side, find Viale della Mura or Via Urbano V11. Either route will take you to where the walls resume, and up across Januculum Hill to the glorious Garibaldi monument and the even more glorious panoramic view across Rome. The walls tracks down into the bustling and photogenic district of Trastevere.
8. Cross the river again at Ponte Sublico. You will see the Piramide on your right, signalling the completion of the circuit. While you’re in the area, check out the artificial hill that that anicent Romans built, as a landfill. Also a short walk left down Lungtotevere Aventino will bring you to Santa Maria in Cosmedin. Inside the porch of the church, you will find the Mouth of Truth medieval grate cover. If you turn hard right from Ponte Sublico , you will be on the main road into Testaccio, an emerging foodie district in Rome.
The full circumnavigation, including food and gelato stops, plus sightseeing will take you all day. Start early! Otherwise, to short circuit the walk and just see the best bits, I would recommend doing Steps 1 to 3 and Steps 7 to 8. Both mini-walks will take two hours.
Rome is speckled by segments of various wall structures built prior to the 270AD walls, that encircled historic Rome, and were commissioned by Emperor Aurelian, in the Roman Empire’s autumn. The map below points out the various wall structures. My walking notes pertain to the main circular wall, which is marked in red.
( As discussed on Mike’s travel slot, on Newstalk ZB’s Jack Tame Show.)