SOUTH of the tourist-crushed Trevi Fountain, past the scooter-clogged streets of Centro Storico and just outside the city’s 1,700-year-old walls is a miles-long stretch of ancient landmarks, quaint restaurants and serenity known as Appia Antica.
Part of the fabled Appian Way, the ancient Roman road that connected Rome all the way to Brindisi at the heel of Italy’s boot, this cobblestone stretch is today a protected archaeological park that offers a scenic respite from the city’s bustle.
On Sundays, the road is closed to vehicular traffic, and joggers (a rare sight in Rome), amorous couples (not such a rare sight) and baby strollers emerge to idle along its picturesque mausoleums and tranquil nooks.
Getting there is easy. Take a 10-minute bus ride from the Basilica of San Giovanni (No. 218) or the Circus Maximus (No. 118) to Parco Regionale dell’Appia Antica. A visitors’ center has free maps and friendly, English-speaking docents. Bikes are available for rent starting at 3 euros, $4.55 at $1.52 to the euro, per hour. Or, for a historical play-by-play, Vatican Art Walks offers private walking tours starting at 65 euros an hour.
Among the first sights is the Church of Domine Quo Vadis?, so named because this is where St. Peter, fleeing persecution from Emperor Nero, reputedly had a vision of Jesus and asked “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus, as the story goes, replied, “To Rome, to be crucified again.” A cast of what some people believe are Jesus’ footprints is kept inside the church; the original cast is down the street in the Church of San Sebastian, above the narrow catacombs that once held the remains of early Christians martyrs (Via Appia Antica 136).
But if you visit only one catacomb, descend into San Callisto. Guided tours — often led by witty American priests — take visitors along some of the 18 miles of dark tunnels and sepulchers where martyrs and early popes once rested.
And if all the catacomb exploring builds up an appetite, Appia isn’t short on good restaurants. A popular lunch site for well-dressed parliamentarians is L’Archeologia, a seafood restaurant housed in a 17th-century mail station that serves classic dishes like fish stew (13 euros) and homemade gnocchi with calamari and cherry tomatoes (12 euros).
For truly classic dining, go to Antica Roma, a tavern built into ancient ruins that serves recipes written down by Apicius, who is credited with writing the world’s first cookbook. Try the pollo oxizomum, baked chicken slathered in fish sauce (12 euros).
After lunch, stop to gawk at the red-brick ruins of the Circus of Maxentius, a fourth-century racetrack and, farther on, the three-story cylindrical tomb of the first-century-B.C. Roman aristocrat Cecilia Metella that was turned into a castle by the blue-blooded Caetani family in the Middle Ages.
From there, the tar road gives way to pizza-sized stone pavers complete with chariot wheel grooves, and is flanked by umbrella pines and millenniums-old mausoleums. This stretch of the Appia Antica remains one of Rome’s most fashionable addresses. Legions of Italian celebrities live in the massive villas that dot the ancient road.
And except for the occasional Range Rover pulling out of the stone driveways, you can almost forget you’re in 21st-century Rome.