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Electrified bike ride through Italian history highlights aqueducts, ancient highway

A father and daughter picnic in the shade alone one of the ancient aqueducts built to carry water into Rome.  (BRETT FRENCH, Billings Gazette)
A father and daughter picnic in the shade alone one of the ancient aqueducts built to carry water into Rome. (BRETT FRENCH, Billings Gazette)
By Brett French The Billings Gazette

ROME – Grooves from the wheels of chariots passing on the Appian Way are worn into stones laid 312 years before Christ was born.

You can still see the parallel marks today, not far from the remains of the castle-like mausoleum built around 1 B.C. in honor of Cecilia Metella, the daughter of a Roman consul – the highest elected political office.

The ancient stone artifacts were just two of the amazing remains revealed in a four-hour, electric-assist bicycle ride I recently took in Rome, my first time overseas. Everywhere we stopped along the route the area’s history was revealed by our guide, Sara Mauriello of Roma Starbike – a wild ride through antiquity.

The way

The Appian Way runs from the Palantine hills in downtown Rome southward in almost a straight line. It was built as a military route, providing an all-weather road for troops and supplies to enable war on a neighboring group of tribes known as the Samnites over the Campania region.

In four years, about 122 to 132 miles of road was built to the city of Capua. After the Romans used the route to win the Second Samnite War, the road was extended. By 264 BC it ran all the way to the Adriatic Sea port city of Brindisi, located in the “heel” of Italy – about 350 miles total. Following the Third Samnite War, the highway became a valued trade route, funneling goods and riches to the Roman empire.

Next to the road are numerous monuments to the deceased of varying sizes and states of decay. Behind the monuments, hidden behind hedges and gates, are large villas. It seemed strange that to access some of these multimillion-dollar estates, the owners had to drive slowly down a narrow cobbled road.

Wall

One of the structures along the old road is the Porta San Sebastiano, first known as the Porta Appia when it was constructed in 275 A.D. – a port to the Appian Way.

The arch is still used by vehicles today. Thanks to renovations over the centuries, it remains one of the best preserved ancient gateways to Rome. It’s also the largest of the gates along the Aurelian Wall, a defensive structure erected to keep out “barbarian” invaders. The wall was named after Emperor Aurelian.

About 24 feet tall originally, the wall was later raised to 35 feet and 100-foot-tall towers were added.

Aqua

Other highlights of the ride included two aqueducts, the newer one still in use and the older fallen into disrepair. New in this case dates to the 16th century when the Acqua Felice was built. The older one was built in 37 to 41 A.D. In all, 11 aqueducts serviced Rome, feeding its famous fountains and supplying free fresh water. To this day, taps still run year-round in the city with drinkable water.

The water also served large public bath houses, one of which provided heated water and floors by burning wood in a basement furnace.

It was amazing the aqueducts withstood World War II, I noted to our guide. She said because so much of the countryside was in ruin, some of the arches became homes for displaced refugees. One she showed us even had a stone floor the resident had installed.

Where the Acqua Felice runs through a neighborhood next to the Parco degli Acquedotti, iron gates have been installed and locked to keep anyone from thinking of taking up residence there now.

The biking trip was a highlight for me, away from the crowds of tourists with a guide to explain the history. Apparently, my countrymen agree. Mauriello told us 90% of Roma Starbike’s customers are American. Our tour included couples from upstate New York and North Carolina.

This tour cost $49 euros. Other options include ebike rides around the city and a night tour highlighting dramatically lit ruins like the Coliseum.

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