Monday, 3 October 2011

Italy 2011, All Roads Lead To Rome

Ryanair flights out of Stansted airport start at six o’clock in the morning and our flight to Rome Ciampino was one of the first with a scheduled departure time of twenty past. This meant a very early start and once we had found seats on board and put our bags in the overhead lockers I was asleep in my chair even before the end of the flight attendants safety on board lecture.

Italy was in the grip of a burning heat wave and after landing at Ciampino and on opening the aircraft doors there was a blast of heat from the smouldering tarmac baking in temperatures that, coming from Northern Europe, we were unfamiliar with, which was rather like opening a pizza oven door. Ciampino was once the principal airport for Rome but it has now been superseded by a modern facility north of the city so it quite small for a capital city airport and we were processed through immigration control and customs nice and quickly.

In the arrivals hall we looked around for clues for how to get to the nearby town of Albano Laziale where we were staying and we must have had that gormless confused traveller look about us that made us potential victims of a taxi scam and sure enough we were immediately pestered by a man touting for mini coach customers who made us an offer and told us how difficult it was to make our own alternative way there. I had foolishly assumed that there was a train station at the airport but my enquiries revealed that although there was a station at Ciampino this was in fact at the nearby town of the same name and getting there by the most direct route would involve crossing the runway which we were certain would be frowned upon by airport security and so was four or five kilometres away by road instead. Being hot and disorientated we eventually gave in to the persistence of the taxi tout and agreed to pay what turned out to be way over the odds for the short journey to Albano.

Once out of the airport we were on a long straight road which pointed south and it was long and it was straight because this was the Appian Way which was one of the earliest and strategically most important Roman roads of the ancient city. It connected Rome to Brindisi in southeast Italy and is named after Appius Claudius Caecus, the man who began and completed the first section as a military road to the south in 312 BC.

The Roman army depended for its success on the use of bases in which to prepare to advance or retreat swiftly and these bases allowed the Romans to keep a large number of soldiers in the field waiting for the opportunity to strike. The bases needed to be connected by good roads for easy access and supply from Rome. The Appian Way was the first long road built specifically to transport troops outside the smaller region of greater Rome but as the Romans expanded over most of Italy they constructed a network of highways. Their roads all began at Rome and extended to the borders of their domain – hence the expression, “All roads lead to Rome.”

To the right of us we could see a large flat agricultural plain that stretched all the way to the coast and beyond that the blue water of the Tyrrhenian Sea shimmering in the sunlight. In front and to our left there was green woodland because as we got closer to Albano we started to enter the foothills of the Alban Hills and eventually the outskirts of our destination. Albano is part of what is called the Castelli Romani, the ‘Castles of Rome’ which is a group of communes in the province of Rome and about twenty-five kilometres south of the capital.

The taxi driver was unfamiliar with our hotel, the Villa Altieri, but eventually found it after a couple of phone calls, dropped us outside and gratefully accepted the inflated fare and we went inside to register. The hotel was a eighteenth century mansion opposite the back gates of the Papal Palace and with good views over the countryside stretching out to the coast to the west and to Rome in the north. We were too early to book in so we left our bags and agreed that it was time for a first drink, possibly a Peroni!

We were going to go first to nearby Castel Gandolfo and when we asked the man at reception for instructions he told us it was not so far, but not so near either so he wasn’t sure whether to advise us for or against the walking option. We decided to walk and we quickly came across a roadside bar which looked perfect but was rejected by Kim in that way that she always overrules any first choice that Micky and I make and suggested that we walk a little further where she was sure that there would soon be a better alternative. This reasoning is totally illogical but it is female so we have learned not to argue against it so in blistering heat and in desperate need of refreshment we walked on.

And we walked on and we walked on because it turned out that Castel Gandolfo was a bit further than we had estimated, there were no more bars and it was a walk of a couple of kilometres or so along a road with no pavement full of screaming Italian traffic and danger lurking around every corner. It was hot and humid and it took us almost forty-five minutes to reach the next café and this time we were not prepared to enter into debate about suitability and although it perhaps wasn’t we promptly sat down and ordered drinks.

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