The plan was to go back to the Appia Antica, walk the ecological park of Valle di Carafella, check out its various columbaria and nymphae, maybe hit a catacomb or two. The Museo delle Mura had been such a treat on Sunday that I didn’t get very far down the ancient road after going through the Appian Gate. So Tuesday I set off bright and early going largely the same way. A rhino was spotted and it was good. Instead of taking Via di San Sebastiano, however, which leads directly to the gate and the museum, for variety’s sake I decided to take the Via di Porta Latina which diverged left to go to a different, much smaller gate a short distance from the big one. It’s a pretty road with large walled villas on either side, walls I hugged more than once when cars barreled down the tiny cobblestone street.
The gate in sight, I stopped to read the info panel about the wee church of San Giovanni in Oleo, a Renaissance structure (original design attributed Bramante, current roof by Borromini), built on the site of a 5th century church which ostensibly marked the spot where John the Evangelist was martyred by Domitian by being boiled in a vat oil. Well, almost martyred. It didn’t take, so alive and unboiled, John was exiled to Patmos where he wrote the book of Revelation.
An obstacle arose here too in the form of a tour group that would not move the hell on so I could get a picture of the Porta Latina. Patience, which I hear is a virtue although I wouldn’t know from personal experience, paid off eventually. Proof:
After stepping through the gate, I was visited by a vision of the Aurelian Wall extending down the hill in the opposite direction from the Porta Appia. It called to me, a stone and brick siren 30 feet high and a half-mile long. I had to follow its call. That whole stretch of wall from the Porta Latina to the Porta Metronia is a park, a peaceful green space on the perimeter of a residential neighborhood. There were more dogs than people.
It was so wonderful a walk that I would have gone on to the next gate, the Porta San Giovanni, had not dark forces prevented me. The dark force in this case was the construction of Metro Line C whose high scaffolding was wrapped tight like an anti-present blocking the view of the wall and access to the street under it. I could have continued nonetheless, heading in that direction even if not at the foot of the wall or even in view of it, but I didn’t know when I’d get back to proper wall walking. I turned back, going on to the Porta Appia to resume my original trajectory.
And so I reached the Valle di Carafella, embarking on an exploration of its archaeological sites. There was just one problem. Most of the sites of note are way at the end of the park. I enjoy an ecological preserve, mind you, and had I not had a very specific brief, I would have gladly spent the day hiking the whole thing. Instead, I reached the working farm, received the blessing of Juno’s representative, and then turned back.
It was the wall, you see. Its call could not be denied. Facing the Porta Appia, I turned left and walked. And walked. And walked some more. I reached the Porta Ardeatina and the Christoforo Colombo, the large thoroughfare that took us home/to town so often when I was a child. I kept going. And going. At one point I found some stairs and climbed them. They took me to a high road (far more modern) that tracked the inside of the wall. It was from the internal wall perimeter that I saw the gate. It was the Porta San Paolo.
When I walked through it, the pyramid of Gaius Cestius welcomed me. The marble cladding, mottled grey and white, gleamed in the sun. Never once, when I was little, did I imagine the blackened, weed-choked pyramid could ever look like this. It’s one of the best restorations I’ve ever seen. It was a little thin on cats, however. They used to colonize the base of the pyramid and there were zero cats to be found. Thankfully the Cimitero Accatolico, the non-Catholic cemetery best known as the final resting place of John Keats, “one whose name was writ in water,” was as catty as I recalled.
With such a broad stretch of Aurelian Wall under my belt, my quest for the cannonball was reinvigorated. It would be mine. Oh yes, it would be mine. Stay tuned for Part III wherein your faithful narrator’s journey comes to its explosive (unexploded, actually) conclusion.