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Appia Antica Park: Rome’s Wild Side

“It is on this pavement and in the surrounding green areas that one can rediscover a world that totally belonged to the past.”

Rome is a strange city: it’s a huge, chaotic metropolis where ancient and modern not only coexist at close quarters, but even blur together.

Those who were born and raised there often forget it; those who come to visit, sooner or later, realize it: Rome is wild. Beneath the makeup and lights of modernity, the great urban jungle is, for all intents and purposes, a place where contact with nature is never interrupted. With the energetic hustle and bustle of people, it’s often forgotten that there are sides of the metropolis to which traffic cannot come, where the telephone does not have service, and where the roads, battered by neglect and bad weather, lack asphalt; there are not even sampietrini, bars or any other form of urbanity as we understand it today, and it is even difficult to find a nasone (a Roman world for the typical, little public drinking fountains) to refresh oneself. And the great thing is that you don’t need to move far from the historic center to find this. 

Rome is so large and disjointed that it has flashes of the countryside already within itself, and–even in this–the city knows no half-measures: the Appia Antica Park is the largest urban green area in Europe, and is unlike most of the other gardens in Rome which were previously private properties (e.g. Villa Pamphili, Villa Ada, Villa Borghese). Here in the Appia Antica Park, the bicycle is the most modern means of transportation, and everything is pristine–a point you realize after walking a few hundred meters on the Via Appia Antica, an ancient road that runs through the park and today connects the center of Rome to the first towns outside the city limits, but in the past reached as far as Brindisi, Puglia

Over the centuries, the ancient track has been gradually abandoned, but today it is possible to follow some well-preserved sections that run through the park by foot or bike (car privileges are reserved for the very few residents who rely on the road). It is on this pavement, the pavement of the regina viarum–the queen of all roads, as it was called in imperial Rome–and in the surrounding green areas that one can rediscover a world that totally belonged to the past. And in a matter of minutes, far from the streets beaten every day by city traffic, one finds oneself in the same places that centuries ago fascinated and seduced poets, writers and artists who, on their Grand Tour, stopped here in the shadows of some ancient remains. Goethe wrote about the Appia Antica Park, marveling at how Cecilia Metella’s tomb had survived time. More recently, the park has captured the world of cinema, from Pier Paolo Pasolini to Paolo Sorrentino, who shot parts of the La Grande Bellezza here (remember that iconic scene where the artist smashes her head into the aqueduct?).

I grew up near the Caffarella Valley, the largest part of the Appia Antica Park–so called because in ancient times it was the estate of the Caffarelli family–and I have seen how time has done justice to this place, which throughout history has oscillated between glory and neglect. When in the late 1950s my father, still a child, would descend on these wild meadows with his friends, it was like living in a movie. It was no accident that Pasolini chose these small hills in the autumn of 1962 to shoot La Ricotta, his episode of Ro.Go.Pa.G. with Orson Welles. A perfect set where he could work undisturbed in a valley of grass, surrounded by just a few buildings under construction. It was (and still is) the wildest part of the city, and while Rome boomed and grew to the sound of apartment buildings, it was in this valley that the most deprived decided to settle: the slum dwellers whose difficult lives Pasolini followed from river baths to fights in his 1955 novel Ragazzi di vita. For decades, on the sides of the Appia Antica and on its steepest edges, makeshift dwellings were built. Called the borghetti (which translates to “little towns”), these encampments were dismantled starting in the 1960s by Roman authorities. And until the early 1990s, the park was the preserve of a few experts who knew the earthy paths by heart. The farming families who lived in the area were already using those endless meadows as pasture, and I still remember that sometimes cows would climb over the low fences onto the street, continuing their slow walks undisturbed. 

Rome is really strange, because even its wildest part needs to be protected in order not to disappear under rampant construction or behind ecomostri (architectural eyesores). In the last 30 years, nonprofits, naturalists and residents have campaigned for the Appia Antica Park to be recognized and revalued as a protected area. Today, the park fills up with visitors from all over the world, armed with comfortable shoes and full water bottles. It is perhaps the only place in Rome where one can forget about buses, subways, streetcars, mopeds and electric scooters. The only cars allowed are those of the park rangers or Civil Defense. Volunteer associations keep these spaces livable, cutting the tallest grass from time to time, but the sign of humans remains so discreet as to be imperceptible. Dogs run free, people lie down for picnics, go for walks or play sports. Photographers love these spots, especially at sunset, because there is everything you need to disconnect from everyday life: lights and shadows, Roman-era remains and giant trees, picturesque places that remind us of how everything must have been when it was not like it is today.

These green areas are a symbol of Rome because they contain unmeasurable pieces of history: the paving of the Appia Antica, the milestones, the Nymphaeum of Egeria, the monumental cisterns, the funerary mausoleum of Cecilia Metella, the archaeological site of the Villa dei Quintili, the still intact aqueduct used by Paolo Sorrentino. And, as mentioned before, old and new merge: thus in the Caffarella Valley, two farms born from old farmhouses are still operational, and for some years, unusual animal species have chosen this park as their home–first the parakeets and more recently rabbits, a natural attraction for visitors of all ages. 

Now the Appia Antica Park is no longer something for the few. Knowing its secrets is as much a source of pride as it is for the lesser-known glimpses of the historic center. From the Via Appia Pignatelli, take a turn onto Via Erode Attico and you’ll soon reach an intersection where the road crosses the Via Appia Antica. Cars pull straight ahead while on either side, the regina viarum stretches into the distance. For two years, I have been driving this length of road twice a day: I like to linger at that unique intersection, especially after sunset, not only because I have to give precedence to those coming from the Via Appia Antica, but because for a moment, I can detach myself from modernity and imagine who used to come and go along the Via Appia Antica, more or less unchanged through the ages (though of course today there are electric bikes instead of horse-drawn chariots). Then I check that no bicycles or pedestrians are passing by and go home.