October 28th, 2014
I hardly even know what to say about Ostia Antica. Even though this was months ago, and we’ve been to so many places since, this outing was still the most memorable traveling experience I have ever had.
Ostia Antica is ancient Rome’s port city located on the harbor at the mouth (Ostium) of the Tiber River. In time, the port was abandoned, and silt from the river eventually covered most of the town, saving it from destruction and leaving it in surprisingly good condition. If the Forum and the Colosseum filled me with awe, this place gave me goosebumps. How often do you get to wander around a largely-intact Roman town? Even just thinking about it now, it seems unbelievable that we were actually there, walking those paved streets, soaking up the sun in a winebar’s courtyard, sitting on the VIP’s marble seats at the theater, and hanging our feet into the bath house’s (empty) pools. The whole city is in such shockingly good shape, from its public toilets, inns, and apartments buildings to its theater, forum, bakery, and washhouses. You can walk the roads (laid out in a perfect grid) to all of the city’s main sights, and it takes little imagination to envision what it would have been like in its prime.
It is clearly an under-appreciated archeological site as there was hardly anyone there when we were. While it was exciting to explore the town practically by ourselves, it does make me worry about its ability to stay open and, more importantly, conduct essential maintenance and repairs on this profoundly important historic site. I hope that we just came on an off-day.
But enough of all that: on to the city itself. (Warning: this post is going to be incredibly photo-heavy.)
After we took the train to Ostia, we stopped by a snack stand to stock up on Italian Kit-Kats. After arriving in London, we were disappointed by how different the Kit-Kats tasted, and not in a good way. Earlier in the week, Stephen had reluctantly bought a Kit-Kat at a snack stand since their candy selection was limited. But low and behold, he started raving about it and decided it was superior to all other Kit-Kat versions. I heartily agree that American and British Kit-Kats taste different, but I’m a little suspicious of the idea that British and Italian Kit-Kats are different. Wouldn’t that be a lot of hassle to have different formulations for the same continent? Either way, we fell in love with the Kit-Kats in Rome, and we stocked up on them throughout the entire trip. We had even bought enough to bring some back home, which lasted us a few weeks. You wouldn’t believe how solemn we were once we realized we only had one left. We shared it in complete silence and haven’t bought one since. Some things are best as memories. Kit-Kats in hand, we made our way to the ticket booth, grabbed a map, and started on our way.
We entered the outskirts of the city and began to walk down the Roman road to the city’s porticoed entrance. It wasn’t hard to find our way since the road was still in excellent condition. It makes you wonder if hundreds of years from now, people will walk down our cities-turned-excavation-sites with guidebooks in hand. Except we will leave a trail of asphalt, steel, and concrete instead of basalt stones, travertine, and marble. Is doesn’t seem quite as pleasant does it? But I guess the past and its paraphernalia are easily romanticized. Walking down these abandoned city streets, it was easy to slip into this philosophical mindset, wondering what our own legacy will be.
We were surrounded by the stuff of everyday life. Like the black iron railings and iconic streets signs that never let you forget you’re in London, these were the same trappings of the day that made a Roman city feel like a Roman city: statues and busts of their gods, wheel ruts in the paved, grid-patterned streets, columns, porticoes, and marble stairs. And inside their homes: mosaic floors, brightly-painted walls, and niches to hold the busts of loved-ones. On our entrance to the city, we passed cemeteries where cremation urns would have been placed in little arches in mausoleums. It was a wonderful way to enter the site, reminding us that besides its historical and culture value, it was a place where real people not so very different from us lived and laughed and died.
After walking for a little way past a few bath houses and military barracks, we found ourselves in the city center with the the forum, temples, and theater.
After sitting on the steps of the theater and taking it all in, we headed to the next destination on our map, the wine bar. The pictures don’t do it justice. With a little work, this place could open for business next week: it was in that good of shape. The marble on the bar is beautifully, well, marbled, with a water basin underneath. Behind the counter there were stepped shelves that would have held wine glasses and cups. The room had another marble shelving unit with paintings of food and drink above it. Remnants of other paintings still hung on the wall, and floors had lovely black-and-white mosaic tiles. Behind the bar is a courtyard, with a basin, the remains of a small fountain, and a bench to sit down and enjoy your wine. It would have been a lovely place to spend a summer evening. We sat down on the bench ourselves and soaked up the sun for a while, like thousands of people who, thousands of years ago, must have done the same.
Right around the corner from the wine bar, apartment buildings and shops lined the streets.
After seeing all of these buildings and shops, we were impressed, but we hadn’t yet been to the site that most guidebooks list as the number one “must-see” structure in the entire city: the toilets. These public privies (a bit of an oxymoron, huh?) near one of the biggest bath houses are still in remarkable shape. Holes near the threshold suggest that there used to be a pair of revolving doors at the entrance. The channel running along the front of the twenty marble seats would have held running water. Each person would have had a sponge on a stick which would be moistened and rinsed in the running water. I think the purpose of the sponge goes without saying.
After viewing the toilets, we decided to hit some of the shops. First up, the fishmongers. The shop had a large marble table in the center, with a marble basin in the back to hold the fish. The floor reflects the shop’s purpose, with marine-themed animals. The large brick containers were used to make and store fish sauce (garum) which the Romans were enormously found of. I wouldn’t imagine that fermented fish parts could taste good, but its popularity proves me wrong.
Next up, the laundry the guide book referred to as a fulling mill, which the internet tell me is another word for waulking.) There were four huge basins in the center for soaking clothes and dozens of small bowls lining the perimeter where the workers danced and stomped on the clothes get the dirt out, the ancient equivalent of the agitator in your washing machine.
After the laundry, we wandered into the bakery, located right by a huge bath complex.
Our last stop before closing time was one of the many public bathhouses. The entrance made Stephen look small. It was easy to imagine how grand and beautiful it once would have been, especially with all of the beautiful marble and paintings on the wall.
As much as I hope you’ve enjoyed looking at these photos and my descriptions, Ostia Antica really is a place you have to see for yourself. I am not sure any photo can capture the sense of history and awe this special place exudes. I can’t recommend it enough if you are ever in Rome.
This is my fourth post about our trip to Rome. If you’d like to see the others, click here.