Following in the footsteps of Roman centurions and visiting the burial site of  Christians in ancient Rome

Tour Company: Top Bike Rentals and Tours
Meeting point: Google Map Via Labicana, 49, 00184 Roma
Type: Cycling tour on e-bikes – very easy going
Prices: €79 per person for a 6-hour tour. This includes a guided tour of the Catacombs and lunch

I have often watched people passing my by on their tours on various forms of personal transport, especially bicycles and segways, and thought I would like to try that! Anyway, during our stay in Rome I thought we’d finally give it a bash, so I booked us on a 6 hour e-bike tour. We both love cycling but as we progress in years we have both become interested in electronically assisted bikes, especially Karen, so this seemed like a great opportunity to see what they are really like.

I booked our tour through Tripadvisor with the Top Bike Rentals and Tours. Their office is located a short distance from the Colosseum on Via Labicana. We arrived early and were soon being helped by the amazing staff at Top Bike. They have plenty of bikes to choose from if you want something more manual but today we were more interested in the electronic assistance and they have a good quantity of those available for tours and general rental.

Our guide for the day Alessandra introduced herself, and after a quick lesson on how to use the electronic assistance we were on our way. The first part of our journey was through the busy streets of Rome, which with the help of Alessandra we successfully navigated without much incident – although it did get our blood racing from time to time. We made a couple of stops to get check-in with how the bikes were working and get a little history on some of the sites on the way.

After about 20 minutes or so we passed through a gate in the city wall and were heading out to the countryside along narrow roads (which were shared with cars and other vehicles!) Our first planned stop was the Catacombs.

Ready and waiting to set off – our guide Alessandra on the far left

The Catacombs

Our tour included a visit to the Catacombs of St Callixtus (San Callisto) – the largest of Rome’s catacombs.

The Catacombs of the Appian Way are essentially the underground graveyards of the first Christians in Rome, who had to bury their dead outside of the city. Even as early as the 5th century BC, burials within the city walls were forbidden, so tombs were built on the outskirts of Rome. As an important consular road connecting Rome with the south, the Appian Way was a popular spot for burials.

While many Romans built elaborate tombs by the roadside, the Christians buried their dead in labyrinthine catacombs. Miles of underground tunnels were built by digging through the soft tufa stone, providing burial space for saints and martyrs as well as countless ordinary Christians.

The catacombs we were visiting was named after the deacon St. Callixtus who, at the beginning of the 3rd century AD, was assigned by Pope Zephyrinus to the administration of the cemetery. St. Callixtus became the Bishop of Rome in 217 BC.  Once Christianity became dominant in Rome they no longer had to bury the dead secretly in these catacombs, so they were stopped being used and became forgotten.

The catacombs were rediscovered in the 16th century by Antonio Bosio, who nearly ended up among the dead himself when he got lost in the never-ending tunnels. As there were many famous saints were buried in the catacombs they became a place of pilgrimage. It became quite dangerous to accommodate all the pilgrims in the narrow passage ways of the catacombs so most famous saints were later moved. This ended most of the visitors to the catacombs.

Today, the catacombs have once again become a major tourist destination, mainly for the curious like ourselves rather than religious devotees. The tunnels that are accessible today on catacomb tours are only a fraction of the total catacombs, which stretch for miles. And even then, archaeologists believe that there are parts of the catacombs which still remain hidden. The full extent of the catacombs may never be known.

We were met by our tour guide, a fervent practicing priest with seemingly evangelistic intent. This said he was extremely enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the history and theology associated with the catacombs. Before descending into the narrow passages below he gave us a lesson on the symbols we would come across during our tour and their meaning.

It was a very hot and humid day so it was a really pleasant relief to climb down the steps into the tombs. The passage ways were very narrow and the anterooms and crypts were small – we had a large group on our tour so it was all about follow the leader and don’t get lost (this is not something you’d want to do down there!). Aligning the walls of the catacombs were the spaces that once had been occupied by bodies. The practice was to inter these bodies in these cavities and seal them in. Over the years these seal haves been broken and bones removed, so today in these catacombs you will not see any remain of the dead (they are all safely placed elsewhere to avoid further desecration).

The tour was fascinating as we were taken back to the times of ancient Rome when the Christians were persecuted. This persecution led to many martyrs and consequently saints whose remains were later placed in these tombs. What is incredible is the scale of these catacombs – they literally run for miles and go down several levels. Families were typically buried together over many generations so the people who ran these cemeteries had to know where the tombs of these families were. They had no maps so the information was passed by word of mouth over many centuries.

The catacombs are still revered by Christians and some of the crypts have been turned into mini-chapels where services are still held to this day. It was in one of these chapels that our 90 minute tour ended (the time had flown by) and our father / guide gave his final sermon. Karen was worried that we’d have to renounce all sins and renew our faith before he’d pass on the secret on how to get to the exit. No worries on that front, as we were soon above ground and returned to the sweltering summer heat.

The offices at the entrance to the Catacombs

Soon, after visiting the Catacombs we were off on an adventure along the Appian Way. This ancient Roman road was the World’s first true superhighway. The Appian Way was a crucial road for the Roman Empire. It connected Rome to some of its most distant settlements. Originally built by Appius Claudius Caecus, the then-censor of Rome, the road connected Rome to Capua near Naples. Eventually, it extended more than 300 miles to Brindisi, Puglia on the Adriatic Coast, making it the widest and longest road in existence at the time. Called the “Queen of Roads,” it’s construction was truly momentous, especially considering it was built in 312 BC!

The Appian Way is fairly well-preserved. It’s made of large, flat stones, which have been firmly set in place by thousands of years of rain, wheels, and feet passing over them. When you touch them, you are walking in the footsteps of Roman emperors, merchants, saints and maybe even St. Peter. The road was originally built predominately for military purposes, meaning Julius Caesar walked it along with thousands of other soldiers, leaders and consuls. Christians converts were buried along the route and the famous slave leader Spartacus was crucified on the via Appia in 71 BC.

Originally, the flag stones would have been flat and the mortar between them would have made this a pretty good surface for travelling over. Today, a lot of these stones have been removed completely or removed and replaced in a higgledy-piggledy fashion so it is not so nice a pavement to ride or walk upon. The Appian Way itself was lined by palaces and impressive mausoleums for Roman dignitaries but these were ransacked by marauding Visigoths and others, including the locals who re-cycled the stones and materials for use in other construction. Even on our mountain-style e-bikes with chunky wheels it was often easier to ride on the dirt track running alongside the Appian Way than on the road itself.

We journeyed on a little before pulling off the road to stop at a local tennis club where we had a very nice lunch. It was a great opportunity to really get to know our guide and fellow tourists!

Taking a well earned break from the sun

After lunch we continued on our way, passing further along the Appian Way. Just as we were about to turn off and head to our next destination, the Aqueduct Park, we came across a goat herder and his flock. This was very cool to see but a herd of stampeding goats and bikes are not good mix. Luckily, he was only driving them a short distance so we were soon on our way again. Only briefly! On our route we came across a baby goat (technically a kid) who had somehow got himself stuck between two fences and was obviously not happy about where he (or she) had found themselves. Some of us more callous types (mainly the adult males) passed on without flinching but the compassionate members of our troupe (the children and ladies) decided they had to be good Samaritans and help this goat in need. It took a while but the goat was eventually set free!

Finally, we reached the Aqueduct Park or Parco degli Acquedotti. This is a large green area just outside the City that is a gem that not many tourists take time to visit, but it is very popular with the locals who flock here at the weekends. The nice this is that unlike many other areas of historical interest in Rome it is free to visit.

The aqueducts were built to bring fresh water from the mountains and countrysides into the city. That they still stand today is a testament to this incredible feat of engineering. Just a few miles from the center of Rome, the park contains long stretches of the Aqua Felix, as well as portions of the aqueduct known as Aqua Claudia.

It was very pleasant to cycle through this park and it was largely free of people – which was a welcome relief after our last couple of days in Rome.

Our path followed the route of the aqueducts back into the City.

The last part of our journey took us back into the City and the rush hour. It was a little scary as the reputation of crazy Italian drivers is well justified. Luckily, we had Alessandra with us who was well versed in the chaos of Rome’s traffic and she seemed happy to risk life and limb to throw herself out in front of oncoming vehicles so we could pass-by safely.

This was an amazing day and we loved every minute. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Our guide was fantastic, the people at TopBike were so friendly and helpful and we absolutely loved the e-bikes – in fact Karen is determined to buy one … but they are very expensive and heavy. I suspect that there are going to be e-bikes in our not too distant future!