The ruins of Ostia Antica, on the outskirts of Rome, remain as captivating as I remembered from decades ago. As a teenager growing up in the Italian capital, I would join classmates to perform school plays in Ostia Antica's ancient open-air theater. Costumed in togas made of bedsheets, we'd cheerfully mangle Aristophanes' classical plays then scamper off to roam the ruins, poking into ivy-draped passageways and secluded rooms and clambering over fallen columns.
Ostia Antica, once the ancient port of Rome, has hundreds of 2,000-year-old buildings spread over hundreds of acres.But it's always eclipsed by its Italian neighbor Pompeii, a city frozen in time by the volcanic ash blast of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. that has become one of the world's best-known archaeological sites.
After milling through Pompeii with hordes of equally tired and sweaty tourists one broiling summer day, I vowed never again. So on a recent trip to Italy, I headed back to Ostia Antica, a far more peaceful and in some ways even more interesting place than Pompeii.
Ostia Antica is just a half-hour ride on a commuter train from central Rome, making an easy day trip. Yet somehow it's remained off the major tourist track, perhaps overshadowed by Rome's glories as well as Pompeii's fame.
After visitors have seen the Roman Forum, the Coliseum, the palaces of the Palatine Hill, perhaps they're maxed out on ruins.
Their absence can be your gain. Edged by fields and a quiet little town, Ostia Antica remains a tranquil place where it's easy to imagine the past. Unlike some popular Italian tourist spots, there are no pushy vendors, no street noise and, on most days, no crowds.
It's an enclave of history among greenery, with lofty umbrella-shaped pines shading some of the 2,000-year old ruins.
My recent visit was more sedate than my youthful excursions to Ostia Antica. I didn't stride across the theater's stage, nor climb up on marble columns nor mug for photos with bare-chested statues. Instead, I strolled along the mile-long Decumanus Maximus, the city's main road whose paving stones still bear the grooves worn by ancient carts, and veered off into smaller streets lined with the brick remains of apartment houses, shops, warehouses and the city's temple-dominated forum.
Unlike Rome's grandiose ruins and the patrician villas of Pompeii, a visit to Ostia Antica gives a sense of ordinary life long ago.
This was a working town, ancient Rome's port near the mouth of the Tiber River (the river's currents and shallows made it too hard for big ships to sail into the heart of Rome). Ships arrived with cargo from all around the sprawling Roman Empire; goods were barged up the Tiber or transferred on carts.
Ostia Antica did have some rich merchants' homes and imposing public spaces, including the theater which could seat more than 3,500 people. But mostly it was a teeming place of workers and shop owners, sailors and traders, warehouses and taverns. In its heyday, around the second century A.D., more than 80,000 people lived here.
These days, visitors can wander through the ruins of the brick buildings (their marble facades were scavenged centuries ago for more "modern" buildings in Rome and beyond); some apartment buildings still stand three stories tall.
Belly up to the counters in what were little food shops, peer into waist-high earthenware casks that once held oil. Stroll around the so-called "Square of Corporations" to see the elaborate mosaics that remain in front of what were maritime shops. The mosaics, made of black-and-white tiles, were an ancient version of billboards for shipping companies, rope-makers and other merchants.
Climb the steep stone steps of the outdoor theater to get a bird's eye view of the ruins. Its acoustics still are admirable; these days it's used for summertime concerts and plays (much more professional than what my school drama group performed).
As a giggling teen, I always made a beeline to see the remains of Ostia's communal restroom. It's a 20-seater where locals once sat virtually cheek-to-cheek on hole-pierced marble benches that lined a room. They could chat as they went, very publicly, about their business.
Plumbing was one of the marvels of ancient Roman cities.
Besides its communal restroom, which had running water, Ostia Antica had public baths that could hold hundreds of citizens in hot, cold and warm pools. Water was carried in lead pipes, still visible in some places if you poke around; giant boilers produced steam heat for some town buildings, too, an Ancient World sophistication.
Yet as the Roman Empire declined, so did Ostia Antica, which was eventually abandoned. Over the centuries, tidal mud and blowing dirt/sand covered much of the city (helping to preserve it). The river shifted course, silting up the port.
Ostia Antica fell into obscurity; shepherds and their flocks were the main visitors until major excavations began in the early 1900s. Today, it's like strolling in a park full of history, a welcome break from the urban intensity of Rome and its sights.
One of the other pleasures of a visit to Ostia Antica is the small town (of the same name) that adjoins the ruins. It's a sleepy place, with a tiny enclave of cobbled streets surrounding a stout castle with steep brick walls and a moat.
The castle, like almost everything in Italy, is laden with history. It was the stronghold of the powerful Giuliano della Rovere who, in the early 1500s, became Pope Julius II, the man who brought Michelangelo to Rome to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
As in most Italian towns, the more modern buildings that have sprung up near the castle are uninspiring - except, thankfully, one that houses an excellent old-fashioned restaurant called Il Monumento. On a hot summer day, it was a welcome refuge, a fan-cooled room of white-tablecloth tables and attentive waiters serving traditional pasta and fish dishes.
Sated with Ostia Antica history and food, I didn't even regret finding that the castle had closed by the time I finished my leisurely lunch. It will be there next time.
IF YOU GO:
GETTING THERE: Ostia Antica is about 16 miles southwest of Rome. The easiest and most economical way to get to it is to take the "trenino" - an electric-powered commuter train properly known as the "Ferrovia Elettrica Roma-Ostia Lido." The train departs from Rome's small Porto San Paolo station, which is next door to the Piramide stop of the city's subway; by taxi, the station is about a 10-minute ride from the Coliseum.
The train is like an above-ground subway, with hard seats, sometimes lots of commuters and beachgoers, and lots of graffiti; it departs about every 20 minutes. It costs roughly US$1.20 each way.
Take the train bound for Ostia, a beach town beyond the ruins, but get off at the Ostia Antica stop. It's a three-block walk from the station to the entrance to the ruins.
HOURS, ADMISSION: Hours vary by season, but Ostia Antica is open 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m. in summer, with earlier closing in winter; the site is closed Mondays. Admission is about US$5 for an adult. There is a small but interesting museum adjoining the ruins, containing statues and other items excavated in Ostia Antica; it's included with admission to the archaeological site.
n In summer, Ostia Antica can be hot. Go early in the morning to enjoy it. Wear good walking shoes whenever you go; surfaces are uneven.
n Maps of the ruins usually are sold at the ticket booth or, to be safe, bring one with you from a guidebook. A good map is invaluable for making sense of what was what.
n There is a cafeteria by the museum in Ostia Antica, or take along a picnic and lunch among the ruins. Or eat in the adjoining small town of Ostia Antica at Il Monumento restaurant.
n The 15th-century castle is open most mornings and occasionally in the afternoon for free guided tours; closed Mondays.
n The official Web site (in Italian only): www.itnw.roma.it/ostia/scavi/
The Web site www.ostia-antica.org/ has some information in English. Most guidebooks on Rome have a section on Ostia Antica.
n For those interested in guided day-trips to Ostia Antica, they can be arranged through hotels in Rome or through groups such as Los Angeles-based In Italy, www.initaly.com or 323-655-1268, led by American historians living in Rome. The expatriate-founded group Context also offers upscale private tours of Ostia Antica: www.contexttravel.com/ (click on Itineraries) or 888-467-1986.