I had recklessly offered to drive my sister-in-law to the airport for her early morning flight back to the Netherlands. The offer was made in the memory of a similar airport run last June through empty streets in the first rays of dawnâ€™s soft light with mist rising from the fields. This time it was dark, wet and cold and the surprisingly heavy traffic was unforgiving as we tried to cross the road to my car. We sped off to Circus Maximus and turned right along the Baths of Caracalla. There was no trace of the massive soundstage that had hosted a concert just hours previously for the latest Italian hostage in Iraq, part of a big demonstration organized by the Communist Party. Later this morning I watched a drive-by of a dozen buses stuffed with flag-waving, chanting communists, each bus followed by an equally stuffed, but silent and morose bus full of riot police. Disregarding the politics, if you want to get out a bit, practise your Italian and meet new people, then join the Communists. They hold marches, concerts and meetings every month. I almost feel sorry for the lonely Christian Democrats stuck at home watching the telly.
I chose to take the most scenic and historically interesting route to the airport – the via Appia Antica. With no traffic lights for most of the way, itâ€™s also the fastest route at this time of day. Itâ€™s closed to traffic on Sundays, but we were four hours clear of the closure time and so zipped straight down the Via di Porta San Sebastiano. Behind the 10-metre high walls are very private villas set in parkland. We went to a birthday party at one of them last year and got lost trying to find the way out of the estate.
There are also no pavements from here on, so it was just as well there were no pilgrims strolling around at this early hour. First, under the Druso Arch, which was part of the Antoniniana aqueduct that brought water to Emperor Caracallaâ€™s Baths; then under the massive Porta di San Sebastiano, one of the most impressive parts of the Aurelian wall around the city. A four-storey fortress built in the 12th century, with battlements on the twin towers and a portcullis in the centre that can be lowered to protect the city from invaders – these days that means Lazio football club supporters. Large sections of the wall here seem to be permanently scaffolded for restoration work. Some years ago, part of the scaffolding was taken down and the wall immediately began to crumble â€¦ so up went the scaffolding again.
We zipped past the spot where Jesus appeared to Saint Peter who was fleeing Neroâ€™s persecutions of Christians in Rome. Peter asked Domine, quo vadis? (Lord, whither goest Thou?) â€“ To Rome to be crucified again, came the reply. Peter took this as a rebuke and so returned to the city and his own martyrdom.
On down past the back entrance to the Catacombs of San Callixtus, a mile-long road through quiet fields and open sky where you can easily forget you are in a major capital city.
The Appia Antica then sweeps up on humming cobbles into darkness, growing ever narrower, with high walls on either side. Built to fit five Roman soldiers marching abreast or two carriages to pass each other, it can lead to strife when two modern-day Romans try to squeeze past in their SUVs. â€œI paid â‚¬50,000 extra for a gold-knobbed gear stick so Iâ€™m not backing down!â€ â€œWell my family hasnâ€™t said sorry for over 400 years, so back it up buddy!â€
Cocooned in the darkness I forgot it was in fact a two-way street until I saw the oncoming headlights. Fortunately it was only a Smart. Smart car, stupid driver, is how it goes. They drive as if it is a scooter â€“ no space is too small to squeeze into, no way you cannot be first in line at the traffic lights.
Weâ€™re forced off the Appia Antica around the point where the tombs of the Roman nobility line the roadsides and the cobbled surface gives way to the huge blocks of volcanic stones, still grooved in places with chariot tracks. This was also where 6,000 rebellious slaves captured in the final battle of the Spartacus revolt were crucified along the roadside in 71 CE. Unlike in the film, Kirk Douglas missed being crucified as he was apparently killed in the battle and his body was never found, leading to rumours that he might someday return. Unfortunately, he did.
In complete darkness and open countryside now, on via Pignatelli, a fast run all the way to the via Appia Nuova, a road as charmless and uninteresting as the Antica is picturesque and fascinating. The first red light since the city wall seems to be an option only as we stop while two other cars shoot straight through. The only redeeming feature of this last stretch to the airport is the big white sign by the roadside:
Shortly after, the blinding police searchlight marked the entrance to the airport, with armed soldiers patrolling the arrival and departures areas. Inside it was as busy as this little airport ever gets, with four flights leaving before 7 a.m. on a Sunday morning. Thatâ€™s why theyâ€™re so cheap, of course.
I turned Roots Manuva up loud on the way back and couldnâ€™t hear the engine protesting as I sped along thinking I was in 4th gear when in fact I was in 2nd. Round trip in 60 minutes. My stomach was growling so I had an early breakfast at the CaffÃ¨ del Parco opposite my house. As I stepped into the little oasis of light and warmth I was greeted by three welcoming Buon giornos â€“ ahhh Italy, land of overstaffing and unpredictable opening hours, I love you.