Admittedly, we’re pretty lucky living and working in Rome. I have lived here for eleven years and visited the city frequently prior to that, yet I am constantly making new discoveries: a church I have never seen, a previously unnoticed corner of the city, or a newly discovered ancient Roman ruin just opened to the public.
An unusually chilly Sunday morning this past autumn found me out with my Roman husband and our two young children exploring yet another wonder of the city for the first time. We had been invited to join a group from the Rome-based NATO Defence College in walking the entire circuit of the Ancient Roman walls – all 19 kilometers of them!
Although residents and visitors alike are sure to notice the imposing Roman walls, very few actually walk along their entire length. This is largely for practical reasons – many segments are now streets with heavy traffic, and would have been more difficult to manage without the Carabinieri escorts who joined us on the walk. Still, visitors can enjoy walking along many pedestrianfriendly segments of the walls on a visit to Rome and it is a wonderful way to bring history alive. Be sure to take a walk on a Sunday, when traffic is restricted on busy segments of the wall, ensuring a more enjoyable outing.
The circuit of the walls we followed were the Aurelian Walls, built by Emperors Aurelian and Probus in the 3rd century A.D. and enclosing the seven hills of Rome and some surrounding neighbourhoods. The walls are in such good condition because they were renovated by subsequent Popes (you can identify the Popes by the papal shields they placed on the renovated sections) to protect from later invasions. Many of the gates, towers and aqueducts are remarkably well-preserved.
The walls take you past familiar Roman monuments such as the Pyramid, Porta San Sebastiano and the Appia Antica, St John in Lateran Basilica, Porta Pia, the Villa Borghese, Castel Sant’Angelo, the panoramic Gianicolo, the Protestant Cemetery where Keats and Shelley are buried, and Testaccio (a neighbourhood literally built upon an ancient Roman garbage dump – mounds filled with broken shards of clay vases used for olive oil 2000 years ago. Most of the restaurants in this area have glass walls in their cellars so that you can view the layers of broken pottery).
Be sure to explore the walls of the Gianicolo (Janiculum Hill) – the view over Rome is breathtaking. A popular gathering point, especially for young Romans, is the statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi, the national hero who unified Italy in 1870. Less well-known is the nearby statue of his wife, Anita Garibaldi, which marks her grave. She was known as a brave and daring woman. We harried, multitasking working moms today may have a tendency to grumble sometimes about the pressures we face. Yet Anita, depicted here galloping full-speed on a horse while simultaneously shooting the enemy with one arm and cradling her baby with the other, can’t help but put us to shame. Take some time out here and enjoy all of Rome spread out before you – you’ll be happy for the rest after all the stairs you had to climb to reach this perch.
Only one part of the walls allows visitors to walk on top of them and this is an impressive experience. Entry to the Museo delle Mura (Museum of the Roman Walls) and the walkway along the walls is at the San Sebastiano Gate, just opposite the Via Appia Antica (open Tuesday – Sunday, 9:00-14:00. Closed Monday).
I highly recommend a walk around these impressive walls. After 19 kilometers of urban hiking, you will certainly be ready to collapse in front of a hearty dinner and an excellent glass of wine... and you’ll more than deserve it!