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When in Rome, ROAM

Published Sep. 27, 2005

An hour's train ride can take travelers to a variety of places including a wine town, an ancient port or palatial gardens _ all without the chaos of the city.

It was sometime between getting my pocket picked at the Porta Portese flea market and becoming winded, gouged and permanently claustrophobic in a hopelessly overcrowded bus that I knew I needed out of Rome for a day.

Rome is a city that runs on chaos. Transportation strikes are as common as pizza. Romans even have a name for them _ sciopero _ and during my week in November, taxis were Rome's strike of choice.

While sipping wine in the Piazza Navona, I tried to imagine it 2,000 years ago, when horse-drawn chariots chugged around the turn where my table now sat. I imagined 30,000 people crammed into the oblong stadium that once circled this piazza. Then I imagined the crowds, noise and intense heat in July and realized that sometimes, when in Rome, Romans got out of Rome.

So should modern visitors.

Just an hour's train ride away, there is much to see and learn. While Rome's Ancient City marks the birthplace of Europe's first great empire, it was just a series of mud huts when Etruscan and Latin communities formed on its outskirts in the 9th century B.C. to till its rich volcanic soil and then quarry the marble found in the hills.

As Rome slowly grew into world supremacy, the city's movers and shakers escaped from what had been originally known as Lazio to get some peace and quiet. Today, those same weekend getaways are available: Have a picnic lunch in the romantic wine town of Frascati. Read a book in the palatial gardens of Tivoli. Roam the superb ruins of Ostia Antica, Rome's ancient port. Go to the beach.

They are all easy to reach, inexpensive and refreshingly cool after hot days tramping around Rome's ruins. Here's a look at day trips that will give you a second wind for your scheduled tour of St. Peter's:


Rome's Termini transportation center is a microcosm of the city itself: well-organized mayhem. On a city map, Termini's three dozen rail lines sprawl like uncooked pasta on the east end of town. Businessmen scream on cell phones, backpackers race down platforms, women in long lines yell at ticket sellers.

This is where all day trips begin and end.

Behind the confusion in Termini's sprawling mass of humanity is a remarkably efficient train system. On my visits, the ticket line even moved quickly.

I bought a round-trip ticket to Frascati for all of 4,000 lira, written here as L4,000 and now equal to about $1.90; that was the average fare for day trips. Trains leave for Frascati every 30 minutes from 5:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., and when we pulled out of Termini, I had a wide, comfortable seat all to myself.

The train to Frascati goes past some depressing ghettos on the northern edge of Rome, but the landscape slowly blends into rolling hills dotted with quaint villages. Flowers pour out of windows. Huge trees envelop streets in shade. Women carrying shopping bags gossip outside little delis.

An hour later, we pulled into a town seemingly built into the side of a mountain. From the terminal, Frascati seemed to go straight up. I walked up the steep stairs and up the hill past the pretty main square of Piazza Marconi.

A cobblestone pathway led me to the smaller Piazza di Pietro, a picnicker's delight: A deli was on one corner, a bakery was just down the street, and in the middle of the piazza a rainbow of fruits glistened deliciously in an outdoor stand.

Frascati is very Italian. It's light. It's easy. It's cool. . . .

Known for its sweet white wines, Frascati is built on a volcanic ridge that produces lush, green vineyards. It screams for a picnic. For the day, I shelved my growing addiction to Italy's thin-crust pizzas. I bought a hunk of white bocca cheese for L1,500 (about 71 cents), a fresh bun for L500 and an orange as bright and nearly as big as the sun for L500. There it is: Lunch for $1.29.

Frascati's landmark is the Gardens of Villa Albobergini. After a bored manager in the tourist office on Piazza Marconi gave me a free pass, I walked up the windy road toward the gardens. With every glance back I could see a new view of Frascati and the lush valley below. The Renaissance architecture looked like a tourist poster, with the expanse of Rome in the background.

At first, the gardens looked disappointing _ a giant Renaissance facade surrounded by dirt. I thought it was a dirt parking lot at a rodeo.

But the view was magnificent. From behind a long line of potted ferns and shrubs on a columned wall, I saw huge grass fields and the squares and villas of the town in the distance. Rome was picture-perfect clear 20 miles away.

Walking to the back of the facade, I could see what attracts people. Across a huge piazza in a garden of large oaks stood a massive block of marble half the length of a football field. Carved into it were statues of Roman gods.

Designed by Giacomo della Porta in 1598, Jupiter stood 20 feet high and held a giant ball of spikes on his shoulders. Next to him, Neptune held a trident the height of a football goalpost. In the corner stood a half man, half horse holding a flowered staff. An entire roll-call of statues stood side by side, and on a cool, sunny day in the off season, I stood alone with the gods.

I walked back down the hill past Piazza Marconi to Villa Torlonia, Frascati's sprawling gardens. I found a park bench and ate the best cheese sandwich of my life and an orange sweeter than any I ever had in Florida. Men jogged around the park, and teenagers giggled and gossiped in the sun.

I finished the day by returning to Piazza di Pietro and had a piece of pastry and read my book as the sun slowly set on the square. And on a wonderful day.

Ostia Antica

About the same distance from Rome as Frascati, Ostia Antica is near Rome's Leonardo da Vinci Airport, a Frisbee throw from the Tyrrhenian Sea. As Rome grew in strength, Ostia Antica became one of the most important cities in the empire. Rome received most of its supplies through this ancient port, named for the ostium, or mouth, of the Tiber River. Ostia Antica also served as Rome's naval base in the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C.

Today, the ruins of this once-thriving city are remarkably well-preserved. It's the perfect alternative between the crowds of Rome and the maniacal tourism of Pompeii, 140 miles farther south. Even at the height of tourist season, Ostia Antica gets passed over on the culture crawl. In four hours here, I saw a dozen people.

Ostia Antica stretches along a main path, still called Decumanus Maximus, for a good quarter-mile. At its height in 2 B.C., Ostia Antica had a population of about 80,000. But it dipped to a hamlet of about 150 by the 18th century A.D. Only papal excavations have saved it for today.

The 80,000 had a lot to do. Ostia Antica has remains of bathhouses, a theater, recreation areas. It served as Rome's port until the Goths invaded in 410, and the silty Tiber moved the coastline a mile west. The remains of the entry port now point to a big field and a freeway. Water is nowhere to be seen.

I got a feel for the city just walking down Decumanus Maximus. As I entered at a cost of L8,000 (about $3.80), to my right were dozens of baths. The stone white bases stood about 6 feet high. They surrounded a huge entrance hall adorned with a giant mosaic of Neptune and his sea chariot among other motifs.

The theater might be one of the best preserved in the world. It is a steep, semicircular structure of about 30 steps, and in back of the small stage remains the base of what once was a massive marble background. They still hold concerts here that might go off the board on the romance meter: Imagine listening to Italian music in a 2,000-year-old outdoor theater on a summer evening.

Behind the theater is the Piazzale delle Corporazioni, where the old shipping agents and other tradesmen had their offices. The mosaics in front of the offices had pictures depicting each tenant's occupation: fish for fishermen, boats for sailors, deer for hunters.

A little farther, Casa di Diana sticks above the ruins. It's an ancient apartment house with 25 to 30 rooms. Such structures once dotted the landscape all over the Roman Empire. A brightly colored abstract painting, now preserved in glass, adorns one wall.

Ostia Antica is a well-contained, organized ruin. You don't get as exhausted, both physically and mentally, as you do touring the expanse of ruins in Rome. The pathway of large stones might be the biggest challenge.


My third day trip took me to the best known of Rome's suburbs. Located an hour northeast of Rome in the foothills of the surrounding mountains, Tivoli features some of the most spectacular gardens in Europe.

A short walk down the hill from the town's cobblestone main square, I paid L8,000 (about $3.80) to enter the Villa d'Este. It is basically a palace more suited for gods to host heavenly parties than for human habitation. The villa features 100 fountains, countless stone carvings, soft green lawns and the required fantastic view of the valley below.

In 1550, Cardinal Ippolito d'Este wanted to re-create the palatial estates and pleasure palaces that had characterized ancient Rome. The rooms in the palace are huge, with giant ceilings and bright frescoes. Spiral staircases took me to the gardens below, and each one was more beautiful than the next.

Unlike Frascati, where you can hear birds chirp and the wind whistle, Tivoli is noisy: A hundred fountains make a lot of racket. But they are remarkable. Immediately to the left of the garden is the Rometta (Little Rome), featuring numerous fountains and carvings representing different aspects of Roman life and history. One fountain represents the Tiber, and Romulus and Remus, the two orphans who reputedly founded Rome, are also carved into the work.

Backtracking, I come across a long series of fountainheads carved like masks, pouring thousands of gallons of water into a basin stretching the width of the entire garden.

I had spent three of my seven days in Rome traveling on trains away from the city, walking through ruins and gardens. I felt remarkably refreshed, no longer claustrophobic, no longer grabbing for my wallet every time someone nudged me.

As I walked through the airport for my flight home, the duty-free shop provided me with a wonderful reminder of my Roman experience. The first bottle of wine I picked up was a Frascati.

Writer John Henderson lives in Denver.