The woman across the street is glaring at me. Maybe its because I'm staring at her. Maybe it's because I'm scruffy – jeans and a messy ponytail compared to her perfect hair and clothes that are the epitome of Italian chic. Or maybe it's because that striking gaze – one that says, 'Who do you think you are?' – is her pathway to immortality.
It's one that's served her well for nearly 2,000 years. In around the year 40 AD, Lucia Rabiria Demaris was sculpted like this for her tombstone. A bas relief, she hovers above the Appian Way next to her husband, whose furrowed row and pursed lips give him a quizzical air. Little is known about the pair, who are thought to be freed slaves.
They're replicas – the originals sit in the museum of Palazzo Massimo delle Terme in central Rome. And they're nothing special, really – walk along the Via Appia Antica, or Appian Way, and you'll come face to face with the past at every step. Running southeast to Brindisi, the 360-mile road was begun in 312 to connect Rome to the eastern reaches of its empire. Though much of it has been covered up over the centuries, an 11-mile stretch remains as the Parco Archeologico dell'Appia Antica, leading from the imposing gateway of the Porta San Sebastiano in the southern suburbs of Rome. You can still walk the original road, over Roman basalt paving stones, the grooves worn by carriage wheels still visible beneath your feet. Graves had to be outside the city walls in ancient times and the many tombs that were built along the Appian Way still stand.
You don't have to walk the whole stretch to get a feel for it – those basalt stones are tough on the feet, after all. I manage 2.5 miles in a day, making slow progress as there's so much to see. I start at the Catacombs of St Sebastian. Rome's famous for its subterranean tombs, sculpted from the soft rock, and here, below the church of the same name, there's a labyrinth of low tunnels to navigate, with coffin-shaped slots and mausoleums housing earlier cremations, their facades carved to look like houses. Upstairs, near the relics of the Christian martyr Saint Sebastian, is the last work of 17th-century sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini – a wild-haired bust of Jesus in milk-white marble.
That's the lure of the Appia Antica – it's a space where time seems to melt. You're wandering through Ancient Rome, but here's Bernini, a burst of baroque. Southwards, past the villa of fourth-century Emperor Maxentius, is the medieval Castrum Caetani, a fortified hamlet. It's wrapped around the mausoleum of Celia Metella – a Roman noblewoman from the first century BC, whose tomb stands at 35ft high, clad in gleaming travertine limestone.
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Further on, another era emerges. Walking past tombs, I hear the tinkle of bells. It's sheep, the bells around their necks clanking as they graze in the neighbouring field. Now its the 1960s – this is where Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita drives through a flock of sheep, pursued by journalists. Nearby, the gateway to a modern villa hides behind a squat mausoleum. The recycling bins sit neatly beside the dead.
Further on, as I stumble on basalt slabs beneath tall umbrella pine trees, I pass what looks like a temple, its marble columns setting the stage for the brick building behind it. In fact, its a nymphaeum – a fancy water feature belonging to the Emperor Commodus. Behind it's the emperor's Villa dei Quintili. I walk through a field that was once a stadium to explore the runs, wandering through corridors and past a little amphitheatre where Commodus once trained gladiators. It's my last stop – as I climb down the hill, the sun is setting behind the arches of the villa.
Returning to the suburbs, it's like suddenly being back in the 21st century. Cars roar past on a dual carriageway, and a bus waits at a stop where another stylish Roman woman looks me up and down as we climb onboard. I think of Lucia Rabiria Demaris and smile as she glares.
The Appian Way is free to walk; entry to the park sites costs £7 and the catacombs cost £8.80. Citalia has three nights B&B at the Hotel Nazionale from £650 per person, including flights with ITA Airways from Heathrow and transfers. Understanding Rome has private Appian Way tours from £263 for three hours.
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