I am fortunate to be able to travel for work and family, sometimes. On occassion when I travel for work, I bring my family along. This post is the first of a 3-part series on how I stayed physically active this summer while travelling with my kiddos. I hope the series is of some help to folks in re/thinking about whether it’s feasible to pursue fitness activities with kids in tow. Please note that while mine were 14 and 11 this summer, I’ve been able to do a number of activities with them while traveling over the years by taking their stamina into account and not underestimating them. We’ve done some awesome stuff that I’ve never blogged about (hiking on the Isle of Skye when the kids were 11 and 8 springs to mind). This summer was no exception. Well, except that now I am blogging about it.
This summer, my spouse had other commitments when I was scheduled to travel to Rome for a conference, and yet I very much wanted to bring the children. They’re both borderline obsessed with ancient history and Roman mythology (thanks, Rick Riordan and Doctor Who). I rounded up a good friend of mine, Randi Papke, a woman whose son is friends with my eldest (both 14 at the time of our travels) and we made such plans! So, really, parts 1 and 2 of this 3-part series are There and Back Again With Two Women Over The Age of 40 And Their Kids. For the purposes of this post, I will refer to my kids the same way I do on social media as Son 1 (age 14) and Son 2 (age 11), and will refer to Randi’s son as, well, Randi’s son.
When we first started talking about traveling in Rome, I asked the three kids to each pick out something they wanted to be sure to do in Italy. While Son 1 had the simple request of finding a store that sold cards in his favorite fantasy game, Son 2 asked for what he always asks for when we travel: a cool bike ride unlike anything we could do at home. No problem, for a mere mile from our AirBnB in Rome lay one of the great wonders of Roman engineering: the Via Appia Antica which once connected Rome with Brindisi, allowing trade (and military movement) to travel hundreds of miles on a cobblestone surface from central Italy to the far southeastern corner of Italy, or what you might think of as the heel of the boot which is the metaphor so often used for the shape of Italy. And along that nearby stretch of the Via Appia Antica lay a large archaeological park in which Catholic Church buildings and homes coexist with sites thousands of years old, including several catacombs open for tours. Given this combination of factors, every single one of the five of us was pretty excited about this option. In fact, we looked forward to it for months.
When we finally arrived in Rome in July, we looked at the weather forecast and blanched: with the exception of one day early on and right at the end, it would be well over 90 Fahrenheit (about 33 Celsius) most days. So we decided to do our bikes trip our first full day in the city when it would only be in the high 80s F (30 C or so). We walked through the neighborhoods between us and the bike rental shop handily located at the northern end of the archaeological park, discovering along the way a grocery store, a whole host of serviceable apartment buildings with balconies trailing flowering vines and verdant with vegetable plants, and grates in the streets filled with cigarette butts. A small detail, but it struck me.
We also passed, at the edge of the archaeological park near the bike shop, one of Rome’s famous Nasoni. These public water fountains take a variety of shapes, but Nasoni (“big noses”) all have crystal clear ice-cold safe drinking water running constantly. Some, like the one at the Vatican Museum, are embedded in statuary. Others, like the one we stumbled across at the edge of the park, are humbly functional and, in the weather we were about to experience, entirely welcome at every turn. We refilled our water bottles and continued on to find our bikes.
The EcoBike shop appears on maps as Centro Servizi Appia Antica. It has bikes for children as well as adults–not as good as our ones at home, but perfectly serviceable–as well as a wide range of bike helmets and bike locks. They also rent e-bikes and electric golf carts for folks who might have reasons to not pedal as their primary source of power, and offer tours on bike or otherwise. But we are the ride-around-a-self-guided-tour sort of folks, so it was much appreciated when EcoBike staff provided a map of the archaeological park and oriented us to traffic patterns including how to take a side street with very few cars until we got to the section of the Via Appia Antica where cars are no longer allowed except for residents. Not coincidentally, it turned out, that section is also the one that is paved with ancient cobbles which you can technically ride a bike on but which we found ourselves moving up onto the well-worn dirt paths on the side to avoid. I wouldn’t have wanted to bike the rest of Rome without a better sense of the local unspoken rules of the road, but this experience was no trouble at all. The few vehicles we encountered seemed to expect to encounter us, and were slow and patient.
The views were pretty amazing right from the get go, with ruins just casually scattered, well… everywhere. The local cicadas filled the air with their hot summer buzz, and a good cross-breeze added to the wind of our passage without giving us too much of a headwind. In short order, we discovered astoundingly old and modern things along it dating back 2000 years and as recently as pretty darned modern, and also bars and eateries and nasoni at regular intervals.
We were surprised to discover that a number of the sites, including the first catacombs we stopped at, were closed for the noon hour. This is pretty common, as we would learn. So we carried on until we came to one that was open continuously. We stopped to enter, buy tickets for a tour, grab some ice cream while we waited to be able to enter the catacombs, and then see what there was to be seen at the Catacombs of San Sebastian. The ice cream was, by this point, a needful thing. Everyone got something containing sugar at cold temperatures while we waited in the shade on the not-as-cool-as-you’d-think marble steps.
One of the folks working the snack bar had a tip jar out for a very charming reason so I dropped them a Euro in support.
The catacombs of San Sebastian were well worth the few Euros for a tour down into the coolness below the earth, out of the hot and the sun, our hair already caked with dried sweat. The history was only half the draw, but such history! No pictures allowed, alas, below ground. The catacombs themselves were the Ur catacombs, as it were: the first below-grown burial chambers to be called “catacomb.” When Christianity first spread to Rome, its adherents did not follow Roman cremation traditions. Instead, they needed a place to put their dead that would not leave them prone to being eaten by wild animals or destroyed by their persecutors. The abandoned quarry beyond the city walls that became the catacombs of San Sebastian was perfect for these purposes. But the church above ground was magnificent, with a ceiling decorated in a style not unlike the Sistine Chapel but in much bolder colors and textures, with trays demarcating one piece of art from another but covering the entire surface in a riot of gilt and jewel tones. No inch of that ceiling was left unattended.
We left the church of San Sebastian and sat for a moment in the shaded courtyard behind the cafe under flowering vines until everyone was feeling up for pedaling on through the hotness. We had, in what would have been clever if it hadn’t been so fortuitous, spent the brightest part of the blazingly sunny day underground and inside or sitting in the shade with cold drinks/food.
We carried on and began to reach the old parts of the road, a combination of more recent tiny even cobbles and old giant square-foot cobbles worn by thousands of years of traffic in which one could sometimes see what might have been wagon wheel ruts.
On the left, you see a close up of the worn, giant cobbles. This part was very uncomfortable to ride on and we hopped up onto more recent even cobbles along the side or, farther down the road, up onto worn tracks in the soft arid dirt on either side of the road. The cobbles shine in the sun, pitted by the years. On the right, Randi pushes on ahead of me, riding on the more recent even cobbles with the oldest part of the road to the side. The kids are way in front. Behind the walls are residences.
We did reach a point where we just couldn’t go any farther having decided we were about halfway done. The road surface and the heat had taken its toll. Before we turned around and headed back, though, we took a group selfie. We weren’t out of good, yet!
Along the way back, we stopped at a sandwich shop. It was delicious, but a lot of the flavor came from hunger which is, as they say, the best sauce. The cold beer Randi had was, she attested, perhaps more necessary than any cold beer that came before it.
It was a footsore, butt bouncing delight to walk to the Via Appia Antica, ride it, walk around, ride back, and return on foot. I confess that for the last mile or so of the ride, I was up on my pedals cause ain’t no way my butt was going to sit that seat another second. Up on pedals, wind in your hair through the slats in the helmet, on a good surface after a hard day’s work in the hot sun with an ancient city laid out before you kinda can’t be beat.
I took two videos for y’all if you want a sense of it, at different points on the ride, first farther out on the road where the trees and the fields open up (well outside what would have been the city walls of old Rome) and then on our way back in to return the bikes passing through the residential area. You can hear the cicadas hard at work, and the bicycle bell on my bike gently tinging from the bumps.
When we got back to our place, replete and exhausted, I noticed the literal mark of a good day riding.
Next up in Part 2 of There and Back Again: we flee the heat and crowds of the city of Rome for an afternoon in the hills kayaking and swimming in a volcanic crater lake.