This little-known 'Pompeii' delights in some big ways

Great views, few crowds at Ostia Antica

After three days under the scorching sun, dodging zooming motor scooters and standing skin to sweaty skin near fellow tourists eager to see Rome's restored sites, my fiancé and I needed a break. We would soon be leaving my cousin's home for Florence, so we wanted a day trip nearby.

We ruled out Naples. We didn't want another big city. Ditto for quaint towns in Tuscany; we would soon be there anyway.

We wanted grassy spaces, few crowds, and some ancient ruins. We wanted Pompeii. But we didn't want the six-hour round-trip train trek to it. After reviewing the limited suggestions in our guidebooks, we finally settled on Ostia Antica, an excavation of a once-thriving Roman river-port town, barely an hour west of Rome by metro.

Our guidebook said it was "the next best thing to Pompeii" but offered only a few descriptive sentences. So Bret and I didn't have high expectations, and frankly, we were too exhausted to care. After trying to cram in every historic, religious, and conceivably interesting site in Rome, we figured if Ostia was a bust we'd just go back home.

But Ostia proved to be another of those places that guidebooks don't always get right.

As we passed through the entrance, known as the Porta Romana or Roman Gate, we weren't impressed. Much of the ruins were knee-high redbrick mounds, barely recognizable as a customs house, which is one of the first "buildings" we passed.

But the view seemed like a Titian painting – wispy clouds, azure skies, and dozens of cypress trees – so we reserved our judgment a bit longer. Our reservations turned to awe when we came upon a mostly intact theater some 20 meters ahead on our right.

The theater, built during the reign of Augustus Caesar and restored in the early third century AD, had a large semicircle seating area once capable of holding some 4,000 spectators. This was a fabulous picture spot from any angle. Unlike the much larger Coliseum in Rome, this theater did not have scaffolding or construction workers obstructing our view. Like the Coliseum, the theater's orchestra area was once flooded for mock sea battles.

Ostia doesn't offer official tours, but we ran across a local woman who was offering tours in English and German. To get a better perspective of what Ostia once looked like, it's worth buying the "Ancient Ostia" guide at the museum shop. The guide features several reconstruction overlays. Bret and I flipped to these pages to make sense of the piles of sometimes-incomprehensible bricks.

Ancus Marcius, the fourth king of Rome, founded Ostia as a fortified camp to maintain military and commercial command of the Tiber River and Mediterranean Sea. Under Julius Caesar and other emperors, Ostia continued to play an important commercial role.

Although Pompeii was destroyed in the late first century AD, covered under the volcanic ash of Mt. Vesuvius, Ostia's history ranges from the 4th century BC to the 6th century AD. While Pompeii's ruins are mostly white-colored marble, Ostia's ruins are a mix of red brick, white- marble colonnades, and ballast-stone pathways. Archaeologists are still determining why it became a ghost town.

As you walk through Ostia you can see how a mostly middle-class society lived some 2,000 years ago. The town contained apartment buildings, private residences, flour mills, bread shops, warehouses for food storage, mercantile shops, and even lawyers' offices.

Worship centers included temples honoring mythical gods, halls dedicated to the cult of the emperor, a Jewish synagogue, and the first monument to Christianity in the Roman Empire – a basilica dedicated to Saints Peter, Paul, and John the Baptist.

At the Insula of Diana, a three- to five-story mixed-use block of residential spaces on the top floors and commercial spaces on the street level, we found a wine shop complete with marble counter top and a still-life painting of fruits, wine, and meat – a visual menu for patrons of long ago.

At the heart of the forum lies the Capitolium, a temple on a high podium for worshipping Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva – the triad of the state religion. The temple of Rome and Augustus lies at the opposite end.

Staircases and colonnades are all that remain of the temples, their roofs and walls toppled by gravity, but their enormity and importance compared to Ostia's other buildings is still noticeable. Today, they offer great vantage points.

Located in the town's center, the forum is the busiest area in Ostia Antica. Most visitors and tour groups stop here to picnic.

As we ventured farther and farther into the ancient side streets we found something that had eluded us in Rome: peace and quiet – and no crowds.

"The greatest thing about Ostia," said Bret, "is that we're practically alone."

After four hours of exploring, I didn't want to climb the stairs of an old ruinwhere Bret had read that a large mosaic should be located, until a woman with an American accent shouted down to me, "Come on. You're gonna wanna see this."

She was right. Across from us, a balcony overlooked an enormous black and white mosaic depicting ships in battle, a giant sea mammal, and a mythical god slaying a serpent.

The woman and her daughter, who were from Texas, had just been to Florence, and she warned us that the 463 steps up Giotto's Tower are exhausting, but worth the view. Like Bret and me, they were full-agenda tourists, scheduling the most sites in the shortest time possible. And like us, they chose Ostia over Pompeii and were pleasantly surprised.

We left them leaning on the balcony gazing out over Ostia. They seemed in no rush to go anywhere.

If you go

Hours of operation: Ostia is open Tuesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. The museum is open until 2 p.m.

Getting there: From Rome's Termini train station, take the Metro Line B toward Laurentina, to the Magliana/Ostia Antica stop. From there you must then catch the Lido train to Ostia Antica. We visited on a Sunday, and trains departed every 15 minutes. Once you get there, cross the over-pass, walk to the end of the road in front of you, and take a left. The excavation is right ahead.

Eating there: It's best to bring a picnic lunch. Ostia Antica has some drinking fountains, but not much else.

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