You first hear the word "Archeobus" and an image flashes across your mind: an ancient bus, maybe stone age, probably archaic Roman, creaking around a curve, loosing an outside wheel, and launching over the precipice, plunging us all unceremoniously to our Ö.
What? Don't like that image? Try this one: a brightly painted spiffy modern fifteen passenger model, with air conditioning, and an enthusiastic and knowledgeable young guide keeping up a constant bilingual patter about dozens of archeological sites along the Via Appia from Rome's Piazza Venezia to the Villa de Quintili -- and it only costs about $7.50.That's more like it!
There are fourteen stops along the Archeobus route where you can get off and explore tombs, catacombs, a well preserved double aqueduct, and, of course, the Quintili digs. You can then re-board the bus at the same stop or at any of the other stops along the route. Some of the route is along the Via Appia Antica and some is on the Via Appia Pignatelli, a parallel road built in the late 17th century by Pope Innocent 12 Pignatelli.
In addition to the starting point at Piazza Venezia, three more stops are inside Rome's Aurelian walls (the Bocca della Verita in the Foro Boario area, the Circus Maximus, and the baths of Carracalla), and one is right where Via Appia crosses the walls at Porta San Sebastiano, where you can visit the Museum of the Aurelian Walls.
The first stop outside the walls is at the headquarters of the Via Appia Regional Park, where guide materials are available and where you can rent bicycles. The Via Appia, like many other Roman Roads, was remarkably straight and flat, so bicycling is not difficult. A bike is also a good way to explore roads off the route of the Archeobus and especially up the Caffarella Valley which is also the next stop of the Archeobus. The Caffarella Valley, where, according to legend, the ancient battle of Lake Regillus against the Latin League was won for the Romans by the divine intervention of Castor and Pollux, was already a tourist haven in Republican Roman times. It is now the site of another regional archeological park that is contiguous with the Via Appia Park.
There are two sets of catacombs on the route, those of St. Callixtus (Callisto) and of St. Sebastian (Sebastiano), and a third set, those of Domitilla, is within walking distance. You should plan your trip to arrive at those stops in mid-morning if you want to maximize your chances of entry -- both close for long lunches of the sacristans and porters who man the churches guarding the entrances of the catacombs. The St. Callixtus catacombs are closed on Wednesdays, the St. Sebastian Catacombs are closed on Sundays, and the Domitilla Catacombs are closed on Tuesdays. All have entrance fees (about $4.50), as do some other sites on the Archeobus route, and no entrance fees are included in the price of the bus ticket. There are good restaurants right at the St. Sebastian Archeobus stop, and the most popular one is the Cecilia Metella Restaurant. On weekends you can't get a table at lunch time without a reservation (Tel. 06/511 02 13 or 06/513 67 43).
From the restaurant you can see the monumental Tomb of Caecila Metella, which is the next stop for the Archeobus. Partially renovated and cleaned, the Tomb has recently been reopened, and, with it, parts of the castle that Pope Boniface 8 built in and around it at the beginning of the 14th century so that his kin, the Caetani family, could collect tolls on the busy road. Secure metal stairways and access routes have replaced the dangerous scrambles that once greeted visitors. There are a small shop and restrooms at the site. The Tomb is closed on Mondays. Nearby is the site of the imperial residence and the circus (horse-race track) of Maxentius, the emperor who was defeated and dispossessed by Constantine.
The remaining stops are along the next few kilometers of the Via Appia and are placed to allow visits to all the major sights. In some places it's almost impossible to resist the urge to get off the bus and walk along ancient roads and through archeological sites to meet the Archeobus at another stop.
That's, in fact, the best option for the Villa dei Qinitili, which was one of the biggest rural estates ever built around Rome, and it's certainly the biggest archeological attraction on the Archeobus route. The Quintili brothers, who built it were heirs, to old patrician and new merchant wealth, and they displayed it a bit too ostentatiously during the reign of Emperor Commodus -- he of the "Gladiator" movie. Their huge villa aroused the Emperor's avarice, and the brothers found themselves accused of plotting against the throne. The charge was plausible, although there is no record of what evidence might have been produced. Both were executed. Commodus moved into their country home shortly thereafter and decorated it even more sumptuously with loot from the homes of other "conspirators". There are two Archeobus stops on opposite sides of the Villa, so you can disembark, walk through the site, and re-board on the other side. The Villa also has a shop and restrooms. It's closed on Mondays.
The aqueduct is actually a side trip for the Archeobus: it turns off the Via Appia Pignatelli, goes out to the aqueduct, and returns along the same route. There are long sections of arches still standing. Many folks carry lunch baskets to this location. If you want to picnic on weekends, arrive early, before all the choice spots are filled. The arches carried pipes on two levels, which are still clearly visible. The lower tube that it carried was the Aqua Claudia, which, when it was opened, provided about two thirds (209,000 cubic meters per day) of all of Rome's water, and the upper pipe was the Anio Novus, or "New " Anio aqueduct. Both Aqueducts were started by Caligula (Gaius) in 36 AD and finished by Claudius in 50 AD.
There are hundreds of additional ancient tombs, monuments and villas along the Via Appia and many of them are on or near the route of the Archeobus. The on-board guide will give a quick run-through, identifying many of them enroute. The small tour brochure lists about 50 sites and the tour guide mentions even more.
Some of them are listed in Italian on the Park's web site at http://www.parchilazio.it/parco.appia.antica/index.html or you can use these hot links to pages, in English when available, for some of the major sites along the route:
01 Roma/ Piazza Venezia
02 Roma/ Piazza della Bocca della Verita
04 Circus Maximus
04a Circus Maximus- Rome's Astrodome
05 Baths of Caracalla
05a Baths of Caracalla - Part 1of 2
06 Museum of the Walls
06a DIY Rome - The City Walls
07 Parco Reg. dell'Appia Antica
07a Parco Appia Antica
08 Parco della Caffarella
08a Regillus-Lays of Ancient Rome
09 Catacombe di S. Callisto
09a Catacomba di Domitilla
10 Catacombe di S. Sebastiano
10a Visiting Catacombs-hours
10b CECILIA METELLA Restaurant
11 Mausoleo di Cecilia Metella
12 VILLA DEI QUINTILI
13 Aqua Claudia
13a Frontinus on the Aqueducts
13c Aquaeductus (Smigra)
An earlier article on the Via Appia (with more hot links) is at http://www.mmdtkw.org/VViaAppia.html.
Go to http://www.mmdtkw.org/Veneto2002.html for other articles.
P.S.: Your best bet is to board the Archeobus at Piazza Venezia. Although theoretically you can board the bus at any stop and buy a ticket on board, if the bus is already full you will be out of luck.
The green ticket kiosk at Piazza Venezia is small and not particularly easy to spot: it's in front of Palazzo Venezia on Via S. Marco just where that street runs into Piazza Venezia, on the side that faces the Victor Emmanuel Monument.
It's a good idea to call at least one day in advance for reservations, especially on weekends -- we saw people being turned away. 06 469 523 43 rings in the kiosk during tour hours. Buses leave from Piazza Venezia every hour starting at 10 AM and going until 4 PM. Our bus left a few minutes late, but don't count on it. Summer hours start an hour earlier, and the last bus leaves Piazza Venezia at 7 PM.
The round trip takes about two hours if you stay with the same bus all the way, but, if you get off the bus, you can spend many more hours on the Via Appia. In fact, it's clearly impossible to see everything on the itinerary in one day.