Thursday, 14 July 2011

Maria, I've just met a girl called Maria...

There has been a slight change of plan in today's activities, so I am doing the Ostia post now. Lucky you. I have never been able to resist any opportunity to avoid real work.

Ostia Antica is a quaint little town a few miles west of Rome which used to be right on the coast. It is - like the post on Ephesus - another case of the sea retreating a few miles out, making what was once the busiest port in the world, dry. This post also includes another stretch of Ostia water drying up - it seems to be becoming a theme.

A couple of thousand years ago, Ostia Antica (as opposed to the relatively modern Ostia town) served three purposes. It was the main entry into Rome by sea for both people and goods; it was Rome's kitchen garden and it was Rome's main cemetery. In short, it was an extremely busy place.

When you walk into the vast area of the ruins it has become today, the first stretch is about half a mile of melancholy graveyard. A Roman graveyard consisted mainly of many small buildings with low ceilings, the walls inside covered in niches, each one of which would have contained a terracotta urn, which itself would have contained the bone-fragments and ashes of the dead citizen. Larger coffins were only for the wealthy, noble people. Of all the thousands of graves that Ostia once housed, not a single bone remains - the grave robbers began their work over a thousand years ago.

Further into the vast ruined town, there are acres of buildings which were devoted to the making and baking of bread for the entire population of Rome. Vast, clay, grain storage-jars stand in the same position as they were first placed, and massive, granite, conical mill-wheels lie next to them - too heavy to have moved in 2000 years. Next to these are the huge ovens in which the bread was baked overnight, before making the three-hour journey by carts into central Rome to be ready for sale to the thousands of citizens by dawn. The logistics of this single enterprise are staggering, but it was only one of the many trades that were practiced daily in Ostia, in order to keep the machine of Rome fed and watered, and well oiled.

The sea retreated from Ostia port sometime after Rome's fall - a little problem such as millions of tons of tidal silt building up against the quay would have not been insurmountable to the military engineers of it's heyday.

H.I. and me booked into a self-catering 'hotel' in Ostia for a week, which was within the shadow of this imposing castle. The rooms we hired used to be the barracks for the soldiers who guarded the castle, sometime in the 18th century, and was very close to the ruins of Ostia Antica. The view from our window was dominated by this huge tower, and on the first night, we vowed to visit it the following morning.

The next day, we walked the 100 yards to the castle draw-bridge and discovered that it once had a moat, formed by a crook in a river which is now a deep, dried-up gully. Like the sea, the river had altered it's course and now is nowhere to be seen.

We were met by two, young Italian women just inside the gate, and one of them gestured to us to follow her for the tour - neither of them spoke English. We walked down into the vast central courtyard, and the woman unlocked a small iron door, and gestured to us to go into the dark recesses of the dungeons, they being the first stop on the itinerary.

H.I. was the first to enter and I - being brought up as a gentleman - gestured to the woman to go in next, with me following up at the rear. I was also brought up to follow the country-code, so I naturally closed the iron door behind me, which slammed shut with a deafening crash.

Our guide let out a harrowing scream and began shouting at me in Italian - I have never seen such an extreme combination of anger and despair expressed so loudly by one person before. It turned out that the door could only be opened from the outside, and by shutting it, I had locked us in to the dungeons with no hope of escape except by another key-holder from the outside.

I tried to explain that in England, this would have been a perfectly logical thing to do, mainly because the English would not be so fool-hardy as to make a door which could not be opened from the inside... unless it was for a prison...

I tried to placate the now hysterical young woman by offering her my mobile phone with which to call her colleague, but she just pointed at the phone screen and then at the walls - all the time swearing at me in her native language. She had a point, though - there was not one bar of signal showing on the phone because of the 15 foot thick walls.

I started to laugh, and eventually she softened and saw the funny side. Before long, all three of us were helplessly laughing - our laughter echoing around the gloomy and cavernous dungeon which was to be our home for the next half-hour or so. She had screamed herself hoarse through the iron door - "MARIA!!!" - until she attracted the attention of the other guide, who happened to come looking for us, wondering where we were, and went off to find the only other set of keys to let us out. I could hear her laughter as she went back up the courtyard.

The rest of the tour was conducted in frosty silence, and the young woman refused to take a large tip from me as we left. I have a feeling that this experience made her understand the attraction of English T.V. shows, such as 'Fawlty Towers'. It was a truly great way to begin our holiday.


  1. Oops!

    We visited Ostia Antica a couple of years ago. Fascinating place isn't it? I loved the black and white mosaic "shop signs" around the old trade centre.
    See my Flickr set.

  2. It's always disasters that make certain holidays so memorable.

  3. All I can say Tom is that you don't half get into some scrapes!

  4. ah yes the hysterical Italians!

    I couldn't cope with the shouting, gesturing and the bosoms

  5. What about the Italian women, John?

  6. Only you Tom, only you. In a pinch, could you have chipped your way out?

  7. Oh Tom, what a great story! I larfed out loud.