Not all roads lead to the Roman bypass

Don't overlook Terracina, says Simon Heptinstall. It has Etruscan ruins, remains of the Appian Way ÿ and no chariot congestion

As you drive in on the long, straight, flat road from Rome, it seems like just another quiet little Italian seaside town. There is a sandy beach backed by unremarkable squat modern tower blocks and a small harbour offering ferries and hydrofoils to the pretty little island of Ponza. I had no reason to suppose that Terracina would be worth a delay on my long drive to Brindisi. As a matter of travel writers' routine I called at the tourist office in Via Leopardi to collect some brochures. And that is when I discovered Terracina's great claim to historical significance; the minor local attraction that marks a major step in the advancement of western civilisation. For Terracina is the proud site of the world's first bypass.

As you drive in on the long, straight, flat road from Rome, it seems like just another quiet little Italian seaside town. There is a sandy beach backed by unremarkable squat modern tower blocks and a small harbour offering ferries and hydrofoils to the pretty little island of Ponza. I had no reason to suppose that Terracina would be worth a delay on my long drive to Brindisi. As a matter of travel writers' routine I called at the tourist office in Via Leopardi to collect some brochures. And that is when I discovered Terracina's great claim to historical significance; the minor local attraction that marks a major step in the advancement of western civilisation. For Terracina is the proud site of the world's first bypass.

The Roman emperor Trajan was probably not aware of the tourism potential when he built a new road to skirt Terracina in AD109. Today, however, the tourist authority is rather keen to promote his pioneering short cut. I was given lengthy histories and maps and was directed to both the "old" and the "new" roads (although both are around 2,000 years old).

The woman at the counter was taking an enormous risk: if I had been a Newbury-style bypass protester I would have stormed out in disgust. Indeed, this glorification of what might normally be deemed simply an efficient alternative route was at first a little shocking to me. I grew up alongside the fuming summer car park known as the Exeter bypass. Saturdays would be spent sitting in the front garden watching stationary Ford Cortinas full of bored families. Then I noticed that Terracina is twinned with Exeter. Surely this must be a coincidence – Britain's most notorious traffic bottleneck allied to the spiritual home of the bypass?

Anyway, banish all images of dual carriageways and signs pointing to a hidden town with "local services" in brackets underneath. In Terracina I found that even bypasses can be historically interesting and, dare I say it, downright beautiful.

What is generally agreed to be the world's first road was the Via Appia – the Appian Way – which runs 350 miles from Rome to the Adriatic port of Brindisi. It was started about 300BC and about 60 miles from Rome reached the sea at Terracina. That was why I was in Italy in the first place. I was following the route of the Via Appia, driving a new car for a motoring magazine. The expensive modern car did not cope well with the 2,000-year-old potholes. A wooden chariot would probably have been a better bet.

In fact, Roman aristocrats used to use them to trundle down the Via Appia to their favourite seaside resort. More importantly, the Via Appia was the chief military and trading highway to Greece and the East. The substantial construction of cemented stone blocks means much of it has survived intact. The original Appian Way used to wind up through the town centre of Terracina, right along the edge of the forum, and up over the top of Monte Sant'Angelo so people could pass the popular Temple of Jupiter which crowned the fortified citadel. Horace once wrote an eloquent complaint about the three-mile uphill crawl in carriages on this bit of road.

The Appian Way was like the railway coming to town for Terracina, though. The city grew rapidly and the port became one of the most important in the Med. But after a couple of hundred years of complaints from road users Emperor Trajan cut right through the 120ft cliff-face to build a bypass between the mountain and the sea. Down by the new road you still drive past Roman numerals carved into the rock by the original engineers.

The hold-ups were conquered but drivers today will skirt the old parts of Terracina without even knowing what is hidden behind the modern buildings beside the new road. Just as I nearly did. They will be missing an Italian seaside resort with amazing Roman remains, just as all those cars used to bypass the historic heart of Exeter in my youth. In Exeter the bypass kept traffic away from the cathedral, Guildhall and castle. In Terracina, Trajan's new Via Appia meant that the Roman town centre and Jupiter's Temple were – and still are – relegated to scenic detours.

The world's first bypass clearly set the trend that has been followed to this day. Drivers happily whizz past on their journeys, oblivious to the charms of the places they pass by. In Terracina that means missing a chance to see the fantastic old town surrounded by walls built by the pre-Roman Etruscans. There is a 13th-century Romanesque cathedral decorated with 800-year-old mosaic friezes and pavements. Even the pulpit is covered in ancient mosaic. There are ruins of the Baths of Neptune, an amphitheatre, forum and a remarkable stretch of the original Via Appia with the ancient pavement running alongside. From here the Via Appia winds up Monte Sant'Angelo but is now merely called Strada Panoramica – a road with a view. It leads to a dead end at the impressive ruins of the Temple of Jupiter. The views west along the bay towards Mount Circeo are superb, particularly around sunset.

The current road to Fondi still follows Emperor Trajan's bypass route along the water's edge through an area called Pisco Montano. Then the inevitable happened. The bypass was bypassed. The S213 coast road from Rome to Naples looped right round the north of Terracina through an impressive dual carriageway tunnel under Monte Sant'Angelo. But even that road is considered a scenic byway these days – most Rome-to-Naples traffic scorches along the A1 motorway which passes 30 miles to the north of Terracina.

The Facts

Getting there

The nearest airport is Rome Ciampino (50 miles away). Return flights with Go (0870 607 6543; www.go-fly.com) cost from £78 return and with Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) from £101.

Three days' car hire with Avis (020-8848 8765; www.avis.co.uk) costs £59.

Further information:

Italian State Tourist Board (020-7408 1254; www.enit.it).

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