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Time Travel on Rome’s Ancient Appian Way

The Appian Way — Rome’s gateway to the East — was Europe’s first super highway and the wonder of its day. Built in 312 B.C., it connected Rome with Capua (near Naples), running in a straight line for much of the way. Eventually it stretched 400 miles to Brindisi, from where Roman ships sailed to Greece and Egypt.

While our modern roads seem to sprout potholes right after they’re built, sections of this marvel of Roman engineering still exist. When I visit Rome, I get a thrill walking on the same stones as Julius Caesar or St. Peter. Huge basalt paving blocks form the sturdy base of this roadway. In its heyday, a central strip accommodated animal-powered vehicles, and elevated sidewalks served pedestrians.

The ancient paving blocks of the Appian Way can be seen in a park just outside of central Rome. (photo: Rick Steves)
The ancient paving blocks of the Appian Way can be seen in a park just outside of central Rome. (photo: Rick Steves)

Fortunately, about the first 10 miles of the Appian Way is preserved as a regional park (Parco dell’Appia Antica). In addition to the roadway, there are ruined Roman monuments, two major Christian catacombs, and a church marking the spot where Peter had a vision of Jesus.

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Travel

Ring Around the Ring of Kerry

One of Ireland’s most popular destinations is the Iveragh Peninsula — known to shamrock-lovers everywhere as “The Ring of Kerry.” The Ring, lassoed by a winding coastal road through a mountainous, lake-splattered region, is undeniably scenic. Visitors since Victorian times have been drawn to this evocative chunk of the Emerald Isle, where mysterious ancient ring forts stand sentinel on mossy hillsides.

A drive along the Ring of Kerry presents classic views of the Irish countryside. (photo: Pat O’Connor)
A drive along the Ring of Kerry presents classic views of the Irish countryside. (photo: Pat O’Connor)

It seems like every tour bus in Ireland makes the ritual loop around the Ring, using the bustling and famous tourist town of Killarney as a springboard. I skip Killarney, whose main attraction is its transit connections for those without cars. Instead, rent a car and use as your home base the tidy town of Kenmare (yes, it’s actually won Ireland’s “Tidy Town” award).

While in Kenmare, druids seek out the town’s ancient stone circle (with 15 stones in a circle 50 feet wide), one of 100 little Stonehenges that dot southwest Ireland. Fitness buffs enjoy horseback riding, boating, hiking, and golfing (one way to experience Ireland’s 40 shades of green).

Before or after the day you tackle the Ring, explore these sights near Kenmare: a mansion, open-air museum, and sheep farm. Muckross House is perhaps Ireland’s best Victorian mansion. Queen Victoria really did sleep here for three nights in 1861 — on the ground floor because she had a fear of house fires. Adjacent to Muckross House is a fascinating open-air folk museum that covers Irish farmlife from the 1920s to the 1950s. Talk with the docents who remember the year 1955, when electricity came to rural dwellings. Farmers would pull on Wellington boots for safety, then cautiously turn on the switch that powered the one bare bulb hanging from the ceiling.

Between Muckross House and Kenmare is a scenic mountainous chunk of Killarney National Park (great views at Moll’s Gap) and the Kissane Sheep Farm, a real working farm that offers demonstrations of hands-on sheep shearing and expert sheepherding. You’ll be wowed by the intelligence of the family dogs.

Ready for the Ring? Touring the Ring takes a long but satisfying day by car from Kenmare. Smart travelers get an early start (by 8:30), working their way clockwise to escape the tour-bus procession heading counterclockwise.

The 2,000-year-old walls of Ireland’s Leacanabuaile Ring Fort have withstood the test of time — without the aid of mortar or cement. (photo: Rick Steves)
The 2,000-year-old walls of Ireland’s Leacanabuaile Ring Fort have withstood the test of time — without the aid of mortar or cement. (photo: Rick Steves)

The laid-back town of Sneem (yup, funny name) is worth a stop. The square on the east side of town is called South Square and the one on the west is called North Square. When it comes to giving directions, the Irish march to their own beat.

Stop at Staigue Fort, an imposing sight rising out of a desolate high valley. The circular drystone walls were built sometime between 500 B.C. and A.D. 300 without the aid of mortar or cement. About 80 feet across, with walls 12 feet thick at the base and up to 25 feet high, this brutish structure would have taken a hundred men six months to complete. It’s thought that during times of tribal war, locals used the fort as a refuge, bringing their valuable cattle inside to protect them from rustlers.

The Derrynane House, just beyond the Staigue Fort, was the home of Daniel O’Connell, Ireland’s most influential pre-independence politician. His tireless non-violent agitation gained equality for Catholics 180 years ago. See the 20-minute audiovisual presentation on O’Connell, along with some of his belongings, including pistols from a duel and a black glove — which the remorseful O’Connell always wore on his pistol hand when he went to Mass. He was forced into the duel, killed the man who challenged him, and regretted it for the rest of his life.

Approaching Portmagee, you’ll see the striking silhouette of the island of Skellig Michael. Visit the Skellig Experience Centre, which tells the story of the island — the Holy Grail of Irish monastic island settlements. During the so-called “Dark Ages,” its monks helped preserve literacy and sacred texts. Hardy hikers can take a boat to the island and hike 600 vertical feet to the monastic ruins.

But I’m back in the car, heading on to two more ring forts: Cahergal and Leacanabuaile. Because this region had copper mines, it has a wealth of prehistoric sights. Copper melted with tin yielded bronze, the Bronze Age (2000 to 500 B.C.), and sturdier weapons and tools. The many ring forts and stone circles reflect the lively trade and affluence created by copper.

As I pull into Kenmare, the lush green landscape seems to glow as the sun sets. While the ancient sights are fascinating and the history is educational, the best reason to come here is the eternal beauty of the Irish landscape. If you go to Ireland and don’t see the famous Ring of Kerry, your uncle Pat will never forgive you.

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Travel

The Intensity of Hebron, in Palestine

This worshiper has a view of Abraham's burial site from the Jewish side of the Tomb of the Patriarchs. (photo credit: Rick Steves/Rick Steves’ Europe)
This worshiper has a view of Abraham’s burial site from the Jewish side of the Tomb of the Patriarchs. (photo credit: Rick Steves/Rick Steves’ Europe)

Walking through the Hebron market, I dodged the head of a camel dangling from a chain. I love traveling through Palestine. It’s filled with vivid memories and startling moments. I had no idea the people of Hebron had a taste for camel. But I was told that people here appreciate a nice fresh camel steak because of their Bedouin heritage. And the butcher shops seem to follow that Bedouin tradition: They butcher whatever they have to sell and it hangs on their front porch until it’s all gone.

Today, with about 250,000 people, Hebron is the largest Palestinian city and the commercial capital of the West Bank. It’s a commotion of ramshackle commerce as its population generates about 30 percent of the West Bank’s economy. Just about an hour’s drive from Jerusalem, it’s a rewarding place to visit.

Hebron is an ancient city with archeological finds going back some 5,000 years. And for thousands of years it’s been a city of great religious importance. In the hierarchy of holy religious cities, Hebron makes the top four for both Jews and Muslims.

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Bethlehem’s Mix of Christians and Muslims

In Bethlehem, the Mosque of Omar with its towering minaret shares Manger Square with the Church of the Nativity. (photo: Rick Steves)
In Bethlehem, the Mosque of Omar with its towering minaret shares Manger Square with the Church of the Nativity. (photo: Rick Steves)

Lots of tourists go to Palestine, but I’d estimate that 90 percent of them do it in a rush from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to see the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square. (Bethlehem is just over the wall that separates Israel and Palestine, about six miles away.) They then return directly to Israel without spending a single shekel in restaurants or hotels in the West Bank. Obviously, there’s much more to experience in this country.

While the region’s hardscrabble vibe may be a bit too edgy for some Americans, it’s amazing how after a couple of days in Palestine, you feel right at home. Walking through the wall from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, all you need is your passport. Palestine uses Israeli currency. Just cross the border and haggle with the taxis…and after spending about $5 and 10 minutes, you’re looking at the spot where Jesus was born. If there were no border or traffic to deal with, you could bicycle from the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in 15 minutes.

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Travel

A Pilgrimage to the Sea of Galilee

For years, my travels have caused me to think about organized religion. (When I got my history degree in college, one of my favorite classes was “History of the Christian Church.”) And for years, I’ve believed that those who enjoy getting close to God should pack their spirituality along with them in their travels.

Christians from around the world come to Yardenit near the Sea of Galilee to be baptized in the River Jordan. (photo: Rick Steves)
Christians from around the world come to Yardenit near the Sea of Galilee to be baptized in the River Jordan. (photo: Rick Steves)

In Israel, religious tourism is a big part of the economy. And much of that is Christian tourism: bus tours of believers visiting sights from Jesus’ three-year ministry — places they’ve imagined since their childhood Sunday school classes. While Jerusalem is the major stop, they generally make a quick visit to Bethlehem (in the West Bank), and loop through the north to stop at several sights near the Sea of Galilee.

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Fabled Jerusalem

Before Columbus, many maps of the world showed Jerusalem as the center of the world. Jerusalem — holy, treasured, and long fought over by the three great monotheistic religions — has been destroyed and rebuilt more than a dozen times.

Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock marks the site where Jews believe Abraham was preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac and where Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad journeyed to heaven. (photo: Rick Steves)
Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock marks the site where Jews believe Abraham was preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac and where Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad journeyed to heaven. (photo: Rick Steves)

Its fabled walls corral a tangle of colorful, holy sites, and more than 30,000 residents — most with a deep-seated reason to live so close to their religious ground zero.

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Pondering Britain’s Stone Circles

Grand, centuries-old cathedrals distinguish Great Britain’s cities and towns, providing spiritual nourishment to those who visit. These places of worship seem ancient almost beyond imagination. But long before Gothic cathedrals…long before recorded history even, Britain’s stone circles were this land’s sacred spots.

Visitors to the Avebury circle — which encloses nearly 30 acres — are free to revel among the stones. (photo: Rick Steves)
Visitors to the Avebury circle — which encloses nearly 30 acres — are free to revel among the stones. (photo: Rick Steves)

Stonehenge is the most famous of these — and has a new visitors center to serve nearly one million annual sightseers. As old as the pyramids, this site amazed medieval Europeans, who figured it was built by a race of giants. Archaeologists think some of these stones came from South Wales — 150 miles away — probably rafted then rolled on logs by Bronze Age people.

Most believe stone circles functioned as celestial calendars, and even after five thousand years Stonehenge still works as one. As the sun rises on the summer solstice (June 21), the “heel stone” — the one set apart from the rest — lines up with the sun and the altar at the circle’s center. With the summer solstice sun appearing in just the right slot, prehistoric locals could tell when to plant and when to party.

Despite the tourist hordes, Stonehenge retains an air of mystery and majesty (partly because smartly designed barriers, which keep visitors from trampling all over it, foster the illusion that it stands alone in a field).

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Travel

Greece’s Top Ten Stops

Vathia by Rick Steves
The fortified ghost town of Vathia, on Greece’s Mani Peninsula, was once as wild as our Wild West. (photo: Rick Steves)

I was in Athens, on a rooftop restaurant under a floodlit Acropolis, marveling at how a Greek salad never gets boring. It was the last day of a long trip. I was reviewing, as I always do after completing an itinerary, how effectively our time was spent. We had kept our focus more on seeing historic sights on the mainland rather than luxuriating on Aegean Islands. Given that focus, here are the top ten stops — in itinerary order — that make what I consider the best two weeks Greece has to offer:

Athens, a big ugly city, has obligatory ancient sights (the hilltop temple of the Acropolis, and the ruined forum of the Agora); an extremely touristy old quarter (the Plaka); and fine museums — the best in the country. Its four million people sprawl where no tourist ventures, including new immigrant zones with poor yet thriving communities. The joy of Greece is outside of Athens. See it and scram.