Published on: 18 April 2014 | Last updated: 24 December 2019
The Via Appia leads out of Rome towards the coast at Terracina. As well as some attractive seaside resorts you can also visit the emperor Tiberius’ villa on the coast and the pool complex he had built partially in a cave overlooking the sea. The area was a favourite with the Roman nobility, including the Emperor Tiberius. The area is rich with Roman remains including the remains of the Tempio di Giove Anxur and the theatre at Minturnae.
You can also see the castle at Gaeta that was the scene of the last days of the Kingdom of Napoli, and the beaches used in the Anzio landings in the second world war.
Note: as you get closer to Napoli there is a stretch of about 30 kilometres after Terracina where the coast road becomes busier and there are notably more lorries around. Thankfully things get a little quieter at Scauri when the main road heads inland - taking the heavy vehicles with it. While there’s a reasonable shoulder and the traffic isn’t particularly intense it is moving relatively fast (or it felt like it), marring what would otherwise be a very enjoyable and scenic stretch of coastline. However, the only alternative would involve a long detour inland and probably wouldn’t be any better. My advice would be to go for it - if you have only just arrived at Fiumicino you should have enough time to get before hitting this bit. In any event, the worst stretches are soon over.
Terracina and Sperlonga
After Sabaudia the coast road swings inland to avoid the 500-metre high Monte Circeo which suddenly rises up out of the sea at the end of the coastal plain. San Felice Circeo is another pleasant seaside resort which gives way to a fairly dull stretch of road leading onto Porto Badino and Terracina where there’s a chance to get off the main road for a bit and follow the lungomare (seafront).
Update: a storm has damaged the bridge over the Fiume Sisto at Porto Badino, 26 kilometres from Sabaudia, and a little way on from San Felice Circeo. The latest news I have (June 2019) is that a temporary bridge has been built, meaning that you are spared a stretch on the SR148. Please send me an email if you can confirm this, or if it needs to be corrected.
Terracina was once an important staging post on the Via Appia - the grand Roman highway that led from Rome to the coast and then on to Capua. It was also a thriving town in the middle ages but malaria reduced the population to a low of 150 people.
Today it is the largest tourist centre in southern Lazio. It does still have a centro storico with a duomo (cathedral) that is notable for its floor decorated with marble mosaics in complex patterns (cosmatesque) look out for the marble mosaics on the cathedral’s façade.
You can also see the remains of the Roman theatre and forum and a section of the original Via Appia.
Overlooking the town on a rocky peak is the temple of Giove Anxur. The remains that you can see today are simply the base for the temple which burned down. Here’s a short video with reconstructions of how the temple might have appeared.
Sperlonga took me by surprise and I wish I had known about it before I set out as I would definitely have spent more time there. It’s a village of white houses crowded together on a rocky outcrop. With the swallows swirling in the air, this for me was the first place where I really felt I was in southern Italy.
A little further long the road (the Via Flacca) is the Grotta di Tiberio. The Roman Emperor Tiberius built a villa here with a dining area on an island partly inside the cavern, surrounded by a pool filled with fish, and looking out over Monte Circeo. It all ended badly when part of the roof collapsed during one of Tiberius’ dinner parties.
In 1957 engineers carrying out work in preparation for the construction of the modern Via Flacca were working in the in the cave when they came across fragments of sculpture buried in the sediment on the cave floor. In total over 5000 fragments of sculpture were discovered.
The authorities wanted to move the discoveries to Rome but there was an uprising by the local people who put up roadblocks to stop them being moved. So you can see the sculptures in the Museo Nazionale on the Via Flacca, on the same site as the grotto.
Centrepiece of the museum is the reconstruction of a group of statues depicting the blinding of the one-eyed giant (cyclops) Polyphemus. The group is dominated by the 5 metre-long figure of Polyphemus as he lies drunk.
One of the sculptures on the site has the inscription of the names of the three Greek sculptors believed to be responsible for the sculpture (now in the Vatican) of Laocoön and his sons battling two giant sea serpents - one of the great masterpieces of the ancient world.
There’s a very good article about the Sperlonga Sculptures on en.wikipedia.org
Sperlonga to Gaeta
From here on along the 15 or so kilometres from Sperlonga to Gaeta is one of the more scenic sections of the coast road as the dunes give way to cliffs. Sadly while the road isn’t really awful there’s enough traffic - particularly lorries - to mar your enjoyment of the scenery.
There are also three shortish tunnels after Sperlonga - again nothing really awful but if you’ve travelled all the way down from the border with Austria without encountering one (it’s very possible) this could come as an unwelcome surprise. Take a few moments. Put on your light and high-viz and away you go.
NOTE: legally you are required to wear high-viz clothing and I would definitely advise putting on a bright rear blinking light. It’s tempting to think “oh it’s only a short one”, but when you hear the roar of a lorry roaring behind you (and in a tunnel even a fairly small one makes a hell of a noise) you’ll be glad you did.
You could continue on past Gaeta, but it’s definitely worth a stop if only to take a break from the traffic. The modern part of the town - by the Serapo beach is really very dull, so be patient and continue on and then make a right following the signs for the centro storico.
The old city of Gaeta lies hidden behind Monte Orlando - another of the small mountains that suddenly juts out of the sea that punctuate the coast. Monte Orlando is now a parco regionale. At the top of the mountain (which at a 171 metres must be a candidate for one of Italy’s shortest mountains) is the extremely well-preserved mausoleum of Lucius Munatius Plancus one of Julius Caesar’s key generals, as well as a friend of in his conquest of Gaul (modern France), and founder of the cities of Lyon and Augusta Raurica near Basel.
The other attraction, perhaps the major attraction, on Monte Orlando, is the Montagna Spaccata (the verb spaccare means to split, to smash or to shatter). Two huge fissures in the mountain. The local legend is that the mountain splintered at the moment of christ’s death. A set of about 300 steps through a dramatic fissure in the mountain, down to the sea and the Grotta del Turco (cave of the Turk). The story of the Grotta del Turco is that an unbelieving visitor, perhaps a Turkish sailor, refusing to believe that the mountain had split on Christ’s death, pressed his hand onto the rock face, which became soft, leaving the imprint of his hand. On the way down is the cappella del crocifisso - built on a giant fragment of rock theta had fallen down and become wedged between the two sides of the fissure.
Above the city is the castle - the promontory has been a strategic strongpoint for centuries. (Seen from above there are almost two castles - one built by the rulers from Anjou and the extension built by the Aragonese). The strategic importance of the city seems to have been more of a curse than a blessing for its citizens - according to its wikipedia page the city has been besieged and captured at least ten times in its history.
The most famous of those sieges ended in January 1861 and marked the last stand of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies - the country that in one form or another had existed since the Norman conquest of southern Italy in the 11th century. The King went into exile in Rome, but the ‘Brigantaggio’ what we might call an insurgency continued in the South for years afterwards with the loss of thousands of lives.
The castle is still in use by the Italian military so isn’t visitable.
On the quayside at Gaeta there’s a memorial to Giovanni Caboto ‘discoverer’ of Canada.
John Cabot as we know him in the English-speaking world may have been born in Gaeta. Or in Genova. Or Chioggia near Venezia. Either way, we do know that he became a Venetian citizen and signed himself Zuan Chabotto - the Venetian form of his name.
Sailing from Bristol in England’s West Country to the New Founde Lande, Cabot/Caboto/Chabotto was, along with the Genovese Christopher Columbus, and the Tuscan Amerigo Vespucci, one of the trio of great Italian navigators who helped to put the ‘New World’ on the map.
On from Gaeta
There’s then another stretch of dull, busy road, until, just after Formia there’s a junction where most of the lorries turn off, and you can continue on the quieter roads towards the mouth of the river Garigliano near Minturno. If you have the time you might want to make a stop at the Minturnae architectural site where there’s a small theatre and temple. Also, look out for the Ponte Real Ferdinando (or Ponte Borbonico for short) - Italy’s first suspension bridge.
Map and altitude profile
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|Sabaudia to Terracina||29kms|
|Terracina to Marina di Minturno||52kms|
Options and connections
You could continue on from Baia Domizia to Napoli 80 kilometres further on along the coast. I’ve never written this up because this is quite possibly one of the dullest roads I have ever ridden in all of Italy (although it does get more interesting once you get to Pozzuoli).
Places to stay
Hotels and B&Bs
There’s a wide choice of hotels in and around Terracina, Sperlonga and Gaeta.
Find and book places to stay with Booking.com
Booking.com pages for places on this section of the route:
About these links
If you use these links to book accommodation Booking.com will pay me a small part of their commission. This helps support the costs of producing this site.
I use Booking.com to find and book places to stay when there are no campsites in the area. The large majority of hotels and many hostels are now on ‘Booking’. I like it because it means that I can get almost-instant confirmation. The rating system is also a reliable guide to the quality of the accommodation.
I’ve never had a problem finding places to keep my bike —even if it’s a cupboard or store room. I always use the ‘special requests’ field on the booking form to tell the hotel that I’m travelling with a bike, which gives them the opportunity to let me know if there’s a problem.
Many properties offer free cancellation but it’s a good idea to check the conditions as these vary from property to property.
The Ostello Marina degli Ulivi near Sperlonga is (so far as I know) the only hostel between Rome and Napoli
I wish I had known about the Agrimare Camping near Sperlonga, which looks like the most convenient campsite for the town.
The Camping Baia Domizia is fairly expensive (I paid 23€ low season) but good quality (nice landscaping —the bar overlooks a water garden with water lillies etc etc) - although nothing outstanding. The Pineta La Foce is another option nearby.
Transport and services
There’s a station at Formia (the station name is Formia-Gaeta) with services to Roma and Napoli.
Articles in this series
- Cycling the Lazio Coast 1: Tarquinia and Civitavecchia
- Cycling the Lazio Coast 2: Cerveteri and Ostia Antica
- Cycling the Lazio Coast 3: Anzio and Sabaudia
- Cycling the Lazio Coast 4: the Riviera di Ulisse