If you drive at least an hour and a half away from Venice in any direction, you will find a completely different world. Few tourists, less grandeur, but still brimming in history that is largely forgotten by the bystanders tunnel-visioned by the A4 from Milan to Venice. Nothing is more indicative of this than Aquilea, a town 80 miles northeast of Venice, in the equally unvisited region of Friuli-Venezia. Currently a mere magnificent pile of rocks that dates back to the Roman era, Aquilea is actually once one of the most powerful cities in the Roman Empire, the empire's largest second only to Rome, and its premiere port north of its capital. It played a great role in the development of the empire, as well as the early development of Christianity in Europe. Throughout the years however, Aquilea's role as one of the empire's most important city, as well as its position in the crossroads not just of the barbaric north and south, but also of the division between the east and west, contributed greatly to its demise and failure to recover. Now, it is much diminished, lacking the great antique remains of Rome or the great romantic atmosphere that Verona built around its roman remnant throughout its prestigious history. It is only recently that much attention is being paid to the town, with its buried and intact roman streets and buildings slowly being excavated by archeologists.
For better or worse, the tourists still have not followed. Aquilea remains a small town, highly dependent on the modest resort industry to the south in Grado and the industry of the north in Udine. It accommodates the tourist very sparingly, and from my last visit (admittedly, in the early afternoon before the school groups arrived and in the fall when the August holiday rush was a distant memory) was a quiet one-road town with some yet-uncovered ruins by the main street. The town's centerpiece, its basilica filled with great mosaics, is off the main road and lacks the self-importance of San Marco or Milan's duomo. I walked through some of the ongoing excavation, wondering at floor mosaics faintly peeking through dirt that is yet to be brushed off. Amphora, modest carvings, and other ancient everyday knick-knacks are found everywhere, waiting to be placed in some staid museum for proper viewing. In thirty years, I'm sure the city would be more magnificent, with more buildings excavated and streets revealed to show the plan of the big city--underneath the thousands of people who traveled to see it. For now, it's just a quiet side-trip, just a stroll through a quiet town occasionally interrupted by undiscovered remnants of the past.