The Roman winter camps of Aquileia went on to become the ninth most important town in the whole of the Empire, and a splendid metropolis based on trading across the Mediterranean and over the Alps.
At its height, nearly 100,000 people – Romans, Greeks, Syrians, Egyptians, Jews and Celts – lived in a culturally diverse and tolerant community that grew rich from craftsmanship and the importing and exporting of luxury goods (spices, wine, olive oil, stone and marble).
Seat of the expansion of Christianity in the Empire, following St Mark’s evangelistic arrival from Alexandria, it was devastated by Attila’s invasion in 452 AD before rising again under the patronage of the Germanic Holy Roman Empire in the 11th – 15th centuries.
Aquileia today is an evocative site; where scattered housing and fields now cover the site of once-busy urban streets. The ruined port is silent, and noticeboards explain how the local residents built frantic defences against Attila the Hun, building protective walls with any marbles and sculptures that came to hand.
Having discovered it simply by driving through its Forum two years ago, we had always planned to return. Our two days in Aquileia were spent exploring its incredible legacy.
We camped next to the foundations of the sophisticated harbour which allowed for the many trading vessels to arrive, unload, restock and set sail in the endeavour to grow the Empire’s wealth and power.
We trod carefully on glass footpaths across 1st and 4th century Roman mosaic flooring with vivid depictions of animals, seafood, fish, flowers and vines as well as dressed and undressed men and women and fantastic creatures with wings and horns.
In the Basilica we marvelled at the glorious colours of frescoes painted in the year 1000 showing the story of St Mark, and the origins of Christianity in Aquileia with the first bishop and martyr Hermagora.
The original 4th century baptistry is partially excavated under a later floor of the extended church complex and is half the size again of the later baptistry built in the 12th century and re-using Roman columns.
The Basilica is a masterful work of reclamation over 1,000 years from its mosaic flooring to its 14th century wooden vaulted ceiling.
We cycled a stretch of the Decumanus (original paved road) to the Forum, the meeting place and hub of Roman life in Aquileia, now lined with tall dark cypress trees.
Climbing the impossibly steep lookout tower, built using stones from the Roman amphitheatre, we had views across the excavations still being carried out, to the entrance to the Mediterranean, the Laguna di Marano.
When not poking around amongst the ruins we pedalled the 20 miles round trip across the waters to gorgeous Grado, the L’Isole del Sole.
A former fishing village and early Christian colony, the peninsular town is now a swish resort with an atmospheric Old Town and a long, sandy, beach and promenade.
Simply retracing earlier steps was a delight on a hot sunny day as the air was fragrant with pine trees and the light bounced off the blue lagoon.
Where previously we had roamed freely along the wide beach, today it would cost us a day’s budget-busting entrance fee of €67 for a front row beach umbrella and beds!
Our route across the north of Italy has shown us so many wonderful corners, full of interest and surprise and always proffering the promise of more to return to. Let’s hope to do that, and soon!
Here’s a full gallery of our final two days in Italy, at Aquileia and Grado;