WARNING: Some of this story might qualify as Too Much Information. If you think so, you should probably skip it. You’ve been forewarned.
“Non e’ difficile,” said Francesco. It's not difficult. He was telling me how to get an Italian girlfriend.
Francesco had an eagle's head tattoo on one of his muscular arms. He stood beneath a “No Smoking” sign, rolling cigarettes and smoking them one after another.
“Irene, do you think I can teach this American how to pick up Terracina girls?” Francesco asked a young woman who was sipping a cappuccino. He pronounced her name ee-RAY-nay.
She put her hands together as if she were praying, and said “O Dio mio.”
For the next minute or so she looked at me, wide-eyed, shaking her head and her index finger, and mouthing the word “no,” while Francesco tried to impart his favorite observations and techniques.
Ask almost any Italian woman, and she’ll tell you Italian men are pigs. But the truth is, they’re the same as any guys anywhere. They’re just more transparent about it.
I wouldn’t recommend most of what Francesco told me that day in a bar in Terracina. But during my years in Italy I dated three--yes three!--Italian women.
If you're interested, you're about to learn a secret to picking up Italian women. Or any women, really. This could probably work on men, too.
You see, in Los Angeles, I'm just an ordinary dude who talks too much. But in Italy I'm a foreigner with an accent.
When someone speaks to me in Italian, I have to try really hard to follow along. Sometimes the only conversation I can manage is an awkward smile while I nod and say, “si’.” If I need to say much more than that, there’s a long pause while I struggle to remember the Italian word for peanut butter or how to conjugate the verb spalmare.
Apparently my weak language skills come across as intense concentration. My awkward pauses make me look thoughtful. To Italians, I appear to be a good listener.
It turns out many women can't resist a good listener, especially if he has a foreign accent.
Using my foreign accent mojo, I had once met a young woman who lived in a small town in central Italy. We were kindred spirits. In better economic times, she had traveled far, and had seen and done many interesting things.
She broke up with me over the phone about a week before I arrived in Italy to bike the via Appia. Then, the night before I started riding, she texted me and wanted to meet for coffee.
Now here I was, at the beginning of one of the coolest adventures of my life, and all I could think about was this girl. When I looked at Irene, and whenever I looked at just about any Italian woman on this trip, I was really thinking of her.
All I needed to do was alter my travel plans a little, and maybe I could rekindle an old fire. Would I call her? Or would I just keep going, and run away from another relationship?
I’m not an expert at this stuff, but I do have a litmus test. If the relationship makes you stronger, if the person helps you and encourages you to pursue your goals, especially if the two of you pursue your goals together, then you’ve found a winner.
If the person makes you feel insecure and confused, especially if that distracts you from enjoying the fulfilment of whatever really matters to you, then walk away.
On that day in Terracina, I didn’t know if I wanted to embrace the relationship or walk away. Maybe she didn’t, either.
As I write this now, I’m married (to someone else), and all those old issues have disappeared. I just want you to know the truth about my trip. I traveled across half of Italy with only half my mind and half my heart, because I could neither embrace nor let go of the relationship I was in.
If you ever do a solo bike tour, keep in mind that your emotional baggage will color your adventure in unpredictable ways.
If you enjoyed this article, you'd be crazier than a young Caligula not to sign up for the newsletter. When you do, I'll send you a free copy of my travel notes from the latest bike tour along via Appia.
Once there was a tiny bar near a bus station in Rome, where an old man made the best cappuccino in the world.
He would drop the saucer on the counter at an angle, so it spun for a few seconds, rattling faster and faster as it settled in front of you. He whipped the steamed milk with a loud clattering flourish, folded it into your coffee with a wire whisk, and poured out the last bit of foam into spiral shapes that would turn into a heart, a smiling face, or the colosseum.
Any barista could use this kind of artistic display to mask a mediocre coffee, but this guy didn’t need to. The cappuccino itself was even better than the performance. Rich flavors arose from a perfect balance of espresso and milk. There was a subtle hint of sweetness, and the temperature was always just right.
This place was too far from my apartment for a daily visit, but I know the owner had a lot of regulars. The maestro would greet many of his visitors by name, and get into long, interesting conversations.
I loved to sit and listen in as I sipped my cappuccino. And I could do it, too, because this was one of the few bars in the center of Rome that didn’t charge you extra for sitting down.
Today the old man has long since retired, and now his bar is just another random place to get average coffee.
I’m telling you about this because you probably know a few hidden gems like this, too. It could be an old reliable hangout where everybody knows your name, or a place where you find silence and solitude, or maybe somewhere you only go every now and then as a special treat.
Cherish these places, because they may not last forever.
I could write an entire book about old bars and cafes up and down the coast of California, places where friendly people laughed and shared jokes, places that have gone out of business. I’ve danced in crowded old buildings to live music that you’ll never hear on Pandora, in buildings are now banks or corporate headquarters, or worse yet chains such as McDonalds or Starbucks.
This is all a smaller ripple in the trend that is reshaping the planet. In my youth I hiked and played in wild forests. I saw the trees cut down and the ground criss-crossed with roads and construction. This happened in my backyard in Illinois, it happened where I went to college, and it’s happened to many of my favorite places.
And what about you? If you’ve been in this world for more than a decade or two, surely a few of your most beloved haunts have disappeared or changed forever.
In Minturno I had a favorite place, a place that was vanishing. What’s different is it became a favorite even before I ever got to see it first-hand.
A book called The Appian Way: A Journey has a photo taken in the early 1970s.
The picture is in black and white, but you can see the sparkle of the leaves in the sunlight. It's easy to imagine the bright colors of flowers basking in the sun. You can feel the breeze, and hear the stalks and leaves whipping in a gentle wind.
But a skeletal arch looks like it's ready to fall down. Broken pieces of marble are hiding in the tall weeds.The earth is slowly absorbing the familiar basalt road bed.
This is the site of the ancient Roman city Minturnae.
People lived here. They felt things. They loved, labored, suffered, thought, and dreamed. Now all that's left of their life is a stone boneyard in a field of wildflowers, and that won't last.
The photo shows the effects of ecological succession. Bits of grass take root in the cracks between the bricks. They die, decompose, and turn into soil that can hold deeper roots and nourish slightly larger plants.
The weather goes to work on the rock, releasing minerals into the soil. Soon bigger plants move in, their seeds carried by birds and wind. These plants attract insects, which become a food source for birds and other animals.
All of this biological activity produces acid and moisture, which slowly wear down the rock and widen the cracks even more.
The land changes from the ground up. Plants, bugs, birds, and their droppings decompose and form more soil. Every trace of human work is slowly dissolved by the ages.
Normally I’m a big fan of this regeneration. It gives me hope for our future. Not just for humanity, but also for the millions of other species who share the world with us. But I wanted to see this lonely, man-made city before nature reclaimed it forever.
The Appian Way: A Journey talks a lot about the natural decay of human monuments. The authors Dora Jane Hamblin and Mary Jane Loeb Grunsfeld spent years driving and hiking along the Appian way. Their verdict on Minturnae, in the 1970s: “It will not last another decade.”
Their photos of Minturnae charmed me into dreaming up a bike tour down the Appian Way. I have to see it, I told myself. Even if all I see is a half-buried pillar like the skeleton of some giant reptile, I have to see it.
But I may already be more than thirty years too late.
I was in a hurry, but I still stopped in Formia for a shot of espresso. I went to lean my bike against the wall outside a cafe, where three old men sat around a table playing dominos. This scene could have taken place back in Itri, or Terracina, or really anywhere in the Mediterranean. The drink in their glasses did not look like coffee.
“Posso?” I asked permission. “Can I leave my bike here?”
“Only if you stay for at least an hour and a half,” one of them joked.
“But I have to go sooner,” I told them in the best Italian I could muster. “I'm looking for the via Appia Antica.”
This caused a flurry of inebriated laughter.
“Ragazzo,” insisted one of the men, “la via Appia Antica e' proprio qui!” and he swept the back of his hand towards the busy street a few yards away. “Via Appia is right here.”
Inside the bar, I bought five tomato and mozzarella tramezzini, triangular sandwiches made of white bread with the crusts cut off. The tomatoes were green. An Italian had once explained to me that green tomatoes keep longer, and they don't make the bread wet. Best of all, they're crisp as lettuce.
I wanted to sit down, talk to the old men some more, and eat my sandwiches here. Everyone I met in Formia was unusually friendly. In fact, it felt like the town didn’t want me to leave. But I was impatient to keep moving.
This quiet, friendly place offered peace, companionship, and good food. This was the real Italy, the country I had called my home for several years. But I barely stopped for a coffee.
That photo of ancient Minturnae, that fear of missing out, that’s why I zipped through Formia and rode hard enough to make my quads burn. I was so close, and I was certain the last glorious marble columns of Minturnae would melt away forever in the next two hours!
By the early afternoon I reached a campsite outside Minturno, the modern town near the ancient city. The couple who ran the campground offered me a coffee and asked about my travels.
I was anxious to find whatever was left of Minturnae, but as we finished our coffee, the husband told me we were close to the river that marks the border between Lazio and Campagna.
Italy is divided into 21 regions, in the same way the USA is divided into states. Lazio is one of these regions, from the ancient “Latium,” the land of the Latins with Rome in the center. The region of Campagna, which just means “countryside,” is best known for Mount Vesuvius.
The Garigliano river separated these two regions, Lazio the Eternal City and a center of civilization, and Campagna the home of nature in all her savage glory.
Over the ages, Italians built half a dozen bridges at across this river. The ancient Roman bridge is now underwater. Today, the Via Appia now runs across a 19th century bridge that was destroyed in World War II and restored in the 1990s. The bridge is suspended by thick black chains, and guarded by a pair of stone Sphinxes.
Just to the west of this bridge, you'll find what’s left of Minturnae.
In the early 1980s, the locals decided to do something about the burglars who were carrying off the remaining stones of ancient Minturnae. Today, the site is protected by a tall steel fence. Skilled and caring hands have restored and protected the place.
It turns out the writers who brought me here were wrong in their predictions. As I followed the river to the site of Minturnae, marble columns and a large amphitheater waved at me from above the shrubs.
Minturno has seen thirty years of economic growth, along with a growing interest in preserving ancient historical relics.This has led to improvements, not destruction. The Appian Way runs on through an expanded and restored Minturnae, which is carefully guarded and proudly promoted.
I gladly paid a few Euros towards the cause, and bought a ticket to walk inside among the ruins. Clean basalt and sun-baked travertine gave off their warmth. Insects scurried along the stones of the amphitheater. I walked the old Appian Way where it passed through Minturnae, complete with deep ruts carved by centuries of wagon wheels.
I should have been thrilled, but I surprised myself.
Here’s the problem. Today we enjoy a level of comfort and convenience that most people couldn’t have imagined a century ago. But we also need mountain bikes, skateboards and all kinds of games to maintain a sense of adventure.
Bike tours are my way of escaping the comfort zone and entering the untethered universe where anything can happen. This beautiful, chaotic place is the real world. It’s unpredictable and dangerous, but going there is a necessity if you want to feel alive.
Reconstructed Minturnae has been tightly insulated from the real world. Gone are the gorgeous, tragic scenes of the old photo images. Instead, ropes and chains guide you along a pathway through the site. A team of experts have designed every inch of it. They dictate exactly where you can walk and exactly what you’ll see.
Minturnae would have been gone in a decade without the help of these archeologists. But when I planned this trip, I had pictured muddy treks in search of unfettered ruins. I had imagined seeing ancient walls and arches without the benefit of a guide or a guardrail.
Minturnae really is gone forever, replaced by a museum. I love museums, but I have to report a sad conclusion to Hamblin and Grunsfeld’s story: Minturnae has fallen victim to the ancient trade-off between freedom and security.
The Italian government is letting ordinary "civilians" take over old historic buildings.
Nine of these properties are along via Appia!
Here's the deal. They want to encourage tourism in the lesser-known regions of Italy. They want to create a market for local cuisine and products. They want to attract tourists to the bikeways and hiking paths.
They want passionate dreamers like me (and maybe you) to renovate abandoned old buildings, convert them into hotels, hostels, AirBnB places. They want marketing plans that will bring commerce to the towns and regions that surround these romantic buildings.
In return, they'll let us (me and my team, which may include you) lease the building for free or at low cost. While it will be run as a commercial venture, we will have our own "private quarters" on site.
So what's in it for you? Two things.
First, if you've ever wanted to know how something like this works, I'll be recording all my steps and efforts right here in this blog. I'm creating a new category for these posts, so you can search under "renovation."
Second, this is going to be a team effort. If you'd like to join me, leave a comment and we'll get in touch.
If you’re a seasoned, confident bike tourist then I would love to have you along next spring. But if you think there’s some insurmountable obstacle that would make the journey impossible, no matter how badly you want to go, then this post is for you.
This post is for you if you’re interested in biking via Appia but you aren’t doing it because you think:
You can’t afford it
You’re too young
You're too old
You’re not in shape
You’re afraid of being in the wilderness in a foreign country
There is some other reason holding you back
You can do it. And I’m going to help you. Here’s why:
10 years ago, at the Leo Carrillo State Beach hike and bike campground, I met a man who took a group of developmentally disabled teenagers on a bike tour. They rode north from LA to San Francisco and across the Golden Gate Bridge, fighting the wind all the way.
I met them on their way back home. The kids were confident and street-smart. I got the feeling they could go anywhere they wanted. And they knew it.
“The ride up was brutal,” the guy told me. “The only thing that kept these kids going was the idea of riding across the Golden Gate Bridge. You should have seen their faces when they finally did it.”
Ever since then, I’ve hoped to meet another person like that. Maybe it’s time to become someone like that, at least in my own small way.
So here’s the deal.
I’m going to do another bike tour of via Appia in May, 2017. I'm looking for people who have a burning desire to come along, but something is stopping you.
I will help you.
I can’t buy your plane ticket for you, but I can show you a number of ways to raise the money you’ll need.
I’m not a doctor or a physical therapist, but I can direct you to resources for strengthening your mind and body. In fact, if you think you’re not in shape for a trip like this, that makes two of us! We’ll hold each other accountable as we get in shape (and to tell you the truth, this tour isn’t superhard as far as bike tours go).
If you have a specific physical challenge that you think is going to stop you, I’ll look for someone who can build a bike that’s adapted to your needs.
I will personally coach you on getting into shape, making money, even learning Italian if that will make you more confident. We’re gonna make this happen!
Maybe you’re not especially interested in a bike tour of Italy. There’s still something in this for you.
Over the next several months, you’re going to hear stories of people overcoming their fears, their doubts, and their limits. Hopefully these stories will inspire you to do that one thing that you dream of, the one thing you think is impossible.
If you are interested in biking via Appia with me next spring, here are just a few of the things you’ll get to do as a result of this journey:
Tap into hidden physical and mental powers you didn’t know you had
Build lasting friendships with extraordinary people
Bring back stories and experiences that will change the way you look at the world
Grow stronger and healthier than you dreamed possible
Give yourself the classical education you always wanted
This journey will change you forever. I challenge you to join me. I dare you.
In fact, I beg you.
You see, by coming along on this trip, you’ll give me a chance to face down one of my own big fears.
I’ve biked the entire Appian way from Rome to Brindisi already. I know enough about Italy and Italian to fix most problems that I can’t avoid in the first place. I’ve done bike tours that are longer than this.
But now I want to help you experience the magic. Especially if you’re the kind of person who dreams about a journey like this, but you’re frightened to try.
If I commit to helping you do it, then I have to face my own fear of failure, that maybe I won’t succeed in getting you to Italy and across the finish line.
But I accept the challenge. I will teach you to overcome any obstacle, and you’ll ride triumphantly into Brindisi like an ancient Roman noble.
Let me be clear about this offer, and especially what I am not offering to do.
This is not a free ride. I can’t pay for your airplane ticket or your AirBnB. (I would like to buy you a coffee, or maybe something stronger, while we’re in Italy.)
I’m not a doctor, physical therapist, or psychologist.
But what I do bring to the table is experience, creativity, a lot of good ideas and the will to help you carry them out.
Are you in? Fill out the form below, and we’ll be in touch.
I left out a lot of the loneliness, the confusion, the shameful and foolish decisions I made that still haunt me years later. I didn't tell you what I was really thinking about in Taranto, the last night of the journey.
When I re-read the first draft of my book, a lot of it just didn't ring true.
I sound like a pretentious schmuck who likes to brag about the places I traveled. That's a big part of who I was when I biked the entire length of the ancient Roman road, via Appia. But it's mostly just show.
In the first draft, I left out a lot of the loneliness, the confusion, the shameful and foolish decisions I made that still haunt me years later. I didn't tell you what I was really thinking about in Taranto, the last night of the journey.
Most of the emails I get about via Appia come from people who probably haven't done an extended solo bike tour. So I'm rewriting the book. I want to show you the dark side of pursuing a dream.
This book will still tell you where to go, what to see and do, where to eat and even advice on picking up Italian women.
I'll give you good information about the route, in case you ever want to do a similar trip. You'll hear a lot of local history and stories, and you'll meet many of the Italians who made my journey unforgettable.
But I want to write something more than just a travelogue or a guidebook. So I'm putting back a lot of embarrassing things I cut from the first draft. Entries from my journal that will help keep it real.
This book is also my confession. I will share my deepest regrets about the journey. If I can help save you from some of the mistakes I made, this book will be worth writing, and hopefully worth reading.
Archeologists will never finish scraping the ancient world out of the soil and gluing it back together, but there's still an energy you can feel when you're alone in these ancient places. I wanted to see marble columns rising out of misty fields in the dawn, and remember what the Romans forgot when they became too powerful as a civilization and too weak as individuals. Surely one enthusiastic biker could make the journey.
I have a gift for you, and a small favor to ask in return.
This post is the first chapter of my new book on biking the via Appia. Do you want to read more? Do you have any suggestions on how to make it better, or do you think I should just scrap the whole project? Please leave a comment at the end of this post, and tell me what you think.
Chapter One: Impossibile
Once upon a time, a happy nation of farmers and artisans and philosophers were all going to die.
A ruthless Greek general was trampling over Italy with an army of nearly thirty thousand warriors, horses, and elephants. Fields were burned, slaves were taken, and one by one the tribes and colonies surrendered to him, or even joined him.
But in the nick of time, one grumpy old man stood up to the bully and called his bluff.
Old Appius Claudius wasn't usually a hero, and the history isn't as black-and-white as I'm presenting it. But in the speech that rallied young Rome against her enemies, he said, “Every man is the architect of his own fortune.”
This book is mostly about you and me and becoming the architect of your own fortune. But I promise I'll get back this story and tell you more about the general, the elephants, and especially Appius Claudius.
Above all, there's one thing you need to know about Appius Claudius.
The speech was one of his last public acts, but he is better known for one of his first. When Appius became Censor, he nearly bankrupted the treasury to build a road into the uncertain wilderness of the south. And as the keystone of a career that was built almost entirely on sheer chutzpah, he named the road after himself.
Two thousand, three hundred and seventeen years later, on that same road, every motor vehicle in Italy was trying to mash me into pesto.
Just after the via Appia leaves Rome through the Porta San Sebastiano, the shoulder disappears. Two brick walls guard the road, turning it into a roofless tunnel where every cyclist is at the mercy of every driver.
Commuters in Fiats, late to work, pronounced vulgar curses against my ancestors. Produce trucks threatened to scrape me against the walls, an olive between two millstones. Tour buses nearly crushed me like a bunch of newly harvested grapes.
Soon I would be ground apart and made into pesto, olive oil, and wine. The tricolore of Italy. This adventure would end before it began, and a foreigner would become national cuisine.
But somehow I made it to the Parco Regionale dell'Appia Antica. At a small building that provided tourist information, I asked if it would be possible to speak to an archeologist.
A receptionist set down her lipstick-stained cigarette and directed me to Dr. Grillo. His office was up the stairs, first door on the right. The door was open, and a grey-haired man, impeccably dressed, stared at me over a tiny cup of espresso. He seemed uncomfortable with the fact that a sweaty American, wearing shorts and clutching a bicycle helmet, would enter his office this early on a weekday.
In my best Italian I told him I wanted to ride the via Appia Antica from Rome to its end in Brindisi. From the surprised confusion in his face, you would think I had just volunteered to be a nude model for his next marble sculpture.
"Impossibile!" he insisted, pronouncing the word with long Italian vowels: eem-poh-SEEEEEE-bee-lay!
Nobody knows how many millions of nobles, senators, philosophers, soldiers, merchants, prisoners, slaves, poets and bandits have traveled on the Appian Way. They've been doing it for more than 2,300 years on foot, in litters, by wagon, buggy, horse, pony, donkey, elephant, mule, and more recently in cars, motorcycles and trucks.
Surely one enthusiastic biker could make the journey. I had already decided to make the trip, with or without anyone's help. But I wanted some advice from an expert, if I could get it.
I wanted to see marble columns rising out of misty fields in the dawn, and remember what the Romans forgot when they became too powerful as a civilization and too weak as individuals.
Dr. Grillo assured me that it could not be done. Much of via Appia was buried on private property. He mentioned floods and swamps and mountains. Also many places where we simply don't know where via Appia went.
But I knew I had him when he asked why I would ever want to do such a thing.
This is the hardest question to answer, even in English. I did my best to explain my fascination with the Mediterranean, ancient history, and the desperate need we have (I think) in the USA to rediscover some common roots.
Archeologists will never finish scraping the ancient world out of the soil and gluing it back together, but there's still an energy you can feel when you're alone in these ancient places.
Grillo understood. Or at least I think he had stopped deliberating whether to call security or throw me out himself.
When you travel by bicycle, I tried to tell him, you don't just "see" things behind the glass of a museum display or a windshield. You feel the air and the moisture and the contours of the land. You're exposed to the people and the energy of the place. You drink in the nectar of the world, and anything is possible.
Italians all gifted with a powerful intuition. Even if you don't know the right words, if you speak with passion many of them will read your mind and give you exactly what you want. As I spoke, my new archeologist savior was already opening drawers and pulling out topo maps, old photos and drawings.
When I finished, he gave me a stream of directions and names and numbers in rapid Italian. I frantically scribbled as much as I could understand in my notebook. I wasn't looking for perfection, I told him, just adventure and fun and new learning and experience. If I couldn't retrace all of the Appian Way, I would still see most of it, and do the best I could.
Dr. Grillo assured me once again that I was attempting something impossible. “Le machine ti pestaranno,” he warned. The cars will pound you into pesto. That's good. I'll use that.
He shook his head, and shook my hand. “In bocca al'lupo,” he said. In the mouth of the wolf, a Roman way of saying “good luck.”
“Creppi lupo,” I replied.
There’s something in human nature that won’t let us stare too long at an unclimbed mountain, an uncharted wilderness, or an unanswered challenge. This is why people skydive and sail across oceans.
This is why, after staring down a 2,300-year-old highway, I found I could no longer try to run a business or be a teacher or fulfill any of the other roles the world put before me until I rode my bike to the end of the road, just to see what would happen.
Dr. Grillo wasn't the only person who said it couldn’t be done. Others predicted I would be robbed, kidnapped, bitten by snakes, infected with malaria and maybe trampled by water buffalos before I reached Terracina. One well-meaning blog reader sent an email to warn me, “You’ll destroy your arse in the first 10 kilometers.”
A crotchety old park superintendent muttered “E tutto nascosto.” It's all hidden.
Everything they told me was true. The Appian Way is fraught with peril, a 400-mile gauntlet of knee-grinding climbs, bone cracking pot holes, sheer drops in the fog, bad weather, hostile natives, robbers, murderers and things far worse than that. When you venture along the jugular vein of ancient Rome you’re going to encounter the best and the worst of Italy.
But there’s a reward for trips like this, something you know intuitively before you begin. You’re going to find the secrets that are tutto nascosto, hidden away in your own heart.
A journey like this is going to change you. It must. There are too many lonely miles for it not to happen.
If you enjoyed this and you think I should write the rest of it, please let me know! I'm also open to suggestions on how to make this book better.
Could this be the answer to all of my dreams, or would I just die of heat stroke?
A long time ago, a mysterious tribe lived in central Italy. The Aurunci were big and powerful when Rome was just a small town. They ruled a confederation of five great cities—Suessa, Ausona, Minturnae, Sinuessa, and Vescia.
Only a town called Suessa remains today. Her people suffered terribly for this privilege, as you'll see.
The Romans built via Appia to make war on the Aurunci and their allies. Twenty five years later, they defeated the Aurunci and destroyed their cities.
Minturnae was rebuilt as a port. But all that's left of the Aurunci is the modern town, Sessa Aurunca, which was named after Suessa.
And there's one more reminder: The ancient Romans built a great bridge across the Travata river. It connected Sessa Aurunca to the via Appia. It took 21 arches to cross the river and keep the whole thing up. That would be hard to do today, and they built all those arches with hand tools. It was called, and is still called, the Ponte degli Aurunci, the Aurunci bridge.
A thousand years later the Empire crumbled. All the important political action was happening far away in the East. Fewer travelers made use of this bridge.
The local inhabitants began to use the arches for shelter and storage. Eventually someone discovered that the tiles which decorated the bridge were perfect for baking bread. Villagers stripped away its façade.
Over the centuries, the Ponte degli Aurunci was overgrown with vines and weeds, until it became an abandoned place of myth and superstition. A few people from Sessa Aurunca may wander there in search of solitude, but most outsiders never bother.
Yet every year, a handful of archeologists make their way to the Ponte degli Aurunci, just to see an interesting part of the past. I, too, made this pilgrimmage. The bridge is phenomenally well-preserved, and even more phenomenally well-hidden.
As I left Minturno, I knew I would pass the bridge in a few hours. I asked several people the way. Late that morning, when I stopped to cool off by pouring a bottle of water over my head, a pottery merchant told me the 3-way intersection was just a kilometer up the road.
“Look for the fourth way,” he said. “The strada vecchia,” the old street.
The paved road continued straight ahead. Beads of sweat trickled down my arms and neck, but I found the intersection.
There was a smaller road on the right that headed towards some houses. To my left I could see a gravel road leading off through an olive grove. The shiny silver leaves flickered in the sun.
The area was blocked by a chain link fence, but the gate was open. It didn't look like an old road. It looked brand new. Still, I chained my bike to the fence and went in.
Around a bend, I saw a large white house with flowers planted around the sides and a shiny red Fiat parked in the driveway. I called out but nobody answered. This didn't seem like the right place, so I went back to the main road.
Was I wrong? Would there be another intersection farther up? Across the street, a woman and a girl were watching me from their porch. I walked towards them and greeted them with a friendly “Ciao!” The woman, presumably the mom, was not amused.
“What is it?” she asked. Che c'e'?
I put on what I hoped was a friendly smile and asked her to excuse the ignorance of a crazy foreigner who was in search of the Ponte degli Aurunci.
The girl laughed and the mom just shook her head in disbelief, fanning herself with a newspaper. But she patiently explained to me that there was an old road, completely hidden, less than a meter away from the fence. I thanked her and walked off.
“Watch out for snakes,” warned the girl. She said something else in dialect that I couldn't understand, but it made her mother laugh. As I crossed the main road again, I could still hear their chuckles in the distance.
At the edge of the fenced area, the road was bordered by thick brush and grasses. A million thorny plants taunted me, daring me to snare my clothes and my skin on their sharp needles. I couldn't see any sign of an old road. The ladies probably lied just to get rid of me.
Then I saw a spot that looked a little bit trampled. It wasn't a road. Not even a footpath. But it did look like maybe a small dog could have had laid down there a month ago. The brush wasn't quite as thick in this one place. I pushed aside a branch that was probably poison ivy, scratched my legs on thorns that were made of barbed wire, and stepped into the vegetation.
The temperature dropped ten degrees. I was in a dark, shady sea of green.The ground was moist, and there was more space to move around. Wild blackberries and figs offered up their fruit, and vines draped themselves over the branches of small, dense trees.
There wasn't any kind of path, but I decided to explore a little bit. The ground sloped gently down, getting softer and more muddy as it went. Nettles stung my ankles, and in a few days I would have yellow blisters of poison oak on the back of my hand.
I was scratched and beaten, my feet soaking wet, when I stepped on a single basalt stone covered in a millimeter of muddy water. I looked around, and saw another one farther up. It felt like a trail of breadcrumbs luring me deeper into the woods. I expected to come across a gingerbread house, a cottage full of dwarves, or a talking wolf in this tangled, fairytale forest.
Then I saw two more paving stones, and a clump of them up ahead. The Strada Vecchia! This was the Old Road.
A few minutes later the road started to rise. The stones were dry and more numerous. Suddenly I was out of the shade and up on a sunny arch of the bridge. The nearly dry riverbed, rich with vegetation, meandered off into the scrub in the distance. The road crossed the bridge and disappeared into some trees on the other side. I followed along until I startled a young couple kissing in a parked car on the other side.
I left quickly to give the lovers their space. But it's probably worth hiking the rest of the road, if you're ever in that part of the world. In fact, from maps I've seen it looks like there is a road from Sessa Aurunca that leads to the bridge. I've never explored this route, but it's probably easier than the way I found the Ponte degli Aurunci. And it's probably scenic, too.
Personally, I'm glad I found it the way I did. The hunting and scrambling, consulting the locals and getting fragments of information out of old books all turn the visit into a quest.
The first time I went to Rome, I loved to wander the narrow streets and alleys of the historical center without a guidebook. I preferred to do this at high noon, in the middle of summer. Most of the tourists and the Romans themselves would retreat into bars to avoid the hot sun. I had the city almost to myself.
Once I stumbled upon a huge, oval-shaped piazza with three fountains adorned with beautiful sculptures. I knew at once it was someplace important. In fact, it was Piazza Navona, and any map or guidebook would have led me directly to it. But it has always seemed more special to me than many other tourist sites, because I found it on my own.
This is the difference between being a tourist and being a traveler. Would you rather consume an experience that someone created for you, or discover it alone by your own luck and wits?
Anyway, I haven't yet been to Sessa Aurunca but it's an important archeological site as well. It's another chance to get out of the tourist traps and see something real.
By the way, Sessa Aurunca gets its name from the ancient name Suessa Aurunca. It was given this name to distinguish it from Suessa Pometia, the city of the Volsci.
The Volsci were another tribe that joined forces with the Aurunci in their war against the Romans. An Italian archeological website explains what happened to the unfortunate Volsci of Suessa Pometia. Here's my imperfect translation:
Suessa Pometia, aligned with the Aurunci, was tempestuously stormed by the Roman legions. The city was destroyed by the Romans, who spared neither people nor the city itself. The leaders were decapitated, the citizens were made into slaves, and the city was razed to the ground.
It's the old story of one group conquering another. But it's also easy to picture entire populations fading away into the thick, quiet forests of central Italy, surviving in obscurity.
There must be something of the Aurunci that lives on. There are other pre-Roman tribes who have kept their identity and kept their ways, even today, thousands of years after the Romans began their decline.
It would be my privilege to meet some of these survivors, before my journey was over.
This post was excerpted from a book I am writing about biking the via Appia. If you want to read it, or maybe even join me on a future bike tour of the Appian Way, subscribe below and I'll keep you up to date.
There are not many people alive today who have done this. Most people would never want to.
I'm going to read Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. All six volumes, cover-to-cover.
I'll give you the "Cliff's Notes," anything I find that's really striking, relevant to bike touring, and especially anything that gives more insight about biking via Appia.
I expect there will be some of these insights, but that's not the real reason I'm reading this. A person I deeply admire has read the entire work and recommended it as a vital key for understanding the economic and political turmoil in the world today.
Usually I bike to get away from politics and the economy, but lately (like for the last seven years!) these twin monsters have kept me from spending more time on the things I love--of which bike touring in Italy and reading about ancient Roman history are always near the top of the list.
So now I get to have my cake and eat it too. Mmm, cake!
I've been given a green light, a good excuse, and a challenge. I get to be a responsible global citizen, promote my personal career and do something fun (while admittedly most people wouldn't call it fun...)
Like I said, if I find any illuminating insight that relates to via Appia I'll post it here. Or if you really want to dig deep and learn about all the unspeakable naughty things that happened in the world of ancient Rome, subscribe here. Or come with me when I do my next via Appia ride.
This is an excerpt from the draft of a book I'm writing about a bike tour of the Appian Way from Rome, Italy to Brindisi. The full book should be available for download in late 2015. If you'd like a copy, leave a comment with your email and I'll let you know when it is ready. (Your email will not be published and I will never share it with other parties)
After I ride my bike into the hills for a few more miles, I see a huge fortress up ahead to my right. It’s just past sunset, and I know that if I want to explore I’ll have to stay in this area.
Where the road passes to the right of the castle, there’s a small town on my left. It only takes a few minutes to find a decently-priced hotel, and after some questioning I find out there’s good pizza nearby.
The decision is made. The hotel owner barely leaves off the conversation with her friends (all are sitting around a table covered with bread, coffee, and cigarettes) to get me registered, stash my bike in a back room, and welcome me to the town of Itri.
After a hot shower and pizza, some of the locals inform me that this town, Itri, got its name from the Hydra of Greek mythology, which Hercules fought in the swamps nearby. Hydra is often pronounced “Idra” or “Itra” in Greek and Italian, leading to the name.
Alessandra, who served me my pizza, told me that the castle was built up over a much older Roman edifice. There were a lot of battles over this spot, because of its strategic position on a mountain pass between two sea ports. She said the name of the town comes from the Latin word “Iter,” which means the route or the way, because of Itri’s placement on the via Appia. When I ask her about the word “Idra” she laughs and says, “That’s just mythology.”
When I’m done eating I wander around the castle in the dark. Much of the palace was demolished by allied bombing during World War II, but it’s still a vast labyrinth inhabited by scores of wild cats. Every friendly “Meow” sounds something like an Italian greeting of “Ciao.”
But the dark passageways and deep shadows are creepy, and I wish I had some company besides the cats.
Travel tip: Visit Itri on the festival “Day of Corpus Domini” (usually in June). The Itrani decorate the main street of the town with colorful mosaics made from flower petals. Almost better is the Olive Festival on the first Sunday in August. It’s a great day to taste olives, olive oil, olive bread, bruschetta, and of course there’s plenty of wine to wash it all down.