When you ride a bicyle on the Appian Way, you'll never have to wait for the bus like this traveler:
This is a chapter from my new book, Tutto Nascosto: A Bike Ride Down the Appian Way. I’ll be posting a chapter at a time, and the full length book will also be available as a downloadable ebook when it’s finished. Leave a comment below, and I’ll make sure you get a copy of the book (your email will remain private).
When you wake up early in the morning to throw yourself at an unknown pile of experiences, when the shoulder is gone from the road and you don’t know which of the passing trucks is going to kill you, when every spin of your bicycle wheels pulls you closer to the Unknown, that’s when every leaf and flower takes on a new and special meaning. This is when you know you’re on a real adventure.
I’m back on the road, making my way through a surreal version of yesterday’s ride through the park. But this is no ride through the park. I’m in the Pontine Marshes, and I’m not sure whether the drivers going to work on SS7 can see me.
Umbrella pines form a living green wall along the road, and the mist makes hard to see anything else. Shining yellow globes rush towards me and turn into the headlights of ubiquitous Fiats. I wish I had a strong cappuccino.
When the Romans built this section of via Appia they wanted to get through the marshes as quickly as possible, so they built the road in a straight line. Years later, they took the time to drain the swamps through a series of channels, but in the beginning they just drove heavy wooden piles into the mud and built the road right over them.
As the fog clears you can see meadows and crop fields. A drainage channel on the side of the road keeps the marshes from returning and covering the ancient Appian Way. You get a glittering gift of wildflowers as you shoot straight towards Terracina.
This is really where Rome ends and the true countryside begins. A happy German shepherd jogs along the opposite side of the drainage ditch, almost as excited as me. I pass a herd of water buffalo whose milk is used for mozzarella cheese.
As the sun climbs higher in the sky and burns away the fog, I start to feel grateful for the trees. In addition to the shade, they will also become my secret to finding my way.
Most of the Appian Way is lined with Rome’s iconic umbrella pines. From above or from a distance, you can often see the via Appia as a dark green line against the grassy landscape of southern Italy.
Many times on this journey, when I’m not sure where to go, I’ll get up on top of a hill, a bell tower, or something up high and look for the ubiquitous umbrella pine. Even in the most remote parts of Puglia and Basilicata, where the via Appia was little more than a trail carved out of the ground even in its heyday, you can still find a lone pine tree to show you the way.
Travel tip: The modern SS7 from Rome to Terracina is a very good approximation of the original Appian Way. But if you want a somewhat safer bike route, follow via Latina to the south. It will take you through Italy’s national park Circeo, named after the enchantress of Homer’s Odessey, who turned Ulysses’ crew into pigs. There are a lot of campsites along the coast in this area, and you can rejoin the via Appia route further along.
When I reach the edge of Terracina, a barrista named Francesco tells me how to get to the Campo dei Paladini at the top of a steep hill.
“Non e’ difficile,” he assures me. “It is not difficult.”
He rolls a cigarette as I sip my espresso. A young woman walks in and greets him with a “Ciao, Francesco.” He introduces me as the crazy American who’s going to ride his bike all the way to Brindisi. When she’s not looking he gives me a nudge and whispers, “Non e’ difficile.”
I want to get going, but it’s always a good idea to talk to friendly barristas in Italy. They spend their whole day drinking coffee and chatting with travelers, so you’ll almost always learn something interesting.
Francesco tells me the story of Terracina, from the Samnites and the Volscii to the Kingdom of Naples and the Gothic Wars. He tells me that the archeological site lay underground and forgotten until allied bombing in World War II brought it to light. Francesco fills me in on the best local bands and where to hear them, where to get good wine, and how to pick up Italian women.
These final comments bring a wry smile from his female companion, who finishes her cigarette and wishes me luck on my travels.
“We’ll see if I make it,” I joke in Italian.
“Just do it a little bit at a time,” Francesco assures me. Non e’ difficile.
Twenty minutes later, as I creak and grind my way up to the Campo dei Paladini, I wonder what kind of tobacco was in Francesco’s cigarette.
Campo (Italian for “field”) dei Paladini was a traditional rest stop for the ancient Romans along the via Appia. The old “high road” went up this way, skirting the city and coming to rest in a large square or piazza bearing this name. Here at the top of the steep rise, travelers would take a well-earned break.
This lofty, rocky perch is above the city of Terracina today, and it’s shared with the Temple of Jupiter in Anxur. Of course you’ll see views of the city, the sea, and the surrounding countryside. From up here, in fact, the green line of pines marking the via Appia couldn’t be clearer.
But the city of Terracina herself is worth a bit of look, too. It’s the classic European walled city, and as you enter the gates you almost feel like defenders are aiming their crossbows at you. At the top and center, a trace of the original Appian Way runs straight through the wide town piazza. An ancient cathedral covers one end, built over an ancient Roman temple and combining architecture and decoration from ancient Rome, the middle ages, the Renaissance and the 18th century.
Terracina is a bit off the path for most travelers to Italy, but you could do worse than to stay in this quiet beach town, surrounded by hills and countryside ready for hiking and biking, and just a day’s journey from Rome.
But I’m committed to biking the entire Appian Way, and I don’t have nearly as much site-seeing time as I would like. So I make my way back down to the sea-level and take advantage of an engineering feat that was executed over 1800 years ago.
The steep climb and descent along Terracina were an unavoidable part of the Appian journey for the first 400 years. A finger of the Apennine mountains sticks out to the sea, and the first Romans had to go over this rocky wall. There was no other way.
Then in the first century AD, the Emperor Trajan ordered engineers to cut a pathway through the stone barrier. The modern Appian Way, SS7, follows this renovation, which saved a day’s travel for ancient Romans.
As you leave the city and pass through this steep rocky gate, look to the left for the Roman Numerals carved into the rock. The diggers marked the depth of their work at intervals, and you can easily spot the C, CX, and CXX which mark the final 100, 110, and 120 foot cuts.
This is a chapter from my new book, Tutto Nascosto: A Bike Ride Down the Appian Way.
I just found out a little non-profit group in Rome is planning their own human-powered via Appia tour.
They're going to walk (not bike) the Appian way from Brindisi back to Rome.
I won't be able to make it on this journey, but maybe you can? Here's the link for anyone interested:
If you want to read Bicycle Freedom in Spanish, click here. If you want to know why, read on.
This isn't strictly about biking, but it goes along with the theme of pushing your limits.
When I first went to Italy, I only spoke a limited version of Italian. But I quickly learned by creating situations where I had to do it. I called up landlords with an English/Italian dictionary in my hand, and rented a room using only Italian. I dated a girl who didn't speak a word of English.
In fact, whenever I needed a can opener or thumb tacks or a pair of scissors I had to whip out the dictionary and figure it out. (This got me in trouble once in a while, like when I tried to buy my first bicycle pump, but that's another story.)
So now the next big "ride" of my life is learning to communicate with the largest population in Los Angeles, get closer to the family of my sweetie, and hopefully do a bike tour of South America in the next few years.
This means learning Spanish. So I've set up a subdomain en espanol and I'm going to start writing in the language. Someone will no doubt say, "I didn't know you could write in Spanish."
I can't! Which is all the more reason to start doing it. Remember how you first learned to ride a bike. You get on it and ride, and then you fall down. You get back up and ride again, and fall down. At some point you ride your bike more than you fall off it.
My Spanish blog is going to be a joke at first, riddled with horrible mistakes and errors. If you speak Spanish, feel free to laugh. Better yet, correct me and help me learn it.
For me, bike travel, bike touring, and just riding a bike in general are an analogy for all the growth and change you can go through in life. I suspect that nobody ever reaches their full potential. We just don't live long enough for that. So keep on pushing your limits, do the things you can't do until you can.
And never forget to enjoy the ride.
The first thing I saw was the pavement. It seemed to be 90 degrees away from where it belonged, and very close to my ear. A car was rolling towards me, and it looked too high up. I could see the concrete underneath both wheels.
Then I staggered up, noticing that my arms and legs were weak and shaky. A pair of arms pulled me off the street and onto the sidewalk, then the guy brought my bike to me.
I've never used a lot of safety gear. Lights and a helmet are prettymuch all I do. But maybe I'll start using rear-view mirrors now, especially since my bicycle commute is about to get a lot longer. During that second or two that I turned around, my front wheel hit a pothole that sent me sprawling.
This was on a clunky part of South Highland, for any L.A. bikers who want a heads up.
"Thanks a lot," I said to the man who pulled me out of the street.
"No problem bro," he said. "I always try to help people when they're down."
"I appreciate that," I told him.
"Good. Maybe you can help me out with some spare change."
"Impossibile!" was the Roman archeologist's first response. But this kind of bike tour is actually very doable.
I mention Dottore Grello again because I've been thinking about him a lot. Without knowing it, he forced me to stand up for myself and my dreams. I convinced him on the spot, and this gave me that last little boost of confidence I needed to make it happen.
3 tips and 2 books for touring the Appian Way
I'm writing this post because I got two more emails this week from people who want to tour southern Italy by bicycle. If you're ready to explore the Appian Way, all I can say is, "You can do it!" It's not terribly hard as far as bike touring goes--you're crossing the Apennines, not the Rockies.
Whatever your dreams are, don't put them off. If you want to tour the Appian Way (or anyplace else), then learn a bit about the terrain, get your bike and your gear in order, and jump in.
You'll always manage to find a place to sleep. Unexpected help (and adventure) will come to you along the way. And the lessons you'll learn--about Italy, about Italians, and most of all about yourself--are priceless.
Two books that changed my life
Dr. Grello gave me a chance meet the author of one of the most motivating books about the Appian Way. It didn't work out, but the book itself was worth many times the price.
On the surface, it looks like Ivana Della Portella put together a "coffee table" sort of book. If that were all, it would be good enough just for the bragging rights. Some day your friends will open it up to an impossibly gorgeous landscape shot and you'll tell them, "I was right there, sitting with my back against that pillar, eating olives."
But the real value of The Appian Way comes before you even set out. I always like to start out with a constellation of points I'd like to go to on my bike. Once you're on the road, connecting the dots is the most exciting part of the journey.
Since it's light reading with a lot of photos, Dr. Portella sets the scene in her book--she gives you a roadmap by not giving you a roadmap.
If you're serious about touring via Appia, I recommend The Appian Way: A Journey by Dora Jane Hamblin and Mary Jane Grunsfeld. This is the book I referred to the most on my first bike tour in Italy, and I slowly became an expert on the Appian Way by reading through all the references they include in the back.
Most of all, it's hearwarming to read the authors' concerns about ancient Roman ruins that were disappearing due to vandalism and neglect when the book was written. Heartwarming, because 30 years later you get to ride your bike to these very places and see them restored and protected.
I plan to outdo these authors with my own book (which I'll post on this blog one chapter at a time starting in January 2011) but in the meantime I think this is the most thorough, informative, and entertaining book about the Appian Way available in English.
3 bits of advice
I promised some advice about a bike tour through southern Italy. But what I realized as I started writing this is that the advice I would give you is the same for any bike tour, anywhere. But here goes:
- Talk to the locals. You're guaranteed to dispel loneliness, at the very least. But more often you'll learn about the best places to eat, hear an interesting story, see things that aren't in any guidebook, and maybe even get invited for dinner.
- Keep your itinerary and schedule open. If you're planning a 10-daybike tour, make it a route you can do in 7 or 8 days. This leaves you time for delays problems, and also for the unexpected discoveries that are more likely still
- Just go for it.
If you really need more information before you're ready to down your first shot of limoncello, check out the rest of my blog.
If you're among the committed "inner circle" of bikers interested in bike touring through southern Italy, you've already heard the news.
Over the last few months a number of my business clients have been unable to pay me. These are good people, but they're waiting to get paid by their clients, who in turn are not getting the cash flow they need from their customers.
It's the same old story you've heard more than enough times over the last couple of years. "Shit rolls downhill," is how one of my clients describes the phenomenon.
I'll be okay, but I realized that I'm in no position to do the planned via Appia bike tour this spring. Alas!
Embrace the uphill struggle
The downhill metaphor has reminded me of the joy of an uphill climb. These are tough times, but it's good to feel the resistance of the road, the strength of your quads in defiance of gravity, the heady confidence that you're almost at the top. It's good to be climbing.
Now that I've had to postpone my ambitious international bike ride, I'm taking time to explore more of the biking possibilities right here at home. There's a strong biking community in LA, and lots of great places to ride. This spring I'll be riding close to home, but I'll still be touring and traveling, even if it's just a trek to the next county.
Life has its hills and headwinds. Rejoice in it, for they make you stronger. I'll see you in Italy next year, but in the meantime, enjoy whatever steep heights you're climbing.
If you've done this already, I congratulate you--and I have a little bit of envy too.
It feels like every aspect of life--your work, your family, your health, your dreams, your passions are strong wires pulling you in different directions, competing for your time and energy. There's a tug of war going on, and usually when you try to enhance one part of your life there's a sacrifice or a trade-off somewhere else.
But what if your life could be a wheel? You're the hub, the different things that pull on you are the spokes, and if you get them integrated you have a perfect, smooth-spinning wheel?
This isn't just vague theory, I'm finding ways of making it happen. I'll share some of these if there's an interest. But what about you? Leave a comment if you've found ways that biking can enhance other parts of your life, and that life can enhance your biking.
You've no doubt heard the frightening news these past two weeks about the outbreak of swine flu.
Luckily the danger seems to be subsiding, even while the World Health Organization is still debating whether or not we have a pandemic on our hands.
Still, there are a few things you should know about riding a bike and the way it affects your resistance to disease.
First the good news. Obviously, if you spend time on a crowded bus or subway, crammed up close to people who are coughing and sneezing, touching the rail that hundreds of other people have touched...well, you get the picture.
If you commute on a bike instead, you've got your own personal space, and you won't have a lot of sick people breathing their germs in your face. It that's not a good enough reason to ride your bike to work, then here's some more.
There's mounting evidence that regular, moderate exercise boosts your immune system. While you're biking to work, or anywhere else, you're setting off a lot of changes inside your body that make it harder for germs to get a foothold.
I'll spare you all the technical stuff, but if you want to know more, here's the link to an article about the health benefits of bike exercise.
But that doesn't mean you should go out and do a double century every day. The other thing the research has shown is that overtraining can actually have the opposite effect, and weaken your immune system.
In other words, take it easy, but don't be idle.
The broad use of antibiotics, overcrowding as more people move to cities around the globe, the transportation of food and animals from continent to continent, and general environmental degradation are having an impact. We're breeding superbugs that are more infectious and harder to fight.
Riding a bike is one way to help restore some sanity and balance to the world. It's a big first step in creating a sustainable future for humanity.
At the very least, it will keep you much better equipped to deal with the hazards of an uncertain future.
Ride on, and keep your spirits up!
I'm fleshing out the details for next year's bike tour of via Appia. A lot of people have been emailing me about where, exactly to ride, so here's the basic gist of it. If you're not coming with us next year, you can connect the dots and have a good basis for your own southern Italy bike tour:
Day 1--Rome to Ariccia. This is a slow, easy route that gives you time to enjoy the Appian Way Regional Park. It's worth spending most of your day siteseeing, even if you only ride 15 miles.
Day 2--Ariccia to Terracina. Another short but scenic route. We're going to veer off the Appia and go through the Circeo National Park. More trees, fewer cars, and we'll still get to Terracino in time to check out the Temple of Jupiter in Anxur
Day 3--Ride in the mountains with the Terracina Cycling Club. I can't promise this will happen, but I made friends with several local bikers in Terracina on my last bike tour. I'm hoping we can stash our panniers for a day and ride around in the mountains near Itri and Fondi with the locals. The weather should be perfect, and we'll be greeted with bright silver-green olive trees and wildflowers in every color imaginable.
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Day 4--Terracina to Minturno. This is a scenic ride through the mountains, passing another park where a section of the Appian way has been restored. As we come down the mountains towards Formia we'll pass the so-called "Tomb of Cicero," although Cicero is almost certainly not buried there. I'll tell you the story when we get to it. Minturno is a fascinating town with a lot of interesting archeological sites.
Day 5--Siteseeing in Minturno. We'll give our legs a rest as we camp out on the beach and spend most of the day checking out the remains of the ancient Rpman city of Minturnae and the 3 bridges that cross the river into Campagna. If you've got the energy, you can ride up to the medieval hill town of Minturno proper for breathtaking views of land and sea, or hike the swampy backcountry to the legendary Ponte Degli Aurunci.
Day 6--Minturno to Santa Maria Capua Vetere. This won't be a very interesting ride, but we'll pass through the city of Capua, home of the nicest people in the world, and on to the site of the original Capua. This was where gladiators were trained, and was the beginning of Spartacus' famous rebellion. Lost of Amphitheaters and old Roman ruins. Can't get enough of 'em!
Day 7--Detour to Benevento. We're going to circle around north of the traditional via Appia route to avoid a boring drudge of slow heavy traffic and industrial wasteland. Instead we'll ride through some mountains, and visit the beautiful town of Sant'Agatha dei Goti. We'll probably spend the night in an agriturismo spot outside Benevento.
Day 8, 9, 10--Over the Apennines. There are a lot of possible routes over the Apennine mountains, and the scholars are all in disagreement on where the via Appia actually ran. I'm still looking into lodging opportunities. This will to be one of the most memorable parts of the trip, so I want to get it just right! We'll end up around Venosa or Gravina--both places we're going to spend some time.
Day 11--The Sasse. Throughout the rocky plains of Basilicata and Puglia, people turned to the many caves for shelter, cover, and religion. You'll see some breathtaking frescoes on the living rock in Gravina and Matera. We'll probably even get to spend the night in furnished caves (with the addition of beds, electricity, and running water).
Day 12--Taranto. Back on the coast of the ionian sea, we'll get to relax, eat, and maybe even check out some more Roman ruins if you're not tired of them.
Day 13--Taranto to Brindisi. This last, easy ride includes a stop halfway for some hand-made gelato in the fortress town of Oria. We'll have time for some photo-ops at the pillar that marks the end of the via Appia, and we'll top off the day sharing some well-earned food and wine with fellow travelers at a hostel nearby.
Day 14--Brindisi to Rome. Yep, it's weird backtracking all the way. I'm going to try to bike at least part of the way back on the via Appia-Traiana if you want to come with me.