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.
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.
You know the risk. Get out there on a bike, and you could be hit by a car. You could catch a wheel in a storm sewer, crack your head against the concrete, and suffer permanent brain damage or death.
Add the risks of poisonous snake bites, death by heat exhaustion, heart attacks, being shot, and a zillion other dangers. Why would you ever go out on a bike ride? What are you thinking?
You’re thinking in a probabilistic way. All of those things could happen, but the probability of any of them happening is so tiny that you can probably ignore it.
You could bike every day for the rest of your life and probably never have to encounter any of the dangers we just mentioned.
Probabilistic thinking is one of the things that puts you on your bike in the first place, and it can serve you well in many other aspects of your life.
There are many people out there who might like to bike more, but they live in terror of the risks. They’re making an assumption. There are two possible outcomes: A) You could have a wonderful time, or B)You could die.
For the person who is afraid of a bike ride, both A and B are equally probable. They’re suffering from a big misunderstanding.
If there were equal odds of enjoying a good ride or dying a horrible death, you’d probably think twice before going on a bike ride. But the odds are not equal. Probabilistic thinking enables you to enjoy your bike ride, knowing that the chances of a fatality are somewhere in the ballpark of being struck by lightning or winning the lottery.
Now let’s apply this probabilistic thinking to some other part of your life.
There’s something you want to do, but you’re afraid to do it. But what are you really afraid of? What are the odds of that terrible thing actually happening?
I’ll give you a few examples. I used to be afraid of singing in front of people. I thought I would sound terrible and people would boo me off the stage.
This wouldn’t be such a bad thing, but let’s assume it would be the end of the world. It’s still worth singing, because the odds of having an audience that rude and boorish is minuscule. If you ever sing in public, most of the audience will be fans, friends, and family who love you.
What are you afraid of? Talking to that good-looking person, or finally asking them out?
Okay, here the odds of success might be against you (but then again, you may be surprised). But the odds of a really terrible outcome are still small enough to ignore. Worst-case scenario, this person might politely turn you down.
Unless you have really bad judgement, your immediate future probably won’t include a drink in your face, a restraining order, or even a terribly awkward moment.
Now let’s look at even bigger things.
Have you ever thought about creating something big for the world, something that might change your life and other lives as well? Maybe you’ve got a book you want to write, an idea for a new game or an entire business. Maybe you’re thinking about a long and dangerous journey.
Here’s where you apply your probabilistic thinking skills.
Whatever you want to do, you can probably think of several bad outcomes. But how bad are these outcomes, and what are the chances that they’ll really happen?
Most of the dangers you list will fall into one of these two categories. First, they’re not so bad. You can live with them, and you’ll be able to dust yourself off and carry on. Or second, they are pretty grave and serious, but the probability that they’ll ever happen is low.
Once you understand probability, you can take on challenges that may have seemed much harder before. Buy a house. Go after a better job, or start your own business. Travel somewhere you’ve always wanted to go. Find the love of your life, or at least test-drive a few candidates.
Since you’ve involved yourself in biking, and maybe bike touring, you already have mad skills when it comes to probabilistic thinking.
Use what you’ve got, and soon you’ll start getting all the other things that you want out of life.
The Janapar Grant was started by Tom Allen, after his own multi-year bike tour around the world (you can watch the film by the same name here
The applications are being accepted "In early 2016," but as of today all they have is a form where you can leave your email if you're interested.
All I can say is, if you are between the ages of 18 and 25, live in the UK, and don't have any work-related conflicts, you should be interested.
If you are accepted, you'll get all the equipment you need: bike, tools, panniers, tent, sleeping gear, and cook set. Better yet, you'll be mentored by some of the best-known names in bike touring, including Emily Chappell, Tom Allen, and several others.
If I qualified, I would jump on this. Just the application itself will get you thinking about your trip, planning, and sorting out both your route and your motivation.
Alas, I'm not British, and I'm nearly double the maximum eligible age. Still, old geezer that I am, whenever I set off on another journey I feel the same excitement and joy that I felt in my twenties--maybe more. Bike touring is a lifelong passion. But if you're reading this you probably already knew that.
By the way, what would happen if you didn't see this blog post and missed out on your chance to apply for the Janaper Grant?
Lucky for you, whenever I have a really important post, especially one that's going to improve the quality of your life, I email it to everyone on my tips list. If you're not on that list, you could have already missed out! Be sure to sign up below, or in the box to your right.
You can upgrade yourself and your situation by simply deciding on a new "normal."
There are probably things you're not happy about, but you've been silently accepting them for a long time. They've become normal. What happens if you chose a new "normal?"
Right away, you start thinking about how to make improvements. Things you took for granted are no longer acceptable. All kinds of clever ideas pop into your mind. And you feel a surge of energy to start implementing some of those ideas.
If you've done much bike touring, you're probably able to travel great distances on your own power. Very few people would consider this normal. You've changed the rules, and you're in good company. This is the secret to many great accomplishments.
When Appius Claudius built the Appian Way, he had to take power by redefining normal. He broke so many rules that Roman historians complained about him, and his co-consul resigned in frustration.
But we still know his name today. And he set the stage for game-changers like Julius Caesar.
In fact, all of the extravagant debauchery of the later Roman emperors was made possible because each emperor went beyond what was considered "normal."
How to Change Your Life in 5 Seconds
You can upgrade yourself and your situation by simply deciding on a new "normal." Your brain is an incredibly powerful problem-solving machine.
There are probably things you're not happy about, but you've been silently accepting them for a long time. They've become normal. What happens if you choose a new "normal?"
Right away, you start thinking about how to make improvements. Things you took for granted are no longer acceptable. All kinds of clever ideas pop into your mind. And you feel a surge of energy to start implementing some of those ideas.
Here are three steps to help you get started:
Step 1: Define your new Normal
About a year ago, I asked myself, "Is it normal to sleep less than 6 hours a night and try to keep functioning by constant caffeine infusions?"
I had been reading about the bad effects that sleep deprivation can have on your brain, your memory, reflexes, the immune system, muscle growth, speed, and even hormone levels.
At the time, sleep deprivation was my Normal, and a good-night's sleep was the exception. I had to reverse this.
Step 2: Enforce the new Normal
For a month I made sure I slept for 7-8 hours every night. Some chores went unfinished. Some friends and family members may have felt neglected. But I was creating a new Normal.
When you enforce the new normal, you won't have to be a fanatic about it forever. Just get it established at the beginning.
Step 3: Don't stress the exceptions
Now I can go without sleep once in a while if I need to get things done. It's the exception, not the rule. The next day I'll feel tired and weak, irritable and confused, sometimes even nauseated. But then I remind myself that I used to feel that way all the time. It was normal. Now it's just weird.
Let's say you decide to bike a century twice a week, or study Spanish for 2 hours every evening. Once it becomes part of your routine, you don't have to worry if you miss out every once in a while. It will be easy to get back into the swing of things, because you've made it the 'normal' thing to do.
Challenge the Normal
What do you consider normal that you should re-examine?
Is it "normal" to have a job that keeps you from spending time with people and activities you care about? Shouldn't it be normal to give yourself a full month every now and then to go on an extended long bike tour? Is it normal to have back pain, to eat junk food, to watch TV shows that don't really entertain you?
Are you hurting yourself by what you think is normal? Is your Normal holding you back? Who told you this was normal? Are you required to spend your life according to someone else's Normal?
I challenge you to redefine your Normal. It's a beautiful and terrifying power, and it's yours. You can do anything. I'm almost finished with a book about bike touring on the Appian Way. If you would like to read the entire book, or even join me on a future bike tour of via Appia, subscribe below and I'll keep you up-to-date. Your email will not be published, and I will never share it with anyone.
Note: There's a free prize at the end of this post!
Are you looking for a new bike ride?
Here's a way you can have a good ride anytime, anyplace, anywhere in the world. Try this technique and you'll never get bored. You'll get some good exercise, make new discoveries, and... well, I'll save the third thing, the big bonus prize, the absolute number one reason you should try this out, for the end of the post.
First of all, try these steps (and don't forget the free prize at the end of this post):
Open up Google maps or some other mapping browser and look up your own address.
Put it right in the center of your screen.
Zoom out once or twice. The more ambitious you are, the more you'll zoom out
Figure out a tour that takes you through the safest, most challenging, most scenic areas on your screen. If you don't know what they are, go out and find them!
It's up to you what you'll include in step 4, but here are few things that come to mind: Coffee shops, parks, museums, places you're not supposed to ride but you'll do it anyway, steep hills, your favorite place.
I just made this up. As far as I know, nobody else has talked about it. Maybe there's a reason for that.
Try it out, and tell me what you think. I'll share mine in a future post.
Now for your free prize:
I'm reading a book called The Rise of Superman by Steven Kotler. It's about how to achieve "flow," a very powerful state of mind where you can do things that are normally out of human reach.
Think riding your mountain bike off the roof of a skyscraper, landing on a slanted roof farther down, which you use as a ramp to propel yourself into the air where you do a double backflip before opening your parachute and gliding to a perfect landing on the front lawn of the Embassy.
Kotler writes about the conditions that can put you in that state of mind in a "normal" day-to-day world. If you get there, you can move beyond your limits as a musician, photographer, dancer, or stock trader. You can take something you're good at and become extraordinary in a short amount of time.
One of the key conditions is novelty. There's a reason the best athletes, artists, and professionals are always pushing the envelope. Whenever you stimulate your mind with something new, it creates physical, chemical, and electrical changes in your brain and in your entire nervous system.
These changes don't just enable you to do the impossible once. They help you learn faster, so that you can redefine what is possible and what is impossible.
If you start seeking out new bike routes in your old neighborhood, you might discover that you have more energy, or you're communicating with people more easily. You'll think more clearly, even when you're dealing with issues that have nothing to do with bike rides.
When you bike a new route, you're on your way to developing superhuman powers.
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.
Even if you just have a few hours free, you can jump on your bike and have an adventure. There's a small residential road that I had never explored, but on the maps it looked like it continued on for a while.
I had a free afternoon with just about three hours until sundown, so I took a bike ride down the mystery road to see where it would go. It turns out this particular section of Olive street intersects with El Camino Real, the Royal Highway of "New Spain."
I ended up in the historical center of San Gabriel. The road went almost in a straight line to one of the early California missions. People from the San Gabriel Mission went on to found the city of Los Angeles, so this bike ride took me to some of the roots of LA's history.
I even got to see one of the first and oldest grape vines in southern California, and later on I tasted some California wine to celebrate.
If your a biking newbie, this just reinforces the point: It doesn't matter how far you want to ride or how much time you have. Just get on your bike and explore. You'll run into something interesting you've never seen before, or discover a new bike route to places you've already been.