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Last night that venerable Italian boot gave me a solid kick in the head. "Use this, you fool!" it said to me. Here's a great way to boost your memory, using the shape and layout of different places.

Ask almost anyone to find Italy on a map of Europe and they can do it.

It's shaped like a boot.

Arch of Trajan Italy bike tour
Arch of Trajan. Celebrate your triumphs!

Last night that venerable Italian boot gave me a solid kick in the head. "Use this, you fool!" it said to me. Here's a great way to boost your memory, using the shape and layout of different places.

Let's say you're taking a biochemistry exam, and you have to memorize the different groups. That's a hard task, so let's turn it into something easy.

Let's say you have to walk to your friend's house. Your friend only lives a few blocks away, and you've walked there once already. You know the way. After just one try.

Your brain is very good at finding its way around. Your ancestors were walking back from the lake to the cave 10,000 years ago, and you've inherited their skill.

Now let's apply that skill to learn biochemistry. Here's how it works.

Imagine that walk to your friends house. There are certain landmarks you'll see along the way. All you have to do is attach each biochemistry group to one of those landmarks.

For instance, one of the houses you pass has a big cardboard box on the porch. You imagine a car speeding around the corner, crashing into the box. The car-box. The carboxyl group. You could even imagine the car spews carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and a boxer comes along and punches the driver in the face.

The more personal, vivid, and strange your images, the more likely you'll remember them. Let's move on.

As you're walking, you pass a chain link fence. You could imagine it is a long chain of smaller molecules, a polymer. I like to picture it as DNA. Then a guy (or a girl) comes along and chains his/her bike to the fence. The cyclist uses a very strange method to lock up the bike, involving a whole group of locks. Method, methyl. The methyl group is attaching to the DNA molecule.

You get the idea, I hope. I'm using this to memorize all the Roman emperors. For me, that's tougher than biochemistry. How can you use this?

  • As a checklist before your bike tour, to make sure you don't leave anything behind
  • As a reminder of crossroads and important sites on your bike route
  • To remember names of people you meet on a bike tour
  • If you can't get to a journal or blog, this could help you remember the highlights of your trip so you can share them later on

I'm memorizing the Roman emperors because I want to be an expert on via Appia, the ancient Roman road that ran from Rome to Brindisi. I biked the entire route, and I'm planning another trip in a year or so. I'm also publishing a book about via Appia this year.

If you want to hear more about these things, including where to find the book or how to join me on the next tour, all you have to do is sign up for my email list below. I'll never share your email with anyone.



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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. Roman monument on via Appia

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.

FaceBook: https://www.facebook.com/AppiaBike
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If you want to get the latest updates on the book, the journey, and lots of juicy bits on how to be the architect of your own fortune, sign up here:




Thanks for reading!

Jacob

Could this be the answer to all of my dreams, or would I just die of heat stroke?

Ponte degli Aurunci arch
One of the 21 arches of the Ponte degli Aurunci--the Aurunci Bridge. Photo copyright Jacob Bear

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.

Via Appia Antica at Minturno. Photo: copyright Jacob Bear
Via Appia Antica at Minturno. Photo: copyright Jacob Bear

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.

Shaded road to Aurunci bridge
The Old Road leading to the Aurunci bridge. Photo: copyright Jacob Bear

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.



Try it. For the first few day's you'll feel like Einstein. You never knew you were this creative, did you? I don't think James Altucher has ever done a bike tour, but bike touring adds a powerful twist to his most important secret.

James Altucher is a genius. He's an acknowledged chess master, the author of several books, a speaker on TED Talks, he's produced shows for HBO, and he's gone from poverty to making millions of dollars from his ideas.

I want to be just like him. Lucky for me, he's written a book on how to do it called Choose Yourself!

via Appia gravina fountainI don't think James Altucher has ever done a bike tour, but bike touring adds a powerful twist to his most important secret.

If you do nothing else, according to Altucher, you must take care of your physical, emotional, and spiritual health and then do one more thing every day: Write down 10 new ideas.

It's the ten ideas that lead to greatness. After a year, you'll have 3,650 ideas. There's got to be at least one of them that will make you rich, famous, or happy.

Try it. For the first few day's you'll feel like Einstein. You never knew you were this creative, did you?

After a few weeks, though, your ideas start to look the same, feel the same. And it's no surprise. On most days you more or less follow the same routine, think about the same things, talk to the same people, go to the same places.

But once in a while something new will happen, you'll go to somewhere you don't normally go, talk to someone interesting, read a book or watch a movie that really impressed you. Suddenly your ideas will speed off in new directions.

Shift Gears!

I call this the Roman phenomenon. As the ancient Roman empire expanded, the people were exposed to new languages and cultures. New foods. Exotic landscapes. They built temples to new gods, and raised monuments inspired by the things they saw and did far from home.

The vast potential empire of your mind works in the same way. As you expand your experience, you have more to draw upon in your ideas. You become more creative.

You probably already know from experience that few things goose your creativity like a bike tour.

You see new places in a way that few people ever get to do. When something goes wrong (and it often does), you have to exercise your imagination and come up with a new plan, figure out where to sleep, maybe even do an emergency repair without the right parts or tools.

I recommend following the daily practices of Choose Yourself! Especially if you like bike touring. Your innate creativity, combined with a tour, creates a powerful mix that hasn't been tested yet. It might be dangerous.

Use your powers for good. I think you're destined for extraordinary things.



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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.



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This is how the via Appia goes for most of the trip. If you want to keep your tour simple and easy, you can just follow the modern State Road SS7 all the way to Brindisi. But I always intended to have more than just a simple tour.

This is a rough draft of 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 never be published, and I will never share it with outside parties)

Appian Way bike route in ItalyI wake up in a field. My skin is sticky from yesterday’s sweaty ride, and the fresh dew on the grass reminds me of steaming showers and bare feet on clean tile floors.

I pack up my panniers while fog blots out the sun.

After my sulfuric drink the day before, I wandered about until I saw a small signpost that said, “Via Appia Antica.” An arrow pointed to a path that went off the road and down into a gulch.

I followed this path to a stretch of the familiar basalt stones that the Romans used. For the next few miles I rattled past fields of tomatoes and artichokes. Grape leaves waved at me from thick vines as I rode by.

Sometimes this section of Roman pavement disappeared and became a modern asphalt road, but that’s the only thing that really changed.

This is how the via Appia goes for most of the trip. If you want to keep your tour simple and easy, you can just follow the modern State Road SS7 all the way to Brindisi. But I always intended to have more than just a simple tour.

 I rode across the modern viaduct in Ariccia, looking in vain but not too hard for the ancient one. Towards the end of the day I searched for a campground but most of them are clustered along the coast. There are decent bed-and-breakfast inns throughout Ariccia, Albano, and other small towns in Lazio.

But I was feeling inspired to follow in the path of Seneca, who often bragged about his simple mode of travel. When traveling the Appian Way, Seneca would, “put my mattress upon the ground, and lay upon it.”
So I found a field off the road and without even laying upon a mattress, slept where I was for the night.

This is a rough draft of a chapter from my new book, Tutto Nascosto: A Bike Ride Down the Appian Way.



This is the real Roman road. Huge hexagons of basalt rattle underneath my wheels. This choppy road tapers off into the Alban hills along the horizon. These are the same stones that ancient Romans crossed—I keep getting stuck in the ruts left by their chariot wheels.

This post is a chapter from my new book, Tutto Nascosto: A bike ride down the Appian Way. I'm publishing the book a chapter at a time on this blog, and a Kindle-friendly version will be available later this year. If you're interested in getting the complete book, leave a comment at the end of this post, and I'll make sure you get a copy(only I will be able to see your email, and I'll never share it with anyone else)

“It’s good for the bones,” an old man says in Italian as he fills his bottles from an old fountain. The bubbling water appears carbonated and smells like sulfur.

After filling a number of plastic jugs and packing them into an old and dented Fiat, he gestures to me. “Bevi!” he commands me to drink.

So I do as the Romans do. I follow his lead, fill my bottle, and gulp down a few swallows. It tastes like the mineral-rich sparkling water that shows up at your table in expensive bars and restaurants all over Italy and the world. Drink some when you pass this way. It’s good for your bones.

I began my bike tour on a Sunday, and there’s a good reason to do it this way. Every Sunday the City of Rome shuts down the roads in the historic center of the town. Bikers and pedestrians take over the Via dei Fori Imperiali, street musicians fill the sunny air with music, and vendors’ carts filled with good things to eat rattle across the cobblestones.

Fori Imperiali runs through the forums, connecting the big white monument at Piazza Venezia to the Colosseum. This was Mussolini’s parade ground, and it’s a great way to start a bike tour, heading to Rome’s famous icon with the imperial forums on your left and the republic’s forums on the right, dodging tourists and locals enjoying the scene.

Two thousand three hundred and seventeen years ago, most of this wasn’t here. The only highway to the south of Rome was a series of well-trodden dirt paths, and this land was the domain of a complex league of tribes known as the Samnites.

This was the Rome in which a cantankerous Roman named Appius Claudius was elected Censor and ordered to “guard the public morals.”

Claudius used his position to upset the status quo. He appointed the sons of freed slaves to the Senate, a privilege reserved for wealthy landowners. He gave administrative positions to poor and landless citizens, and broke the power of lawyers by making copies of the sacred “Twelve Tables” available to the public.

But the deed for which Appius Claudius will always be remembered is the construction of the road that bears his name.

At the time, it seemed like a good idea. The military and political situation to the south was precarious. Rome had established a loose peace with the local Samnites, but Roman citizens had begun to colonize the land. Perhaps Claudius knew that a permanent, all-weather road was the key to stability.

A road would allow the movement of armies and supplies to support the colonies and subdue the Samnites, if necessary. The added commerce would help both sides prosper, so that war would be less desirable. And the road could eventually be expanded as an artery for control of the entire Italian peninsula.

Appius got his road, ensuring that his name would last for millennia. One thousand six hundred and eighty-eight years later, I stepped on the Appian Way for the first time.

ruts from wagon wheels on ancient via Appia in Minturno

If you’re looking for the via Appia Antica, start out by heading southeast from the Colosseum, past the baths of Caracalla. You’ll go through a busy 6-lane road past a park called “Piazza di Porta Capena.” This was the original start of the Appian Way, and you’ll see a small bit of bricks and concrete—all that remains of the original gate.

When the road branches in three directions, take the middle.
 
The first ten miles outside of Rome are a laundry list of tourist attractions that I’ve visited too many times and never enough. Everyone from Saint Peter to Mark Anthony to Spartacus passed this way. Jesus himself is said to have left his footprints nearby.

The road here is lined with stone walls, giving you less than 2 feet of shoulder space. Cars rush me head on as they try to pass each other. I will myself, my bike, and my panniers to become pizza crust flat as I dodge cars and buses and even an ambulance wailing its siren.

At the Gate of Saint Sebastian, where the Appian Way officially leaves Rome today, there’s a museum where you can step up onto the top of the wall and patrol the battlements like a defender of old.

But don’t get carried away. This is where things really start to get interesting, and if you want to avoid the baby strollers and dogs, take a short cut through (actually over) the catacombs.

Once you’re in the park, the cars disappear but the road gets rougher. People relax in the grass along either side of via Appia. A group of kids playing soccer all stop to watch me pass, and a bunch of them give me the thumbs up sign.

This is the real Roman road. Huge hexagons of basalt rattle underneath my wheels. This choppy road tapers off into the Alban hills along the horizon. These are the same stones that ancient Romans crossed—I keep getting stuck in the ruts left by their chariot wheels. 

Along the first ten miles via Appia treats you to a garish display of tombs and monuments to rich dead people. But somehow, being on the Appia makes you feel alive. Archeologists will never finish scraping the ancient world out of the soil and gluing it back together, but there’s always an energy you can feel when you’re alone in these  places.

In 1998 I stumbled into the park, slowly recovering from a late night wine-filled orgy with Romans, French, and ex-pats from just about every English-speaking country on the map. A warm spring breeze soothed the pounding in my head. As I wandered past old statues and crumbling walls, Roman ghosts promised they would haunt me until I fulfilled a quest.

I’m not an especially big fan of roads. I once got in a lot of trouble for protesting the government’s effort to build a road through a pristine wilderness in Idaho. If I had lived in ancient Rome, would I have tried to block the Appian way? Maybe. Hannibal did it.

The preservation and survival of old things is always a big question. But the remains of ancient Rome remind us what is best and worst in human nature. That’s the whole reason the Renaissance happened.

Two thousand years ago, a crazy wealth of power was concentrated in the hands of a small political body. The result was corruption and excess and horrible misdeeds. But Rome also created opportunities that had never existed before. Some people rose to the challenge and discovered greatness.

When you follow via Appia on your own power, you’ll feel the spark of your own potential for good or bad. The Appian way is one of those very old reminders of what we can do—and it’s a warning of the same.

If you ever come this way, you’ll want to become part of this millennium-long story. Add your voice to it in a personal way. I did. I have my own way of bonding with a place. I caress it from the back of a bicycle. And on that haunting, hung-over springtime walk long ago, I knew that someday I would ride my bike from one end of the Appian way to the other.

It took me seven years to gather up the time, the money, and most of all the confidence to make the trip. But the idea was never far from my mind.

Seven years later, I followed a series of roads out of the park, roughly following the old route through suburbs, farmland, and vineyards. The air smelled like sulfur, and I found an old fountain spewing a bubbly, smelly water. An old man told me this water was good for the bones, so I drank to the skeleton of an ancient road that was going to show me her hidden secrets, and unveil some of my own.



I plan to bike as many ancient Roman roads as possible in my lifetime. If you want to see some professional photos, video, or history of the via Appia and other ancient Roman roads, check this out:

http://roman-roads.blogspot.com/

5

Somewhere between Terracina and Formia, you'll find it. There's a stark pillar along the side of a winding mountain road. I assume it's either a milestone or the remains of one of the many monuments that line the Appian way.

Italy bike tour Appia milestone ItriThe bike ride to this pillar is phenomenal, and there are at least three good reasons to make the trip. First is the "Tomb of Cicero" at one end of the bike route. Most experts agree that this isn't the really the tomb of Cicero, but it's near the spot where he died and that's enough for most people.

Better than Cicero's tomb, the bike ride from Terracina to Formia passes through a park which includes the original remains of the via Appia, as well as several ancient Roman and Medieval buildings.

In fact, if you're riding your bike on the main road, you'll pass through the park several times. The road winds up the mountain in endless switchbacks, while the Appian Way shoots up in the classical straight line, defying gravity just as easily as she defied the Pontine marshes. You can ride your bike up this way if you choose to. I didnt.

But my favorite thing about this section of the Appian bike tour is the town of Itri. I hadn't meant to stay there, but I was intrigued by the scenery, the friendly locals, and the castle. After taking a long hot shower and stuffing my gullet with fresh pizza, I spent hours wandering around the dark, twisting alleys of the immense fortress on the hill overlooking Itri.

I can't tell you much about the history of the castle, but I'll introduce you to someone who can. On our next bike tour through southern Italy, one of my local contacts has offered to hook us up with an archeologist in Itri who can give a tour of the place. I asked him how much something like that would cost and he said, "some cafe in a bar, I assume, but not more..."

So if you're up for an expert tour of Itri for the price of a cup of coffee, not to mention a zillion other great experiences that you can read about all over my blog, get in touch with me and join us on this trip. The dates are May 15th-June 1st 2010, approximate cost is $1500 plus airfare and bike (rental, purchase, or transportation of your own rig), and I'll be happy to answer your other questions by phone or email.

3

Last week I had a conference call to hash out some bike tour details with my fellow riders. If you're on my email list you'll get a message about this. If you're not, but you'd like to be on the list, just shoot me an email: jacob "at" bicyclefreedom.com.

An actual road sign in Puglia, Italy. Which way to Corato? I asked a farmer, and he said "straight ahead."
An actual road sign in Puglia, Italy. Which way to Corato? I asked a farmer, and he said "straight ahead."

We're going to be touring from  May 16 through June 1st, 2010. On June 2nd we'll be driving a rented van with our bikes back to Rome.

This is longer than originally planned because we're not ending the tour in Brindisi. We'll head south to Lecce, which is a beautiful city with a rich history down in the very heel of the Italian boot. I've never been there, but an Italian I met on the plane during my last trip told me it's "The Florence of Southern Italy."

The longer schedule is also going to give us a lot of time for a long, leisurely trip, with a couple extended stops along the way for rest and laundry.

I'm hoping to arrange a group ride with the Terracina Cycling Club, and a couple of archeologists in Itri and Aeclanum may give us special tours. We're also going to stopover for 2 nights in the Venosa/Gravina/Matera area so we'll have plenty of time to see the sasse (beautiful caves that were used as homes and churches for centuries) and several other amazing sites that are off the usual tourist path.

After talking it over with a few people, it seems to make sense not to camp on this tour. We won't save a whole lot of money by camping, because the areas where camping is available tend to have the nicer and less-expensive lodging options.  We'll be staying in agriturismo spots most of the time.

Expect to spend an average of 60 euro per evening for lodging. This will usually include breakfast and sometimes dinner. (Keep in mind that the portions will be very small by bicycle touring standards!)

You can save money by sharing a room. I'm willing to take on a room-mate, as long as you don't snore! Let me know if this interests you.

It looks like there won't be enough people to get group discounts on anything, so I'll leave it to you to take care of your own plane tickets and bikes.

If you bring your own bike, we will have a van so you can carry it back to Rome at the end of the tour. I'm planning to either rent a bike there or buy a cheap one at the Roman flea market, Porta Portese. I'll help you with this, if it's what you prefer.

That's it for now. Keep in touch, and I'll see you in Italy!