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.
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 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.
The first time I tried to bike the entire via Appia, I wanted to be as faithful as humanly possible to the original roadbed, even though local archaeologists and history buffs insisted this could not be done. They were only partly right.
I'm getting ready for a new bike tour next week, roughly following El Cammino Real, the Royal Highway, which is (or was) California's Appian Way. But when I did my research, I learned something interesting that maybe should have been obvious.
There never was a single road.
Max Kurillo and Erline Tuttle wrote a book about this route, the efforts of historians to preserve it, and the bells that mark the way. They also made an important point that El Cammino Real is more of a corridor than an actual road.
There's a general swathe along the California coast where people traveled consistently along footpaths, trails, riverbeds, and (much much later) primitive roads. It changed its course like a river in a broad valley, and one voyager's footprints could easily be overgrown or swept away at high tide. The route was never marked except by the convenience of each individual traveler.
I would add that the most accurate reconstruction we know of today essentially follows the 101 Freeway, and choosing this as your bike route would just give you a miserable bike tour without a chance to experience the real California.
Ditto for via Appia, as I quickly learned. In some places the route is better known (if only because the ancient Romans were more anal than the colonial Spaniards) but it's not always the best way to travel. The key, even thousands of years ago, was to follow the general area.
In Rome, I did as the Romans do. I was true to the Appian Way most of the time, visited all the ancient cities and ruins and Roman temples. But I also detoured when it was a choice between a park and a freeway. I stayed at agriturismi, which are more like the lodging a traveler would have found along the via Appia in ancient Roman times. I talked to people, took hikes, ate at mom-and-pop restaurants and drank with the locals at their favorite bars.
Tracing the Royal Highway next week, I'll stay in the corridor, but I won't worry too much about whether or not I'm bicycling over Portola's footprints. I'll visit the missions, taste a lot of wine, swim and camp at many beaches, talk to farmers and ranchers, and prove that what's just off the 101 is far more interesting than what used to be on it.
My original intent was to tour the missions. But after I started reading a few books about the missions and their history, I saw that there are far more interesting things to see and do on a bike tour. I'm looking forward to this, and I hope I'll have something worthwhile to tell.
This is the coolest thing since I first removed my training wheels. You can go to Google Maps, select "Get Directions" and in the options down below you can ask for directions by bicycle. Yay!
This is still a new thing. Google warns there may be dangerous roads on the bike routes, not to mention unmapped bikeways. And of course, the most direct bike route isn't always the most interesting bike route, even if it may be the safest.
The ailing BikeMetro offered more, at least for Los Angeles, because it let you factor in your tolerance for hills and traffic.
But if you're looking for a basic bike ride from point A to point B, especially in an urban environment with a lot of traffic, this is a good way to start and you can do your own "research" and exploration on the pavement.