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.
This story has stayed with me over the years, and now I pass it on to you because you should always regard your work as important. When you think about the importance of your work, when you care deeply about the results, you will show up every day full of passion and ready to give 100%.
I was about to start teaching English to a group of kids in southern Italy, but first the director of the school insisted on sharing the local drink and a gem of wisdom.
The people of Puglia make their own limoncino, using the peels of fresh-picked lemons and the strongest grappa they can find. They serve it in a tall, narrow shot glass that looks like a test tube. These glasses are kept in the freezer, along with the limoncino.
The glass was glazed with frost that stuck to my lips for a second. It was like kissing a snowflake, until I tasted the limoncino.
Imagine a box of the finest high-quality gourmet lemon drops you can find. Now dissolve them in vodka. That’s what limoncino is like.
After my shot, I couldn’t stand up for 10 minutes. Which is good, because the Director of the English School had something to tell me.
“Jacob,” she told me, “we have a story here in Cerignola. When we began construction on our duomo, a Cardinal came here to bless the work. While he was here, he spoke to the common people working in the olive groves and the wheat fields.
When he saw three men building a wall for the duomo, he stopped and asked them what they were doing.
“The first man told the Cardinal, ‘I am laying bricks, Monsignore. It is tiresome work.’
“The Cardinal blessed the worker, saying, ‘May the Lord grant that you never carry a load beyond what you can bear.’
“The second man said, ‘I am earning good silver coins so I can buy a donkey and two goats and give my family a better life.’
“The Cardinal blessed him, ‘May your honest labor bring prosperity to you and your family.’
“Finally the third man put down his trowel. He stood tall and said with great pride, ‘I am building a cathedral for the glory of God and the pleasure of His servants.’
“The Cardinal smiled and said a great prayer for this one, ‘May the Lord give you the power to fulfill the great visions you hold in your heart.’
“Now, Jacob,” she continued, “you have seen the great Duomo we have in the center of Cerignola, the Chiesa del Carmine. It is very big and beautiful for a city as small as ours.
All the men in our story worked on this cathedral, but only one of them understood the importance of his labor.
“A few weeks after the Cardinal’s visit, this third man was pulled aside by one of the engineers. The engineer began to teach him the basic principles of construction.
“Soon he was directing small groups of men in their labor. He earned more money, and was able to go to Naples to study.
“By the time this young man was 35, he was a well-known architect. Important people hired him to oversee the construction of roads, bridges and palaces all over Puglia.
“Do you see, Jacob? All of this happened because he understood that his work was important. Never forget this. Even when you are just teaching children to say ‘Hello’ in English, you are building a cathedral for someone.”
This story has stayed with me over the years, and now I pass it on to you because you should always regard your work as important. You don’t need to be blessed by a Cardinal.
When you think about the importance of your work, when you care deeply about the results, you will show up every day full of passion and ready to give 100%.
Do this enough, and you can build a cathedral.
By the way, this story is why I'm writing a book about misadventures along the via Appia. I'm planning to release it in the second half of 2018, but I could use your help.
You see, I want to offer my favorite readers some incentives for buying my book. I wish I could just give you an all-expense-paid trip to southern Italy. But I'm basically a starving writer, so that's not possible right now.
Instead, what would you like to have as a special bonus? I'm open to almost any ideas. Leave your suggestions in the comments, below.
This story hides a secret to productivity. And it may also be one of the best examples of fiscal responsibility in the history of western civilization.
If you’re ever in Rome, you’ll probably (hopefully) visit the ruins of the Roman Forum.
There, you’ll see a well-preserved temple dedicated to Antoninus Pius and his wife Faustina. Near the top of the temple you’ll see two lines inscribed in travertine marble:
Divo Antonino et
Divae Faustinae Ex S.C.
The story goes that the emperor, Antoninus Pius, deeply loved his wife. When she died, he asked the Senate to make her a goddess, and he built a lavish temple in her honor.
He spared no expense. You can still see the marks left on the pillars by looters who tried to steal the rare cippoline marble.
But they couldn't tear the building down.
In fact, the temple was built so well that it survived through the centuries and was even made into a church. The church was dedicated to San Lorenzo, who may have been martyred on the alter at the base of the temple.
But I'm getting off topic.
On the front of the temple, Antoninus Pius carved the first dedication, “Divae Faustinae Ex S.C.” This means “The Goddess Faustina by Senatorial Decree.”
Some years later, when Antoninus passed away, the Senate was left with the burden of making him a god just like his wife. Her temple had been costly, and the emperor’s own temple would have to be its equal or better.
But then someone had a brilliant idea.
Instead of building a new temple, they simply added a new inscription above the old one: “Divo Antonino et.” The translation: “The God Antoninus and.”
Now the full inscription read:
The God Antoninus and
The Goddess Faustina by Senatorial Decree
The immortal emperor and empress are together for all eternity, while the Roman taxpayers were spared the cost of shiploads of marble and thousands of man-hours of labor. Everyone was happy, except the family who owned the marble quarries.
Build your house with bricks
There’s a lesson here, and it’s not about finding ways to cheap out.
If the Romans had build Faustina a cheap temple, Antoninus would have required a new, better temple.
In other words, this money-saving trick never could have worked if the original temple hadn’t been built as well as it was.
So, the real lesson: If you do something really well, it’s easily worth twice as much as if you do an “okay” job. Spend more time, money, effort up front and you’ll ultimately get twice as much done in half the time at half the price.
Whatever you do in 2018, challenge yourself to make it bigger and better than it needs to be.
Once there was a tiny bar near a bus station in Rome, where an old man made the best cappuccino in the world.
He would drop the saucer on the counter at an angle, so it spun for a few seconds, rattling faster and faster as it settled in front of you. He whipped the steamed milk with a loud clattering flourish, folded it into your coffee with a wire whisk, and poured out the last bit of foam into spiral shapes that would turn into a heart, a smiling face, or the colosseum.
Any barista could use this kind of artistic display to mask a mediocre coffee, but this guy didn’t need to. The cappuccino itself was even better than the performance. Rich flavors arose from a perfect balance of espresso and milk. There was a subtle hint of sweetness, and the temperature was always just right.
This place was too far from my apartment for a daily visit, but I know the owner had a lot of regulars. The maestro would greet many of his visitors by name, and get into long, interesting conversations.
I loved to sit and listen in as I sipped my cappuccino. And I could do it, too, because this was one of the few bars in the center of Rome that didn’t charge you extra for sitting down.
Today the old man has long since retired, and now his bar is just another random place to get average coffee.
I’m telling you about this because you probably know a few hidden gems like this, too. It could be an old reliable hangout where everybody knows your name, or a place where you find silence and solitude, or maybe somewhere you only go every now and then as a special treat.
Cherish these places, because they may not last forever.
I could write an entire book about old bars and cafes up and down the coast of California, places where friendly people laughed and shared jokes, places that have gone out of business. I’ve danced in crowded old buildings to live music that you’ll never hear on Pandora, in buildings are now banks or corporate headquarters, or worse yet chains such as McDonalds or Starbucks.
This is all a smaller ripple in the trend that is reshaping the planet. In my youth I hiked and played in wild forests. I saw the trees cut down and the ground criss-crossed with roads and construction. This happened in my backyard in Illinois, it happened where I went to college, and it’s happened to many of my favorite places.
And what about you? If you’ve been in this world for more than a decade or two, surely a few of your most beloved haunts have disappeared or changed forever.
In Minturno I had a favorite place, a place that was vanishing. What’s different is it became a favorite even before I ever got to see it first-hand.
A book called The Appian Way: A Journey has a photo taken in the early 1970s.
The picture is in black and white, but you can see the sparkle of the leaves in the sunlight. It's easy to imagine the bright colors of flowers basking in the sun. You can feel the breeze, and hear the stalks and leaves whipping in a gentle wind.
But a skeletal arch looks like it's ready to fall down. Broken pieces of marble are hiding in the tall weeds.The earth is slowly absorbing the familiar basalt road bed.
This is the site of the ancient Roman city Minturnae.
People lived here. They felt things. They loved, labored, suffered, thought, and dreamed. Now all that's left of their life is a stone boneyard in a field of wildflowers, and that won't last.
The photo shows the effects of ecological succession. Bits of grass take root in the cracks between the bricks. They die, decompose, and turn into soil that can hold deeper roots and nourish slightly larger plants.
The weather goes to work on the rock, releasing minerals into the soil. Soon bigger plants move in, their seeds carried by birds and wind. These plants attract insects, which become a food source for birds and other animals.
All of this biological activity produces acid and moisture, which slowly wear down the rock and widen the cracks even more.
The land changes from the ground up. Plants, bugs, birds, and their droppings decompose and form more soil. Every trace of human work is slowly dissolved by the ages.
Normally I’m a big fan of this regeneration. It gives me hope for our future. Not just for humanity, but also for the millions of other species who share the world with us. But I wanted to see this lonely, man-made city before nature reclaimed it forever.
The Appian Way: A Journey talks a lot about the natural decay of human monuments. The authors Dora Jane Hamblin and Mary Jane Loeb Grunsfeld spent years driving and hiking along the Appian way. Their verdict on Minturnae, in the 1970s: “It will not last another decade.”
Their photos of Minturnae charmed me into dreaming up a bike tour down the Appian Way. I have to see it, I told myself. Even if all I see is a half-buried pillar like the skeleton of some giant reptile, I have to see it.
But I may already be more than thirty years too late.
I was in a hurry, but I still stopped in Formia for a shot of espresso. I went to lean my bike against the wall outside a cafe, where three old men sat around a table playing dominos. This scene could have taken place back in Itri, or Terracina, or really anywhere in the Mediterranean. The drink in their glasses did not look like coffee.
“Posso?” I asked permission. “Can I leave my bike here?”
“Only if you stay for at least an hour and a half,” one of them joked.
“But I have to go sooner,” I told them in the best Italian I could muster. “I'm looking for the via Appia Antica.”
This caused a flurry of inebriated laughter.
“Ragazzo,” insisted one of the men, “la via Appia Antica e' proprio qui!” and he swept the back of his hand towards the busy street a few yards away. “Via Appia is right here.”
Inside the bar, I bought five tomato and mozzarella tramezzini, triangular sandwiches made of white bread with the crusts cut off. The tomatoes were green. An Italian had once explained to me that green tomatoes keep longer, and they don't make the bread wet. Best of all, they're crisp as lettuce.
I wanted to sit down, talk to the old men some more, and eat my sandwiches here. Everyone I met in Formia was unusually friendly. In fact, it felt like the town didn’t want me to leave. But I was impatient to keep moving.
This quiet, friendly place offered peace, companionship, and good food. This was the real Italy, the country I had called my home for several years. But I barely stopped for a coffee.
That photo of ancient Minturnae, that fear of missing out, that’s why I zipped through Formia and rode hard enough to make my quads burn. I was so close, and I was certain the last glorious marble columns of Minturnae would melt away forever in the next two hours!
By the early afternoon I reached a campsite outside Minturno, the modern town near the ancient city. The couple who ran the campground offered me a coffee and asked about my travels.
I was anxious to find whatever was left of Minturnae, but as we finished our coffee, the husband told me we were close to the river that marks the border between Lazio and Campagna.
Italy is divided into 21 regions, in the same way the USA is divided into states. Lazio is one of these regions, from the ancient “Latium,” the land of the Latins with Rome in the center. The region of Campagna, which just means “countryside,” is best known for Mount Vesuvius.
The Garigliano river separated these two regions, Lazio the Eternal City and a center of civilization, and Campagna the home of nature in all her savage glory.
Over the ages, Italians built half a dozen bridges at across this river. The ancient Roman bridge is now underwater. Today, the Via Appia now runs across a 19th century bridge that was destroyed in World War II and restored in the 1990s. The bridge is suspended by thick black chains, and guarded by a pair of stone Sphinxes.
Just to the west of this bridge, you'll find what’s left of Minturnae.
In the early 1980s, the locals decided to do something about the burglars who were carrying off the remaining stones of ancient Minturnae. Today, the site is protected by a tall steel fence. Skilled and caring hands have restored and protected the place.
It turns out the writers who brought me here were wrong in their predictions. As I followed the river to the site of Minturnae, marble columns and a large amphitheater waved at me from above the shrubs.
Minturno has seen thirty years of economic growth, along with a growing interest in preserving ancient historical relics.This has led to improvements, not destruction. The Appian Way runs on through an expanded and restored Minturnae, which is carefully guarded and proudly promoted.
I gladly paid a few Euros towards the cause, and bought a ticket to walk inside among the ruins. Clean basalt and sun-baked travertine gave off their warmth. Insects scurried along the stones of the amphitheater. I walked the old Appian Way where it passed through Minturnae, complete with deep ruts carved by centuries of wagon wheels.
I should have been thrilled, but I surprised myself.
Here’s the problem. Today we enjoy a level of comfort and convenience that most people couldn’t have imagined a century ago. But we also need mountain bikes, skateboards and all kinds of games to maintain a sense of adventure.
Bike tours are my way of escaping the comfort zone and entering the untethered universe where anything can happen. This beautiful, chaotic place is the real world. It’s unpredictable and dangerous, but going there is a necessity if you want to feel alive.
Reconstructed Minturnae has been tightly insulated from the real world. Gone are the gorgeous, tragic scenes of the old photo images. Instead, ropes and chains guide you along a pathway through the site. A team of experts have designed every inch of it. They dictate exactly where you can walk and exactly what you’ll see.
Minturnae would have been gone in a decade without the help of these archeologists. But when I planned this trip, I had pictured muddy treks in search of unfettered ruins. I had imagined seeing ancient walls and arches without the benefit of a guide or a guardrail.
Minturnae really is gone forever, replaced by a museum. I love museums, but I have to report a sad conclusion to Hamblin and Grunsfeld’s story: Minturnae has fallen victim to the ancient trade-off between freedom and security.
Ask almost anyone to find Italy on a map of Europe and they can do it.
It's shaped like a boot.
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.
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.
This is an excerpt from the draft of a book I'm writing about a bike tour of the Appian Way from Rome, Italy to Brindisi. The full book should be available for download in late 2015. If you'd like a copy, leave a comment with your email and I'll let you know when it is ready. (Your email will not be published and I will never share it with other parties)
After I ride my bike into the hills for a few more miles, I see a huge fortress up ahead to my right. It’s just past sunset, and I know that if I want to explore I’ll have to stay in this area.
Where the road passes to the right of the castle, there’s a small town on my left. It only takes a few minutes to find a decently-priced hotel, and after some questioning I find out there’s good pizza nearby.
The decision is made. The hotel owner barely leaves off the conversation with her friends (all are sitting around a table covered with bread, coffee, and cigarettes) to get me registered, stash my bike in a back room, and welcome me to the town of Itri.
After a hot shower and pizza, some of the locals inform me that this town, Itri, got its name from the Hydra of Greek mythology, which Hercules fought in the swamps nearby. Hydra is often pronounced “Idra” or “Itra” in Greek and Italian, leading to the name.
Alessandra, who served me my pizza, told me that the castle was built up over a much older Roman edifice. There were a lot of battles over this spot, because of its strategic position on a mountain pass between two sea ports. She said the name of the town comes from the Latin word “Iter,” which means the route or the way, because of Itri’s placement on the via Appia. When I ask her about the word “Idra” she laughs and says, “That’s just mythology.”
When I’m done eating I wander around the castle in the dark. Much of the palace was demolished by allied bombing during World War II, but it’s still a vast labyrinth inhabited by scores of wild cats. Every friendly “Meow” sounds something like an Italian greeting of “Ciao.”
But the dark passageways and deep shadows are creepy, and I wish I had some company besides the cats.
Travel tip: Visit Itri on the festival “Day of Corpus Domini” (usually in June). The Itrani decorate the main street of the town with colorful mosaics made from flower petals. Almost better is the Olive Festival on the first Sunday in August. It’s a great day to taste olives, olive oil, olive bread, bruschetta, and of course there’s plenty of wine to wash it all down.
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.
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.