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.
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.
There’s a reward for trips like this, something you know intuitively before you begin. A journey like this is going to change you—it must—there are too many lonely miles for it not to happen. When you venture along the jugular vein of ancient Rome you’re going to encounter a lot of ghosts, that’s a given, but more than that you’re going to find the secrets that are tutto nascosto, hidden away in your own heart.
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 not be published and I will never share it).
There’s just 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 other people climb mountains and jump out of airplanes.
This is why, after almost 7 years of 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 where it went.
Other people said it couldn’t be done. That I would be robbed, kidnapped, and mashed to a pulp beneath the wheels of a truck 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 500-mile gauntlet of knee-grinding climbs, bone cracking holes, sheer drops in the fog, bad weather, hostile natives, robbers, murderers and things far worse than that.
But there’s a reward for trips like this, something you know intuitively before you begin. A journey like this is going to change you—it must—there are too many lonely miles for it not to happen.
When you venture along the jugular vein of ancient Rome you’re going to encounter a lot of ghosts, that’s a given, but more than that you’re going to find the secrets that are tutto nascosto, hidden away in your own heart.
If you look at a road map of modern Italy, you’ll see that Rome looks like a pizza. I don’t think this is a complete accident, but there’s a practical reason the Italians designed their freeway system like this. A main highway, the Grande Raccordo Annulare, circles the entire city at a far enough distance to avoid plowing through any of the most important and popular archeological sites.
The “exits” off this freeway are mostly straight lines leading straight into the center of Rome, like spokes leading into the hub. They divide the city into pizza wedges, but the really cool part is that almost all of these inward-bound roads were built over a thousand years ago. Or at least built on top of the original road bed, or near it.
The via Appia, or the Appian Way, is one of the oldest and most famous of these roads. It runs diagonally down the southern half of Italy, across the Apennine mountains, and down to the ancient port of Brindisi at Italy’s heel. This was the main highway in ancient times, leading from the capital of the empire to the port that was a gateway to Greece, Egypt, and Africa. This was the door to the farthest reaches of the Roman empire.
If you made a list of famous leaders, warriors, poets, philosophers and artists of ancient Rome and even the centuries beyond, you’d find that nearly every one of them has had a journey, an experience, maybe even a death or a tomb along the Appian Way.
Even today, the land along the via Appia that isn’t controlled by the government is an Italian Beverly Hills dotted with the mansions of celebrities and moguls.
But the road itself is preserved in all her glory. Just a quarter mile past the Colosseum, there’s a casually hidden (nascosto?) entrance to the Park of the Ancient Appian way. If you happen to be in Rome on a good day, you can hike or ride a bike on the original basalt road, and stop to visit some stunning catacombs and ruins along the way.
This is an awesome adventure in itself, and it’s about as far off the beaten path as you can get in Rome.
After 10 miles or so, the way is harder to find. Nobody knows the exact route of via Appia with 100% certainty.
For me, that simply added to the adventure. We know where it starts, where it ends, and a lot of specific points it touches along the way. So seven years after my first visit to the park, I set off on my bike to connect the dots and plot my own course.
This is a chapter from my new book, Tutto Nascosto: A Bike Ride Down the Appian Way.
Whatever your dreams are, don't put them off. If you want to tour the Appian Way (or anyplace else), 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.
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.
Terracina roughly translates into "little piece of land" but it's hard to understand where they got this title from. Everything here seems big, towering, rocky to the extreme. The craggy top of the place once housed a fortress called Anxur, and the temple to Jupiter/Zeus/Jove is called the temple of Jove in Anxur.
The top of the city is a sheer delight for an amateur history buff like me. The original Appian Way is clear and obviously marked in the main piazza of the town, running right between the venerable duomo and an excellent bar where the espresso will do wonders for an exhausted bike tourist.
The walls of the duomo are made of building materials filched from other, far older structures. So you see all kinds of tiles with latin inscriptions, chunks of marble, bits of bas-relief and artwork. These 3-dimensional collages are actually fairly common all over Italy, and they're one of my favorite things to look at.
But when you reach the Piazza dei Paladini and the Temple of Jove in Anxur, you're in for a sight. The fortress town of Terracina is dwarfed by the mountainous cliffs, the rolling countryside far below, and the shimmering Mediterranean rippling off into the distance.
Most of all, you see the via Appia clearly marked in both directions. The original road has been preserved as a park going out of Rome, and when this gives way to Strada Statale 7 (SS7) it still runs through the Pontine Marshes in a straight line, flanked by umbrella pines. From Jove's lofty perch you have a dark green line showing you the way.
In fact, the umbrella pines are almost always a reliable marker. Throughout my trip, whenever I was unsure of the way, I would get somewhere high up and look for the pines. Even in the most dry and dusty sections of Puglia and Basilicata, it wasn't that unusual to pass a lonely umbrella pine marking the remnants of Rome's most famous road.
As you leave Terracina heading south, you'll see the famous cut through the rock that eliminated the need to take the steep slope over the mountain and saved hasty Romans an entire day of travel.
The road leaving Terracina takes you along some of my favorite parts of the journey. As you weave up the switchbacks towards Fundi and Itri, you'll come across some well-preserved ruins of the Appian Way.
On my last tour a farmer was selling olives from a wooden cart on the side of the road. I munched on these as I walked along the old via Appia, and wondered where I would find myself next.
Once you get outside Benevento you hit some beautiful country right away. There was no way I could have predicted the amazing show that was waiting, but that's the serendipity of bike tours.
It was going to be a major turning point in the tour, and after this night I would spend a lot more time talking to people, sharing stories and experiences, being social. But as I left Benevento, I didn't know yet what was about to happen.
I rode my bike out of the city early in the evening. A traffic cop told me the way, and soon I was cruising along a winding, hilly country road in the failing light.
I didn't have plans for where to stay that night, but here's the great thing about touring southern Italy by bicycle. Your tent almost anywhere in the countryside.
In fact, when I met an old man walking along the side of the road and asked if he knew anywhere to camp, he smiled and gestured magnanimously across the forests and meadows around us.
"You are welcome to camp anywhere you want in my country," he said.
This was just my second night of stealth camping on the tour of via Appia, but I've always had great luck when I leave things up to chance.
The land was deep green, with beautiful oak forests and grassy meadows. At one point I passed a sign leading to the Ponte Rotto, where I would one day fulfill my dream of camping out in ancient Roman ruins. But not this night.
I rode my bike down into a broad valley as the last glow of the sunset disappeared. The world was pitch black. The only light came from my flickering Cat's Eye bike light and the silver points of stars up above.
I came to a farm at the top of a gentle hill covered with olive trees and grapevines. Nobody seemed to be home when I went to ask permission, so I found a level spot near a bunch of olive trees and set up my tent.
I was ready to crash when I saw a dim light gently bobbing near the spot where I had wheeled my bicycle off the road. It looked like someone walking with their cell phone, so I shouted a friendly "Buona sera!"
No answer, but the light kept coming closer, taking its time.
I didn't want to startle anyone in the dark, so I turned on my flashlight, pointed it at my own face, and called out another greeting down the hill.
No reply, and this began to feel creepy.
"Listen," I said in my best possible Italian, "I'm just passing through here on my bike and I stopped because it is dangerous to ride in the dark. I wanted to camp here for the night and leave early in the morning, but I don't want to cause any problems. I'll go now if you want me to."
The mysterious light stopped, but continued to bob gently in the air, flickering on and off. I pointed my light at it, and saw nothing but the low branches of a young oak tree.
A ghost? This wasn't the only time I've ran into ghosts in Italy (that's another story) but something felt completely normal and natural about this. I walked down to the light and found a large insect on a tree branch. Its abdomen was glowing, and the branch bobbed up and down in the wind.
I laughed out loud as I walked back to my tent, and suddenly a flash of light in the sky caught my eye. A shooting star! A few minutes later I saw another one. The next hour or so was a treat of meteors, stars, and glowing insects.
What happened next is hard to describe, but I'll try. Laying there in an olive grove in Italy, I felt like I was coming home. I had found a part of myself, something I had lost over the years.
Italy is famous for her natural and artistic beauty, but I've been guilty of neglecting the first of these. When I tour in Italy I tend to obsess on paintings and history, cold sculptures and crumbling chunks of marble. But those things get there romance and their magic from the natural world that shaped them and the people who made them.
The whole point of a bike tour in Italy is to breathe life and relevance into the textbook Italy we all think we know.
It took a natural light show in the olive groves of Benevento to show me the error of my ways.
Come to think of it, this is one of the most important reasons to go on a bike tour. It will get you out of your routing, your regular mindset, and show you what you've been missing out on.
I don't spend as much time in cars as most people do, but even so I'm fixed in my ways, just like we all are.
And there's nothing like a bike tour to take you out of yourself and show you the world in a new way.
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.
The 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.
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.
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!
It's true I want to lead a kick-ass, life-changing bike tour next spring so I can charge money for the same service in the future. It's true that I'm going to publish a guide-book with some of the best-kept secrets about bike touring in southern Italy.
But not everybody likes to read, and a lot of you probably won't travel with me--whether it's a schedule conflict or my smelly feet.
So here's another option for you. I've put up the full route on a squidoo lens. You'll get a basic outline of where I go, along with a few brief notes about some of the cool things to see and do while you're biking the Appian Way. You can dig up the maps yourself, get some relevant books from Amazon, or even shoot me an email if you've got a legitimate question.
By the way, if you're not already familiar with Squidoo, you should check out my lens just to see what it's all about. Pretty soon you'll be posting your own pictures and stories of your bike rides and bike touring adventures. You might even make some money. (I've already got $1.40 in pending earnings. That's almost enough to buy a cappuccino when I get to Rome!)
If you're reading this, some part of you wants to be stronger, faster, to travel, to be free. Don't limit yourself. There's more than one way to ride to Brindisi, and if that's not where you want to be, you have as many challenges and adventures awaiting you as there are stars in the sky and dreams in your heart.