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.