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16

The modern road, SS7, zig-zags through switchbacks as it winds up into the mountains. Each time around, I notice the route coincides with the remains of an older, grass-covered road bed. This is the true Appian Way.

This is an excerpt from my new book, Tutto Nascosto: A Bike Ride Down the Appian Way. If you would like to download the entire e-book, leave a comment below and I'll make sure you get a copy. Your email will not be published, and I will never share it with anyone.

The archeologist in Rome told me my bike trip would be impossibile. Francesco assured me non e’ difficile. Leaving Terracina, I hope the journey will be easy but not too easy. It’s been a good bike tour so far, but I feel like I’m waiting for something to happen.

The ride out of Terracina starts to climb into the hills, and pretty soon I’m winding my way upward through a glittering jewel box of flowers, oak trees and olive groves. When I meet a farmer selling black olives on the roadside, I buy a whole bag and greedily devour them on rest stops.

The modern road, SS7, zig-zags through switchbacks as it winds up into the mountains. Each time around, I notice the route coincides with the remains of an older, grass-covered road bed. This is the true Appian Way.

The old road is undaunted by the mountain. It plods straight up the grade, unstoppable like the armies that used to use it. Riding up the modern road is challenging enough, but not daunting, and I’m thinking seriously about braving the weeds and stones of via Appia antica on my bike.

Traces of the Appian Way between Terracina and Itri
Park-preserved traces of via Appia

As if on cue, I wheel up to the entrance of an archeological park. Inside, I follow the usual basalt paving stones of the Appian Way, along with the remains of buildings from ancient Rome, the middle ages, and the Renaissance.

As in many places in Italy, the architecture here is a hodgepodge of different periods and styles. Each building is built up over an earlier one, and everybody borrows foundations, walls, and pillars from other buildings.

I got used to seeing this phenomenon everywhere when I lived in Rome. Much of the marble from the Colosseum, for example, was taken by the Barbarini family to build St. Peter’s square in the Vatican. Similarly, if you go into some of the older churches in Rome you’ll notice that the pillars don’t always match. This is because they were pilfered from different ancient Roman buildings.

As I ponder this, munching on salty black olives, I think how much our civilization, and even we as individuals, are collections of endless stories, ideals, influences and philosophies borrowed from different times and places.

As Bruce Lee was fond of saying, “Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless, and add what is uniquely your own.”

Perhaps my own bicycle quest is my unique addition to the long history of this majestic road and the beautiful lands it passes through. Think about your own journeys as you read this. What will you add to the world that is uniquely your own?

This is an excerpt from my new book, Tutto Nascosto: A Bike Ride Down the Appian Way.



1

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.

remains of via Appia outside Terracina, Italy
Traces of the Appian Way outside Terracina

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.

 

Terracina

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.

Temple of Jupiter in Anxur above Terracina
Jupiter in Anxur on Italy's via Appia

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.



5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was still morning when I got to Terracina. It's like Venice Beach with a giant walled city on a hill. A steep road leads to a foreboding gate the gives entrance to the walls of the city. The Appian Way went right through the city and even higher up to the Piazza Dei Paladini and the Temple of Jove Anxur. At least for a time.

Those busy Romans, always on the move, built their own shortcut during the reign of Emperor Trajan. The city and temple rest on a giant point that juts out into the sea, and the Romans cut a road straight through the lowest, softest part of the point. It's daunting when you see it up close and imagine them hacking away at the rock with nothing but shovels and picks.

Italy bike tour Terracina temple

The Roman numbers etched into the cliff face represent the depth of the cut, and go from C to CX to CXX.

This unnatural detour saved the typical Roman a day of travel on the way to or from Rome, and it could have saved me a few hours, but I had other plans.

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You just can't go to Terracina on a bike and not climb the old, cartilage-scraping route that plagued the hooves of untold  herds of mules and other pack animals. Not to mention, I had to pay my tribute to Jove.

But first I needed coffee.

I bought a mini pizza and washed it down with espresso at a bar near the edge of town, run by a guy named Francesco. He was a cyclist himself, and asked eager questions about my planned journey.

"E' facile," he concluded. It's easy. Clearly he had never talked to any of the archeologists in Rome.

I asked him about riding up to Jove Anxur by way of the "high Appia" and he assured me "It is not steep." So we parted ways, and I rode confidently up the knee-grinding street.

As far as old ruins go, the temple was a bit of a disappointment. The view was not. You could see the southwest coast of Italy rolling away along the Mediterranean, with the Alban Hills in the distance, the cradle of this ancient city that was the cradle of modern Western civilization.

And you couldn't mistake via Appia for anything else. A dark green line of umbrella pines cut across the landscape, shooting back to Rome in an impossibly straight line. The southwest route away from Terracina and Rome was almost as straight as it marched up into the hills, but for most of this section I would have to take the modern road which crossed the Appian Way in endless switchbacks.

This was my second day on the Appian way, I only had one small worry. Francesco's optimistic view was in question. He had told me the route to Jove Anxur was "not steep," but I felt certain that my knees had lost at least a centimeter of cartilege.

In the old days, before the "Appian slash," travelers had to climb almost a thousand feet on a steep narrow roadbed. The rest and the view at the top, in a flat area called Piazza dei Paladini must have been a welcome site.  It was for me.

Italy bike tour Appia Aeclanum archeology

I woke up to a cold fog, and couldn't wait to get back on my bike and start moving. I was in the Pontine Marshes, and the Romans were in a hurry to get through, too, when they built the via Appia.

Here the Appian Way shoots forward in a perfectly straight line.  the Romans probably could have established a winding route along sections of dry ground, but instead they pounded strong pilings into the water to support the road where they wanted it to go.

Two straight lines of Umbrella pines flank the road on either side, and I wonder if the Romans originally planted pines as shade for their travelers. Throughout my trip, these trees always seemed abundant along the roadside, and whenever I was unsure of the way I could go up on a hill and look for the clear green lines cutting across the land.

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The Pontine marshes are drained now, and mostly used for agriculture. A drainage ditch runs along the road just beyond the trees.

It would have been easy to die here. Trucks emerged from the early morning fog, and there was no room for them to pass, and no space to get out of the way. The trees and bushes grow up flush against the roadway in most places. Lots of flowers and other monuments to the fallen dot the roadway.

I could have taken a parallel route about 10 miles south, through a national park. I recommend this to anyone else. But I'm a purist, and I wanted to follow the Via Appia as faithfully as possible.

Luckily, some of the most considerate drivers I've seen in my life drove the Appian Way. They would slow down and follow me, sometimes for as long as 15 minutes, until it was safe to pull over and let them go by. People are generally in less of a hurry in Italy, even on the Romans' most important highway.

Beyond the thin ditch of water and the umbrella pines, endless pastures, crop fields, stone walls, vineyards and olive groves roll out among the occasional milestone or chunk of marble. It's as if nothing has changed over the centuries The cars are an anachronism, as if some mischievous god dumped a layer of asphalt over the whole thing and let the drivers in as a great circus to entertain the masses.

Long before you get to Terracina, you see the Temple of Jupiter Anxur at the top of Mount Sant'Angelo.

I was destined to get to know Jupiter very well (to be continued...)