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.