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The sun was setting, and I had nowhere to sleep. Prostitutes and their customers would soon be lurking about, and there were even worse things knocking around in my own head. 

I had food and water and a tent. I was surrounded by empty fields, bushes, and many opportunities for a good night’s rest.

But I pictured the carabinieri picking me up as a vagrant. Desperate refugees holding me for ransom. Worst of all, I imagined the Italians would think I was a pestilent, mouse-raping transient. When they saw me sleeping out in the open, the people of Lazio would surely turn away in disgust and say, “Che schifo!”  

Why hadn’t I planned better? Why did I waste so much time throughout the day?

After you leave the park of Via Appia Antica, you can follow the original ancient route of Via Appia just by sticking to the national highway SS7. But on the periphery of Rome, this road is full of traffic. 

In the 18th century they built a parallel version of Via Appia nearby, called the New Appian Way or Via Appia Nuova. It runs in the same direction, but you pass through a sterile urban landscape. This route is useful for commuters, but there’s nothing to see except endless apartment blocks and one short glimpse of some crumbling aqueducts. 

I stayed on SS7. Eventually the houses and shops gave way to more open country. I followed the road through suburbs, farmland, and acres of grape vines. 

A few miles farther down, a small sign said, “Via Appia Antica.” An arrow pointed off the road towards a gulch.

I followed this path to a stretch of the familiar basalt stones that the Romans used. For the next few miles I rattled past fields of tomatoes and artichokes. Grape leaves waved at me from thick vines as I rode by. Best of all, there were fallen pillars and the occasional remains of a wall.

Later in the day, after the old stretch of Via Appia went back to the main road, I passed through a pungent cloud of sulfur and saw an old man filling plastic jugs from a small fountain. 

“E' potabile?” I asked. Is the water drinkable?

“Si!” he said. “It's good for the bones.” He gestured for me to try it.

The smell was like a decomposing pile of manure from a cow with chronic diarrhea. Millions of tiny bubbles clouded the water. 

It’s worth noting here that Italy boils with volcanic activity. Vesuvius and Etna are the most famous Italian volcanoes, but there are many others. The Alban Hills just south of Rome erupted some 30-40 thousand years ago, creating the basalt that eventually paved Via Appia.

Geologists think an eruption will happen again. Occasionally a few sheep are killed by toxic gas, which is proof that something is still going on down there. 

There are many springs in Italy that provide water rich in dissolved minerals and gases from this geothermal activity. Apparently I had just stumbled upon one of them.

I thought about the sheep poisoned by gas from the volcanic earth. But when in Rome, do as the Romans do. I drank the old man’s clouded water. I’m not aware that anything bad ever came of it, but I probably need to put in a disclaimer here:

So… I hope you understand that I am not a doctor. This story is not intended as a recommendation to prevent, treat, or cure any disease. You should always consult a medical professional before you drink murky, foul-smelling water while traveling in a foreign country.

Some time after drinking from the volcano, I rode into Ariccia, an important place long before the Romans came to power. Every major art museum in the western world has Romantic paintings that show gods and nymphs in a wooded setting. Many of these scenes were inspired by the forests of Ariccia. 

Ariccia was also the first staging point along Via Appia. Messengers and important officials picked up fresh horses here. Travelers would stop in Ariccia to pick up supplies or stay for the night. 

I bought food at a small market, including a cylinder of goat cheese with a bitter smell. The shop owner insisted it would not spoil for many days, and he was right. When I combined the cheese with bread, olives, tomatoes, and a bottle of cheap-but-effective aglianico wine, I had a banquet. 

I should have either stayed in Ariccia for the night, or avoided the town completely. It took a while to get back on SS7, and there wasn’t much time left to ride. As the sun dropped low in the sky, I started to wonder where I was going to sleep.

I had my tent, and I had always thought I would just plunk down and camp wherever I found myself. But my own mind was determined to make things difficult.

When I was in college, I spent a few years living in the redwood forest above the UC Santa Cruz campus. This was a tradition at the time, and there were many “woods dwellers” living among the trees.  

I loved waking up to the sound of birds. I loved that I didn’t have to pay rent. I loved feeling like I wasn’t an ordinary muggle. When other students went back to their dorm rooms, complaining about the cold weather, I would hike into a dark forest to go to bed. I was proud to live a secret life.

But this pride was always mixed with private shame about being homeless. I had a job, clean clothes, and a shower almost every day, but I didn’t have an address. I was missing one of the cultural trappings that qualify you as a normal person. 

Over years of travel I’ve slept in cars, in boxcars, under bridges, and in trees. I’ve slept in the snow, in the rain, on concrete, on broken glass, on closed roads and in open pits. I’ve slept in backyards, freight yards, and even once in a graveyard. I can feel safe and comfortable almost anywhere. But I never escape the self-conscious shame of looking like a bum.

The shame felt a hundred times worse in Italy. I was a guest in this country.

However, I had to sleep somewhere, and there’s always one foolproof way to defeat the doubts in your mind: Don’t give yourself a choice. 

After the sun went down, I didn’t have many options. This made it easier to find a break in the bushes, wheel my bike off the road, and pitch my tent in a field. The rows of vegetables had been cut. Whatever crops the farmer cultivated were already harvested. I wouldn’t bother anyone here. Nobody would even see me.

As I set up my tent, my courage grew. I thought about Seneca, the Stoic philosopher who wrote a Guide to Happiness. Seneca was rich and important, but when traveling, in his own words, “I put my mattress upon the ground, and lay upon it.”

If stealth camping was good enough for Seneca two thousand years ago, then who was I to worry about it? 

I had olives and goat cheese and fresh bread in my panniers. I feasted in the field, watching the very last glow of daylight fade away. I made a truce with myself, and felt my confidence return. 

Today I drank from a volcano. I could go anywhere and do anything. Where to sleep was just a petty detail. This bike tour was my mattress, and I would lay on it. 

But before I went to sleep in my tent, my phone lit up with a text from Gisela: “Good night. TVB.” 

The last three letters stand for “Ti voglio bene,” an Italian way of expressing sincere affection. I knew that my inner peace wouldn’t last. Demons gathered, ready to haunt this reckless traveler soon enough.

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.

It’s all wrong, but I’m doing it anyway. 

I’m on a plane, zooming to Italy, and I should be happy and excited, but I want to curl up into a ball and cry. The only way I can really pull this off is by breaking some rules and running up a huge credit card debt. Totally selfish, irresponsible, self-indulgent. 

As I write this I want to scream at you: This bike tour is the dumbest thing I ever did! Learn from my example. Do not try this at home. 

Worse still, do not try this somewhere far away on another continent where the language and cultural barriers mask all your personal flaws, disguising your deepest self-doubts underneath a glowing cascade of perfect Instagram photos.

I want to scream this at you, but there’s a stronger voice, one that says you’re here in this world to drink life to the dregs and have a wealth of vivid experiences. That both you and the world you live in were made by something more profound than you can ever fathom, and that you should show your appreciation by greedily savoring every facet and feature of this unlikely gem. 

We’ll get back to this, but first you should know a little bit about where we are.

As you leave the center of Rome, just southeast of the Colosseum, you can ride your bike on a long stretch of the original via Appia that has been lovingly restored. If you come in the spring, you’ll see tall, waving fields of grass with billions of bright flowers.

Best of all, this place is the winning lottery ticket for ancient history nerds. You get to ride over cobblestones with ruts and channels carved by thousands of wagon wheels over the years. You’ll see crumbling structures of ancient brick, chunks of marble and sometimes a carving or inscription that gives a clue about the history here. 

Virtually all the monuments in the first few miles outside the city were the tombs of wealthy Romans. A burial along via Appia was an essential status symbol. During the height of the Roman Empire, you could barely see the green fields all around you. Tombs crowded the sides of the road, rammed together like passengers in the subway of some ancient ghostly rush hour. But there are even more dead buried underground. 

Centuries ago, Romans built catacombs along the via Appia. There are a few Jewish catacombs, and some are dedicated to pre-Christian religions. But the majority of the catacombs, especially along the Appian Way, were built by the Christians of ancient Rome.

These catacombs were long tunnels lined with small niches to hold the remains of the dead. Some of these tunnels went on for miles through the earth. When it wasn’t convenient to lengthen a tunnel, the builders would dig another tunnel deeper down. Most of the catacombs contain three or more of these levels. And there are more than 40 of these catacombs scattered around the outskirts of Rome.

Thousands of dead bodies underneath your feet, monuments to a hundred more on the grass on either side of you. Yet this ancient cemetery is a park! 

Above ground, practically all you’ll see are joggers and hikers, spandex and dogs and all the other signs of the living. Kids kick soccer balls while their parents prepare a picnic lunch. Every weekend is like a big happy birthday party in a graveyard.

Still, you’re never allowed to forget the dead. There is one big tomb where hikers and bikers and joggers nearly always stop to gawk. 

As you come up the crest of a small hill, this sight will probably stop you, too: The tomb of Caecilia Metella. It stands out like a great tower above the flat fields all around, taller and bigger and better preserved than anything else on the Appian Way. 

The original tomb was a huge, round drum. Now it’s crowned with a circle of battlements biting the sky. In later centuries, different owners added small buildings around it, but these feel like an afterthought. The whole thing is the color of bleached bones, and that’s what it was built for. 

Marcus Crassus was the wealthiest man in the history of Rome. A woman named Caecilia Metella married one of his sons, and when she died her family built the most audacious tomb on this side of the Mediterranean.

This was where I stopped walking, seven years earlier, when I decided to bike the entire distance of the Appian Way. It’s a good place to tell you what this trip was really about. 

The truth is, I was running away. 

I was almost 40 years old when I made this trip. I was secretly terrified of reaching that landmark age (or beyond) with no employable skills or experience, still single, and clueless about what to do with myself. 

Whenever I’m feeling stuck, I find an adventure and I go after it. It’s my way of confronting the failures and mediocrity in my life. I stare them down and say “Things are going to change NOW.” 

I told myself this journey was a way to throw down the gauntlet and go through a dark place in search of the light on the other side.

But it was really just a self-indulgent escape. An escape from responsibilities and relationships. An escape from fear.

What if I was not powerful beyond belief? What if I was just an over-achieving dreamer, drifting into middle age with nothing to show for it? If I became that person at 40, what would my life look like at 60?

This is the kind of trip that might make sense if you found out you had a terminal illness. Or if you lost someone you loved, someone who urged you to enjoy life and dare to live it to the fullest. 

I didn’t have a tragedy like that to add drama to the story, but who says you need to wait for something terrible to happen before you do what you want? I say go out and fulfil your bucket list while your bucket is still full. 

Even if you have another 20, 40, or even 60 good years ahead of you, that’s less than a single brick in the long, ancient road of time.

I didn’t know if I was doing the right thing, but I was following an obsession that had haunted me for seven years. Foolish or not, I was going to ride while I still had some time left.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t have doubts about whether I was doing the right thing.

This is the 2nd Chapter of my book, Rome to Brindisi: How Biking Down an Ancient Roman Road Saved Me From a Life of Quiet Desperation. I'll be posting a few chapters each week during the Covid19 shutdown. I'm also reading the out loud on YouTube (check the menu for links) so you can listen while you're shut in.

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.

All I wanted was to leave. I just wanted to get on my bicycle and ride away on a journey down Via Appia to the Achilles tendon of Italy. 

But there in the dark forest where I found myself, a frightening apparition stood on the path right between me and my bicycle.

This isn’t some kind of metaphor. I was literally in a grove of trees somewhere outside Benevento on a warm spring night. I needed a place to sleep, and had just discovered that perhaps this wasn’t the best place to do so.

Unfortunately, it looked like I might not be allowed to leave.

I’m jumping ahead, though. This story began long before I set off on a bike tour. It started literally thousands of years before I was born.

Once upon a time, an energetic band of free-spirited farmers and artisans built a young republic in a sunny Mediterranean paradise. 

But they were all doomed.

A ruthless dictator from the East had his eye on the treasures and spoils of ancient Italy. He was steamrolling up the Italian peninsula with thirty thousand warriors, horses trained for war, and a score of thundering elephants. He won battles. He took villages. One by one, the tribes and colonies surrendered to him.

And then, when everything seemed hopeless, one man stood up and blocked the conqueror.

He wasn’t a hero, a warrior, or a great leader. He was just a grumpy old man with bad eyesight and selfish ambitions of his own. But he gave a moving speech which ensured that Rome would never surrender. His name was Appius Claudius, and he proved that a speech can stop an army. 

Most of the time, old Appius Claudius Caecus was an arrogant, self-serving prick. Like the driver who cuts you off in the middle of an intersection. Or the person who lets their dog run loose and defecate in front of your house, and refuses to clean it up. 

But even you have your bad days, when you laugh at something inappropriate or forget to put the toilet seat down. Likewise, the worst of us are capable of doing great things. 

Appius Claudius had questionable ethics, but he made a speech that galvanized young Rome against her enemies, and he said one thing in this speech that has lasted for millennia: 

“Every man is the architect of his own fate.”

This story is mostly about my attempt to be the architect of my own fate. But I’ll also tell you a lot about the conqueror, the elephants, and especially Appius Claudius.

The speech was one of his last public acts, but he is better known for what he did at the beginning of his career. When Appius became Censor, he nearly bankrupted the treasury. He devoted almost all the available funds to build a road that was unlike anything anyone had ever seen before, and it led directly into the uncertain wilderness of the south. 

Then, as the keystone of a career that was built almost entirely on sheer chutzpah, he named the road after himself: Via Appia.

Why am I telling you this?

Because two thousand, three hundred and seventeen years later, I was riding a bicycle on that very same road, while every motor vehicle in Italy tried to crush me like a grape in a winepress.

Just after Via Appia leaves Rome through the Porta San Sebastiano, the shoulder disappears. Two brick walls guard the road, turning it into a roofless tunnel. It is a Roman Channel of Death for cyclists, where you are nothing but a petty obstacle, a dog turd to be avoided if possible or else smeared across the cobblestones.

Commuters in Fiats, late to work, shouted vulgar curses against my ancestors. Produce trucks threatened to grind me against the walls, an olive between the millstones. Tour buses nearly pounded me like basil in a mortar.

Soon I would be mashed into pesto, olive oil, and marinara sauce. 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 that a sweaty American, dressed in shorts and clutching a bicycle helmet, would enter his office this early on a weekday.

In the best Italian I could muster, I told him I wanted to bike the Via Appia Antica from Rome to its end in Brindisi. From the surprised confusion in his face, you would think I had just asked him to circumcise me.

"Impossibile!" he protested, 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 bicyclist could make the journey. 

I had already decided to take this trip, with or without anyone's help. But I wanted some advice and encouragement from an expert, if I could get it.

I wanted to see marble columns rising out of misty fields in the dawn. I wanted to remember what the Romans forgot when they became too powerful as an empire and too weak as individuals.

Dr. Grillo assured me that it could not be done. He warned me of floods and swamps and mountains. Much of Via Appia was buried on private property.  Also, there are many places where we simply don't know which way 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 ancient Mediterranean history.

Archeologists will never finish scraping the ancient world out of the soil and gluing it back together. There's still an energy you can feel when you're alone in these ancient places.

Grillo understood. Or at least he no longer looked like he was planning 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 talk to the people and you’re exposed to the weather. You get the feeling of the place.

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.

Many Italians are gifted with a powerful intuition. Even if you don't know the right words, if you speak with passion they will read your mind and give you exactly what you want. Before I could finish, my new archeologist savior was nodding vigorously as he opened the squeaky drawers of his file cabinet, pulling out maps, old photos, and drawings.

He gave me a stream of directions and names and numbers in rapid Italian. I scribbled as much as I could understand in my notebook. I wasn't looking for perfection, I told him, just adventure and learning and new experiences. If I couldn't retrace all of the Appian Way, I would still cover the distance and do the best I could.

Dr. Grillo assured me once again that I was attempting something impossible. But he still shook my hand and said, “In bocca al'lupo.” In the mouth of the wolf, a Roman way of saying “good luck.”

Traditionally when someone says this, you're supposed to answer, “Crepi lupo,” which implies that if a wolf tries to eat you it will find you to be poisonous. You will kill the thing that tries to kill you.

However, an Italian friend explained to me that a mother wolf, like the legendary wolf who raised Romulus and Remus, carries her young by holding them in her mouth. If you are “in boca al’lupo,” you are protected by the mother wolf. You certainly wouldn't want the wolf to die.

Either way, I was about to set off into the unknown, on the back of a bike, in the mouth of a wolf.

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, “The cobblestones will destroy your arse in the first 10 kilometers.”

Everything they told me was true. Via Appia is fraught with peril. It’s a 450-mile gauntlet of knee-grinding climbs, bone-cracking potholes, 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. A journey like this is going to change you. It must. There are too many lonely miles for it not to happen.

Hey, friends and readers,

After years of procrastination, I made a promise to myself that I would self-publish my Via Appia Book during the summer of 2020. But as I post this in the spring, we are all locked down in our homes. So I'm putting this out, chapter by chapter, in a bunch of places. I'll read it out loud on YouTube so you can listen to it while you wash the dishes or disinfect your house.

Check back here every week or so, and you'll find a new installment. Or better yet, subscribe and I'll email you whenever a new chapter is up, and give you links to the versions on YouTube and elsewhere. Best of all, when you subscribe you'll get a free copy of my travel notes.

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.

You're about to learn a secret about picking up Italian women. Or any women, really. This could probably work on men, too.

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.

I want to help you experience the magic. Especially if you’re the kind of person who dreams about a journey like this, but you’re frightened to try.

overcome_obstaclesIt won’t be easy. It may take longer than you thought.

If you can do the one thing that you think isn’t possible, if you can cross that mountain range, it will change you forever. You will be able to do anything, and you will know it.

Some of the obstacles you think are holding you back will melt away as soon as you push back against them. Many of the things you fear and worry about will never materialize.

I'm going to help you overcome those obstacles. Let me explain.

If you’re a seasoned, confident bike tourist then I would love to have you along next spring. But if you think there’s some insurmountable obstacle that would make the journey impossible, no matter how badly you want to go, then this post is for you.

This post is for you if you’re interested in biking via Appia but you aren’t doing it because you think:

  • You can’t afford it
  • You’re too young
  • You're too old
  • You’re not in shape
  • You’re afraid of being in the wilderness in a foreign country
  • There is some other reason holding you back

You can do it. And I’m going to help you. Here’s why:

10 years ago, at the Leo Carrillo State Beach hike and bike campground, I met a man who took a group of developmentally disabled teenagers on a bike tour. They rode north from LA to San Francisco and across the Golden Gate Bridge, fighting the wind all the way.

Below Golden Gate Bridge

I met them on their way back home. The kids were confident and street-smart. I got the feeling they could go anywhere they wanted. And they knew it.

“The ride up was brutal,” the guy told me. “The only thing that kept these kids going was the idea of riding across the Golden Gate Bridge. You should have seen their faces when they finally did it.”

Ever since then, I’ve hoped to meet another person like that. Maybe it’s time to become someone like that, at least in my own small way.

So here’s the deal.

I’m going to do another bike tour of via Appia in May, 2017. I'm looking for people who have a burning desire to come along, but something is stopping you.

I will help you.

I can’t buy your plane ticket for you, but I can show you a number of ways to raise the money you’ll need.

I’m not a doctor or a physical therapist, but I can direct you to resources for strengthening your mind and body. In fact, if you think you’re not in shape for a trip like this, that makes two of us! We’ll hold each other accountable as we get in shape (and to tell you the truth, this tour isn’t superhard as far as bike tours go).

If you have a specific physical challenge that you think is going to stop you, I’ll look for someone who can build a bike that’s adapted to your needs.

I will personally coach you on getting into shape, making money, even learning Italian if that will make you more confident. We’re gonna make this happen!

Maybe you’re not especially interested in a bike tour of Italy. There’s still something in this for you.

Over the next several months, you’re going to hear stories of people overcoming their fears, their doubts, and their limits. Hopefully these stories will inspire you to do that one thing that you dream of, the one thing you think is impossible.

If you are interested in biking via Appia with me next spring, here are just a few of the things you’ll get to do as a result of this journey:

  • Tap into hidden physical and mental powers you didn’t know you had
  • Build lasting friendships with extraordinary people
  • Bring back stories and experiences that will change the way you look at the world
  • Grow stronger and healthier than you dreamed possible
  • Give yourself the classical education you always wanted

This journey will change you forever. I challenge you to join me. I dare you.

In fact, I beg you.

You see, by coming along on this trip, you’ll give me a chance to face down one of my own big fears.

Gravina in Puglia bridgeI’ve biked the entire Appian way from Rome to Brindisi already. I know enough about Italy and Italian to fix most problems that I can’t avoid in the first place. I’ve done bike tours that are longer than this.

But now I want to help you experience the magic. Especially if you’re the kind of person who dreams about a journey like this, but you’re frightened to try.

If I commit to helping you do it, then I have to face my own fear of failure, that maybe I won’t succeed in getting you to Italy and across the finish line.

But I accept the challenge. I will teach you to overcome any obstacle, and you’ll ride triumphantly into Brindisi like an ancient Roman noble.

Let me be clear about this offer, and especially what I am not offering to do.

This is not a free ride. I can’t pay for your airplane ticket or your AirBnB. (I would like to buy you a coffee, or maybe something stronger, while we’re in Italy.)

I’m not a doctor, physical therapist, or psychologist.

But what I do bring to the table is experience, creativity, a lot of good ideas and the will to help you carry them out.

Are you in? Fill out the form below, and we’ll be in touch.

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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. Roman monument on via Appia

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.

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If you want to get the latest updates on the book, the journey, and lots of juicy bits on how to be the architect of your own fortune, sign up here:




Thanks for reading!

Jacob

Could this be the answer to all of my dreams, or would I just die of heat stroke?

Ponte degli Aurunci arch
One of the 21 arches of the Ponte degli Aurunci--the Aurunci Bridge. Photo copyright Jacob Bear

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.

Via Appia Antica at Minturno. Photo: copyright Jacob Bear
Via Appia Antica at Minturno. Photo: copyright Jacob Bear

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.

Shaded road to Aurunci bridge
The Old Road leading to the Aurunci bridge. Photo: copyright Jacob Bear

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.



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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.

Roman milestone along Appian Way outside Itri, Italy

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.



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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.



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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.