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Chapter XI: Seeking the Strada Vecchia

Over the centuries, vines and weeds crept up and concealed the Ponte degli Aurunci, until the bridge became an abandoned ruin. People from Sessa Aurunca may wander there for solitude, but most outsiders never bother.

(If you're new to this story, here's the link to Chapter One:

The minute I crossed the bridge of the Borboni and entered Campagna, I was halted by a flock of sheep. 

Dozens of scampering, bleating creatures blocked the road as they passed. Bells jingled. In the middle of the flock, a young man frantically waved a stick. Sweat glistened on his red face. It was hard to tell whether he was guiding the sheep or they were guiding him.

This was as good as “welcome to Campagna!”

I had to wait several amusing minutes before I could move on. When the sheep were gone, I noticed a small placard on the far side of the street advertising fresh mutton sandwiches.

I followed the road over gentle hills and slopes, through dry, scrubby land with the occasional gas station or shop. I ignored the hot sun. I was on a mission. I was going to die of heat stroke or find the Ponte degli Aurunci.

A long time ago, a sophisticated tribe lived in central Italy. The Aurunci were thriving members of a complex society when Rome was just a village. They ruled a confederation of five mighty cities—Suessa, Ausona, Minturnae, Sinuessa, and Vescia.  

Only the town called Suessa remains today. Her people suffered terribly for this privilege, as you'll see.

In the 4th century BCE, Appius Claudius was lobbying for more colonies in southern Italy. He built his road to support the colonies with soldiers and supplies. For all practical purposes, the Romans built via Appia to make war on the tribes of southern Italy. Twenty five years later, they defeated the Aurunci and destroyed their cities.

The Romans rebuilt Minturnae in their own image, as you probably guessed. But all that's left of the Aurunci is the modern town, Sessa Aurunca, which was named after Suessa.

Yet there's one more reminder of the Aurunci: The ancient Romans built a great bridge across the Travata river. It connected Suessa to the via Appia. It took 21 arches to cross the river and keep the whole thing up. It  would be hard to build such a bridge today, with all our hydraulics and precision instruments. Yet the Romans built it with hand tools. They named it the Ponte degli Aurunci, the Bridge of the Aurunci.

A thousand years later, the Roman Empire crumbled. All the important political action was happening in Constantinople, far away in the East. Few travelers crossed the bridge.

In the dry season, the local inhabitants began to use the arches for shelter and storage. Eventually, when someone discovered that the tiles which decorated the bridge made perfect baking sheets for bread, villagers stripped away its façade for culinary purposes.

Over the centuries, vines and weeds crept up and concealed the Ponte degli Aurunci, until the bridge became an abandoned ruin. People from Sessa Aurunca may wander there for solitude, but most outsiders never bother.

I was going to bother!

All I had were some instructions from an old guidebook, and directions from a park superintendent: “You will come to a place where the road goes three ways. Look for the fourth way, the Old Road. It’s all hidden.”

Riding up near Mondragon, I came to a three-way crossroad. There was a “fourth way,” but it was a gravel road on the other side of a chain link fence with a locked gate. I could probably climb the fence, but I decided this couldn’t be the right place. It looked too new for an Old Road.

I kept riding until I reached a shop selling ceramic urns and garden decorations. There were replicas of Roman statues and Greek amphoras spread out all over the driveway. It looked like a fake museum.

A man sitting on a lawn chair gave me a frightened look as I walked my loaded bike into his labyrinth of fragile pottery. When I asked about the Ponte degli Aurunci he told me to go back a few kilometers to a 3-way intersection. And he told me the same thing I had heard before.

“Look for the fourth way,” he said. “The strada vecchia,” the old street.

The sun was high in the sky by now, and I didn't want to retrace my steps. But what choice did I have? Beads of sweat trickled down my arms and neck as I rode back to the intersection.

This time the gate was unlocked. The gravel road didn't look like an old road, but I chained my bike to the fence and went in. I followed the road as it curved through a small grove of olive trees. In the distance I saw a big white house with a colorful display of flowers in the front. Two red Ferraris were parked in the driveway.

I didn't see any people, and nobody answered when I called out. 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 main highway I found a wide dirt road that looked well-traveled. All the information I’d managed to glean suggested that this path was on the wrong side of the street, but I decided to try it anyway.

Before long, I came to a big wooden house. A girl on the porch was combing her hair in the shade. As I got closer an older woman, presumably her mother, came out. She did not look amused as I greeted them with a friendly “Ciao.”

“What is it?” she asked. Che c'e'?

I put on what I hoped was a friendly smile, and attempted my best formal Italian. I prayed to them to excuse the ignorance of an enthusiastic tourist who was in search of the Ponte degli Aurunci.

The girl laughed. The mom just rolled her eyes and shook her head as she fanned herself with a newspaper. 

“Sono sbagliato?” I asked. Am I wrong? I tried my best to be polite and earnest.

The mother relented, and she patiently explained that there was an old road that ran next to the gravel road, less than a meter away from the fence. She chided me for missing it because I failed to look carefully.

“Guardate bene,” she admonished me. Look well.

 I thanked her and walked off.

The girl called out something in dialect that I couldn't understand, but it made her mother break into loud guffaws of laughter. As I crossed the main road again, I could still hear their chuckles in the distance.

For the third time that day, I was back at the crossroad. I was almost defeated, even with clues that reduced all the possibilities down to a few square meters. I leaned my bike against the gate by the gravel road, and searched the ground for any trace of this “strada vecchia.”

Just where the fence ended, thick brush bordered the SS7. A million thorny plants taunted me, daring me to snare my clothes and pierce my skin on their sharp needles. I couldn't see any sign of an old road. The women probably lied just to get rid of me.

But I kept looking more closely, and I found a spot where the grass looked a little bit trampled. 

It wasn't “an old road.” It wouldn’t even qualify as a footpath. But it did look like maybe a small dog might have had laid down there a month ago. 

Also, 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 barbed wire thorns, and stepped into the vegetation.

It was like passing through a gateway to a new realm. In a few seconds I was in a dark, shady sea of green. 

The temperature dropped about ten degrees. There was more space to move around on the moist ground. Wild blackberries and figs offered up their fruit, and vines draped themselves over the branches of small, dense trees.

I couldn’t see 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. The dirt sagged beneath me, and each step left a sloshy footprint. Nettles stung my ankles, and in a few days I would have yellow blisters of poison oak on the back of my hand.

I was scratched and beaten, my feet soaking wet, when I stepped on a single basalt stone covered in a millimeter of water. I looked around, and saw another one farther ahead. When I reached it, I saw a cluster of three stones in the distance. 

It felt like a trail of breadcrumbs luring me deeper into the woods. I expected to come across a gingerbread house or a cottage full of dwarves any minute. Even a talking wolf wouldn’t have surprised me in this tangled, fairytale forest.

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

Birds scolded me, and I heard a trickle of water somewhere ahead. Soon I saw more stones, two or three at a time. I was walking past an old retaining wall, the ground was firmer and drier, and more basalt stones reached into the distance.

I followed the trail of stones as it led up a slope. Now the stones were dry and more numerous. Suddenly I was out of the shade and up on a sunny arch of the bridge. The riverbed, mostly dry but rich with vegetation, meandered off into the scrub in the distance.

Grass covered most of the stones, but this was unmistakably a bridge, gently curving “like the back of a donkey,” as Hamblin and Grunsfeld had described it in their book. The path of stones crossed the bridge and disappeared into some trees on the other side. I crossed the bridge and followed this road until I startled a young couple kissing in a parked car.

I turned back to give the lovers their space, but it would be worth hiking the rest of the road, if you're ever in this part of the world. 

In fact, Google Maps shows a road from Sessa Aurunca that leads straight to the bridge. I've never explored this route, but it's probably easier than the way I found the Ponte degli Aurunci.

Still, there’s something priceless about finding a place on your own, the hard way. The hunting and scrambling, consulting the locals and getting fragments of information out of old books--all those things turned this visit into a quest.

A quest was exactly what I wanted when I dreamed about this bike tour. The Ponte degli Aurunci was a refreshing contrast to the archeological site at Minturno the day before. 

I’m glad there are protected archaeological sites that probably won’t go away. But I’m even more grateful for hidden treasures like the Ponte Degli Aurunci, sleeping through the centuries, indifferent to a handful of curious admirers like me. 

When I planned my trip, I allowed myself half an hour to stop at the side of the road and find the bridge. Instead, the hours of backtracking would add a day to my bike tour. Sometimes it’s a blessing when things don’t go according to plan. 

Before we leave the Aurunci bridge, there’s a little bit of history you should know about this area and its original inhabitants. 

Sessa Aurunca gets its name from the ancient Suessa Aurunca. This name to distinguishes it from Suessa Pometia, the city of the Volsci,  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 a link to the site that was active as of April 2020:

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 most noteworthy citizens were decapitated, the remaining inhabitants were made into slaves, and the city was razed to the ground.”

It's the old story of one group conquering another. It’s the ancient story of the Romans in the Mediterranean and beyond, the British Empire in half the globe, the Spanish Conquistadores, and the cowboys and settlers in North America. But the conquered don’t usually disappear.

It's not hard to picture entire populations hiding away in the thick, quiet forests of central Italy, surviving in obscurity. Surely they could have done this in ancient times. There must be something of the Aurunci that lives on. 

In a few days, I would learn that there are other pre-Roman tribes who have kept their identity even today, thousands of years after the Romans began their decline. In fact, it would be my privilege to meet some of these survivors before my journey was over.

This is the 11th 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 them out loud on YouTube (check the menu for links) so you can listen while you're shut in. Here's the next chapter:

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