(If you're new to this story, here's the link to Chapter One: https://bicyclefreedom.com/the-mouth-of-the-wolf-chapter-i/)
In most of the historic towns of Italy, if you head uphill you’ll automatically get closer to the castle, the duomo, or whatever was the most important building a thousand years ago. Modern Italian cities grow outwards from their ancient core.
As I climbed through Benevento, the streets grew more narrow and the buildings began to look older. There were important sites here that I wanted to see, so I parked my bike outside a bookstore and went in to buy a book on the history of Benevento. One of the owners was a well-informed amateur archeologist.
“This bookstore,” he said, “was built over a pagan temple. It was the cult of Dionysus. We have one of the original pillars built into our wall, over here.”
There was a little alcove in the wall with a column of marble exposed inside. I had thought it was a replica sitting on a shelf, but I could see now that it extended down below the floor. They had put up the wall around it.
I love to stumble upon old reminders of the ancient world, and I could tell the bookstore owner was a kindred spirit. He showed me where he thought the entrance to the temple would have been, and where the altar would have been placed.
He tapped a spot on the wall and said, “Every year, on the spring equinox, the sun touches right here.”
Before I left he told me where to find the Roman amphitheater, the famous Arch of Trajan, and his favorite gelateria.
The stones of the amphitheater radiated warmth in the afternoon sun. There weren’t many people around. I jumped from step to step, and listened to my ocarina echo through the site. An archeologist showed me the place where the ancient Via Appia ran right past the stadium entrance.
A warm drizzle of rain fell on me, but it stopped in a few minutes. The moisture added a sparkle to the bright orange tufa bricks and creamy travertine of the amphitheater.
This is what I had come here for. To follow the path of the ancient Appian way, as well as I could, to seek out and enjoy every possible trace of ancient Rome, to finish the journey yet be open to any experience that came up. I was fully enjoying this beautiful moment.
I never get tired of ruins from the ancient Mediterranean. I'll bask in their sad, warm presence, every chance I get, until I die.
I was reluctant to leave Benevento, but I had to make some plans.
Up to now, I had followed a clear path through territory that was mostly familiar. The original ancient Appian Way had been laid out well down to Benevento. I knew where to go, and I had visited much of the area before.
After Benevento, nobody knew the way. Even in ancient times, Via Appia ran haphazardly through the southeast. The exact route depended on the outcome of battles, the terrain in question, and the politics of local cities and villages. Sometimes the way was too rocky and steep to build a permanent roadbed, and in other places the land was so flat that a permanent road didn't seem necessary.
We know the via Appia certainly went to a few specific towns, and there are others where it probably passed. But the “road” could have been just a gouge in the rocks, a swath of grass cut once a year, or a length of paving stones that farmers carried off later to grind their flour and olive oil.
I would try my best to connect the dots between the few places which we know were part of Via Appia. But after Benevento I would have to find my own way.
Or would I?
I had another option, which I turned over in my mind as I rode towards another important Benevento monument, the Arch of Trajan.
Rome built this arch to glorify the benevolent, magnanimous side of the emperor Trajan. It shows him meeting peacefully with barbarian kings and giving bread to poor Italian children. There are symbols of the Roman Empire, along with symbols of victory and loyalty and the four seasons.
Trajan’s Arch also marks the point where the Via Traiana branched off from Via Appia. This was a shorter, more certain route that followed the Adriatic coast. The emperor Trajan built it to speed up travel to the ports at Brindisi, Bari, and Lecce.
I thought about taking the newer Via Traiana, and spent a long time staring at the Arch while I decided what to do.
There would be more traffic along Via Traiana, and fewer historic sites. But there would be more campgrounds, and I could probably get to Brindisi a few days earlier. That could turn out to mean more time with Gisela!
There was very little risk of getting lost on Via Traiana. But if I took Via Appia, I wasn’t sure where to go after Benevento.
It was the uncertainty that decided it for me. Which route would lead me through more oak forests, over steeper hills? Which way was I more likely to enjoy a conversation with strangers?
My goal was not to get to Brindisi as fast as possible. It was all about the journey. The Appian Way held more promise of discovery and adventure, and that’s what I wanted from this trip.
I left Benevento heading southeast, my best guess on the route of Via Appia, roughly in the direction of Venosa.
The ancient Roman poet Horace had written an account of his own journey, “Via Appia With Stops.” Venosa was Horace’s home town, and Via Appia definitely passed through here. The town of Venosa was on the other side of the Apennine mountains, but this was now the only direction I had.
I rode into the evening, though I didn’t know the way. I didn't know where I would sleep that night, but something told me to just keep riding.
The road meandered back and forth through scrubby hills, then weaved through dense forest. The blinking light on my handlebars made a dim circle on the pavement in front of me. Besides that, I could only see the dark silhouettes of trees.
I was puffing hard now as I climbed ever-steeper slopes. There weren’t many cars, but when they passed, the headlights cast gorgeous shadows from the branches and leaves. I rode past small villas and buildings that looked deserted.
Then I reached an especially steep hill. The road seemed to dive bomb into a dark forest, winding down and farther down. I could only see a few feet ahead of me, and I wondered if I was destined to go over the edge of a cliff. I could feel the temperature rise.
Finally the ground leveled out, the sky cleared, and stars winked at me overhead.
It was a warm night, and I felt like I was coming home, like I had been there before. Everything seemed oddly familiar, though I didn’t know where I was or where I was going. It felt good to just keep riding through the night.
Finally, I found a wide, rutted dirt road leading uphill away from a turnout. It looked like it hadn't been used for a while. I walked my bike along this track, which soon became more like a field. There were pine trees on my left and olives on my right. Up at the top of the hill, I saw the silhouette of a house.
There were no lights on, but I was going to try to ask permission before I camped. I left my bike and walked up the lumpy field that had started out as a road. Soon I was trudging through soft earth, walking between young olive trees and grape vines. The “house” turned out to be a row of tall sheds. Nobody was around.
I gave up, and walked back down to my bike. But after a few seconds I stopped cold as I saw a small, pale light in the distance. I called out a friendly greeting. There was no answer, but what I saw was unmistakable.
Someone was down there in the trees, waiting quietly between me and my bicycle.
This is the 14th 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: https://bicyclefreedom.com/chapter-xv-somewhere-south-of-maleventum/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.