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Chapter VIII: Lazio’s Best-Kept Secret

Your departure and return dates may be set in stone. But the more empty space you can leave in between, the more likely an Itri will appear and fill in the blanks.

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

I had no idea I would be spending my evening at a castle.

I pedaled hard through switchbacks as SS7 climbed up into the mountains. Each time the road changed direction, it crossed over the remains of a much older, grass-covered road bed. This older bed was the true Appian Way.

The old Roman road was undaunted by the mountain. It plodded straight up the grade, unstoppable like the legions that once used it. When I reached the entrance to a park a bit farther up, I was able to follow the steep, weedy stones of Via Appia Antica directly. In a minute I was looking at the remains of ancient Rome and other historical times. 

Someone was maintaining this place. Level walkways led through neatly-cut grass to signs explaining the origin and function of each crumpled building. This wasn’t a wilderness, but it still felt like an adventure to stumble upon Roman ruins out on a quiet country road.

The architecture here was a mix of different periods and styles. Bits of marble clung to the orange tufa bricks and stony concrete from the buildings of ancient Rome. Fallen pillars basked in the sun.

Some of the structures had Medieval-looking walls built over foundations that were clearly from ancient Rome. Big blocks of marble were embedded in some of the walls. This is typical in Italy. Builders in every historical period borrowed foundations, walls, and pillars from other buildings and other times.

You will see this phenomenon everywhere if you visit Rome. In some of the earlier churches, you’ll notice that the pillars don’t match. They have different colors and different designs, sometimes even different thicknesses. This is because they were pilfered from Rome’s earlier works, and came from different places.

For example, the powerful Barberini family stripped the marble from the Colosseum and Julius Caesar’s funeral site to build St. Peter’s square in the Vatican. There’s even an Italian tongue twister about this: Che non hanno fatti i barbari, hanno fatti i Barberini. What the barbarians didn’t do, the Barberini did.

I left the park and kept riding up into the mountains. About an hour before sunset I reached a small town built around a tall castle. The road passed along the left of the castle, fading into shadows around a curve. Across the street, two old men were playing cards and sipping drinks at a folding table.

They told me I was in a place called Itri. When I asked about the castle, one of the men made a grand, reverent gesture with his arm. “It's very old. From the Middle Ages.”

The other man put his hands together, rolled his eyes, and urged his friend to get back to his cards.

This was the beginning of an amusing scene I've watched in many places all over the Mediterranean. It’s a glimpse of what it must be like to grow up in the shadow of an ancient historic monument, something virtually no American ever gets to do.

Whether you’re in Rome, Athens, or some tiny obscure village anywhere in the cradle of Western history, you can always see the same phenomenon: A group of old men drinking and playing games in front of some crumbling, breathtaking edifice. If you talk to them, they’ll boast proudly about their city or village, and how their particular castle or aqueduct has been around for hundreds or thousands of years. 

When you press them for details, their enthusiasm never falters, but their responses become more vague.

If you ask around, you might get to meet a local expert who can lovingly tell you the story of every shattered brick. But most of the residents adore their relics more casually. They see no need to know the exact history. 

The monument is like a dear old uncle or grandfather who hangs out in the background without saying much. They love to have the old fixture around, and they would be outraged if it suffered any damage or insult. Yet in their ordinary, day-to-day life, they don't give it much thought.

“The temple was here before my great grandparents were born, and it will still be here after my grandchildren have grandchildren. Let’s take another coffee.”

These men don’t need to be scholars of their own history. They are its end product. Most of the time they’re happy just to play cards and sip wine within sight of their inherited greatness.  

Itri is still an underappreciated gem along the route of the ancient Via Appia. Some of the younger residents have started posting on Instagram to give their town more recognition. But when I first came here, Itri was Lazio's best-kept secret.

If you can avoid putting too much detail into your travel plans, you will stumble upon uncountable spontaneous moments of discovery. Your departure and return dates may be set in stone. But the more empty space you can leave in between, the more likely an Itri will appear and fill in the blanks.

I left Rome knowing absolutely nothing about Itri, but I learned later it has been inhabited since the Bronze Age. At one point, Itri was also the stronghold of a mysterious character named Fra' Diavolo, kind of an 18th century Italian version of Che Guevara. He fought against the French occupation of Naples, and chose this place because the town overlooks an important mountain pass, the Gola di Sant'Andrea (Saint Andrew's Throat). 

During the 9th century CE, Italy was torn apart. The Roman empire had disintegrated, and every town had to become its own fortress. The Lombards and other “barbarians” ruled the lands in the north, while the Saracens often attacked from the south. Pirates ravaged the coast, and the Byzantines didn’t have the will or the reach to maintain law and order.  

That’s when a local duke built up the fortifications of Itri and made the most important contributions to the castle. But it didn’t end with him. Some of the walls and towers are dated 400 years after his reign.

I had thought I was going to ride through mostly uninhabited mountains. I was lucky to stumble upon Itri right when night was falling.

The old men stopped their card game to point out a hotel. The woman who ran the place was sitting in a back room with her family, smoking cigarettes and dipping bread into a plate of salted olive oil. She immediately got up to bring me a key.

Now that I had a place to sleep, it was time to find some food. Which brings me to a critical Italian institution that every biker in Italy needs to know about.

I’m talking about pizza al taglio, or pizza by the cut. These ubiquitous pizza places are almost always your best bet for loading up on cheap calories. You pick out the exact pizza you want, tell them how big of a slice to give you, and they'll sell it to you by weight.

My legs were wobbling when I staggered into a pizza al taglio in Itri. A young woman named Alessandra was busy pulling slabs of sizzling pizza out of a huge oven. 

A group of teenagers teased her almost nonstop, and every minute or two she laughed out loud as she wiped the sweat from her forehead.

At a less frenetic moment, Alessandra told me that Itri comes from the Latin word “Iter,” which means the route or the way, because of Itri’s placement on the via Appia.

“Non e' vero,” protested one of the kids. “It's not true. Our paese has its name from the Hydra that Hercules fought.”

Hydra is “Idra” in Italian, so this is a reasonable theory. 

“There’s a lot of mythology around this place,” I commented.

“Certo,” said one of the older girls. “You know that Circe turned Ulysses' sailors into animals only 100 kilometers away from here.”

“More mythology,” said Alessandra. “You cannot turn men into pigs.”

Without any hesitation, one of the boys raised his eyebrows and sang out, “But you make Maurizio a pig every night.”

This sounds worse in Italian. I’m not translating it well, but Alessandra’s face grew as red as tomato sauce. She  turned around and pretended to adjust the elastic that tied back her curly hair.

Later that night I wandered around the castle in the dark. Narrow alleys melded together and doubled back on themselves at weird angles. I felt like I was walking through an Escher drawing. The streets writhed and coiled like the many necks of the hydra who maybe gave this town a name. I’ll never know the truth about that name.

Feral cats were playing and hunting in the bends and niches of this labyrinth. Every friendly “meow” sounded like an Italian greeting of “Ciao.”

The cats ignored me when I said, “Here, kitty.” I tried in Italian, and got some puzzled feline stares when I said, “Vieni qui.” 

I would understand the next day, when an old woman opened a door and sang out, “Miscio, veh chi!” It was a regional version of vieni qui, which means “come here” in Italian. These cats only understood dialect.

My phone battery was dead, so I couldn’t text Gisela. I went to bed late, wishing I had some company besides the cats. 

I was much more tired than I thought, because the next thing I saw was a flood of dazzling sunlight pouring into  my room. I took a long, luxurious shower before packing up and checking out.

When I hit the street, I saw six bikes parked in front of a cafe. A very good sign.

As I walked in, the cyclists saluted me with friendly cries of “Ciao.” A man with a red scarf tied around his head offered to buy me a cappuccino.

Most of the bikers wore green and white jerseys with the logo of Italcalce, a cement company based in Terracina. “We are riding a century today,” one of them explained. “But it is not as difficult for us, because we ride 100 kilometers. Your American century is 100 miles.”  

Their ride was also a pilgrimage to the church of Madonna della Civita'. The church is a few miles outside of Itri, on top of a hill with gorgeous views.

Madonna della Civita' is the patron saint of Itri, and her icon in the church has its own interesting story. The icon was made at a time when artists in Eastern Europe created beautiful images of saints and holy scenes. Many people held a deep reverence for these icons, and made them the object of prayer and devotion.

Some people considered this reverence a form of idolatry. They were known as the iconoclasts, or icon-breakers, because they started a powerful movement as they destroyed every icon they could get their hands on. 

In the 8th century, the Byzantine emperor put his authority behind the iconoclasts, and the adoration of sacred images was banned. Artists were imprisoned or killed for creating icons, and the people who revered them were persecuted.

All of this was happening far away in the east, in places like modern-day Turkey, Poland, and Russia. But somehow the sacred icon of the Madonna della Civita' was smuggled into Italy and sequestered in the wilderness outside of Itri, where it was forgotten for centuries.

According to legend, a shepherd found it in the hills. This shepherd was deaf, but as soon as he prayed to the image he was able to hear and speak.

It's not my place to speculate on how much of this story is true. But if you ride up into the hills to admire the views, the architecture of the church, and the beautiful artistry of the icon itself, you won't be disappointed.

While the bikers told me about their local culture, and I looked down the street again at the castle, I realized what a find this place was. I looked forward to more surprises like Itri as I continued my ride.

This is the 8th 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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