(If you're new to this story, here's the link to Chapter One: https://bicyclefreedom.com/the-mouth-of-the-wolf-chapter-i/)
Freezing blasts of soul-crushing wind. Huge metal monsters swirling all around me.
And somewhere in the blustery cold, I discovered my phone was gone.
I should have known I was in for an eventful day when I woke up sore and aching in a misty rain. I hit the road and started climbing steep hills almost immediately. When I stopped for a hot cornetto and coffee at a bar, I started shivering.
The road wormed up and up, and then the switchbacks gave way to a punishing ascent in a ruler-straight line which ended in the lofty town of Aeclanum. This had been an important city in the past, but it was mostly destroyed by the Byzantines.
I knew there would be some worthy ruins, so when I saw a sign indicating an archeological site, I took a sharp right into the entrance.
Now the rain was like a shower of arrows. They hit my poncho with an endless pelting sound. I walked my bike to a modern building in the murky distance. Half a dozen men were drinking coffee inside. I asked if I could leave my bike there while I explored the ruins.
First they wanted to know what a guy with a foreign accent and a loaded bike was doing in Aeclanum. And they insisted I have coffee with them, which I was grateful to do.
“America!” said one of them named Roberto. “The modern empire.”
I told him that our Empire was crumbling.
“Yes, but it will take a long time to fall apart.”
I spent the next hour trekking through the wet remains of Aeclanum. The archaeologists had reconstructed a section of the road, piecing together a jigsaw puzzle of dark basalt hexagons. Healthy grass grew around this marvel in rich shades of green. The rain gave the stones a slick, shiny gleam.
Roberto drew me a map and gave me directions to several other archeological sites around Aeclanum. Most of them were too far off my route, but I'll get to them someday.
“Here, I will take you to the closest one,” he offered. By now the rain had stopped, and we walked through the mud to a beat-up blue Fiat with no seatbelts. I hoped he wouldn't drive too fast on these wet and winding mountain roads.
It was only a short way to a large excavation area. Walls of tufa brick emerged from the ground.
“This is the past coming back to light,” Roberto said, “but this is also our future. This is our petroleum.”
I nodded as Roberto lit a cigarette. “A lot of tourists would pay to see this,” I said.
“Eh! Si!,” he answered. “Italy is not rich in silver or iron. We have a lot of good food, but a modern economy can't survive on agriculture.”
He pointed his cigarette at the compost of ancient Rome. “Archeology is Italy's petroleum.”
It’s been many years since I had this conversation with Roberto. The next time I went to Rome, I was upset to find that I had to buy a ticket to enter the Forum. I remember the year of the Jubilee, when it was essentially a park, and you could wander in for free anytime while the gates were open.
My frustration is mixed. Whenever I see a fence around a historical monument, I try to remind myself that Italy has finally understood the value of what she has.
Still, nothing beats an ancient relic that has become a part of the wilderness, unfenced and unregulated. One of the sites on Roberto's map was a broken Roman bridge that had once crossed the Calore river. His directions were longer than the way to the Ponte degli Aurunci, and twice as complicated.
I had to descend the steep, straight hill that had brought me into Aeclanum in the first place. This meant I would have to go back up the hill again later that day. After this, I would find a winding road that went up and down more hills and eventually crossed a highway. A series of turns would take me to a footbridge that went over a stream. After this, I would have to take a dirt road, follow it to another dirt road, turn left and look around for the Ponte Rotto.
This “Ponte Rotto” (broken bridge) was near enough that I was willing to try to find it.
I got through the first few twists and turns. The very last part of the paved “road” was little more than a one-way track just wide enough to accommodate a single car. As I grinded my way up a slope designed to disintegrate knee joints, I met a car heading the opposite direction.
The driver rolled down his window, glanced at my bike, and said, “Duro, eh?” It's hard.
I told him I was looking for the Ponte Rotto and he gave me his own version of the route. My dirt road was up ahead, only a short distance. When I came to the second crossroad I had to turn left. There I would pass two intersections and turn right at the second one. A road would branch off to the left from there, and I had to take this branch, make the next right turn where I could, and then turn left as soon as possible after that.
He gave me these directions in Italian, with bits of a dialect that I struggled to understand. I don't know if it was the altitude, the strain of climbing so many hills, or too much coffee. I felt like I was in the middle of a weird dream.
The dirt roads were a labyrinth between gentle hills and green grassy fields. Sometimes I would see a sign that said “Ponte Rotto” but indicated a direction opposite of what I had been told. Roberto had warned me to ignore the signs. “People move them every year. They tell you nothing.”
My left knee was throbbing from when I fell on it the night before. I did the best I could to ignore it as I counted the intersections, trying to remember when to turn and whether it was left or right. I burrowed deeper into the countryside, wondering if I would ever find Ponte Rotto.
Then, as I rose to the top of a slippery hill, I saw a distant row of huge, sweeping arches that stopped suddenly at a line of alders and shrubs. It was still far away, but my road led straight past it.
I got as close as I could, left the road, and wheeled my bike through damp, waist-high grass to a gigantic arch made of orange tufa bricks. It sheltered me just as the clouds opened up with another downpour.
Tall grass flashed and flickered with thousands of tiny diamond drops of water. Colorful flowers peeked through the sea of green. I leaned against the orange wall and rested in the rain.
This was the happiest, proudest moment of my entire trip.
There’s nothing more satisfying, more empowering, than finishing a task that seemed unbearably hard. Whatever hills you need to climb, whatever strange paths and roads you need to navigate, every difficult act you do is a monument to your extraordinary role as a human being.
I’ve led tour groups to the Colosseum and the Sistine Chapel in Rome, the Acropolis in Athens and the statue of David in Florence. For three years I spent almost every weekend and holiday visiting some of the most famous buildings and works of art in the world. But this broken bridge meant more to me than Saint Peter's Square.
On my way back into town, I came to an intersection and couldn't remember which way to go. I searched the ground for my own tracks, but the rain had already obliterated them. I had to guess the way.
You probably know that I chose correctly. If I hadn’t, I would be working on a farm today and sleeping under a broken bridge.
I got back to the main road and cruised through wooded mountains for a few hours. When I stopped for a slice of pizza at a roadside bar, a man driving a produce truck offered me a coffee. When I told him I had just had one he replied, “Well you'll have to have another one, then. Come on!”
He gave me a bag of oranges and beans that were still in their pods. “For the road,” he said. He showed me how to split open the pods and eat the large, pale beans inside. When I tried to pay him he pushed my hand away.
“It’s for the road,” he insisted.
I stuffed most of the fruit and beans into my pockets and panniers, but there were still three oranges that wouldn’t fit. I put them in a sack that dangled from a handlebar, swinging around whenever I turned.
It had to be afternoon by now, but the sun was hidden by the grey sky, occasional rain, and sometimes a thick fog. I was almost always climbing uphill, but I felt cold most of the time. A strong wind pushed me from my back, and sometimes I had to fight it head on. Usually the wind was blowing on my side. It chilled me and made it hard to keep my balance. Was this the Maleventum, the bad wind the ancient Romans talked about?
At one point, I came around a bend and heard a mechanical-sounding whirr, like an electric engine. It reminded me of a light rail train. This sound was joined by high-pitched squeaks about once every five seconds.
Away in the distance, I saw a towering grey shape through the fog. As I got closer, the sounds grew louder, and the grey giant was moving. It looked like a huge, deformed man running in place up in the sky. Was I about to be abducted by aliens?
A minute later a spinning sheet of metal flew out of the fog, and then I saw my monster completely. It was a windmill.
A flat, green plain opened in front of me. There was almost nothing to see in any direction except the road ahead of me, endless grassy fields, and scores of windmills generating electricity. At least all of this wind was doing some good. It was a Beneventum after all. But I still had to ride through it.
For the next few hours I crossed an empty, green steppe. I was on a nearly flat plain, with just enough small hills to stop me from seeing what was ahead. I was riding steadily up a slight grade that never leveled off. The strong, shifting wind made pale waves on the endless fields of grass, and also made it hard to keep riding.
That’s the situation I was in when I realized my phone was gone. Maybe the constant pedaling had pushed it out of my pocket. I was lost, facing a cold demon wind, and had no communication.
It felt like I had been pedaling for several hours with no change. Just a numbing, grassy sameness to everything. I wanted the day to end, but I was worried about what would happen when it did. When the light began to fade, I thought about setting up my tent, but the wind would have made this impossible.
At dusk I came to a sign that indicated the way to Aquilonia. It was on a road that went up yet another steep hill and disappeared around a bend. I remembered reading something interesting about this town once, long ago.
I had a map from Touring Club Italia. When I took it out the wind filled it like a sail and made a jagged rip where I held it in my hand. I had to fold it up and look at one small rectangle at a time.
From what I could tell, there was no definite, main route through this area. But it looked like the road beyond Aquilonia would eventually bring me towards Venosa, on the other side of the Apennine Mountains. That’s where I wanted to go.
Another blast of cold wind drove ripples through the tall grass. I needed shelter, and Aquilonia looked like my best option.
For the last time that day, I rode up a hill towards what turned out to be one of the most memorable places of the entire journey.
This is the 16th 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.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.
(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 282 B.C.E, the Romans had a bad relationship with the Greeks in southern Italy. When Roman warships approached a harbor near Tarentum, it was the last straw. The Greeks invited a king named Pyrrhus to fight for them against Rome.
Pyrrhus loved war. He spent much of his career invading other lands and getting rich off the spoils. Pyrrhus also had a knack for marrying wealth. He had 5 wives during the course of his life, mostly princesses or queens who helped to fill his coffers and finance his wars.
Pyrrhus may have had a sincere desire to help his fellow Greeks. But he also recognized a tremendous opportunity. If he could conquer Rome, he could become the king of the whole Italian peninsula.
Pyrrhus arrived in Italy with a mighty army. Three thousand cavalry. Two thousand archers, plus another 500 warriors armed with slings. Some twenty thousand foot soldiers. Altogether, more than 25,000 highly-trained Greek warriors.
There were hoplites, tough men reared in the hard country life on the rocky slopes of Greece. The best of them could split a tree trunk with a javelin from 100 feet.
There were the Epirotes, fierce and loyal subjects that Pyrrhus hand-picked as his elite personal guard.
But the pride and might of his army consisted of 20 elephants trained for war. Their tusks could sweep away soldiers like blades of grass. Their feet could crush the survivors. The archers on their backs would rain death upon their foes.
Over the course of a few years, Pyrrhus drove back all the Roman armies that came up against him. The other parties in Italy left him alone, or actively helped him. Pyrrhus was already planning how to run his new kingdom, and even expand it into Sicily. Total victory seemed inevitable.
But he was about to be stopped by a grumpy old man.
In 279 BCE, Pyrrhus sent envoys to Rome, demanding her surrender and offering generous terms. If the Romans had accepted Pyrrhus’s offer, southern Italy might have remained Greek to this day. The Roman Empire as we know it would never have existed. There would have been repercussions for Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and ultimately the conquest of America.
For better or worse, you would be living in a different world today.
The Roman leaders could have accepted, and it would have avoided bloodshed in the short term. Has life ever offered you a tempting bargain like this?
Give up some of your freedom, stifle a little bit of your creativity, compromise your vision and your dreams. In return, things will be comfortable for you, and you can avoid confronting the scary obstacle that’s in your way.
There’s no shame in accepting such an offer. Many people have done it. I’ve done it. But the world becomes a little bit sad every time it happens.
You probably think of Rome as a decadent empire. They invaded three continents and subjugated the inhabitants. They destroyed cultures and enslaved populations. There’s a reason that Rome has been the villain in many stories around the world.
Still, I’m begging you to take the Roman’s side in the story of Pyrhus. Most people had at least some rights and freedoms in the early Roman Republic. You could improve the quality of your life through merit. Even if you were a woman or a slave, and life was brutally unfair, you had some legal protections and the chance to make things better for your children, if not for yourself.
The Roman Republic wasn’t perfect, but it was better than the dictatorship that Pyrrhus wanted to impose.
This is why Appius Claudius was able to sway the people, and even inspire them. When he said, “Every man is the architect of his fate,” he was telling Pyrrhus’s envoys that Rome intended to remain the architect of hers. This was also his way of reminding the Romans that they were responsible for their own destiny.
The Romans utterly rejected Pyrrhus’s call for surrender, and a war began.
Things went well for Pyrrhus in the beginning. He defeated one Roman army after another. But there was a cost. He couldn't easily replace his fallen soldiers. In contrast, the Romans could draw upon a large supply of loyal warriors.
After an expensive victory in the battle of Asculum in 279 BCE, Pyrrhus said, “If we defeat the Romans one more time, it will destroy me.” This is said to be the origin of the term, a Pyrrhic victory.
At last, the Romans were becoming the architects of their own fate. Even while they were losing battles against Pyrrhus, they kept on building aqueducts, writing philosophy, growing crops and establishing trade.
That’s how you overcome your biggest obstacle. You do the best you can with what you have.
No matter what adversity you’re facing, no matter what metaphorical Pyrrhus is invading your life, keep on striving to be the best possible version of yourself. Eventually you’ll become so good that you’ll make your biggest worries irrelevant.
That’s when the universe usually throws you a chance to finally overcome an obstacle. This has happened to me twice. Maybe it’s happened to you. I call it a Beneventum Moment, and pretty soon you’ll know why.
Pyrrhus pounded his way north like an unstoppable juggernaut. If he could keep going long enough to overpower the city of Rome itself, the war would be won.
If his strength failed before taking Rome, it would be the end not only for Pyrrhus in Italy, but for all the Greeks in Italy and for the Samnites, too. The outcome would determine the future of the Italian peninsula, the history of Europe, and the destiny of people all over much of the world.
The final battle took place somewhere south of Maleventum, the place of the evil wind.
Now, let’s remember that somewhere south of Maleventum, in a dark grove of olive trees, I was looking at a strange, pale light on the path between me and my bicycle.
“Ciao,” I called out. There was no reply.
“Buona sera,” I tried again.
Still no answer, but the light bobbed gently up and down. It looked like someone was walking with their phone held out.
“My name is Jacob,” I continued in Italian. “I'm touring Italy on a bicycle and I want to ask your permission to stay here in my tent for one night. Is that ok?”
The light stopped moving, but still nobody replied.
I had a flashlight in my pocket. I turned it on and pointed it at my own face. “You can see me now,” I said in Italian. “I don't want to cause any problems. I'll leave if you want.”
There was no reply, but the mysterious apparition stood its ground.
I waited for half a minute for a voice, for the light to move, for anything to happen. The poor man or woman must have been terrified of me, rooted to the spot. That’s what I told myself, but the truth is, I was feeling scared.
“Do you speak English?” I asked. “Parlez-vous francais?”
I repeated my greetings and introductions in every language I could remember. This went on until I exhausted my linguistic acumen a few seconds later. All I got was a disturbing silence. The strange light quivered in the distance.
All I wanted now was to leave. I just wanted to get on my bicycle and ride away. I didn't like being lost in a dark forest, with a frightening apparition right there on the path between me and my bicycle.
Finally I said, “OK, I'm going to walk towards you. I just want to pick up my bike. I'll take my bike and go away. I'm sorry if I disturbed you.” I pointed my light towards the ground, and waited a minute for my eyes to adjust to the dark again.
I walked slowly down the hill, and I kept the hovering pale light in my sight. It looked like I would have to walk past this person to reach my bike.
As I got closer to the light, I thought that maybe the person standing between me and my bike was just distracting me while his accomplices waited in ambush along the sides of the path. Murder or abduction, velociraptor style.
My heart beat faster. I tried to remember everything I had ever heard people say about self-defense. In a few seconds I worked out a plan.
When I got close to the person who stood there, I would suddenly raise my flashlight and shine it right in his eyes to blind him for a few seconds. Maybe bash him in the nose with it, so his eyes would water. Then I would run for my bike and get the hell out of there.
The light was now about five feet away. With a shout, I leaped across this last distance and aimed my flashlight where I thought his head would be.
I tripped over a rock or a stick, jarred my knee and dropped my light. I rolled on the ground, then got back up and limped for the bike. It was laying on the ground where I had left it. I groped clumsily for the handlebars. The weight of the panniers made it hard to raise, and one of the pedals banged my shin.
During these perfectly-executed maneuvers, I was certain somebody would run out of the pine trees and grab me. But they didn’t. I only heard a faint wind. The sound of crickets. A small rodent lurking among the olive trees.
I saw my flashlight light laying on the ground, the beam shining on the grass and shrubs. A small bush waved its branches in the breeze.
As I finally picked up my bike, the mysterious light re-appeared, bobbing gently up and down.
“Okay,” I said. “I guess you’re not going to hurt me. I’m just going to pick up my flashlight and leave now.”
I set down my bike again, and inched my way to the light on the ground. Then I couldn’t resist the temptation. I pointed my beam straight at the glowing bit of light, and I yelled, “Show yourself!”
I might have done this a little too dramatically.
All I could see was a young tree. I walked closer, and saw a thick caterpillar on the tip of a branch. White bands ran along its back. I took away the light, and the white bands glowed in the dark.
All this time, I had been talking to a glow-worm on a branch.
Somewhere south of Maleventum, the Romans made camp and prepared for a final stand. They knew it was only a matter of time before the Greeks and Samnites attacked.
The fight began at night, and lasted most of the next day. Neither side could seem to get the upper hand.
Then, a Roman soldier noticed that the elephants were steering clear of the watchfires. He and his companions grabbed flaming branches and threw them towards an elephant, who reared up and ran back.
This turned the tide. The Romans drove the elephants back with burning sticks, hot coals, anything they could set on fire. They wrapped their arrows in oil-soaked rags and turned them into flaming missiles. The huge animals ran back and trampled their own masters.
Even after this new development, Pyrrhus still drove the Romans out of their encampment. But it was an expensive victory. The Battle of Maleventum depleted his army and killed more than half his elephants. He packed up and sailed back to Greece.
From the Roman perspective, this battle was a change in the wind. To recognize the fact, they renamed the city of Maleventum to Beneventum, which means “good wind.”
The city of Benevento was born, and Rome had her Beneventum Moment.
Somewhere south of Beneventum, I laughed out loud as I set up my tent. So many dangers and worries turn out to be nothing. Pyrrhus turned out to be a footnote in Roman history. My biggest fear turned out to be a cute little bug. Whatever troubled me for the rest of this journey, I would just shrug it off.
By the time I was ready for bed, the trees were flashing with lightning bugs. Overhead, a million stars twinkled in answer. Far away on the horizon, bolts of lightning added to the brilliant light show. Before I went to sleep, I saw a meteor scrape a bright line across the sky.
This dark, mysterious place was full of light, rich with omens. As I fell asleep in my tent, the ghosts of cavalry, of bandits, of poets and pilgrims marched through time only a dozen meters away.
This is the 15th 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-xvi-italys-petroleum/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.
(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.
Somewhere very near this area passing beneath the tires of my bike, a Samnite leader turned an impressive victory into tragic loss.
The exact place is one of the unsolved mysteries of via Appia. Nobody knows the precise location of the Battle of the Caudine Forks. But it was somewhere on the way to Benevento from Capua.
I had a battle of my own to deal with. It took a long time to get through rush hour traffic and put Caserta behind me. There weren’t any bike paths, and often there was no shoulder. At one point I got stuck in an underpass, and there was no room to get out of the way of the cars and trucks blaring their horns.
Eventually I made it through the heavy traffic, and reached the charming little town of Maddaloni.
Did I say “little?”
“No,” a man in the bar set the record straight, as I sipped a cappuccino and enjoyed a cornetto spread thick with Nutella. “Maddaloni is bigger than Caserta!”
The barista wore a bow tie and jacket with faded jeans and polished brown shoes. He told me his city’s history as he made coffee for a throng of customers. It seems that Maddaloni had encountered every race or civilization that ever existed.
“The Greeks were here. The Arabs were here,” he ticked off a list of conquerors. “The Bourbons. The Lombards. The Normans. Every great civilization came to Maddaloni.”
“The Chinese?” I asked.
“Si!” he insisted gravely. “The Chinese are here right now, today. We have two Chinese restaurants! Every civilization gave something to Maddaloni. We have paintings. We have sculptures. We have bigger cathedrals than Caserta!”
He seemed to have a special contempt reserved just for Caserta. He nodded sympathetically when I told him about my battle with the traffic.
“In Caserta they have commerce,” he said, “but in Maddaloni we have culture.” He gestured towards a wide screen in the back of the bar. “I play music and movies here at night.”
While I finished my cappuccino he turned on the screen and showed videos of musicians playing Miles Davis and other hits.
“In Maddaloni, we listen to good music,” he said. “In Caserta, they listen to trucks all day. Baah! Baah!” he imitated the sound of honking horns.
As I finished my cappuccino he asked me, “Do you like Italian coffee?”
“In America you drink coffee in big cups, big like my hand! In Italy we prefer espresso in these little cups.” He held an imaginary cup between his thumb and finger. “Our coffee is small.”
“But it is bigger than Caserta,” I suggested.
This made him laugh so hard, he wouldn’t let me pay for my cornetto.
As I left Maddaloni, both sides of the road were crowded with industrial warehouses and chain-link fences. Bulldozers and heavy farm machinery rested on concrete pads. It was a disappointment after the natural beauty of the last few days.
But eventually the road headed upward into the forest and mountains, towards the area most scholars agree upon as the general location of the Caudine Forks.
In 312 BCE, the same year construction began on the Appian Way, the Samnites managed to trap a huge Roman army in a narrow ravine. They barricaded the exit with fallen trees, and manned the ridges with warriors.
The Romans couldn't fight from here. There was no cover. The Samnites could rain arrows, rocks, and javelins on them, and the Romans would have to climb steep slopes and cliffs under this fire in order to fight back or get out.
There was a long deliberation over what to do with the trapped Romans. The leader of the Samnite army, Gaius Pontius, sent a messenger to his father to ask advice. His father, Herennius, suggested he release the Romans unconditionally. He said to let them keep their lives, their arms and their dignity.
“What, are you crazy?”
Pontius sent a reply that he could not possibly throw away this golden opportunity. Herennius then advised Pontius to kill every single Roman soldier.
Meanwhile, the Romans were growing hungry, tired, and eager to have their fate resolved. Pontius didn't understand his father's contradictory advice, so he asked Herennius to come in person and explain what he meant.
Herennius told his son that if the Romans were released, this would be a noble and generous gesture. The Romans might cease hostilities, and the Samnites could enjoy years of peace.
On the other hand, if he massacred the large Roman army, he would cripple Rome’s military for years. It might take a generation to recruit and train enough soldiers to replace the losses and launch another assault on Samnite territory.
Pontius wanted to find a middle course. His father warned him that anything other than the two extreme solutions would have dire consequences.
Pontius should have listened to his father. Instead, he sealed the fate of his people forever.
The two parties negotiated a truce. Pontius released the Romans, but he couldn’t resist humiliating them first. He stripped them of their arms and possessions, and made them pass beneath a yoke on their way out of the valley.
The yoke is an insult that's hard to understand in modern times. It was a device to link animals to a plow or a cart. By forcing the Romans to pass under a yoke, he was essentially forcing them to behave like cattle. He was degrading them and asserting his dominance over them.
Psychologically, it was the same as sodomizing the entire army.
It must have been a wonderful sight for the enemies of Rome. Just beyond the edge of their territory, the might of the growing Republic was helpless and her soldiers were forced to grovel like animals. But it ended badly for the Samnites.
Depending on the sources you read, a truce may have lasted as long as five years. But the Romans made their way back to safe territory with zero casualties and dreams of revenge. When war broke out against the Samnites again, the Romans fought with the ferocity of a bitter grudge.
Pontius had managed to enrage the Romans without causing them any harm. Without any casualties on either side, he had won a battle but lost the war. Rome would be ruthless in her dealings with the Samnites as long as the Romans remembered the humiliation of the Caudine Forks.
There’s no consensus on the location of the Caudine Forks. Your guess is as good as anybody’s, and this adds to the fun of trying to find the place.
I rode steadily up through a steep, hilly country. The road moved in wide, slow curves like the maneuvers of armies.
The SS7 does pass through a narrow valley where a town is called “Forchia.” This could be interpreted as “Fork,” and can also mean a yoke. But there are other narrow valleys nearby. I passed one of the possible sites, a shadowy ravine that leered out of the earth beneath a cloud-darkened sky. Thick forest surrounded the road, and the wind smelled like anise.
There was a strong, unmistakable feeling of defiance and resistance in this place, as if the land itself rejected foreigners and invaders. Everything seemed cold and grey as old asphalt. The sky was the same color as the road beneath me. The tree trunks, road, and sky all looked like dead, stale marble.
I felt an overwhelming sense of being unwelcome here, an unusual feeling almost anywhere in Italy. I stopped at a bar to shake the bad mood with a coffee, but the owner and patrons grew noticeably bitter when I told them I was American. As I left, someone muttered, “Imperialiste,” loud enough to be certain I could hear it.
I couldn’t find the Caudine Forks. There should have been a deep ravine, some place where an army could be trapped. My own mind seemed to be caught in a narrow channel, following the route which might not even be the right way, dumbly marching like a centurion into my doom.
The oppressive atmosphere lifted as I got closer to Benevento. The sun returned to the sky as I crossed the Ponte Leproso, the bridge over the Sabato River. This is where the Via Appia entered the city of Beneventum, which we'll get to in a minute.
The well-placed stones of the bridge reminded me of the Ponte degli Aurunci. But I looked over the edge and saw part of a decaying couch, two shopping carts, and piles of plastic trash bags in the river. This bridge has seen better days, as most of the Italian websites will remind you.
Benevento was originally called Maloentum in the Oscan language spoken by the Samnites and the Aurunci. It means the place where the flocks return. But when the Romans arrived, the name Maloentum was corrupted into Maleventum, which means “bad wind” or “bad event.” Later that would change.
Here, the Romans put a final stop to Pyrrhus and became the architects of their own fate. Not long afterwards, the Romans themselves would be the invaders of many lands.
Benevento was a crossroads, both historically and literally. It was about to become an important turning point for me, as well.
This is the 13th 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-xiv-trajans-crossroads/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.
In 73 BCE, gladiators in Capua broke free and started a slave revolt.
They were led by a man named Spartacus, a name that everyone knows today. As his rebels fought their way across Italy, thousands of slaves joined their ranks. They defeated four Roman armies in battle, and outwitted the Romans for two years.
In the end, the rebels became the victims of their greed. They had the chance to escape over the alps and enjoy freedom for the rest of their lives. Instead, they marched south in search of loot. A coordinated effort by two Roman generals led to their capture, and their fate has a gruesome connection with my journey.
As a warning to others, the Romans crucified the Spartacus rebels along via Appia.
The real Capua, where gladiators were trained to fight, is the modern town of Santa Maria in Capua Vetere, a few miles away from modern Capua. This was where I was ultimately headed. But I had an important reason to stop in Capua first.
Sometime during my quest for the Ponte degli Aurunci, I broke a spoke on my rear wheel. Now I crossed a bridge with strong, solid arches like immovable soldiers, and wobbled into town, looking for a bike mechanic.
The bike shop was literally a hole in the wall, a 10-by-20-foot space excavated into the side of a hill. A man who introduced himself as Zio Mario had my wheel off and the tire removed before I thought to ask how much it would cost.
There were no windows in the shop, but Mario did most of his work right out on the street. It seemed like he was constantly rolling cigarettes. He would work with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, sometimes lit but often not, while he chatted with people who passed by.
“This guy is from California,” he bragged to a lot of these folks. “And he rode his bike all the way here from Rome.”
These distractions didn’t stop Mario from doing a great job on my bike. He carefully inspected my wheel when he was done, and took the time to carefully adjust the spokes until the wheel was true. He put a new lining around the inside of the rim, and when he replaced the tire he lined up the label over the valve stem. He checked the pressure with a gauge that was designed for bicycles and not cars, and he wiped down the entire bike with a clean rag.
When he was done, I took out my wallet and I thought I heard him say “Venticinque.” 25 euros. Not cheap, but I didn’t have much choice. I should have expected some price gouging.
But when I handed him the money he asked, “Wait. How much did you hear me say it would cost?”
He had actually said, “Viene cinque.” It comes to 5 euro. I was amazed. He was charging about seven bucks for a first-rate professional job, parts and labor included. He wouldn’t even let me tip him.
“We are not in Rome,” he said as he handed most of my money back to me.
I have no words to tell you how much I love Rome. A week-long vacation in Rome turned into a 3-year stay, and I never stop thinking or talking about it.
But whenever I’m there, I watch my back. There are people in Rome who will try to rip you off, usually in petty ways, especially if you’re a foreigner. The people in smaller towns are more trusting and also much more trustworthy.
I suspect this is true in every country. Cities offer great opportunities for work, a social life, and to pursue almost any ambition. I moved to Los Angeles for all of the above reasons. Many gifts of society are only possible when you have a large concentration of people in one place. But what have we lost in exchange?
Both the old and new Capua are on the edge of Caserta, a major transportation hub. The area surrounding these cities is heavy with traffic. As I reached Santa Maria in Capua Vetere, the traffic got worse.
The amphitheater and other Roman ruins are worth seeing if you’re ever near Santa Maria in Capua Vetere. But overall this is possibly the most difficult, dangerous, and unattractive part of the Via Appia bike route.
With nowhere to camp, I checked into a cheap hotel. My room had a concrete floor with a gritty, non-stick paint that reminded me of a swimming pool. After a shower I was anxious to get out of my room and into town.
I grabbed some pizza al taglio and gelato, but there wasn't much to see. A few hours after sundown, every place in the city seemed to be closed. I felt like the only person on the street. I missed Mario and his friendly stream of patrons.
My phone buzzed with a call from my dad. As we spoke for a while, he asked “What’s bugging you? You don’t sound as happy as you should be.”
Before I left on my bike tour, I spent several days in Rome preparing for the trip. I also had a long list of Italian friends, former neighbors, students and acquaintances whom I would have loved to see. I could have called or visited at least a few people. What stopped me?
Did I really want to get going on my road trip, more than I wanted to see all those people? How many of them would have wanted to see me?
It’s the unavoidable irony of traveling alone. It’s easier to meet and talk to people on a solo tour, because you don’t have anyone else to talk to. You’ll almost always come back with stories of interesting people, local experts, and fellow travelers.
But even when you’re enjoying the solitude and the freedom it brings, your enjoyment will be tempered by the feeling that maybe you should be spending this time with your family and friends. I always carry a small weight of guilt with me on these trips.
My dad was encouraging. Before we hung up he said, “It's better to be lonely by yourself than to be lonely with other people.”
After the call, I noticed the smell of fresh-baked bread. It was out of loneliness, more than hunger, that I walked into what seemed like the only open pasticceria in all of Santa Maria in Capua Vetere.
The light was on, and the door was propped open. There were pastries in a glass display case, and behind the counter a scrawny man with greying hair was sliding a sheet of confections into a huge oven.
I greeted the baker with a smile and the usual “Buona sera.”
“It’s okay, I speak English,” he answered. He had an accent that didn’t sound Italian. He also sounded tired and annoyed.
“What part of America are you from?” he asked, as he handed me a warm cornetto.
“How did you know I’m American?”
“You’re wearing shorts. You have an American accent. The way you walked in here screams ‘American.’ I lived in Los Angeles for 15 years. There are a million things I can see in you.”
He spoke slowly and intensely, and he warmed up a little bit when he found out I was following via Appia on a bicycle. I learned he was Greek, but he married an American woman and sold real estate in Sherman Oaks, California, for several years. It didn’t make him happy.
“Now I stay up all night and sell cornetti to Italian kids. But I found the secret of life. Do you want me to tell you?”
How could I say no?
“Listen,” he said slowly, even more slowly than he had been speaking already. “All my life I was a salesman. I know how to read people. I know what they want before they do, and that’s how I can sell to them. I know you are searching for something. I seen a million people like you, from every country in the world.”
He paused dramatically. He put his fingertips on his temples, looked down at the floor, and took a deep breath. I half expected him to start singing “The Gambler,” but he didn’t.
“The secret of life is to learn as much as you can. Find something important to you and get very good at it.” He kept looking down as he said this, his elbows propped on the counter and his head in his hands.
I waited for more. I could hear a car driving past in the street outside. Finally he looked up at me.
“You have to learn and experience as much as you can. Keep traveling. Keep reading. And find one thing to be very good at.”
“Yes,” I said. “I agree with you. It’s what I’m trying to do.”
“So am I,” he said. “But I am a Kassandra. Do you know about Kassandra, from Troy?”
I nodded. Kassandra was a woman who had been cursed by the Greek god Apollo. She was given the power to predict the future and see the truth, but nobody would ever believe her.
“People don’t want to know the truth,” he went on. “If everybody tried to be the greatest possible person, can you imagine the world? If everybody tried to learn and be great at something. Everybody! We would solve all of our problems. We would cure the cancer. Everybody would be happy if they tried to learn more and do better.”
He said all of this quietly and slowly, and he sounded terribly sad.
I munched on my pastry as he stared at the counter without blinking. Finally I broke the silence by saying the dumbest thing possible: “Most people would rather just watch a football game and eat their cornetti.”
He put his head down on the counter, like he was going to fall asleep.
“Go away,” he said wearily. “You know everything. Now go away.”
This wise old baker who knew the secret of life didn’t seem especially happy or fulfilled. I fled his lair, walking quickly past a row of glass windows. The mannequins were dressed in the latest Italian fashions. In Italy, the female mannequins have erect nipples pointing through their clothes. I’ve always found this amusing and a little bit weird.
Lamps lit up the street. I saw another person walking alone in the distance.
It was too dark to really see any details about the other person. I was clearly getting sleepy, because when the walker turned and looked at me it looked like he was dressed in a toga. I imagined I was looking at Cicero.
Cicero regarded friendship as one of the highests, greatest blessings any human being could ever enjoy. What would he say about me? Here I was, free to travel the world, but Cicero would have pitied me. He would have only seen a friendless vagabond in a silent town.
I thought about what Pyrrhus might say. “Setting off on your own, seeking adventure and conquest and achievement--that’s the way to really live!” I used to agree with Pyrrhus.
Old Appius Claudius would probably also agree with his enemy Pyrrhus on this point. Appius Claudius never seemed concerned about other people unless they were useful to him.
Nobody’s going to name a road after me, but most of my goals have centered around achievement, mainly achieving things that make it possible to have more experiences like the journey I was on now. I was becoming a petty caricature of Appius or Pyrrhus.
Years ago, I stumbled on via Appia and lusted after the chance to follow it all the way. I thought it would give me bragging rights. I thought it would be fun and glorious all the time. Maybe someday I could write a book about it.
But most of the time I’m so fucking full of myself that I miss the best part of the journey.
This is the 12th 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-xiii-a-fatal-decision-at-the-caudine-forks/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.
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.
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: https://bicyclefreedom.com/the-secret-of-life/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.
Have you ever had to watch as one of your favorite places disappeared or changed forever?
Once there was a tiny bar near a bus station in Rome, where an old man made the best cappuccino in the world. He would drop the saucer on the counter at an angle, making it spin for a few seconds, rattling faster and faster as it settled in front of you.
He whipped the steamed milk with a loud, clattering flourish, folded it into your coffee with a wire whisk, and poured out the last bit of foam into spiral shapes that would turn into a heart, a smiling face, or the colosseum.
Any barista could use this kind of showmanship to mask a mediocre coffee, but this guy didn’t need to. The cappuccino itself was even better than the performance. Rich flavors arose from a perfect balance of espresso and milk. There was a subtle sweetness, and the temperature was always just right.
This place was too far from my apartment for a daily visit, but I know the owner had a lot of regulars. The maestro would greet many of his visitors by name, and get into long, interesting conversations.
I loved to sit and listen in as I sipped my cappuccino. And I could do it, too, because this was one of the few bars in the center of Rome that didn’t charge you extra for sitting down.
Today the old man has long since retired, and now his bar is just another random place to get average coffee. I’m telling you about it because maybe you also know a magical place or two like my bar. Cherish these places, because they won’t last forever.
I could write an entire book about old bars, cafes, crafts shops, and art galleries up and down the coast of California, places where friendly people laughed and shared jokes, places that have gone out of business. I’ve danced in crowded rooms to live music that you’ll never hear on any radio station, in buildings that are now banks or corporate headquarters.
This is all a smaller ripple in the trend that is reshaping our planet. In my youth I hiked and played in wild forests. I saw the trees cut down and the ground criss-crossed with roads and construction. This happened in my backyard in Illinois, it happened in the redwoods where I went to college, and it’s happened to many of the best places where I’ve lived, worked, and traveled.
In Minturno I had a favorite place, a place that was vanishing. What’s different is it became a favorite even before I ever got to see it first-hand.
A book called The Appian Way: A Journey contains a photo taken in the early 1970s. The picture is in black and white, but you can see the sparkle of the sunlight. It's easy to imagine the bright colors of flowers basking in the sun. You can practically feel the breeze, and hear the stalks and leaves whipping in a gentle wind. It’s wild. It’s raw.
But a skeletal arch looks like it's ready to fall down. Broken pieces of marble are hiding in the tall weeds. The earth is slowly absorbing the familiar basalt road bed of Via Appia.
This is the site of the ancient Roman city Minturnae.
People lived here. They felt and experienced many things. They loved, labored, suffered, thought, and dreamed. Now all that's left of their life is a stone boneyard in a field of wildflowers, and that won't last.
The photo shows the effects of ecological succession. Bits of grass take root in the cracks. They die, decompose, and turn into soil that can hold deeper roots and nourish slightly larger plants.
The weather goes to work on the rock, releasing minerals into the soil. The birds and the wind carry in the seeds of bigger plants. The plants become a habitat for insects, which become a food source for birds and other animals.
All of this biological activity produces acid and moisture, which slowly wear down the rock and widen the cracks.
The land changes from the ground up. Plants, bugs, birds, and their droppings decompose and form more soil. A forest grows where there was once a city. Every trace of human work is slowly dissolved by the ages.
I’m a big fan of this regeneration. It gives me hope for our future, for the millions of species who share the world with us. But I wanted to see this lonely, man-made city before nature reclaimed it forever.
The Appian Way: A Journey talks a lot about the natural decay of human monuments. The authors, Dora Jane Hamblin and Mary Jane Loeb Grunsfeld, spent years driving and hiking along the Appian way. Their verdict on Minturnae, in the 1970s: “It will not last another decade.”
Their photos of Minturnae charmed me into dreaming up a bike tour down via Appia. I have to see it, I told myself. Even if all that’s left is a half-buried pillar like the skeleton of some giant reptile, I have to see it.
But I may already be more than thirty years too late.
I was in a hurry, but I stopped in Formia for a shot of espresso. First things first.
I went to lean my bike against the wall outside a cafe, where three old men sat around a table playing dominos. The drink in their glasses was definitely not coffee.
“Posso?” I asked permission, before leaning my bike against the wall very close to their game.
“You can leave it here,” one of them joked, “but only if you stay for three more hours.”
“But I have to go sooner,” I told them in the best Italian I could. “I'm looking for the via Appia Antica.”
This caused a flurry of inebriated laughter.
“Ragazzo,” insisted one of the men, “la via Appia Antica e' proprio qui!” and he swept the back of his hand towards the busy street a few yards away. “Via Appia is right here.”
Inside the bar, I bought five tomato and mozzarella tramezzini, triangular sandwiches made of white bread with the crusts cut off. The tomatoes were still green. An Italian had once explained to me that green tomatoes keep longer, and they don't make the bread wet. Best of all, they're crisp as lettuce.
I wanted to sit down, talk to the old men some more, and eat my sandwiches here. Everyone I met in Formia was super friendly, like the town didn’t want me to leave. But I was impatient to keep moving.
This quiet little village offered peace, companionship, and good food. This was the real charm of Italy, the country I had called my home for several years. But I rode right past the towers and churches, and didn’t even notice one of the world’s largest Roman cisterns. I was oblivious to the coastline.
Formia is one of the highlights of Via Appia, but I was in such a hurry to reach Minturno that I barely stopped for a coffee.
That photo of ancient Minturnae, that fear of missing out, that’s why I zipped through Formia and rode hard enough to make my quads burn. I was so close, and I was certain the last glorious marble columns of Minturnae would melt away forever in the next two hours!
By the early afternoon I reached a campground outside Minturno, the modern town near the ancient city. The couple who ran the campground offered me a coffee and asked about my travels.
“This is a very beautiful trip,” the husband said. “But tell me, why are you traveling alone?”
This is a question that always jabs me in the side. It feels like they think I’m not capable of finding like-minded friends and companions. This isn’t totally wrong, but it’s only part of the truth.
Most of the time, I prefer to travel alone. I like to be spontaneous and go wherever I want, eat when I want, and not have to tie myself to someone else’s schedule. When I plan any kind of travel, I usually picture myself being alone most of the time.
And let’s face it, how many people do you know who would be happy to spend their vacation sweating on steep hills, sleeping in a tent on the ground and mostly eating nothing but bread and olives?
There might be something pathological about wanting to travel alone. Am I afraid to share my best and most interesting moments with someone else? Am I really just bad at making friends?
I was anxious to find whatever was left of Minturnae, and I didn’t want to answer the man’s awkward question. His wife could sense this, and as we finished our coffee, she changed the subject and told me we were close to the river that marks the border between Lazio and Campagna.
Italy is divided into 21 regions, in the same way the USA is divided into states. Lazio is one of these regions, from the ancient “Latium,” the land of the Latins with Rome in the center. The region of Campagna, which just means “countryside,” is probably best known for Mount Vesuvius. (To be fair, Campagna is also the home of Naples, one of Italy’s finest cities)
The Garigliano river separates these two regions, Lazio with the Eternal City and a center of civilization, and Campagna the home of nature in all her savage glory.
Over the ages, Italians have built half a dozen bridges across this river. The ancient Roman bridge is now underwater. Today, via Appia runs across a 19th century bridge that was destroyed in World War II and restored in the 1990s. The bridge is suspended by thick black chains, and guarded by a pair of stone Sphinxes.
Just to the west of this bridge, you'll find what’s left of Minturnae.
In the early 1980s, the locals decided to do something about the burglars who were carrying off the remaining stones of ancient Minturnae. Today, the site is enclosed in a tall steel fence. Skilled and caring hands have restored and protected the place.
It turns out the writers who brought me here were wrong in their prediction. As I followed the river to the site of Minturnae, marble columns and a large amphitheater saluted me from above the shrubs.
Minturno has seen decades of economic growth, along with a growing interest in preserving ancient historic sites.This has led to improvements, not destruction. The Appian Way runs on through an expanded and restored Minturnae, which is carefully guarded and proudly promoted.
I gladly paid a few Euros towards the cause, and bought a ticket to walk inside among the ruins. Clean basalt and sun-baked travertine gave off their warmth. Insects scurried along the stones of the amphitheater. I walked the old Appian Way where it passed through Minturnae, complete with deep ruts carved by centuries of wagon wheels.
I should have been thrilled. But I wasn’t going to escape disappointment so easily.
Here’s the problem. Today we enjoy a level of comfort and convenience that most people couldn’t have imagined a century ago. But as a result, we’ve become too insulated and protected. Many people feel the loss, and miss the randomness of the real world.
I think this explains the popularity of mountain bikes, surfing, and games that force you to use your wits and reflexes.
Bike tours are my way of escaping the comfort zone and entering the unregulated universe where anything can still happen. To enter a beautiful, chaotic place is to experience the real world. The real world is unpredictable and dangerous, but going there is a necessity if you want to feel alive.
Reconstructed Minturnae has been tightly insulated from the real world. Gone are the gorgeous, tragic scenes of the old photo images. Instead, ropes and chains guide you along a pathway through the site. They dictate exactly where you can walk and what you’ll see.
Minturnae would have been gone in a decade without this preservation and restoration, and I’m glad that they saved her. But when I planned this trip, I had pictured muddy treks in search of unfettered ruins. I had imagined seeing ancient walls and arches without the benefit of a guide or a guardrail.
“What, do you want to be Indiana Jones?” an Italian once taunted me when I tried to explain my feelings. I answered “Yes,” without pausing even a second to think about it.
Ancient Minturnae really is gone forever. All we have now is an outdoor museum. I love museums, but I have to report a sad conclusion to Hamblin and Grunsfeld’s story: Their prediction was thankfully wrong, but the second-worse outcome has happened, perhaps inevitably. Minturnae has fallen victim to the sad and perpetual compromise between freedom and security.
After I left the archaeological site, a carabinieri gave me an impromptu tour of the bridge across the Garigliano River.
The Italians give the carabinieri a hard time. They are accused of being the most thick-headed dullards in all of Europe. Any Italian can tell you a dozen jokes about the stupidity of the carabinieri, but most of these officers don’t deserve this maltreatment.
It turned out this man was an expert on local history. He told me the story of the great bridge in front of us, called the Ponte Borbonico, or “Bourbon Bridge.”
It was the first suspension bridge in Italy. About a hundred years after they built it, the government decided the Ponte Borbonico was too old for modern usage. They built another, mightier bridge out of steel and concrete. It was promptly destroyed by a storm, while the proud old Ponte Borbonico stood her ground. People used the old bridge once again, while they waited for the government to repair the modern one.
“Look at the old bridge,” said my impromptu tour guide. “It is far superior! These chains were used on ships that sailed the Bay of Naples. The lions were carved out of volcanic rock from Mt. Vesuvius.”
“It looks like the best way to cross between Lazio and Campagna,” I said.
“It’s the only way to cross it,” said the policeman gravely. “This bridge represents the Imperial might of Roman Latium, combined with the earth and labors of Campagna!”
The man clearly had knowledge and passion, so I decided to ask him about the legendary “Ponte degli Aurunci,” the Aurunci bridge. This was an old, hidden bridge named after a vanished Italian tribe. It was supposed to be a short distance away from here, near a crossroad, covered in vegetation and mystery.
“Ah!” he said. “Non e’ facile.” It’s not easy. “La ponte degli Aurunci e’ tutto nascosto.”
It’s completely hidden. I got excited chills at the thought of an upcoming adventure that would make up for the mild disappointment at Minturno.
It turns out I would have my fill of muddy adventures in the unknown before the week was finished, but not in Minturno. If you, too, wish for ruins in the wilderness, via Appia will not let you down.
This is the 10th 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-xi-seeking-the-fourth-way/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 don’t want to gloss over Italy’s problems, but on this bike tour I tried my best not to notice.
Way too much of modern Italy has been overrun with ugly, grey, boxy buildings. In fabled cities such as Rome, Florence, and Milan, graffiti covers the walls and trash covers the ground. Italy has the same modern problems of crowding, urban sprawl, and pollution as any country, anywhere in the world.
But I came here specifically looking for the surviving crumbs of Italy’s historic beauty and greatness. I could enjoy all the pollution I wanted back in Los Angeles. I set off with the hope that via Appia would still guard some last shreds of Rome’s celebrated past.
It’s easy not to notice Italy’s problems when you’re zooming downhill to Formia in the springtime.
May is the best month to ride a bike through the Italian countryside, and the meandering mountain route between Terracina and Formia is one of the most beautiful and scenic sections of the Via Appia. Tall, thick grasses waved at me as I passed. Bright-colored flowers flashed and shimmered in the morning sun.
When I thought it couldn’t get any better, a thick, broken pillar of stone made me squeeze my brakes and stop to look. It rested on a wide, low pedestal in the brush next to the road.
It was a milestone.
The Romans set up these ancient markers to show travelers how far they were from the city. If a stone had the number IX engraved upon it, you knew you were nine miles from the center of Rome. If the milestone had the name of another city, you were nine miles from the city named.
Today, we don't know exactly where most milestones originally stood. Over the centuries, collectors have sequestered them in private gardens, homes, and museums. Road builders in the Middle Ages recycled old milestones to mark the distances on newer roads. Farmers and other practical people sometimes moved these stones just to get them out of the way.
Today you can still see a few odd milestones on Via Appia. But if a stone says “Mile 35,” for example, that doesn’t tell you anything significant. Once upon a time, the stone was 35 miles from somewhere. But in which direction? The best we can do is compare the materials in the milestone to the quarries in different locations.
Augustus built a great Milliarium Aureum, or Golden Mile, which once sat in the Roman Forum. It was said to be a milestone made of bronze or gold, inscribed with the names of all the cities in the empire. Now it’s lost, along with any record of its exact location.
This road sign was probably in or near the Temple of Saturn, in what was supposed to be the navel of the world. This was the center from which all the other milestones marked their distances. But nobody knows what happened to this Golden Mile.
Today there is a “First Mile,” a stone pillar that marks the zero point of all roads leading to Rome. It's on the Capitoline Hill, a few hundred feet above the Temple of Saturn. Nearby, we’ve found fragments of marble with inscriptions that could be part of the Milliarium Aureum. But so far, no bronze or gold.
The Byzantines had a similar zero point, the Milion, which can be verified. In modern Istanbul, you can still see a fragment of this stone near Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.
None of this information did me any good as I stared at a milestone on the side of the road outside Itri. Tall, thick grasses and purple flowers grew all around it. The green brush chattered in the wind, but wouldn't tell me anything about this milestone. I got back on my bike and rode on.
The milestone is an impressive site, but if you ever travel this way, you’ll see a more sinister relic from the past. Somewhere along this part of the Via Appia, a state-sanctioned murder took place.
In 43 BCE, all the roads and wildlands in this area were alive with soldiers. The troops were hunting for several people officially listed as The Enemies of Rome. At the top of the list was a man named Marcus Tullius Cicero.
Somewhere on the via Appia, between Itri and Formia, Cicero took refuge in a villa. When soldiers asked around, peasants and servants denied seeing him. But the hunters knew he was hiding somewhere very near.
My understanding of Roman history isn’t perfect, but let’s use Star Wars as an analogy.
Long ago in a galaxy far, far away, there was a Republic where the rulers were the servants and representatives of the people. It wasn't perfect, but almost everyone cooperated with a commitment to fairness and justice.
Then came the Dark Times. The Sith appeared, Palpatine took over the Senate, and the Republic became an Empire.
The Emperor ruled with an iron hand, subjugating more worlds every day. Soon the old Republic was just a dream kept alive by a few Jedi and other rebels scattered across the galaxy. That's Star Wars.
What does this have to do with Cicero, and with ancient Rome?
Long ago, in a galaxy where I was now coasting downhill on my bike, a similar story unfolded. There was a Republic, and if there were no Jedi, the people at least had senators, consuls, and censors to guard truth and justice. It wasn’t perfect, but it was arguably much better than what came later.
In a shift that was similar to Star Wars, the Republic became an Empire. The process was slower and more complicated, but when you think of Darth Vader the warrior and Palpatine the statesman, you will see analogies in people like Julius Caesar and Octavian Augustus.
Caesar and Augustus were not categorically evil, certainly not like the bad guys in Star Wars. But the outcome was almost the same. George Lucas knew his history.
Far north in modern-day France and Germany, Julius Caesar had a string of military victories. He gained wealth, recognition, and a loyal army. Meanwhile, he manipulated the Senate to increase his political power.
Caesar was ambitious, but he was not entirely evil. He won the love of the Roman people through generosity, showmanship, and often by doing what was right.
He also made political enemies who wanted his head.
There was only one thing to do: Caesar led his army across the river Rubicon, which was the border of the Roman republic. This violated the law against bringing an army into Roman territory, and the punishment was death.
By crossing the Rubicon, Caesar took an all-or-nothing gamble. Either he would gain absolute power and change history, or he would die shamefully. This move triggered a civil war, but there was relatively little fighting. Almost nobody resisted him. Caesar marched triumphantly into Rome, where he secured his power for life.
Soon after, the Roman Republic only existed in appearance. Caesar was the absolute ruler in all but name. After his assassination, there were a few unsteady years, but then Augustus stepped in to consolidate the coup that Caesar had started.
Under Augustus, Rome was technically still a republic, but everyone knew that the word of Octavian Augustus was law. From then on, Rome would be an Empire ruled by an Emperor.
During these stormy times, an eloquent voice spoke out for democracy and reason. Marcus Tullius Cicero was popular among the educated classes. His writing skill turned the rigid Latin language into poetry. He has been called the Shakespeare of Latin, and his words have become the model for students and scholars for centuries.
Cicero spoke out against Caesar and his tyranny. It's worth noting that Caesar admired Cicero, and spared his life when he could have easily ordered his death.
But in 43 BC., Caesar was dead, and three men took power: Octavian Augustus, Marc Antony, and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. One of their first acts was to make a list of their enemies, The Enemies of Rome. At the top of the list, Cicero became Rome's Most Wanted.
They hunted him more aggressively than anyone else on the list, perhaps because he was the hardest person to catch. Thousands of Romans refused to cooperate with the search.
Somewhere outside Formia, along the Appian way, Cicero was caught while trying to flee a villa. He was probably making for the port at Formia, where he could catch a ship and escape the Italian peninsula. In another version of the story, he had already been aboard a ship, but bad weather had made an escape impossible, and he had asked the sailors to put him back on the land.
Either way, Cicero knew the game was up. He didn’t want to endanger the servants who tried to protect him. He ordered them back and calmly offered himself to a centurion.
“There is nothing proper about what you do,” he told the soldier, “but please try to do it properly.”
When the deed was done, the centurion cut off Cicero's head and both of his hands. These grisly trophies were displayed on the rostrum in the Roman Forum. Cicero's tongue, which had spoken eloquently against injustice, was pierced with spikes. The hands, which had written about freedom, were nailed down next to his head.
They say Cicero was the Shakespeare of Latin. But unlike Shakespeare, Cicero was more than just an entertainer. He translated the works of ancient Greek philosophers into Latin, and added his own thoughts and commentary. He felt that philosophy was one of the highest human callings, and his most important work.
Cicero's writings on law, politics, and philosophy were an inspiration for Thomas Jefferson when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. Some scholars even say that the Renaissance was, above all, a broad rediscovery of the work and thought of Cicero.
Cicero’s influence outlived his killers. But we live in a concrete world where most people disregard philosophy and poetry. We need something solid we can put our hands on. This is why a small tower outside Formia is called the Tomb of Cicero.
Almost nobody really believes Cicero was buried here. But the location is close. It's likely that he at least set foot somewhere near this area. It’s possible that Cicero’s blood stained the ground beneath my bicycle tires.
I’m giving you all this history because this little route between Itri and Formia is my favorite part of the Appian Way.
But as I got closer to Formia, even as I stood at the so-called Tomb of Cicero, I was starting to feel anxious. I didn’t give the town of Formia as much time as it deserved. I let my fear get the better of me.
I’ve always had the fear of missing out on something. In this case, it was a very specific fear concerning something I might see a bit farther down the road, in Minturno. I had been warned about this years ago, in a book written decades ago.
I got back on my bike and hurried on.
This is the 9th 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 link to the next chapter: https://bicyclefreedom.com/chapter-x-the-sad-and-perpetual-compromise/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 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: https://bicyclefreedom.com/chapter-ix-dont-stop-at-ciceros-tomb/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.