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This is the real Roman road. Huge hexagons of basalt rattle underneath my wheels. This choppy road tapers off into the Alban hills along the horizon. These are the same stones that ancient Romans crossed—I keep getting stuck in the ruts left by their chariot wheels.

This post is a chapter from my new book, Tutto Nascosto: A bike ride down the Appian Way. I'm publishing the book a chapter at a time on this blog, and a Kindle-friendly version will be available later this year. If you're interested in getting the complete book, leave a comment at the end of this post, and I'll make sure you get a copy(only I will be able to see your email, and I'll never share it with anyone else)

“It’s good for the bones,” an old man says in Italian as he fills his bottles from an old fountain. The bubbling water appears carbonated and smells like sulfur.

After filling a number of plastic jugs and packing them into an old and dented Fiat, he gestures to me. “Bevi!” he commands me to drink.

So I do as the Romans do. I follow his lead, fill my bottle, and gulp down a few swallows. It tastes like the mineral-rich sparkling water that shows up at your table in expensive bars and restaurants all over Italy and the world. Drink some when you pass this way. It’s good for your bones.

I began my bike tour on a Sunday, and there’s a good reason to do it this way. Every Sunday the City of Rome shuts down the roads in the historic center of the town. Bikers and pedestrians take over the Via dei Fori Imperiali, street musicians fill the sunny air with music, and vendors’ carts filled with good things to eat rattle across the cobblestones.

Fori Imperiali runs through the forums, connecting the big white monument at Piazza Venezia to the Colosseum. This was Mussolini’s parade ground, and it’s a great way to start a bike tour, heading to Rome’s famous icon with the imperial forums on your left and the republic’s forums on the right, dodging tourists and locals enjoying the scene.

Two thousand three hundred and seventeen years ago, most of this wasn’t here. The only highway to the south of Rome was a series of well-trodden dirt paths, and this land was the domain of a complex league of tribes known as the Samnites.

This was the Rome in which a cantankerous Roman named Appius Claudius was elected Censor and ordered to “guard the public morals.”

Claudius used his position to upset the status quo. He appointed the sons of freed slaves to the Senate, a privilege reserved for wealthy landowners. He gave administrative positions to poor and landless citizens, and broke the power of lawyers by making copies of the sacred “Twelve Tables” available to the public.

But the deed for which Appius Claudius will always be remembered is the construction of the road that bears his name.

At the time, it seemed like a good idea. The military and political situation to the south was precarious. Rome had established a loose peace with the local Samnites, but Roman citizens had begun to colonize the land. Perhaps Claudius knew that a permanent, all-weather road was the key to stability.

A road would allow the movement of armies and supplies to support the colonies and subdue the Samnites, if necessary. The added commerce would help both sides prosper, so that war would be less desirable. And the road could eventually be expanded as an artery for control of the entire Italian peninsula.

Appius got his road, ensuring that his name would last for millennia. One thousand six hundred and eighty-eight years later, I stepped on the Appian Way for the first time.

ruts from wagon wheels on ancient via Appia in Minturno

If you’re looking for the via Appia Antica, start out by heading southeast from the Colosseum, past the baths of Caracalla. You’ll go through a busy 6-lane road past a park called “Piazza di Porta Capena.” This was the original start of the Appian Way, and you’ll see a small bit of bricks and concrete—all that remains of the original gate.

When the road branches in three directions, take the middle.

The first ten miles outside of Rome are a laundry list of tourist attractions that I’ve visited too many times and never enough. Everyone from Saint Peter to Mark Anthony to Spartacus passed this way. Jesus himself is said to have left his footprints nearby.

The road here is lined with stone walls, giving you less than 2 feet of shoulder space. Cars rush me head on as they try to pass each other. I will myself, my bike, and my panniers to become pizza crust flat as I dodge cars and buses and even an ambulance wailing its siren.

At the Gate of Saint Sebastian, where the Appian Way officially leaves Rome today, there’s a museum where you can step up onto the top of the wall and patrol the battlements like a defender of old.

But don’t get carried away. This is where things really start to get interesting, and if you want to avoid the baby strollers and dogs, take a short cut through (actually over) the catacombs.

Once you’re in the park, the cars disappear but the road gets rougher. People relax in the grass along either side of via Appia. A group of kids playing soccer all stop to watch me pass, and a bunch of them give me the thumbs up sign.

This is the real Roman road. Huge hexagons of basalt rattle underneath my wheels. This choppy road tapers off into the Alban hills along the horizon. These are the same stones that ancient Romans crossed—I keep getting stuck in the ruts left by their chariot wheels. 

Along the first ten miles via Appia treats you to a garish display of tombs and monuments to rich dead people. But somehow, being on the Appia makes you feel alive. Archeologists will never finish scraping the ancient world out of the soil and gluing it back together, but there’s always an energy you can feel when you’re alone in these  places.

In 1998 I stumbled into the park, slowly recovering from a late night wine-filled orgy with Romans, French, and ex-pats from just about every English-speaking country on the map. A warm spring breeze soothed the pounding in my head. As I wandered past old statues and crumbling walls, Roman ghosts promised they would haunt me until I fulfilled a quest.

I’m not an especially big fan of roads. I once got in a lot of trouble for protesting the government’s effort to build a road through a pristine wilderness in Idaho. If I had lived in ancient Rome, would I have tried to block the Appian way? Maybe. Hannibal did it.

The preservation and survival of old things is always a big question. But the remains of ancient Rome remind us what is best and worst in human nature. That’s the whole reason the Renaissance happened.

Two thousand years ago, a crazy wealth of power was concentrated in the hands of a small political body. The result was corruption and excess and horrible misdeeds. But Rome also created opportunities that had never existed before. Some people rose to the challenge and discovered greatness.

When you follow via Appia on your own power, you’ll feel the spark of your own potential for good or bad. The Appian way is one of those very old reminders of what we can do—and it’s a warning of the same.

If you ever come this way, you’ll want to become part of this millennium-long story. Add your voice to it in a personal way. I did. I have my own way of bonding with a place. I caress it from the back of a bicycle. And on that haunting, hung-over springtime walk long ago, I knew that someday I would ride my bike from one end of the Appian way to the other.

It took me seven years to gather up the time, the money, and most of all the confidence to make the trip. But the idea was never far from my mind.

Seven years later, I followed a series of roads out of the park, roughly following the old route through suburbs, farmland, and vineyards. The air smelled like sulfur, and I found an old fountain spewing a bubbly, smelly water. An old man told me this water was good for the bones, so I drank to the skeleton of an ancient road that was going to show me her hidden secrets, and unveil some of my own.



I plan to bike as many ancient Roman roads as possible in my lifetime. If you want to see some professional photos, video, or history of the via Appia and other ancient Roman roads, check this out:

http://roman-roads.blogspot.com/

5

Somewhere between Terracina and Formia, you'll find it. There's a stark pillar along the side of a winding mountain road. I assume it's either a milestone or the remains of one of the many monuments that line the Appian way.

Italy bike tour Appia milestone ItriThe bike ride to this pillar is phenomenal, and there are at least three good reasons to make the trip. First is the "Tomb of Cicero" at one end of the bike route. Most experts agree that this isn't the really the tomb of Cicero, but it's near the spot where he died and that's enough for most people.

Better than Cicero's tomb, the bike ride from Terracina to Formia passes through a park which includes the original remains of the via Appia, as well as several ancient Roman and Medieval buildings.

In fact, if you're riding your bike on the main road, you'll pass through the park several times. The road winds up the mountain in endless switchbacks, while the Appian Way shoots up in the classical straight line, defying gravity just as easily as she defied the Pontine marshes. You can ride your bike up this way if you choose to. I didnt.

But my favorite thing about this section of the Appian bike tour is the town of Itri. I hadn't meant to stay there, but I was intrigued by the scenery, the friendly locals, and the castle. After taking a long hot shower and stuffing my gullet with fresh pizza, I spent hours wandering around the dark, twisting alleys of the immense fortress on the hill overlooking Itri.

I can't tell you much about the history of the castle, but I'll introduce you to someone who can. On our next bike tour through southern Italy, one of my local contacts has offered to hook us up with an archeologist in Itri who can give a tour of the place. I asked him how much something like that would cost and he said, "some cafe in a bar, I assume, but not more..."

So if you're up for an expert tour of Itri for the price of a cup of coffee, not to mention a zillion other great experiences that you can read about all over my blog, get in touch with me and join us on this trip. The dates are May 15th-June 1st 2010, approximate cost is $1500 plus airfare and bike (rental, purchase, or transportation of your own rig), and I'll be happy to answer your other questions by phone or email.

3

Last week I had a conference call to hash out some bike tour details with my fellow riders. If you're on my email list you'll get a message about this. If you're not, but you'd like to be on the list, just shoot me an email: jacob "at" bicyclefreedom.com.

An actual road sign in Puglia, Italy. Which way to Corato? I asked a farmer, and he said "straight ahead."
An actual road sign in Puglia, Italy. Which way to Corato? I asked a farmer, and he said "straight ahead."

We're going to be touring from  May 16 through June 1st, 2010. On June 2nd we'll be driving a rented van with our bikes back to Rome.

This is longer than originally planned because we're not ending the tour in Brindisi. We'll head south to Lecce, which is a beautiful city with a rich history down in the very heel of the Italian boot. I've never been there, but an Italian I met on the plane during my last trip told me it's "The Florence of Southern Italy."

The longer schedule is also going to give us a lot of time for a long, leisurely trip, with a couple extended stops along the way for rest and laundry.

I'm hoping to arrange a group ride with the Terracina Cycling Club, and a couple of archeologists in Itri and Aeclanum may give us special tours. We're also going to stopover for 2 nights in the Venosa/Gravina/Matera area so we'll have plenty of time to see the sasse (beautiful caves that were used as homes and churches for centuries) and several other amazing sites that are off the usual tourist path.

After talking it over with a few people, it seems to make sense not to camp on this tour. We won't save a whole lot of money by camping, because the areas where camping is available tend to have the nicer and less-expensive lodging options.  We'll be staying in agriturismo spots most of the time.

Expect to spend an average of 60 euro per evening for lodging. This will usually include breakfast and sometimes dinner. (Keep in mind that the portions will be very small by bicycle touring standards!)

You can save money by sharing a room. I'm willing to take on a room-mate, as long as you don't snore! Let me know if this interests you.

It looks like there won't be enough people to get group discounts on anything, so I'll leave it to you to take care of your own plane tickets and bikes.

If you bring your own bike, we will have a van so you can carry it back to Rome at the end of the tour. I'm planning to either rent a bike there or buy a cheap one at the Roman flea market, Porta Portese. I'll help you with this, if it's what you prefer.

That's it for now. Keep in touch, and I'll see you in Italy!

2

When the ancient Romans built the via Appia and other roads, they marked the way with milestones. The milestones usually showed the distance from thItaly bike tour Appia milestone Itrie nearest large city, so you could look at one and know, for example, that the Appian Way ran right at this spot, and it was 17 miles to Benevento.

The trouble is, we don't know exactly where each of these milestones stood. Throughout the centuries, collectors and even well-meaning archaeologists moved the milestones and put them in museums, gardens, piazzas and palaces.

That's why nobody really knows with 100% certainty exactly where the via Appia really went.  We do have a fairly good idea for most of it. On my own bike trips in southern Italy I try to strike a balance between following the known original route and having a scenic, safe, and interesting bike ride.

But now we know a little more.

Yesterday, a southern Italian newspaper, the Corriere del Mezzogiorno, reported the discovery of a milestone on the ancient via Traiana. Here's a quick history lesson on what this means:

Once you get past Benevento, you're in unknown territory for a lot of the Appian way. This is always the most confusing (and fun!) part of every bike tour, and things weren't much different in ancient Roman times. The via Appia was twisted and difficult after Benevento. It winded over mountains and was sometimes little more than a few cuttings on the rocks.

In 109 AD, the emperor Trajan built an alternate route, the Trajan Way--or via Traiana in Italian. This route starts in Benevento and follows the coast of the Adriatic sea to Brindisi. It's longer in the number of miles, but was easier to follow. I haven't biked the via Traiana yet (please leave a comment if you have!), but I've been to a lot of the towns it passes through. Highly recommended.

Anyway, the via Traiana poses a lot of the same challenges as far as knowing exactly where it went. This latest milestone dug up is a fantastic piece to the puzzle, one of the very few milestones for which we know the exact location and orientation.

You never know what you'll dig up.

If you'd like to bike the Appian way with me next spring, leave a comment below and I'll give you the details, which will be posted soon.