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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.

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

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:

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 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.

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

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:

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 everybody tried to be the greatest possible person," he went on, "can you imagine the world? We would solve all our problems!"

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

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:

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.

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.

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

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.

Via Appia at the remains 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.”

The "Bourbon Bridge" over the Garigliano river

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:

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the 8th Chapter of my book, Rome to Brindisi: How Biking Down an Ancient Roman Road Saved Me From a Life of Quiet Desperation. I'll be posting a few chapters each week during the Covid19 shutdown. I'm also reading them out loud on YouTube (check the menu for links) so you can listen while you're shut in. Here's the next chapter:

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.

Your plan is probably dumber than a box of tape, but make yourself do it anyway.

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

Whatever lay beyond this rocky gate, I was part of the story now.

Just below Terracina, a finger of the Apennine mountains sticks out into the sea, pointing at Africa. For about four hundred years, travelers had to go over this rocky wall by way of the Campo dei Paladini. There was no alternative, unless you had a ship.

Then in the first century AD, the Emperor Trajan ordered engineers to cut a pathway through the stone. Thousands of slaves and laborers removed an astonishing volume of solid rock, using nothing but carts, pickaxes, and other hand tools.

As you leave Terracina, look to the left for Roman numerals carved into the rock. The diggers marked the depth of their work at intervals, and you can easily spot the C, CX, and CXX which mark the final 100, 110, and 120-foot cuts.

This Herculean feat saved half a day’s travel in ancient times, and the work was built to last. The modern Appian Way, SS7, takes advantage of the improvement. Travelers leave and enter Terracina through a narrow, man-made canyon cut with hand tools. So did I.

The road climbed back into the foothills, and soon I was making zig-zags up through a glittering jewel box of flowers and oak trees. When I met a farmer selling black olives on the roadside, I bought half a kilo and devoured most of them on the spot.

Late in the afternoon, I wheeled into the hill town of Fondi. My notes showed a campground here, but when I called, the person on the phone seemed confused. After some back-and forth efforts at directions, I was passed to a man who spoke English. He asked, “OK, where exactly did you say you are?”

It turns out the campground was in another town called Fondi al Lido, or Fondi on the Beach. I was up in the hills, miles away.

I could have easily set up camp anywhere, just like the night before. But I wanted to take a shower, and I’m certain the whole province of Lazio would have preferred this as well. Who wants to look and smell like a bum in such a beautiful country?

Still, I couldn’t afford to stay in a hotel every night. When I budgeted for my trip, I had planned to stay at campgrounds that typically only cost a few Euros.

Right before I left, I had bragged about how easily you can travel anywhere you want, even if you think you don’t have enough money. Now I was arguing with myself over the price of a hotel room.

I had come to Italy with the vision of long rides through sweeping vistas, and hikes among the marble-littered ruins. Most of all, I pictured myself spending my evenings enjoying a passeggiata and sipping grappa with the locals. 

Instead, it was starting to feel like I was looking for a place to hide every night. Maybe the journey I meant to take didn’t really exist. 

These thoughts had been bothering me almost nonstop, ever since I bought my plane ticket. This whole trip was just a vain, personal orgy of self indulgence that I couldn’t afford. 

Every dream is going to have fear and doubt tied to it. This might actually be one of the biggest benefits of going on a bike tour, or any kind of journey that you didn’t properly think through. Sooner or later, some of your deepest fears are going to surface. 

Fear of failure. Fear of ridicule. The real fears instilled in you by others. There's the fear of what you'll miss out on if you try it, and the fear of what will happen if you try it and you don't succeed. 

Fear draws lines and tells you not to cross them. When you do, you’ll have to face the fear alone in a strange place.

Sometimes the fear comes from a simple, honest assessment of the truth. You can always find a perfectly reasonable argument against doing what you want.

But there’s a way to defeat this fear. Simply refuse to give yourself the option to chicken out. Your plan is probably dumber than a box of tape, but make yourself do it anyway.

I didn’t have a big dramatic moment in Fondi. I wish I could tell you that the skies opened up with a choir of angels singing. That I had made some bold, symbolic gesture that belonged in the script of an award-winning film that would make your mother cry. But breakthroughs don’t always require drama. 

All that really happened was I got back on my bike. I was already too committed to turn back.

However, as I left Fondi, I stopped listening to the voice that worried about how I was going to pay for everything. I stopped worrying about what people would think if I stealth camped for a few nights here and there.

I left behind a heavy anchor I no longer wanted to wear around my neck.

This is the 7th 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:

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:

If you went back 1,000 years, the State Route SS7 between Rome and Terracina would probably look almost the same as today. 

It was the morning of my second day out, and I was pedaling through a thick fog. Shining yellow globes rushed towards me, then turned into the headlights of ubiquitous Fiats, as hundreds of commuters drove to their jobs in Rome.

Instead of tombs, I passed umbrella pines and brush, with an occasional old marble column or relic. The bushes sometimes opened onto farmland and pastures. In true Roman fashion, the road pressed on in a perfectly straight line. 

It looked like somebody just poured a layer of asphalt over the ancient Via Appia, and let the cars in.  

The straightness of the road is an example of the stubborn spirit of ancient Rome. On the way to Terracina, Via Appia crosses a swampy region called the Pontine Marsh. The Romans could have built their road around the swamp. Nearby, the newer via Latina avoids the worst of the swamp by hugging the hills near the coast.

But the ancient Romans insisted their road would run in a straight line. They refused to budge even a single degree off course. And they were Romans, after all.

First, they diverted the water into canals. This had the side benefit of opening acres of fertile soil for cultivation.

Next, they drove wooden piles into the soft, muddy earth. Once they had this wooden base, they built the road right over it.

We know that in Julius Caesar's time, a canal ran alongside this section of the Via Appia. In addition to draining the water, the canal could also support a boat. Mules would walk along the Appian Way, pulling the boats by ropes. 

This was like replacing an 18-wheel semi-truck with a motorcycle. Instead of crowding the road with carts and wagons, large volumes of cargo could be hauled through the canals on barges, while the mules took up just a small amount of space on the road itself. The canals multiplied the capacity of Via Appia.

This swampy section of the road required a lot of maintenance, and that problem hasn't gone away. In the 20th century, the Italian government had to create new public works to drain the marshes and support the road. The city of Latina was founded by Mussolini for water reclamation, and today the work goes on. You'll see endless drainage ditches, feeding the farms while keeping the way clear.

I pressed on through a misty tunnel of pine trees, past these water-filled ditches, until the fog melted away.

As the sun conquered the mist, dewdrops sparkled on the leaves, grass, and flowers. I was finally out of the modern metropolis of Rome, and the countryside was showing her colors. A happy German shepherd jogged after me on the opposite side of a canal. I passed a herd of water buffalo, the fabled animal whose milk is used for true mozzarella cheese.

The source of authentic mozzarella di bufalo

There were no longer any tombs here, but every now and then I would ride past a cross planted in the dirt. These crosses usually had flowers piled at their base, and sometimes a votive candle. These monuments mark the sites where people have died in traffic accidents along the road. 

A truck roared past me, honking wildly, and I wondered whether someone would plant a cross for me in the near future. There was no shoulder here where I could retreat from a speeding motor vehicle. My only hope would be to squeeze between the umbrella pines that grew along the road.

I don't know who planted these trees, or when. But much of the Appian Way is lined with Rome’s iconic umbrella pines. These trees are almost definitive of via Appia.

From Rome to Terracina, I was nearly always under their shadow, and the shade may have been created to protect travelers from the Mediterranean sun. If you look down from the Temple of Jupiter Anxur in Terracina, the pines form a dark green line that stretches for miles across the Pontine Marsh. Later, in some of the nearly treeless plains of Basilicata and Puglia, I would still see an occasional umbrella pine, assuring me that I was going the right way.

Far ahead, a temple crouched at the top of a rocky hill. A dozen arches fit into a broad, boxy rectangle. This was the Temple of Jupiter Anxur, built in the 1st century CE. The Via Appia once led to this peak, but in Imperial times the Romans cut through the rock down by the sea. This made the journey at least half a day shorter, and we'll get back to that.

Jupiter, as you probably know, is the Roman version of Zeus, the philandering deity of thunder and lightning, always seducing mortal women. The name Anxur tells a better story. 

Anxur is the name for Terracina in the language of the Volsci, an ancient tribe of central Italy. But it's also the name of Jupiter when he was a child, and this has some important implications.

Jupiter's father was the titan Chronos, Time itself, who devoured his own children. When the goddess Rhea gave birth to Jupiter, she tried to save him from becoming her husband’s next meal. Rhea wrapped a stone in a blanket and gave this to Chronos to eat instead. The ruse worked, and Rhea was able to hide Anxur until he grew up and became Jupiter.

As an adult, Jupiter led the other gods in a successful revolt against Chronos and the titans. Jupiter became the supreme ruler of the gods. But in the temple of Anxur, the name implies he was worshipped in his child form. Here’s where the story gets interesting.

The Temple of Anxur was built about 100 years after the birth of Christ, at a time when Christianity was gaining traction, but the persecutions were far from over. The worship of a divine child in Anxur may have been a subtle, deliberate nod to the new religion: The secret worship of a hidden babe who would one day change the world.

I once spent an evening in Rome listening to a drunk philosophy student talk about the parallels between Greek/Roman mythology and the Bible. Zeus and the gods rebelled against the titans and imprisoned them in the underworld, while the rebellious Lucifer and his demons lost their fight and were cast out of Heaven. In the epilogue to the Greek version, a Christ-like titan named Prometheus is essentially crucified for his efforts to save humanity. 

Is there some connection, a prophesy from our collective unconscious? Who rebelled against whom, and who really won?

These thoughts make my head spin, and it’s hard to ponder it all with an empty stomach and a brain deprived of caffeine. So when I reached Terracina, I immediately found a bar and got some badly-needed espresso. 

This is the 5th chapter of my book, Rome to Brindisi: How Biking an Ancient Roman Road Saved Me from a Life of Quiet Desperation. If you want to read it from the beginning, here's the link to Chapter I. 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. Click here to read the next chapter:

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:

If you’re still with me, it’s time for a bit of history before we go on.

The man responsible for building via Appia bent the rules whenever he wanted, broke the rules when he could, and made a big show of serving the people whenever it served his own ends. Appius Claudius was a prick.

Still, many people revere him for what he said almost two and a half millennia ago: 

“Every man is the architect of his own fate.”

When Appius said this, he was responding to the Greek general Pyrrhus, who wanted to trample over Rome with a team of war elephants. Appius Claudius made a deliberately public response, not only to tell Pyrrhus that the Romans would never surrender, but to ensure they never would.

He was urging his fellow Romans to take the initiative, to be the architects of their own fate, to stand up to Pyrrhus and his army of 25,000 hoplites and his archers and his cavalry and his elephants.

Does the speech with its outcome make Appius Claudius a hero? You could argue he was only doing it for politics, for the chance to gain something for himself. I’m willing to agree with you. 

But say what you will, Appius Claudius lived by his words. When he became Censor in 312 BCE, he was determined to be the architect of his own fate. He immediately invested the taxpayer's money for his own glory. Then he did something genius that may have decided the course of Western history.

In the time of Appius Claudius, the Romans didn't have an empire. They didn’t even have control of the Italian peninsula. There were powerful enemies just a few days’ journey away. Appius Claudius helped establish colonies in Latium and Campagna, the territory around Rome and farther south.

These colonies acted as a buffer, protecting the city of Rome from direct attack. They provided shelter, food, and support to the Roman armies. More importantly, when a colony was attacked, Rome had a convenient excuse to move her armies farther into contested territory. 

During this time, there were three major powers in Italy. One of these was Rome herself. But the lands south of Rome were populated by the fiercely independent Samnites. This league of tribes hated the Roman colonists who violated their borders, and resented the encroachment into Samnite territory.

Beyond the Samnite lands, there were well-established Greek cities. Many famous ancient Greeks, such as Pythagoras and Archimedes for example, were really inhabitants of Sicily and southern Italy. This region was called Magna Grecia, or “Greater Greece.”

Greece was not a single country, but a land of independent city-states. These cities would sometimes fight each other, Greek against Greek. But they were united by a common language, which made it easier to unite against a powerful enemy like Rome.

With the Romans, Samnites, and Greeks crowded together in the Italian peninsula, it was just a matter of time before one of them tried to dominate the others. When Appius Claudius pushed the Senate to establish more colonies, it wasn’t just a strategy. It was a provocation.

And then there was the road. 

In those days, a road was just a track of dirt. Maybe the more important roads had a few logs or some gravel to get through the muddy season.

Then Via Appia came along, paved with gravel and protected from floods by a system of gutters and drainage ditches. And then this gravel was topped by two layers of basalt, a tough volcanic rock so durable that the stones look essentially the same today, thousands of years later.

The first layer of basalt was made of tens of thousands of hand-carved hexagons, all a uniform size, that locked together like pieces of a puzzle. The second layer created traction. Thick rectangles of basalt, all the same size and dimensions, were laid out in a staggered position like a horizontal brick wall, and this went on for miles.

All the work was done by hand, all the cutting and carving and digging and laying out. There was no other way. Nobody had ever seen anything like it before, and the cost of the road nearly bankrupted the Roman treasury.

Now, you would expect a road like that to go somewhere important, wouldn’t you? Well, it didn’t! It pointed a  straight line to the wilderness, towards lands occupied by Rome’s enemies. Via Appia didn’t merely say, “we’re coming to conquer these lands.” It was the infrastructure that would make this conquest inevitable.

Without Appius Claudius, Western history could have been dramatically different. Appius Claudius took the first step that made the Roman empire possible. He invented Rome as we know it. Would the world have been any better or any worse without him? Who can say?

I’m not a big fan of Appius Claudius as a person, but I admire his ambition and the lessons you can learn from it. For example, if you have big plans or dreams in your life, think about Via Appia. Are you moving towards your goals on a dirt road, or have you built a Via Appia to get you there?  

Appius Claudius did a lot to bring the situation in Italy to a head, but he is remarkable for many other reasons. He is one of the first ancient Romans who made sure to set his words down in writing. Because of this, he's one of the earliest Roman individuals we know anything about.

Keep in mind, this was long before Hannibal invaded Italy, centuries before Spartacus led his rebellion, nearly three hundred years before Julius Caesar. But we still know a lot about Appius Claudius.

We know, for example, that he grew flummoxed whenever anyone mispronounced Latin consonants. He particularly hated the use of the letter 'z,' when a 'c' or an 's' would be perfectly sufficient. The problem irritated him so much that he wrote a long treaty on Latin grammar.

If Appius were alive today, he might condemn the modern Romans, who stylishly cut off the final syllable of many words. He would surely be outraged by 21st century Italians as a whole for using words like “pizza,” “anzi,” and “zabaglioni” with impunity.

Appius Claudius tried to give power to people who were usually barred from politics. For example, slaves who were set free didn't have the right to vote. Appius Claudius couldn’t help them directly, but he arranged for their children to become full citizens. Their descendants would have a say in the government forever after.

Appius Claudius was also one of the first politicians to fight for transparency in government. He published the legal proceedings of the Senate, so they could be examined by the public. Nobody had done this before him.

But as I said before, he was mostly just a power-hungry elbow swinger.

Critics say Appius Claudius worked to win the trust of the people so he could abuse it. He packed the Senate with citizens who would embrace him as their patron. These tactics got him elected for the office of Censor in 312 BCE. 

These tactics also annoyed the hell out of his colleagues.

The Censor was a sacred office. The job was to oversee the activity of the government, especially the finances. In order to prevent corruption, there were supposed to be two Censors. But the co-Censor working with Appius resented all of the political manipulation, and resigned in frustration.

This made Appius Claudius the only Censor, and he didn't hesitate to push the limits of his authority. He allocated funds to build Rome's first aqueduct, and named it after himself: Aqua Appia. But of course this isn't his best-known project.

As I followed his road towards Brindisi, I realized that it’s possible to dislike someone and also list them as one of your heroes. 

This is the 4th chapter of my book, Rome to Brindisi: How Biking an Ancient Roman Road Saved Me from a Life of Quiet Desperation. If you want to read it from the beginning, here's the link to Chapter I. 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:

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:

The sun was setting, and I had nowhere to sleep. Prostitutes and their customers would soon be lurking about, and there were even worse things knocking around in my own head. 

I had food and water and a tent. I was surrounded by empty fields, bushes, and many opportunities for a good night’s rest.

But I pictured the carabinieri picking me up as a vagrant. Desperate criminals holding me for ransom. Worst of all, I imagined the Italians would think I was a pestilent, mouse-raping transient. When they saw me sleeping out in the open, the people of Lazio would surely turn away in disgust and say, “Che schifo!”  

Why hadn’t I planned better? Why did I waste so much time throughout the day?

After you leave the park of Via Appia Antica, you can follow the original ancient route of Via Appia just by sticking to the national highway SS7. But on the periphery of Rome, this road is full of traffic. 

In the 18th century they built a parallel version of Via Appia nearby, called the New Appian Way or Via Appia Nuova. It runs in the same direction, but you pass through a sterile urban landscape. This route is useful for commuters, but there’s nothing to see except endless apartment blocks and one short glimpse of some crumbling aqueducts. 

I stayed on SS7. Eventually the houses and shops gave way to more open country. I followed the road through suburbs, farmland, and acres of grape vines. 

A few miles farther down, a small sign said, “Via Appia Antica.” An arrow pointed off the road towards a gulch.

I followed this path to a stretch of the familiar basalt stones that the Romans used. For the next few miles I rattled past fields of tomatoes and artichokes. Grape leaves waved at me from thick vines as I rode by. Best of all, there were fallen pillars and the occasional remains of a wall.

Later in the day, after the old stretch of Via Appia went back to the main road, I passed through a pungent cloud of sulfur and saw an old man filling plastic jugs from a small fountain. 

“E' potabile?” I asked. Is the water drinkable?

“Si!” he said. “It's good for the bones.” He gestured for me to try it.

The smell was like a decomposing pile of manure from a cow with chronic diarrhea. Millions of tiny bubbles clouded the water. 

It’s worth noting here that Italy boils with volcanic activity. Vesuvius and Etna are the most famous Italian volcanoes, but there are many others. The Alban Hills just south of Rome erupted some 30-40 thousand years ago, creating the basalt that eventually paved Via Appia.

Geologists think an eruption will happen again. Occasionally a few sheep are killed by toxic gas, which is proof that something is still going on down there. 

There are many springs in Italy that provide water rich in dissolved minerals and gases from this geothermal activity. Apparently I had just stumbled upon one of them.

I thought about the sheep poisoned by gas from the volcanic earth. But when in Rome, do as the Romans do. I drank the old man’s clouded water. I’m not aware that anything bad ever came of it, but I probably need to put in a disclaimer here:

So… I hope you understand that I am not a doctor. This story is not intended as a recommendation to prevent, treat, or cure any disease. You should always consult a medical professional before you drink murky, foul-smelling water while traveling in a foreign country.

Some time after drinking from the volcano, I rode into Ariccia, an important place long before the Romans came to power. Every major art museum in the western world has Romantic paintings that show gods and nymphs in a wooded setting. Many of these scenes were inspired by the forests of Ariccia. 

Ariccia was also the first staging point along Via Appia. Messengers and important officials picked up fresh horses here. Travelers would stop in Ariccia to pick up supplies or stay for the night. 

I bought food at a small market, including a cylinder of goat cheese with a bitter smell. The shop owner insisted it would not spoil for many days, and he was right. When I combined the cheese with bread, olives, tomatoes, and a bottle of cheap-but-effective aglianico wine, I had a banquet. 

I should have either stayed in Ariccia for the night, or avoided the town completely. It took a while to get back on SS7, and there wasn’t much time left to ride. As the sun dropped low in the sky, I started to wonder where I was going to sleep.

I had my tent, and I had always thought I would just plunk down and camp wherever I found myself. But my own mind was determined to make things difficult.

When I was in college, I spent a few years living in the redwood forest above the UC Santa Cruz campus. This was a tradition at the time, and there were many “woods dwellers” living among the trees.  

I loved waking up to the sound of birds. I loved that I didn’t have to pay rent. I loved feeling like I wasn’t an ordinary muggle. When other students went back to their dorm rooms, complaining about the cold weather, I would hike into a dark forest to go to bed. I was proud to live a secret life.

But this pride was always mixed with private shame about being homeless. I had a job, clean clothes, and a shower almost every day, but I didn’t have an address. I was missing one of the cultural trappings that qualify you as a normal person. 

Over years of travel I’ve slept in cars, in boxcars, under bridges, and in trees. I’ve slept in the snow, in the rain, on concrete, on broken glass, on closed roads and in open pits. I’ve slept in backyards, freight yards, and even once in a graveyard. I can feel safe and comfortable almost anywhere. But I never escape the self-conscious shame of looking like a bum.

The shame felt a hundred times worse in Italy. I was a guest in this country.

However, I had to sleep somewhere, and there’s always one foolproof way to defeat the doubts in your mind: Don’t give yourself a choice. 

After the sun went down, I didn’t have many options. This made it easier to find a break in the bushes, wheel my bike off the road, and pitch my tent in a field. The rows of vegetables had been cut. Whatever crops the farmer cultivated were already harvested. I wouldn’t bother anyone here. Nobody would even see me.

As I set up my tent, my courage grew. I thought about Seneca, the Stoic philosopher who wrote a Guide to Happiness. Seneca was rich and important, but when traveling, in his own words, “I put my mattress upon the ground, and lay upon it.”

If stealth camping was good enough for Seneca two thousand years ago, then who was I to worry about it? 

I had olives and goat cheese and fresh bread in my panniers. I feasted in the field, watching the very last glow of daylight fade away. I made a truce with myself, and felt my confidence return. 

Today I drank from a volcano. I could go anywhere and do anything. Where to sleep was just a petty detail. This bike tour was my mattress, and I would lay on it. 

But before I went to sleep in my tent, my phone lit up with a text from Gisela: “Good night. TVB.” 

The last three letters stand for “Ti voglio bene,” an Italian way of expressing sincere affection. I knew that my inner peace wouldn’t last. Demons gathered, ready to haunt this reckless traveler soon enough.

This is the 3rd 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. Click here to read the next chapter:

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:

It’s all wrong, but I’m doing it anyway. 

I’m on a plane, zooming to Italy, and I should be happy and excited, but I want to curl up into a ball and cry. The only way I can really pull this off is by breaking some rules and running up a huge credit card debt. Totally selfish, irresponsible, self-indulgent. 

As I write this I want to scream at you: This bike tour is the dumbest thing I ever did! Learn from my example. Do not try this at home. 

Worse still, do not try this somewhere far away on another continent where the language and cultural barriers mask all your personal flaws, disguising your deepest self-doubts underneath a glowing cascade of perfect Instagram photos.

I want to scream this at you, but there’s a stronger voice, one that says you’re here in this world to drink life to the dregs and have a wealth of vivid experiences. That both you and the world you live in were made by something more profound than you can ever fathom, and that you should show your appreciation by greedily savoring every facet and feature of this unlikely gem. 

We’ll get back to this, but first you should know a little bit about where we are.

As you leave the center of Rome, just southeast of the Colosseum, you can ride your bike on a long stretch of the original via Appia that has been lovingly restored. If you come in the spring, you’ll see tall, waving fields of grass with billions of bright flowers.

Best of all, this place is the winning lottery ticket for ancient history nerds. You get to ride over cobblestones with ruts and channels carved by thousands of wagon wheels over the years. You’ll see crumbling structures of ancient brick, chunks of marble and sometimes a carving or inscription that gives a clue about the history here. 

Virtually all the monuments in the first few miles outside the city were the tombs of wealthy Romans. A burial along via Appia was an essential status symbol. During the height of the Roman Empire, you could barely see the green fields all around you. Tombs crowded the sides of the road, rammed together like passengers in the subway of some ancient ghostly rush hour. But there are even more dead buried underground. 

Centuries ago, Romans built catacombs along the via Appia. There are a few Jewish catacombs, and some are dedicated to pre-Christian religions. But the majority of the catacombs, especially along the Appian Way, were built by the Christians of ancient Rome.

These catacombs were long tunnels lined with small niches to hold the remains of the dead. Some of these tunnels went on for miles through the earth. When it wasn’t convenient to lengthen a tunnel, the builders would dig another tunnel deeper down. Most of the catacombs contain three or more of these levels. And there are more than 40 of these catacombs scattered around the outskirts of Rome.

Thousands of dead bodies underneath your feet, monuments to a hundred more on the grass on either side of you. Yet this ancient cemetery is a park! 

Above ground, practically all you’ll see are joggers and hikers, spandex and dogs and all the other signs of the living. Kids kick soccer balls while their parents prepare a picnic lunch. Every weekend is like a big happy birthday party in a graveyard.

Still, you’re never allowed to forget the dead. There is one big tomb where hikers and bikers and joggers nearly always stop to gawk. 

As you come up the crest of a small hill, this sight will probably stop you, too: The tomb of Caecilia Metella. It stands out like a great tower above the flat fields all around, taller and bigger and better preserved than anything else on the Appian Way. 

The original tomb was a huge, round drum. Now it’s crowned with a circle of battlements biting the sky. In later centuries, different owners added small buildings around it, but these feel like an afterthought. The whole thing is the color of bleached bones, and that’s what it was built for. 

Marcus Crassus was the wealthiest man in the history of Rome. A woman named Caecilia Metella married one of his sons, and when she died her family built the most audacious tomb on this side of the Mediterranean.

This was where I stopped walking, seven years earlier, when I decided to bike the entire distance of the Appian Way. It’s a good place to tell you what this trip was really about. 

The truth is, I was running away. 

I was almost 40 years old when I made this trip. I was secretly terrified of reaching that landmark age (or beyond) with no employable skills or experience, still single, and clueless about what to do with myself. 

Whenever I’m feeling stuck, I find an adventure and I go after it. It’s my way of confronting the failures and mediocrity in my life. I stare them down and say “Things are going to change NOW.” 

I told myself this journey was a way to throw down the gauntlet and go through a dark place in search of the light on the other side.

But it was really just a self-indulgent escape. An escape from responsibilities and relationships. An escape from fear.

What if I was not powerful beyond belief? What if I was just an over-achieving dreamer, drifting into middle age with nothing to show for it? If I became that person at 40, what would my life look like at 60?

This is the kind of trip that might make sense if you found out you had a terminal illness. Or if you lost someone you loved, someone who urged you to enjoy life and dare to live it to the fullest. 

I didn’t have a tragedy like that to add drama to the story, but who says you need to wait for something terrible to happen before you do what you want? I say go out and fulfil your bucket list while your bucket is still full. 

Even if you have another 20, 40, or even 60 good years ahead of you, that’s less than a single brick in the long, ancient road of time.

I didn’t know if I was doing the right thing, but I was following an obsession that had haunted me for seven years. Foolish or not, I was going to ride while I still had some time left.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t have doubts about whether I was doing the right thing.

This is the 2nd 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 the out loud on YouTube (check the menu for links) so you can listen while you're shut in. Click here to read the next chapter:

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.