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There’s a reward for trips like this, something you know intuitively before you begin. A journey like this is going to change you—it must—there are too many lonely miles for it not to happen. When you venture along the jugular vein of ancient Rome you’re going to encounter a lot of ghosts, that’s a given, but more than that you’re going to find the secrets that are tutto nascosto, hidden away in your own heart.

This is a chapter from my new book, Tutto Nascosto: A Bike Ride Down the Appian Way. I'll be posting a chapter at a time, and the full length book will also be available as a downloadable ebook when it's finished. Leave a comment below, and I'll make sure you get a copy of the book (Your email will not be published and I will never share it).

Introduction

There’s just something in human nature that won’t let us stare too long at an unclimbed mountain, an uncharted wilderness, or an unanswered challenge. This is why other people climb mountains and jump out of airplanes.

This is why, after almost 7 years of staring down a 2,300 year old highway, I found I could no longer try to run a business or be a teacher or fulfill any of the other roles the world put before me until I rode my bike to the end of the road, just to see where it went.

Other people said it couldn’t be done. That I would be robbed, kidnapped, and mashed to a pulp beneath the wheels of a truck before I reached Terracina. One well-meaning blog reader sent an email to warn me, “You’ll destroy your arse in the first 10 kilometers.” A crotchety old park superintendent muttered “E tutto nascosto.” It’s all hidden.

Everything they told me was true. The Appian Way is fraught with peril, a 500-mile gauntlet of knee-grinding climbs, bone cracking holes, sheer drops in the fog, bad weather, hostile natives, robbers, murderers and things far worse than that.

But there’s a reward for trips like this, something you know intuitively before you begin. A journey like this is going to change you—it must—there are too many lonely miles for it not to happen.

When you venture along the jugular vein of ancient Rome you’re going to encounter a lot of ghosts, that’s a given, but more than that you’re going to find the secrets that are tutto nascosto, hidden away in your own heart.

If you look at a road map of modern Italy, you’ll see that Rome looks like a pizza. I don’t think this is a complete accident, but there’s a practical reason the Italians designed their freeway system like this. A main highway, the Grande Raccordo Annulare, circles the entire city at a far enough distance to avoid plowing through any of the most important and popular archeological sites.

The “exits” off this freeway are mostly straight lines leading straight into the center of Rome, like spokes leading into the hub. They divide the city into pizza wedges, but the really cool part is that almost all of these inward-bound roads were built over a thousand years ago. Or at least built on top of the original road bed, or near it.

The via Appia, or the Appian Way, is one of the oldest and most famous of these roads. It runs diagonally down the southern half of Italy, across the Apennine mountains, and down to the ancient port of Brindisi at Italy’s heel. This was the main highway in ancient times, leading from the capital of the empire to the port that was a gateway to Greece, Egypt, and Africa. This was the door to the farthest reaches of the Roman empire.

If you made a list of famous leaders, warriors, poets, philosophers and artists of ancient Rome and even the centuries beyond, you’d find that nearly every one of them has had a journey, an experience, maybe even a death or a tomb along the Appian Way.

Even today, the land along the via Appia that isn’t controlled by the government is an Italian Beverly Hills dotted with the mansions of celebrities and moguls.

But the road itself is preserved in all her glory. Just a quarter mile past the Colosseum, there’s a casually hidden (nascosto?) entrance to the Park of the Ancient Appian way. If you happen to be in Rome on a good day, you can hike or ride a bike on the original basalt road, and stop to visit some stunning catacombs and ruins along the way.

This is an awesome adventure in itself, and it’s about as far off the beaten path as you can get in Rome.

After 10 miles or so, the way is harder to find. Nobody knows the exact route of via Appia with 100% certainty.

For me, that simply added to the adventure. We know where it starts, where it ends, and a lot of specific points it touches along the way. So seven years after my first visit to the park, I set off on my bike to connect the dots and plot my own course.

This is a chapter from my new book, Tutto Nascosto: A Bike Ride Down the Appian Way.



Whatever your dreams are, don't put them off. If you want to tour the Appian Way (or anyplace else), you'll always manage to find a place to sleep. Unexpected help (and adventure) will come to you along the way. And the lessons you'll learn--about Italy, about Italians, and most of all about yourself--are priceless.

 "Impossibile!" was the Roman archeologist's first response. But this kind of bike tour is actually very doable.

I mention Dottore Grello again because I've been thinking about him a lot. Without knowing it, he forced me to stand up for myself and my dreams. I convinced him on the spot, and this gave me that last little boost of confidence I needed to make it happen.

3 tips and 2 books for touring the Appian Way

I'm writing this post because I got two more emails this week from people who want to tour southern Italy by bicycle. If you're ready to explore the Appian Way, all I can say is, "You can do it!" It's not terribly hard as far as bike touring goes--you're crossing the Apennines, not the Rockies.

Whatever your dreams are, don't put them off. If you want to tour the Appian Way (or anyplace else), then learn a bit about the terrain, get your bike and your gear in order, and jump in.

You'll always manage to find a place to sleep. Unexpected help (and adventure) will come to you along the way. And the lessons you'll learn--about Italy, about Italians, and most of all about yourself--are priceless.

Two books that changed my life 

Dr. Grello gave me a chance meet the author of one of the most motivating books about the Appian Way. It didn't work out, but the book itself was worth many times the price.

On the surface, it looks like Ivana Della Portella put together a "coffee table" sort of book. If that were all, it would be good enough just for the bragging rights. Some day your friends will open it up to an impossibly gorgeous landscape shot and you'll tell them, "I was right there, sitting with my back against that pillar, eating olives."

But the real value of The Appian Way comes before you even set out. I always like to start out with a constellation of points I'd like to go to on my bike. Once you're on the road, connecting the dots is the most exciting part of the journey.

Since it's light reading with a lot of photos, Dr. Portella sets the scene in her book--she gives you a roadmap by not giving you a roadmap.  

If you're serious about touring via Appia, I recommend The Appian Way: A Journey by Dora Jane Hamblin and Mary Jane Grunsfeld. This is the book I referred to the most on my first bike tour in Italy, and I slowly became an expert on the Appian Way by reading through all the references they include in the back.

Most of all, it's hearwarming to read the authors' concerns about ancient Roman ruins that were disappearing due to vandalism and neglect when the book was written. Heartwarming, because 30 years later you get to ride your bike to these very places and see them restored and protected.

I plan to outdo these authors with my own book (which I'll post on this blog one chapter at a time starting in January 2011) but in the meantime I think this is the most thorough, informative, and entertaining book about the Appian Way available in English.
 

3 bits of advice

I promised some advice about a bike tour through southern Italy. But what I realized as I started writing this is that the advice I would give you is the same for any bike tour, anywhere. But here goes:

  1. Talk to the locals. You're guaranteed to dispel loneliness, at the very least. But more often you'll learn about the best places to eat, hear an interesting story, see things that aren't in any guidebook, and maybe even get invited for dinner.
  2. Keep your itinerary and schedule open. If you're planning a 10-daybike tour, make it a route you can do in 7 or 8 days. This leaves you time for delays problems, and also for the unexpected discoveries that are more likely still
  3. Just go for it.  

If you really need more information before you're ready to down your first shot of limoncello, check out the rest of my blog.



Terracina roughly translates into "little piece of land" but it's hard to understand where they got this title from. Everything here seems big, towering, rocky to the extreme.  The craggy top of the place once housed a fortress called Anxur, and the temple to Jupiter/Zeus/Jove is called the temple of Jove in Anxur.

The top of the city is a sheer delight for an amateur history buff like me. The original Appian Way is clear and obviously marked in the main piazza of the town, running right between the venerable duomo and an excellent bar where the espresso will do wonders for an exhausted bike tourist.

The walls of the duomo are made of building materials filched from other, far older structures. So you see all kinds of tiles with latin inscriptions, chunks of marble, bits of bas-relief and artwork. These 3-dimensional collages are actually fairly common all over Italy, and they're one of my favorite things to look at.

But when you reach the Piazza dei Paladini and the Temple of Jove in Anxur, you're in for a sight. The fortress town of Terracina is dwarfed by the mountainous cliffs, the rolling countryside far below, and the shimmering Mediterranean rippling off into the distance.

Most of all, you see the via Appia clearly marked in both directions. The original road has been preserved as a park going out of Rome, and when this gives way to Strada Statale 7 (SS7) it still runs through the Pontine Marshes in a straight line, flanked by umbrella pines. From Jove's lofty perch you have a dark green line showing you the way.

In fact, the umbrella pines are almost always a reliable marker. Throughout my trip, whenever I was unsure of the way, I would get somewhere high up and look for the pines. Even in the most dry and dusty sections of Puglia and Basilicata, it wasn't that unusual to pass a lonely umbrella pine marking the remnants of Rome's most famous road.

As you leave Terracina heading south, you'll see the famous cut through the rock that eliminated the need to take the steep slope over the mountain and saved hasty Romans an entire day of travel.via Appia remains outside Terracina

The road leaving Terracina takes you along some of my favorite parts of the journey. As you weave up the switchbacks towards Fundi and Itri, you'll come across some well-preserved ruins of the Appian Way.

On my last tour a farmer was selling olives from a wooden cart on the side of the road. I munched on these as I walked along the old via Appia, and wondered where I would find myself next.

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/

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Once you get outside Benevento you hit some beautiful country right away. There was no way I could have predicted the amazing show that was waiting, but that's the serendipity of bike tours.

It was going to be a major turning point in the tour, and after this night I would spend a lot more time talking to people, sharing stories and experiences, being social. But as I left Benevento, I didn't know yet what was about to happen.

I rode my bike out of the city early in the evening. A traffic cop told me the way, and soon I was cruising along a winding, hilly country road in the failing light.

I didn't have plans for where to stay that night, but here's the great thing about touring southern Italy by bicycle. Your tent almost anywhere in the countryside.

In fact, when I met an old man walking along the side of the road and asked if he knew anywhere to camp, he smiled and gestured magnanimously across the forests and meadows around us.

"You are welcome to camp anywhere you want in my country," he said.

This was just my second night of stealth camping on the tour of via Appia, but I've always had great luck when I leave things up to chance.

The land was deep green, with beautiful oak forests and grassy meadows. At one point I passed a sign leading to the Ponte Rotto, where I would one day fulfill my dream of camping out in ancient Roman ruins. But not this night.

I rode my bike down into a broad valley as the last glow of the sunset disappeared. The world was pitch black. The only light came from my flickering Cat's Eye bike light and the silver points of stars up above.

I came to a farm at the top of a gentle hill covered with olive trees and grapevines. Nobody seemed to be home when I went to ask permission, so I found a level spot near a bunch of olive trees and set up my tent.

I was ready to crash when I saw a dim light gently bobbing near the spot where I had wheeled my bicycle off the road. It looked like someone walking with their cell phone, so I shouted a friendly "Buona sera!"

No answer, but the light kept coming closer, taking its time.

I didn't want to startle anyone in the dark, so I turned on my flashlight, pointed it at my own face, and called out another greeting down the hill.

No reply, and this began to feel creepy.

"Listen," I said in my best possible Italian, "I'm just passing through here on my bike and I stopped because it is dangerous to ride in the dark. I wanted to camp here for the night and leave early in the morning, but I don't want to cause any problems. I'll go now if you want me to."

The mysterious light stopped, but continued to bob gently in the air, flickering on and off. I pointed my light at it, and saw nothing but the low branches of a young oak tree.

A ghost? This wasn't the only time I've ran into ghosts in Italy (that's another story) but something felt completely normal and natural about this. I walked down to the light and found a large insect on a tree branch. Its abdomen was glowing, and the branch bobbed up and down in the wind.

I laughed out loud as I walked back to my tent, and suddenly a flash of light in the sky caught my eye. A shooting star! A few minutes later I saw another one. The next hour or so was a treat of meteors, stars, and glowing insects.

What happened next is hard to describe, but I'll try. Laying there in an olive grove in Italy, I felt like I was coming home. I had found a part of myself, something I had lost over the years.

Italy is famous for her natural and artistic beauty, but I've been guilty of neglecting the first of these. When I tour in Italy I tend to obsess on paintings and history, cold sculptures and crumbling chunks of marble. But those things get there romance and their magic from the natural world that shaped them and the people who made them.

The whole point of a bike tour in Italy is to breathe life and relevance into the textbook Italy we all think we know.

It took a natural light show in the olive groves of Benevento to show me the error of my ways.

Come to think of it, this is one of the most important reasons to go on a bike tour. It will get you out of your routing, your regular mindset, and show you what you've been missing out on.

I don't spend as much time in cars as most people do, but even so I'm fixed in my ways, just like we all are.

And there's nothing like a bike tour to take you out of yourself and show you the world in a new way.

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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.

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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!

Not everybody likes to read, and a lot of you probably won't travel with me--whether it's a schedule conflict or my smelly feet. So here's another option for you.

It's true I want to lead a kick-ass, life-changing bike tour next spring so I can charge money for the same service in the future. It's true that I'm going to publish a guide-book with some of the best-kept secrets about bike touring in southern Italy.

But not everybody likes to read, and a lot of you probably won't travel with me--whether it's a schedule conflict or my smelly feet.

So here's another option for you. I've put up the full route on a squidoo lens. You'll get a basic outline of where I go, along with a few brief notes about some of the cool things to see and do while you're biking the Appian Way. You can dig up the maps yourself, get some relevant books from Amazon, or even shoot me an email if you've got a legitimate question.

Here's the link:

http://www.squidoo.com/bikeappia

Italy bike tour appia Aurunci bridge archBy the way, if you're not already familiar with Squidoo, you should check out my lens just to see what it's all about. Pretty soon you'll be posting your own pictures and stories of your bike rides and bike touring adventures. You might even make some money. (I've already got $1.40 in pending earnings. That's almost enough to buy a cappuccino when I get to  Rome!)

If you're reading this, some part of you wants to be stronger, faster, to travel, to be free. Don't limit yourself. There's more than one way to ride to Brindisi, and if that's not where you want to be, you have as many challenges and adventures awaiting you as there are stars in the sky and dreams in your heart.

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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.

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This is another benefit of biking that you don't usually hear about. It's a ritual that gives you an intimate connection with the places you ride. In the short time I've lived in LA, I've learned my way around better than many people who have been here all their lives.

About a million years ago when I was a tour guide out of Rome, there was an 85-year-old man named Doug in the group that I was leading around Europe. Doug always seemed to disappear whenever we went into a museum or started a tour. Italy bike tour Appia Matera

I quickly learned where to find him. He would inevitably be sitting at an outdoor table at a nearby cafe, sipping a pint from a big glass mug. He'd grin at you from underneath the bill of his Oakland A's baseball cap and say, "I decided to just sit down and have myself a beer."

This man fought in the Second World War. He worked grain elevators, assembly lines, and forklifts. I can't ever really know what was going on in his head, but I would imagine that sitting casually, drinking a beer outside the Louvre, the Colosseum, the Ponte Vecchio or the Acropolis must have really felt like he'd finally arrived, after a long life of struggle.

Or maybe there was even more to it than that.

A few years back there was a guy on YouTube who traveled all over the world and filmed himself dancing in front of famous landmarks and in exotic settings. That was his way of sealing the experience, saying "I'm here." And when you thing about it, we have something like that when we travel.

Dean Karnazes, who once ran 50 miles in 50 days, hints at this in his book. He sees a beautiful vista in Hawaii, Costa Rica, or wherever and he just has to run to feel one with the place, to grok it.

We take the picture, buy the souvenir, but usually there's something deeper and more personal, even if it's simple. I go to a new place and try the local coffee and dessert, such as it is. One of my friends lights up a small pipe with a special green herb burning inside. Doug sits down and has a beer.

This is another benefit of biking that you don't usually hear about. It's a ritual that gives you an intimate connection with the places you ride. In the short time I've lived in LA, I've learned my way around better than many people who have been here all their lives.

Now you have a chance to experience Italy in a way that most tourists never get to do, not even Doug. I'm retracing the Appian Way next spring, and I'm looking for companions. This is a tour of rural, heartland Italy, and you'll get to know her in your heart, your legs and your knees.

Crossing the land on your own power (as very few people have done since the centurions), you'll feel every gust of air and every curve and contour of the road. You'll eat the food that was grown, raised, or caught on Italian soil. Make friends with the locals who can sometimes trace their ancestry to pre-Roman times.

Leave a comment if you want to come along, or shoot me an email: jacob {at} bicyclefreedom.com. (You know where to put the @ symbol).