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(If you're new to this story, here's the link to Chapter One: https://bicyclefreedom.com/the-mouth-of-the-wolf-chapter-i/)

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: https://bicyclefreedom.com/how-to-pick-up-italian-women-or-men/

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.

An ancient love story may help you in 2018. In 161 A.D., someone had a brilliant idea.

This story hides a secret to productivity. And it may also be one of the best examples of fiscal responsibility in the history of western civilization.

If you’re ever in Rome, you’ll probably (hopefully) visit the ruins of the Roman Forum.

There, you’ll see a well-preserved temple dedicated to Antoninus Pius and his wife Faustina. Near the top of the temple you’ll see two lines inscribed in travertine marble:

Divo Antonino et
Divae Faustinae Ex S.C.

The story goes that the emperor, Antoninus Pius, deeply loved his wife. When she died, he asked the Senate to make her a goddess, and he built a lavish temple in her honor.

He spared no expense. You can still see the marks left on the pillars by looters who tried to steal the rare cippoline marble. 

But they couldn't tear the building down.

In fact, the temple was built so well that it survived through the centuries and was even made into a church. The church was dedicated to San Lorenzo, who may have been martyred on the alter at the base of the temple.

But I'm getting off topic.

On the front of the temple, Antoninus Pius carved the first dedication, “Divae Faustinae Ex S.C.” This means “The Goddess Faustina by Senatorial Decree.”

Sanlorenzoinmiranda-rome
Some years later, when Antoninus passed away, the Senate was left with the burden of making him a god just like his wife. Her temple had been costly, and the emperor’s own temple would have to be its equal or better.

But then someone had a brilliant idea.

Instead of building a new temple, they simply added a new inscription above the old one: “Divo Antonino et.” The translation: “The God Antoninus and.”

Now the full inscription read:

The God Antoninus and
The Goddess Faustina by Senatorial Decree

The immortal emperor and empress are together for all eternity, while the Roman taxpayers were spared the cost of shiploads of marble and thousands of man-hours of labor. Everyone was happy, except the family who owned the marble quarries.

Build your house with bricks

There’s a lesson here, and it’s not about finding ways to cheap out.

If the Romans had build Faustina a cheap temple, Antoninus would have required a new, better temple.

In other words, this money-saving trick never could have worked if the original temple hadn’t been built as well as it was.

So, the real lesson: If you do something really well, it’s easily worth twice as much as if you do an “okay” job. Spend more time, money, effort up front and you’ll ultimately get twice as much done in half the time at half the price.

Whatever you do in 2018, challenge yourself to make it bigger and better than it needs to be.

1

When you wake up early in the morning to throw yourself at an unknown pile of experiences, when the shoulder is gone from the road and you don’t know which of the passing trucks is going to kill you, when every spin of your bicycle wheels pulls you closer to the Unknown, that’s when every leaf and flower takes on a new and special meaning. This is when you know you’re on a real adventure.

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 remain private).

When you wake up early in the morning to throw yourself at an unknown pile of experiences, when the shoulder is gone from the road and you don’t know which of the passing trucks is going to kill you, when every spin of your bicycle wheels pulls you closer to the Unknown, that’s when every leaf and flower takes on a new and special meaning. This is when you know you’re on a real adventure.

I’m back on the road, making my way through a surreal version of yesterday’s ride through the park. But this is no ride through the park. I’m in the Pontine Marshes, and I’m not sure whether the drivers going to work on SS7 can see me.

Umbrella pines form a living green wall along the road, and the mist makes hard to see anything else. Shining yellow globes rush towards me and turn into the headlights of ubiquitous Fiats. I wish I had a strong cappuccino.

When the Romans built this section of via Appia they wanted to get through the marshes as quickly as possible, so they built the road in a straight line. Years later, they took the time to drain the swamps through a series of channels, but in the beginning they just drove heavy wooden piles into the mud and built the road right over them.

As the fog clears you can see meadows and crop fields. A drainage channel on the side of the road keeps the marshes from returning and covering the ancient Appian Way. You get a glittering gift of wildflowers as you shoot straight towards Terracina.

This is really where Rome ends and the true countryside begins. A happy German shepherd jogs along the opposite side of the drainage ditch, almost as excited as me. I pass a herd of water buffalo whose milk is used for mozzarella cheese.

remains of via Appia outside Terracina, Italy
Traces of the Appian Way outside Terracina

As the sun climbs higher in the sky and burns away the fog, I start to feel grateful for the trees. In addition to the shade, they will also become my secret to finding my way.

Most of the Appian Way is lined with Rome’s iconic umbrella pines. From above or from a distance, you can often see the via Appia as a dark green line against the grassy landscape of southern Italy.

Many times on this journey, when I’m not sure where to go, I’ll get up on top of a hill, a bell tower, or something up high and look for the ubiquitous umbrella pine. Even in the most remote parts of Puglia and Basilicata, where the via Appia was little more than a trail carved out of the ground even in its heyday, you can still find a lone pine tree to show you the way.

Travel tip: The modern SS7 from Rome to Terracina is a very good approximation of the original Appian Way. But if you want a somewhat safer bike route, follow via Latina to the south. It will take you through Italy’s national park Circeo, named after the enchantress of Homer’s Odessey, who turned Ulysses’ crew into pigs. There are a lot of campsites along the coast in this area, and you can rejoin the via Appia route further along.

 

Terracina

When I reach the edge of Terracina, a barrista named Francesco tells me how to get to the Campo dei Paladini at the top of a steep hill.

“Non e’ difficile,” he assures me. “It is not difficult.”

He rolls a cigarette as I sip my espresso. A young woman walks in and greets him with a “Ciao, Francesco.” He introduces me as the crazy American who’s going to ride his bike all the way to Brindisi. When she’s not looking he gives me a nudge and whispers, “Non e’ difficile.”

I want to get going, but it’s always a good idea to talk to friendly barristas in Italy. They spend their whole day drinking coffee and chatting with travelers, so you’ll almost always learn something interesting.

Francesco tells me the story of Terracina, from the Samnites and the Volscii to the Kingdom of Naples and the Gothic Wars. He tells me that the archeological site lay underground and forgotten until allied bombing in World War II brought it to light. Francesco fills me in on the best local bands and where to hear them, where to get good wine, and how to pick up Italian women.

These final comments bring a wry smile from his female companion, who finishes her cigarette and wishes me luck on my travels.

“We’ll see if I make it,” I joke in Italian.

“Just do it a little bit at a time,” Francesco assures me. Non e’ difficile.

Twenty minutes later, as I creak and grind my way up to the Campo dei Paladini, I wonder what kind of tobacco was in Francesco’s cigarette.

Campo (Italian for “field”) dei Paladini was a traditional rest stop for the ancient Romans along the via Appia. The old “high road” went up this way, skirting the city and coming to rest in a large square or piazza bearing this name. Here at the top of the steep rise, travelers would take a well-earned break.

This lofty, rocky perch is above the city of Terracina today, and it’s shared with the Temple of Jupiter in Anxur. Of course you’ll see views of the city, the sea, and the surrounding countryside. From up here, in fact, the green line of pines marking the via Appia couldn’t be clearer.

But the city of Terracina herself is worth a bit of look, too. It’s the classic European walled city, and as you enter the gates you almost feel like defenders are aiming their crossbows at you. At the top and center, a trace of the original Appian Way runs straight through the wide town piazza. An ancient cathedral covers one end, built over an ancient Roman temple and combining architecture and decoration from ancient Rome, the middle ages, the Renaissance and the 18th century.

Temple of Jupiter in Anxur above Terracina
Jupiter in Anxur on Italy's via Appia

Terracina is a bit off the path for most travelers to Italy, but you could do worse than to stay in this quiet beach town, surrounded by hills and countryside ready for hiking and biking, and just a day’s journey from Rome.

But I’m committed to biking the entire Appian Way, and I don’t have nearly as much site-seeing time as I would like. So I make my way back down to the sea-level and take advantage of an engineering feat that was executed over 1800 years ago.

The steep climb and descent along Terracina were an unavoidable part of the Appian journey for the first 400 years. A finger of the Apennine mountains sticks out to the sea, and the first Romans had to go over this rocky wall. There was no other way.

Then in the first century AD, the Emperor Trajan ordered engineers to cut a pathway through the stone barrier. The modern Appian Way, SS7, follows this renovation, which saved a day’s travel for ancient Romans.

As you leave the city and pass through this steep rocky gate, look to the left for the 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 is a chapter from my new book, Tutto Nascosto: A Bike Ride Down the Appian Way.



It was still morning when I got to Terracina. It's like Venice Beach with a giant walled city on a hill. A steep road leads to a foreboding gate the gives entrance to the walls of the city. The Appian Way went right through the city and even higher up to the Piazza Dei Paladini and the Temple of Jove Anxur. At least for a time.

Those busy Romans, always on the move, built their own shortcut during the reign of Emperor Trajan. The city and temple rest on a giant point that juts out into the sea, and the Romans cut a road straight through the lowest, softest part of the point. It's daunting when you see it up close and imagine them hacking away at the rock with nothing but shovels and picks.

Italy bike tour Terracina temple

The Roman numbers etched into the cliff face represent the depth of the cut, and go from C to CX to CXX.

This unnatural detour saved the typical Roman a day of travel on the way to or from Rome, and it could have saved me a few hours, but I had other plans.

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You just can't go to Terracina on a bike and not climb the old, cartilage-scraping route that plagued the hooves of untold  herds of mules and other pack animals. Not to mention, I had to pay my tribute to Jove.

But first I needed coffee.

I bought a mini pizza and washed it down with espresso at a bar near the edge of town, run by a guy named Francesco. He was a cyclist himself, and asked eager questions about my planned journey.

"E' facile," he concluded. It's easy. Clearly he had never talked to any of the archeologists in Rome.

I asked him about riding up to Jove Anxur by way of the "high Appia" and he assured me "It is not steep." So we parted ways, and I rode confidently up the knee-grinding street.

As far as old ruins go, the temple was a bit of a disappointment. The view was not. You could see the southwest coast of Italy rolling away along the Mediterranean, with the Alban Hills in the distance, the cradle of this ancient city that was the cradle of modern Western civilization.

And you couldn't mistake via Appia for anything else. A dark green line of umbrella pines cut across the landscape, shooting back to Rome in an impossibly straight line. The southwest route away from Terracina and Rome was almost as straight as it marched up into the hills, but for most of this section I would have to take the modern road which crossed the Appian Way in endless switchbacks.

This was my second day on the Appian way, I only had one small worry. Francesco's optimistic view was in question. He had told me the route to Jove Anxur was "not steep," but I felt certain that my knees had lost at least a centimeter of cartilege.

In the old days, before the "Appian slash," travelers had to climb almost a thousand feet on a steep narrow roadbed. The rest and the view at the top, in a flat area called Piazza dei Paladini must have been a welcome site.  It was for me.

Rome tour night forum Italy

I've been getting a lot of emails (as well as a few comments added to old posts) from people wanting tips and advice on biking in southern Italy. Some of you are riding (or even hiking!) the Via Appia, and it's a shame that it's so hard to get a group of people together when our schedules, wills, and finances are all in alignment.

We're basically all doing prettymuch the same ride, just not at the same time. So... ...continue reading "Now you can ride with me in Italy, even if you don’t ride with me"