(If you're new to this story, here's the link to Chapter One: https://bicyclefreedom.com/the-mouth-of-the-wolf-chapter-i/)
In 73 BCE, gladiators in Capua broke free and started a slave revolt.
They were led by a man named Spartacus, a name that everyone knows today. As his rebels fought their way across Italy, thousands of slaves joined their ranks. They defeated four Roman armies in battle, and outwitted the Romans for two years.
In the end, the rebels became the victims of their greed. They had the chance to escape over the alps and enjoy freedom for the rest of their lives. Instead, they marched south in search of loot. A coordinated effort by two Roman generals led to their capture, and their fate has a gruesome connection with my journey.
As a warning to others, the Romans crucified the Spartacus rebels along via Appia.
The real Capua, where gladiators were trained to fight, is the modern town of Santa Maria in Capua Vetere, a few miles away from modern Capua. This was where I was ultimately headed. But I had an important reason to stop in Capua first.
Sometime during my quest for the Ponte degli Aurunci, I broke a spoke on my rear wheel. Now I crossed a bridge with strong, solid arches like immovable soldiers, and wobbled into town, looking for a bike mechanic.
The bike shop was literally a hole in the wall, a 10-by-20-foot space excavated into the side of a hill. A man who introduced himself as Zio Mario had my wheel off and the tire removed before I thought to ask how much it would cost.
There were no windows in the shop, but Mario did most of his work right out on the street. It seemed like he was constantly rolling cigarettes. He would work with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, sometimes lit but often not, while he chatted with people who passed by.
“This guy is from California,” he bragged to a lot of these folks. “And he rode his bike all the way here from Rome.”
These distractions didn’t stop Mario from doing a great job on my bike. He carefully inspected my wheel when he was done, and took the time to carefully adjust the spokes until the wheel was true. He put a new lining around the inside of the rim, and when he replaced the tire he lined up the label over the valve stem. He checked the pressure with a gauge that was designed for bicycles and not cars, and he wiped down the entire bike with a clean rag.
When he was done, I took out my wallet and I thought I heard him say “Venticinque.” 25 euros. Not cheap, but I didn’t have much choice. I should have expected some price gouging.
But when I handed him the money he asked, “Wait. How much did you hear me say it would cost?”
He had actually said, “Viene cinque.” It comes to 5 euro. I was amazed. He was charging about seven bucks for a first-rate professional job, parts and labor included. He wouldn’t even let me tip him.
“We are not in Rome,” he said as he handed most of my money back to me.
I have no words to tell you how much I love Rome. A week-long vacation in Rome turned into a 3-year stay, and I never stop thinking or talking about it.
But whenever I’m there, I watch my back. There are people in Rome who will try to rip you off, usually in petty ways, especially if you’re a foreigner. The people in smaller towns are more trusting and also much more trustworthy.
I suspect this is true in every country. Cities offer great opportunities for work, a social life, and to pursue almost any ambition. I moved to Los Angeles for all of the above reasons. Many gifts of society are only possible when you have a large concentration of people in one place. But what have we lost in exchange?
Both the old and new Capua are on the edge of Caserta, a major transportation hub. The area surrounding these cities is heavy with traffic. As I reached Santa Maria in Capua Vetere, the traffic got worse.
The amphitheater and other Roman ruins are worth seeing if you’re ever near Santa Maria in Capua Vetere. But overall this is possibly the most difficult, dangerous, and unattractive part of the Via Appia bike route.
With nowhere to camp, I checked into a cheap hotel. My room had a concrete floor with a gritty, non-stick paint that reminded me of a swimming pool. After a shower I was anxious to get out of my room and into town.
I grabbed some pizza al taglio and gelato, but there wasn't much to see. A few hours after sundown, every place in the city seemed to be closed. I felt like the only person on the street. I missed Mario and his friendly stream of patrons.
My phone buzzed with a call from my dad. As we spoke for a while, he asked “What’s bugging you? You don’t sound as happy as you should be.”
Before I left on my bike tour, I spent several days in Rome preparing for the trip. I also had a long list of Italian friends, former neighbors, students and acquaintances whom I would have loved to see. I could have called or visited at least a few people. What stopped me?
Did I really want to get going on my road trip, more than I wanted to see all those people? How many of them would have wanted to see me?
It’s the unavoidable irony of traveling alone. It’s easier to meet and talk to people on a solo tour, because you don’t have anyone else to talk to. You’ll almost always come back with stories of interesting people, local experts, and fellow travelers.
But even when you’re enjoying the solitude and the freedom it brings, your enjoyment will be tempered by the feeling that maybe you should be spending this time with your family and friends. I always carry a small weight of guilt with me on these trips.
My dad was encouraging. Before we hung up he said, “It's better to be lonely by yourself than to be lonely with other people.”
After the call, I noticed the smell of fresh-baked bread. It was out of loneliness, more than hunger, that I walked into what seemed like the only open pasticceria in all of Santa Maria in Capua Vetere.
The light was on, and the door was propped open. There were pastries in a glass display case, and behind the counter a scrawny man with greying hair was sliding a sheet of confections into a huge oven.
I greeted the baker with a smile and the usual “Buona sera.”
“It’s okay, I speak English,” he answered. He had an accent that didn’t sound Italian. He also sounded tired and annoyed.
“What part of America are you from?” he asked, as he handed me a warm cornetto.
“How did you know I’m American?”
“You’re wearing shorts. You have an American accent. The way you walked in here screams ‘American.’ I lived in Los Angeles for 15 years. There are a million things I can see in you.”
He spoke slowly and intensely, and he warmed up a little bit when he found out I was following via Appia on a bicycle. I learned he was Greek, but he married an American woman and sold real estate in Sherman Oaks, California, for several years. It didn’t make him happy.
“Now I stay up all night and sell cornetti to Italian kids. But I found the secret of life. Do you want me to tell you?”
How could I say no?
“Listen,” he said slowly, even more slowly than he had been speaking already. “All my life I was a salesman. I know how to read people. I know what they want before they do, and that’s how I can sell to them. I know you are searching for something. I seen a million people like you, from every country in the world.”
He paused dramatically. He put his fingertips on his temples, looked down at the floor, and took a deep breath. I half expected him to start singing “The Gambler,” but he didn’t.
“The secret of life is to learn as much as you can. Find something important to you and get very good at it.” He kept looking down as he said this, his elbows propped on the counter and his head in his hands.
I waited for more. I could hear a car driving past in the street outside. Finally he looked up at me.
“You have to learn and experience as much as you can. Keep traveling. Keep reading. And find one thing to be very good at.”
“Yes,” I said. “I agree with you. It’s what I’m trying to do.”
“So am I,” he said. “But I am a Kassandra. Do you know about Kassandra, from Troy?”
I nodded. Kassandra was a woman who had been cursed by the Greek god Apollo. She was given the power to predict the future and see the truth, but nobody would ever believe her.
“People don’t want to know the truth,” he went on. “If everybody tried to be the greatest possible person, can you imagine the world? If everybody tried to learn and be great at something. Everybody! We would solve all of our problems. We would cure the cancer. Everybody would be happy if they tried to learn more and do better.”
He said all of this quietly and slowly, and he sounded terribly sad.
I munched on my pastry as he stared at the counter without blinking. Finally I broke the silence by saying the dumbest thing possible: “Most people would rather just watch a football game and eat their cornetti.”
He put his head down on the counter, like he was going to fall asleep.
“Go away,” he said wearily. “You know everything. Now go away.”
This wise old baker who knew the secret of life didn’t seem especially happy or fulfilled. I fled his lair, walking quickly past a row of glass windows. The mannequins were dressed in the latest Italian fashions. In Italy, the female mannequins have erect nipples pointing through their clothes. I’ve always found this amusing and a little bit weird.
Lamps lit up the street. I saw another person walking alone in the distance.
It was too dark to really see any details about the other person. I was clearly getting sleepy, because when the walker turned and looked at me it looked like he was dressed in a toga. I imagined I was looking at Cicero.
Cicero regarded friendship as one of the highests, greatest blessings any human being could ever enjoy. What would he say about me? Here I was, free to travel the world, but Cicero would have pitied me. He would have only seen a friendless vagabond in a silent town.
I thought about what Pyrrhus might say. “Setting off on your own, seeking adventure and conquest and achievement--that’s the way to really live!” I used to agree with Pyrrhus.
Old Appius Claudius would probably also agree with his enemy Pyrrhus on this point. Appius Claudius never seemed concerned about other people unless they were useful to him.
Nobody’s going to name a road after me, but most of my goals have centered around achievement, mainly achieving things that make it possible to have more experiences like the journey I was on now. I was becoming a petty caricature of Appius or Pyrrhus.
Years ago, I stumbled on via Appia and lusted after the chance to follow it all the way. I thought it would give me bragging rights. I thought it would be fun and glorious all the time. Maybe someday I could write a book about it.
But most of the time I’m so fucking full of myself that I miss the best part of the journey.
This is the 12th Chapter of my book, Rome to Brindisi: How Biking Down an Ancient Roman Road Saved Me From a Life of Quiet Desperation. I'll be posting a few chapters each week during the Covid19 shutdown. I'm also reading them out loud on YouTube (check the menu for links) so you can listen while you're shut in. Here's the next chapter: https://bicyclefreedom.com/chapter-xiii-a-fatal-decision-at-the-caudine-forks/If you enjoyed this article, you'd be crazier than a young Caligula not to sign up for the newsletter. When you do, I'll send you a free copy of my travel notes from the latest bike tour along Via Appia.