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 Leave a comment below, and I'll make sure you get a copy of the book (Your email will not be published and I will never share it).
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.