126 miles, 16 mph average27 Aug 07Day 1
Rome - Naples

The Appian Way, or the Via Appia, is the oldest and most famous road built by the ancient Romans. Its construction began in 312 BC on orders of the Roman censor Appius Claudius Caecus and the road runs south from Rome over 500 km to the port of Brindisi and was the main route to Greece. The original road was well constructed being a pavement of large hexagonal blocks made from volcanic lava, laid on a firm foundation strengthened by cement based concrete (another Roman invention). The side of the road is still planted with pines that form a lush canopy to provide shelter from the oppressive summer sun and that inspired Respighi's synonymous symphony - The Pines of Rome. From Rome to Terracina the course is straight in the classic idiom of a Roman Road, apart from a few deviations around the Alban Hills. I can understand how and why the Romans constructed a straight road, but how they managed to link two cities 100 km apart with a dead straight line 2000 years ago is beyond me.

Just a few miles outside of Rome is the volcanic caldera forming Lake Albano, overlooked by the Pope's summer palace Castle Gandolfo. I had thought that this would have been a site of great natural beauty but it seems now that every rough-necked Roman youth and his seedy girlfriend take their weekends here hell bent on ruining it with their litter and noise.

As I followed the road to Terracina it traversed what were once the malarial wasteland swamps of the Pontine Marshes. Between 1930 and 1939 Mussolini's government commenced draining and reclamation of the marshes, using their success as a metaphor for the regime's modernizing drive and ambition to create a new Italy. As I passed by in the stillness of early morning I saw herons and storks feeding in the drainage channels, but was amazed when I spotted a romp of otters playing in the shallows.

At Terracina I continued along the coast whilst the Via Appia deviated inland. As the traffic was still quiet it turned out to be a great ride along the cliffs passing the delightful seaside town of Sperlonga and Emperor Tiberius' Villa. Tiberius came reluctantly to rule as a stepson to Augustus (a hard act to follow) and I could just imagine the great military leader relaxing here after a hard campaign expanding Rome's northern borders before slipping into a depressive insanity - just like his successors Caligula and Nero.

Sadly the coast south of Gaeta is now an endless run of nasty bucket & spade resorts, campsites and more of the ubiquitous wayside litter. The closer to Naples I rode the worse it seemed to get, and as the heat of the day started to build so did the traffic. A welcome relief came in the form of a cycle lane beside the main road but this was liberally scattered with broken glass and it wasn't long before I punctured. The fight with the traffic continued through Napoli's western suburbs but at least now I was travelling at the same speed or faster than the cars and trucks and could make the odd detour down one-way streets and alleys. On rounding a headland I was treated to my first view of the bay of Naples backed by the mighty Vesuvius.

Naples' harbour is guarded by Castell dell Ovo and legend has it that the medieval poet and sorcerer Virgil placed a magical egg in the castle's foundations to give them strength.

Vesuvius is the only active volcano on the European mainland having last erupted in 1944 and having erupted no less than 15 times in the last 300 years, but of course no more notably than when in 79 AD it destroyed Pompeii. I took the next day off to explore the mountain and the ruins of Pompeii. Whilst climbing the forested slopes I spotted a trail of smoke rising from the trees below and pretty soon a fire-plane circled overhead before dumping gallons of sea water to quell the flames. Pompeii is a must for any traveller to Italy; its buildings are so well preserved even down to the floor mosaics and frescoes and the layout of the town is so complete - the archiologists having identified temples, civic buildings, resturants, pubs, public baths, theatres and so on all sited under the shadow of the volcano. Probably the most poignant sight is that of the casts made of the petrified bodies frozen in time.

Rome - Brindisi
116 miles, 12 mph average28 Aug 07Day 2
Over the Appenines

The unrelenting heat of an Italian summer had seen temperatures over 40 degrees making cycling virtually impossible so I decided that the only way to make progress was to start at 4 am. The first half of the ride would take me out of the Neapolitan conurbation and so I knew I wouldn't be missing much and at least the traffic would be light. That much was true but what I hadn't banked on is that my route would take me through the heart of Camorra territory. The Camorra is Naples' mafia, notorious for cold-blooded violence and deadly drug wars. Shady characters lurked in doorways even at this ungodly hour and a fug of menace hung in the still, hot air. I guess I must have blended in, appearing perhaps as a night worker on my way to my early shift at one of the many factories I passed. All I know is that I was glad to see dawn break over Salerno.

A relative of mine had taken part in the Allied landings at Salerno in 1943 and I had always marvelled at his stories of escapades during the North Africa campaign and how the fighting had continued in taking Italy at the closing stages of World War 2. Now I was able to see for myself how this town would have been of such strategic importance at a pivotal time in the war. There is now a memorial on the seafront whose inscription reads "Gloria, Letizia, Onore del Popolo Nostro" meaning the glory, joy, and honour of our people. A strange tribute to a nation whose historical recollection of the war is somewhat confused.

From Salerno I headed inland towards Eboli and at last started to feel that I was experiencing the true Italy. A land of olive groves, gorgeous gorges and towering mountains. Near Mount Alburno I passed a charming old lady who, regardless of my trying to explain that I spoke virtually no Italian, gibbered on at me laughing and smiling about what I have no idea. I did manage to glean from her the fact that she was 82 and throughout the 'conversation' she kept balanced a box of figs on her head - quite a feat considering her propensity for animated speech.

The south of Italy would be a property developer's dream. I lost count of the number of ruined houses in perfect locations I passed, but the south is generally poor and many rural areas have been depopulated in favour of the large cities. As I climbed ever higher into the Appenines, the temperature gauge climbed steadily into the high 30s and with no shade or breeze to cool me I started to suffer badly, until I reached what I had thought might be the peak of the last climb of the day near Picerno. Instead the road plummeted back down into the valley and I would be faced with another ten-mile climb in the scorching midday heat. I rode up to a deserted house and helped myself to their hosepipe to give myself a good soaking. To my right the Autostrada straddled the valley and cut through the next hill in one swathe of smooth flat tarmac. The temptation was too much and so I pedalled down its hard shoulder as fast as my legs could carry me, right over the valley, through a short tunnel and out onto the more gently rolling hills west of Potenza. Just before leaving the motorway however, I suffered another flat tyre, only this time not through broken glass but from the effect of the heat melting the glue from my earlier repair job.

Potenza is perched on the side of a steep slope and of course the only hotel in town would be right at the top. It's a fairly nondescript kind of town and its poor shabbiness can be forgiven as much of it was destroyed in an earthquake in 1980.

Rome - Brindisi
151 miles, 15 mph average30 Aug 07Day 3
Puglia & the heel of Italy

Another 4am start and another long climb. No gangsters out in the country to fear and being back on the moonlit Via Appia, I traced the road as it wound gently upwards to its highest point at just over 1,000 meters. I heard the occasional bark, but the dogs seemed to be either tied up or behind fences, anyway I was more concerned by reports of wild boar that might wander out onto the road. Just as I was riding through a dense oak forest and starting to let my imagination get the better of me, my headlight reflected the red eyes of a huge horned beast. It stood stock still staring back at me as I came to a standstill. Now, I'd been eating buffalo mozzarella cheese all week but never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine it actually came from a buffalo. And yet here in the woods were a whole herd of these docile and somewhat bewildered bovines. I pity the man whose job it is to round them up and milk them though!

In the days when this part of the Via Appia was built, this would have been bandit country, still untamed by the influence of empire. A legion marching in the valley would have been vulnerable to attack, hence the Roman surveyors laid out the road to follow the crest of the hills. Even more amazing was that they had done so without ever taking on any steep gradients and of course as something of a side effect, the views in all directions were awe-inspiring.

High in the sky a pair of golden eagles circled on the thermals. Out hunting for breakfast - which could be a marmot, a mouse or even a hare. In winter months, when food is scarce, they have even been known to be a threat to livestock. The southern Appenines are just about the only place in Europe you can hope to see these rare birds.

The next 30 miles to Matera I shall remember as probably the best riding I have ever done. All gently losing height, smooth flowing road and wonderful countryside all round. The scent of eucalyptus carried on the fresh morning air. Not one single car passed by. Heaven. I passed through the occasional hilltop town like Tricarico but the landscape was otherwise deserted. Bliss. Tricarico has one bizarre claim to fame. Every year on 17th January it is the custom to wear a fertility mask and parade around the main church three times to receive a blessing from San Antonio. Nice.

Next stop and time for a short break - Matera. These dwellings or 'Sassi' were carved from the sides of the gorge. As a Unesco World Heritage Site, Matera is the only place in the world where people can boast to be still living in the same houses of their ancestors of 9,000 years ago.

Taranto's centre is basically an island defended by castles and bridges at each/end. It also proved to be somewhat difficult to penetrate by bike as the only route in seems to be by motorway. I'd found a delightful byway through fields of corn, tomatoes and aubergines but it came to a dead end just in sight of the docks and an industrial estate. A quick scramble over the fields and a few hedges took me onto a deserted stretch of service road. The whole place seemed to be shut up for the summer apart from one lonely character working on a forklift behind a wall about waist high. I rode over to get directions. Suddenly no less than four guard dogs appeared, the first of which bounded right over the wall and charged straight at me. I was caught between fight or flight when he came to a dead stop at the command of the forklift guy. All of a sudden the dog metamorphosed from vicious canine to playful lapdog - having a good sniff round my sweaty legs and demanding to have his ears tickled.

Taranto gives its name to the tarantula spider and the lively jig - the tarantella - that came about from the perceived need for victims of the spider's bite to hop about like mad in order to sweat out the poison.

The Appian Way returns to its straight form to cross the heel of Italy, making for some lovely riding past traditional 'trulli'. Typically Puglian, these are pretty, circular limestone buildings with domed roofs and built without cement or mortar, some are no more than sheds but some have been converted to luxurious houses.

A good wind picked up that evening, blowing me along the last 50 miles to the end of the line at Brindisi's harbour and the columns marking the terminus of the Via Appia. Roman legions used to take ten days to march from Rome over the cobbles and mountains, carrying heavy armour, catching their own food and fighting enemies and disease along the way. It only took three days by bike on the modern tarmac, fuelled by mountains of pasta and fighting off wild dogs and stray buffalo!

© 2008 site by mjrcreative
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