…besides the one I’m driving on, that is!

In my opinion, Italy’s Via Appia Antica (the ancient Appian Way) wins, hands down.  I used to live at the end of this famous road, in the city of Brindisi.  There, an ancient column marks the end of the first of Rome’s famous roadways.  I love standing next to that column and thinking about Octavian landing at Brindisi, his first Italian stop on the road to Rome, as he raced home to claim his inheritance from his assassinated great-uncle, Julius Caesar.

View from Brindisi's Via Appia column

With my family, I’ve traveled most of the Via Appia Antica – now replaced by the SS-7 paved road – by car.  I was working on a Girl Scout special interest patch about the Via Appia and ancient Roman life, and decided the best way to get to know the road was to experience every centimeter of it. 

I had no idea what I was getting into.  I envisioned a straight, flat road, covering the historic paths once walked by the Roman legions.  Roman soldiers built the Via Appia as they marched; they brought along tools, surveying equipment and plenty of manpower.  They quarried their materials locally.  You’d think they would take the most direct route from Rome to the Adriatic.

My analysis failed to include the mountains that run down the center of Italy.  They’re quite an obstacle, and the Via Appia Antica twists up and down their slopes.  I gained a new appreciation for those legionnaires as we trundled up hills and through narrow valleys.

The Via Appia Antica winds through Matera, where people lived in cave homes until just a few decades ago, better known now as the place Mel Gibson filmed The Passion of the Christ.  Past Matera, you travel through endless fields and up into the mountain city of Potenza, Basilicata’s regional capital. 

To me, the most fascinating part of any Italian journey is contemplating just how a group of people decided to build in a particular place.  Along the Via Appia, you can find towns stuck up against the sides of bleak mountains as well as villages in heat-blasted plains.  You’ll see regional parks with cool, dark forests and modern cities like Avellino.

One must-see stop along the Via Appia is Benevento.  This city boasts an ancient Roman arch, built by the emperor Trajan, and a theater that has been used for performances since the days of Hadrian.  Weary travelers will enjoy the gelato sold near the arch…it’s delicious.

Beyond Benevento, the road snakes past several towns and dumps you into Caserta.  If you watched Star Wars: Episode I, you’ve seen Caserta’s royal palace; George Lucas used it as Queen Amidala’s stately residence.  The Via Appia then passes through Capua, which looks quite run down but is conveniently near the ancient town of Santa Maria Capua Vetere, where you can visit the ruins of a Roman amphitheater.

The road takes you over yet another mountain range and down toward the sea.  Just as you cross into the Lazio region, you’ll pass the town of Minturno.  Minturno’s worth a stop, because you can see part of the real Via Appia Antica (the ancient cobblestoned road) in the archaeological dig area near the sea. 

Next time, I’ll take you up through Lazio and to the Eternal City itself.