If you live, as I do, Between the Beltways, WTOP rapidly becomes your best friend.  You know, the one who gives you advice during the hard times, the one who has the last-minute scoop, the one who knows, well, everything.

Several moves ago (same house I live in now), I worked at Washington National Airport (now Reagan).  I commuted through some fairly scary areas.  WTOP, then found at 1500 AM, was my favorite station because of the excellent, frequent traffic reports.  Now, I work from home and teach my children here as well.  WTOP – found now at 103.5 FM – is still my best friend. 

Today, for example, I drove to a couple of local wine shops to research an upcoming article on Spanish wine.  Since I was in Annapolis, I hit Trader Joe’s (buffalo burgers needed restocking) and a couple of other errand spots.  As I started my car, I caught the latest traffic report.  WTOP reported a complete closure of  I-97 northbound at Farm Road…second time in a week.  I was able to divert onto Route 50 and take a different road home.

Deciphering traffic reports is a life skill.  I’ve lived in several large cities (I grew up in the Los Angeles area, a real traffic challenge) and learned to translate Italian and German traffic reports, out of necessity.  “Traffic jam” is “Stau” in German and “coda” in Italian, if you’re interesed.  It’s far better to avoid the seven-kilometer Stau than to endure it, trust me.

Last summer, I drove through Chicago en route to my friend’s Wisconsin home.  I had a decent map and a car radio.  I might as well have been in Beijing, really.  I listened to traffic reports that made no sense whatsoever.  If you’re in New York City as a tourist, you’ve at least heard of the Lincoln Tunnel, but Chicago’s landmarks and major traffic arteries were, well, more foreign to me than an Autobahn.  It was downright scary.  After I reached Wisconsin, I dragged out my Chicago maps and memorized the directions of the roadways I’d heard about on traffic reports.  Next time, I’m sure I’ll do better.

Navigating unfamiliar roads is always challenging.  When you’re in a new city, driving while trying to understand roadway slang, avoiding traffic problems is a superhuman feat.  That’s why I’m grateful to traffic reporters everywhere, especially my hometown heroes at WTOP.  You make our lives a little less stressful.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Bruce Wayne, KFI-In-The-Sky, traffic reporter for KFI radio, Los Angeles, who died in a fog-related crash.  He was L. A.’s first true traffic reporting personality.


That one’s easy.

Rockville Pike.

I’ve lived in Maryland for a total of six years, so far, and I have never enjoyed driving in Rockville.  Now, I actively avoid Rockville Pike.  My favorite spice and seasonings retailer, Penzeys, recently opened a shop on Rockville Pike, and I refuse to go there.  I’ll wait until I’m in Indianapolis and visit Penzeys there.

I’ve never figured out why some roads are clogged with strip malls and restaurants, and why developers insist on adding more strip malls to these thoroughfares.  Route 3 in Crofton (or farther south, in Waldorf) is another example of roadway clogging.

I’d love to go to G Street Fabrics or some of the other great shops on Rockville Pike, but they’re located on Rockville Pike.  It’s just far enough away, and just overcrowded enough, that it’s not worth the trip.

Frankly, I’d rather drive in downtown Naples.  (Italy, not Florida)  And that’s saying something.

This morning I reserved a rental car for my next weekend road trip.  Next, I’ll need to make a list of items to pack for myself and my kids.

Of course, everyone has favorite items to take on a trip.  Here are my Five Road Trip Essentials:

Diet Coke

If I forget my 12-pack of Diet Coke, the trip won’t be much fun.  I confess to a Diet Coke addiction.  This drink has no nutritional value whatsoever.  In fact, I just read that drinking diet sodas can lead to heart problems, strokes and other health disasters.  Too bad; I’m packing it anyway.

100-Calorie Packs

This clever invention, small packages of crackers or cookies that contain exactly 100 calories’ worth of food, is my kid snack food of choice when I’m on the road.  I know how much junk my kids are eating, and they know I’m not going to stop at a Kwik-E Mart and buy them jelly doughnuts.

Irish Music

It’s impossible to be depressed when those crazed Gaelic Storm guys are pounding the drums and belting out my favorite Irish tunes.  The tedious trip down I-64 goes much faster when I’m listening to Dramtreeo, Scruffy Murphy or Great Big Sea.

Emergency Kit

I’m married to an Eagle Scout, so we take emergency prep pretty seriously.  In winter months we drive with a candle, blankets and matches in the car.  We always carry water, an emergency triangle and spare headlight lamps.  So far, we’ve been fortunate; we’ve only needed to use the blankets to cover sleepy children, not freezing ones.


My car is littered with old Mapquest printouts.  I own an ADC map book of every county in the Baltimore area.  I’ve been a member of AAA since I learned to drive.  There’s good reason for this.  I can’t navigate my way out of a paper bag.  I even plan extra driving time for getting lost and finding the correct road.

I think the best road trips are taken with like-minded, dear friends.  My husband, children and I had the good fortune to spend two years in Italy from 2002 – 2004.  One summer, friends arrived from Korea and spent a month at our place.  We rented a mountain house in the Abruzzo region, sight unseen, and set out in two tiny rental cars.

We made it to the town without trouble (OK, the VW Polo got stuck on a hill and the boys had to get out and walk), but couldn’t find the house.  The owner drove up from her home in Pescara, met us at the cemetery and guided us to an Italian paradise.  She’d left us a fridge full of peach nectar and wine, an enormous, round loaf of bread, and her dishwasher.  (My Italian kitchen had a tiny sink, and definitely didn’t have a dishwasher.)  We were thrilled.  That night, the cooks (the husbands!) went out and dropped 40 Euros on lamb spiedini – tiny chunks of lamb threaded onto skewers.  That’s a lot of lamb for four adults and three kids, two of whom didn’t like lamb.

The dads spread charcoal chunks (no briquets in Italy!) along the spiedini grill and went to town.  They made yogurt sauce and a salad of some kind.  We feasted on lamb and bread and sauce and local wine and had tons of food left over.  Two meals later, we still had food left over.  In fact, we ate the last of the giant bread loaf on our way home to Maranola four days later.

We spent four days lounging on the porch swing, exploring local towns, eating all those lamb cubes, walking in the mountains and making music.  One day, we took the cars and drove way up onto the mountainside above Civitaquana, “our” town.  We ended up on a goatherd’s path, complete with goats and herd.  It was a bit scary, for a while, as we worried about turning the cars around at the dead-end dirt path…but we survived.

Another day we drove up into the Campo Imperatore area in the mountains.  “Campo Imperatore” means “Imperial Fields,” and the mountain scenery is just stunning.  You find yourself in a high, Alpine valley surrounded by jagged peaks.  A narrow road snakes through the valley.  Your gaze strays away from the roadway to the Corno Grande, the area’s highest mountain.  Could you climb it?  Is there a chair lift?  (Yes, but we didn’t try either option.)  We walked through the valley, enjoying the cool mountain air.  We talked about retiring up there, away from stress and troubles.

I would bet any amount of money that if you asked my friends what their ideal vacation is, they’d say, “A mountain house in the Abruzzo region of Italy,” and I’d walk away with your hard-earned cash.

It was just that good.

I mentioned yesterday that the GW Memorial Parkway in Virginia is one of my favorite local roads.  The very first time I drove along the Parkway, it was spring – my first on the east coast.  The Parkway was a wonderland of blossoms in shades of white, pink and purple.  I was enchanted.  Some California trees bloom, of course, but not like this!

We drove all the way from D. C. to Mount Vernon and I just couldn’t stop staring at the flowers.  They were everywhere, cascading from branches and springing up from the roadside.  I’ll never forget that drive.

These days, I spend more time on the northern part of the Parkway, from the Pentagon up to Spout Run.  When it’s been raining, you can see little sparkling waterfalls on the west side of the road.  Green leaves peek out from the most improbable rocky places.  The Potomac River is far below, shaded by the branches.

I love to see people out enjoying their capital city, whether by bicycle or on foot.  Happily, the park areas near the GW Parkway are packed on weekends.  Gravelly Point Park, for example, near (Reagan) National Airport, is full of families flying kites, looking at airplanes and relaxing in the summer sunshine.  It’s a great place to stop and stretch your legs.

I think I’ll go for a drive.

The Via Appia Antica’s no exception.  It leads you into the town of Ciampino, just outside Rome’s G. R. A. (like a beltway).  You can drive through the town or get onto the SS-7 past the airport.

I really like Ciampino Airport; it’s small and friendly, with low-cost, safe parking.  The only drawback is the lack of subway service; you have to take a bus into central Rome if you don’t have a car.  (And, trust me, you don’t want a car in central Rome!)

Once past Ciampino and the onramp to the G. R. A., you’re headed into Rome itself.  If you want to get onto the real Roman road, you’ll need to drive up SS-7 to one of the parking areas in the regional park now dedicated to the Via Appia.

Perhaps the most interesting place to stop is near the catacombs, which were ancient meeting places and burial sites for the earliest Christians.  There are a couple of different catacombs you can visit (one’s currently being restored and is closed), and you can also visit the churches of St. Sebastian and Domine Quo Vadis, where Jesus appeared to Peter.  You could spend a couple of days in this regional park, visiting monuments, exploring footpaths and riding bicycles along the Roman roadway.  The Via Appia Antica is closed to vehicle traffic on Sundays, and families come out to hike and bike along Rome’s most famous roadway.

Although the Via Appia originally ended at the Roman Forum, you can’t get to that terminus by car nowadays.  Most people who explore the Via Appia Antica from central Rome out to the countryside begin in or near the Forum’s Palatine Hill, walk down toward the Circus Maximus and the Baths of Caracalla, and head out on Via di Porta San Sebastiano to the Via Appia Antica.

I’m planning to head back to the Via Appia Antica on my next trip to southern Italy.  Although I’ve visited some sections of this famous highway many times, I am endlessly fascinated by the history, technology and natural beauty that surrounds the “Regina Viarum.”  (Yes, the Romans called Via Appia the Queen of Roads.)

I confess to being entirely biased when it comes to travel in Italy’s Lazio region.  Not only does my favorite road, Via Appia Antica, run through Lazio, I lived in southern Lazio for two wonderful years. 

Now that my disclaimer’s out of the way, let’s return to the Via Appia (SS-7).  From Minturno, the road veers inland, away from the ancient cobblestoned street, and into the city of Formia.  Just past downtown Formia, Via Appia passes the tomb of Cicero, ancient Rome’s most famous orator, and heads inland toward Itri.  If you slow down and pay attention, you’ll notice a couple of stone markers along the SS-7.  These are real Roman milestones, built when the Roman soldiers made the road.

Off to the left of the modern paved street, a few stretches of Via Appia Antica’s cobblestoned surface parallel the SS-7.  You can walk along these old roadways, provided you can find a safe place to pull your car off the road.

Itri, where most Gaeta olives are grown, makes a great lunch stop.  Itri’s 9th-century castle perches on the side of the steep valley wall, and the small town below boasts some good restaurants and pizzerias.

Fondi, the next town you’ll pass on the Via Appia Antica, is another interesting town.  Fondi’s 14th-century castle is more substantial (OK, it’s downright bulky) than Itri’s.  Fondi’s weekly market is popular with shoppers from all the neighboring towns.

Terracina is one of my favorite Italian cities.  In ancient times, travelers complained about the incredible traffic jams.  People passing through Terracina usually stopped at the temple of Jupiter Anxur on the hill overlooking the city and sea, and the roadway leading to the summit was, and is, quite steep.  Eventually, things got so bad that the locals built history’s first recorded bypass around the base of the hill.

Nowadays, the Via Appia and Via Flacca (SS-148) converge and then split in Terracina.  From here, Via Appia becomes the straight, flat road of my imaginings.  In fact, it becomes pretty boring.

Via Appia Antica gets interesting again near Albano.  Here, in the hills outside of Rome, lies Lago di Albano (“Lake Albano) and Castel Gandolfo, summer residence of Catholic Popes since the late 1500’s.  It’s easy to see why.  The lake’s surface is incredibly blue, and the local towns sell delicious porchetta (roast pork) in restaurants and from roadside stands.

Via Appia heads downhill from here toward Ciampino Airport.  I’ll write more about Rome and the Via Appia Antica next time.

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