Right after Christmas 1985, I kissed my wife and son goodbye, and flew to Naples, Italy, for my second NATO tour. Carol stayed behind to sell the house, while Daniel finished the school year. Meanwhile, I took up quarters in the Pensione Canada near the Mergellina tunnel, which runs between downtown Naples and the Campi Flegrei (Fields of Fire), a collection of towns sitting in the caldera of a vast, ancient volcano. My room had a postcard picture view of Naples with Vesuvius in the background. Crammed in with my belongings, a sink, a bidet, and a card table for my typewriter, I imagined what Hemingway or Theroux must have felt like, living and working on the road. I wrote more then than at any time since. Some of it was even published. Every morning, I held my breath to ride through the Mergellina tunnel to the NATO base in Bagnoli. In the evening, I would dine at a trattoria in Bagnoli or near the pensione. In Naples, the food was excellent everywhere. Indeed, the menu was usually the same everywhere; the only difference was the price. I ate cheaply, and well.
Every week, I took the required tours of approved housing with the other Americans. After three months of this, I found a new three-bedroom apartment overlooking the Gulf of Pozzuoli. Carol and Daniel were going to arrive in late May. In early May, I decided to take an extended long weekend to do something I had always wanted to do: ride to Rome and see my old school. The school had closed, but I was curious to see what had happened to the property. This also gave me a destination. After all, the ride was the thing. Once my family arrived, I would not be free to take a trip like that.
The Velosolex that I had purchased in Toulon in 1975 (see that sea story here) fell apart ten years later, when I was commuting in Virginia Beach. The salty sand from the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula (1982) had gotten into the frame, and corroded the welds from the inside out. Three years after I returned from the Middle East, every weld came apart at same time. It was quite a surprise to find myself suddenly standing over a pile of tubes between my feet. I purchased a Nishiki road bike built with the same geometry, and took that to Italy. I upgraded some components, and built my own wheels, sitting in the living room of our empty apartment in Pozzuoli.
The April showers had stopped the week before I set out. I followed the coast road on the ancient Roman highway connecting Pozzuoli (the Romans’ major naval base at Puteoli) and the capital, starting with the Via Domiziana, then the Via Appia where the Domiziana ended, and then the Via Pontina to Rome. I don’t remember much about the ride from Naples to Rome (223 km), except the pleasure of seeing familiar places again at a slower pace. Carol and I had lived in Gaeta, 100 km north of Naples in the early 70’s, and we had driven the roads between there and Naples many times.
The first night, I camped in a national park near Terracina, behind and below the Temple of Jupiter Anxur, which was almost exactly halfway.
The weather changed when I reached the Eternal City. Rome had only changed to the extent that the open countryside between EUR (Mussolini’s failed 1939 World Exhibition) was filled in completely with high-rise apartment buildings, and busy, multi-lane boulevards. The traffic was just like the traffic I remembered, except that there were more traffic signals, more room on the roads, and a more rational flow.
There was a campground across the street from the old school. I pitched my cheap little tent in the dark as the rain turned into a downpour. The ground was cold and hard, and rivulets of rainwater kept seeping into the tent. I fell asleep when the storm finally blew over after midnight, from sheer exhaustion, and slept fitfully.
As is so often the case, the next day dawned with beautiful sunshine and pleasant temperatures.
The Vatican owned the property and the buildings of my old school. I had heard that it was a rehabilitation center for clergy. The gate was locked, and there was no sign of movement inside. So little had been done to the exterior that I could still read the impressions left by the letters on the empty sign at the gate: Notre Dame International School.
I rode down to my old neighborhood near the Vatican, and located an outdoor supply store, where I bought a decent sleeping bag and a new tent. I kept that sleeping bag until 2014. I spent the rest of the day riding around my old haunts, and eating in the rosticceria around the corner from the elementary school I attended. The second night was far more tolerable back at the campground.
For the return trip (229 km), I decided to ride the Via Appia inland to Latina and skip the Via Pontina. The route is scenic, passing through Castelgandolfo (the Pope’s summer palace), Frascati, and Lago Albano. As a reward for the hills, I treated myself to an excellent lunch in a first-class restaurant in the countryside on the southern side of the hills. Eating al fresco, shaded from the bright sun by large trees, I ate slowly, and enjoyed watching the well-to-do “doing lunch.” Some were obviously romantic couples; others were having what we would call a power lunch, which was a much more relaxed affair than the American version.
After lunch, I found that I had underestimated how long it would take me to travel the winding route through the Alban Hills. It was mostly downhill or flat, but I was less than halfway to Terracina when I left the restaurant. I arrived late at night, thoroughly exhausted, cold, and sore. I found a hotel that I could afford on the far side of town, and fell asleep in a dead heap on the bed.
The last morning, I hit the road promptly after breakfast. Compared to the ride north, the ride from Gaeta to Pozzuoli felt like riding downhill.
Before I knew it, I was crossing the Garigliano River, where the Via Appia turns back inland toward Capua and on to Brindisi on the Adriatic Coast. The Garigliano is the border between Lazio and Campania, not far from where Daniel would be going to elementary school. After crossing the river, I took the right fork onto the Via Domiziana, and stopped for a quick lunch, only 50 km from Pozzuoli. I was home for supper before dark.
Looking back, I have to say that covering 500 km that way was crazy. Granted, the bicycle was a dream with its custom wheels, light weight and the latest components. I did not subscribe to magazines about camping and long-distance cycling, not that there were many to be had. I learned the hard way about sleeping bags, tents, and what to pack. What I had going for me was being on my home turf. Had I been in unfamiliar territory, the trip might have been a disaster. Instead, it was an adventure — and fun, too.
The next time that I would try a ride that long would be the Climate Ride 2012, which was totally supported and carefully laid out. I also trained for three months before the Climate Ride. I rode from Rome to Naples again in 2015, older and somewhat wiser than I was in 1986.
Telling old sea stories is fun, but I really want to write what you want to read. Feel free to comment below or write to me directly.