Episode 21: Sonic postcards from the Appian Way

The Appian Way in Italy is thought of as the OG superhighway. But even though current travel conditions are rough, the “Queen of Roads” has always been about more than just getting from here to there.

The 2,300-year-old Appian Way makes its way about 360 miles from Rome to Brindisi, and ends at the bottom of these stairs. This couple stands on the shore of the Adriatic Sea; Greece is about a hundred miles to the east.
Photograph by Andrea Frazzetta

“All roads lead to Rome” was once more than a saying; it was a fact. And the first of those great roads, the Appian Way, was the most important of them all. Italians still travel what’s left of the “Queen of Roads,” even if they don’t always know it. National Geographic writer Nina Strochlic and photographer Andrea Frazzetta take us on an immersive trip down the ancient road; the soundscape they travel through—the voices and vibrations of modern and ancient life— reveal something essential about the Italian identity.

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NINA STROCHLIC (National Geographic writer): That was our first experience with an unpassable section of the Appia. We were with Riccardo at that point.                   

ANDREA FRAZZETTA (National Geographic photographer): Riccardo told us the path is not clear, so probably we have to cross the river. But let’s see.

MARCY THOMPSON (Overheard producer, host): Writer Nina Strochlic and photographer Andrea Frazzetta are remembering a day on assignment for National Geographic. They were in the Irpinia area of southern Italy, following the ancient path of the Appian Way. The guide they’re talking about? His name is Riccardo Carnovalini. He’s known as the most famous walker in Italy.

FRAZZETTA: And so we followed Riccardo for a while.

STROCHLIC: And he took us down this path and to the banks of this river, and we could see that there had been a bridge there at one point.

FRAZZETTA: And I suppose the Appian Way used to cross the river with that bridge.

THOMPSON: So there they are with the most famous walker in Italy, and they’re traveling one of the most famous roads in all of human history: the Via Appia. Or, as it’s called in English, the Appian Way. It’s the site of crucifixions, catacombs, and military conquest. Where St. Peter said he saw a vision of Jesus Christ himself. But standing on the bank of the river that day, Nina and Andrea weren’t quite sure where the road was.

FRAZZETTA: There was no way to go to the other side of the river.

STROCHLIC: Riccardo took off his shoes and socks and, you know, threw them over his shoulder and rolled up his pants and just walked across this river.

THOMPSON: So are you comfortable admitting the fact that you’re not much of a walker?

STROCHLIC: I like to wander. I’m definitely not a walker or a hiker or any athletic version of that term.

FRAZZETTA: And neither me or Nina, we are not that kind of superfit walkers, let’s ... I have to confess that.

THOMPSON: Yeah. That’s right. They were on assignment to travel along a very old, very long road, and they weren’t big walkers.

STROCHLIC: I’m not sure what Riccardo expected of us, but I’m fairly certain that we were much slower and less athletic than his lowest expectations.

FRAZZETTA: We were forced to leave our shoes and to cross the water. It was beautiful because it is that kind of moment when you finally connect yourself with the element. I remember it was very nice.

The name of the river is Calore, which means “hot.” So it was a very cold river with the wrong name.

STROCHLIC: We crossed the river.

FRAZZETTA: It was slippery, but in the end, also was not that deep.

STROCHLIC: But we did it, and we felt very accomplished.

FRAZZETTA: It was a nice moment. Because it’s something unexpected. And something that pushes you in a direction that you haven’t seen before.

THOMPSON: Andrea and Nina would encounter many moments like this traveling the Appian Way, just as travelers have for millennia.

This road has run like a spine through Italy since construction began in 312 B.C. It’s the site of countless stories—both epic and everyday, ancient and modern. According to Andrea, it’s a road where an unexpected encounter will take you deeper into its particular character.

FRAZZETTA: And when you just meet someone on the road, you feel this kind of connection. I don’t know why. It’s something that I cannot explain.

THOMPSON: But along the Appia, Andrea would come to understand why this connection was so strong. Andrea grew up in Italy and is based in Milan. This trip brought him out of a long period of quarantine during the pandemic, and out onto the Regina Viarum—the Queen of Roads.

 There, he would reconnect to his identity as an Italian as the road has always connected Italians—from north to south, and also to the past. It provided Andrea with the spontaneity of traveling along a well-worn path.

FRAZZETTA: It’s the place where you have to go to find the stories of people.

THOMPSON: We’re going to hear some of those stories today, told by the road itself. The sounds along the Appia create their own portrait of this ancient highway. They can help us understand the identity of an often forgotten path that—like Andrea’s past—is sometimes missing altogether. But is longing to be found again.

I’m Marcy Thompson, and this is Overheard at National Geographic, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.

We’re taking a sonic trek down the Appian Way—because while this road may be known for iconic ancient Roman features, breathtaking landscapes, and scenes of modern Italian life, it’s also a place with a very specific soundscape.

And those sounds tell their own story about the Appian Way. More after the break.

(AUDIO SNAPSHOT: Crickets, footsteps along the Appian Way)

But before that—please consider a National Geographic subscription.

That’s the best way to support Overheard and to ensure we can keep providing you with stories from the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world. Go to natgeo.com/exploremore to subscribe.

FRAZZETTA: I remember the night perfectly. It was a very nice evening. You know, the temperature was perfect. And there is this tiny little trattoria near the beginning of the Appia, and we are in the heart of Rome. It’s a really quiet place. It’s very different from all the other touristic places in Rome. And so we had our dinner, and then we decided to have this first stroll on the Appian Way. Everything was already dark. I remember there were stars and the crickets. It’s a place where you feel the time is suspended. It’s true. It’s a really magic place.                   

THOMPSON: I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “All roads lead to Rome.” It’s used so often it’s almost lost its meaning. But for a very long time, that phrase was a literal fact. The ambitious Roman Empire had a knack for audacious engineering: aqueducts, coliseums, and—my personal favorite—heated floors. But their most enduring legacy may have been figuring out the best way to get from here to there. And so, the modern road was born.

At the height of their power, Romans could travel along a network of hundreds of roads running more than 200,000 miles—a quarter of which were paved. The Appia was the first. And it’s been in use ever since.

The Appia was the brainchild of a Roman censor named Appius Claudius. He summoned the resources of the Roman Empire to plot the Appia’s course—a mammoth task completed without so much as a tractor.

STROCHLIC: Of course, it was originally for the military to use, but it was a thoroughfare across the country. So people were doing business along the Appia, and it was organized for them to make that journey.

THOMPSON: The Appia ran from Rome to Brundisium—now called Brindisi—which sits on the eastern side of Italy’s boot, right about where a spur would be. Each one of its roughly 360 miles was a testament to Rome’s power. It was a vital artery that ensured the growth of the empire. Plus, it was a pretty nice way to travel in those days.

STROCHLIC: A traveler would find a station to swap out their horses every 10 miles, a guesthouse every 20 miles. You could assume a tavern somewhere to get water and food scattered throughout that stretch as well.

THOMPSON: It sounds like a very civilized version of a modern-day turnpike. But now, more than 2,300 years later, the Appia is no longer well organized for travelers.

STROCHLIC: You will not find a guesthouse every 20 miles.

THOMPSON: So the entirety of the Appian Way is not a travel destination. If someone were to be dropped along the path of the Appian Way right now, what would they see?

STROCHLIC: They might be dropped in the middle of a lovely forested path with the stones of the Appia clearly visible. They may be dropped on the side of a highway. They may be dropped next to an industrial steel plant. They may be dropped in a lovely town plaza.

THOMPSON: And sometimes there’s no Appia at all. In fact, if you’re looking for the very beginning of this once powerful road, you won’t find it. This is what you’ll find instead.

(SOUND: traffic whizzing by)

STROCHLIC: There is no beginning to the Appia currently because they don’t know where the road actually started originally.

THOMPSON: The umbilicus urbis that was once the beginning of all of Rome’s ancient roads has been paved over so many times it’s no longer visible.

STROCHLIC: For now, there’s mile marker one, which is on the side of an extremely busy road where there’s no sidewalk. And that kind of threw me in the beginning as well because I thought, how are we following this road? We don’t even know where to begin.

THOMPSON: Fortunately, a short bus ride away from this chaotic site, the Appia is very much intact—and in its original glory.

 This is the Appian Way Regional Park, where we heard the crickets a moment ago. But during the day you might hear horses like these clomping along on its basalt stones, as they have for thousands of years.

(AUDIO SNAPSHOT: Horses trotting)

FRAZZETTA: The scene was beautiful. I remember that it was difficult for me to frame. I decided to go just for one horse and one person that was striking me visually because he was riding this white horse. And then I found out it was—used to be a politician in Rome, and he decided to quit everything and just follow his passion, and he came to the Appian Way, and now he’s managing horses. It’s a kind of an Appian story. I found it on the road during this trip, a lot of these kind of stories of, like, a person attracted by the road and living along the path. You know, probably something you always find when you are traveling or walking on a road.

There is part of the Appian Way where the path is very less evident. You just lose yourself in the fields.

THOMPSON: Once you lose yourself in the fields and the Appia disappears, good luck. There is no Google map to save you.

 FRAZZETTA: So you need a guide.

THOMPSON: For Nina and Andrea, that was the gentleman who waded across the very cold river without hesitation, Riccardo Carnovalini. And how did Riccardo find his way? He’s the traveling companion of the man who is working to put the Appia back on the map—literally: Paolo Rumiz, an intrepid Italian journalist.

FRAZZETTA: I think it’s the Appian Way ambassador.

 THOMPSON: Rumiz and Carnovalini undertook the epic journey with a goal in mind: unearthing the Appia as part of the Italian consciousness. It was both a physical and poetic undertaking. At times, the only way they knew where they were going was to “feel the Appia under their feet.”

 Carnavolini believes the only way the Appia can be truly appreciated is by walking it.

 What does it mean to be the most famous walker in Italy? Is that something that most people can understand?

STROCHLIC: I think that his life goal is to preserve these outdoor experiences in his country. He’s been doing this for 40-plus years, since he was in his 20s, and I think he has this idea that if people start following this path, there’ll be no other option than for it to be conserved in some way.

THOMPSON: The question is, is conserving a path that has been declining since the end of the Roman Empire almost as hard as building it in the first place?

The opening shot of Federico Fellini’s 1960 film La Dolce Vita features a soccer field next to a towering aqueduct built by those ingenious ancient Romans. It’s a classic sight. It also happens to be along the Appian Way.

(AUDIO SNAPSHOT: children playing soccer)

FRAZZETTA: So at one point I discovered this little soccer field near the aqueduct, and I saw these young players just training. You see every time this overlapping between history and daily life. It’s the most interesting aspect of this place. There is always this kind of ancient background and everyday daily life of the Romans. This scene was very beautiful. My first thought was, “I want to play here. Just pass me the ball, please. I want to play with you.”

I used this exact same frame of Federico Fellini for taking my pictures. It’s exactly that scene. And that’s amazing, because really, it’s like history repeating. And also, it was so Italian.

THOMPSON: Paolo Rumiz was inspired to walk the entire Appian Way in 2015 after reading a satire by Horace, written in about 35 B.C. Rumiz had his work cut out for him.

PAOLO RUMIZ (Italian journalist): [In translation] I had to overcome many obstacles because the road had been completely forgotten by Italians. Via Appia is a symbol of national cohesion because it connects the north to the south and also offers the southern populations, who have always felt marginalized, a legend that puts them at the heart of the Mediterranean Basin.

THOMPSON: How does walking through a place help you to experience that place differently than if you were on a train or on a bike? What are you meant to experience on foot?

STROCHLIC: I think on foot, you have no choice but to deal with what’s right in front of you. So you’re really fully immersed. And if some sort of hurdle arises, you have to deal with it yourself. You have to roll up your pants and walk over the river when the bridge is bombed out.

FRAZZETTA: I mean, walking is essential for a photographer. So I just want to lose myself in the landscape. So the only way to do that is walking because you have all the time to understand visually what are you doing.

THOMPSON: Allow me to introduce you to one of the oldest walkers of the Appia: shepherds. And, of course, sheep.


FRAZZETTA: When you start to work on it on a visual project, you also have in mind the kind of scenes that you would like to have. And that was exactly one of that—the shepherds on the Appian Way. It’s really in the DNA of this road, because the road is very well connected with the countryside. Now, you’re in this really modern city; you can just see shepherds coming with the hundreds of sheeps. So when I saw that scene that morning, I instantly thought, “I need this picture.” So I was just—jump in the middle of the herd, and then they were very friendly. So I just enjoyed myself, and I tried to do some really close-up photography.

THOMPSON: In the province of Avellino, just east of Naples, Nina and Andrea passed by another common sight along the Appia: farmers.


STROCHLIC: We came upon this beautiful stone farmhouse that happened to be occupied by these three elderly brothers, Luigi, Giuseppe, and Giovanni. The youngest is 80. The eldest is 88. So when they told me their grandfather had bought the house, they said it was probably in the late 1800s.

LUIGI COLARUSSO (farmer): It’s interesting to me if you fix. If you don’t, in the building, nobody live in. It’s a lot of rats. Because nobody’s there no more.

STROCHLIC: They talked about life along the Appia and how forgotten they feel their stretch is. You know, they would be very, very surprised to see tourists walking on the road outside their house. But they also had great retellings of the sort of urban legends around the Appia and ancient Rome.

STROCHLIC: Our trip was punctuated by Andrea and Luca telling me that I must try every regional delicacy of every place we were in because it would be the greatest thing I'd ever eaten in my entire life.

FRAZZETTA: And then you are just going through Campania where you have this incredible mozzarella.

STROCHLIC: We would order deep-fried mozzarella, deep-fried zucchini flowers, deep-fried rice balls.

FRAZZETTA: Then you are crossing through the fields, and you can just eat the fruit from the trees.

STROCHLIC: They have this pastry called rustico, and it’s like béchamel sauce and cheese. It was the best thing ever.

FRAZZETTA: It’s a journey in the middle of the Italian culinary tradition.

STROCHLIC: So good. It’s so gooey and so rich.

FRAZZETTA: And then you arrive to the sea; you have the fish. 

STROCHLIC: ... Fish and shrimps and little lobsters.

FRAZZETTA: I will suggest to somebody to do an Appian Way map just with food. Food related.

STROCHLIC: ... Cheeses and vegetables and stuffed ourselves.

FRAZZETTA: Every meal was an occasion for giving a kind of culinary lesson.

STROCHLIC: A week after that trip, I sat down at a café and my jeans just ripped up the back [laughs].

THOMPSON: Paolo Rumiz wrote a book about his trip with Riccardo Carnovalini. It’s called Appia, published in 2017. It allowed a new generation of Italians to begin thinking seriously about the Appia. Some wonder if it’s just another archaeological artifact that will stand in the way of progress, while many others believe it’s a cultural gem—grown over in places but full of promise and in need of restoration. Rumiz’s writing also got the attention of the Ministry of Cultural Heritage, who has earmarked 20 million euros to preserve the Appia.

THOMPSON: The Appia has a food story all its own. This is Italy after all. While Andrea and Nina made their way—along with Andrea’s assistant, Luca—you could say they became a little obsessed with this aspect of their assignment.

(AUDIO SNAPSHOT: Appian Way restaurant)

But it’s a long road, literally, to make the Appia whole again. And it may be that getting people to walk the Appia is the key to its future.

FRAZZETTA: Riccardo Carnovalini told me this: Walking is the most political act you can do to change a landscape or to save a landscape or to save a heritage.

THOMPSON: But as Nina and Andrea traveled the Appia, they met only one person walking its entire length. And it isn’t yet clear what kind of walk the Appian Way is. It’s not a religious journey like the Camino de Santiago in Spain, which draws up to 300,000 visitors a year. But could it be?

So what are the walkers called? Are they called pilgrims? Are they called travelers? Who takes that kind of walk?

STOCHLIC: That’s a good question. I’ve been trying to figure this out. Could someone on a journey that has nothing to do with religion be called a pilgrim? I think everyone walking the Appia probably has their own reason and their own ideas of why they’re doing it and what they want to get out of it. But once you’ve reached it, you hope to have discovered something, be it about yourself, about Italy, whatever it may be.

(AUDIO SNAPSHOT: Open field, thunderstorm, rain)

 FRAZZETTA: We were wandering along the Appian Way in a stretch between the castle of Monteserico, which is a castle in Irpinia, and the city of Gravina in Puglia, which is a wonderful city carved in the stones. It was a rainy day, a gray day. There was no one on the road, and we were walking down the road looking for a farmhouse where we had been told they were giving hospitality to the Appian Way walkers. And we find it closed. And then we stopped near an abandoned house. The feelings from that moment remain with me because there was this kind of nostalgic feeling of abandonment. And that’s a rare condition, in southern Italy, because it’s not easy to find yourself in a place where you feel so far away from everything.

THOMPSON: At the port city of Taranto, which is located along the arch of Italy’s boot, the Appia takes a hard turn east before setting off on its final leg. This city, which was founded by the Greeks, predates the Appia by about 400 years.

Most people don’t really realize that it passes areas that are quite off the beaten path for tourists, of course, but also for Italians. So where I live in New Jersey, it would be like taking a stroll near the refineries along the turnpike. Not something I would want to do. But of course, the Appia does pass through a really industrial area in Taranto.

STROCHLIC: Yeah, it was such an interesting and bizarre place. Suddenly you’re alongside this gigantic industrial steel-processing plant. You can’t even imagine the scale.

THOMPSON: The plant is the Ilva steelworks. For more than half a century, it has been one of Italy’s most prolific industrial producers. It employs more than 11,000 people, but it has taken a very heavy toll on the surrounding area in the form of devastatingly high cancer levels. The mayor of Taranto has described it as a “massacre.”

FRAZZETTA: You can feel the presence of this industrial monster because you can see it in the sky, you can see there, and you can hear the noise. But also you can see it in the face of the people of Taranto because they are living in this kind of dramatic city, which is dramatically beautiful but also dramatically polluted and destructive.

 THOMPSON: Yes. Andrea also described Taranto as dramatically beautiful. Because not too much farther along the Appia is the rest of Taranto, which sits on a little island just offshore in the Mediterranean.

FRAZZETTA: I love Taranto. It’s really, it’s a super beautiful city.

STROCHLIC: It was so charming. There were docks with fishermen and boats coming in and out all day.

FRAZZETTA: I remember the early morning when all these fishermen are coming back after the night on the sea. And also the old city waking up.

STROCHLIC: It truly felt like a real, authentic look at life in Italy. Almost like a time-traveling opportunity.

FRAZZETTA: This is not the kind of travel that allow you to see the postcard of Italy. This is real Italy. So you are going through the beauty—the extreme beauty—but also the ugliness.

THOMPSON: The Appian Way reaches its final destination in Brindisi, a city that has special meaning for Andrea Frazzetta. It’s where his grandfather was born. And Andrea was born just south of here, in Lecce.

This is the Piazza Mercato, a vegetable market in Brindisi. It’s been a part of life here for more than a century.

(AUDIO POSTCARD: Vegetable market, people speaking Italian in a southern dialect)

FRAZZETTA: And then I found the market and all these colors and, you know, also the sounds, because in the northern part of Italy, they speak a different kind of Italian. So I also heard again the sound of the Italians from my grandfather. So that was also the part of my feeling of going back home.

THOMPSON: Because Andrea lives in Milan now, far from Brindisi, this became a moment of clarity for him.

FRAZZETTA: So it was important for returning for me.

THOMPSON: On this final stretch of the Appia, Andrea realized that this road had transformed something inside of him.

FRAZZETTA: I have to confess at the beginning, I was attracted by the visual possibilities because it’s a beautiful trip. You can already imagine the kind of picture you are going to do. But then I understood that this is not only a beautiful journey; it’s a really important matter for my country because it’s the road that connects the heart of the country with the south. So in a kind of way, it became suddenly a personal story. A story of coming back home. A story of a really forgotten heritage. And so suddenly an excuse for a beautiful journey became a kind of mission.

THOMPSON: Andrea stood at the bottom of the steps that end at the Adriatic Sea and captured a timeless moment in the form of a photograph: a young couple in each other’s arms at the end of the ancient road.

FRAZZETTA: And you have this column at the top of the huge steps, and that’s the symbolic end of the Appian Way. And that night I just spent looking at the stars, looking at the columns, and at one point I had this couple of young ... kissing each other. It was romantic. It was a kind of alignment. I had the love. I have the column. I had the moon on the same line.               

THOMPSON: Something that Riccardo Carnovalini said, that I read in translation: The Appian Way is for the people who walk it. It’s not for the ones who rediscovered it. It’s not for the archaeologists, but who walks the Appian Way is the owner of the Appian Way, the emperor of the Appian Way. What do you think of this idea?

FRAZZETTA: That’s amazing. That’s beautiful. Yeah, I agree. Totally, totally. Yeah, yeah. And now I own that part of that. Yeah.

THOMPSON: You see the value of the walking of it is that somehow it becomes yours?

FRAZZETTA: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, that’s the kind of feeling you really have.

THOMPSON: At the end of traveling along his Appian Way, on the shore of the Adriatic, Andrea made a final connection. As he looked out at the water, Greece was only about a hundred miles away.

(AUDIO SNAPSHOT: Adriatic Sea lapping at the shore)

FRAZZETTA: From the first steps on the Appian Way, I felt this goal of reaching the sea, which probably was the original intention of the Romans: reaching the shores and the sea and then the East beyond the sea.

THOMPSON: Although he hadn’t started out as much of a walker, the many miles he had traveled brought Andrea through the transformative power of this road. He had finally arrived at an understanding of what it means to be part of a place. His place.

FRAZZETTA: Then I turned my camera to the sea, and taking just the waves, you know, crashing, it was a kind of final ceremony for me to end the trip I made with my camera.

THOMPSON: If you like what you hear and want to support more content like this, please rate and review us in your podcast app. And consider a National Geographic subscription. You’ll get exclusive access to stories published daily, curated newsletters, and 130 years of archives. Subscribe today at natgeo.com/exploremore.

Paolo Rumiz’s book, Appia, will take you on a trip down the Regina Viarum. But you’ll need to read it in Italian, because it hasn’t been translated yet. Until then, you can check out Horace’s of traveling the Appia—he’s the first-century B.C. satirist that inspired Rumiz. It’s translated, and it’s very funny.    

Long before Google Maps, there was the Peutinger Table, one of the complete maps of the Roman world and its roads, made in 1265. The original is in Vienna—and it’s about 22 feet long—but you can see it .

Nina Strochlic and Andrea Frazzetta’s Appian Way trip is featured in the July issue of National Geographic magazine. You can find out more about what’s being done to restore the road in those pages—and feast your eyes on Andrea’s photographs.

All this and more can be found in our show notes. They’re right there in your podcast app.             


Overheard is produced by Khari Douglas and Ilana Strauss. Our senior producers are Brian Gutierrez and Jacob Pinter. Our senior editor is Eli Chen.
Our manager of audio is Carla Wills.

Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan.

This episode was fact-checked by Caitlin Etherton.
Ted Woods sound-designed this episode; Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music. This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.
Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.


WANT MORE?                                                    

So, how did the Romans build 200,000 miles of roads? It wasn’t easy. You’ll find out more here in an issue of National Geographic History.            

St. Peter fled Rome, so the story goes, along the Appian Way. As he left, he encountered Jesus Christ—resurrected. There is still a church on that site, aptly named Domine Quo Vadis, for the famous phrase St. Peter uttered before he returned to Rome and was crucified himself. You can see Annibale Carracci’s 17th-century painting of the event here.

If going underground and being surrounded by bones doesn’t give you the willies, then you’ll love visiting the catacombs in Italy. Or you can take a look here, and read about why Romans buried their dead this way.

ALSO EXPLORE                

If your appetite is piqued after hearing about a trip through Italy, you might want to check out what the ancient Romans ate. You won’t find gelato (or a tomato) anywhere in sight. But you might be inspired to re-create a peppery custard. For the truly adventurous, try your hand at recipes from the oldest surviving Italian cookbook, De Re Coquinaria.