The other side of sane in Southern Italy
Special to the Appeal
Looking back, the man must have thought I was insane.
“Vatico?” I inquired for the fourth time. The man just shrugged. All I wanted was to cycle across town to the safety of my father’s hotel room. It just so happened that it was located behind Vatican City.
Unfortunately, I had come across the only other man in Rome who had no idea where the Vatican was.
“Vatico?” … “VATICO?” … “VA-TI-CO!?” I yelled, jumping up and down like a monkey, then motioned my hand above my head in a failed attempt to pantomime the Pope’s hat.
The man stared back in silence as a bead of sweat rolled from beneath my helmet and mixed freely with the pouring rain.
He stepped back from the curb, shook his head and walked away.
I drooped back over my bike for a moment, then turned my attention toward the sky. I shouted, “This is your town, can you give me a little help down here please?”
Just then a voice came from out of the darkness, “Where are you from?”
“California,” I responded, trying to get a look at the face underneath the umbrella.
“Can tell me where the Vatican is sir?” I queried.
A hand poked out from beneath the umbrella and pointed, “Follow the cars.”
I looked up to see a row of headlights twisting through the horizon like some evil electric caterpillar.
I pushed my bicycle from the curb, and once again pedaled into the vehicular war zone.
Within moments, I was consumed by a mass of cars, that hurled from every direction, as they honked, swerved and swore. For a moment, I wondered if the entire city had simultaneously lost control of their steering mechanisms.
Just then, a man with a picture of the Virgin Mary posted on his dashboard, drove the wrong direction on the wrong side of the street. As I watched him pass, he held a cell phone in one hand, and waved a sandwich with the other.
Within a few moments the man disappeared, and was replaced by a meteor storm of headlights from mopeds and motorcyclists that dashed up from behind, darted between the cars, then executed kamikaze maneuvers at mind-bending speeds.
After a few miles all of this became the least of my concerns.
In the ensuing chaos, a voice from within issued a red alert. The voice informed me that should I subject my lower-half to any further jack hammering on the central-city cobblestone, that my gonads would soon begin a reverse migration from whence they dropped in the time before I was a toddler.
I ignored the warning, pressed on, and opted instead to strike up a tune in what seemed an unusually high-pitched voice.
It wasn’t long before I’d made some headway through the city, and happened upon the monolithic Mausoleo di Augusto – a city-block-sized stone monument that houses Caesar’s remains.
This was a serious headstone. If I was lucky, my coffin would probably match most of the pants I owned: on sale, out of fashion, and about four inches too short.
As I passed, I tipped my helmet toward his dusty old bones. I had to give the man props. Anyone who could carve out a name for himself in this kind of chariot traffic went well beyond this simple mind.
I continued from the mausoleo across the Ponte Cavour, over the River Tevere, and beneath the haunting stares from the statues beneath the Palazzo di Giustizia.
When I rounded the corner from the Castle St. Angelo I was not prepared for what came next. It was the mind-boggling spectacle of St. Peter’s Cathedral.
I pulled to the curb.
It was absolutely awe-inspiring.
While the rain poured down, I shuffled my eyes around the piazza, as I traced my eyes over each column, each figure, every prophet, pope and saint. The smooth curves and delicately arched dome reached to the heavens, where it seemingly tickled the very hand of God.
I don’t know exactly what it was, but at that moment, I felt rich and deeply alive.
Hell, I’m not even Catholic.
I’d thought I’d seen it all. But when I climbed back on my bike and re-entered the traffic, I came upon another surprise. They were brake lights. This was a miracle. Romans stopped for nothing, not even stoplights.
I was taken aback.
“Of all the life forms that had found their final resting place within the wheel wells of Italian automobiles,” I thought, “tonight I would witness the one that would be spared.”
I had to know what it was.
I stepped up on my pedals and raised myself as high as I could.
As and poked my head above the endless rows of cars, I spied something moving slowly across the crosswalk in front of the long rows of traffic.
It was a single nun.
Damned if they’d smoke a turd in purgatory for that one.
A day later, after I’d relished in the comfort of my father’s high-dollar hotel room, I gloated at my two-wheeled victory over the Roman Empire.
When it came time to leave, I was riding out of town, and within eye-shot of the city’s ancient gates, when a parked motorist whipped open the door.
What came next was the tell-tale crunch of bone – my knuckle was crushed between my handlebars and the edge the door frame.
Without stopping, I continued toward the gates, shaking my hand in pain and stopped just short of the gate. A trickle of blood rolled from off my hand, and joined that of countless others that spilled on this soil over the ages.
As I pulled out a rag to stop the bleeding, I turned my head to take one last look at Rome.
In my mind’s eye I pictured Caesar, peering down from above. From there, he must have enjoyed a good, long belly laugh.
• Editors note: This is the latest in a series of journal entries written by former Nevada Appeal photographer Rick Gunn about his two-year bicycle journey around the world. Along the way, he is raising awareness for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. To donate, go to wish.org.
To read more of his entries and see more photos go to rickgunnphotography.com or nevadaappeal.com and click on the Wish Tour icon.
Where in the world is Rick Gunn?
When: March 30-April 4, 2006
Where: Italy – Pisa, Bibbone, Grosseto, Rome, Sabaudia, Avellino, Lioni, Canosa, Bari
Mileage log: 8,300-8,850
Elevation: Sea level-2,900 feet
On the Net
Go to rickgunnphotography.com or
nevadaappeal.com and click on the Wish Tour icon for more stories and photos.