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An essay by Morley Roberts

The Terracina Road

Title:     The Terracina Road
Author: Morley Roberts [More Titles by Roberts]

Nowadays the traveller gets into the train at Rome and goes south by express. He sees a little of the wide and waste Campagna, sees a few of the broken arches of the mighty aqueducts which brought water to the Imperial city so long ago, but he is not steeped in the soil; he misses the best, because he is living wholly in the present. The beauty of Italy, its mere outward beauty, is one thing; the ancient spirit of the past brooding in desolate places is another. And the road which runs from Terracina south by sullen Fondi, by broken and romantic Itri and Formia of the Gaetan Gulf, is full at once of natural beauty and the strange influences of the past. It is To-day and Yester-day and Long Ago; the age of the ancient Romans and the Samnites with whom they warred is mingled with stories of Fra Diavolo and piratical Saracens. And To-day marches two and two in the stalwart figures of twin _carabinieri_ upon dangerous roads, even yet not wholly without some danger from brigands. These _carabinieri_ (there are never less than two together) represent law and order and authority in parts where the law is hated, where order is unsettled, where authority means those who tax salt and everything that the rich or poor consume. And down that ancient Appian Way, made by Appius Claudius three centuries before the Christian era, there are many poor, and poor of a sullen mind, differing much from the laughter-loving _lazzaroni_ of Naples. I saw many of them: they belonged still to a conquered Samnium. Or so it seemed to me.

The train now runs from Rome to Velletri, and on to Terracina. The Sabine and Alban Mountains are upon the left soon after leaving the city. Further south are the Volscian Hills. Velletri is an old city of the Volscians subdued by Rome even before Samnium. The Appian Way and the rail soon run across the Pontine marshes, scourged by malaria at all seasons of the year but winter. Down past Piperno the Monte Circello is visible. This was the fabled seat and grove and palace of Circe the enchantress. One might imagine that her influence has not departed with her ruined shrine. Fear and desolation and degradation exist in scenes of exquisite and silent beauty. From Circello's height one sees Mount Vesuvius, the dome of St Peter's, the islands in the bay of Naples. Below, to the south-east, lies Terracina; on its high rock the arched ruins of the palace of Theodoric, King of the Ostrogoths, who conquered Odoacer and won Italy, ruling it with justice after he had slain Odoacer at Ravenna with his own hand.

I got to Terracina late at night one January, and though I own that things past touch me with no such sense of sympathy as things yet to be, my heart beat a little faster as I drove in the darkness through this ancient Anxur, once a stronghold of the Volscians. Here too I left the railway and the southern road was before me. Terracina was touched with literary memories; Washington Irving had written about that very same old inn at Terracina to which I was going, that inn which poor deceived Baedeker called Grand Hotel Royal in small capitals. I was among the Volscians, in the Appian Way, in the country of brigands, with the spirit of Irving. And suddenly I drove across rough paving stones in the heavy shadows of vast corridors, and was greeted by a feeble and broken-down old landlord, who wished the noblest signor of them all, my undistinguished self, all good things. Poor Francia was the very spirit of a deserted landlord. I imagined that he might have remembered prosperous days before the railway through Monte Cassino and Sparanise robbed Terracina of her robber's dues from south-bound travellers. His vast hotel, entered meanly by a little hall, was dimly lighted by candles. With another feeble creature, once a man, he preceded me, and speaking poor French said he had had my letter and had prepared me the best apartment in his house. We climbed stone staircases as one might climb the Pyramids, wandered on through resounding and ghostly corridors, and finally came to a room as vast as a quarry and almost as chilly as a catacomb. When he placed the candle on a cold slab of a table and withdrew with many bows I could have imagined myself a lost spirit. There was just sufficient light to see the darkness. The room was a kind of tragedy in itself; the floor was stone; a little bed in one far distant corner was only to be discovered by travel. It was a long walk to the window. Outside I saw white foam breaking in the harbour now silted up and wholly useless.

I dined that night in another hall which could have accommodated a hundred. I was lost in shadows. But then I was a shadow among shades. This was the past indeed, an ancient world. And after dinner, at last, I got a bath. It took me two hours to get it, and when it came it was nothing more than a great kettle for boiling fish in. I knew it was that by the smell. I rejected it for a basin which was almost as large as an English saucer for a breakfast cup. And then I slept. I felt that I was in a tomb, sleeping with my fathers. It was a kind of unexpected resurrection to wake and find daylight about me.

I had meant to stay for a little while at Terracina, but somehow I took a kind of "scunner" at this poor old hotel of magnificent distances and the lingering, doddering, unwashed old men who acted as chambermaids. Perhaps, too, the fish kettle as a bath was a discouragement. No bath at all can be put up with in course of time, but a fish kettle invited me to be clean and yet did not allow me to smell so. I went down to my prehistoric landlord and requested him to get me a carriage to go in to Formia, where I should be once more in touch with the rail. I instructed him to get it for me at a reasonable price, and that price I knew to be about twenty lire or francs. For the first time in my Italian experiences I had come across a hotel-keeper who was not in league with the owners of carriages. I was soon made aware of this by overhearing an awful uproar in the big outside corridor. I lighted a cigarette and went out to find the landlord and the man of carriages, a very black and hairy brigand, enjoying themselves as only southerners can when they are making a bargain or _combinazione_. The old landlord brisked up wonderfully at the prospect of such a struggle. It doubtless reminded him of days long past. It made his sluggish blood flow. I believe that he would not have missed the excitement even to pocket a large commission from his opponent. I was so rare a bird and he had not seen a traveller since heaven knows when. My Italian is poor but I understood some of the uproar. The man of carriages presumed that I was a noble gentleman who desired the best and would be ready to pay for it. The landlord retorted that even if I was a prince and a millionaire, both of which seemed likely, it was no reason I should be robbed. He suggested fifteen lire, and the outraged brigand shrieked and demanded forty. For an hour they wrangled and haggled and swore. First one made believe to go, and then the other. They came up and came down franc by franc. More than once any northerner would have anticipated bloodshed. They struggled and beat the palms of their hands with outstretched fingers. It took them half an hour to quarrel over the last two francs. And finally it was settled that the noble prince and millionaire, then leaning against the wall smoking cigarettes, was to pay twenty-two lire and to give a _pourboire_. They shook hands over it and beamed. My old landlord wiped his brow and communicated the result to me with tears of pride. I thanked him for his care of my interests and paid him his modest bill at once. He entreated me to speak well of his hotel, the Albergo Reale, and really I have done my best.

The brigand furnished me with a decent pair of horses--decent at anyrate for Italy--and I left for Formia before noon. Now I was no longer on the railway, but on the real road, the Appian Way, and I felt in a strange dream, such as might well come to one on a spot where ancient Rome, the age of the Goth, and mediaeval Italy and modern times mingled. By the road were fragments of Roman tombs; at Torre dell' Epitafia was the ancient southern boundary of the Papal States; in reedy marshes by the road, and near the sea, were herds of huge black buffalo. And the sun shone very brightly for all that it was winter; the distances were fine blue; the sea sparkled, and the earth even then showed its fertility.

Eleven miles from Terracina we drove into Fondi, and the sky clouded over, as indeed it should have done, for Fondi is a gloomy and unhappy, a sullen and unfortunate-looking town. Once it was a noted haunt of brigands, and even yet, as the sullen peasants stand about its one great street, which is still the Appian Way, they look as if they regretted not to be able to seize me and take me to the hills to hold me to ransom. But Fondi, gloomiest of towns, has other stories than those of the brethren of Fra Diavolo. There is a castle in the town, once the property of the Colonnas, and in the sixteenth century this palace was attacked by a pirate, Barbarossa, a Turk and a daring one. His object was to capture Countess Giulia Gonzaga for the hareem of the Sultan. He failed but played havoc among its inhabitants and burnt part of the town. It was rebuilt and burnt again by the Turks in 1594.

We rushed through the latter part of the gloomy town at a gallop. I was glad to see the last of it and get into the clear air. Then my horses climbed the long slope of the Monte St Andrea, where the steep road is cut through hills, while I walked. And then as evening came on we swept down into Itri. This too was gloomy, but not, like Fondi, built upon a flat. This shadowy wreck of ancient times lies on hills and among them. It has an air of mountain savagery. It looks like a ruined mediaeval fortress. Broken archways, once part of the Appian Way, are made into substructures for ragged, ruinous modern houses. The place is peaked and pined, desolate, hungry and savage. In it was born Fra Diavolo, who was brigand, soldier and political servant to Cardinal Ruffo when the French Republic, in the beginning of the nineteenth century, invaded the Kingdom of Naples. Once he was lord of the country from the Garigliano to Postella; he even interrupted all communications between Naples and Rome. He was sentenced to death and a price set on his head. Finally he was shot at Baronissi. In such a country one might well believe in the wildest legends of his career.

And now the night fell and my driver drove fast. He even engaged in a wild race with another vehicle, entirely careless of my safety or his own. The pace we drove at put my Italian out of my head, for foreign languages require a certain calmness of spirit in me. I could remember nothing but fine Italian oaths, and these he doubtless took to mean that I wished him to win. And win we did by a neck as we came to the _dazio consume_, the _octroi_ post outside Formia. And below me I saw Formia's lights, at the foot of the hill, and the Bay of Gaeta stretched out before me.

That night I slept in a little Italian inn by the verge of the quiet sea. There also, as at Terracina, ancient and doddering men acted as chambermaids. They wandered in with mattresses and sheets, until I wondered where the women were and what they did. And outside was a fountain where Formia drew water, as it seemed, all the night, chattering of heaven knows what. For Formia is a busy and beautiful little town. On the north side it is sheltered by a high range of hills; on the lower slopes are grown oranges and lemons and pomegranates; there also are olive-groves and vineyards. I stayed a day among the Formian folk, and then Naples, which one can almost see from the terraces above the town, drew me south. At the Villa Caposele one can see Gaeta itself to the south and Ischia in the blue sea, Casamicciola facing one. I remember how the Italian nature came out when I arranged to go to the station to take the train for Sparanise. I had but little baggage and it was put in a truck for me by the landlord of the Hotel dei Fiori. I walked into the station and the boy who pulled the truck followed. As he came up the little slope to the station I saw that eight or ten others were pretending to help him, and I knew that they would inevitably want some pence for assisting. In a few moments I was surrounded by the eager crowd. "Signor, I pushed behind!" "And, signor, so did I!" "And oh, but it was hard work, signor!" And everyone who could have had a finger on the little truck wanted his finger paid. They were insistent, clamorous, and at the same time curious to see how the stray foreigner would take it. I perceived gleams of humour in them, and to their disappointment, yet to their immense delight, for the Italian admires a degree of shrewdness, I stared them all over and burst into laughter. They saw at once that the game was up, and they shrieked with laughter at their own discomfiture. I gave the boy with the truck his lira, dropped an extra ten centesimi into his palm, and said suddenly, "Scappate via!" They gave one shout more of laughter and ran down the hill. And as for me, I got into the train and went to old quarters of mine in Naples. But I was glad to have been off the beaten track for once.

[The end]
Morley Roberts's essay: Terracina Road