Tuesday, 28 May 2013

down at the heel

typical road sign
After pushing our bikes around the cobbled streets of Gallipoli's old town we set off along the coastal road down to the point at the bottom: Santa Maria di Leuca.  This coastline seems quite odd to us.  There are some hidden away beaches in between bare rocky stretches, but the access roads sometimes have heaps of rubbish tipped at them.  Now and again we come to a village that is closed up, empty.  A holiday village which will only come to life in the high season July and August.  The sun is bleaching the colour out of everything and after the lovely old towns we've recently passed through this all seems a bit desolate and bleak.  We stop for lunch at one of these little villages and get chatting to a friendly Frenchman from a group of campervans parked up.  He tells us that they are part of an Italo-French posse of forty campervans cruising the south of Italy.  It brings on an involuntary shudder.  He thinks it's too many.  We concur.  However, we do discover where the next open campsite is, which is useful for us.  After four or five days of sweaty cycling followed by the evening ritual wet-wipe, we're ready for a shower and a bit of laundry.  

Santa Maria di Leuca turns out to be a pleasant little holiday town on the tip of the heel of Italy.  Nothing special, but the gelato is welcome at the end of the day.  The campsite is nearby so we take a look.  When Gayle spots the swimming pool I know we're staying.  Incredibly, despite the army of campervans that have also arrived the same day, we find a tranquil little corner far from the mad crowd.  The site is shaded with pine trees. We bathe, we feast, and we get chatting to Mayann and Paul, who are in a little old VW campervan.  We end up staying and relaxing along with them for a few days.  It's a pleasant lazy interlude and it's great to meet friendly folk.
with Mayann and Paul for a sunset drink
The ride up the Adriatic coast is much more enjoyable and scenic.  And popular - there are lots of tourists on cycling holidays riding the roads, but without having to take their own luggage.  We race along, swooping down into little coastal villages, rumbling the rumble strips, sweeping up over a headland onto the next.  At the end of the day we reach Otranto, a town with a castle and a cathedral mentioned in our guidebook. But what we want is ice-cream.  Ricotta with figs and vanilla with crystallised orange.  That's what I will remember of Otranto.  Just a little further on we camp in some pinewoods and the next day continue towards Lecce. And then Gayle remembers the church in Otranto.  Something about the whole floor covered in a mosaic.  We stop.  We turn around.  We go back to Otranto to see the floor of this church.  What fools we were last night - only thinking of ice-cream! The church is open but disappointingly the pews are set out across this unusual flooring.  The mosaic is not particularly fine, but is quite bizarre - with Greek mythological figures appearing, along with all kinds of beasts.  We're not really convinced it was worth the return.  There's another cycle tourist in the church taking photos.  He starts chatting to Gayle when we get outside.  Oddly, we know who he is and where he has been although we have never met before.  In fact, we owe this man a thank you for providing us with information on our first cyle trip through south-west China.  For this man is Bill Weir, a crazy guy on a bike.  Crazy Guy On A Bike is a great website full of cycling blogs from around the world from a huge variety of people.  On our first cycle journey and in researching this one, we have enjoyed reading and using many of the blogs.  Gayle had noticed that Bill was cycling in Sicily and heading this way, but we didn't really think we'd meet him.  And so our turning around and coming back to Otranto proves to be quite serendipitous.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

trulli, gladly, cheaply

In olden days the southern approach to Matera would have seemed quite mysterious.  All the traveller would have seen on the horizon would be a low hill with no buildings - up until they arrived at the top of said hill and looked down into the gorge below.  In a curving arc of the gorge the people had dug out caves, layers of them. 

In later years buildings were erected around the head of this arc and along a central ridge.  The caves were occupied until the sixties when eventually residents were settled in new housing in the new town on the hill.  The old town is a UNESCO world heritage site now and ironically some of the cave dwellings have been spruced up and turned into hotels.  The landscape and the views of the old town are impressive and dramatic.  We have seen similar cave dwellings in Cappadocia and, more memorably, Hasankeyf (both in Turkey) but here the baroque buildings that were erected above the caves give the town a more surreal and elegant appeal. 
Matera from above
Having had a lively few days riding through the hills we are ready for a break here, so we take a cave in a hotel looking over the gorge.  Next door is an American who has just moved in with his Italian wife.  He tells me that the place would be a little better if the Germans or the British came and organised it all. Ha! But then it wouldn't be Italy, I cry. Then I explain the notion of a European 'Heaven' and 'Hell' as seen on a toilet wall in Bolivia:

"In European Heaven the pizzas are Italian, the car mechanics are German, the police are British, the lovers are French and everything is organised by the Swiss.  In European Hell the pizzas are British, the car mechanics are French, the police are German, the lovers are Swiss and everything is organised by the Italians."

From here on it's all downhill, geographically, as we head into Puglia.  On a low plateau we pass through a collection of pretty small towns with a unique architectural feature - houses built of stone, no mortar, with conical roofs.  These are trulli and they litter the landscape here.  In Alberobello there's a whole clutch of these dwellings, thus attracting the tourists, but as we ride through the valley we can see them dotted throughout the olive groves.  There are new ones being built too - some as homes and many as holiday houses.   We are in serious olive grove country now - large estates abound and the wheat crop is already being gathered in.  Puglia produces about 80% of the olive oil from Italy and 80% of the pasta for Europe according to our guidebook.  They must be making it up??
Alberobello before the tour buses unload

Each small town on our route seems to have a rather lovely old centre to it.  The feeling in these places is of north African medinas - narrow lanes and warm yellow stone or whitewashed buildings. 
In one such place we meet Antoinette and Anna, two Dutch women on a cycling holiday around Puglia and we sit and chat for a long while.  The small town we are in is perched on a low hill overlooking a large plateau.  East and south are other towns perched on hills.  So we get into a rhythm of rolling down onto the plateau, through the olive groves and then climb into the next town.  Every one offers up another pretty old centre, no matter how bland the modern outskirts may be. Then towards sunset, which is getting later, we find a place to camp, cook our pasta dinner washed down with a vino rosso and go to sleep to the omnipresent sound of barking dogs. The next day begins with the sun waking us by warming the tent. Breakfast, tea or coffee, pack up and on we go.  Ho hum. Life can be so hard sometimes...........

ho hum
Before we reach Gallipoli on the coast we stop at a bar at a petrol station one afternoon.  The bar doubles as a groovy club at the weekend.  It's hard to imagine after passing through so many quaint old towns in the middle of the countryside that there is a modern world here too.  The roads have been small and quiet - which is how we like them in Italy.  The drivers are generally polite and careful with us - we are helped by the fact that there are locals out riding their bikes, looking good in their lycra and shades, zipping past, waving their ciaos at us. But sometimes the car drivers lack patience - if someone slows down for us, the driver behind will toot his horn - or if someone is coming the other way, they'll try to squeeze past anyway.  I think wing-mirrors, brakes and indicators are just fashionable accessories in Italian cars.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

into the unknown

We fly along the coast, stopping only to snap the Greek temples at Paestum, and keen to reach the coastline that Mario had recommended to us south of Agropoli.  Although the scenery is described as like Amalfi but without the tourists nothing had quite prepared us for the charm of the towns. The one that particularly grabs us is Santa Maria di Castellabate - quiet, pretty, nice sandy beach, good gelato - what more could we ask for?  Well, how about the camping spot that night, just inland, below the road next to a river in a meadow of wildflowers about a metre high - as high as our tent.  When the sun goes down the fireflies come out - everywhere we look along the hedgerow, across the field - a magical effect.  You won't find any of this mentioned in the guidebook.
Santa Maria di Castaballate - and don't forget it

Each day finds us climbing up and around a headland and then swooping down into another village. The road traverses the land high above the sea one day and we are forced to push our bikes up a punishing climb where the road has become misformed by rain damage.  It's almost a staircase.  Then towards the end of the day we get the 'strada chiusa' sign - road closed.  We ask a local in a car and he tells us we'll have to descend all the way to the shore and then climb back up beyond the next town.  We don't like this answer so we stop at a garage and ask the young guy if the road is really closed.  He tells us that we can get through with the bikes no problem.  Thankfully he is right - a row of houses at the end of the village look set to collapse, propped up by scaffolding that closes the road.  But pedestrians can squeeze past.  At 6 o'clock the village is rather lively - everyone it seems is out in the piazza, or along the main road doing their shopping.  Lots of old folk are sat in the shade chatting away.  We feel like joining them.  Let's sit around, relax, laugh at the Germans coming through on their heavily-loaded bicycles!

After four marvellous days we wash up in a campsite on the shore near to the town of Sapri.  The campsite is not fully open yet - but we don't mind cold showers after these sweaty days. The next day is a Sunday so we relax with a cooked chicken dinner, mmmm, and a bit of internet work outside a cafe with on-and-off wi-fi.  We have been struggling to find any good free wi-fi spots in Italy - everywhere seems quite old-fashioned and olde worlde.  The weekend closing is a pain - from Saturday lunchtime shops are usually closed, so we have to make sure we've got enough food to see us through to Monday.

looking back to Accettura, the Rochdale of the Apennines
From here we reach Maretea along another beautiful coastal stretch and then start a climb of attrition into the mountains of Basilicata.  Looking back now and writing about these days it's all a bit of a blur - probably the combination of sweat and suncream that constantly blinds us as we chug forever upwards each morning.  If we've been good we get to have our picnic lunch on a col before a cooling descent to the next village and then maybe just a thigh-busting knee-weakening climb up the next hillside.  We're crossing the Apennines and the land is green and heavily wooded in parts which makes it very pretty.  There's plenty of farming too, but some stretches feel quite remote and empty - a relief after the busy coastline.  We sometimes doze after lunch and struggle to get going again at about 4ish but normally we find some very nice campspots in the evenings.  There's a large national park to cross - which may explain why none of the region has been overbuilt with ugly concrete country retreats.  This is the region described by Carlo Levi in 'Christ Stopped at Eboli'.  Christ probably stopped there because he'd come to a strada chiusa sign.  The region was one of the poorest in the south and blighted like most of southern Italy with malaria.  This was finally wiped out in the early sixties and is credited with being the single most important stage in developing the region.  But it still feels remote, the towns appear small and inward-looking and, unfortunately in one place, in-bred.  (It seemed that every other person we spoke to was physically and mentally impaired.  A bit like Rochdale.)

The route is dramatic and the cycling hard.  More hairpins than a theatre dressing-room.  More views than I can remember.  We sometimes have to stop for directions.  People always ask are we German.  For some reason they seem really pleased when we say we're English.  In one tiny bar a tired and emotional old man tells us that Italy is Number One.  I demur, and suggest it comes a close second to England, much to the amusement of all the other tired and emotional chaps refreshing themselves on the terrace.  Inside the bar they have beer towels with Winston Churchill giving the V sign advertising Spitfire beer.  Beats Peroni Nastro Azzurro any day.  Gayle is contemplating a flag for her bike but I like the people asking where we're from.

At the top of one climb we are greeted with a new tunnel that saves us the last 50 metres of ascent.  We take it, but then descend down a newish road in a different location to where we were expecting.  At a garage in the valley-bottom we are encouraged by a couple of locals to visit the hilltop town above us but we haven't the energy.  They want us to see the stone town (as opposed to the concrete town).  Our exhaustion is accumulating.  I don't think either of us has realised how hard it can be to ride up and down such steep roads in the heat.  Shouldn't we be fit enough by now for this to be easy? We look at the map and choose a low road along the valley - towards our next food shop town.  Once again road signs take us on a road that is not on our map - alongside a series of small farm holdings.  We're looking for somewhere to camp and Gayle spots a long black snake wriggling off the road.  Neither of us mentions it again but we're both thinking that was a big snake.  In the end we tuck behind a thicket of bamboo beside the road.  The traffic dies down as the sun sets around eight.

Somewhere on the steep climb into Grassano an invisible threshold is crossed, part physical, part psychological.  We are going up to shop and then we are going down the other side.  The Grand Old Duke of York.  We are tired of the mountains but actually, we've already left them.  Now we're just in the rolling hills before we get to the plains of Puglia.  A wind blows from the south, somewhat like a hairdryer.  It is much hotter now that we're lower down. Still, we have Matera literally in our sights, and it's less than a day's ride away.  Our plan is to camp before we get there so that we have a full day to explore the town when we arrive.  As things pan out we come to some woods, unfenced, about 10 km before Matera.  Around us the land is covered in wheat fields, all blond and hazy in the afternoon sunshine.  It's much browner, drier here than the mountains we've crossed.  Matera looks like a city from the Bible.  In the pine woods it's shaded and cool and the only sound we can hear are birds.  We go to sleep without the sound of distant dogs barking for the first time in a week.  In the morning we are packing up when the cars start pulling up.  We pushed our bikes under a Private Property sign yesterday to camp here, and now we're going to be discovered.  Mind you, what would anyone do now?  There must be about fifteen men....hunting? When we emerge from the trees and say hello, they are all dressed in fatigues and carrying toy guns.  War games on a Sunday morning.....

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

oh we do like to ride beside the seaside

Heading out of Pompeii we hit cobbles again - whatever happened to those fabulous Roman roads? - and continue around the bay and up into Sorrento.  Now we know where all the tourists are staying.  We have our picnic lunch in a piazza.  Across Italy you'll struggle to find a public toilet.  We realised that you can just go into any bar and use theirs.  They're usually okay, but it's rare to find the full combination of toilet paper, toilet seat, soap and hot water.  We now play Toilet Bingo whenever we pull up to a bar to fill our water bottles and use the facilities.  No-one seems to mind that we don't actually buy anything.  But in Sorrento the sign on the toilet door says "for the use of customers only" in four languages.  It's a shame we can't read.

We continue up and around the headland to turn onto the infamous Amalfi Coast ("one of the most beautiful in Europe" : discuss) and camp in a vineyard behind a cemetery.   The next day we get the Amalfi Experience - a dramatic emerald green coast that tips steeply into the sea and a road that dips and rolls and swings outwards and bends inwards this way and that.  The road is narrow, it's a Saturday, there's quite a few cars, but there's also loads of cyclists.  We meet Pina and Gennaro from Salerno who want to cycle to the Nord Cap in Norway.  But the big cycling clubs that ride past aren't the 'stop and chat' types.  Somewhere a lone rider passes us in the Sky cycling team colours and matching bike.  Was that Bradley Wiggins?  I try to catch up but fail to get close - and then only later do I remember that the Giro d'Italia has begun today with a hundred laps of Napoli.  I then discover that my back wheel has a bulge on the rim at a seam - the rim is bust after 8000km - must be all these sodding cobbles.

private beach / public beach

In the little coastal villages it's slightly chaotic with the traffic and daytrippers.  We stop for a long lunch to fix a puncture that Gayle has on the inside of her tyre and ride on in the late afternoon to find an unlikely camp spot.  We have read of one English cyclist sleeping on the ledge on the outside of one of the tunnels built into the cliffs.  Thankfully we find an unfinished building wedged in a narrow shallow bend with a ledge just wide enough for our tent.  It's perfect, despite the two flights of stairs.

Our Sunday ride begins all hot and flustered in the heat of the morning sun, trying to salvage Gayle's repaired puncture.  I must confess - I just cannot repair a flat tyre.  Throughout the day's ride we are cursed with the tyre deflating repeatedly.  However, the scenic ride continues to thrill and we pass through Amalfi, where Gayle has a lunchtime swim, and a couple of smaller more peaceful villages without any crowds.  It's in one of these that the flat tyre problem overwhelms us.  We carry two spare inner tubes.  But both of these have had punctures, also on the inside, and the repairs keep failing.  We spend a couple of hours trying to fix three inner tubes to no avail.  It's about six when a woman walks past and then stops to ask if we're taking part in this cycling thingummyjig tomorrow.  Lisa is an English freelance journalist staying here for a while.  She knows nothing about the Giro d'Italia but she does know a woman who knows a man who might just fix our puncture.  She smiles beseechingly and the man opens up his garage and gets his car tyre puncture stuff out and does an industrial-sized repair on our tyre.  Splendid.  I have come without any money but Lisa can give him 5 euros - it is a Sunday afternoon after all.  She won't take the money from us but insists, instead, that we treat ourselves to cakes from the pasticceria across the road.  "They supply the Pope!"  Lisa won't ever read this, so I can confess we couldn't face the fancy cakes.  And in any case the repair only lasts until the next town, around the headland.  We surrender.  Take a hotel room, take the day off, get a new inner tube on Monday and see the Giro d'Italia in the flesh along this wonderful coastal road. It's worth it.  We have a good wash, launder, rest and the tyre is fixed.   We then walk out of town up the road to a quiet spot to watch the Giro circus roll on by.  The road has been closed, there are lots of police cars, tour cars, and then, in less than a minute, all the cyclists flash past, the only sound the hiss of tyres on asphalt.

On our ride along to Salerno the next day we are passed by lots of cyclists out for a morning ride.  One of them, Mario, says hello to us and asks where we are going.  We immediately say we're looking for a bike shop - does he know one? Very generously he offers to show us the way.  It turns out he has led bike touring groups and it shows.  He knows the shortcuts through towns to avoid losing height unnecessarily and at one point takes us down a one-way street the wrong way.  We're happy to know we're not the only ones.  The first shop Mario takes us to is no use, but he knows another, smaller one.  The man there has spare rims and offers to rebuild the wheel there and then.  Thank you very much Mario - this might have taken us more than a day to sort out without you.  

Two hours later, Craig Bellamy (for it is he) has rebuilt the wheel for less than what we paid for it in Norway last July and away we go. In such a short space of time we have been blessed with two Spontaneous Acts of Kindness.  Mario has warned us the road south of Salerno is not so nice.  We know there's a strip of pine forest along the coast where we could camp, but we haven't allowed for all the prostitutes working the access roads to the beach or the groups of young men hanging around at intermittent stages.  The good news is that we have a recommendation for a campsite further on which turns up to be perfect - small, quiet and right on the sea.  We go to sleep with the sound of the waves in our ears.

Monday, 6 May 2013

pompeii and circumstance

The ferry pulls into the harbour in Napoli at about 4 in the afternoon.  It’s Sunday, we’re about five hours late, starving.  Everywhere is closed.  There’s nothing for it but to start cycling around the bay to Pompei where we know there are campsites.  I have an indescribable headache, which I won’t describe.  The only thing to make it worse would be if you asked me to cycle on those bloody cobbles on a hot sunny afternoon with no food along a one-way system that makes me cycle down to the seafront and then back up to the main road again and again and again and again.  When we get to the campsite I feel slightly disembodied.  We’ve made it.  We shower, eat, and sleep like lambs.  Next day we’re up and at ‘em.  Off to Herculaneum, a small fishing village that was buried in mud during the same eruption that wiped out Pompeii in AD79.  It’s a fascinating day spent about twenty five metres below ground level (the site is open to the sky - but that's how far down the buildings are), wandering the streets and sniffing around the houses and baths and all the incredibly well-preserved remainders of the town.  Only a quarter has been fully uncovered – much now lies beneath the modern town of Ercolano.

Back at the campsite we get to meet some of the neighbours.  The place seems crowded to us – lots of campervans parked nose to tail.  But it turns out to be all rather convivial and remarkably peaceful.  It helps that everyone goes to bed by 10, except for the Germans by the toilet block who insist on watching the footie outside.  It still takes us a couple of days to adjust to campsite etiquette – this is our first stop at one on this journey.  We meet Hans and Addie who are also bike-touring.  We work out they’re Dutch because Hans even rides his bike to the toilet block.  There’s Graham and Viv over the way from us from the Wirral – a slice of home.  Gayle drops her scouse accent and goes all posh.  And then up pull Tony and Betty from Littlehampton next door and we’re all set for a classic English sit-com.  Actually we love it.  We have nice evenings together with our near English neighbours.  We are offered camp chairs and dinner from Betty and Tony and Graham and Viv help us out with our pc and tip us the wink with regard to e-book readers – something that is beginning to obsess me every time we cycle uphill.  On the site it seems that anything goes with the Europeans and it suddenly seems normal to see a rotund mustachioed man wandering around in his bathing trunks.  

The ruins of Pompeii really do blow us away.  I cannot think of any ancient city that has been so well preserved.  I also cannot comprehend how the site was excavated - it is enormous.  As so many of the buildings remain quite substantial it is easy to imagine how the streets look as you wander around.  We have to stifle a guffaw when we overhear a guide tell one group why the Italians are still famous for their plumbing and building without a trace of irony.  They are good at pouring concrete, that's for sure.  Down at the little backstreet brothel there is a flutter of excitement, but you get a better impression of how the oldest profession in the world was valued when you see the grand basilica on one corner of the forum - this was the place where all legal matters were dealt with.  By noon the site is busy with tour groups and everyone looks slightly dazed by the mass of facts being bandied around by their guides.  But the place is so huge - and if anything the tourists bring some life to the place.  After four hours or so wandering we are knackered but sated.

We have a day out with Betty and Tony on the train to Napoli.  It deserves much more, but it's all we've got in us.  Before long we're in the old centre walking through narrow streets full of grand palazzos with huge facades which are hard to look at in the tight space.  

We spend most of our time in the archaeological museum which has a large collection of statuary and the day to day objects recovered from Herculaneum and Pompeii - many in almost perfect condition. Glassware, ceramics, kitchen pots (Gayle particularly remarks the patterned collander), frescoes and mosaics.  The latter are often of very fine and small pieces and extremely strong colours.  In the 'rude room' there's an erotic carving in ivory from India - an illustration of the silk road traffic between east and west.  One display shows a staggering collection of finds from a single villa. They knew how to splash the cash, did the Romans.  


On the way back to the station we find ourselves walking a long alley with doors open into peoples' homes - kitchens, living rooms.  We stop in the street market on the way back - Tony wants to get some large prawns for the barbecue - and once again we are royally treated to a grand tea back at the campsite.