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.....

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