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.

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