We have had some days of train travel lately interspersed with some biking days as we are gradually making our way south along the Calabrian coast. I have been thinking about the landscape we are riding through, and how the perspective from the bike can change in just a moment. Much of the time we are in what you might call “tourist Italy”, with small winding roads, ancient olive trees and stone walls. When we go through towns, our routes take us to the umbrellas dotting the piazzas on slippery white cobblestones. We run into other tourists, the cafes are used to our mangled Italian and the views are amazing. There’s often a castle or a cathedral to see. These are the places we take our pictures.
Then suddenly without warning we will roll into another more real Italy, where most people live and work and shop. It has a lot more traffic and a lot more litter and garbage on the small roads and industrial areas. Karen calls these sections the Strada Garbaggio. There are full on freeways packed with cars, endless blocks of apartments that we zigzag through and always seem to end up going the wrong way on a one way street. We don’t have a lot of pictures from that Italy, often because we are way too immersed (stressed) to stop. Sometimes our guided tour leads us into these spots and we curse ”Bruno” for the route. Equally often it is my own route and I have no one to blame. Really there is no other way so we have tried to embrace these very exciting parts of our rides, when we plunge into a city and encounter traffic. Karen says that not all kilometers are created equal and she is so right.
Tourist Italy and the other more real Italy exist side by side and it is only the view from the bike that notices the changes throughout the day. As tourists with poor language skills we are always a bit separated from the world going on around us but it seems like once a day we somehow connect with someone, perhaps our hotel owner or a helpful local cyclists just when we needed directions. We met Vincenzo when he showed up when our route was blocked and escorted us 30 kilometers down the coast and a young mountain biker led us into the white city of Ostuni.
In the words of a local taxi driver, “Italian drivers are a little bit crazy “. A Belgian cyclist on a tour told us that this is the worst country for cyclists in Europe. He may be right but it doesn’t feel that bad, at least when you are fully immersed in a roundabout with trucks, buses and cars. Yes, the drivers are more aggressive than we are used to and no one will stop for someone waiting at a crosswalk but if you step out there or take your space in the road they will give you room. The cars are smaller and speeds are slower than America and no one seems to hate you for being a cyclist. It is actually pretty damn cool to navigate your way through the outer rings of a city and suddenly roll onto polished marble streets with umbrellas
where someone will serve you an Aperol Spritz. It is also a lot easier now that Karen is equipped with full navigation capabilities and not just following me down the streets.
A few years ago we ran into a Canadian cyclist who enthusiastically told us about riding in Apulia (Puglia) on the southern tip of Italy. The idea simmered for a few years and this year we signed up for 8 days of self guided riding with a French cycle touring company. We worked our way south by train and bus and did day rides up and down the coast, swam in the amazing Mediterranean Sea and even ate some sushi along with lots of fried seafood. Watching the full moon rise over the harbor in the evening was a real highlight. You can’t see it in the pictures, but the smell of fish being sold right off the boat added to the evening ambiance as we strolled and ate our nightly gelato.
We started our tour in Alberobello. This area is famous for the Trulli structures and houses, which originated to avoid paying taxes in the 15th century. They are certainly unique and we stayed in one on our first night after a steep 20 kilometer ride from the train station. Unique is not always comfortable, and the original inhabitants must have been a lot shorter than I am. I only hit my head a few times. Even Karen didn’t fit very well. In the morning we enjoyed some of the nicest roads you can imagine, with winding lanes lined with stone walls and olive groves.
After we left the land of the Trulli, we were mostly along the sea as we headed towards the end of Puglia on the Ionian Sea and then and back up the Adriatic. Each day we were moving to a new destination and we would wake up in our usually nice accommodation, have an Italian breakfast and several coffees and ride 30 to 50 miles. We would contact the next destination and confirm a guess on our arrival time, ride till we found more coffee, find a place for lunch or eat snacks then ride till we arrived sometime in the afternoon and immediately seek out a place for an Aperol Spritz, the national apertivo of Italy.
We stayed in larger cities like Gallipoli and Otranto, as well as smaller towns where the nights were dead quiet. In a small town at the very tip of the Puglia peninsula we made friends with a couple of bike tourers from New Zealand, who we joined up with for several evenings. Malcolm and Heather were great to spend some time with over several days, and it was nice to talk with someone besides the two of us. We shared some memorable meals, biked down the wrong road together and wished them well when they headed off to Rome.
We finished 9 straight days of riding in the touristy town of Polignano a Mare. That is too many days of riding in a row for us so it is time for some days off the bike while we figure out what to do next. Time to swim and read books. We have two weeks to make it to Palermo in Sicily where we fly back home.