Today it’s exactly one month since I left my old life behind and with the chain rolling on the large cogwheel, I had started to move away by leaps and bounds. A month on the road is quite a while, so it was time to breathe out a little, eat well, commence writing a book and plan what to do next. Given that I did not manage to find some work in Sicily, on Saturday – just before I fell from the very southeast edge of Italy into the Adriatic Sea – I docked in Altamura, in Puglia, where I’ll stay for next three weeks, harvesting olives, learning about production of olive oil, discovering Italian cuisine and practicing my Italian (which had become fairly usable already). But first let me tell you about the splendor and misery of Campania, the lively city of Naples, the mountains of Basilicata and the true South …
Getting out of Rome without a map was a task for two hours, but at last I gave up trying to get exactly on the way I wanted (Via Appia), held the hand of the Tiber River and let it lead me to the coast. In the lowlands of the Latina province I follow sixty-kilometers-line of four-lane Pontina highway, which is apparently a place, where Italian drivers ventilate their personal aversions against cyclists and every once in a while I end up in a ditch, trying not to be squashed on the front grill of the truck. After six hours of incredibly boring and tiring journey without a single bend, two hills, marking the end of the mainland, appear on the horizon and I arrive in Terracina, where I buy beer and chocolate. With renewed energy and enthusiasm from the sea, I ride 25 km at dusk further along the coast. It is already quite dark when I turn from the the main road towards the see. On the beach I discover a closed bar on and I decide to spend Monday night on its floor. During the night I welcomed some unexpected visitors – sometimes I woke up and someone was there, smoking – but I ignored them and they ignored me and except for crazy dream, when I dreamed that I woke up and all my things were gone, it was quite nice hobo-style night. And that morning, when a new day played a concerto for pink, purple and red in the sky, while I cooked oat porridge in the morning, that morning was worth it.
The splendor and the misery of Campania
If there was no Lazio in between Tuscany and Campania, which forms kind of a gradual transition between Italy from the calendars and Italy full of problems, I’d probably lose it. After passing Mondragone it seemed I apparently arrived in a developing country – yes, the people spoke Italian, but with Italy, to which I was accustomed so far, it had little in common. The streets were lined by hordes of hostilely grinning blacks, ugly prostitutes, decayed houses and piles of garbage. It was hot, the air was heavy and full of dust. According to advices that I received in the North, I rather didn’t stop nor take pictures. And so I came to Naples.
It just started to rain on Piazza del Plebiscito, when a cyclist shouted at me to follow him. (it was strange – yes, I was there for a appointment with my host, but this could actually be anyone, because I arrived twenty minutes later and no one was there waiting for me, until the cyclist passed by). In heavy rain and even denser traffic it was difficult to hold onto him, but fortunately it was close and after ten minutes when we finally arrived at the porch outside his apartment, he introduced himself and so I was assured I followed the right person.
Thanks to Francesco I had the opportunity to meet also the best Campania can offer – Naples. It’s an amazing city: perhaps not as beautiful as Rome, but with a longer history, more lively, constantly in motion, a little grubby, loud, with the sound of thousands klaxons and millions of drivers who never heard of rules, with steep hills and several castles, with their renowned pizza, folded twice, religious corners on every other corner, with its mix of Greek, Roman and Sicilian influences, it is a city that cannot be just photographed or even described, it is a city that must be experienced, it is the former city of the Kingdom of Sicily, it is a city where people of all social strata mingled over the centuries. Unlike other large cities there are still ordinary people living in the heart of Naples, mainly in ground-floor flats, called bassi, tiny dwellings with just one window, that is still open into the street and so it becomes a sort of hallway of the apartment.
Among other things, I also experienced the pleasure of good food in Naples. Francesco introduced me to its fried specialties: zeppole are salty pancakes, panzarotti fried rolls of mashed potatoes, melazane is an eggplant in breadcrumbs and my personal favorite arancini picoli (small oranges) are fried spiced rice balls. The best part of it by far is that they are selling them just for 20 cents a piece!
And then I tasted the queen and the king of Napolitan pastries: sfogliatella a baba – Sfogliatella is a crunchy roll with grated orange peel, while baba is a huge fluffy muffin topped with rum.
After I stuffed one more pizza into my stomach a little later and ate penne rigate with calamari for dinner, I was bursting at the seams and I had to go to bed. But I must say that I felt sick at my stomach in a very pleasant way.
On Thursday morning, after I ate half a pound of Nutella, I set out from Naples due east. From the center of the city to Torre del Greco, ie. about 35 km, the road is made mostly of cobblestones, which were much appreciated especially by my fragile spokes and my (now) steel butt. Although none of the spokes gave up on those cobblestones, I bought another ten of them that day hoping it will be enough till the very end of my journey.
It went really slowly on the paving and when the sky began to darken around four, I had just some about eighty kilometers on my account and in fact I didn’t yet leave the Neapolitan conurbation, one of the largest in Europe and second largest Italy, after Milan. The density of the development began to slowly recede after Eboli and a safe, quiet place to sleep was rather difficult to find. At the end, I squeezed in between the typical red roadwork house and a garden fence of the last house in a village of San Zaccaria.
And I would almost forget that the day of my departure from Naples have also seen several infamous primacies:
- In Eboli, while inspecting the map, I didn’t notice a parked car, braked hard, my front wheel yanked on wet surface of the road and I fell for the first time. Everybody’s alive, damages to body or bike equal to zero – I endured the fall quite nicely, only my camera, which I now wear over the shoulder slammed me in the head.
- I’ve also encountered first really annoying wild dogs. I kicked one, which fiercely and relentlessly snatched for my Achilles’ heel, in the head, because it happened in a steep hill, I couldn’t flee and he seemed to be immune against my (I have this idea) roar of a dominant alpha male. Then he tried to grab the flag (which he fortunately missed) and let me go. Oh, how I don’t in this regard, look forward to Turkey!
The next day I cycle through purebred, proud mountains. The roads are small and tortuous, signs poor or non-existent, and so I get really lost for the first time in Contursi Terme as I miss the turnoff to Palomonte, which means unnecessary three-mile descent to the valley, where I find only a highway and a bitter fact that I have to pedal back up. The following hours and days are unfortunately more than the rich in these situations, and so when I finally arrive in Palomonte, some two hours behind expectation, I lift my spirits with a bit of spending spree, and on the bollard outside the shop I shovel in my mouth three pounds of bread, together with a pound of Nutella and a pint of Nostro Azzuro beer. And as I’m having my snack and the Sun shines into my life, I’m convinced that the world is beautiful and I ask, what more does one need for happiness than just pleasant weather and good food? (Love, as I remind myself almost immediately.)
At the end of the day, I’ve made just only about half of what I had planned and to Potenza, where I aimed, I struggled throughout the entire next day, not sure whether I will be able to arrive at Altamura (where I arranged myself a work in an olive orchard) on Saturday as I wanted. But the realization that I don’t have to hurry anywhere anymore, the weather is beautiful (the whole week I was riding in shorts and a T-shirt and it was around thirty degrees in the sun) and I eat well – all that makes me calm and happy and makes the journey and this ride through the hills a pure joy.
At night I have troubles sleeping and at eleven I have to step out into the cold and go for a toilet: on a mountain ridge in the middle of nowhere I literally bathe in the immensity of dark sky studded with stars, and far in the depths below me twinkle lights of nameless villages in the valleys, with many small people, their stoves and warm evenings. In this trance almost forget that the night is again quite cold (I should probably start sleeping in something warmer than just underwear).
Arrival in Puglia
On Saturday despite generous rations of chocolate spreads I already fought not only with hills but also with myself and repeated ad nauseam the old familiar cycling mantra that “during ten kilometers everything will be better”, in this case meaning that this hill is already the last one and beyond it a so-much-wished-for descent from the mountains is awaiting with the fertile valleys of Puglia. Crossing the milestone of two thousand kilometers was a little satisfaction, but to Altamura, that I was longing for, with its warm shower and a dinner – to Altamura, I did not make it again.
In the evening I meet an old man on the road who is absolutely fascinated by the fact that it’s possible to ride from Czech to Italy on a bicycle, he refills my water and gives me maybe ten packs of salty crackers (which are appalling, but beggars can’t be choosers, right?), therefore I try to take an advantage of the situation and ask if posso dormire sulla sua terra, but he has his sons visiting, whom he hadn’t seen for a long time and so I dump the idea myselg, I go on and find myself a wonderful spot in an olive grove, a tranquil, quiet place under the trees I’ve been dreaming of so many times…
Perhaps that’s a harbinger of things to come – in Altamura, where I finally arrived on Sunday afternoon, those trees might get over my head, in the upcoming three weeks of harvest. – But about how to make olive oil, about the family dinners in Puglia, about my new apartment and my Serbian roommate Andrei,.. more about that next week.