Italians can be quite lovely when they’re not at the steering wheel. In fact, we have encountered an overwhelming amount of generosity in past weeks from not only Italians, but also Moroccans and South Africans. As Cristina mentioned in the last blog post, our last stop in Calabria was Praia A Mare. Under normal circumstances, we may not have stopped here. However, Iman, one of my first and best friends in Montreal, grew up here, and suggested before our trip that we go and stay with her parents.
Iman’s parents moved to Italy from Morocco around thirty years ago, so were pretty well versed in Italian culture. We stayed with them for two nights, and during that time devoured thousands upon thousands of calories worth of delicious food. Upon leaving they loaded our bags full of oranges from the neighbor’s trees and leftover Easter cake.
And it was a good thing they did. That day was the perfect day of cycling: we left Praia A Mare (literally “Beach by the Sea”) and climbed from sea-level to 850m, before descending again to sea level on the other side: coast to coast in a single day. It was an epic climb and an exhausting day. It was freezing cold in the mountains and we ate our typical lunch consisting of fresh bread, local cheeses, and cold cuts of prosciutto and porchetta in a small cafe next to the fireplace. A gentle stray dog sat quietly and watched us from a distance until I called it over for a cracker and a head scratch. That evening we camped under the stars on a beautiful sandy beach. As we were setting up our tents a fisherman came over to talk to us. I was worried that he was going to tell us to get lost, but instead he just assured us that he wanted to make sure we weren’t “personne brutto” (up to no good).
The next day we attempted to make our way towards Poggiardo, which is near the very bottom of the Puglia region, otherwise known as the “heel” of the boot. However, it quickly became apparent that there was not a single road leading from where we were to that area (aside from the autostrada, upon which cycling is strictly prohibited). Instead, we managed to cram all of our bikes and bags under a passenger bus headed for Taranto (yes, Canadians, the second ‘T’ is pronounced). From Taranto we cycled south along the coastline of Puglia for the afternoon and early evening, before camping on the edge of a cliff and in the front yard of an abandoned castle. We wore all our clothes and prepared a nice dinner of pasta with pesto and grated pecorino cheese, which I accidentally ordered from the deli-man earlier in the week.
The next day I managed to get completely lost, which is not normally a good idea when you don’t have any way of contacting the people you’re traveling with. I rode alone that night and slept alone on the beach, cold and tired and more than a bit upset. The next morning I left very early, and cycled to the southern-most tip of Puglia, where the Adriatic and Ionian Seas meet. As I was coming into town I pulled over on the side of the road and a man looked at me, shouting “Hello there”. It was the first time a stranger had addressed me in English in roughly three weeks.
He and his wife turned out to be a lovely Irish couple who bought me coffee, pastries, and let me use their phone to check my email, which was full of directions, phone numbers, and anything else I might need to find Alex and Cristina at Cristina’s aunt’s house in Poggiardo.
I bought a cheap map, made my way to Poggiardo, and rolled into town to find Alex and Cristina sipping cappuccinos at the first cafe I passed. It was a small coincidence and a pleasant surprise for all of us.
Staying with Cristina’s aunt Fiona and her husband Brandon (both South Africans) in Poggiardo was awesome. They lathered us in generosity – steak, fancy cheeses, home made fennel liqueur, warm showers, great company, guided tours through the countryside, and liters upon liters upon liters of red wine and aperol. We even had an Easter feast with a number of their local friends. The food and wine were amazing, and I’m so glad I’ve been cycling because my belt buckle would otherwise be acquainting myself with virgin sockets.
The day we left was the windiest yet, and the wind was working against us. It continued to do so for three days. As the wind was coming from the north, these were also three of the coldest days (and nights) we’d experienced. The first night we slept outside a train station. As we were cooking our dinner a man came out on his balcony and started yelling at us in Italian. I responded that we didn’t understand what he was saying, so he switched to English: “do you want some wine?” He then proceeded to bring us a bad full of goodies: local wine, fancy biscuits, a new bottle opener that we got to keep, napkins, and plastic cups for the wine. We set up our tents next to the tracks and had a little picnic in my tent.
That night and he following were not pleasant, as my sleeping bag and mat had somehow gotten wet prior to staying with Fiona and Brandon, and we damp and mouldy. I slept the first night fully clothed, in everything included my rain gear, and by the second morning I woke up feeling bit under the weather. We had slept that night in a beautiful olive grove with soft soil. The night before had been so cold that we had given up on cooking and decided instead to eat pizza down the road. Before leaving the overly-enthusiastic young man at the pizzeria loaded us up with smiles and sugary almond sweets to be used for energy boosts while cycling.
I woke up just before sunrise in the olive grove in order to get packed up and hit the road before being discovered by any unsuspecting farmers. I went to the same Cafe from the night before to drink a cappuccino, eat a cornetto, and wait for Alex and Cristina. As I walked in the barista said “hey Thomas!”, and I was shocked because I hadn’t remembered telling her my name the night before. And it turns out that I hadn’t: after calling me Thomas. Few more times she asked my real name, and appeared shocked that it was actually Thomas (I think Thomas means “extremely handsome” in Italian. Anyways, she gave us a bunch of free stuff and then we rode our bikes somewhere.