I love being on the road. When you cycle, your slow and steady pace enables you to get to know the countries you’re visiting in a way that is not possible when city-hopping. Your impressions of that place are influenced more by entire regions than major tourist sites. You work hard for the distance you cover, whether beautiful landscapes or smelly buffalo fields. Although you do not stop in every quaint town or for every beautiful view, you experience the journey in a much more tangible way than you could by train or car. You feel like you’re a part of your environment, and not just an observer behind a window.
You do, however, get smelly on the road. The feeling of hair plastered to your head in a impressive sweaty greasy helmet-hair-do becomes normal. The other day I wondered aloud about whether I would be allowed to look around a dance studio we passed. Thomas kindly reminded me that I looked rather homeless and had black grease smeared down my legs… I didn’t check out the dance studio.
The filth adds to our endless appreciation for our hosts along our way. A nice shower and a deep sleep go a long way.
My aunt and uncle, Fiona and Brandon, who live in Poggiardo, provided us with everything three worn-down travellers could hope for: hot showers, warm beds, and food galore. Fiona and Brandon are undertaking a massive restoration project. They are turning a dilapidated 18th century Masseria into a beautiful home. Masserias, old farmhouses that were fortified to protect the farmers against attacks from the Turks or pirates, are common to the region of Puglia. We ate home-grown olives (they brought in 75 year-old olive trees by crane to plant on the property), and drank Aperol spritz’ in the room where the animals used to poop and drink from troughs. Fiona’s artistic eye has completely transformed the property. It was so lovely to visit Italy’s “heel”, and it was important for me to catch up with family I haven’t managed to see in years.
Over a few Aperol spritz’… Or maybe the 5L bottle of wine… We decided to meet up with Fiona and Brandon in Matera. We had no idea what Matera was, but it was exactly on our route to Naples, so we decided we’d see them in three days and specified a campsite as a meeting place. I’m still a little shocked we made it to Matera in time; the persistent headwind made even cycling downhill difficult. But on the third morning we were finishing up our bottle of Fiona’s homemade finocchietto (fennel liquor) when she and Brandon drove their massive white van into the campsite.
Matera was phenomenal. We arrived with no expectations and were blown away. Sassi is the old city of Matera and has been continuously inhabited for the past 9,000 years. The old city is composed of part-cave, part-man made dwellings that are carved into a breathtaking limestone gorge. The lower rudimentary caves look frozen in the Palaeolithic period and lie underneath a complex myriad of streets and cave-houses.
Matera’s transformation from ‘shame to fame’ came about in the 1950’s after public awareness of Sassi’s desperate poverty and rampant disease. Between 1953 and 1968, the 15,000 inhabitants of Sassi were forced to relocate to new housing developments.
We visited a “typical” cave dwelling that was open for visitors. The clean plastic horse in the manger and the fresh plaster over the moulding damp limestone glorified the cave dwelling, especially after reading the child mortality rate in the 50’s was over 50%. Today, some of the cave dwellings have been renovated and turned into swish hotels, the profits surely not falling into the pockets of those stripped of their homes by law and forced into failed housing projects that segregated their once-strong communities.
On our last morning, we drove across the river to look across the gorge at the ancient city. It was a sight I will remember for a long time.