Author’s note: We lied. We said that our elevation gain on this ride was greater than 2,500 metres. This turns out to have been a miscalculation. The real elevation gain was substantially less, though it felt pretty brutal at the time.
Rules, in southern Italy, are malleable things. This kind of lax attitude toward authority has its downsides (rampant corruption, dangerously bad parking, and so on), but it often works in our favour. Take road closures, for example.
The first time we came across a closed road was in Sicily. At that time we were still pretty oblivious to our new environs, so we cruised right through a sign or two. By the time we reached the construction site we’d climbed a substantial hill, and we were in no mood to squander that hard-earned elevation gain.
We dodged the barrier and got about halfway through when some workers on the cliff face above started shouting: “Chiusa! Chiusa!” Thomas pointed in the direction we were going and shouted back “OK?” “OK,” they sighed.
Since then we’ve treated road closure signs with a grain of salt. It was on a closed stretch of road on the southern cape of Italy’s heel that we saw some of the nicest scenery of the whole trip: rocky cliffs, emerald seas, and a view of Albania in the distance. There wasn’t a hint of construction in sight.
So when we found a closed road on the way out of Matera, we were, understandably, quite skeptical. The nominally closed road opened onto a scene so pastoral it could be used as the setting of the Shire in the next Tolkien adaptation: gentle green slopes in all directions, with scarcely a building in sight. In the half-hour we took to eat lunch we didn’t see a single car. The road was fine.
The spot where we camped that night was, sadly, not so pastoral. When you travel by bicycle, your mobility is confined to the daylight hours. If you don’t find a good spot to pitch your tent before sunset, you kind of have to take what you can get. That night we got a small, thistly patch of hillside in a semi-urban area, lit by the glow of a nearby industrial park. We slept to the sound of, like, maybe a thousand dogs. They barked literally all night.
The next day got off to a slow start. First, the directions we got from Google included a road that turned out not to exist. The alternate route took us to a road that was – surprise, surprise! – closed. I admit I was a bit more apprehensive about this one. It went straight up a steep hill, but perhaps more concerning was the chunk that had been washed out and replaced by a wavy stretch of gravel.
We decided to throw caution to the wind and go for it. The road wound its way ever upward, the pavement occasionally giving way to rough patches of gravel. The hill was relentless, climbing steadily for the first twelve kilometres, then descending for one, then climbing again.
In the next town we stopped for a coffee and told the bartender where we were headed. Thomas asked half-jokingly if it was all uphill. “Si,” she said, laughing.
We ended the day with a total elevation gain of over 2,500 metres.
That evening we were smart. We scouted out a campsite before dark, settling on a sheltered patch of meadow. We cooked a meal that was straight-up gourmet and got a really good sleep. The next day we would make it to Napoli.