Red-legged grasshoppers bounced, leapt, and ricocheted off the ground, our bikes, and our panniers as we pedaled our way along a rocky road, flanked by endless fields of barren farmland stretching to the horizon. Hundreds, if not thousands of these insects, a swarm unlike any I’d seen before, scattered like ping-pong balls on triggered mousetraps as our wheels crunched over rock and bug alike. Their existence proved, in the course of the mile they inhabited, that a comment I made earlier to Kristin was completely wrong: something could live in this environment. Not much later, on a road actually shown on my map of Puglia, but still in a landscape only barely suited for human existence, we pulled over under the first tree we’d spotted in far too long. I handed the dwindling contents of my three water bottles to Kristin and all-but force-fed her the remaining apricots in my front, non-drive-side pannier. Her pace had slowed and I saw in my mirror that she was beginning to wobble. Heat stroke, in all likelihood, was setting in. A little while later, rejuvenated by the healing powers of ice cream and Fanta, Kristin was smiling brightly for the camera as we marked our ten-thousandth mile pedaled on the highway into Matera.
I’ve said it a thousand times: the highs are higher and the lows are lower on a bike tour. And you’ll experience both in a matter of minutes.
Home to Paleolithic-era caves carved into a clay cliff face and adorned with 16th century facades and a gauntlet of cobblestone pathways and staircases leading up to the palazzo and churches left behind by the city’s wealthier gentry, the Matera of today is a must-see trip back in time to antiquity. Forty years ago it was a national disgrace, site of a forced evacuation, and home to what may well have been the foulest living conditions in Western civilization.
Carlo Levi, in his book “Christ Stopped at Eboli,” recounts a description of Matera as told to him by his sister, a doctor who came to visit him in exile, in the 1930s:
The houses were open on account of the heat, and as I went by I could see into the caves, whose only light came in through the front doors. I saw a few pieces of miserable furniture, beds, and some ragged clothes hanging up to dry. On the floor lays dogs, sheep, goats, and pigs. Most families have just one cave to live in and there they sleep all together; men women, children, and animals…
I have never in all my life seen such a picture of poverty. I saw children sitting on the doorsteps, in the dirt, while the sun heat down on them, with their eyes half-closed and their eyelids red and swollen; flies crawled across the lids, but the children stayed quite still, without raising a hand to brush them away…
In the dark smelly caves where they lived I saw children lying on torn blankets, with their teeth chattering from fever. Others, reduced to skin and bones by dysentery, could hardly drag themselves about. I saw children with waxen faces who seemed to me to have something worse than malaria, perhaps some tropical disease such as Kala Azar or black fever. The thin women, with dirty undernourished babies hanging at their flaccid breasts, spoke to me mildly and with despair. I felt, under the blinding sun, as if I were in a city stricken by the plague.
The book, written about his year in political exile in Salento, the part of Puglia that forms the “heel” of Europe’s boot-shaped appendage, shone a light on this forgotten, beautiful, unique, disease-infested land and the peasants who inhabited it. Decades later, after several failed policies attempted to solve the problem of Matera’s deplorable living conditions, the evictions were complete. Then, in the late 20th century, a cleanup began. People had realized Matera’s cliff-side sassi were a world heritage gold mine. Caves were scrubbed and made inhabitable, inns opened, ristorantes popped up, and even Hollywood movies such as Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” were filmed here. Conservation begat restoration begat profit.
Our two nights in Matera turned into three; it was too special of a place to leave too soon. Our mornings were spent wandering the maze-like collection of alleys and stairs in Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano and by night we dined al fresco with the Matera residents on Via Ridola. Our first night in Matera, by sheer coincidence, we were able to celebrate our mileage milestone with a free classical concert in a church square just a short stroll from our inn. There, amongst hundreds of Matera’s residents, we sat in rapt attention as one of the most gifted pianists I’ve ever seen performed in front of a fifty-piece orchestra. And no more informed or respectful audience was ever assembled! Such a joy to see a performance where no smartphones were held aloft, where nobody watched the event through a camera’s LCD! Premature applause that often, at classical concerts, accompanies the end of a movement mistaken for a symphony’s conclusion was politely hushed by those who knew the tune. If there was any complaint to raise it would be that one particular gentleman sitting near us saw to it to hum along with the music. What a night!
From Matera we pedaled our way to the collection of squat, conical dwellings known as Trulli houses in the town of Alberobello and then, rather than head straight to the port of Brindisi, we turned south again and decided to trace the coast of Salento in a counter-clockwise loop, keeping the multi-hued waters as close as possible. One more week in Italy!
We pedaled our way along the gently-sloping Ionian coast, around the cape, then north back along the more rugged, cliff-laden coast of the Adriatic Sea. We stretched this short 220-mile loop into five days in part to concede to the sun’s unrelenting pressure and also to allow more time at the beach each day.
The Salento region of southern Italy is where Italians go for summer vacation. And, whether you’re on a bicycle, in a rental car, or in an RV, you should too! We hit the coast in Torre Castiglione and followed the coastal road as it wended its way through numerous beach towns and farming communities from one campground to another. Roadside brush fires closed the road, smoke billowed in the distance, and the heat from recently-charred landscapes was close enough to feel, but the air smelled not of char, but of licorice and olives and the sea. Beach traffic was thick at times, particularly around historic Gallipoli on the Ionian side of the peninsula, but the drivers always gave us plenty of room and passed with care.
Though a big part of the Italian beach experience involves attending incredibly crowded beach clubs and being shoe-horned into meticulously aligned rows of matching umbrellas and lounge chairs (something we managed to avoid), we found plenty of opportunities to pull off on the side of the road and claim a peace of solitude along the water’s edge. And sometimes, like in the historic city of Gallipoli, Leuca, and Tricase, we just joined in with a smattering of locals down by the harbor and took a quick dive off the breakwater before getting back on our bikes.
Beachfront camping resorts provide another option. The furthest thing from a wilderness experience I can imagine, these sprawling complexes contain hundreds of campsites, a market, restaurant, and even a discotheque. They are also not without their fair share of Italian bureaucracy. Two of the larger campgrounds we stayed in on the Ionian side insisted on the following procedure. First, we had to wait until after 4 p.m. to be allowed into the campground. Quiet hours were 2-4 p.m. and though the deejay would blare its music until well past midnight, we were not allowed to set up our tent until after 4 p.m. for fear of disturbing the slumbering campers. Secondly, once finally registered, we had to wait to be escorted by an attendee who would personally show us the available sites and then radio back to the office which one we chose. He then gave us a plastic ID number which, upon paying, would have to be turned back in in order to retrieve our passports. The whole thing was maddening and, aside from the mosquitoes, offered no commingling with nature. But it was cheaper than a hotel and we were steps from gorgeous turquoise-colored crystalline waters and white sand beaches, not to mention the absolutely stunning bikini-clad scenery on the beach. The water of the Adriatic and Ionian Seas are so salty that floating is a breeze; they’re so clear that I could count individual sand grains while standing in shoulder-deep water. If only there were waves, it would be perfect.
We didn’t sleep well in the campgrounds due to the noise and they’re not particularly cheap or wild, but we believe travel is more than centuries-old cultural sites and museums, but experiencing things the way the locals do. And this is how Italians do the beach.
We rounded the cape at Leuca and climbed steeply up onto the cliffs north of the town. From there, as we pedaled the undulating coast along the Adriatic side of Salento we came across what just might be one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. From a bridge some 30 meters above the water, we saw a series of staircases descending to a narrow funnel-shaped canyon with room for two dozen people. The cliffs fanned out into the sparkling sea, people snorkeled along the base of the cliffs as young boys took turns daring one another to leap from higher and higher perches. Kristin and I looked on from atop the bridge and, not wanting to risk leaving our bikes and gear unattended, breathed a hefty sigh and pedaled onward, though with another entry in our ever-lengthening list of places to return to.
We greeted the air conditioned comfort of our B&B in Lecce with a sigh of relief, but were soon longing for our afternoon swims and nightly dips in the sea before dinner. Fortunately, we’re headed to the Ionian Islands and region of Peloponnese in Greece. There will be plenty more beaches in store for us this summer. We just hope we won’t have to cycle through another record heat wave in order to reach them.