Thursday, July 09, 2015

Crazy Trip Dispatch #8: Matera, Italy

DQ Fitness Advisor Doug Walsh is back! Here's his latest dispatch.


I have the pleasure of writing to you this time on a milestone day. Today we pedaled our 10,000th mile (that’s 16,000+ kilometers for our metric friends) en route from the coast of the Adriatic Sea to the mesmerizing city of Matera in southern Italy. Italy? Yes. After I last wrote during our time in Japan we went to Indonesia and spent the better part of six weeks in Bali before returning home to the United States to join my wife’s family in the spreading of her father’s ashes. We returned to Italy two weeks ago to collect our bicycles and gear and continue along our original journey, right from the very same hotel we last pedaled into six months ago. Game on!

We weren’t nearly in the cycling shape that we were in last December and, failing to take this into account, I routed us right onto a mountain stage of the Giro de Italia (that’s the “Italian Tour de France” for you non-cycling fans). The mountains came in waves, the mercury soared, and much suffering ensued. On our fourth day in the mountains of Abruzzo I managed to flag down the driver of the lone pickup truck I’ve seen in Italy and convince him, through hand gestures and my butchered Italian pronunciation of several awkward noun-verb pairings, to drive my wife and her bike to the top of the pass. Things have improved since and she’s no longer threatening to call a divorce attorney.

We’ve spent each day this past week riding south along the back of the Italian boot, with the Adriatic’s sea breeze in our face and miles of olive trees, tomato plants, and vineyards flanking our path. What better way to cap off a five-hour ride in 100-degree heat than a dip in the sea! The heat has been unbearable but nearly every campground we’ve stayed at this week was right along this irregular coastline. The first beach we hit, in the region of Abruzzo, was all cobbles and pebbles. The second, just a hundred miles south, on the part of Italy’s eastern coast resembling a bulbous ankle bone (also known as Gargano National Park) was fine white sand. And then the last, another sixty miles further south in Puglia, had no beach at all: just a sprawling, irregular slab of coral reef that jutted from the sea. While odd to see beachgoers sprawled out on towels atop a large, spiky slab of rock, I’m sure it was even odder for the bikini-and-Speedo crowd to see us wearing our baggy mountain biking shorts and my wife in a merino wool sports bra, at their beach. We retreated to our camp before the fashion polizia were called in to assist.

I must say however that the camping experience in Italy takes a bit of getting used to. We unfortunately never encounter any primitive campgrounds on our route and thus end up staying most nights in developed camping resorts, complete with all day snack bars, a restaurant, and grocery markets. They also feature round-the-clock noise. Italians, as we’ve come to appreciate, like to stay up late. While most grocery stores and shops close each day between 1:00 and 4:30 p.m., the restaurants and pizzerias don’t reopen until 8:00 p.m. Those nights we decide not to cook in camp, we’re often ready to break down the door when the restaurant finally opens for dinner. And there we sit, alone, until the locals begin to fill up the tables an hour or more later.

Back in camp things don’t get any easier for the exhausted cyclist as many of the campgrounds have a dance floor or activities for the kids. Activities that entail megaphones and very loud music that, even on a weeknight, doesn’t get turned off until midnight or later. Can’t blame them though, after all, folks are on vacation. Fortunately, we’re often so tired that we fall asleep for an hour or two anyway after dinner, until a particularly catchy beat or upbeat voice wakes us up around midnight. It's not all bad though. Our fully-loaded bikes draw a lot of attention and though we seldom encounter any English-speakers, we’ve become adept at describing our trip in multiple languages. People become so excited about hearing our story they often energetically offer to do us little favors, like refilling our water bottles or bringing us over some food. And sometimes I get to return the favor by fixing a child’s bicycle. We missed all of this during our cycling through Tuscany in the winter, as the campgrounds close in October. We’re saving a lot of money doing it this way, and meeting a lot more people, but we sure slept better in those hotels during the winter.

Oh, speaking of money, we’re headed to Greece in a week’s time. Anybody got a line on some drachma? 

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