Day 6: Telese to Ariano Irpino (47KM)
When I awoke my mouth was dry and my head ached. The evening before we’d cycled up the hill to the Grand Hotel Telese. On our arrival, candles lit the way through the gardens, past the fountain to the once glamorous hotel. That night we ate in the hotel restaurant. We lingered afterwards, drinking prosecco the waiter brought from the party in the salon next door. Later, he was waiting for me in the corridor as I stumbled back from the Ladies and whisperingly offered to give me a massage.
‘Room 305, yes?’ he’d asked, his hands ready.
We ate breakfast in the conservatory. Afterwards, hung over, we’d had to pack and check out in a hurry. We arrived at the station with minutes to spare. There, an old man welcomed us enthusiastically calling ‘Bici, Bici’. When Matt 1 dismounted and hastily made his way towards the ticket machine, the man followed chatting obliviously in Italian.
I pushed my bike out of the station towards the quiet of the platform. It was a bright, still morning. I crossed the tracks and took out my camera. Soon the others joined me. The train was delayed and we had time to catch our breath and acknowledge our good fortune. But when it arrived, the conductor would not let us on. He said he could not take the bikes. As the train pulled away, thwarted, we stood on the platform wondering what to do.
The old man marched towards us. He wanted to know where we were from.
‘UK’ we said.
His eyes lit up.
‘May,’ he said in a gruff, startling way, ‘Sì, sì Theresa May.’
I asked him about Europe.
He shook his head.
He didn’t like the ‘immigrati’ and raised his hand to his chin, pushing his fingers forward to signal his contempt. His hatred was sudden and shocking. But later, in the station, while the others looked up the time of the next train, I watched him talking with two young African men and noted the inconsistency between his views and actions. Soon he walked back towards me. Grabbing my handlebars he pulled me nearer.
‘Amore’ he declared clandestinely, a toothless, satisfied grin on his face.
I was bemused, and only nodded. When the others returned we quickly departed.
We cycled through the tree-lined main street towards the spa. Near the entrance to the park we stopped at a café. Here were three middle-aged men dressed in Lycra. I wanted to double check we couldn’t cycle to Benevento and before approaching I pulled the map from my bag.
The men were from Naples. They were on a cycling trip for the weekend. They confirmed the main road to Benevento was dangerous, and the smaller roads too steep, but were amused we had to wait three hours for the next train.
‘If you cycled you would be there in an hour,’ they joked.
One of the men offered us a coffee. I helped him carry three espressos and glasses of water back from the bar. Afterwards I asked if I could take a photo and told them about the project.
The tallest man thought the European Union was far from perfect.
‘It is still a young project, it needs time to mature,’ he said. The others nodded their agreement.
‘But you know Brexit is no good.’ He said. ‘It has encouraged people to think only of themselves. Brexit had made the other European countries more wary, more self-interested.’
He gestured to the seats around the table.
‘Rather than cooperating, now everyone is saving a chair for themselves.’
I wanted to ask them more, but the men were keen to get back on the road, and soon bid us farewell.
We wondered around the park. We’d been hoping to swim but the pools were closed for winter. We visited the treatment centre. The receptionist there offered to show us around. We followed her down a series of long corridors passing tiled rooms with single baths. There it was possible to receive a range of treatments including hydro massage, pulmonary ventilation and vaginal irrigation. It seemed as though little had changed in twenty years, and there was a strong unpleasant smell of sulpha. At the exit I watched the old people going in and out.
We bought our lunch at a nearby bakery. At the station, we waited for the train sitting in the sun, eating pizza. Forty minutes later when we arrived in Benevento we were ready and eager to ride.
We’d loaded up the bikes and were about to set off when Matt 1 noticed we didn’t have enough water and ran to a nearby shop. Becky held his bike. But then, as we were chatting it slipped from her grip, and before I could reach her both bikes had toppled to the floor. We tried to separate them, but they were jammed together.
A gallant Italian approached. He gave Matt 1’s handlebars a forceful, chivalrous tug. One of Becky’s spokes gave way, and the bikes separated. We thanked him and when he had gone, examined the damage. We did not know then, we needed to tighten the other spokes to stop the wheel buckling. Instead we stuck them together with gaffer tape, and hoped it would hold.
We set off. Excitedly I led the way. We crossed the river and then cycled under the main road, heading out of town towards Paduli. We knew we had a long climb ahead of us. But when we reached the junction, I heard Becky behind me say she needed to stop. I negotiated my way around the figure of eight and optimistically waited on the side of the road. Five, then ten minutes passed. I turned around. Becky and Matt 1 had pulled into a nearby car park. Matt 1 was examining the warped wheel. Becky was looking up bike shops on her phone.
It was Saturday afternoon and the shops were shut for lunch. We were thwarted once more. Slowly, owing to the wheel we cycled back along the road towards the train station. There we met a friendly, kind Italian man, who directed us to towards a bike shop. He seemed lonely and wanted to talk, but feeling impatient and eager to get on I curtly made our excuses. Following his directions we headed towards the old town. We missed the main sites in Benevento, the Roman Theatre, the Sonta Sofia Church and the castle. Instead we waited outside the bike shop listening to a man arguing loudly on his phone.
At ten past four the shop opened. Expertly and quickly the wheel was realigned and I took the precaution of buying a helmet and a high-vis jacket there.
By half four, as the light was beginning to fade we were ready to set off. Slowly we climbed out of the town, then on and up for an hour or so. On the outskirts of Pauli, Matt 1 pulled into a junction and suggested we find somewhere to stay for the night. I was reluctant. Frustrated by days of stopping and starting I wanted to cycle further. Determinedly I looked up places to stay and found a farm 25km or so away.
‘Come on,’ I said ‘It’s not far. We have all the gear. Let’s use it.’ I said passionately. After two days of train rides I was desperate to cycle. In the end Matt 1 agreed. I turned my bike around ready to set off. But as I pulled on the break, I felt, and then saw that my front tyre was completely flat.
‘I don’t believe it!’ I called. ‘My tyres flat.’ Then giving up said, ‘you’re right, we should stay here the night.’
‘No come on let’s get going. I’ll change it. It won’t take long.’ Matt 1’s earlier reluctance had vanished. We pulled into the carwash nearby. I took off my panniers, turned the bike upside down and after locating my tools sat down helplessly, while Matt 1 and Becky changed the tyre.
Soon we were ready to leave. It was a warm evening and there was little traffic. In the fading light we climbed on, passing smallholdings growing squashes, cabbages and other brassicas. A tractor rolled by with two young men in the back. In the villages the dogs barked and howled.
The sun set amongst the mountains behind us. The dwellings became more infrequent. Night fell. The road began to descend and the others pulled away. My front light blinding in the city was not bright enough to light up the road and alone I pedalled through the dark. The road twisted and turned. The cooling breeze rushed passed me. Near the outskirts of Buonalbergo I hit a pothole at speed. Shaken, when I caught the others I asked if we could ride together. We rode on through the close-knit houses of the town, then over a stone bridge where we hit the chilling damp air rising from the ravine below.
We cycled for another hour or more. The road was dark and peaceful. It was exhilarating. It felt as though we were on a wide open plain, but in the dark we couldn’t be sure.
Eventually after 40km we turned off the main road and onto a bumpy track towards our accommodation. The sense of achievement renewed our tired minds and legs. There on a telegraph pole we startled an eagle owl. In the faint light I saw it take off, lifting its great body into the sky. We were close. But at the bottom of the hill, near a crop of trees two dogs appeared. I instinctively slowed, and watched the others as they tentatively cycled by, the dogs jumping and barking. Alone on the hillside I was afraid, but I was tired too. I clenched my teeth and cycled on.