Italy Day 5: Aquino to Telese (50Km)
We decided to ignore the warnings we’d received the previous evening about the road. Frequently when touring, you meet people with no experience, who offer cautionary advice. In those instances it is necessary to listen politely and, then, forget what they have said. With this in mind, we optimistically agreed not to deviate from the route. That day we would cycle to Cassino, and then head southeast towards Naples before entering the Volturno Valley. Depending on our progress, we would stay the night in either Telese or Benevento, just under 120km away.
It was cold and foggy again, and the road was busy. We were averaging around 20km an hour. We’d set off just after eight, and I was hopeful, if we maintained our speed, we could make it to Benevento before sunset.
It took us just over an hour to reach the outskirts of Cassino. Tentatively, owing to the unpredictable traffic, we navigated our way through streets of modern apartment complexes, constructed after the city was flattened during the Second World War. On a mountain above us, sat the imposing Abbey of Montecassino. After steering our way across the city and through a series of roundabouts, I stopped to take a photo of a mural underneath the motorway. Opposite, migrants waited at the bus stop. As I drew nearer to get a better shot, I interrupted a crouching woman holding up her skirts. A little later, while I guarded the bikes outside a shopping centre, she tried to sell me a lighter.
We left the city by a tree-lined road. We’d agreed to find somewhere more scenic to break and have a coffee. The mountains drew closer. In a small village, on top of a hill we stopped. We looked for a café but found only a petrol station with a bar. We turned around. While pushing my bike back along the road, I was nearly hit by a car. I’d momentarily stepped off the pavement to pass a stationary van. An oncoming lorry swerved to avoid me, but the car behind, the driver’s view obscured, saw me only just in time. On the garage forecourt afterwards, the latte I ordered, hastened my already pounding heart.
Afterwards we came off the main road and cycled through a peaceful valley. I tried to appreciate the tranquillity and beauty of our surroundings, but my hopes of cycling all the way to Telese were beginning to dwindle and I was preoccupied. Although we were now on a quieter road, I realised we would be re-joining the 372 where it meets the motorway, and the road to Benevento was likely to be perilous.
The road began to ascend and we followed the gentle winding route up. The sun was warm. As we neared the top we passed two tanks. At the summit we stopped to look at the war memorial there. Here, was where the Royal Italian Army had first fought against German troops. Positioned on the Gustav Line, at the gateway to Rome, the fighting had been fierce and over 70,000 men had died in the battles there. The Germans had drawn their defences against the advancing allied troops where the Italian peninsula is narrowest, and the blue of the sky above, told us the sea was not far away. I pushed my bike towards the graves hoping to find out more but had to retreat swiftly, after being chased away by the caretaker.
We cycled on a short way and stopped just below the brow of the hill to admire the view. Green mountains seemingly untouched by autumn stretched ahead of us. In the relief of the countryside, away from the ceaseless, grinding traffic our mood momentarily lifted. Close by, a family were harvesting olives. The elderly farmer in the tree was shaking the branches, while his son and wife gathered the olives below. When the son saw my camera he called to his father in Italian to smile for the tourists.
The descent to Vairano Scalo where we stopped for lunch and would join the 372 again, was quick. In the town we found fresh balls of mozzarella scooped from a large vat with a ladle. Succulent and salty, it is the most delicious mozzarella I have ever tasted. We ate hungrily in the grounds of a modern church, under the shade of an olive tree.
A little later after drinking another heart-pounding coffee we set off once more through the town towards the main road. We were only a few hours ride from Telese and 70km from Benevento. At the traffic lights we stopped and waited with the train station on our right. When the light turned green, I pushed down on the pedal. Then had to break suddenly to avoid being knocked off my bike by an impatient motorist turning right. Intrepidly we continued, following the signs towards the 372, leaving the town behind us. At the junction I put out my arm and pulled into the middle of the road, before turning. But there on the slip road, when I heard the roar of traffic coming from the dual carriageway overhead, fear overwhelmed me. I pulled over and consulted the others. We had no other option but to turn around and take the train.
Becky and Matt 1 stopped at the counter to buy the tickets. In the small waiting room, on a bench nearby sat three young African men. Wanting to capture and find out more about them I approached and asked if I could take a photo.
‘What’s it for?’ asked one reasonably.
I explained it was for a project about Europe and gave him my card. He looked at it briefly, before handing it over to his companion who typed my details into his phone. I took my camera out of the bag and held it up hopefully.
‘You can take a selfie with us.’ The first man offered.
‘I don’t want to be in the picture.’ I tried to explain.
‘What’s in it for me then?’ he asked resisting.
‘Well nothing directly.’ I replied as honestly as I could. ‘I’m taking pictures of people we meet as we cycle through Europe. Look I’ll show you.’ I offered.
‘So you’re a journalist?’ He asked.
‘No, I’m a researcher.’ I said as if it made a difference, as I showed him my phone and the portraits already uploaded onto the blog. He looked at them.
‘There’re no black people.’ He said accusingly.
I protested but he walked away and back towards the others. He spoke to them in an unfamiliar dialect. I could pick out the odd English word, and from their body language could tell the seated man with the phone felt it would be ok, but the first continued to insist it should be a selfie.
‘You understand what we’re saying?’ He said eyeing me.
Where are you from?’ I asked.
‘Nigeria, where are you form?’
‘England, that is my dream. To live in London, would be the best.’
He asked for my number. I told him he could reach me through the blog. One more time I asked to take his photo, but again he questioned what was in it for him, and I gave up.
Twenty minutes later we boarded the train heading south towards Napoli. At Caserta where we had to change trains, the platform was busy. The loaded bikes were heavy. Passengers impatiently pushed onto the train before we’d had time to get off. In the chaos, Becky managed to disembark and shove her bike onto the platform. We watched it bounce and keel as it landed. Trapped behind the other two bikes, Matt 1 and I somehow managed to scramble off and unload the gear before the train departed
On the platform we composed ourselves. We had a couple of hours to wait before the next train. We found an unoccupied bench, leaned the bikes against a nearby column and Matt 1 bought some beers.
‘It’s Friday night.’ He said cheerfully, opening the first.
We chatted while we waited. Two men in unkempt uniforms approached and asked to see our papers. Courteously they enquired how long we would be in the station, and where we were going. As they checked each of our passports, carefully recording the numbers, I noted the red vertical stripe on their trousers, and the white belts they wore, with a holster and a gun. We weren’t troubled, and our documents were approved. But I was unaccustomed to being scrutinised in this way. As I watched them, I imagined the apprehension and fear this inspection would cause undocumented refugees attempting to travel north, or, how it must feel for newly arrived migrants travelling back and forth from work. I was also reminded how as British citizens we took our own freedom of movement for granted, and wondered how this privilege might be affected when the UK left the EU.
We nearly missed our connecting train. The sun was beginning to set when a small diesel train, four carriages long, approached the station. We stood readying ourselves. Then, sat down again as it pulled into the opposite platform. But I noticed the man, who’d been waiting next to us, get up and run across the tracks.
‘Are you sure we’re in the right place?’ I asked for the umpteenth time.
‘Shit, they’ve changed the platform.’ Matt 1 responded looking at the board.
We ran towards the stairs. As I began to descend, in my haste, I lost control and the bike began to swing. I paused to stop myself falling. The others hurried passed. Above me I could hear the engine revving and surrendered to fate. But then, yes, I could hear the train still. Cautiously I bumped the heavy bike down the stairs as quickly as I could.
On the platform people were queuing to board. By the doors, amongst the other passengers stood a tall, insistent looking African holding a bike. I was behind the others. I watched Matt 1 approach the conductor, show him our tickets, and the conductor let him on.
Matt 1 and Becky lifted the bikes on to the train and eagerly scrambled on. Before I could board, a young black man appeared from the next carriage and angrily blocked my way. His cheeks were scarred and he was wearing a black cap. He shouted at the conductor his words fast and hostile. I heard the conductor trying to explain in English that to take a bike on board you needed a ticket. The man continued to quarrel. The conductor agreed to hold the train, while the man with the bike went to buy a ticket. The others pulled me on to their train, their expressions grim. On board, I noted the embarrassed, apologetic look on their faces.
Outside the long dusk had become night. The man with the bike returned and clambered onto the train next to us. The conductor blew the whistle. As the doors closed I saw the two men in uniforms silently approaching. They watched us through the doors, as the train departed.