Day 7 & 8 Ariano Irpino to Matera (180km)
I sat on a bench, my face turned towards the sun, listening to the bees behind me. One of the women who worked on the farm came into the courtyard to smoke. She was a butch woman, with short, dark greying hair and was wearing chef trousers and expensive looking sunglasses. I watched her light a cigarette. She gestured for me to join her. Using her phone to translate she asked where we were going. I told her we were headed for Athens. For a moment she looked impressed. Then patted her stomach, and explained she enjoyed food too much to cycle but had a motorbike she liked to ride around the surrounding countryside on.
We chatted a while. She had cooked the delicious, five-course meal we’d eaten the night before and I asked her about the olive oil and other foods they produced on the farm. Later I took her photo. While Becky and Matt 1 went to look at the animals, I seized the opportunity to ask her about Europe, if she felt European, but she was reluctant to answer. She paused for a while before saying.
‘I am Italian. I am not interested in the European question. Politics is no good for me,’ and with a flick of her hand she dismissed any further discussion.
By then we had been in Italy for a week, but my understanding of what people thought about Europe was piecemeal. This was partly because we’d been so focussed on overcoming the challenges of the road that I’d not interviewed as many people as I would’ve liked. Neither had there been time to reflect on what those I'd spoken with had said. But it was also because of people’s indifference. Looking back I realise I could have inquired further. I could have urged the woman to explain her reasons, but this was difficult, and I was of the opinion that her lack of interest was revealing.
What I had noticed, is that unlike in France, where everyone had an opinion about Europe, and many had described themselves as European and French in various ways, in Italy the people I’d met often referred to themselves as Italian only. It would have been interesting to explore this further too, particularly given the rising popularity of nationalist and Eurosceptic parties but I did not think then, to investigate the complexities and myths surrounding the construction of Italian identity.
While we’d been talking, one of the other guests had asked for a light and joined us. He was from Rome, and the manager of a car hire company there. He had listened to what the woman said and suggested many people felt the same about politics.
‘You know in Italy, people are very angry.’ Then he added, offering some insight into the declining popularity of Partito Democratico and the communist party, ‘we don’t have anymore a political party which represents the interests of the people.’
He went on to explain:
‘Me I like the Five Star Movement, because it is challenging the constitution. It has good concepts, good ideas. They are in favour of nationalisation. For example they want to provide free water for everyone. And the people who are a part of the movement are not politicians. They are just normal people. The movement is not made up of career politicians. It is more representative of the people’s needs and ideas. In the past I voted for the communist party,’ he confided, ‘but now I support the movement.’
I asked him what he thought were the causes of people’s frustration.
‘You know in Italian politics, there is a lot of nepotism. Things are run by clientelism.’ He replied. As I listened, I watched Becky and Matt 1 across the courtyard, petting the two dogs which had chased us down the track the night before. I asked the man what he though about the EU. He said he did not like Maastricht. Then seeing my disappointment, quickly clarified.
‘I like the idea of a brotherhood with Spain for example, and with the other countries you know, but I don’t like the EU, it is run in the interests of the banks.’
I nodded. I would have liked to question him further, but the woman interrupted. She wanted to talk about the farm, and the pet therapy courses they ran there. I listened politely but I was not interested in the animals and soon I asked her how she had come to live there.
She told me she had visited the farm the year before on holiday. Then she had been a truck driver, but was looking for a change and so had decided to stay. She said when she was working as a driver life had been really hard. She said the money was reasonable, she earned 3,000 Euros a month, and spent 1,200 on food and to live, but she was never at home.
‘Italy is different from other European countries,’ the man translated for her, ‘for truck drivers there is less regulation. There are no legal brakes. She says she was always driving or sleeping in the cab. In other places there is more respect for the industry. There you drive for 12 hours and rest for 11, but it is not like that in Italy.’
While we’d been talking Becky and Matt 1 had finished loading up the bikes, and from across the courtyard Matt 1 gestured to me it was time to leave. I thanked them both, and they wished us well on our journey. But afterwards, we were delayed for half an hour or more because the card machine wasn’t working and we sat waiting in the sun.
When eventually we set off it was mid morning. As we cycled away from the farm the dogs chased us. There was a light breeze, which gathered the newly fallen leaves and swept them across our path. The ditches on either side of the track had recently been burnt, and beyond them, the land newly ploughed was dark and rich against the open sky. After days of disruption, and riding alongside heavy traffic, the tranquillity there felt sumptuous and I was elated to be out and on the open road.
That day we had the hardest climb of the trip ahead of us. We were heading towards the village of Savignano Irpino and from the loops and twists of the road on the map we could foresee the extent of the endeavour ahead of us. We stopped briefly at a bakery before turning off the main road to begin our ascent. Becky rode ahead. Determined she lowered her head following the road up. Only near the top, when the houses drew closer together did she stop to catch her breath.
Together we rode on to the heights of the town, through narrow streets, past waving locals. By the church young boys were playing in the street. I can tell you little about the town, for I was concentrating on my breath and we did not pause there. But I had the sense of a remote, isolated place and it felt a though we’d ridden through a gateway leaving behind all that was familiar and known.
Thereafter we saw no one and there were few cars. After the town the road continued to climb a short while. When it levelled again, we were greeted by sensuous views of woods and fields reaching far below. The patchwork hills were mossy, touched by violet in places and the trees dark green. The wind on the ridge was strong and there the landscape had been lucratively scattered with turbines.
We climbed on. Here, the fields had been ploughed and the earth was dark again. Stuck onto a road sign, Matt 1 noticed the first and only Eurovelo symbol of the trip, and amused we stopped to take a picture. Behind us, thick grey cloud had begun to gather, and we could make out the mists of rain, but they did not catch us.
After the town, Monteleone di Puglia the road began to descend. We coasted along 10km of down hill, through undulating turns, past fields of golden grass. Soon we reached the village of Accadia, and here we decided to stop for lunch. The town was deserted. It seemed as if the inhabitants had left long ago, and later I read people had migrated from the town in waves, for work. There had also been a series of earthquakes there. We ate our lunch on a bench, on an empty street close to a fountain, and afterwards we agreed to find somewhere on the road to make coffee.
It was still warm, when we cycled away from the town down through a ravine alongside the river. Here we looked for somewhere to stop, but the roadside was littered with rubbish, and we were looking for somewhere scenic and wild.
A dog chased us. We passed small farms, and vegetable plots, then olive groves. Nearing the main road again, we made our way along a dusty track and stopped in a field of grass. Across the valley we could see the lorries speeding along the motorway. Pylons interrupted the landscape. On the hill behind stood a lone tree and beyond it a single farmhouse. Sheltering from the wind, I unpacked the stove, pans and coffee we’d bought in Rome only to discover we’d bought the wrong gas canister and so we had to abandon the idea.
There we agreed to stop in Levello for the night and booked a cheap apartment. The route on my phone suggested to take the main road, but Matt 1 found another, quieter, route, which cut into the contours of the valley. After briefly stopping at a roadside café, and crossing over the main road we climbed for a short while before joining the new route. Now we were racing the sunset. But the road, although crumbling and greatly in need of repair, gently ascended and we were able to cover ground quickly. Passing fields of fennel and then laden apple trees, we left the mountains behind. All the while we kept an eye out for lone dogs. Across the valley I could see factory chimneys and the breeze carried a rancid smell, which scratched the back of my throat as I drew in deep breaths of foul air.
As we were nearing Levello and night was nearly upon us we crossed over the river. We passed a deserted house, once grand, with stables and a courtyard. Further on just before the junction, a woman was feeding a dog encaged in a grove of olive trees.
It was dark when we drew close to the outskirts of the town. As we’d started to climb once more, we’d passed two young African men jogging towards us, and I was reminded they were the first we’d seen that day. The climb steepened. I pushed on, racing towards our resting place. When I reached the top, I pulled out my phone to look up where the accommodation was. We cycled towards the limits of the town, then back again confused, the map on my phone directing us to a deserted piece of fenced off scrubland.
Perplexed we wondered what to do and agreed to cycle to the centre of the town. Outside the bars, groups of men watched us as we cycled by. In the main square, more groups were gathered on the steps of the church and sitting on benches. We headed to one of the cafes, with a covered terrace, ordered a beer and rang our host. She did not speak English, but explained in French that the room wasn’t ready. She did not give us her address and instead suggested she would come and meet us.
The rain, which had been chasing us all day, finally caught us up. It began to pour. The men in the square did not leave but moved to find shelter, and there they continued to talk and watch. We were tired, cold and concerned not having anywhere to stay and agreed to abandon the first apartment, and search for an alternative.
Half an hour later, we skidded through steep, wet cobbled streets. In the old town we lost our bearings in the maze of narrow streets. We dismounted and pushed our bikes up towards Plazzo Di Citta. The rain was torrential, and we were soaking wet, cold and tired. We found the hotel, but it was closed for refurbishment. I wasn’t annoyed. I had already resigned myself to the inadequacies of chance, but we did not stand there long, because from across the street the owner called out to us. He helped us store the bikes. Then carry our bags into a warm cavernous room, where he offered us pizza straight from the oven and a glass of strong red wine.
Leaving Levello the road immediately descended. After crossing over a stream, we climbed the other side of the ravine. The hill was steep and abrupt and I pushed my bike. At the top I clambered on once more. It was raining again and visibility was poor. The road ahead was a patchwork of wet tarmac and the conditions were bleak. That day winter started.
We’d agreed to ride to Matera, 57 miles away. Our route followed the dual carriageway heading southeast towards the instep of Italy. Just before we’d reached the main road we’d passed a farm and kennels where a hundred dogs had barked and howled as we cycled by. Now the earth was flat. More wind turbines were strewn across the landscape. The rain fell. Water sprayed up from the road. Occasionally a lorry or car overtook.
After a couple of hours, soaked we entered the outskirts of Spinazzola to find shelter and to eat. We cycled under the railway line, then past the derelict station. It was Monday and it seemed few places were open. Sheltering in a derelict bus stop, shivering with cold, we considered what to do. Soon we saw a man leaving a bar we’d previously presumed closed. Cautiously, for now our senses were heightened by fatigue and cold and we were afraid, we locked the bikes carefully and entered the modest bar, which was comfortable and warm.
That afternoon, we rode towards the Alta Murgia National Park. The rain had stopped and the sky cleared, but we did not relax or take our time, for we had left late that morning. Instead we raced onwards following the rocky crag of the national park both wild and gentle.
At Gravina in Puglia, lit by the late afternoon sun stood a golden fort. I dashed across the road to take a photograph, and then we continued without pausing. The others were keen to reach Matera before nightfall. There were many roads towards the city. Looking at the map we chose one following the river thinking it would lead downwards. The road passed through a delicate valley of undulating fields, with occasional olive trees, and as anticipated the road was pleasingly quick. There were few houses. Soon we crossed from Apulia into Basilicata. As the sun began to set we saw the ground rise above us, and there stood the capital Matera.
With a final push, we cycled up, passing a dead cat on the roadside, its body splayed, its legs extended. Just before the town we stopped briefly at a garage. Beyond it, the sun was setting and the sky was pink and bold. Below us fields and the river reached for the sea. I walked past the Fast Motel. In the reception area Africans were filling out forms. In the bar next door, locals were drinking.
We followed the signs for the centre. It was rush hour and the road busy. Nearing the old town we cycled along a tree-lined avenue where we passed a Basilicata. Its heavy wooden doors were open, revealing a glowing, bright interior and the elderly congregation making their way home after evening prayers.
Soon we reached the town square and wondered across the smooth stone trying to establish our whereabouts. Realising we were heading in the wrong direction we turned around and headed east. Then journeying too far again, we retraced out steps at the beautiful church of San Giovanni, before ducking under a stone arch. Above the tiled roof tops and cramped white houses we rested our bikes against the railings. Below us was the Sassi the ancient cave dwellings we had come to see and the reason Materia is a UNESCO world heritage site.