Day 10: Matera to Ostuni (109km)
In the early hours of the morning I dreamt I was on Oxford Street, fleeing an unknown assassin shooting at the strolling shoppers. The dream was vivid and seemed real. I ran down a small side street, perhaps Wardour or Noel Street to avoid the bullets, and hid crouching against a wall amongst a terrified group of people.
When I awoke the feeling of dread lingered. The night before, in a restaurant carved into the limestone of the Sassi, we’d shared a bottle of strong, local red wine and afterwards drunk a coffee. The dream I knew was the result of this as well as fatigue, but still, it worsened my already anxious state.
We rose early that morning with the intention of being on the road by nine. I was tired still, despite the day’s rest, but I wanted to challenge myself and cycle over 100km that day. Brindisi was only 150km away, and I knew once we reached Greece we would be covering less ground.
We packed up, and loaded the bikes. Before leaving Matera, we visited a bike shop to buy a replacement tyre. It took longer than expected to find. The hills behind the Sassi, where the new town stands, were steep and more than once we took a wrong turn. Afterwards we rode back down the hill heading north. On the outskirts we passed a market and so stopped again briefly to buy food for lunch. Now it was late morning and we knew we would have to cycle fast and avoid stopping too often, if we were to make Ostuni before nightfall.
After the decent from Matera, the road soon began to rise. We were cycling east across the heel of Italy. The rain had passed and it was a bright morning, but there was a strong headwind blowing from the coast. We followed the SP140, a quiet road through gentle hills. Here the earth was red. The leaves and young shoots green against the vivid sky. The gradient was shallow but the climb steady and this and the wind, slowed our progress.
Following the twists and turns of the road we rushed on cycling some distance apart. Now I had time to consider what we had seen, and I compared this with what I’d heard about Italy previously. Since leaving Matera the enfolding countryside had been rich and fertile and in southern Italy in general, we’d seen little of the notorious poverty there. This I realised was because we’d mainly visited tourist areas. But it also occurred to me that unlike central France, most of the villages we’d passed through had been gently, brimming with life.
Neither had we fallen victim to the alleged crime of the south. The evening before as I had walked across the square above the Sassi in the spitting rain, an old man tapping his pockets, had once again cautioned me to be careful of my belongings. The numerous warnings we’d received in Rome and elsewhere had made us especially cautious, but in reality we never experienced any menace, and I was beginning to wonder who are guides believed our would-be assailants were.
I hurried on trying to maintain my speed. Cycling into the relentless wind, I worried the trip had produced too few insights, for I had only a vacuous sense of what people thought. It was obvious the Euro was unpopular, and some had been openly critical of the EU, but the feeling I'd barely scratched the surface niggled me. This was confirmed later on, when in the spring the election results were announced and there was a surge of support for anti-establishment and Eurosceptic parties. The rapidly evolving Five Star Movement made considerable gains in the south, while Lega, the extreme far-right party, dominated in the north.
In three hours we cycled over 60km. We stopped for lunch at a quarter to two, just before Noci. We ate crouching behind a stonewall, sheltering from the wind and soaking up the sun. There, two muscly men dressed in lycra determinedly raced by, heading back the way we had come. Soon after, we packed up our belongings and set off again.
On the outskirts of Noci I stopped to take a picture of a trullo, a typical dry stone hut of the Apulia region. Later on, we passed more distinctive conical roofs. Soon we reached Noci, where all the apartment buildings were painted white, but we did not pause there believing we were short on time, and instead continued without delay towards Alberobello.
The road between the white towns and cities was fast and swiftly, we passed through the most picturesque stage of our journey. On the outskirts of Cisterno as the light was fading and the long dusk beginning, we stopped to consider staying there the night. It was 15km more to Ostuni, but we had yet to break a 100km and earnestly I encouraged the others to cycle further.
We hurried on. The shadows lengthened across the red earth as the sun set. Pink light bounced off stonewalls. I stopped to take a photo. Then, in my haste I managed to loose the others. I thought they were ahead of me, but as the road became narrower and stone walls drew closer, I realised I’d taken a wrong turn. I stopped. Tried to call, but had no reception. I turned around. An approaching car slowed. The driver wound down the window.
‘Is this the way to the Ashram?’ he enquired.
Becky and Matt 1 were waiting for me on the main road opposite a garage. There, men in smart leather jackets, playing cards eyed me suspiciously. Their expensive clothing seemed incongruous with the rural surroundings. I’d not given the mafia much thought on our journey, but now I wondered if these men were members of notorious families.
On and on we raced and until suddenly we were in Ostuni. It took some time for the sense of urgency to pass. Even once we’d booked somewhere to stay and found it easily, we were unsettled. We decided to wait in a nearby café. But hesitated before approaching the Pink Lady, selling ice cream, sandwiches and beer according to the sign above the door, for initially we thought it was a brothel.