Our last stint through Italy, heading east from Rome to catch the ferry to Greece from Puglia (the heel of the boot), was rather longer than it would have been had we taken some good, but counterintuitive advice. We set out, following our Rome hosts Giulia and Francesco’s recommendation to stop at the delightful and very friendly Youth Hostel in Sermoneta, which we liked so much we decided to spend an extra day. Perched on a hilltop, a brisk climb above the plains, Sermoneta was unremittingly gorgeous – a symphony in stone – each corner revealing another white limestone alley of densely clustered medieval houses scrambling up the steep slopes.
However, I had responded less enthusiastically to Francesco’s suggestion that after heading southeast out of Rome on the Via Appia (see Episode V) we should head northeast from Sermoneta for the eastern coast of Italy. I should explain that since our departure I have consistently been immensely jealous of our southerly latitude, to the extent that when following the Loire we skipped Blois and Orleans to slog due east across the hills (through Borges), simply because the river had the audacity to meander in a sort of east-northeast direction at that point (and as for west, don’t even mention it – anything longer than a switchback in that direction is a total failure of navigation in my book). Of course, our cycling-touring Roman friends were wise and right – basically the whole of central Italy in this region is either mountainous or very hilly, and since the coasts run northwest-southeast, rather than north-south, a due east route covers a lot of bumpy land.
But thanks to my stubborness we set off eastwards from Sermoneta, aiming as much as possible for national or regional parks in the hope of finding good camping spots. By and large, it was a pretty successful week for camping, although with the evenings closing in and darkness falling not long after 5pm, and 5am starts still a little too painful to contemplate, there was a lot of cycling through farmland after sunset running the gauntlet of over-enthusiasticly barking farm dogs whilst trying to get to a suitable patch of woods.
Despite the shortening days, we managed to find some fantastic spots, by Roman bridges,
in woods carpeted by delicate cyclamen, little inside-out flowers, autumn’s mauve answer to spring’s sea of bluebells,
and probably our best patch yet, up in Matese National Park, where the mountains shelter a series of secret, fertile valleys and limpid lakes:
Things were also enlivened by John’s 39th birthday, which we celebrated in gastronomic and numerological style in the moonlight with a superb 1975 cognac, won in the prize draw at the Beer and Wine shop in York and lugged all this way especially:
The abundance of the harvest season was profoundly evident – the weather was bright and the trees heavy with sticky persimmon and giant red pomegranates, and every village had a green grocer who could load us up with a bag of fruit and veg for 1 or 2 Euros. We feasted on local delicacies such as black truffles and buffalo mozzarella – for the record, sticking an entire medium-sized ball of buffalo mozzarella in your mouth and chewing is one of the most enjoyable experiences to be had on the planet.
Autumn festivals abounded, roadside stalls overflowed with porcini mushrooms, and town squares blazed with giant fires to roast chestnuts, while the setting sun set the wooded hilltops alight with syrupy golden light. The word ‘cornucopia’ danced around my mind as we rode through this Dionysian (sorry Bacchanalian) celebration of abundance.
But autumn was closing in – our camp on the high pass was comfortable enough with our warm gear and a roaring camp fire, but that morning brought the first frost of the year, and it felt like time to get out of the mountains – the wind was changing and clouds were gathering. One more day of incredible riding through the national park, including a spectacular descent – 600m in the space of about half an hour – was enough. Time to get to back to the sea.
For our final stint to the coast, we followed, in the hope of good campsites, what the map stated was a long, narrow regional park on the banks of a river, but was in fact just a road through endless industrial-scale vineyards. For this final haul, the Bacchanalian orgy seemed to have run itself out. We were back to sad, bald, brown, overfarmed hills, stripped of crops; nature, exhausted by producing such abundance had given up, withered and faded; Persephone had returned to the underworld leaving nothing but giant clods of sticky mud behind. The grape harvest was over and the vines were looking battered and abused, while on the edges of run-down towns impersonal factories turned their harvest into mass-produced Puglia Primitivo, probably destined for British supermarkets.
To make life even more fun, after a certain point on our journey east, everyone seemed to let their dogs roam free on the road. After being run out of town by over-excited canines in an otherwise lovely place called Accadia, to the obvious embarrassment of the locals, we seemed to spend the rest of our trip in Italy being chased by dogs. My attempts to fend them off by barking very loudly back turned out to only work with really small dogs, and it was actually both physically and emotionally exhausting to muster a suitably threatening woof, as well as mainly ineffective, so instead I worked on my water-squirting technique, which has proven to be much more useful in fending the buggers off.
The change in the wind brought a return to hot, humid, stormy weather, and having finally made it to the coast, after a thundery night spent in our least good campsite of the week – by a disused railway station, almost visible from the road and definitely visible from the trains – we battled down to Bari in a strong and exhausting headwind. (We have found that generally each week brings one utterly incredible campsite and one appalling one.) The small bit of coast we covered was uninspiring, sporting that very special seediness naff coastal developments acquire out of season (apparently there’s gorgeous coastline further south, but long past our port).
And with a sense of numerical poetry, as we finally won our battle with the storms and headwinds and rolled into the port town of Bari, the odometer (or Odyssey Meter as I prefer to think of it) slipped over 3000km, counting from San Malo in France, where we had to reset the computer to in order to change from miles to kilometers. Adding on the 750km we covered in the UK, and a few more getting to the ferry, our total as we left for Greece stood at 3757km since York.
Italy has been gorgeous, friendly, insanely (but predictably) full of cool Roman stuff and utterly delicious – even tubes of tomato concentrate are more succulent and tomato-y than any I’ve ever tasted in the UK, and as for the pancetta, I’ll be dreaming about it for years to come. Even the fondness for sticking big fat chewy lumps of pig lard in sauces has grown on me. Also,for the first time in my life, everyone seems to know how to pronounce my name.
In fact, apart from the fact that the benches always seem to face the wrong way, it’s pretty much perfect:
But the winter continues to creep up behind us, and the road has been long and our bums are sore and our knees are tired – it’s time to get to Crete and settle in until Spring…