We've been contemplating several different routing possibilities to wrap up our tour of Italy for several days now. Today, as we approached the point where the roads diverged and decision-making became imperative, we realized we hadn't fully discussed which option we would choose. Pulling off to the shoulder, we tried to talk about various ideas but it was no use attempting to make the important choice while semi-trucks blasted by and we shivered in what was becoming a very cold, blustery day.
Instead, we coasted into the center of Salerno to find a coffee shop, have something nice and warm to drink, pull out the map (on the computer) and weigh the pros and cons of each option. They were as follows:
Head directly south to Sicily, the shortest route, hopefully avoiding the coming cold of winter.
Cycle northeast stopping to see Foggia, Manfredonia, and other places that my grandfather remembers from when he was stationed in Italy in World War II, then continue south. This would add roughly 500 kilometers to the first route.
Cycle east over the mountains and then south into Apuglia (the heel) to eat what is touted as the "best food in Italy", explore the cave town of Matera, and see the white, mortarless stone houses called "trulli" in Alberobello. We would then continue south along the eastern coast. This would add roughly 250 kilometers to the first route.
Over several cappuccinos at a coffee shop amusingly named "Love Story," we weighed the possibilities. The first option was the most immediately appealing; we were still thawing from our cold ride! Even so, we discussed the rest to be sure we were making the right choice.
During World War II when supplies were scarce, my grandfather was given the task of finding enough fuel to warm his entire company during the chilly winter. He miraculously managed to secure enough coal to fulfill his duty by striking a deal with a local farmer. We would have loved to explore his history (option two) but we couldn't justify heading north in the face of a fast-approaching winter. My grandfather is definitely not the sentimental type and we knew he'd understand if we didn't visit his old haunts.
When we really started talking about option three we realized something: we're happy with what we've seen of Italy. We've had some amazing experiences and don't feel like we'll miss out on too much by booking it south. It was finally dismissed because it would add more distance (and more importantly, time) than either of us was willing to devote to southern Italy at this time of year. And so it was decided. South, south, south… Tunisia calls.
Heading out of Salerno we were struck by how the Amalfi coast really is a tiny little touristy haven of expensive, picturesque seaside towns, surrounded on all sides by everyday grunge. It's hard to imagine when you're in Positano or Amalfi that just a few kilometers down the road, the pricey ceramic shops, quaint fruit stands, and lovely churches are all gone, and once again there are piles of litter, ramshackle houses, and a general feeling of disrepair. We didn't mind. In fact, we were a little relieved to have some flat, uninhabited riding ahead of us.
The further we headed down the coast the more rural our surroundings became. Almost all of the shops and cafes were shut, their metal gates pulled down like closed garage doors and locked with large padlocks. As we hungrily searched for a grocery store, we reassured ourselves that the people who lived here had to eat somehow! And yet everything was closed. It was a little unnerving. It was even more surreal when we passed a very fancy hotel with a bowler-hat-wearing bellhop waiting outside under an umbrella. For whom was this man paid to wait? When would some random wealthy person come driving through this barren town and decide to stop?
When our road left the oceanfront and took a turn inland up some wooded mountains, things really started to look different. Sort of "old world". We even passed an old woman wearing a flowered headscarf who smiled a toothless smile at us when we waved. A random crumbling stone wall followed our route for a little while, and we wondered about who built it and why. Had it been the wall surrounding a small village? Was it the foundation for a castle? We never did find out.
Finally we found a tiny little shop—the only one in many kilometers open past tourist season, and more importantly, on Sunday. It was a small fruit and vegetable shop run by a friendly old man. As he bagged a huge bunch of purple grapes for us, he handed over a few to munch on for free and then successfully talked us into buying a hefty bag of local buffalo mozzarella (not that that we were hard to convince!). We've seen signs everywhere for buffalo mozzarella (supposedly the best), but have seen a total of two buffalo. Either there are many more hidden elsewhere, or those two produce a LOT of milk! Our shop owner wished us luck and we cycled off into drizzling rain.
Food purchased, we had everything we needed to set up camp for the night. The tricky part was finding a level place to camp while cycling in the mountains. Finally as the sun was beginning to set, Tyler spotted a tiny piece of flat land surrounded by steep hills overlooking the ocean. We barely had enough space for our tent, and our bikes we leaned up against trees to prevent them from slipping down the pine-needle covered hill.
Somewhere nearby, for reasons unknown, a village held a fireworks show. As golden explosions lit up the dark sky, Tyler cooked up some noodles and melted some of our buffalo mozzarella for a delicious makeshift Italian mac'n'cheese.