"Please don't be raining please don't be raining please don't be raining"… I repeated over and over while waiting for Tyler to come back from a quick trip outside to check the weather this morning. To my relief, he returned with a smile: lots of dark clouds, but no rain. YESSSS! We packed our bikes, bundled up in many, many layers, preparing for the day of descending ahead of us, and left the odd town of Tricarico.
Not too far down the mountains, we passed a pair of electrical workers ratcheting up a power line. Their clawed shoes were really impressive! They smiled and waved, consenting happily to having their picture taken when Tyler asked.
The hills we zoomed down into were brilliantly green, a patchwork quilt of fields, reminiscent of Scotland and England. Everywhere we looked was a perfect free-camp waiting to happen. Even better, there was a slight but noticeable increase in the temperature as we descended! It was nearly 50°F!
"DID YOU SEE THAT COCKROACH!?" I shouted to Tyler as we flew by what looked like the biggest bug we'd seen yet. He whirled around, eager as ever to investigate an insect find. After a little unsure nudging with our shoes, we both had a good laugh when we discovered its true nature.
Near the end of our descent, we stopped by a small stream so Tyler could do some recording. We had to wait for a long time before he was able to capture a full minute without a car flying by.
After a mostly effortless ride full of speedy coasting, we arrived on the outskirts of the hilltop town of Matera, our destination for the day. It looked dull and unattractive, looming in the distance behind a series of steeply graded switchbacks. We almost opted to ride around it until we remembered that Potenza didn't look like much from afar either.
It took nearly an hour to haul our bikes into the city but when we arrived, we found ourselves in yet another classy Italian square surrounded on all sides by beautiful, paint-chipped terracotta buildings. Well worth the effort!
We were looking for potential cafes in which to spend an hour or two when I saw a sign pointing down some stairs entitled "Sassi". I vaguely recalled reading the Sassi were supposed to be cave dwellings, so we locked our bikes and walked down. Immediately we encountered an entire city which appeared to have been carved out of rock and built up from stone, just a few meters below and behind the "new" town!
We ambled through little alleyways with wide grins plastered on our faces, continuously saying "whaaa?" "whoooahh" and "this is so cooool!" Dark churches dotted the jumbled puzzle of buildings, and hundreds of staircases led to different levels of the maze, almost like an Escher drawing.
During our exploration, we met a friendly white dog who politely shook our hands. After we had been properly introduced, he stretched and then wandered off to explore the Sassi on his own, presumably in heaven in this veritable dog's playground!
We also spied a few elusive cats, perched on various crumbling walls and ledges.
After wandering around taking photos for awhile, we decided the town warranted further exploration. We both wanted to visit the "Torture Museum" we'd seen signs for, and I wanted to have a look inside some of the several small chapels which boasted housing well-preserved frescoes. We would find a free-camp and return to the city tomorrow.
Tyler had spotted a nearby area marked on the GPS as a very large park and he felt sure we'd find a good place there. With an hour before sunset, we descended out of Matera and headed six kilometers away. Sure enough, after one more series of switchbacks to climb (leading into the park) he found a secluded spot for us overlooking Matera.
As the skies darkened, the sun slipping into the horizon behind the city, we were overcome by the sight of the Sassi, lit up in the night. While Tyler made camp, I prepared our store-bought gnocchi with a homemade tomato sauce recipe I recently read about. A can of tomatoes, a hunk of butter and a half an onion somehow come together to be a really delicious marinara! I did not simmer for the full forty five minutes required, and it was still good.
With the glow of the Sassi faintly lighting our tent, we fell asleep amidst the rustling of our rain fly in the cold wind. Another successful day!