15.07.2011 - 20.07.2011
The traghetto to Italy from Croatia took eight hours, depositing us in Bari just as the sun was starting to set. We were both ridiculously excited about arriving in Italy - the country that I grew up in - because of the food, the warm blooded people and the fact that finally we would be able to communicate in the native language. However in our enthusiasm we had overlooked the fact that prices would be considerably higher once we reached mainland Europe which was a rude awakening when we tried to find somewhere to stay on our first night.
Initially we had thought we would need to stay in Bari for two nights at least to get Rob's bike fixed. This was becoming urgent as by this stage he had cycled for close to 300 km with three spokes missing. When were directed to the street that runs paralell to the station for the cheapest hotels it turned out that they were all 70 Euros a night. Oh dear. After about half an hour we found a hotel on via dei Rossi for 60 Euros where we were told politely (but firmly) that we would not be able to find anything cheaper in the city of Bari. We told him if that was true then we would be back. We spent the next 2 hours circling the city by bike. We stumbled across "Santa Claus" hostel which we were excited about. Good old St Nick was clearly not feeling benevolent towards cyclists as we were brusquely told that to stay in a mixed dorm would be 40 Euros a night (it said 37 on the notice above the door but apparently that is only if you book over the internet!) and that we could not take our bikes inside, although he did say if you leave them outside they won't be there tomorrow. So he clearly recognised our predicament but despite pleading (it was 9.30 at night by now) and promises to leave early in the morning he would not budge on the bikes. This is the first time in almost 10 months through all the countries we have travelled in that a hostel or hotel has refused to let us take the bikes inside. Slightly ironic as on the door they boasted their environmental credentials asking guests to knock rather than ring the bell but happy to be distinctly unhelpful to potential guests arriving on petrol free transport.
So tail between our legs we returned to the hotel on Via dei Rossi where taking pity on us he agreed to give us the room for 50 Euros. Never the less if this is the going rate in Italy then it looks like it is going to be camping all the way back to London. Happily the next day we found a bike repair shop that managed to replace the spokes so we wouldn't need to stay in Bari another night - not that we didn't like the city, quite the opposite, it was a really refreshing change after Dubrovnik as it was tourist free so we felt like we were in a 'lived in' city rather than one that was buckling under the strain of tourists. We escaped the heat through the labyrinthine cobbled streets of the old town discovering salumerias and gelaterias on most corners and, to Rob's delight, old women in the street making orrecchiete pasta by hand.
Once the heat of the day had passed we decided to head up the coast about 30 km to stay at a campsite that was marked on our map close to Bisceglie. For most of the way we took the coastal road which was quiet but the beaches were not - so we enjoyed some comedy scenery of italians huddled together like penguins on craggy rocks to soak up the sun.
Eventually when we made it to the campsite we were told that it would cost 30 Euros to camp (3 time what we were paying in Turkey and Greece and over double what we paid in Croatia). To our indignation we discovered that 4 Euros of the charge is the cost of the bikes - the same cost as a car. When we queried whether all the caravans that had bikes strapped on the back were paying for their bikes too we were told it was only the form of transport that you arrived on that you had to pay for. Hmmm, the second establishment in a row that did not seem to be overly enamoured with cyclists. Purely on principle, despite the fact that it was 7.30pm and there were no other campsites for about 30 km we decided to leave in search of other options. Happily these presented themselves within half an hour of cycling in the form of a large vineyard where our expedition tent fitted snugly beneath the canopy.
Up with the sun we were on our bikes before 6.20am, before the sprinklers started and started cycling through the arid rural countryside in Puglia. The cycling was less picturesque than we were expecting - lots of farmland with very few villages scattered in between. In contrast to most of the countries we have cycled through - the towns and villages were the highlights. The temperature was soaring in the mid thirties so we frequently stopped at bars to get our caffe and cornetto fix standing 'al banco' where the barman and the regulars would take an enthusiastic interest in where we were cycling and proceed to argue vociferously with each other in Barese, which was so thick it might as well have been another language, about which was the best way for us to cycle. A barista in Cerignola, our first stop of the day, was absolutely insistent that we should visit Bovino, a historic village up on a hill. It was such a small diversion to the route that we decided to follow his advice. This turned out to be one of the biggest mistakes of the trip so far as not only was the climb punishing (over 350 metres in sweltering heat) and the villagers there were some of the least friendly we have met but my GPS got stolen off our table at lunch so the rest of our afternoon there was spent waiting for the police office to reopen after a 4 hour siesta so that I could make a 'denuncia' to an extremely bored and unhelpful police officer. To add insult to injury the only way out of Bovino was to retrace our steps back down the hill we had just struggled up. Morosely we searched for a wild camping spot along the river with the light fading fast but all the land was fenced off. We reached a hotel in the middle of nowhere where mercifully the owner took pity on us when we said we couldn't afford the hefty price tag of 50 Euros for a room and he let us camp in the woodland he owned next door. His wife seemed to be none to pleased by this and when we asked if we could have a shower she agreed and then charged us 15 Euros. Hrrumph.
We left the next morning feeling a little bit downtrodden as although the scenery was spectacular and Italy was already proving to be a cyclists paradise a lot of our encounters were lacking the warmth we had experienced through Turkey, Greece and the Balkans. The emerging rule that we have discovered seems to be that the more people have or the wealthier they are, the less they are willing to give. In Albania for instance we found that however little people have they are happy to share it with you - if they have a loaf of bread they will give you half. But in a couple of places in Italy just asking to use the toilet in bars where we hadn't bought a drink elicited funny looks or they made it clear that they were doing you a real favour.
Happily in the next couple of days things improved as we left Puglia and arrived in Campagna, home to buffalo mozzarella. Finally we started experiencing the warmth and generosity of italians that we had been expecting and hoping for with people coming up to us asking about a journey or giving us free coffees in a restaurant in Benevento for extra energy to send us on our way.
We camped at a beautiful little spot near Lake Telese where a family let us camp on their land and brought us pasta carefully wrapped up in foil.
We had decided that we were going to try and get to Rome on 20th July - my dad's birthday - as a surprise, so the next 2 days we were cycling at full tilt and managed to cover about 280km (an estimate as we were now without the GPS - sob!). Cycling to Rome was not the traffic nightmare we had anticipated as we stuck to the small coast roads the whole way, experiencing the strange sensation of approaching my old home by bicycle for the first time (and the first time I had been back to Rome at all for 4 years). We wobbled up to the front door of "Casa Ware" where my surprised father opened the door to sweaty sticky and exhausted cyclists delighted to have arrived at my old home in Rome.