Riding the South of Italy - from Catania to Rome
Mai 2018
One, two, no, three years have gone by since my last bike ride of any notable length. That was Munich to Merano and back in 2015. And even that trip, epic though it was with the crossing of the Timmelsjoch and the Stelvio Pass, it was only four days of riding. This time, I had seven days, precisely, and the plan was to measure up Italy from its southernmost shores in Sicily to the Alps in the North. Exploring the map from the convenient vantage point of my couch, hot liquid in hand, I felt no reason to doubt that 1,800 km in 7 days was entirely feasible. How very silly.
Day 1: Hi and Bye, Sicily
The track on google maps
There is something very special about the first part of such journeys. Home is a good place to be. It has its conveniences, its predictable sources of joy, and enough regularity that the mind can, with impunity, reach beyond the here and the now. It's a pretty controlled environment, a laboratory almost. Part of me, and it could be the most rational part, is reluctant to step out of this world of pleasant routine. What's to be gained other than a whole lot of uncertainty. Where will I be tonight? Will my bike arrive in one piece, or two? What if...? And who am I, really? By the time the plane reaches cruising altitude, the perspective has changed. The mind no longer clings to things past, much less to things in the near future. I have no idea where I'll wake up tomorrow but it doesn't matter. We'll just see. From now on, life's happening in the moment, and with it comes a sense of freedom, of simplicity, and of immeasurable joy.
It was a short morning flight to Catania. The bike travelled, as always, in its own standard cardboard box, along with copious amounts of cashewnut cream, sun lotion and any other stuff that I couldn't take on board. And as often happens, whereas the box arrives badly damaged, the bike looks even more gorgeous than before. Greeted with Sicilian hospitality and loaded with Arancini, I set off in the early afternoon towards Messina. It would have been a fairly leisurely ride had it not been for a very strong and unseasonably chilly head wind. I take the SS114 along the coast, which is the shortest road to Messina. One could, of course, go around the Etna on the other side but that would involve a lot of climbing and many more kilometers, nigh-impossible to make it to Messina in a half-day. The coastal road is not particularly scenic, and everyone I talk to is quick to point out that I am cycling in the wrong direction because the region South of Catania is so much prettier. And indeed, the only picturesque place is the coastal town Taormina half-way between Catania and Messina. It's a good place to stop for a coffee before the final slog to Messina.
Postcard view onto the beachy parts of Taormina from the Ristorante Villa Antonio.
The wind today blows parallel to the coast. So instead of a fresh sea breeze, the air is filled with the strong smell of Diesel exhausts, even when there are no cars anywhere near me. I have my first encounter with those oddly shaped cobble stones that pave many of the city centers, not only in Sicily but further North in Campania and Calabria as well. Easily negotiable with a car, they are a cyclist's nightmare and routinely make me come to a near stand-still. Five hours and 110 energy-sapping kilometers later as the sun begins to set, I finally reach Messina. In the distance, one can see the rugged silhouette of the Calabrian coast. But I shall not think of tomorrow. Instead I find myself a B&B for the night, and then some pasta and local wine to wind down.
Day 2: On the SS18 through Calabria
The track on google maps
The strait of Messina is only around 8km wide, that's half an hour by boat. I much prefer having breakfast than to take the first ferry of the day, so by the time my ride gets under way, it's almost 10 in the morning.
The road on the Italian mainland is the Strada statale 18, or SS18. It's a long one, carrying its name all the way to Naples, 535km down the road. My couch estimate would have been two committed day rides. There and then, I didn't care. Maybe three, perhaps even four. Let's just cycle on. The road stays, for most parts, close to the coast. Being much more varied than the road the day before, it's fast and fun to ride. In the morning, much of it lies in the shade.
View back across Bagnara Calabra towards Sicily.
The first 30km or so are a nice warm-up before reaching Bagnara Calabra where the road suddenly heads up and inland through a series of switchbacks until you see the coast no longer. The road keeps rising albeit much more gently to almost 500m above sea level, before a long and fast descent almost all the way back down to sea level at Gioia Tauro.
What's to come next proved to be the hardest part. On the map the next twenty kilometers suggest rolling terrain. In reality, it's pretty much one long climb starting gently but getting steeper the deeper you get into it. It's only 400m of climbing, make it 450m, but it's early afternoon, the heat is on and shade is scarce. Thinking that the descent would be just one bend away, I make the mistake and keep pushing hard, going well into the red, until the tank is empty. A little traffic island with a patch of green and a little tree affords much needed shade. To me, at that moment, it's anything but a traffic island, it's a piece of paradise. An hour of siesta ensues and it is here that I first discover a new recipe that would treat my ills: Corny's Haferkraft bars dipped deep into raw cashew nut cream. The cream is just pure nuts, mostly fat and protein, no sugars, at a whopping 700 kcal per 100g - pure fat has 900 kcal. The bar has the sugars, long-chain carbs and much needed chocolate. The taste is divine and if you dip the bar deep enough, you can get 1000 kcal from one serving. The whole thing takes a while to enter the bloodstream but when it does, everything seems possible again. Two days to Rome anyone?
Looks innocent, doesn't it.
A few more meters of climbing and at just above 500m altitude, after Vibo Valentia, the gradient eases and the road finally dips and leads back to sea level. What follows is a seemingly unnending flat section past greenhouses, garden centers and, out of nowhere, an airport - not any airport mind you, the "Aeroporto Internazionale di Lamezia Terme", which connects Calabria with the rest of Europe. Where the plain ends lies Lamezia Terme, and North of it rolling hills rise. The SS18 skirts Lamezia in the South, and by swinging West to the coast avoids the hills altogether. From now on and for the next 160km the road won't leave the coast. 40km in and you get to Amantea, a town large enough to find a bed, and plenty of cafés for a lazy morning.
Day 3: Amantea to Praia a Mare
The track on google maps
Those first two rides of more than 100km, in the heat and with luggage, put considerably more stress on the body than the much shorter training rides I do back home. There is a training effect no doubt, but over the first two days the sense of exhaustion easily masks any gain in strength or stamina. I therefore usually try to rest on the third day and only do a local ride without rucksack. There's a good chance of rain the next day. Riding in the rain doesn't help recovery, so there's one more reason to stay put. I book myself in for two nights but the next day starts clear and I am back on the bike in the afternoon. The route ahead looked like an uninspiring, 100km drag up the coast, with little in terms of views or pretty villages, let alone descents. Why not get it out of the way while the good weather lasts!
It turned worse soon after setting off. The rain is moderate and once you are wet, it isn't so bad anyway. But there are also plenty of tunnels, that pesky headwind, and a lot of heavy truck traffic. The coastline is dead straight, but the road does occasionally swing inland. Every time it does, there is usually a punchy climb in store for you. Some of them are in poorly-lit tunnels. And outside the tunnels, the scenic value is staggeringly low. A better option, if time is not important, would be the more mountainous route via Cosenza or even through the Parco Nazionale della Sila further East.
The sun's already set, so I veer off the main road and taking in the pretty view over the bay with Dino island, and plunge down to Praia a Mare for the night. The city, narrowly stretched out along the coast, may come to life during the tourist season. Now, in early May, the city resembles a ghost town. I can't wait to get going the next morning.
Praia a Mare with the mountains of the Parco Nazionale del Cilento in the background.
Day 4: And then there was rain
The day begins with a steep climb out of town, one that has seen a fair share of bike races including this year's Giro d'Italia. Back on the SS18, the road for the next 20km is fun to ride. The coastline is more rugged and the road follows it from high above, occassionally dropping down to a small village by the sea before climbing back up.
Light rain starts, then stops. There are more low-hanging clouds ahead but in Policastro Bussentino the road leaves the coast rising gently at first as we head inland towards the Parco Nazionale del Cilento. The darkest patches of sky are now behind me. May be I am lucky. The road is narrow and winds its way up through dense forest. It's a long climb up to 600m above sea level with one village along the way, then a fast descent on the other side. Once over the crest, the coast suddenly feels a thousand miles away. In fact, it feels extremely remote here. There is virtually no traffic - most cars take the fast SP430 that cuts through to Vallo della Lucania through a series of tunnels - and villages are few and far between. Other cyclists? None. And then, just after climbing out of a small village, the floodgates finally open. It's water everywhere, from all sides, gushing and gustling, spraying off the wheels and the skin. It's enjoyable only up to a point. After all, it's not particularly warm up here, barely 20 degrees if that. In the next mountain hamlet of Alfano, around 1,000 inhabitants on a good day, I find a bar where the entire village seems to have gathered for shelter, bizarrely half of them Swiss as Alfano is twin town of Zermatt. My master plan is to wait till the worst is over. Two long hours later the rain has finally reduced to a drizzle. People begin to leave, and I too decide to continue.
Barely past a few bends, the rain comes back with a vengeance, heavier than before and within a minute I am soaked. Since my cycling attire is only two pieces - barring the socks - this is not so bad, as long as the content of my rucksack stays dry. Through the rain and the mist, one can barely make out the road, let alone its surface. Potholes and cracks are all flooded. My speed drops but it's mostly uphill anyway. Another bar somewhere. I look as if I have just been for a swim and am looked upon as a curiosity but also, thankfully, with mercy. I enquire for a place to stay and the owner calls a guesthouse a few kilometers away. What relief to learn that they still have a room, albeit small and without breakfast. Who cares as long as they have heating and a shower. As the deal is agreed, there is thunder in the distance. I am getting cold, so I'd rather just get going. A few more kilometers in a strange state, a mixture of relief and mild disappointment, and the village of Cuccaro Vetere comes into view and with it my place for the night. I spread the garments across the room, switch on the heating and take the longest shower of my life. I am in bed by nine, take one of those Haferkraft cure-all chocolate oat bars, and think of nothing else but how to make sure I'll recover well and come out of this night stronger.
Day 5: Out of the clouds to Gaiano
The track on google maps
What bliss then to be woken up by the sun the next morning. The air is clear and fresh as if after a heavy rain. A few clouds still hug the slopes, mere leftovers from yesterday. I realise with immense relief that my body seems to have coped well, and shift my clothes to the outside and into the sun. I long to be back on the road, to get some caffeine and calories. The air in the shade is still cold, and my short-sleeve jersey still moist from yesterday. That it's mostly downhill doesn't help. It is only half an hour later when I settle in a roadside café at Lucania with croissants piled up high and wide on my plate, that mind and body regain some sort of equilibrium.
Morning after the rain deep in the Parco Nazionale del Cilento
Vallo della Lucania sits right on the edge of the National Park, and about halfway between the point where I left the coast yesterday and Paestum in the North West, where the mountains give way to plains that extend all the way North to Salerno. By car it's a swift ride to Paestum, but the SP430 does not admit bicycles, so it's back onto the SS18, which descends fast out of Lucania and then over the next 20km takes a nice, rolling course towards some reservoir. What a surprise then that the road, instead of following broadly the same valley taken by the SP430 suddenly begins to climb out of said valley, from 60m to 380m over 5.5km until you crest at Rutino. From there it's a few more kilometers up to 500m before a long descent down to the coast, with spectacular views to the distant Monti Lattari, a compact mountain range separating Salerno and the whole of the Amalfi coast from Naples. I realise with some satisfaction that I manage to sustain a good pace at the climb up to Rutino. The gain in strength is remarkable. Back on the plains, it's a very fast 50km ride on the SS18 into Salerno. It's 4pm and siesta time, but a few pizzerias are open. I settle for a huge pizza, a coke (I have one every few years, usually on such occasions), and imagine the rest of the day. I didn't want to go through, or even close to, Naples, because the area is pretty flat and possibly also quite busy. It would be much more exciting to venture into the hills North of Salerno and from there into the heartland of the Appenins. Besides, there was a nice-looking Agriturismo in the hills only 30km away, and much farther I would not be able to go today anyway. Off we go.
It's a fast ride, gently uphill, on the SS88 out of town and into a busy valley with far too many roads all going in the same direction. The climb out of said valley and up to Gaiano is a proper ramp with sections of over 16% and an average of 11% over one kilometer. I begin to wonder how I'd handle the descent because my brake pads had already been badly worn prior to the trip. I arrive in Gaiano in a sweat, find my way to the Agriturismo Biologico, which presents itself as fenced area with a huge gate and no buildings in sight. I buzz and, after the gate finally opens, cycle along the driveway until I see a tall, stern-looking gentleman approaching. 'You must be Peter?' asks he. 'Heck no. I am not Peter. I don't even have a reservation', anxious to hear how he would take that. 'I am afraid, we are fully booked', he replies with professional demeanour. I am convinced that he's wrong, unknowingly wrong. It simply wouldn't feel right to not stay at this place. I make no sign of retreating. Instead, I look at him with a sort of quiet intensity, trying to persuade him, somehow, perhaps subliminally, that it just can't be. A few seconds pass in silence, then his countenance changes. A sort of mellowing. 'Well, let me see. There was this Indian couple...I think they left one day earlier. Let me see. Come along!'.
The smile stays with me for the rest of the evening, and beyond. Even today it gives me a shiver when I think back to that short moment of suspense and its happy resolution.
View towards Vesuvius from the Agriturismo Biologico Barone Antonio Negri di Gaiano.
Day 6: Gaiano to Venafro
The track on google maps
I wake up early. The sun is already out and the view from the room extends all the way across to the Vesuvius. It's going to be a fine day and I am brimming with excitement - and impatience because breakfast isn't served till 9. I make it worth the wait and stock up like there was no tomorrow. After all, I had pretty much run out of cashew nut and corny haferkrafts. Fully loaded and slightly sedated from the glut, I take on the sharp descent to Penta with my worn-out brakes. It's metal on metal, almost, but I reach the valley in fine fettle. Bike and body now work together perfectly, as if the bike had become a natural extension of my body. It really is a wonderful sensation when this connection is finally made. Cycling is no more toils and travails. It's easily the most best thing in the world. Bring on the day.
I didn't have a precise idea where I wanted to be by the end of the day, somewhere that would get me within a day's distance to Rome. Which valley or village it would be, I had no idea. They all sounded equally beautiful. The first goal of the day is Avellino. It's 40km from Gaiano and mostly uphill. It's a fun ride and the five hair-pins that lift you out of the valley after the village of Piano are sheer joy. For the first time, I meet other cyclists, dozens of them, many of them well past adulthood and going strong. It's a fast run-in to Avellino through fast-changing, rolling country-side. The road is the SP88, a much more quiet country lane. It's really on such roads that one would wish to travel if mileage is secondary.
After an hour of fast-riding, getting into Avellino's grid-locked city center with its cobble-stones and one-way roads is like hitting a wall. How to get out of town towards Benevento is anyone's guess. The locals are eager to help but mostly have no clue. The first person opines I need to go back where I come from so as to get onto the ring road (where bikes are not normally seen), another shrugs. My mood darkens. I want to leave the city so quickly, so badly. It's only when I see signs for Tufo, half an hour later, that my confidence is restored and I switch back to cruising speed. The road now is the SS371 and for a strada statale, it's as narrow as it gets. From Tufo it's gently downhill along the verdant valley of the Fiume Sabato with its pretty patchwork of pastures, forests, and a smattering of old stone houses. Scenically, this is been one of the highlights of the trip.
The run-in to Benevento is fast but once the valley broadens there is less shade. Because I am so close to my second waypoint for today, I push too hard and reach the city center exhausted. I didn't even realise that maybe, just maybe, getting right into the city center is a bad idea. Benevento is much bigger than Avellino with twice as many inhabitants. To find your way through it is more complicated, by several orders of magnitude. And it's midday and getting hotter. I figure out that the SS372 is heading the right way, towards Campobasso. Once I get there, however, I learn, in a state of growing exasperation, that bikes are not allowed. Not being familiar with the extent to which law is actually enforced in Campania, I give in and take a small, unassuming track that runs parallel to the highway. I don't have much hope that it ever matures into a fully rideable road, and it's so close to the motorway, one cannot resolve it on Google maps, not in blazing sunlight anyway. I feel so very lucky when it's finally clear that, if only I persevere for a few more kilometers, this very road, Contrada Fasanella, would become the SP106 that would get me to Telese Terme along the most scenic route, through vinyards, past mountains, and with hardly any traffic at all. That the road itself is in horrible state of disrepair, at least on the right side, I don't mind. We are back at cruising speed, the sun's out, life is beautiful, and there's plenty of space on the left side.
After quick food stops at Telese Terme and Piedimonte Matese, the latter sitting beautifully at the foot of the Parco Nazionale del Matese, it's three more hours of fast riding, with glorious views across the plain towards the hills along the coast. The worst of the heat had gone, the rush-hour traffic was subsiding and I felt I could go on till Munich. I was now well North of Naples and making good progress towards Rome. But then, before I know it, it's sunset and I need to find a place for the night. There's no village until Venafro, another 45km from Matese.
It's a long finishing straight into Venafro. I swing into the driveway of the first hotel, even before we are in town. Had it not been so late, I would have searched for something nicer in town, but a bed and some food was all I needed. It's been the longest stage today with 160km and I look forward to a good night sleep. No sooner had I switched off the lights than the first midge made itself heard. I am mostly vegetarian in my diet and generally prefer to see most creatures alive. Midges belong to a gray area, a twilight zone if you will. I spend the next next two hours, well into the next day, exterminating my room's entire mosquito population by expertly flinging bath towels against the room's ceiling, waiting in the darkness for the next one to leave its hiding place and repeating the ritual over and over. It's a sad ordeal but after a dozen or so kills, the buzzing noise is no more. I fall asleep with no second thoughts.
Day 7: Venafro to Frascati
The track on google maps
A few more kilometers after Venafro and the valley ends. The only exit is through a tunnel on the SS6, or a more strenuous climb up the ancient road. On my way out, I ask one of the porters whether bikes are allowed and how long it is. 'Oh, no problem. It's just 100m, maybe 150m.' says he assuringly. It turned out to be just shy of one kilometer. Distances shrink when you are in a car. Luckily it's slightly downhill so I can take it on at high speed. The other side feels a world apart. Just a few seconds ago, we were in a tiny valley, lush and verdant, sheltered by the surrounding hills to the point of being almost idyllic. On the other side, the views are vast. The plain beneath us, punctuated here and there with hills, volcanoes and smaller mountain ranges, extends all the way to Rome, and then further. We are back in the world. The mountain we had just traversed falls off all the way down, almost to sea level, from 300m down to 80m. The descent on the SS6 is all straight and fast. What a start to the day.
I follow the SR6 via Caserta, Arce, Frosinone, and then Colleferro Scalo - already within a day's march from Rome. The most picturesque place is probably Arce where I stop for a late breakfast in a cafe on the side of the road. Much of the route is straight and uneventful. There are no major climbs - if they are ever steep, they are very short. Except for the end. From Colleferro, a quiet country road leads up, via Artena and Macere, into the Alban Hills, or Monti Albani, the leftovers of a now quiescent volcanic complex with calderas and lakes just outside of Rome. The climb up to the rim is one or two kilometers long and pretty steep with thick forest on either side. Ladies in various poses, with more make-up than clothes, are dotted along the side of the road, each with her own plastic chair. Instead of stopping, my legs spin faster and when I crest, I won't forget the flush of gratification, and gratitude, knowing that I have made it. From here it's all downhill to Rome, if that's where I wanted to stay. I see a sign to Frascati. The name has a nice ring to it and I follow the sign. The place is magical: the architecture, the cobble-stoned streets, the artesanal shops at every corner, and the views across Rome all the way to the sea. I find an amazing place to stay, the Gente di Notte, don my cycling attire and wind down in the colourful streets of the city. If I start my second part of the trip in Frascati, it'll be from here.
From Rome, it's back home via regional trains. It takes two days and many more trains, with a stop-over in Verona - or was it Bologna? I am still in a daze. I was quietly hoping I could get further North. But ending the trip in Rome means I can easily pick it up again. "From Frascati to somewhere in the Alps" is planned for September.