This is a story about artichokes and oranges, old friends, sleeping in strangers beds, tears and one wobbly road bike on a jaw dropping section of the Mediterranean.
It’s 9:16 pm on Sunday the 1st of march 2015 and I am laying in bed only a stones’ throw from the Mediterranean Sea in a small archeological town called Paestum in Southern Italy.
The past few days have been filled with downright life enriching experiences. At the beginning of last week, I sent out a few requests on the Couchsurfing website to stay with people in the amalfi coast region of Italy. I have done Couchsurfing in Italy, Canada, America, Ecuador and Spain in the past and always had a good experience (minus a few stories that don’t need any focus).
I got a few replies and let the destinations of the Couchsurfing houses determine my upcoming cycling adventure. I packed my little backpack last Thursday for a week away, and chucked in my bike lock, lycra, helmet and GPS. In the end my lightweight pack had to take on my laptop because I couldn’t finish a Uni media assignment before I left and have lugged my Mac across the countryside all in the name of some 10% that means something important somewhere in the real world.
I slept as much as I could on the late afternoon flight to Rome, and when I got there I immediately met three American exchange students who were spending the night in the airport before flying to Greece. We talked like old friends until we all passed out in strange positions, and I was rudely awoken when my arm fell out of my dream and off the string of chairs I had put together to sleep.
I blearily saw that my blah blah car from Rome to naples was just about to pull in, and I went and jumped into a white van with a complete stranger at 2am in the morning. The picture of safety. But hey, it was only 12 euros. The man grunted and smoked and scratched his balls and asked me ‘cash-money?’. I said yeah, in naples ok. I was feeling way too jumpy and alert, and forcing myself to stare at the eerily imposing yellow half moon rather than focusing on Pasquale’s infamous napolitan speed driving, and when we get off the highway and pulled into a closed petrol station, I said my death wishes.
He didn’t tell me what was going on, but I already knew that his friend was about to arrive and they would butcher me and throw me in the back of the van. The guy looked at me and said ‘cash money – Venti euros’. I knew I was about to die but I was still stubborn enough to say ‘no, you said 12 euros on blah blah car’. He said ‘aeropuerto difficult’or something to that affect, and I almost relented but then said I only had 16 euros with me.
Just as this was happening a car pulled up next to us and I accepted my fate, and two huge guys wrapped in leather got out and hugged each other. One hauled a suitcase to the van and jumped in, and then I was back on the highway with all limbs intact and with the big friendly giant wrapped in leather squished and smiling between myself and Mr Grumpy. The man in the middle was the second blah blah passenger and he spoke a bit of English, so I felt comfortable enough to fall asleep- but my pulse beat hard when I woke to see we were pulling into some chained warehouse, and my previous sinuous thoughts resurfaced like black chalk in my throat. The other passenger explained to me that Mr Grumpy is a courier. He delivered more suspicious looking packages to places along the way to naples and made a few dimes out of his two passengers in the dark of the Southern Italian mafia ridden coast.
I jumped out at the station in naples and leather man asked if I wanted to come back to his B&B at 4am in the morning to wait until my 6am train. I rathered to wander around the freezing station with all of the homeless people and pee stained walls. The time ticked and I tried to buy a ticket for sorrento with a 50 in the morning, but the guy didn’t have change and sort of flicked his hand as if to say, I’m not watching if you just go without one. I stood on the platform waiting while every single man just stared at me for being so out of place with my socks and thongs and helmet strapped to my backpack, and I literally covered my face with a shirt on the train and fell in and out of sleep for the ride to sorrento.
I woke to the laughs of school children playing cards and the safety of the sun, and I remembered the basic seats and yellow paint from the train because I was here before. In august 2012 I came to sorrento to go Couchsurfing with an Italian guy named luca who was studying tourism. We had a memorable few days riding around the Analfi coast on his moped and partying with Josie and Luis from home, eating chip pizzas with limoncello and walking the routes of the gods.
I remembered the exact place I had waited for him for at least 4 hours because I didn’t have a mobile phone during that 8 month travelling stint and Luca couldn’t contact me to say he was running late on a bus from Rome. And it happened again because this time I didn’t have wifi and I couldn’t see Luca, and my toes in socks and thongs were colder than they are ever supposed to be in Southern Italy but I could see snow on mount Vesuvius behind me so I walked into town to find internet and coffee and a chocolate crossoint.
Luca found me and we reunited for the third time in this life- we caught up in Sydney a few months ago because he was doing his tourism masters in Melbourne. We walked and talked on the way back to his place, and I thanked my lucky lucky lucky stars that I know this boy because he gave me free reign to use his dad’s specially crafted ultra light road bike for the week. He literally sent me this message a few weeks ago when I asked if there was any possibility of a bike:
‘So irony of destiniy my dad felt from the bike and broke 3 ribs and a finger ahi ahi, but i think that there will be no problems in u getting of of his bikes !’
So I scrapped all plans to see Ancient Rome (because it can wait) and had a night without sleep just to get to this precious coast line and get maximum cycling days. I passed out at his house for three hours and then we rolled the bike into town and bought a roll of sticky tape to wrap around the metal pole for the seat because Lucas dad is way taller than me and when the seat is lowered it swizzles lots.
Luca waved me off and by the top of the first super steep mountain out of Sorrento, I almost had the hang of the narrow wheeled speed bike and sticky taped swizzle seat. Listening to some chilled Coldplay, I rode in the light rain along the most amazing coastline I have ever seen in my entire life.
It’s the best on the Med, and I’m not even kidding. So if you haven’t been there yet then you better start thinking about going! Positano has the classic pastel houses dangling off the mountainside, framed by the overlapping silhouette of cliffs as far as the eye can see out to the water shimmering horizon. A road is carved straight through the middle of these jagged green mountains, and that’s what I had the pleasure of riding through for 50 kilometres.
I arrived in vietri sul mare in the late afternoon light, and found a cafe for a tall, creamy, ultra un-Italian coffee and the use of their wifi to let my first Couchsurfing host know I was in town.
Stephanie is an American artist who escaped to Italy two years ago with her German shepard Lulu and her black cat Spash. We talked for eternity over homemade banana cake and dog pats, then got jazzed up and walked all the way to Salerno for pizza and wine. We bar hopped a bit and had a jolly Russian guitarist play for us while we sat on an old couch outside with two Italian guys. When it was time to go home, I had sore feet from borrowing Stephanies shoes, and walked barefoot for a while but then spotted a car stopped on the road and asked if we could have a lift.
We jumped in the car to three crazy Italian women pointing and laughing and dancing and asking us to come to a fiesta with them. We said why not, and I forgot my sore feet and we went to a party 10 ks away that was super fancy and private and we drank wine and danced to the DJ and ate babas which are a to – die – for dessert soaked in rum. I remember at some stage Stephanie asked if it might be a swingers party. At 2am the three women on a mission grabbed their coats and dropped us back at our doorstep and I crashed after one of the longest and most random days in ages.
Lulu the lazy German shepard licked me into consciousness in the morning and I departed from Stephanie at noon, cycling with the wind through coastal flat towns that had nothing on the Sorrento to Salerno coast. The only cool thing about the start of the ride was that the wind was going with me in a serious way, and every cyclist I saw gave me a smile or a wink like ‘you go girl’.
I stopped a few times for directions and only got unreserved kindness from the Italians. It’s my fourth time here and I know I still have many more experiences to come in this rich country. Finally the mountains opened their arms, and I was suddenly looking up at the snow capped peaks and cycling from the sea to the snow in mere hours. I passed through smaller and sparser towns and the roads became rougher. I stopped for pizza in a rough cafe called Eboli, and chatted with the owner who had recently fallen through glass and had scratches with betadine all over his face and arms. Three school boys were there as well, and we perched at the entrance looking at the roundabout with black clouds bubbling on the overhanging mountains to the left and tights curls of white clouded perfection to the left over the sea.
The wind shot me like an arrow 60km uphill yesterday, and I was at 700m above sea level in Sicignano degli Alburni by 430pm. The wind suddenly felt cool against my skin when I pulled up in the piazza of this tiny tiny town with an imposing castle standing at the top.
From a red face I smiled at a gaggle of old men and said the name Lucio Scala, my second Couchsurfing host for the adventure. They all nodded and pointed to some younger boys who led me to his house because it’s just the sort of town where everyone knows each other. Of course they know Lucio though, he is a proper character residing on planet earth, and he has been here for his entire 67 years.
He waved at me from the road as he stood waiting with arms flailing,back arched right back and a a cigarette dangling from his smile and a perfectly beaten black beret on his head. I have never seen anything more Italian than this man, and this statement was continually reinforced throughout my stay. He started with a grand tour of his little house, pointing at absolutely everything and telling me it’s international origin. All of the couchsurfers leave something, and I wrote a message and put it inside my red, one year old Snowgum drink bottle to add to his collection. It was starting to get mould inside so even though it’s a pretty sentimental thing to give, it was probably a health- smart idea to part with it.
He had hats from Korea and wine from France, the flag from Argentina and poems from Peru, a mug from American and knick knacks from Finland, kangaroo road signs and tea towels from Australia. Then he showed me his lighter collection and family tree folders, and continually said ‘Jessica, let me tell you one thing – my house is your house, okay?’ We dined on chilli pasta and red wine followed by a spread of soft mozzarella, shaved meats and mushrooms collected by Lucio, then walked through town while he endlessly smoked and the Italian and the Australian communicated purely in Spanish because neither spoke the others native language. This kept our conversations pretty simple, but when Lucio met with anyone in the street, he would have a big greeting and as we were walking away he would say, oh that’s my nephew/brother/sister/niece/cousin. You can’t get much more local than this guy.
I slept in his bed and he slept on the couch and in the morning we checked out the castle. He was devestated that I had to leave and continuously asked me to return. On my way out, Lucio gave me a DVD of the history of the area, a red rain jacket, a massive jar of home pickled mushrooms, a jar of artichoke cream, 1.5 litres of bubbly water to replace my bottle, 3 oranges and packets of biscuits and cake to take with me. I rode away about to burst under the weight of my backpack, but I could hardly say no to the man who continuously told me ‘mi casa es tu casa’. Tonight when I ate the mushrooms with my Couchsurfing host Simone, he told me they are the highest grade, and I wasn’t surprised a bit. My stay with Lucio was wacky and awesome, and just to let everyone know, he wants you all to visit!
I set off down the mountain in the glorious sun and twisted and turned back towards the vast flats leading to the sea. I rode with a heavy heart at one stage today, and thought of nana lots. She is doing fine, but I feel like I have abandoned her by living in Europe and having adventures without family and friends. Uncontrollable tears ran down my face, and I tried not to crash into potholes, when all of a sudden there were hang gliders floating over my head and landing into the paddock just next to me. I dropped the bike and stood to watch the beautiful scene. In a cleansing mass of years, I smiled for life and death and time and pain and happiness and loss and love. I wish someone could come and do all of these things with me, but I know it is meant to be this way for now and everything happens for a reason. I went through more emotions while the wind was against me and the potholes made me ride in the middle of the road.
Fields of yellow flowers framed the road, and soon I was in Paestum, where my next Couchsurfing host lived. As I rolled into town I saw some old stone remnants and lots of cars and cafés and even a museum. I had just arrived in one of the main archeological sites in Italy and I didn’t even know. Patisserie-owning, thirty-something Simone rode into town on his retro red bike and we went into the museum which is normally 10 euros but it’s free on a Sunday. It turns out that these ancient ruins are from the Greeks when they inhabited the place for 500 years in 1400 BC. We went to explore the ruins and I was literally blown away by their size and preservation. We strolled under the perfect wispy sky and white moon and then checked out the museum again for a more in depth global history lesson.
When dusk came, we watched the burning pink sunset from the beach and then rode along the shore to Simone’s house. Over a dinner of artichoke cream on biscuits, pickled mushrooms, salad greens, oranges, dates and cheese, Simone and I had a great casual chat in broken English. He is the opposite in intensity to Lucio. He told me I am lucky because he normally makes people pay to stay here through Air BnB, and then we went downstairs to his patisserie to play darts, which I am not so lucky with.
I have no idea what is in store for tomorrow.