Thursday, November 24, 2016

Tour of Southern Italy


Ride Report
September 2016

Trigger warnings: 11 fantastic days on the bikes in southern Italy! Outstanding views! Gratuitous bike porn! Fantastic food! Open containers! You may need a double expresso to get all the way through this post!

In 2005 we considered taking the Ciclismo Classico (CC) Ride Across Italy for our 25th Anniversary. We had seen great reviews about the route and the tour company. Alas, the offered dates would not work due to scheduling conflicts with the kid's schedule, so we ended up taking their Tour de France trip, and had a blast!

We should do that Italy trip!
With the AECOM merger fully in the rear-view mirror, we were looking for a long vacation with the bikes. Debby said, "we should do that Italy trip." We hopped on the CC website and noted a new and longer tour across southern Italy. The dates worked perfectly (September is a 5-week fiscal month), perfect for a 2+ week vacation and we were off!

Pre-ride

The tour started in Polignano al Mare, about 100 kilometers south of Bari on the Adriatic coast of southern Italy. We decided to spend two nights before the tour to assemble the bikes, adjust to the time change, and tour Polignano and Bari.
Arriving at FCO airport in Rome
Arriving in Rome, we had 5 hours before the train to Bari departed, so we checked the bags at the train station and set out on foot for a little sightseeing in Rome. We grabbed a tourist map at the train station and noted that the Colosseo was only a few kilometers away, so we headed that direction.
We found it!
The place was thick with tourists, so we skipped the lines and found an outdoor cafe across the street to admire the view, and enjoyed a nice lunch. We looped back on the Via del Fori Imperialli to the train station. We retrieved our bags, found the train, and arrived in Bari about 8pm. There were no cabs at the station, but Salvatore (an outlaw cabbie) offered to drive us to Polignano. He had a Ford station wagon that would hold the bike boxes, we settled on 80 euros for the fare, and were on our way. He had no idea where the hotel was, but I dialed them up and he got directions from the desk staff. We arrived at 9, checked in and had our first of many wonderful meals at the hotel.

We planed to assemble the bikes and take the train back to Bari and ride back for a shakedown ride, but with a steady morning rain, we decided to go on foot into the old town of Polignano.
From our hotel, old town in the background
Typical alley in Polignano
A wedding was happening in the church on the main square
We spent the day wandering around old town under scattered rain showers following the tourist walking tour. A wedding was in progress, so we paused in the square and waited for the newlyweds and wedding party to empty into the square. We found an outdoor cafe, with an awning and enjoyed a late afternoon lunch. Returning to the square, the party was still going!

Day 1 - Polignano

The tour officially started at lunch, so after breakfast, I headed to the garage to assemble our bikes. I met our CC guides, Enrico and Henrick, who were assembling the rental bikes for the rest of the tour guests (11 guests, 2 guides).
Debby and Richard inspecting the bikes
The day's ride was a short shakedown ride (16 miles) for the guests to get acquainted with their bikes and ride in a CC group.
Regroup #1 on the way to Conversano

Castle at Conversano
We arrived at Conversano to find Henrick and the CC van waiting in the square with snacks, water, and supplies. Enrico shared stories of the history of the castle and some of its more eccentric inhabitants. One had a penchant for target practice with his hunting rifle from the top windows. One problem; he used his subjects as targets in the square! Lucky for us, that was hundreds of years ago. We left the square without incident and returned to the hotel!
Enrico preparing a toast prior to the trip brief
Before heading into town for dinner, Enrico provided an overview of the trip, some additional 'rules of the road,' and a celebratory toast with sparkling wine!
Back into Old Town for another fantastic meal!
Day 1 Route

Day 2 - Alberobello

Rolling narrow roads through a strange fantasy land of conical-shaped houses called 'trulli' on the way to Alberobello, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is what the trip itinerary said was in store. It did not disappoint!
Check out the Trulli!
As was typical for the trip, Deb and I settled into our own pace and generally found ourselves at the back of the group. We would see the other guests at the regoup and lunch spots, but we were never far from the CC van or guides.
Narrow roads
Today's ride was relatively short (35 miles) but also included about 3,000 feet of climbing as we left sea level and headed into the 'Murge' or Murgia region.
Rolling hills and narrow roads
Each day the guides would alternate; one driving the CC sag van, and the other riding with the group. Even with the group spread out along the route as we rode at our own pace, we were never far from the van or the guide. Each day, we downloaded the day's route into our GPS units, had detailed maps and cue sheets, and a daily ride brief before we started. With all those tools, we were happy to complete the trip without any 'bonus miles' due to navigation errors!

After a lunch stop in Locorotondo, we arrived at the hotel in Alberobello. We arrived to find our bags in the room, and after we cleaned up, we walked into the historic area of the town for a guided tour which included visiting a trulli restored to its historic condition.
Inside a restored trulli
Our tour guide arranged for us to enter this restored trulli
After the tour, we were treated to another great meal at La Cantina. A small restaurant (our group took up half of the room) where the dining room is an extension of the kitchen and the chef prepared and served an outstanding meal consisting of local specialties with most of the ingredients produced locally!

Day 2 Route

Day 3 - Matera

Today's destination is another UNESCO World Heritage site, Matera. One of the oldest continuously inhabited town-sites in the world. But first we need to get there, today's route will be relatively flat, but cover 52 miles!
Our trusty steeds, tires pumped, wiped down, and ready to go!
While we enjoyed breakfast, Enrico and Henrick were busy staging the bikes for the days ride. Tires were inflated, and frames cleaned from yesterday's sometimes muddy trek. We dropped our bags at the van, filled our water bottles, and after a quick ride brief we were on our way to Matera!

Roadside wildflowers
We rode through farmland and orchards on lightly traveled roads. The soil was very rocky, and over the years the farmers created dry-stacked rock walls from the rocks removed from the fields. At the base of a descent, we stopped to photograph some beautiful wild flowers. Enrico noted that it was very unusual to see these flowers in bloom in the fall.
Short punchy climbs along dry stacked stone walls


Lunch was another enormous amount of food, wine, and beer. Local favorites served family style, with plate after plate of delicious treats until we could eat no more!

Luckily for us, lunch was at about the 2/3rds point of the ride. While most of the day was relatively flat, the last few miles into Matera included a mile of climbing at 7.5-10% grades. At the top of the climb we entered the new part of Matera. Not at all noteworthy, and I wondered what the big deal was! We would soon find out as we entered old town.
Matera's historic Sassi Distric, from our hotel room!
The "Sassi" district is known for the caves that have been carved deep into the hills over the centuries. The buildings are actually facades, most of the rooms go deep into the caves!
Our room at the Matera hotel!
Enrico was waiting for us at the top of the hill and guided us to the garage where we parked our bikes. Henrick guided us to our hotel and we could not believe the views from the hotel or our fantastic room. We were very happy that Day 4 would be a rest day and we had two nights in this elegant room!
Cave Church and Convent at night
A guided tour of the Sassi district and another great group meal was the perfect capstone to a great day on the bikes!

Day 3 Route

Day 4 - Montescaglioso Loop

Day 4 is a rest day with an optional out and back ride from Matera to Montescaglioso, about 22 miles round trip. After breakfast, with Debby staying at the hotel and getting a massage instead of more miles, I headed out. It was a perfect morning on a great route.
Tree lined road to Montescaglioso
Outbound, it was 6 miles of descent leaving Matera, followed by a 5 mile climb to Montescaglioso. The roads were good, traffic light, and temperatures cool!
Montescaglioso
We regrouped in the main square at a cafe. After a double expresso, we pointed the bikes back downhill for a fun twisting descent. Before we knew it we were back in Matera. We were free for the afternoon and set out on foot to tour the city and find a laundromat to decontaminate our riding gear!
Light Italian Lunch

Typical Sassi

Inside the church near our hotel in Matera
We found the laundromat (thanks to Jeff and Andy) and were able to clean up the riding gear, and visit some churches and museums in Matera. We were on our own for dinner, and found a place recommended by CC, and it was great!

Day 4 Route

Day 5 - Castelmezzano

Today is the longest stage of the tour at 64 miles, with 6,700 feet of climbing. No wonder Day 4 was a rest day. The route descended from Matera and entered rolling farmland, lakes, and forests.The fleas and horseflies were out in full force. At one point they were so bad that I rode right by Deb's side, waving my arms like a madman in an attempt to shoo them away!
The CC van bringing up the rear
The lake was beautiful, the flies were terrible!
The flies eased off when we left the farm roads and rejoined the highway. Lunch was a picnic prepared by Henrick and included pasta, meats, fruit, cheese, beer and wine! Ever tried fresh Parmesan cheese on sliced pear? Me neither, it was delicious! He set up this delightful repast in a city park in Tricarico. When we thought we could eat no more, locally made ice cream arrived courtesy of one of our guide's friends!
 
Chef Murphy prepared a picnic!
The only problem with a big meal, is we still had 25 miles to go! The good news was the route generally was rolling to downhill after lunch, which was good, because the last 6 miles of the route was uphill. The grade was reasonable, and we climbed through farms with goats, cows, vineyards, and gardens.
Goat on the balcony
One of the farmhouses was abandoned and overrun with goats, including many on the second floor! We entered a rocky gorge with many switchbacks at a consistent 3-4% grade.

On the climb to Castelmezzano
Finally we entered a tunnel and emerged to see our destination only a few more miles up the road. We arrived at the hotel and joined the rest of the group on the patio for post-ride libations and a wonderful view of the route.


Castelmezzano
Bike storage on the patio!

Thankfully dinner was at the hotel, so after a long day in the saddle, we had another wonderful meal and retired early!

Day 5 Route

Day 6 - Padula

Another day of climbing, 47 miles and 5,550 feet. We left Castlemezzano and the climbing started right away. The morning was cool and the grade was steady for about 6 miles. Once we reached the top, the forest opened up and we enjoyed long rollers with great views.
Rolling hills
Before leaving the forest we found Enrico and the CC van at the morning regoup. This was a perfect spot to reload the bottles and grab some snacks!

Enrico at the first regroup
The first climb was one of 5 rollers on a route that darted into forest land, and back on rolling farms and pastures. With a slightly overcast sky, the temperatures were perfect. Henrick dropped back and escorted us up to the top of last climb of the morning.
Top of another climb

We descended back into and across a large valley passing through the towns of Viggiano and Paterno. It was a bit of a culture shock, after several days in the mountains, it was back into traffic and some city riding. We were on our own for lunch and stopped at a bar for coffee, beer, and a bag of chips! We had a slight tailwind and made great time.
Start of the second big climb
Looking at the cue sheet and map, is was suddenly clear that our route would take across the valley and UP the other side. The last climb of the day started in the town of Paterno and headed up for about 6 miles at an average grade of 8%.
Some double digit grades here!
At each switchback, we would take a little breather and enjoy the views! The grade was steady, but there were two sections with grades over 12%, a little like the Portal Road to Mt. Whitney!
The top of the climb
The top of the climb is at the entrance of a 'tunnel' and Enrico was there with the van waiting to make sure we were OK and take a few pictures. Once at the top, we crossed into region of Campania and descended into the town of Padula.

Our hotel was a small Roman style inn centrally located in the historic section of town. After we arrived and cleaned up, we piled into a van and negotiated the very narrow streets to the La Certosa Monastery. There we were met by a local guide that gave us a fantastic tour of the grounds. Since it was the end of the day, we had the whole place to ourselves!

Chapel at La Certosa monastery
Monastery Grounds
After the tour, we met the rest of the group at a local pizzeria. In true Ciclismo form, Enricko and Henrick ordered pie after pie, which we washed down with local beers and wines!

Day 6 Route

Day 7 - Palinuro

Good thing we ate all that pizza last night, day 7 is another long day (58 miles) with lots of climbing on the day's agenda. We left Padula and headed back into the forests. Lots climbs and descents kept us on our toes all day!
Jeff Lockwood's cornering drills really paid off!
Traffic was light as we entered more national forest land and fantastic scenery.
Typical trail head in the National Forest

Note: Southern Italy is not flat!
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Lunch in Montano Antillia
Enrico picked out a great lunch spot in Montano Antillia that served a great local pasta dish. A number of the other riders from the group were already there and were finishing their meal. We decided on our standard light lunch (coffee, beer, and chips) so we could join the group for the descent into the Palinuro.

Once we left Montano Antillia, we were treated with great views of the Mediterranean Sea and our destination in the distance. After two long days of climbing, the last 20 miles of rolling descents were very welcome indeed!
View from our Hotel
We rolled into the hotel and again found our bags in the room. We spent two nights there, and while the room was nice, the private terrace was awesome. I even found time to catch up on some work!
Approving invoices in Italy
Day 7 Route

Day 8 - Palinuro Loop

Day 8 is a rest day. There were options to ride a 15 mile out and back ride up the coast, go for a boat tour of the local grottos, or just sit on the beach. I of course opted for all three! Since the boat trip was planned for 10am after breakfast, my ride would have to be early. Debby was up for the boat trip, but said "you have fun with that" when I suggested the early ride option!

Up before dawn, and with lights blazing, it was back into town for the run up to the coast to Pisciotta. Some coastal rides are flat affairs that wind along the coast, neither gaining or losing elevation. This run was nothing like that. It was either up or down, with winding switchbacks and great views along rocky shores!
Sunrise on the road

Pisciotta
After exploring some back alleys in Pisciotta, I headed back to the hotel and found Debby and most of the tour group just finishing up breakfast. The winds had picked up and the boat captain determined the seas were too rough for the tour and it was cancelled. So we grabbed beach towels and headed down to the private beach. It was very secluded, and well worth the 1/4 mile hike down many steps and switchbacks to the water's edge.

The cove was protected from the wind and the water was perfect for a swim!
Beach time
We enjoyed several swims and ample rest time on the beach. At midday, we headed into town for lunch, shopping, and to check out the Mass times at the local parish.
Walking into town
We arrived in town to find most of the shops closed and only a few restaurants open on a Sunday afternoon. The Mass was at 7 pm. so our plan was to grab some lunch, head back to the hotel, relax, enjoy the view, and do some laundry.
Mussels and pasta at a hotel restaurant in town
While there were many restaurants in town, only a few were open. We found one at a hotel with a great view of the sea and many open tables. Initially we were concerned about the lack of patrons, but the service and food was great.

We returned to the room to wash a few day's worth of cycling kits and put them out on the terrace to dry. Exhausted from the 'rest day's' activities, we decided on a short nap. We were awakened by a thunderstorm that added a natural rinse cycle to the laundry.

We hiked back into town for Mass and light dinner. We returned to the room to pack, dry the kits (the hair dryer in the room worked great), and get ready to head south along the coast.

Day 8 Route

Day 9 - Maratea

We enjoyed breakfast under a symphony of thunder, heavy rain, and a lightning show. Not the best conditions to get on the bikes. The guides decided it was too dangerous to start in the storm, so we move the departure time back an hour and we waited for the storm to clear.

It did and we set out under blue a sky!
A warm-up ride along the coast
While the ride was 'along the coast,' the coast included 1000 foot sheer cliffs at the waters edge. Much of the ride was either climbing away from the water or descending back to the water's edge, with more and more spectacular views as we headed south.
Hills above the water
"The other Almalfi coast"
The tour guides said many Italians prefer these beaches to the more famous and touristy ones further north. Having never been there, we thought these we awesome!

We stopped for lunch in Scario at a restaurant with outdoor tables under a large awning. It was good that we stopped here for lunch, because the clouds, thunder, and lighting arrived for an encore performance. We were not going anywhere fast, so we enjoyed a leisurely lunch while the next band of storms passed.

It was a 90 minute lunch break, and we pushed out as the trailing edge of the storm moved through. Again the sky cleared and we enjoyed perfect conditions for the run along the coast, through Sapri, on our way to Maratea.
Up, down, stop for great photo, repeat!
Leaving Sapri, the beaches gave way to cliffs, and it was back on the coastal roller coaster! Maratea is situated on a mountain side so after a few switchbacks, we found the 'do not enter' sign that marked the route to the hotel.
Do not enter for cars..., OK for bikes
After 45 miles and 4500 feet of climbing, Debby decided that she didn't need the 'optional loop' to the Christ the Redeemer statue that was another 2.5 miles and 900 feet of climbing up the road, and instead rolled down a few hundred meters to the hotel.

I continued up as other members of the tour were heading down.
Christ the Redeemer
Henrick was waiting for the last member of the tour (me) a few switchbacks from the top and Loraine was finishing her climb as I reached the top. A 2 Euro fee was required to complete the journey to the statue, so I paid the fee and parked my steed by the ticket booth and we all headed up. The temperature was dropping, but I wanted to stop at the curio shop and Henrick offered to buy us a coffee/beer to celebrate the day's accomplishment! So we lingered at the bar before a very fun and fast descent back to the hotel in Maratea.
Views on the climb were fantastic
We had some time before the van picked us up for another fantastic group dinner, so we wandered around Maratea and met the group in the main square. Dinner was at another great restaurant overlooking the harbor (Porto di Maratea).

Day 9 Route

Day 10 - Morano Calabro

Back into the mountains featuring 3 long climbs with 6,500+ feet of climbing over 58 miles! Day 10 and 11 were billed as the hardest on the tour, so we decided to cut breakfast a little short and head out 30 minutes or so before the rest of the group. The route started with a few downhill kilometers as we rolled out of town, before the first climb of the day. We were riding in the shade and getting a little chilled, so I rode on ahead to warm up while Deb continued at her pace.
Deb hoped I took this picture!
Once the route cleared the shade and warmed up, I circled back and rejoined Deb. The first thing she said was, 'did you get a picture of that Mary monument?' It was one of many along the route, and yes, I did!

The route left the forest and started up switchbacks on a grassy hillside. The rest of the group caught and passed us as we continued on at our own pace.
First regroup in Lauria
The morning regroup was in the square of Lauria. We grabbed some coffee and reloaded our bottles. Enrico encouraged us to keep moving, we were only a third of the way up the second climb, and still had lots of climbing in front of us.
The old Lauria train station
Leaving Lauria, we headed back into another national forest. The Pollino National Park is the largest in Italy and is very remote and beautiful. We climbed in and out of heavy forests separated by farms and vineyards. Since most of the route was through rural areas without restaurants, Henrick took sandwich orders and had a fine picnic lunch for us roadside near a small farm. The only problem was that we (including Enrico), did not know where he was going to meet us. Henrick had to catch the lead riders, set up, then wait for all of us to come through.

After a long morning in the saddle, and many times thinking that Henrick would be just around the next corner, Enrico exclaimed, " this is the best sandwich I have had in my life!' Well it certainly was tasty, and after weeks of large mid-day meals, and wondering where Henrick parked the lunch wagon, it was like an oasis of nourishment in the Italian mountain wilderness!
Lunch bus
After a quick lunch stop, we continued climbing to the town of Mormanno. We stopped in the square and enjoyed an afternoon coffee and beer. Enrico encouraged us to keep moving, the clouds were moving in and we still had 8 miles of climbing before the final 5 mile descent into Morano Calabro.

We cleared the top of the climb in a light drizzle, and were treated with another spectacular descent. Luckily the rain passed us by and we soon rolled into town and another fantastic hotel.

We were the only guests in the hotel and before the formal cocktail hour, the owner provided a great history of the building. We gathered in the garden where local musicians entertained us with local folk music and the chef prepared fresh mozzarella by hand.
Henrick introduces local musicians
We moved to the dining room, for another outstanding meal featuring local specialties. The band rejoined us for more music and our host provided a wide array of after dinner liqueurs. What a day!
 
Day 10 Route

Day 11 - Cittadella del Capo

Rolling hills and one last long climb to finish the trip. The last day of the tour would take us out of the mountains, and back to the sea. 5,000 feet over 58 miles, better get started!
Rolling hills
At points of the day's route, we could see both the Adriatic and Mediterranean seas. Before heading back into the forest, we crossed miles of vineyards, olive groves, and vegetable gardens as we skirted the periphery of the Pollino National Park. The route took us through many small towns that were settled by Albanians who fled the Turks over 500 years ago.

Back and up into the Pollino National Park
The last climb of the trip was to the Passeo dello Scalone. It was a long and steady grade under a canopy of heavy forest on a smooth and lightly traveled road. If you were to put Day 10 and Day 11 together, 115 miles and 12,000 feet, its almost a ride of Whitney proportions, and we were feeling it.
Finally the summit appeared after the last switchback and we had this one behind us!


At the summit!
Its all downhill from here!
Leaving the Passo after a few mountainous switchbacks we emerged from the forest and could see the route down to the coast and our final hotel. It was a delightful descent and Henrick led us to Cittadella del Capo and our final hotel.
Our hotel on the beach
Enrico was in the courtyard already disassembling the tour bikes. After a few high fives and congratulations for completing the tour, we found our room. I returned to the van to disassemble and pack our Calfees while Enrico and Henrick continued their post-tour packing. The hotel manager provided us some cold beers that probably made the process go a little longer, but certainly more enjoyable.

Dinner would be at the hotel, so we were able to enjoy a few post-ride libations during a beautiful sunset that provided a proper exclamation point to a fantastic trip.
The end!

Day 11 Route

Post-ride

After breakfast, we took the hotel shuttle to the train station and took a local train to Sapri to connect to a fast train to Rome. We arrived at the hotel (Marriott Park, about half-way between downtown Rome and the airport) in the early evening and decided to plan our last day in Rome from the comfort of the hotel restaurant.

We took the early shuttle into town. It dumped us off at the Piazza dei Tribunalli. We had mapped out a fast tour of as many sights we could squeeze in. Here are a few highlights:
Piazza Navona

Pantheon
St. Ignazio de Loyola
Piazz Mignanelli (Spanish Steps)
Vatican Museum
End of a full day in Rome
Exhausted after a long day on foot, we took the bus back to the hotel for a light dinner and pack for the morning flight back home.
One last birra in the departure lounge
What a trip!