Day 73 – 10 days cycling in Calabria

On the Mountain

Our rhythmic breathing and the crunch of our tires rolling over the fresh snow are the only sounds to be heard. No wind, no birds, no cars; we are alone on the mountain, in the heart of Calabria. The clouds still hang heavy around us, eerily masking visibility beyond a few meters and concealing any wildlife that may be watching our ascent.

 

Two days earlier we had made the decision to climb into these mountains and see the hidden side of Calabria, in southern Italy. Rather than cycle the coast along the Ionian Sea, a warm, flat, and fast route that would have taken three days, we branched off into the regional park of Serre. We searched out this route for several reasons; though it was primarily to avoid the one road that followed the coast. Italian autoroutes are a battlefield for cyclists, presenting many challenges ranging from disrespectful drivers, full bags of trash blocking the shoulder, air filled with exhaust, and the brain numbing noise from the cars passing to the left and the train passing to the right. Even with the difficult climbs that the mountains would pose, our choice was clear. For the next 400km we were to follow Calabria in Bici, created by Nicola Bresci in 2018, through the villages and forests nestled high in the Silla mountain range. Often the region is passed over by tourists for the beaches of Puglia or the mountains of Sicily, but Calabria turned out to be full of hidden secrets and warm-hearted people, though we didn’t know it yet.

Paying our Dues

When we left the coast, the sun was shining, and we pedaled confidently inland wearing shorts and tee-shirts. It was the middle of March and we had made it through our first winter as cyclotravelers; we felt confident and our spirits were high. The clack clack of the first raindrops striking our tent the next morning brought us a different reality.

In the doorway of the town café stood a man listening to us discuss our route and eventually he said, in accented French, “Vous parlez français? Venez, venez boire un café.” Accepting his invitation to come wait out the rain, we were instantly surrounded by four regulars. One of them whipped out a book of town photos and we were given a history lesson on the town of Placanica. As we went to pay the barista waved our money away, and asked if we would like another croissant. To remember their town, we were given heavy gifts: a sack of grapefruit and oranges, “to help you climb Sila!”. Unable to delay our rainy departure longer, we fumbled as we pulled on our rain gear for the first time since we left France. On went the trousers and outer gloves. “No big deal, time to climb Sila!” we said to ourselves as we climbed aboard the bikes and continued to ride upwards.

The ridge road we had chosen for its view of the mountains on one side and the sea on the other became a treacherous path, the wind rushing over the road. Like sailors listening to a mermaid’s song, our bikes, laden with our weight and 35kg of gear constantly threatened to submit to the wind and hurl themselves down the ridge. Our arms grew tired from holding the bikes steady as we creeped on. Hours later we arrived at the pass in the snow and began our descent without stopping.

Our fingers and toes frozen, our joints stiff, our moral in our socks, we finally limped into Serra San Bruno. We made our campsite in the kindly offered woodshed behind a family-run hotel. Our spirits rose slightly; we were damp and tired, but had made it up to our launching point into the rest of Calabria. In the morning, we were greeted by friendly smiles, breakfast and plenty of encouragement that motivated us to zip back up our raincoats and pedal deeper in.

Immersed in Nature

That afternoon the rains cleared and the region began to unfold before us. Wild fennel grew in abundance. Freshly picked it would become a fragrant addition to our dietary cyclist’s staple of pasta. The pastoral landscape seemed frozen in time; sleek and fat farm animals in large open pastures slipped by. The horses and cows curiously watched the bicycles roll past, stray dogs watched us warily, and the sheep mostly ignored us, nibbling up the first shoots of spring grass as fast as they could.

The next day we saw few humans or livestock, forests blanketing the view. As we climbed higher, the trees ranged from elms, birch, and finally endless pines. We had managed 60km and more than 1200m+; as soon as our fire went out we fell asleep, our tent nestled under the pines on the warm forest floor. Before midnight we awoke simultaneously, the inside of the tent illuminated by the moonlight and the air full of howling. Miles from a town, it was the cries of a wolf pack out hunting that brought us out of our slumber. Their song lulled us back to sleep, and we awoke in the morning to a symphony of birds. Earthy morning air filled our nostrils as we loaded the bikes and left the pine grove, the sun’s first rays filtering through the trees to the crushed grass where our mattresses had lain. 

The High Villages of Calabria

At dusk around the halfway mark of our tour, we rolled into the small village of San Nicola dell’Alto. To get to this little village we had ridden a 90km day and climbed over 1300m+. The road leading to the village is difficult in a car and by bicycle. It winds for miles on a narrow ridge, trees blocking the view and seems to never stop going up. The village was typical of Calabria: the buildings stocky and square, almost utilitarian. The streets were forebodingly quiet and empty at dusk when we arrived.

Our effort in getting here was instantly rewarded. We were welcomed as honored guests by the Bresci family; our plates piled high with homecooked food, our cups filled with wine. Their warmth and hospitality overwhelmed us. We stayed two days in San Nicola dell’Alto. The residents were quick to shake our hands, ask us about our journey and offer to buy us a coffee. At the annual Saint Guieseppe festival, we were constantly invited to dance and participate in the fun. A few days after we left, we were surprised to receive a message with an article about us in the local newspaper! The family and the town became a sort of allegory for Calabria to us . Difficult to access, but with perseverance the most friendly, unassuming and hospitable region will open up to you.

Leaving San Nicola dell’Alto we dove into the last legs of the route. The weather was friendly now, sunny and inviting. At the end of the day, we arrived in Verzino, and asked permission to camp on the village soccer pitch. No one seemed to be bothered, except a local dog who barked and barked at our tent. He could not be chased away; we worried that he would attract the attention of someone who was bothered by our presence and we’d be told to leave.

Our fears were partly confirmed as we heard someone approaching just after dark, imploring us out of the tent. Out we came, to be greeted by the wrinkled face of a bowed over grandmother walking towards us, her hands in prayer. First she asked, then she insisted, that we come home with her. Only half understanding the Calabrian dialect, we were led through her door and pushed down into chairs by the fire. As we explained our trip, each family member reacted differently: some were impressed, some excited, some called upon God to protect us. Shortly we all were seated around a table brimming with food. Each dish was homemade by Mama Luisa: tomato sauce made in summer and preserved, dried sausages from the pig they had slaughtered last spring, wine from three autumns ago, fresh artichokes drenched in olive oil – a true feast. Like travelers of old, we were laden with supplies before returning to the tent. Mama Luisa pressed into our arms a bag full of victuals for the road: bread, sausages, wine and 1 ½ liters of their olive oil.

 

After waving goodbye the next morning, we continued pedaling up, the last day before our descent. We arrived on the “piano” or plain, and at 850m altitude cycled for 15km with the snowy hillside to our right and a bright blue mountain lake to our left. Around one bend we found a quiet café tucked between the trees. As we entered a round man with a bowler hat asked us, “Where did you come from on those bicycles?”

“From France.”

“From France?! On the bicycles?”

“Yes!”

He threw his hands up in the air and announced that our breakfast was on him. We indulged in our favorite morning treat: warm cornettos filled with chocolate cream.

 

By noon we’d cycled out of the plain and through a dense forest to Campana, where we spent a few hours picnicking in the village square. The sun shining down on our bench, some older men struck up a conversation about our journey. Skeptical about our destination, the most outspoken gentleman asked, “How do you make money to ride your bike all day? You must be rich!”

Quentin piped back, “How do you make money to sit in the square all day? You must be rich!”

General chuckling ensued, and the men asked for Quentin to photograph them. “To bring more cyclists to Calabria!”

The next day was as if we had woken up from a good dream. We descended down to the plains, back into the fray of smoggy and loud coastal towns. Already missing the friendly comfort we’d felt in the mountains, we thought of the picture of the old men, which now says to us, “To bring you back to Calabria.”