Day 80 – Sassi or Trullo?
“That looks perfect!” Ashley shouted into Quentin’s ear, looking over his shoulder at the satellite image displayed on his phone.
On the square screen was a brown dot that somewhat resembled a trullo, a few kilometers outside of Ostuni and separated from the closest houses by a pine forest. It had been several hours since the sun acquiesced to heavy grey clouds, but now the light was beginning to fade and it was time to find a campsite.
Over the past week we had cycled a “U” from Matera, down the west coast to Porto Cesareo, inland to Lecce, Brindisi, and then followed the string of beautiful trulli villages in Vallée d’Itria up to Bari. From Bari we would leave Italy and cross the Adriatic Sea to Albania, where we would stash our bikes and take horses 600km across the country.
This evening was our last night camping in Puglia. After cycling 400km through the heel of southern Italy, we still had not made camp in an abandoned trullo, the traditional farmhouse of the region. Each day we saw dozens of abandoned trulli, brown or white stone houses, built with thick walls and a round cone roof. Inside they are dry and warm, with just enough space for two bikes and sleeping bags.
Goldilocks and the three caves
A few days prior, we had been hanging around the cliffs of Matera, waiting for the tourists to go home. Matera is an ancient city built atop a cliff, reigning over a deep canyon with a loud river running hundreds of meters below. On the other side of this canyon, hundreds of sassi dot the cliffside. Sassi are the traditional caves of the area, used by humans for over 7000 years. We wanted to camp where ancient shepherds had slept and old pagan families had installed their family chapel;
We wanted to sleep in a sassi.
While the sun began the set, we scoped out the evening’s options. After about twenty minutes, Quentin came back with the options.
“Ok, there are two that could work --,”
Ashley cut him off, “How are there only two?! Look at all these caves!”
“Do you see any public toilets in the park?”
As Ashley looked around she realized that there were none. Of the dozens of tour buses coming to this lookout each day it was inevitable that visitors would need to relieve themselves…somewhere.
“So, like I said, there are two that could work, one is not really hidden or protected, it’s over there.”
“That one? It’s not even a cave!”
He shrugged sheepishly.
“Or one down there. If we sleep near the entry it only smells a little..”
Ashley went down to inspect. She only managed to put one foot inside the cave before the stench of stale urine filled her nose.
“Nope. We have to keep looking.”
The sun had now set, and darkness was beginning to fall. Quentin set back down another set of cliffs, winding through the tall grass and sharp rocks. He came back downtrodden, and Ashley went for a look. Five minutes later she returned, almost skipping with pleasure.
“Come look, it’s perfect.”
About twenty meters below the regular path, there was a small trail to a cave with a low opening. But once inside, the ceiling was high, the cave was deep and dry and smelled only of dust. We drug the bikes down the cliff and parked them inside. From the bottle of wine we’d been toting around for a special occasion, we filled our coffee cups and toasted our luck. The cave was spacious, and had two old alter from its chapel days, that were shortly repurposed for a kitchen and a bar.
We didn’t even bother to set up the tent, just the tarp, our mattresses and sleeping bags. The lull of the river put us to sleep. At first light we awoke to the sun’s first rays pouring over Matera, working their way into all the nooks and crannies of the city.
The high of sleeping in an ancient sassi still in our blood, we cycled as quickly as we could to the brown dot on the satellite. Arriving parallel to it on the roadside, we were affronted with the fact that it was at least 600m back from the road, behind a fence and surrounded by thick brush. Darkness approached and we were exhausted from the kilometers we’d covered that day…the trulli hunt was a wash.
Advancing a bit further, we found a thin lane that opened into a large meadow, secluded and hidden from view. A carpet of of yellow dandelions, red poppies, orange, purple and white wildflowers we didn’t recognize stretched out before us. The colors reminded us of the bright colors in the baroque architecture of the region. We tucked into our sleeping bags, the disappointment of not finding a trulli long gone.