Sunday, January 10, 2016

Riding out the Storm

"There's an abandoned house!" I holler out through the howling wind and constant clamor of heavy raindrops slapping the pavement. The clouds are so dark and ominous that they give the impression that it is dusk, even though it is just 11am. Lightening strikes and lights up the sky in the near distance. 
"Let's go take cover!" Jarrod hollers back. 
We lightly hit the brakes of our bicycles, careful not to slide out on the wet blacktop below our two wheels. Directly to our left the waves of the Ionian Sea are crashing into the shore, pushed along by the fierce wind of the storm. On another day this would be a scenic seaside ride, but today the large body of water is threateningly close to the road. 

We direct our bicycles away from the sea, down a rocky driveway to a half-built cement structure that was meant to be a beach house. We enter through an opening in the cinder block wall where the front door would have gone. There are several other square openings where windows would have been installed. The floor of the house is still earth, but the cement ceiling and thick walls provide adequate protection for us from the rain. It's obvious by the wear and tear of the structure that it has been left unattended for a while. This is one of the many abandoned houses under construction that we have seen on this road, giving evidence to the economic suffering of the area. We lean our bikes against the unfinished wall and sit down on a couple of cinder blocks in the middle of the living room (or would it have been a dining room?). I feel relieved to have some respite from the harsh weather, but wary that it will not let up anytime soon. 

It's Day six of a two week bike tour with my husband. We've been exploring Puglia, the "heel of the boot" in southern Italy, known for its warm, Mediterranean weather, laid-back lifestyle and now for me, hurricane-like weather. We are touring with bicycles borrowed from Backroads, the company I work for during the summer and fall season. This bicycle tour with my husband is a far cry from the tours that I guide. Nothing is planned out, we don't have the luxury of a van to carry our luggage, or posh hotels with concierge, there are no other guests and there is certainly no guide to give us directions, encouragement, or to rescue us from a storm. I remind myself of how much I love the ultimate freedom of being self-supported, even though it means being uncomfortable or uncertain at times. I like the feeling of being autonomous and having everything I need tucked away in my panniers on the back of my bike. (I even packed us the iconic Backroads snack: Peanut M&Ms.) 

The heavy rain has soaked through my bike gloves and shoes, which are now soggy and seem rather useless. Miraculously, everything inside our panniers are dry. I consider changing my socks, but the rain doesn't seem to be letting up anytime soon so I decide to wait. "Are we trapped?" I ponder to myself. I'm not willing to say it out loud. It looks like the end of the world out there and we are taking cover in a partially protected structure, miles away from the nearest town. I try to convince myself that this is fun; we are adventurers, discovering the lesser known and more authentic corners of Italy! Take this abandoned house, for instance: we may be the first Americans to ever step foot in here! Soon I snap back to reality and my shivering body is not convinced that we are so lucky. This is supposed to be vacation in Italy! What are we doing?

Before commencing our trip we highlighted a few spots on our map; "must-see" places that my colleagues who guide trips in Puglia had recommended. On the list was Polignano a Mare, the beautiful town dramatically built into the cliffs on the Adriatic coast, where Italy's famous singer Dominico Modugno grew up. The townspeople are so proud that they have built an enormous statue of him overlooking the sea and often sing or whistle his catchy song "Volare". Another stop was the interesting gnome-like town of Alberobello. The cone-shaped "trulli" structures and large groups of tourists make the place feel a bit like Disneyland, but people actually live and work in the tiny town and it's even possible to rent your own trullo for the night. The final must-see stop where we would finish our tour is a town called Matera, an actual cave city that was first inhabited over 10 thousand years ago. The caves have recently been renovated with dehumidifiers and electricity and now visitors can enjoy a drink in a swanky cave restaurant or sleep in a romantic cave hotel.  Other than these few planned stops, we were just riding, not necessarily in a direct route, wherever our skinny tires would take us. We certainly didn't plan to stop at this vacant cement structure on a desolate road between towns that go into hibernation this time of year. 

The freedom of bike touring has its consequences, of course. Getting caught in a storm is one of them.  We've bike toured over a dozen times and have endured our fair share of rain and thunderstorms. I recall our honeymoon bike tour when we both got flat tires in the middle of a thunderstorm on a Colorado mountain pass. By the time we changed our flats we were muddy and soaked to the bone. Could our idea of vacation be skewed?

Finally we decide to get back out on the road and work our way to the next town to see if we can find a hotel or at least a cafe to warm up. As soon as we exit the cinder block refuge the rain hits us like little bullets, challenging our escape. We push our bikes through the ambush, back up to the empty road. It's a comical struggle to mount our bikes and stay upright in the sideways wind. The next half hour of riding is the scariest, most nerve wracking experience I've ever had on a bicycle. The wind is so strong that it knocks over a big metal dumpster full of trash and it's all I can do to not get blown over myself. We trust our tires to grip the wet pavement and lean into the wind at nearly a 45 degree angle. Every once in a while the wind lets up and we must swerve and lean upright to keep from falling.  When we finally enter into the next town the streets are flooded under a foot of water and everything seems to be shut down for the season. We need to find shelter again. I can't imagine riding any farther in this weather. 

I've found that even the smallest, most quiet towns in Italy have a local bar, which is the general Italian word for cafe. In addition to what we think of as a bar with alcohol, every bar in Italy will be equipped with a nice espresso machine as well as croissants and other goodies. Sometimes they will have a kitchen and serve more hearty dishes as well. I was hopeful that we would find an open bar in this sleepy little town.

We stay high above the water by riding on sidewalks and splashing our way across streets and past shutdown restaurants. Finally, we round a corner and are overjoyed to see a bar with its open sign turned on! We go inside and warm up with chocolate filled croissants and cappuccinos. After chatting with some locals who come in from the rain, we learn that we just rode our bikes through a hurricane. The locals have a second house inland, and drove out here to check on their beach house. I pinch myself to be sure that I am alive. We count our blessings and start thinking about where we will spend the evening, not wishing to battle again with the hurricane. 

The rumored southern hospitality in Italy proved itself to be true; After a brief search, we are graciously taken in by a sweet couple with apartments for rent. They even give us spaghetti, bread, olive oil and wine, knowing that the grocery store is already closed for the afternoon. They assure us that the restaurant on the corner will open in the evening for the locals that stay in town during the off season.

That evening the clouds part and the sun even greets us for a brief moment. A stray dog becomes our companion as we explore the town on foot and walk down to the empty sandy beach. We follow a cement pier down to its edge to watch the enormous waves come crashing in. Feeling spiteful, we get closer and race the oncoming waves until a big one catches us and soaks us once again. This time, all we can do is laugh and relish in the moment of our child-like giddiness. 

After changing into dry clothes (again) we follow our noses to what really is the only open restaurant in town, where we enjoy tall beers and wood fired pizza. The family restaurant is packed with locals and buzzing with lively Italian chatter, shouting and laughter. We take in the new scene and clink our glasses, toasting to surviving the storm. 

The lure of the unknown propels us forward on our journey. Tomorrow we will be back on our bicycles, riding towards more unknown territory and perhaps new surprises. It turns out that this is how I want my Italian vacation to go. Getting away from predictable routines and feeling a sense of adventure is thrilling and ultimately, so satisfying. Besides, what would be the excitement of vacation without a random hurricane to spice things up? 

The next day of riding along the coast - sunny and warm
stepping into the Ionian Sea
Polignano a Mare (On the Adriatic)
Sculpture of Singer Domenico Modugno in Polignano a Mare
Matera in the evening

Trulli in Alberobello