The Ionian Coast: surprises every day.

Who could ask for a better place for one’s last day on Sicily than Taormina? IMG_20150724_103859Our giro della Sicilia drew to a close on Friday (25 July), when we rode to Messina to take the ferry to Calabria. We were stepping off the tourist track now.

IMG_20150724_172107Reggio Calabria did not make much of a first impression, as we rode through depressing suburbs on poorly maintained streets from Villa San Giovanni to Reggio. Suddenly, however, we found ourselves on a wide, tree-lined boulevard, right behind the National Archeological Museum. IMG_20150724_172751Inside, we saw exhibits that filled in the blanks in my knowledge of Magna Graecia, including the famous Bronzes of Riace and the heads of the Philosopher and Basilea, dating back to the 5th Century BCE. In the evening, an escalator through the middle of the downtown shopping district took us to a new beer hall, which redefined the concept of trendy pizzerias. IMG_20150724_172706After supper, we walked (the escalator stopped running) down to the ocean, to join the crowds enjoying a passeggiata in the tolerable evening air. Reggio surprised us, as a clean, modern, pleasant city.

The promenade and bike path by the ocean also led to the train station the next day. It seemed wise to skip the industrial suburbs, so we rounded the toe of Italy on a local train, zipping past the resorts on the Ionian Sea. IMG_20150725_092330We got off in Locri. Here, the air did not oppress as heavily as the heat in Sicily. We headed away from the sea and into the mountains, to discover the incredible fortress of Gerace, a city carved into the rock. IMG_20150725_153213With a backdrop of challenging mountains, dominating the valley and the seacoast below, Gerace inspires awe in anyone approaching it, be they tourist, tyrant, or foe. Cheryl’s instincts for finding places proved as accurate as ever, but not until I had foolishly insisted on riding to the top of the town (and the mountain), then making our way back down through the medieval city to our comfortable B&B. Gerace has erected large car parks around the town, mainly on the back side of the mountain, and keeps motor vehicles out of the town completely.IMG_20150725_173335

That night, a festival provided many forms of entertainment at stations throughout the town, with local food stands in between. This block-party-on-steroids drew crowds from all over the country and beyond, and went late into the night. We saw acts from as far away as Brazil and Argentina, and ate local piatti tipici as we walked. One group covered American rock and roll from the sixties to today, playing to a packed audience sitting on stairs and streets, spilling out and up the alleys.

IMG_20150726_110344The views from Gerace in the morning proved completely different and just as stunning as the ones climbing the mountain. We found out that the highway leading to Gerace carries across Calabria to the Tyrrhenian side, ending at Gioia Tauri only 100 km from Locri. Next time I visit Calabria, I might take the SP1 to cross the Aspromonte Mountains. IMG_20150726_110223It would only take a day (maybe two), but provide a wild and beautiful experience.

In Locri, we found that the Intercity train to Taranto took bicycles (an exception to Trenitalia’s policy), perhaps because the train was indistinguishable from a Regionale or even an old accelerato. We could not have found another train, and riding to Taranto at this point would put us way behind the curve. The rolling stock on the rails in the South attests to the poor regard that the national agencies have for their Southern constituents, but we could not complain. IMG_20150725_161443Train personnel showed more courtesy and tolerance on these old, un-airconditioned trains, as if they shared common cause with their passengers. We even had a pleasant conversation with our capotreno, who fondly recalled happy days cycling in the Alps, when he was stationed in Alto Adige.

The train took us past industrial stretches after Crotone. Someone was making money between Crotone and Taranto, judging from the amount of manufacturing going on, but they were not riding our train.

Taranto covered us with contrasts. IMG_20150727_092243I knew about the large naval base. We read about the destruction in World War II, but the stories of the pollution scandals after that dismayed us. The train took us past the giant Alfa steel mill and the oil refineries that had turned the city’s northern suburbs into the equivalent of an EPA Superfund site. The imposing installations seemed dark and inactive as we rolled toward the station.

Once in town, however, we found ourselves in an interesting and charming medieval city, with an Aragonese castle, shopping, and another open-air music show – all of which was on the edge of town away from the polluted land, in a modern city call Nuova Taranto. We had dinner in the only restaurant with bad service of our entire tour, a place best forgotten, so we forgot it, and enjoyed a concert in the park on the way back to our hotel.

PANO_20150725_153327
Monday morning, it felt good to mount our bikes and head south along the coast. The Salento lay all around us, a region fabled for the beauty of its coast, and the quality of its food. We would see even more than that as we rounded the heel of the Boot.

I hope that you are enjoying this tour with us. If you have questions, or would like to know more about a detail, just ask. Feel free to share observations about traveling where we have gone. Each of us makes a unique journey in life; the sharing rewards us all.

Until next week,

Smooth roads & tailwinds,

Jonathan.

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