We decided to use the time in Italy for spontaneous travelling, which was never our strong point. We've just come back after 10 amazing days in Apulia and we thought to share with you a day by day description of our adventures, to give you a bit of a taste of how daily life of traveler may look like.
Let's start from Day 0 – decision.
We marked 26.06 as the starting day of our spontaneous travel. Few days before we sent some requests to the most interesting workaway projects around, but none of them accepted us. So the day before departure we made the decision: we go to Apulia! Andrea promised long ago to take Anna there, as it's one of his favourite places in Italy, so why not now? At the beginning we thought to go far south, to Lecce, and bike back northward (as we also decided to use bikes, first time for a long trip), but a friend of ours from Lecce invited us for the presentation of his book a few days later. That sounded like an idea, so we started to send some Couchsurfing / BeWelcome / Trustroots / Warmshowers Foundation requests to different parts of Apulia, quite skeptical about receiving any answer for 3 reasons: finding a host in Italy was always challenging, especially last minutes; Couchsurfing platform is undergoing rough times and quite a lot of users are discouraged (and other platforms are not very active in the region); finally, we thought people would be scared to open their doors to strangers after corona crisis. Yet, we got almost immediate answers from two people in Gargano and this drove our final decision – that's where we start!
We packed our stuff, bought some basic bike tools just in case and at 10am we took our first regional train. That day we planned to take 5 to reach Manfredonia, the city of our first host. There are direct trains but first of all they are more expensive and secondly, they don't take bikes on board. Everything went quite well till the last train – from Foggia to Manfredonia. Unfortunately, the conductor forbade us to enter with bikes, so after 6pm we realized we needed to ride 40 km to reach our destination. Let's make it clear – we are beginners, with single-speed city bikes and backpacks instead of professional bags. 40 kilometers, after all day traveling, are not a piece of cake and indeed after the first 20 (during which we even got lost), Anna was pretty ready to stop and pitch the tent wherever. The only argument against was the lack of any water to wash, which after a hot day was not a pleasant perspective. Finally we reached Manfredonia after 10 pm, which also meant we went through the main roads when it was already dark, with little lighting – one of most stupid things we did in our travel. But we managed, we met our host Sharon in a restaurant where she was spending the evening with her friends, we took the keys of her place and, completely exhausted, went to sleep before midnight with a 60 km rise and fall waiting for us next day.
We started relatively early in the morning (yet still too late, as we discovered very soon, when heat began to be unbearable) with coffee and cookies in our host place. She was not there anymore, but anyway, we planned to come back to her place two days later, after visiting Gargano National Park. So she just let us use whatever we needed in her flat and wished us good luck. We hadn't known yet how much it would be needed... 60 kilometers in the mountains. We thought: tough, but doable. We planned to go on a lower road, with not so many ups and downs, but it occurred there are tunnels on the way which cannot be crossed by bike. The upper road was the only alternative. South Italian heat. City bikes without gears. Bikers without experience and proper preparation. Yes, it was hell. Yet mesmerizing, as you can see yourself from the pictures. For the first part of the day we even thought it was worth the effort. In the second part we thought about nothing but of arriving at our couchsurfer in Vieste before 7pm, when he would be going out to work. The prospect of waiting for him till the end of his shift at the restaurant, maybe after midnight, was a good boost. We pushed a lot, arriving literally in the last moment. We met Luca at the gate, he explained to us which house he lives in, where to find a shop and wifi password, etc and he left wishing us good rest. And rest was the only thing we dreamed about. Maybe beside dinner. Eat proteins, they said, so we decided for eggs and beans, which Andrea (hero!) bought in the nearby shop and prepared while Anna had a shower and hammock nap in between olive trees. The place was beautiful, but we decided to leave sightseeing for the next day, hoping to be a bit more in shape, for a change.
Finally a resting day! It started with coffee and cookies with our couchsurfer, who around 10 went to work, leaving us with a pool of ideas on what to do and see in Vieste. We took the bikes and went to a small, isolated beach, 5 km northward, enjoying warm, crystal clear water, small caves and little bustle, although Vieste itself is a touristic place. Early in the afternoon we went back to the town to have a small walk around and to join Luca during his break between lunch and dinner shifts. He took us to a nearby bay in the opposite direction, sharing more stories from the region and his life. In the evening we went for a sundowner with Bart and his friends. The aperitif is a must in Italy, having a drink and some snack before proper dinner. Bart is a great traveler himself, focused mostly on festivals, rituals and celebrations. Quite a few times our path almost crossed, but only this day in Vieste we finally managed to share the evening. And it was quite a special evening – the first round of presidential election in Poland, which made us focus on politics a lot. We shared our experiences of voting by mail from abroad and counted seconds to the exit polls...
Coming back from Vieste to Manfredonia. We knew already how hard it gets, how hot, how many ups and downs, so we decided to start early to be able to do as much as possible before afternoon heat. Also, Anna had one of her English classes online at 1pm, and we were determined to reach Mattinata (40 km after Vieste), as that was the only place where we were sure to find a good phone connection. And you know what? Every time Andrea starts early enough something happens. I don't know how it works, but he always arrives at the last moment and if he tries differently, it doesn't work. At the very first descent something in Anna's bike exploded and her front wheel got blocked. It turned out that the front brake got loose and finally opened completely blocking the wheel. We stuck in the middle of the street looking for the bolt, without which we couldn't start anymore. It took us at least half an hour but luckily we found it. Next problem to solve was to find a tool to fix it – we didn't have anything which would allow us to put the brake back in place. A truck stopped and they gave us pliers saying we could keep them, which was quite a lucky shot as the bolt needed to be tightened every now and again. Anyhow, we were able to continue, but we lost almost one hour, which means we had to ride hard next 5 to reach Mattinata on time. We arrived literally 2 minutes before the planned lesson. We took a good 2h-rest before we faced last 20 km. Without morning adrenaline they proved quite difficult. Again we've found ourselves asking how the heck we ended up in this situation. The last km uphill we could only walk it, so we had plenty of time to discuss. But the conclusion was simple – we like to use what is already available, without waiting for better conditions, better equipment, a better moment. It doesn't make things easy, but it makes them happen. Life is now. If we realize that actually biking is our new passion, maybe we invest in good equipment, but better to have some experience first. We started with a one-day trip. Now we are on a 10-day journey, crossing mountains and different weather conditions, getting many of the answers about biking we wanted to have. At the end we want to be able to take any bike in any country in the world, put our backpacks on it and get on the road, maybe for few weeks before reselling the bike in another place. I don't think we will switch completely to bike touring, but having one more option sounds like a plan.
Finally, we reached Sharon in Manfredonia. A quick shower and she took us around the city. On the way back we bought also food for dinner. Sharon shared with us a typical Apulean dish, Stuffed Mussels. Lot's of work, but the effect was impressive. Maybe soon you'll find the recipe in our blog. Meanwhile – enjoy the photos!
We changed from mountain biking to biking along the coast. Less ups and downs, but more sun and definitely more wind, which turned out next big challenge. The thing with wind is that it always blows in the opposite direction. At least, though, we were not in hurry. We took our time, especially around the salt flats, where we found beautiful nature and lots of flamingos! We also started to get used to a longer siesta, combined with a nap, which gave us the energy to keep going till the evening. We didn't find any host, so we decided to sleep in a camping. Usually we camp wild, but in Apulia there are not many rivers and refreshing ourselves after all day biking was quite a priority. Looking for a proper place forced us to bike longer than we planned that day, but finally we reached a famous - and a bit poshy - camping in Bisceglie, with a great view over Gargano range, spectacular during sunset.
We woke up completely destroyed. Anna's face was red and swollen – sun and wind did their part. Our plan that day was to reach Bari by bike and from there catch a train to Lecce, where we would meet Cristhian. Bari was not that far anymore, considering that the day before we biked more than planned, but we decided to take it easy, enjoy a slow morning, reach Bari by train, and have time for a proper visit of the city. We started with a dive in the sea, fighting with tiredness and trying to find motivation to move to Bisceglie center. That's where we found a very cute cafeteria where we enjoyed our Italian breakfast. Trains to Bari were very frequent so early afternoon we were already there, ready to explore the narrow streets, full of surprises. We reached Lecce just in time for dinner – vegetarian carbonara, homemade focaccia and fruit salad, prepared by I Cuochi Mindful dal Salento!
The day started with an online English lesson by Anna + one hour online coaching. Then a delicious breakfast with pasticciotto – typical sweet from Lecce – and a slow walk around the city. It was soooo hot that even walking under the shadow of the tuff buildings, built close to each other to keep the sun away, was beyond our strength. Every now and then we stopped to rest a bit, study one of the many baroque facades, or try some other Apulian snack, like rustico for example. In the afternoon we came back to the house, which is part of the co-dreaming project created by Cristhian. We met him in two different Erasmus+ trainings and we adjusted our travel plans to be able to attend the first presentation of his book, which happened that day. Cristhian spent 3 months in a Roma (Gipsy) settlement in Macedonia, living with them and sharing the daily life, which inspired his book called "Mi hanno rapito gli zingari". Cristhian is also a cook, creator of I Cuochi Mindful dal Salento and Nomad Chef - Wandering Restaurant, blending his passion for cooking with cultural exchange and spiritual search, which he proposes in unusual settings, such as Erasmus+ projects. We tried a few things prepared by him and they were absolutely delicious!
Following Cristhian's advice we thought to take an early morning train to the very south of Salento, bike a bit around and come back in the evening to Lecce. Once at the station, though, we were not allowed to enter the train with bikes, so we had to quickly change our plans. We saw the sign of Via Francigena (the Italian chapter of a pilgrim trail that connects Canterbury, Rome and Jerusalem) and it was just like a sudden call. The path ran in between olive plantations and old rocky shelters called Pajare, far from busy roads and early in the morning, before the usual heat, it was really an amazing ride. After 2 hours we stopped for breakfast, then around midday, when we started to lose sight on the signs, we turned East toward the sea. In one of the small villages we crossed we decided to take a caffe leccese - ice coffee with almond milk - intense yet good for such kind of weather. Being the only tourists around, we ended up chit-chatting with locals, who advised us what to do next. Unfortunately, we didn't follow their advice straight away and instead we decided to go 10 km farther to Alimini lakes, very close to Otranto. That's where we stopped for lunch and siesta. The place occurred to be super touristic and not as impressive as Sant Andrea, recommended by the people from the bar. Rocks and caves protruding from super blue water was one of the most beautiful views we've seen so far. Following the coast line after some kilometres we also reached Grotta della Poesia (Cave of poetry), a natural pool connected to the sea, a piece of art carved by the elements. We spent so much time there that we came back to Lecce just in time to grab some watermelon, and join the Reading Circle in the main library of the city. Every Friday people meet to read, sing, create together around one chosen word. This time it was "gioco" – game. Every person could propose a fragment of text, song or performance connected to that word and share it with the others. This sample of the vivid cultural life of the city was the perfect close for our stay in Lecce.
It was supposed to be an easy going day. We found a couchsurfer in Brindisi, just 40 km from Lecce. We decided to go a bit around, reach the coast first and then follow it northward, but still it wasn't more than 55-60 km of flat lands. Easy, compared to what we had done before, right?!? No. There was such a strong wind that we could barely move an inch. We caught even a bit of rain and exhausted we reached Brindisi around 6pm, much later than we planned. We wanted to have some time with our couchsurfer - who already had his evening plans - to share stories and experiences, and there was much to share! Adeep? is an UN worker who lived in more than 10 countries, involved in humanitarian work. He is also very active in the private sphere, doing salsa, bungee jumping, photos and million other things! And he has a very comfortable flat to stay in and take a bit of rest. We were supposed to stay only one night, but exhausted after a challenging day of biking and fascinated by our host we decided to stay a bit longer.
We woke up late, enjoyed coffee in the terrace and decided that this would be our last day for this trip. We wanted to visit the city and next day early in the morning start our way back to Fano. The wind was strong and we didn't have any power to face it. In the city, while walking around the harbor or the roman ruins, we felt it less, but in the rocky beach, where we went in the afternoon, it was difficult to find any sheltered place. We took it very easy, walking, reading and eating a bit of local food – for example focaccia with tomatoes or orecchiette with tomato sauce. Apulia is known from it's simple, yet very tasty cuisine. Because of the peculiar climate the products of the soil, from tomatoes to olive oil, are sooo good you don't need to do much to prepare a great meal.
This time we had to take 7 regional trains to come back home. We started before 7am, so to have 1,5h break to visit Polignano, a town built on a cliff. It was Monday early morning, so we had a chance to see completely empty a place which is usually full of tourists. After a delicious breakfast we continued our way to Bari, then Foggia where we met with Francesco, who many years ago helped us with the first ExChange the World website. From Foggia there were still 4 more trains to take, with quite long breaks in between, which made it all together 16 endless hours travelling. Fortunately, this time all the trains accepted our bikes and after 11pm, quite tired, we reached home.
What did we learn during our spontaneous travel? First of all – that it's possible. That we can also play with couchsurfing and other platforms sending requests in the last moment, not necessarily two weeks before. And that all in all among all homestay platforms couchsurfing is still the one that works best, at least in this part of the world. Four people opened their doors for us – 2 couchsurfers, 1 person from Bewelcome and 1 friend, most of them young, active people living alone, which makes sense, considering the fear connected to the pandemic. Thanks to this journey we also stopped worrying about the fact that backpacking the way we know it may not be possible for long time. It is different, maybe more difficult, but not impossible. People are willing to open their hearts and houses. Initially we thought that maybe travel is not the most reasonable thing to do right now, but the truth is that, with due care, it maybe is exactly what we need in this phase. We also experienced and noticed that once the lockdown is down, it's difficult to really keep all the safety rules. In some sense there is no way in between, either we stay at home, or we come back to life. For real.