November 13, 2016
We’ve been told that the route south of Rome will begin to show a different kind of Italy from that in the North. It doesn’t take long to see the towns change as we head past Ostia Antica and join the coastal roads heading towards Gaeta. The condition of the asphalt is declining and the first few towns we ride through are definitely rougher around the edges than what we’ve seen on the journey so far. On one stretch of road, in the middle of nowhere, we see a woman emerge from the bushes between the dunes that line the waterfront. We assume she’s stopped for an impromptu bathroom break but there’s no car in sight – only a white plastic patio chair. Further down the road we pass more women, sitting alone, along this barren stretch of road and we realize that they aren’t selling smiles – in fact, they aren’t smiling at all. These women are prostitutes and it’s apparent that life is as rough on them as the roads they line. Our hearts sink. It’s hard to imagine what these women have to endure in order to survive.
The grey sky reflects our mood as we pass countless towns that look as though their better years have long disappeared from view. The people seem harder and even the kids take a moment out of skulking around to flip us the bird. These are hard times here.
Eventually, as we continue south, some of the larger towns begin to show more positive signs of life, but as beach destinations they still have a slightly “out-of-season” feel to them. Our route takes us inland and up into the hills where, after a couple of hours on the road, we’re ready for a caffè. With restaurants soon closing for the afternoon, we have to plan for food or wait until 8pm for them to open – and having skipped breakfast this morning, I’d be an unhappy camper. We find a nice looking bar at the top of the pass, park the bikes and are greeted by the two owners who are incredibly nice. The don’t speak any English but we make it through our order with plenty of smiles. They warm our hearts after a morning of heaviness and we relax onto their patio watching as a handful of locals, young and old, gather in the games room for a mid-day round of foosball underneath a grey sky.Suddenly, the quiet of the hillside is broken by the banter between the two groups as they try their hardest to win the days bragging rights. The smiles are infectious.
By the time we leave our hill-top caffè the skies have opened into a torrential downpour. We’re surrounded by a group of local workmen who are fascinated by Nita’s ability to ride a bike. It’s not unusual – we still get lots of surprised looks when we mention two bikes and looks of utter shock when they see her bike loaded-up. She may be tiny, but Nita’s an awesome rider.
Through the rain we coast along to Gaeta, our home for the next few days. Even with the rain coming down in sheets, our REV’IT! gear is keeping us perfectly dry (as usual), which is perhaps why we don’t mind days like these. In fact, there’s something a bit zen about riding in the rain. Until your feet or hands get wet – then it’s caution to the wind! Luckily, we have that part of our gear sussed too.
Soon we’re winding our way up a set of switchbacks towards Sulmare di Gaeta, our B&B for the next two nights. With the checkered flag of our GPS ending our journey outside a Zona Militare, Nita jumps off her bike to quickly scout the neighbourhood on foot. As she disappears over the crest of the hill, a steady flow of traffic emerges from the military school and all of them have trouble getting around her bike. Before I can move it, one person brushes the length of their minivan along Nita’s Ortlieb bag almost pushing her bike over. With no damage done, I hear Nita telling me she’s found the B&B five doors down.
We pull into a lot overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea and while the view is wonderful we can’t seem to find a way to get in. There are two doors on two sides of the building but no markings that make it obvious that this is, in fact, the right place. After searching around, I find a buzzer and the gate quickly opens to reveal a small courtyard and our host Maria. An absolutely lovely woman, she shows us to our enormous room that comes with a private patio and a beautiful view of the sea – or at least it would be spectacular if we could see it through the storm clouds! The room is perfect and we take our time warming up with hot showers before hanging our gear out to dry.
Once we’re settled, we ask Maria for information about the town and recommendations for dinner which she happily provides. Since our B&B is at the top of the hill on the peninsula, it takes over two-hundred stairs to reach the main-street. Scalinata is the Italian word for staircase but when there’s this many stairs it’s pronounced scali-nahhh-tahhh and usually accompanied with a look of exhaustion or anguish! Of course, the stairs aren’t a problem on the way down… We find a nice bar along the waterfront for an evening bevy which we happily share with one of the many local stray cats. The rain is moving from light to heavy and, after waiting two hours at La Francese for the restaurants to open, we decide to simply grab some slices of pizza from a caffè by the stairs – which doesn’t make the task of climbing them any easier. Still, it feels good to work off the food and soon enough we’re cozy and warm in our room.
The wind has started to pick up and, when I check the bikes through the window, I notice that Nita’s is actually swaying in the wind; the bike cover is acting like a sail and threatening to blow it over. In the driving rain and howling wind, we run outside and reorganize the bikes using mine to shield hers from the gale. It works well, and soon enough we’re fast asleep.
In the morning our first sight is a group of cats sleeping on top of the bikes. Some have found comfortable spots on top of our covers, while others have moved underneath for protection from the weather. Ever since Nita made friends with the cat in Orbetello, they love leaving hair on her belongings! One of the things that’s impossible to miss in Gaeta is the sheer number of stray cats roaming the streets. They’re on every wall, every scooter and if you’re on a restaurant patio you’re almost certainly going to have some furry company during your meal. They all seem to also have at least one gnarled eye, but that doesn’t stop them from smiling and purring up a storm if you give them the time of day. As a gift for providing them shelter, the gang of cats by our bikes spray everything – the cover, the wheels, even our seats – just so we don’t forget them too quickly!
We join Maria and her daughter Gioia for breakfast where she tells us about living in Gaeta and some of the folklore of the area. She tells us about the Montagna Spaccata which, according to legend, split with sorrow at the death of Christ. Now a chapel sits nestled high in the split, bridging both walls of stone creating an incredibly dramatic view. Gaeta is also famous for its 15km of beaches which make it a hotspot with tourists during the summer. Unfortunately, with threatening weather we’re unable to take the two-hour hike to the top of Montagna Spaccata or truly enjoy the beach. Instead, we spend the day walking the waterfront and taking in this towns beautiful architecture.
Along the waterfront we’re presented with a very cool moment. Here, in Gaeta, is a tribute to Giovanni Caboto or as we Canadians like to call him – John Cabot. Unbeknownst to us, Gaeta is his birthplace and his discovery of what is likely Newfoundland is the inspiration behind Cape Breton’s Cabot Trail, one of our favourite places on the east coast. It brings our Canadian experience full-circle and reminds us that, in some way, we’re all connected.
On our way back to Sulmare di Gaeta, we meet a lovely woman, Antonella and her husband Enzo, who own a beautiful restaurant called La Cantinella Gaetana. Asking if they’re open for dinner they simply ask when we’d like to eat and, with a handshake, we agree on seven-thirty. As we look around the restaurant, I begin get the impression that the handshake is, in fact, the equivalent of a contract. This being Italy, we want to make sure we honour our contracts, so at the agreed-upon time we return for dinner.
My gut instinct right – as we arrive, Enzo unlocks the door to let us in before promptly locking it again behind us. We quickly realize that this is turning into a very special evening reserved for us – and only us. The meal here is fantastic and both Enzo and Antonella are wonderfully attentive hosts. We enjoy some heartfelt conversation with them over the course of our dinner – and plenty of great laughs. The chef, Raffaele, emerges from the kitchen to make sure our meals are good and, when we tell him how great it is, he seems genuinely happy. While all of us take pictures, Enzo lets me know that they’ve opened just for us; our meeting at lunch was a lovely happenstance. After taking pictures and looking at older ones of Enzo, Antonella and Raffaelle, we say our goodbyes and make our way back to our home in the rain full of good cheer and happy to have met more beautifully warm people.
The squall is even stronger tonight and the sound of howling winds and banging shutters wakes us frequently. By the time we wake up my bike cover has been blown off – which is no small feat considering how snug it is. Luckily, I find it wrapped around Nita’s rear wheel in the morning. With the wind still howling and the rain poised to pour again, we ask Maria if it’s possible to stay an extra night. After some juggling of guests she’s able to free up a room which means we can ride to Sant’Agata sui Due Golfi in decent weather the following day. The skies quickly close in and we spend our time talking in a caffè and writing for the site. However, the evening is a completely different story; the blue that’s been hidden for days begins to break through the black and the suns heat burns away the rain. Even the seagulls celebrate as they hover playfully outside our window before grouping together in vortices and circling downwards towards the water.
Feeling like a pub night is in order, we discover Lupe di Mare just down the street. It’s a mix of English pub and American motorcycle bar – and yet it somehow all works well together. While it starts as a quiet evening tucked in a corner, by ten the place is packed with people out to enjoy a Friday night. Lucio, our bartender, has already brought me a free pint of Guinness in honour of St. Patricks day weekend. Hooboy. Lucio’s love of Springsteen is an instant connection for us – an E-Street Band concert is playing on the big-screen and it takes Nita and I back to our time in NYC with our dear friends Michael and Nuri. Occasionally, Lucio will reach for a glass, close his eyes and sing a verse or two – and before we know it we’re singing along too. We meet four young men who ride an excellent assortment of bikes – a Monster, a Streetfighter, and a Harley – and it doesn’t take long for the evening to feel a little “rock-star”. We spend the night with our new friends Emanuele, Francesco, Daniele and Lucio telling stories, laughing and celebrating St. Patrick a little to much – with no help from Lucio who occasionally brings by a whisky on the house. I wake up the next morning feeling worse for wear and the thought of riding the twisty roads of the Amalfi coast are almost too much for me to bear! There are times when I’m a complete idiot.
The weather the next morning is amazing. The dark clouds are long gone and a blue sky has taken their place. Waiting an extra day has proven to be the right decision though the same can’t be said about our night out. The look of concern on Maria’s face when I emerge for breakfast tells me all I need to know; I look as bad as I feel. I’m getting older and just can’t keep up with the young-guns anymore. We meet Maria’s husband, Luigi and their boy Angelo who, along with Gioia, are a bundle of mid-morning energy. As I slowly swallow my caffè and breakfast roll, waves of illness flow over me. I’m a mess.
We wait an extra three hours before leaving, hoping for the nausea to ease and in the brief moments that it does, I pack my bags before retuning to my back on the bed. Nita loads my bike (yes, I’m a lucky guy), and after holding it together long enough to feel marginally better, we say goodbye to our wonderful hosts and prepare for our ride to Sant’Agata sui Due Golfi. The twisty roads of the Amalfi coast are waiting!