Friends: It was 250 miles up the west coast of Italy from its foot after the free ferry from Sicily before I came upon my first set of world class ruins, the World Heritage site of Paestum, a former Greek city dating to the 6th century B.C. It is highlighted by several magnificent multi-columned temples. All that remains, however, of most of the other buildings are just their foundations. It was a stunning site in the early morning. Even the walls surrounding it of huge blocks of stone were a site to behold.
It is one of 41 World Heritage sites scattered about Italy, more than any other country. Since it is hard to avoid them, I will try to see as many as I can. That means I'll pass through Naples and Rome and Florence. Pompeii and Naples are next up after the Amalfi coast, twenty miles north of this old port city of 135,000, the largest city I have passed through since Sicily.
The semi-mountainous terrain along the coast has been great for my training. I've had two or three or more steep climbs going on for as many as ten miles each of the past three days, sometimes right along the coast and other times swinging inland when the coastline was too rugged for road-building. With no real tourist sites this far south and just mediocre beaches, the roads haven't had much traffic and the camping has been relatively easy. One night I camped beside a small town's water purification plant high above the town. I had a fiery sunset to gaze upon out over the Mediterranean as I ate my dinner of garbanzo beans and olives. The camping and the traffic ought to get more challenging the further north I head.
Even with the minimal traffic, I've had more close calls with traffic than I usually have in a year. These Italian drivers are highly aggressive entering the roadway from a side road or driveway or parking space. Rather than stopping before an intersection, they barge a few feet out into the road, as if to establish position, before coming to a halt, whether or not traffic is flowing past. If they're backing into the road from a garage or a parking place, they will edge out even as traffic is speeding by. I'm never sure if they see me or if they expect me to defer to them. I've had to shout at the top of my lungs several times at drivers who didn't seem to be aware of me.
Its been more harrowing than anywhere I've biked. Maybe I'll get used to it and trust that they are aware of me. Once the cars are on the road, I've had no concerns, other than the excessive horn tooting. The toots are not hostile, rather expressions of approval for seeing me on my bike. If they were gentle taps, I'd much more appreciate them. Often the horn toot is a delayed blast after an oncoming driver has past me. They weren't able to immediately react, but are so excited about seeing a touring cyclist, feel compelled to fleetingly acknowledge me.
I had a second encounter with a teen-aged tough, this one on a scooter, some young punk who felt like showing me how tough he was. As I approached the city of Rosarno, a kid on a scooter turned around after passing me and gestured for me to pull over. There was more of a snarl than a welcome in his expression, so I kept pedaling along, letting him pull up besides me to let me know what he wanted. He waved and twirled his arm a couple of times, before I realized he was indicating he wanted me to button up my shirt. He wanted me to stop and do it right then and there. He didn't look as if he were doing me any favor warning me of a local crackdown or sting operation ahead, but only wishing to throw his weight around. I'd been riding with an open shirt for much of the past two weeks and no one had objected, though I always button up when I get off the bike.
I kept riding while this punk kept glancing over his shoulder glaring at me for not obeying his command. Before matters escalated, I came to a much needed large supermarket. I pulled into the crowded parking lot while he kept on going. It not the first time I've been commanded to button up. It also happened to me in Panama in 1989 during the final days of Noriega. There was anti-Bush graffiti everywhere. A surly soldier at checkpoint along the road, who likewise felt like giving an order, ordered me to button up.
The vast majority of my encounters in Panama, as here, have only been positive. As I sat outside a cemetery a couple days ago eating a sausage sandwich in the shade, knowing that I could go inside and fill my water bottles with cold water whenever I cared to, a woman approached me and held out a few coins and dropped them into my hand. I didn't care to insult her and refuse her offering, allowing her to feel the good will of giving. Not too long later another woman came along and did the same thing. I wasn't sure if I was at a pilgrim site and was being taken for a pilgrim or just what. I haven't had the chance to linger at a cemetery since, but I look forward to the next opportunity. It also makes me eager to visit the town of Assis, a huge pilgrim site for followers of St. Francis. Its north of Rome and on the way to the birthplace of Fellini, also on my itinerary.
The mountainous terrain has limited my mileage to about 80 a day, so it doesn't look as if I will make it to the Dolomites in the northeast corner of the country. I had hoped to make the acquaintance of some of its many storied climbs and also to visit a cluster of five Reinhold Messner museums. The great climber grew up in this German speaking region of Italy. One of his museums is in a castle. Messner was the first to climb Everest alpine style and without oxygen. He has written many books and was the subject of a Werner Herzog documentary. He is a great self-promoter. His museums might have been something concocted by King Ludwig. But those museums, like many other places I would like to visit here in Italy, will have to wait for another time.