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Campomarino, my first ‘South’

Campomarino, my first ‘South’

Campomarino, my first ‘South’

Childhood memories of sunflowers, the African wind, watermelons, scorching heat, the real sea, empty spaces, a blueish-grayish sky. I was seven years old when I took my first trip to the South, a completely different world and the exact opposite of my life as a child in Milan. It’s exciting to return and see the places I first crossed a lifetime ago.

‘Zio’ Peppino and Daniela are our hosts. Peppino was born in Portocannone and he’s proud of his Arbëreshë origins. Peppino is not just an uncle for me. I started to take photos because of him and there’s more—hospitality. Cristina and I feel comfortable here. It feels good to postpone our biking trip and look at what’s around us: the sea, the mozzarella, the chili peppers, the fish soup in Termoli. 

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First stage: from Campomarino to Campobasso
(96 km / 1,868 mt. dsl +)

Ready? Set? Go!

In Molise, there are no plains. And in order to avoid the busy “Bifernina” interstate we decide to pass through a series of small villages, going up and down, looking for the right direction on almost abandoned roads. The exotic names of the towns we come across make us dream: Portocannone, San Martino in Pensilis, Ururi, Larino, Casacalenda, Provvidenti, Matrice.

We are ideally heading southwest and the landscape is always changing, from the sea to the hills—sunflower fields, tomatoes, vineyards, dark and freshly ploughed soil. Immediately finding the right rhythm, we pay attention to what’s around us. We are travelling and we smile because we are happy, despite the scorching heat and the exhaustion of kilometers of elevation.

A few kilometers away from Campobasso, we arrive in Martice. We’re looking for a church called Santa Maria della Strada because we want to follow the advice of Natalino Russo, a friend who’s also a photographer. In order to reach the 12th century church, we have to climb a hill to the north. There’s a young couple on the lawn in front of the church. They are lying down under a big oak tree to rest in the cold shade. No one else is around, and you can feel the spirituality. We wander as we try to decipher the bas-reliefs on the sunny façade. It’s hard to leave this place, but we saddle up and in a few minutes we arrive in Campobasso (the main town of the region). We pass through the suburbs of the city before finally reaching our destination in the city center. Sheds, malls and constructions from the ‘70s create a contrast with the hills and the silent villages we’ve been seeing all day.

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Second stage: from Campobasso to San Gregorio Matese
(56 km / 1,415 mt. dsl +) 

Country roads, archeological sites and expectations 

Long live komoot. But why? Because our favorite app that we use to plan our trails is not infallible. It’s handy, maybe irreplaceable, and for sure, really useful. But luckily, not infallible. So here we are, in front of a gate that bars our way. The way that we spent hours planning on our computer, trying to find the best direction. However, a computer doesn’t show everything. So we decide to head back and find another solution. The trail is flexible, and finally we can mess around with the paper map that we prepared and printed, following detours on gravel country roads with unexpected climbs.

We arrive in Saepinum through ploughed fields bordered with blue flowers. It’s early and there are no visitors yet, so we imagine ourselves as wanderers from the past as we walk along the main street which divides the archeological area. Once crossed by the Pescasseroli-Candela ‘tratturo’ - an ancient sheep-track - we close our eyes and listen to the silence. The city walls are in good condition, as are the temple, square, the arcade of the church, the baths and all the other buildings. The theater is amazing and surrounded by medieval houses made of stone from old destroyed buildings. In the ‘50s, when pasturing was still common, shepherds used to live in these houses.

We now head to the Matese mountains, passing through Guardiaregia and riding on a beautiful panoramic road empty of cars, of course. Until now, we are the only cyclists and there are no traffic lights. The difficulty today is not the steepness or the length of the climb but the scorching heat that never relents. Where there’s no shade, the pavement feels like a hotplate. Too warm to drink, we use the water from our bottles to wet our heads. We have officially reached the South. 

We have high expectations, but maybe that’s not a good thing. Our route to the lake is all downhill, and it’s pleasant despite the humidity. And then, out of the blue, there’s traffic. The tourism here is mainly “static”, which means lots of families parking their cars next to restaurants or scenic viewpoints. So we press on past the lake, keeping our eyes open to catch the sunset over the mountains. Only the high peaks still have light on them. We are tired, sweaty and dirty. In one word: exhaustion.

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Third stage: from San Gregorio Matese a Rocchetta to Volturno
(76 km / 1,483 mt. dsl +)

Sharp teeth, an ex biker and “la Prova del Cuoco”

There’s fog at sunrise along with heat and humidity despite the early hour and 1,100 mt of elevation. A huge dog shows us his fangs, but he stops at the end of his property. Last night, we were tired, and we’re still tired this morning.

But again, we manage to find our rhythm. We smile for the first time that day. Our eyes are vigilant. Everything here is new to us, completely new. We are not in our comfort zone. We lack certainties, we don’t know the tracks but we trust komoot. Excited but at the same time awed, we are alone. 

Downhill to Monteroduni, we stop for our second breakfast of the day. The barista observes our Cinelli bikes.

“With that gear you could climb a wall!” he states.

“Good thing we decided to put on the 36,” I reply. “Do you even have plains here?!?”

The barista smiles: “God no! Plains are boring! We like to get tired!”

The barista is a nice, friendly man and we take out our map to understand if the roads we chose are really the best ones to reach our destination.

“You definitely need to go to Cesaruolo! Then Scapoli, Parruce and Castel Nuovo a Volturno,” the barista says pointing with a finger at our map. “From there, you’ll be inside the National Park of Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise! And tomorrow, make sure to climb the Vallefiorita. Twenty hairpin bends. That’s a climb you won’t forget!”

With a pen in our hands, we draw a new track on our map. With the evening comes a shower and hunger, too. Luckily, our host Stefano is really nice and welcoming (we are starting to think all Molisans are nice and welcoming). He entered and maybe won a famous cooking show called “la Prova del Cuoco” a few years ago. The dinner is unforgettable: wild boar and red wine. And then, in a snap, we are in bed. Exhausted but with our heads still full of the mountains. It feels like we crossed a whole continent in a single day. Good night.

Fourth stage: from Rocchetta a Volturno to Carovilli (76 km / 1,712 mt. dsl +)

Twenty hairpin bends to Vallefiorita and Carovilli. This is Molise.

20 hairpin bends in a wonderful forest. Amazing. We don’t even feel tired. The scorching heat of the past few days seems like a dream. We have an army of beech trees hugging and protecting us. Our noses are up. The pavement is smooth and there’s no traffic. Actually, there is no one! The only thing we feel is the presence of the animals that live in this beautiful forest. The climb is more than 10 km long but it is just right: not too steep nor too relaxed. And as we enter the National Park of Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise there are signs with bears on them to remind us where we are. It’s good to see a bear, even if it’s just on a sign. In a few minutes we’ll be in Abruzzo and then onto Alfedena. We last visited two years ago when it was the southernmost point of our trip. This time it’s the most northerly. 

Arriving in the small village of Carovilli, a few card players are seated outside the bars in the square. Our dinner at Adriano’s is the highlight of our trip here in Molise. We taste the grilled caciocavallo with truffle while we listen to the stories our host is telling us. This experience alone is worth the trip. We talk nonstop about art, geography, politics and cooking. Even though we promised ourselves that we’d retire early to our B&B in order to recharge our batteries (our alarm is at 6:30 every day), we end up in the chef’s kitchen sipping one glass of grappa after another. And oddly enough, at midnight the square is full of people. Some girls and boys improvise a game of football while everyone else is chatting in the fresh evening air under the yellow light of the lampposts. It feels like we’ve travelled back forty years. Hooray for this place and this trip with its unexpected friendships. We are happy.

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Fifth stage: from Carovilli to Bagnoli del Trigno (70 km / 1.208 mt. dsl +)

The “tratturo” is 111,6 meters wide, which corresponds to sixty Napolitan steps. Even if you can’t tell.

Today, our host is Avio. He’s wise, friendly and nice (of course). He also happens to be an expert on country roads. We take advantage of his knowledge to ask him information about our trail. As usual, we have a pen in our hand and our map is on the table, ready to be changed.

With our day’s route now even longer, we arrive in Pescolanciano. A small village crossed by the Castel di Sangro – Lucera tratturo, it is the only place in Molise where you can still see the whole “sheep highway” in all its greatness. We ride on part of it, and it’s incredible to imagine the multitude of animals that have walked along it from VI Century A.D to the ‘50s in order to reach Puglia.

Today’s stage is full thanks to (another) idea Avio gave us. Crossing no less than the UNESCO Collemeluccio-Montedimezzo Biosphere Reserve, we head to Pietrabbondante to look for the theater and temple that have a Samnite origin. However, here we collide with the bureaucratic system as today is a Monday. The regional superintendent has decided that you can only visit the archeological site from Wednesday to Sunday, August included. So we stand in front of the main gate, which is closed.

Even though it’s not her fault, a nice woman stops her car to apologize for the fact that we cannot visit the place. She smiles and tells us to follow her. So we ride really fast in order not to lose sight of her. Suddenly, we are standing on a gravel road at the back of the site with a breathtaking view of the whole archeological area. Thank you very much, nice Molisian lady. You gave up a few minutes of your time and took the trouble to guide two strangers. It seems like everybody here has the right rhythm. It’s just like yesterday’s climb. Not too fast nor too slow.

 I stated before that today was a full stage. Let me correct myself. It was a super full stage. We pass through Agnone, and as we break for lunch, we notice big black clouds in the sky. We reach Bagnoli del Trigno without a moment to spare as the rain comes down.

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Sixth stage: from Bagnoli del Trigno to Bonefro (75 km / 1,868 mt. dsl +)

The endless stage: the wise farmer and the mountains.

A hot shower and an amazing pizza: life in the “Molisian pearl” is just fantastic. When we get to our room, we immediately take photos of the skyline. We do it after the shower, too. And before we have dinner. Also after we have dinner. The next day, before we get on our bikes, we take more photos.

We need to understand our route for the day because the one we designed with our app doesn’t really convince us. In fact, some parts aren’t clear at all because we should almost reach 2,000 mt in altitude, but we don’t know how to cross the mountain. A quick ride to Trivento and we are fortunate to meet Nicola, a young man who is passionate about local history. For this reason, he offers to show us the San Casto Crypt, which is hidden under a cathedral named after the Saints Nazario, Celso and Vittore. This is an unexpected discovery. While Nicola tells stories and anecdotes I decide to go take some photos of this architectural jewel. However, we now need to go, and I have to remind Cristina that we still have a mountain to cross. From a panoramic point on the village walls, we can see the Biferno valley, and we try to identify the track we should follow in order to reach our next destination.

A super steep gravel descent causes us to lose altitude in a snap. Every time this happens to me, I get irritated because I always think about the effort it will take to get back up. There’s a famous Italian saying that goes “hai voluto la bicicletta? Adesso pedala!”, which literally means that if you wanted to have a bike, you now have to ride it. That’s exactly what I’m thinking right now.

In a few minutes, we get to the bottom of the valley only to discover there’s a multitude of country roads that intersect one another. It’s hard to find the right one, the one that our phone shows us. 

“Good morning! Which one is the right direction for Bonefro?” I ask a farmer that we pass.

“Bonefro? From here? Who told you to come this way?” he replies.

“Well… we are following a route on our phone!”

“The phone! Did it tell you where to go?” he says, pointing upwards. “Do you see those wind blades up there? That’s where you need to go. But be careful because it is so steep that not even cars can go that way!”

That’s right, the mountain. There’s a dark red line on komoot that indicates a high degree of steepness. So we start again. We are slow. Super slow. We are sweaty. Really sweaty. A Fiat Panda 4x4 goes past us. That’s the car from the post office and the girl who’s driving it looks surprised to see us. She stops and asks if we need any help, adding that in all the years she has worked here, she has never seen a bike on this road. She gives us her water and then she recommends us - or maybe I should say she forces us - to change our route. We follow her advice.

Another steep gravel road and we stop to catch our breath. With a further 600 mt to climb, we decide to head to the interstate which fortunately is completely empty. The average steepness is 10% - which is good - and we use the 36 gear.

With the mountain now behind us, we quickly pass through Casacalenda and Civitacampomarano. We can’t wait to reach our destination. Giuseppina, our host for tonight, is waiting for us in Bonefro. She has the usual Molisian smile that warms our hearts. We are glad it’s already evening.

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Seventh stage: from Bonefro to ??? (26 km / 246 mt. dsl +)

We love murals. We love the last stage. We love everything.

The last stage is always the easy one. Every cyclist knows it. In the “Giro d’Italia,” it celebrates the winner. If it is downhill and has almost no climbs it’s even easier. Our last stage is like this. So we can have breakfast, fasten our bikepacking bags and get to Santa Croce in Magliano with no rush at all. We get lost in the village while we take photos of the wonderful murals that have been painted for the Antonio Giordano Prize. It is a project that aims to promote urban and visual arts in all their ways of expression - painting, sculpture, architecture, photography - with special attention to contemporary style.

Just a perfect day.

Moving again, we head to another region called Puglia. It won’t be long now. Peppino and Daniela are waiting for us in Campomarino, the place with the sea we left behind us seven days ago and with a promising portion of pasta with meat sauce. Today’s country road is amazing. Not one car. It is a straight road, with ploughed fields on both sides and farmhouses painted in white. We can feel the sea is close even though we still have 20km to go.

A picture, a smile. Another picture. Thoughts of normal life begin to surface after seven wonderful days spent riding. 

Twenty-five km per hour. I’m looking towards the horizon. There’s an unexpected patch of sand on the side of the road and my front wheel goes in, sliding. In no time I’m thrown over my bike and I see the ground coming closer. I find myself lying down with my bike on top of me. My shoulder is dislocated, my head is spinning, I’m covered with scratches and dust, it's hot and the pain is excruciating. Cristina is screaming in fright, and she’s also yelling at me because she doesn’t understand how I ended up falling. I apologize.

The last stage is always the easy one.

And then, in a moment, everything starts to happen. We see a lady coming towards us. She is the owner of a farmhouse in the area. She helps Cristina call an ambulance as I stand up, take courage and push my shoulder in the right direction. Somehow I manage to fix it but I scream because it hurts so much that, for a little while, I don’t see anything except for a bright white light. As this finally eases, I see the lady’s brother who’s bringing me a pillow, a glass of orange juice and a bottle of cold sparkling water. I already feel better. 

“Cri, have a look at my bike and make sure I didn’t break my gears,” I say to Cristina.

Cristina says nothing.

“Cri, is my camera still working?”

Cristina says nothing.

The doctors and nurses do everything they can to help me, and they do a really good job. My blood pressure is OK, my pulse is OK, even my shoulder is kind of OK and the cut I have on my shinbone has been cleaned and I now have stitches and a bandage on it. Thank you so much. Thanks to all. But now, can I get back on my bike? Peppino is waiting for me with his pasta!

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A bowl of pasta in Campomarino and the parasols of “lido Sveva” in Tremoli

In the end, Zio Peppino has reached the X point following a map on his phone. Our Cinellis are in his trunk, and we are sitting comfortably in his car. We arrive at his place just in time to have lunch. Our heads are full of thoughts. We can’t leave Molise like this. It’s too quick of a goodbye. More importantly, we cannot leave after a fall. 

“What if we stayed a couple of days in Tremoli?” I say to Cristina.

“Mhhh I don’t know,” she replies.

“Tonight we are having fish soup and tomorrow we’ll take a sunbed at the seaside.”

“So no bikes?” says Cristina. “Okay, let’s do that for a change!”

In the end, Zio Peppino has reached the X point following a map on his phone. Our Cinellis are in his trunk, and we are sitting comfortably in his car. We arrive at his place just in time to have lunch. Our heads are full of thoughts. We can’t leave Molise like this. It’s too quick of a goodbye. More importantly, we cannot leave after a fall. 

“What if we stayed a couple of days in Tremoli?” I say to Cristina.

“Mhhh I don’t know,” she replies.

“Tonight we are having fish soup and tomorrow we’ll take a sunbed at the seaside.”

“So no bikes?” says Cristina. “Okay, let’s do that for a change!”

Somewhere like Sakhalin
Project type
Fraser River Gravel
Project type
Weathering the storm
Project type