A tale of two [unpronounceable] cities

We collectively decided to have a crazy day of cycling. We had taken a few days off in Ljubljana, the capitol of Slovenia, and were headed for Rijeka, a relatively large coastal city in the north of Croatia. As we intended to spend another couple of days in Rijeka visiting some old friends of mine from a previous hitchhiking trip, the number of rest days in the week was beginning to overwhelm the number of cycling days. For this reason we could justify having a crazy, full-intensity day of cycling 140 km across the mountainous mountains connecting Ljubljana and Rijeka.

We mentally prepared ourselves for a few days, and when the time came to cycle from Ljubljana to Rijeka in one day we had just about reached our limits of physical and psychological preparedness. The rain started about five minutes before we finished loading our bikes, and it continued to fall steadily for the rest of the day. As we had to arrive before 9pm, we had to average around 15 km/hr for the entire day, including breaks, so we made sure we had packed lots of snacks and we spent the entire morning on our bikes, stopping only to stretch our legs and mark our territory.

By eleven in the morning we were very wet, and so cold that we were losing feeling in our extremities (fingers, bums, ear lobes, etc.) However, we were making reasonably good time and were more or less on track to make it to Rijeka on time. To economize on precious minutes, we stopped at a Slovenian bakery for lunch and tried three kinds of burek: classic (ground beef), cheese, and “pizza”. We also had some really bad baklava and maybe even a blue Fanta before getting back on our bikes.

As we left Predjama, we were slightly warmer, less hungry, and in generally good spirits. We were especially motivated by what appeared to be a strong tail wind (a wind traveling in the same direction as us, pushing us along). However, as soon as we left town the wind became so strong that it pushed us off the road. We cycled on for a short while to see if it would subside, but it only appeared to be getting worse. While we couldn’t know it at the time, the wind was gusting at over 100 km/hr. There was an unspoken consensus: we needed to get off the road as soon as possible.

It took some time to walk our bikes to a roadside restaurant a short ways down the highway. Fortunately, the place we chose to stop, much like the rest of Slovenia, had friendly service, free wireless internet, hot soup, and affordable warm beverages with alcohol (tea with rum, to be precise). Having stopped, it quickly became clear that we were not going to make it, as we were running out of time and the weather was not about to change.

Fortunately, there was a train. Unfortunately, we had to get to the train station. Fortunately, Alex found a shortcut on Google maps. Unfortunately, that shortcut was a tractor trail leading into a farmer’s field that quickly deteriorated into a muddy, windy, puddle-filled mess. All in all, the shortcut was hilarious, albeit slightly disconcerting as we were unsure whether it would bring us to where we needed to be.

The train brought us all the way to Rijeka without any serious hiccups. However, the marriage of touring bikes and trains in Europe is generally a stressful union. Most trains will “accept” bikes, but exactly what this means is generally a mystery. This mystery inevitably leads to a surprise outcome with a variable degree of associated inconvenience. In this circumstance, the train had two sections for bikes, each with a metal bike rack elevated about a foot off the ground that covered the entire surface of the floor. Cyclists were meant to place both the front and back wheels into these “bike racks”, where I can only assume the intention was for them to balance on their own in perfect utopian stability. Of course, not only did our bike wheels not even fit in the very specifically shaped racks, but even if they had our bags would have made our bikes too heavy to stand up on their own. Instead, we spread our bikes horizontally, diagonally, upside down, and fit them together in every on conceivable angle in order to simultaneously keep them secure and appease the train conductor ticket man.

We arrived in Rijeka, cycled to my friends’ house from sea level to 120 m (basically the highest point in Rijeka), ate moussaka, and had a great first night relaxing in Croatia. We would end up staying in Croatia far longer than expected.

Travarica my pizza

Enough of our more devout readers (aka our families) have started to ask us where we are in Italy that we’ve decided to come to terms with (and address) the fact that we have been doing a terrible job of keeping you updated. The truth is that we left Italy long ago, and have since visited three new countries (five, if you count the time I accidentally crossed into Switzerland and spent the night in a weird urban forest, and count the fact that we’ll be entering Montenegro later on today).

Since leaving Italy, we’ve done a tour of Slovenia, we’ve cycled down the entire coast of Croatia, and we crossed the border with Bosnia no fewer than six times (but that story will have to wait for a future blog post). Slovenia was a real treat, and I don’t know if it was because there is something inherently special about the country, or because we had been in Italy for roughly 40 days and were in need of a change of scene. If I had to guess, I would say that it’s because Slovenia is full of friendly people, cheap booze, and mountainous landscapes that are absolutely breathtaking. It can easily be counted in my list of top 5 favourite countries (which I won’t list because I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings).

After pushing our bikes for over an hour up the most ridiculous hill we had yet encountered, we crossed the border and cruised on down into a beautiful Slovenian valley filled with vineyards. As we cycled down through the valley we noticed that someone had cleared a considerable rectangular area of forest on the top of an adjacent mountain and had written, with rocks and in capital letters, ‘TITO’, which made us stop and wonder whether there was a prevailing sentiment of Yugoslavian nostalgia in Slovenia.

Our first stop in Slovenia was a grocery store, and it was here that we had our first taste of post-Italia culture shock. We had spent enough time in Italy that we had developed a fairly good understanding of the language basics – enough to at least confidently ask for directions, order food, and so on. As we approached the till and had our items scanned, we expected to at least understand how much money the woman wanted in exchange for our food and water. Instead, when she looked at us and said something completely unintelligible, I found myself stupidly muttering “sorry, how much?” It was then that I realized that not only did I not know how to count in Slovenian, but I didn’t even know how to say “thank you”, “hello”, “goodbye”, or basically anything at all. It was only after leaving the grocery store that I realized I had accidentally purchased 9 liters of lemon-flavoured water*, which fortunately turned out to be delicious.

Anyways, I’m not going to get too caught up in describing everything we did in Slovenia (mostly because I already forget everything that happened), but I will give a rundown on some highlights. After leaving the wine valley, we cycled along a bike path for dozens of kilometers up a river so beautiful it could have been from a fantasy movie. It was only after reaching our campsite along another very similar river a few days later that we learned that the area had been a major filming site for the Chronicles of Narnia.** In fact, it was so beautiful that we decided to ditch our itinerary in order to camp for free in one of the most stunning places I have ever slept, swimming all day in glacier-cold water and baking in the hot sun.

We spent the rest of our time in Slovenia experimenting with different kinds of rakje (brandy), cycling on cycling paths (you can get anywhere in Slovenia by cycling path), eating strange cakes, and drinking kava s smetano (espresso filled with whipped cream). Ljubljana was an amazing city, and Bled was one of the most picturesque places I’ve visited (google it, seriously).

 

*To our environmentalist friends: there’s no need for concern, this was an anomalous circumstance as we very rarely purchase bottled water unless forced to do so. In fact, we tend to freak people out a little by drinking the water because tap water virtually never comes recommended, even by other young progressive types (not that we’re particularly young or progressive anymore, but I digress).

**Up to this point, we have inadvertently touristed filming locations for Star Wars (Tunisia), Passion of the Christ (Matera), Chronicles of Narnia (Tolmin), and now Game of Thrones (Dubrovnik).

Italy: now with more lederhosen!

I feel like North Americans have a very monolithic idea of Italian culture. We tend to forget that Italy is a fairly new country. It was only established in 1861. Just to put that into perspective, consider the fact that the United States predates Italy by nearly a century.

Moreover, the borders of the US have been fairly static since the 1850s (Alaska is the major exception; it was purchased from Russia in 1867). Italy’s borders have undergone major changes as recently as 1954, when the Free Territory of Trieste was divided between Italy and Yugoslavia.

Before unification, The Italian peninsula was home to an ever-shifting collection of kingdoms, duchies, principalities, papal territories, and the like. Even after a century and a half of unification and assimilation, different regions maintain distinct linguistic and cultural identities.

I was vaguely aware of all this, having learned about it in high school social studies class. We’d also noticed it in our travels. We’d hear stories about native Italians who can’t understand each other because of regional variations in language. Still, we weren’t quite prepared for what we would experience in the Alps.

For full story behind our Alpine detour, you should start with Cristina’s last post [link], but just to recap: we took a train up the Adige valley to Bolzano. From there, we cycled up some viciously steep hills into the Gardena Valley.

I knew we’d encounter some German in the Alps. The area is quite close to Austria, and Google maps lists place names in both Italian and German. Still, the area was much more German-speaking than I’d expected. I was intrigued, so I looked up the back story.

The Italians call the region Alto-Adige, a reference to its location in the upper part of the Adige valley. In German it’s known as Südtirol (South Tyrol). Until the First World War, it was part of the Austrian principality of Tyrol. But the Italians wanted a reward for their war efforts, so in 1918, the occupied South Tyrol, which they formally annexed the following year.

When Mussolini’s fascists came to power, they attempted to forcefully Italianize the area. German teaching was banned, along with most German-language publications. Italian-speaking citizens were encouraged to settle in the area.

From 1943 to 1945, South Tyrol was occupied by Nazi Germany. In post-war negotiations, the Allies agreed to return it to Italy on the condition that the area’s German-speaking population be granted substantial autonomy. Italy agreed, but not all of the area’s German speakers were content with the degree of self-rule they were granted. This led to a series of terrorist attacks by German-speaking secessionists.

Italy and Austria returned to the negotiating table and a new deal was struck, giving the area an even greater degree of independence. As a result, the regional government keeps much of the area’s tax revenue, but since the area is one of Italy’s wealthiest, so it still returns more to the central government than it receives in services.

That was all a bit of digression, but my point is this: Italy is not all pasta sauce, protection rackets, and talking with one’s hands. In some places it’s local yogurt, lederhosen, and the language of Goethe. For my own part, I’m going to treat this as a lesson in humility. My preconceptions about Italy contained grains of truth, but the reality was always richer and more nuanced. My goal now is to bring that humility to each new destination.

We survived the Alps

We caught a train for the last leg of our journey from Bergamo to the Como area. My family was ready to host us at anytime, and really… Warm shower, delicious dinner, dry bed or setting up our already wet leaking tent in the rain, and preparing for an extra day of wet rainy riding… We may seem a bit crazy for embarking on this wild long journey, but we aren’t that crazy. We do, occasionally, value things like dry clothes and feeling in our extremities.

We arrived at the Cantu-Cermenate station, and my family was waiting for us. We were staying with my mom’s cousin Roberto and his family. Thankfully Roberto and his son Paolo speak some English, but for the rest of the family we communicated through extremely limited Italian, hand motions and smiles.

We went one morning with Roberto to visit Scaria, the village my grandfather grew up in. Small winding roads through lush forests lead up to this tiny village in the mountains that surround Lake Como. My grandfather grew up in a house that still belongs in the family. It felt like a piece of paradise: nestled in the forest and equipped with a flowing tap of crisp delicious spring water. My grandfather emigrated to South Africa sometime in his early twenties, and traveling through Italy makes me feel connected to him and his history. Visiting the home he grew up in was really special. I have fond childhood memories in South Africa of walking through forests with him picking mushrooms for fungi pasta, something that he had first learned as a child with his father in Scaria.

While relaxing near Como, Alex and I were musing on a plan for the next week before meeting up with Steph and Thomas in Trieste. We were planning on burning off the thousands of delicious calories we had been fed at my family’s place by cycling across the plains, maybe stopping in Venice, while making our way east to Trieste. Roberto was shocked. How could we come to Italy and not visit the Dolomites?

I am starting to realize that the key to adventure is committing yourself 100% to a completely ludicrous idea before you sort out the details. If you sort out the details first, it becomes rather obvious that you should probably stay in your pjamas and make cookies. So naturally we committed 100% to cycling three of the “quatro passo,” part of the famous Sella Ring in the Italian Dolomites, by buying train tickets that would give us five days of burning thighs in the great Alps. We embarked to cycle up thousands of meters of elevation in one of the most famous mountain ranges in the world. Just for comparison, one of the passes is often the highest peak cycled in the Giro d’Italia (the Tour of Italy).

It felt like we were embarking on a great adventure from our regular adventure. An adventure within an adventure. The real test of thigh glory.

An adventure in an adventure

We hopped on our trains and travelled towards the Austrian border. We made it to Bolzano three hours late, after missing one train, and being yelled at twice — a day in the life of traveling with a bicycle. Arriving in Bolzano, we realized we had crossed some invisible northern divider. The girls next to us on the train were speaking… German?

We took off in the little remaining daylight, and travelled up the valley towards Ortisei, an old Alpine town turned ski town. We did not make it to Ortisei as planned, but set up camp as the light faded, feeling confident that we would make up the distance the next day.

We woke up early feeling invigorated. Well, honestly, I think the invigoration was nervous energy for the looming mountains that lay up ahead. We cycled towards Ortisei. We cycled uphill towards Ortisei. We cycled uphill towards Ortisei on a road that had sign posts warning trucks of the greater-than-15% incline. If you have ever ridden a bicycle and think going uphill is easy, I encourage you to add 35kg of weight to your bicycle. It is not easy! We gained 1000 meters of elevation through picture perfect meadows covered in wildflowers and past houses complete with classic Alpine pastel shutters before arriving in the old town of Ortisei. My supposedly thunderous thighs felt very wobbly as we caught glimpses of intimidating mountain peaks through the brief breaks in the clouds.

We ate lunch and set out for Passo Gardena. It was long, hard, and exhausting. We travelled from 262m to 2,136m in one day at a very steep incline. The weather managed to clear towards the top of the pass, and the views were breathtaking. The Dolomites are a series of mountains defined by their enormous jagged peaks, and sheer vertical rock faces. Cycling over Passo Gardena, we were surrounded by some of the most spectacular mountain landscapes I have ever seen. The peaks are broken into tall spires that form a wall around the long, steep road that snakes back and forth towards the top of the pass. Although there were moments of utter desperation, we arrived at the top of the snowy pass with massive smiles and a feeling of real accomplishment: we survived.

 

Roberto making pollenta

Roberto making polenta

Cristina (right) and her sister Gabriella at the fountain in Scaria, circa 2001

Cristina (right) and her sister Gabriella at the fountain in Scaria, circa 2001

Alex and Cristina at the fountain in 2015

Alex and Cristina at the fountain in 2015

Passo Gardena

Passo Gardena

On top of the pass

On top of the pass

 

Bici Molto Pesante!

One of the main reasons that one’s thighs become so glorious whilst on tour is that one must bring everything that they need along for the ride. For me (yes, one bike), the fundamental necessities include, but are not limited to: clothing for all conceivable kinds of weather, a towel, clothing for cycling, three pairs of shoes, a tent, a sleeping bag, an inflatable mattress, a pillow, a stove, cookware, a fuel tank for the stove, 8m of rope for hanging clothes (etc.), supplies for doing dishes, an emergency medical kit big enough for 4 people with an incredible diversity of supplies, Steph’s computer, a spare tire, spare tubes, a spare chain, spare cables and housing, a pump (with pressure gauge), a gigantic heavy chain and lock, spare nuts and bolts, bike maintenance tools, a kindle, a DSLR camera, a phone, a portable speaker, an external hard drive, all associated chargers/adapters, food (often including a bottle of wine, a liter of olive oil, a kilo of pasta, produce, etc.), and gifts for friends along the way (which up until recently included a bottle of ice wine, a can of maple syrup, a glass jar of the same, and a jar of raspberry jam).

Given the fact that I have to somehow load all of these things onto my bike and cycle for thousands of kilometers, some people often find it strange that I travel with the following items: a heavy wooden chess set (at nearly 3000 km I had not yet used it and so sent it home), suspenders, a bright orange dress shirt, a pair of dress pants, two bowties, a plastic bottle full of soap for blowing bubbles, a green vest, and a plastic pig (named piggy) roughly the size (but not the shape) of an average-sized head of cauliflower or perhaps instead the size (and even the shape) of an abnormally large potato.

Bologna, riversides and cycle paths

Thomas left Bologna early in the morning to make his way towards Milan to meet Stephanie. Stephanie was arriving from Montreal with her new bicycle in tow to join us until Istanbul. With a more relaxed schedule, Alex and I decided to spend some time in Bologna and take a northern detour on our way to the Como area where we had plans to stay with my Italian family.

My impressions of Bologna were tainted by our failure to find a host on Couchsurfing or Warm Showers. However, Bologna is a great city. It is filled with people doing things and going places. The central plaza was scattered with university students sitting on the flat pavement. One girl was napping sprawled on the concrete, and nobody seemed to think anything of it. I kept thinking it was the type of city you would want to do a semester abroad in. It fulfilled all of my criteria: young, hip, lots of patios, and really good mascarpone-fig gelato.

The next day, we cycled out of Bologna and across the plains. Whoppee! It was flat cycling! We wanted to make it near Mantova were we were fairly sure there was a paved cycle path that would take us to Lake Garda.

We camped 30km outside of Mantova on a small residential road in a bird sanctuary along a beautiful river. We found a sheltered spot and had the luxury of setting up camp in the daylight with no worry of intruding in anybody’s business. We relaxed, played cards – I won at Cribbage twice! – and we drifted off to sleep to the sound of birds.

So far we have made many attempts to follow cycle paths. This guy (http://italy-cycling-guide.info/cycleways-cycle-routes/) has some really great resources in English about routes and paths all across Italy. Easy, right? Wrong. Without GPS or mobile data, it has turned out to be incredibly hard to find/follow/know where the cycle routes are and whether they are cycle paths or roads.

The cycle path out of Mantova was our first cycle path success! Linking Mantova to the rather famous Lake Garda, the path attracts large crowds in summer. Apparently rainy weekdays do not attract crowds, and we could cruise side by side for kilometres. We were shocked that the path was easy to find and well-maintained, something that would be unthinkable in Southern Italy.

Alex and I crawled into our tents along the Mincio river just as the rain started to fall. I was cosy in my sleeping bag, happy to have beaten the rain, when… well… the rain started to fall in the tent. Here begins the first chapter of the tent saga.

I inherited our Mountain Hardware tent from my dad in a mutually beneficial arrangement: I get a tent, and my dad feels no guilt in buying himself a new tent. Unfortunately the seams are not what they once were, and they leak along the roof of the fly. With a few strategic plastic bags, we stayed dry.

The next morning the sun had managed to poke her head out between the clouds, and we cycled a mere 150 Metres before running into our perfect cafe. The cafe’s business was solely fuelled from the traffic on the cycle path. No road, no cars, just an open air cafe on an island oasis in the middle of the river. There is something wonderful about pulling up to a cafe with a line up of bikes resting against trees, and ordering “due capaccini e cornetti” next to a few greying Italian men in their brightly coloured cycling get-up.

We spent some time later that day on the banks of Lake Garda. This beautiful lake sits at the foothills of the Alps. We had emerged from the planes, and got our first glimpse of the mountains across the water. By the time we were ready to leave, gloomy rain clouds were once again closing in on us.

We cycled towards Brescia. It was dark and miserable. We rode into Brescia in the early evening. We found ourselves in a busy city hungry, tired, and surrounded by dark threatening clouds. Riding out of the city was a challenge; suburban sprawl is not conducive to wild camping. Finally, we camped across in a field across from an apartment block in the pouring rain, praying our plastic-bag-tent-repair manoeuvre would hold.

Bologna!

Bologna!

In the Bologna cathedral gift shop.

In the Bologna cathedral gift shop.

Beautiful riverside camping.

Beautiful riverside camping.

Alex blowing it at cribbage.

Alex blowing it at cribbage.

Cycle path to glory.

Cycle path to glory.

Sex work in buffalo country

They call sex workers “women of the night”, but in some parts of Italy their hours are not so restricted. It must of been around noon that we passed the first one, in the countryside outside of Napoli. At first we though she was just waiting for a ride, albeit with a ridiculous amount of makeup on. But then we passed another. And another. Women with revealing clothes and crazy heavy makeup, just chillin’ in lawn chairs on the side of a secondary highway. Keep in mind that this is a straight-up rural area. There was nothing around but grain fields, buffo farms, and women of the… well, of the afternoon, I guess.

The ride from Napoli to Rome was surprisingly beautiful. The two cities are fairly close, and with Italy’s population density being what it is, I thought it would be all sprawl. Instead we saw calm agricultural land, sandy beaches, and stunning seaside cliffs. At one point we ran into a pair of touring cyclists who warned us that the upcoming stretch was ugly and bland. Thank god we ignored them. We cycled the same stretch of coastline on an adjacent road. It was the sea on one side and the lake on the other, with reedy sand dunes, pristine ocean views and hundreds of cyclists enjoying the perfect ride.

Rome’s sprawl zone was smaller than expected, but still substantial. It too was dotted with sex workers. We must have passed at least ten on the way into town. One drew particular attention by (I’m not making this up!) strutting around an industrial park in transparent lingerie, flexing her butt-muscles.

Rome, too, was full of surprises. First of all, it was less hectic than I’d expected, and much cleaner. I expected something grittier, but instead we found the city to be clean and well-maintained, with a decent amount of green space.

This is going to sound kind of silly, but I was also surprised by the grandeur of the tourist sites. I guess I shouldn’t have been. I mean, that’s why people go to Rome, right? Still, there’s something about the scale of it all that can only be appreciated first-hand.

I was equally surprised by the sheer volume of tourists. In some parts of town you can walk for kilometres and scarcely see a local. Still, the views are stunning enough that it’s worth braving the swarm for at least a day or two.

Still, the crowds were exhausting. After each day, we couldn’t wait to get back to the calm neighborhood of Ostiense, where our host, Davide, took us in with open arms.

Our stay with Davide was arranged by our friend Iman, who grew up in Italy, and whose parents we stayed with in Calabria. Needless to say, we owe her one.

Davide runs a bed and breakfast, and agreed to let us stay in an unbooked room. When that room was booked up he invited us to stay at his apartment instead. When we arrived, we learned that he was giving us his own bedroom, and that he was sharing the bedroom of his roommate Francesco. This was an incredible gesture by both of them, but they played it off like it was nothing, and even encouraged us to stay an extra day.

On our first night, we were treated to an incredible dinner with Davide’s roommates and friends. When we left, we baked him a thank you pie, which was really the least we could do.

The bike ride out of Rome was another pleasant surprise. A beautiful cycling path runs along the bank of the Tiber River, escorting us from the metropolis to its exurbs. From there we set out for the rolling hills of Tuscany.

Bros

Bros

Rome IRL

Rome IRL

 

A day in the life, Parts I and II

Part I

As we had arranged to travel our separate ways for a couple of weeks, Alex, Cristina, and I, on our final night together, rented a studio apartment in Bologna and had a feast. We ate steak, pasta, salad, and far too much chocolate. We drank sparkling red wine (which was surprisingly good), Ballantine’s finest, a rather delicious Valpolicella, and a splash of Fiona’s finocchietto liquore. Needless to say, we overindulged, and I woke up the most hungover I’ve been so far on this trip.

When I’m hungover, I like to punish myself. I forced myself out of bed at 730, packed up my things, said goodbye to Alex and Cristina, and rode my bike for 180 kilometers across the plains of Northern Italy. I was embarking on a journey without iPhone, iPad, iDirections, or any other kind of device (aside from Alex’s uncharged tablet, in case of emergency), and so did what I have often done lately – I drew myself a map in my notebook (take that Apple).

Needless to say, it was a damn good map, but it only got me out of Bologna, and didn’t contribute very much to the necessary navigation of the remaining 330 km to Gemonio, where I would be staying with Verena’s parents (Verena is a good friend from McGill). I did have an All-Italia (1:800 000) road map, but it had already repeatedly proven in the most infuriating of ways to be outdated, and furthermore only contained Italy’s largest highways (upon most of which bicycles are prohibited).

I would also like to preface my next point by saying that Italian road signs, while plentiful, are effectively useless, and I spent much of my time on the road wondering how it is that those who designed them could have been so wrong, again and again, and again, and always. First off, is not uncommon for a road sign to point in completely the wrong direction. For example, I had the choice yesterday between two equally sized provincial highways to get from Luino to Laveno. One of these routes was 15 km, and the other was roughly 25 km. On my map the quicker route appeared to be a slightly larger road. However, every street sign throughout Luino pointed towards the longer route. Second, the distance markers are always, unless by accident, horrifically wrong. It is not uncommon to be riding towards a town and for the remaining number of kilometers to increase in number as you get closer for each of 3 or 4 consecutive signs.

Anyways, I went the wrong way very early on in the day, because of a mean sign that lied to me, and lost about 15 km of riding, which is the equivalent of roughly half a kilogram of hazelnut yogurt. After righting my wrong, I rode about 40-50 km before a very light breakfast (half a kilogram of yogurt). A man came up on a bike and asked me for some money to feed his kids, but I only had 12 euros to last me and I hadn’t seen a bank machine in a while, so I gave him two big apples instead. He accepted them happily, which I feel would never happen in Canada. I guess he really was hungry.

I continued to ride, and promptly experienced a sniffly allergic meltdown that lasted for the next two days. For those of you who don’t know, I’m pretty much allergic to everything external (i.e. not food). A few years ago I went to the allergy doctor for tests, and they confirmed that I was allergic to every kind of grass, every kind of flower, every kind of tree, every kind of religion, and every kind of animal, aside from hamsters, which have never really appealed to me. Sometimes I wish that I loved hamsters, so I could have a giant hamster farm of paradise. By the way, I think we should start a petition calling for a change in the spelling of “hamster” to the obviously more correct “hampster”. I digress.

I rode again and didn’t stop until lunch, which was at well over 100 km and consisted of the most delicious leftovers of steak and pasta imaginable. My Italian isn’t as good as I wanted it to have been by this point (I blame losing my phone, along with relevant language learning apps), but I have gotten particularly good at understanding directions. I suppose this isn’t really something to be proud of, as it is a skill that mostly involves the memorization of a few basic words and the order in which they come up (e.g. dritte, giro a sinistre, diestre no a primo semaforo – a secondo semaforo, giu sottopassagio, ecc. ecc.) At least I think ecc. means etc. in Italiano.

Towards the end of the day I stopped at a grocery store and bought a kilo and a half of apples for one euro and four euro cents (don’t get me started on the absurdity of euro pennies – they even have two cent coins – wtf?!?!? – okay not going there). A super creepy dude with sweat pants that didn’t fit (this is always an important sign) watched me as I locked up my bike and left all my bags to go inside. He followed me in a few moments later, cellphone in hand. I stood in sight of my bike through the window and made no attempt to start shopping until I got a better sense of what he was up to. He stood about five meters away, staring directly at me, clearly not there to buy anything. He was clearly waiting for me to go to the back of the store so he could tell his friend to go steal my bags. So I turned towards him and stared straight at him and scowled until he turned around and walked away. Sure enough, he left the store about 2 minutes later, without buying anything, and proceeded to sit back on the same park bench. After buying my apples and cheese, I went back outside and, sure enough, saw another guy sitting on an opposite park bench who looked equally weird and creepy (in fact they could have been brothers).

Is this post getting boring? I’ll finish now. I left the store, hit the highway, found a guy on the side of the rode with a broken bike, gave him my wrench, and held his handlebars awkwardly while he fixed his bike. Awkwardly because while he was fixing it a greasy man in a jeep pulled up and parked in the middle of the highway and started yelling at the kid as he was trying to fix the bike, not really caring that he was blocking traffic and probably risking all of our lives.

Anyways, it started to rain so I wrapped plastic bags around my feet and rode through Cremona, crossed Cremona, left Cremona, and got pretty tired. I was on the wrong road again, but I didn’t really care because I knew I was going in approximately the right direction: North. I stopped at some bar and made friends with a group of four kids sitting outside smoking. I told them my story in broken Italian and they seemed super impressed and friendly and shocked that I intended to sleep in the rain, yet none of them invited me to stay the night. I finished my beer and rode on to find a bike trail along a canal and the most perfect camping spot under a tree, with no roads around, and surrounded only with the sounds of crickets chirping and frogs burping.

 

PART II

So it turns out it wasn’t actually the best camping spot. After crawling, greasy and sweaty, into my sleeping bag and filling my tent with the crumbs from my pear and provolone sandwich, I fell fast asleep. In the early hours of the morning, the rain came in full force. It turns out I was sleeping in a depression under the tree, and it wasn’t long before I was sleeping in a puddle – everything wet.

I was pretty grumpy that day, as it continued to rain for most of it. I was sick of how ugly and flat it was in Italy’s Emilia Romagna (though by the name you’d think it would be nice). The worst part was the incredible volume of traffic everywhere – with all driving as badly as manic chimpanzees – as Italians are prone. By around 3 pm the sun had come out enough that I could take out my tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping mat and dry them on the side of the dirty highway. With most of my things dry, I had lost interest in cycling through the traffic wasteland, so I took a quick train ride from Bergamo to Como, which was much more beautiful. I then left town and was really enjoying my evening ride when I turned around to see the most giant awful rain cloud in the universe. The rest is kind of a blur – I accidentally entered Switzerland – A really friendly guy stopped me on the road to tell me that he was also a cyclist and he was so happy that I was out traveling and that it was so great (but despite the impending rain of doom and the fact that it was around 830pm he didn’t offer to have me stay – what is with people?) – I found a weird urban forest that had the gate left unlocked so I set up my tent under a tree and proceeded to have another allergic meltdown.

At the onset of the downpour I had just finished setting up my tent and getting all my belongings inside.

 

Cooking a feast

Cooking a feast

Camping night 1

Camping night 1

Drying my affairs

Drying my affairs

Camping night 2 (accidentally in Switzerland)

Camping night 2 (accidentally in Switzerland)

No bikes.

No bikes.

Where Italy meets Switzerland

Where Italy meets Switzerland

On the grind in Napoli

When you travel this cheaply for this long, you really depend on the kindness of strangers. We count on strangers to house us when we need rest, to fill our water bottles when we’re thirsty, and to turn a blind eye when we camp somewhere illegal, which is pretty much every night.

But sometimes those strangers go above and beyond, like the bartender who let us stay in his house, or the woman who saw us cooking dinner in the piazza and sent a care package of wine and cookies.

Antonio Cilindro and his family definitely fit into the “above and beyond” category. Antonio was our host in Santa Maria Capua Vetere, a small city on the outskirts of Napoli. Antonio wasn’t home when we arrived, but we received a warm greeting from his family, none of whom spoke English. They helped with our bags, made our beds, gave us towels for the shower, and generally made us feel at home.

When Antonio got back we were treated to a dinner of potato chip-breaded chicken (ingenious!), roast vegetables, salad, and cheese. They wouldn’t even let us do the dishes.

After some conversation we got the sense that they did this a lot, so we asked him: “how often do you host couchsurfers?” “Almost every day,” he told us. I was floored.

The next day, we took a train into the city. We had asked Antonio where we should go in Napoli. He told us where to find the best Sfogliatelle and pizza. Our first day went something like this:

1) Eat sfogliatelle
2) Drink coffee
3) Drink more coffee
4) Eat pizza
5) Eat deep-fried pizza
6) Eat gelato
7) Eat deep-fried pizza
8) Drink beer
9) Eat sfogliatelle
10) Drink coffee

After that we took the train back to Antonio’s place and made poutine.

I didn’t know much about Napoli before arriving. I’d heard it was dirty and full of thieves. I’d heard it was run by the local mob, the Camorra, whose infiltration of municipal contracts had left the streets piled with trash. But that was about it.

The first thing you notice about Napoli is the hustle. Every tourist destination has its hustlers, but in Napoli it feels like the whole place is on the grind. Everyone’s out in the streets trying to make ends meet, and it gives the city a vibrant buzz.

I don’t want to over-romanticize. I’m sure this isn’t a socially optimal situation. I’m sure a lot of the people selling cheap goods in the streets are there because of a lack of other work opportunities. Still, it really makes the city feel alive.

The other thing about Napoli is that it’s conspicuously *not* a tourist town. There’s no shortage of attractions: a cathedral, a couple of castles, a smattering of museums, and a plethora of piazzas, among others. And there are tourists!

But even in the heart of the old city there are locals. And there are businesses that cater to locals. You might see an overpriced souvenir shop, but you might also see a hardware store right next door, or a fruit stand where the old nonas buy their daily produce. The tourists are mixed right in with retirees and delivery drivers and music students.

I couldn’t say the same about Rome, but we’ll save that for the next post.

 

Lookers

Lookers

Napoli

Napoli

Pastry

Pastry

Highway signage is for the weak

Author’s note: We lied. We said that our elevation gain on this ride was greater than 2,500 metres. This turns out to have been a miscalculation. The real elevation gain was substantially less, though it felt pretty brutal at the time.

Rules, in southern Italy, are malleable things. This kind of lax attitude toward authority has its downsides (rampant corruption, dangerously bad parking, and so on), but it often works in our favour. Take road closures, for example.

The first time we came across a closed road was in Sicily. At that time we were still pretty oblivious to our new environs, so we cruised right through a sign or two. By the time we reached the construction site we’d climbed a substantial hill, and we were in no mood to squander that hard-earned elevation gain.

We dodged the barrier and got about halfway through when some workers on the cliff face above started shouting: “Chiusa! Chiusa!” Thomas pointed in the direction we were going and shouted back “OK?” “OK,” they sighed.

Since then we’ve treated road closure signs with a grain of salt. It was on a closed stretch of road on the southern cape of Italy’s heel that we saw some of the nicest scenery of the whole trip: rocky cliffs, emerald seas, and a view of Albania in the distance. There wasn’t a hint of construction in sight.

So when we found a closed road on the way out of Matera, we were, understandably, quite skeptical. The nominally closed road opened onto a scene so pastoral it could be used as the setting of the Shire in the next Tolkien adaptation: gentle green slopes in all directions, with scarcely a building in sight. In the half-hour we took to eat lunch we didn’t see a single car. The road was fine.

The spot where we camped that night was, sadly, not so pastoral. When you travel by bicycle, your mobility is confined to the daylight hours. If you don’t find a good spot to pitch your tent before sunset, you kind of have to take what you can get. That night we got a small, thistly patch of hillside in a semi-urban area, lit by the glow of a nearby industrial park. We slept to the sound of, like, maybe a thousand dogs. They barked literally all night.

The next day got off to a slow start. First, the directions we got from Google included a road that turned out not to exist. The alternate route took us to a road that was – surprise, surprise! – closed. I admit I was a bit more apprehensive about this one. It went straight up a steep hill, but perhaps more concerning was the chunk that had been washed out and replaced by a wavy stretch of gravel.

We decided to throw caution to the wind and go for it. The road wound its way ever upward, the pavement occasionally giving way to rough patches of gravel. The hill was relentless, climbing steadily for the first twelve kilometres, then descending for one, then climbing again.

In the next town we stopped for a coffee and told the bartender where we were headed. Thomas asked half-jokingly if it was all uphill. “Si,” she said, laughing.

We ended the day with a total elevation gain of over 2,500 metres.

That evening we were smart. We scouted out a campsite before dark, settling on a sheltered patch of meadow. We cooked a meal that was straight-up gourmet and got a really good sleep. The next day we would make it to Napoli.

Windows XP?

Windows XP?

Flats so far: Cristina, 0; Thomas, 0; Alex, 3

Flats so far: Cristina, 0; Thomas, 0; Alex, 3

Happy

Cooking an excellent dinner

Found shoes

Found shoes