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did have an All-Italia (1:800 000) road map, but it had already repeatedly proven in the most infuriating of ways to be outdated, and furthermore only contained Italy’s largest highways (upon most of which bicycles are prohibited).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.
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.