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

 

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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.

From the Masseria to the Sassi

I love being on the road. When you cycle, your slow and steady pace enables you to get to know the countries you’re visiting in a way that is not possible when city-hopping. Your impressions of that place are influenced more by entire regions than major tourist sites. You work hard for the distance you cover, whether beautiful landscapes or smelly buffalo fields. Although you do not stop in every quaint town or for every beautiful view, you experience the journey in a much more tangible way than you could by train or car. You feel like you’re a part of your environment, and not just an observer behind a window.

You do, however, get smelly on the road. The feeling of hair plastered to your head in a impressive sweaty greasy helmet-hair-do becomes normal. The other day I wondered aloud about whether I would be allowed to look around a dance studio we passed. Thomas kindly reminded me that I looked rather homeless and had black grease smeared down my legs… I didn’t check out the dance studio.

The filth adds to our endless appreciation for our hosts along our way. A nice shower and a deep sleep go a long way.

My aunt and uncle, Fiona and Brandon, who live in Poggiardo, provided us with everything three worn-down travellers could hope for: hot showers, warm beds, and food galore. Fiona and Brandon are undertaking a massive restoration project. They are turning a dilapidated 18th century Masseria into a beautiful home. Masserias, old farmhouses that were fortified to protect the farmers against attacks from the Turks or pirates, are common to the region of Puglia. We ate home-grown olives (they brought in 75 year-old olive trees by crane to plant on the property), and drank Aperol spritz’ in the room where the animals used to poop and drink from troughs. Fiona’s artistic eye has completely transformed the property. It was so lovely to visit Italy’s “heel”, and it was important for me to catch up with family I haven’t managed to see in years.

Over a few Aperol spritz’… Or maybe the 5L bottle of wine… We decided to meet up with Fiona and Brandon in Matera. We had no idea what Matera was, but it was exactly on our route to Naples, so we decided we’d see them in three days and specified a campsite as a meeting place. I’m still a little shocked we made it to Matera in time; the persistent headwind made even cycling downhill difficult. But on the third morning we were finishing up our bottle of Fiona’s homemade finocchietto (fennel liquor) when she and Brandon drove their massive white van into the campsite.

Matera was phenomenal. We arrived with no expectations and were blown away. Sassi is the old city of Matera and has been continuously inhabited for the past 9,000 years. The old city is composed of part-cave, part-man made dwellings that are carved into a breathtaking limestone gorge. The lower rudimentary caves look frozen in the Palaeolithic period and lie underneath a complex myriad of streets and cave-houses.

Matera’s transformation from ‘shame to fame’ came about in the 1950’s after public awareness of Sassi’s desperate poverty and rampant disease. Between 1953 and 1968, the 15,000 inhabitants of Sassi were forced to relocate to new housing developments.

We visited a “typical” cave dwelling that was open for visitors. The clean plastic horse in the manger and the fresh plaster over the moulding damp limestone glorified the cave dwelling, especially after reading the child mortality rate in the 50’s was over 50%. Today, some of the cave dwellings have been renovated and turned into swish hotels, the profits surely not falling into the pockets of those stripped of their homes by law and forced into failed housing projects that segregated their once-strong communities.

On our last morning, we drove across the river to look across the gorge at the ancient city. It was a sight I will remember for a long time.

Our journey until Matera

Our journey until Matera


The refurbished Masseria

The refurbished Masseria


5L of great wine

5L of great wine


Camper van

Camper van


The creepy Mel Gibson movie was filmed here

The creepy Mel Gibson movie was filmed here


Posing

Posing


The gorge where Matera was built

The gorge where Matera was built


The Sassi

The Sassi

Thighcumferenceameasurements (we measured our thighs)

The post you have all been waiting for! Thigh measurements. Just remember that bigger is not always better…

THOMAS
Right thunderous thigh: 56cm
Left thunderous thigh: 57cm

ALEX
Right thunderous thigh: 51cm
Left thunderous thigh: 51cm

CRISTINA
Right thunderous thigh: 49cm
Left thunderous thigh: 48cm

Hoping to leave Rosarno far behind us, we cycled out of our campsite and onwards. Our arrival to mainland Italy had been riddled with lost iPhones, rain, and strange-creepy towns. Nostalgic for dreamy seaside Sicilian towns, we were left wondering how many “Rosarnos” were to come.

Luckily Rosarno was not the Calabrian norm. We enjoyed the rest of our cycling in Calabria, especially cappuccinos on a sunny cafe patio in Pizzo, and watching the sunset while camping on the beach.

Monday the 30th however, was difficult. Towards the afternoon, our trusty regional cycling route turned into a large trucking highway. Then came the tunnels. Long, dark, narrow tunnels of death. There is NO light at the end of a dark multi-kilometre tunnel. Just darkness. So picture this: I am entering a dark hole in the mountainside where I am forced on the inside of the white line by the tunnel barrier, and I am starting to feel a little nervous. Then comes the sound. The sound of an avalanche building momentum behind my small flimsy bicycle. I assume that semi-truck drivers do not spend much time on bicycles in tight tunnels, because as they approach you, they honk. As if I need a warning I was about to be run over by a massive loud truck. If the noise and the truck weren’t bad enough, the wind completed my total desperation. The wind behind the truck slams into you and shudders your handlebars, a rather frightening phenomenon when there’s is no room for mistakes.

After a long row of tunnels, I was sitting on the side of the highway with my head in my hands unable to go any further. Luckily I am traveling with two caring individuals. As the first drops of rain fell, we exited the highway, cycled into Cetraro, and hopped on a train.

Our next stop was Praia a Mare. We cycled down a steep winding road from the mountains to the ocean. As luck would have it, we cycled into town and ran into the most absurd tandem bicycle. The front peddler was in recumbent position, while the back peddler sits in front of a large pile of bags, sport sticks, a stuffed animal, a bright billowing flag, and who knows what else. The best part was, we knew exactly who this was: Roberto. Gianluca, our Couchsurfing host in Messina, had told us about his friend traveling on his bicycle Va-Lentina (go slow), named after his now-ex-girlfriend Valentina. Gianluca told us ridiculous stories of accompanying Roberto up THE giant hill (the very one where Thomas lost his iPhone) with the chain falling off every 5 meters, and his friend nodding off in the front seat. It was quite the interaction! Roberto, and his new cycling partner Seth, were off on the train to Naples for some reason I never really understood. They broke down before reaching the train station… However, their enthusiasm and excitement was quite amazing, and that really seems to be all you need to succeed at cycle touring.

In Praia a Mare we stayed with our friend Iman’s parents. What hospitality they showed us! We ate more food than any sane human being can consume, and explored the beautiful beaches and streets of the town… but more on that in the next blog post…

Last campsite in Calabria

Last campsite in Calabria

image4

Roberto and Seth!

Roberto and Seth!

Traveling cyclists

Traveling cyclists

Our first taste of Sicily

We finally made it off the ferry thanks to an old Italian man who realized we were standing bewildered behind a large crowd of shoving people. After yelling “PASSPORTO PASSPORTO”, he dragged us to the front of the crowd who had been waiting to buy entry visas.

Arriving in Palermo in the dark put a damper on our plans to bike out of the city and set up camp on the beach before sunset. I was uneasy about how we were going to find somewhere to eat and sleep. Would we be awoken by police unzipping our tents and telling us to get lost?

I felt clumsy walking our bikes through the lively streets. Loaded bikes are heavy and wide, and the weight of the bike is thrown from side to side on cobblestone streets. We stopped, picked up food at a grocery store and sat in a “piazza” for a feast. Here, I learned my first valuable lesson: never travel while hangry (hungry + angry, for those who don’t know the term). Bread, cheese and cold meats had never tasted so good. Looking at all the beautiful old buildings, it finally set in that we had made it to Italy.

We biked ~30km in the dark out of Palermo and found a concrete perch overlooking the ocean. We set up camp and shared our €1.20 bottle of wine in celebratation of our first night on the road. With our tents popped and sleeping bags laid out, the empty holsters that had held my stolen water bottles had become convenient spaces for wine.

The morning brought sunshine and high spirits. Our first day of cycling! We rode on the SS113 towards Messina. We struggled up our first hills, but were rewarded by spectacular views of the rolling green landscape meeting the Mediterranean Sea. We passed castles in the countryside between countless seaside towns. Some towns were very small and consisted only of a small cluster of buildings, but without fail, every town had at least one “bar”–the Italian fusion of a cafe and bar filled with old men talking exaggeratedly, smoking, and drinking espresso. Many people watched us cycling past, and some would wave and yell ciao.

We stopped for lunch in Cefalù, a town straight out of a travel magazine. Once again we sat like vagabonds in the main plaza, on the steps of the towering duomo, and made our sandwiches.

By evening we had made it to Castel di Tusa. Along the beach we found some inconspicuous rocky areas were we could set up camp. Unloading our bags, a man walking down the beach approached us. At first we were apprehensive. Would he tell us to move camp? But from his fast-paced Italian tone we could tell he was just interested in what we were doing. We don’t speak Italian and he definitely did not speak English, but after two days of practice with some nifty language apps we deciphered that the grocery store opened at 5 and closed at 8, or maybe it was just that he would come back at 5 and show us where it was… or was it that the store closed at 5? Our new friend waved and disappeared down the beach. To our surprise he did return at 5, but to tell us that the ground was “troppo bruto” and with some pointing and hand motions at the rocks, he invited us to sleep in his yard.

A few hours later we were at the local bar drinking large bottles of Sicilian beer with our new friend Liborio Monte. He was an eccentric military man-turned-artist, whose answer to many of our questions was “Sicilia no polizia, Sicilia Mafia!”. We laughed about cow discos (all Sicilian cows wear loud bells) and his two lovers. The story of his love affairs became more absurd with every beer. One woman is a police officer who is married to a judge, and the other a surgeon. Neither “ragazza” knows about the other, so he carefully alternates nights and plans with each one.

We have encountered many kind and generous people on the road so far. Large smiles, waves on the streets, exchanges of “Ciao!” with other cyclists on the road, and the expression of surprise and interest when we say “sono Canadese” all seem to make the thighs a little stronger.

First dinner in the piazza.

First dinner in the piazza.

First night on the road.

First night on the road.

Early morning.

Early morning.

First stunning vista.

First stunning vista.

Architecture.

Architecture.

Break time in Cefalu.

Break time in Cefalu.

Cheap Sicilian beer.

Cheap Sicilian beer.

Liborio at work.

Liborio at work.