Looking Back on Italy
(Ruth) Our final stretch of Switzerland was beautiful for riding. Meandering tarmac roads in perfect condition and drivers who gave you lots of room, sometimes with a polite nod or raised palm.
Everything changed as we crossed the border into Italy. Our bikes began to shake from the cracks in the road and we found ourselves swerving pothole after pothole. The reservation and care of Swiss drivers transformed into a cacophony of horns from passing drivers. Some were friendly, accompanied with a 'bravo' out the window, others less so.
It was getting dark as we tried to navigate the cratered roads. Lake Como was somewhere to our left but it was too dark to see and we were focused on making it to our first destination intact.
Oli and I have often chatted about how we think cycling reduces culture shock. You go so slowly across the land that countries almost dissolve into one another. There is little room for sudden change. Our hypothesis was well and truly shattered crossing into Italy. The energy felt instantly different, whilst we remained much the same. We were a bundle of exhaustion and excitement, moving our legs in slow circles. But, like the borders we’d crossed before, pedalling into a new country awakens your curiosity and renews the sense of the unknown ahead.
My main memories of Italy unsurprisingly revolve around food. The blood oranges given to us by a traffic warden in Milan, the cheese and honey in Pavia, the pizza and Aperol spritz in too many places to name and of course the homecooked food from the people we met.
There was the Willy Wonker-esque dream of being let into an Italian Gelateria after hours. Watching how Luca whips up the ice cream from scratch and rejoicing at the phrase 'you can eat whatever you like’’ and then there was the gigantic Easter lunch with Alberto and Sabrina’s family in Corte di Piove di Sacco.
The problem with saying 'eat as much as you like' to someone on a long distance cycling tour is that they can put away an inhuman amount. Oli and I are always hungry and we've amazed several people on our journey with the amount we can wolf down after a days ride. At the Easter lunch, 17 family members from 3 generations watch us devour the homemade lasagne and dolce di mandrel e amaretti. The Grandmothers kept encouraging us to ‘eat!, eat!’ whilst the Grandfathers continued to offer grappa and espresso.
I didn’t say no and it was an incredible meal. I had to roll/crawl my way to our bedroom after to lie down. I dozed for half an hour or so whilst my stomach bloated, exhausted from digesting. Drifting in and out of sleep I listened to the sound of the family playing in the garden, hearing Oli tell tales of our adventures so far. He came to check on me when I didn’t come back downstairs. When I fully awoke I had the sudden urge to be sick. Knowing I wouldn’t make it to the bathroom, Oli foraged for a plastic bag in our panniers. To my embarrassment, the Easter lunch made a big comeback. I felt like a kid who got overexcited and ate more than they could handle. I felt a mixture of love, gratitude and horror as Oli bagged up contents of the lunch and assured me no-one had heard me wretching.
After the majority of the family had said goodbye, we explained to Alberto and Sabrina what had happened, sheepishly carrying the triple-bagged evidence. Thankfully I have good aim and there was no damage to the lovely woven rugs next to my bed. Even more thankfully, Sabrina and Alberto didn’t bat an eyelid. They directed us to the outside bin with a kind smile. I guess your tolerance for such events increases when you raise children.
(Oli): I was really looking forward to Italy. After all; isn’t it a nation of enthusiastic cyclists with a reputation for classic bike manufacturers, retro cycle wear, and breathtaking routes: surely we were about to experience our own gentle Giro D’Italia? I could foresee smooth long roads twisting around ancient hillsides against which the colours of retro jerseys become an over-saturated blur as pairs of wheels spin faster and faster down cypress-lined slopes. Isn’t Italy a country in which quiet roads connect idyllic town squares where gangs of eager cyclists gather round local fountains to splash water on their sun-kissed brows? Where they stand, still astride their bikes, but with heads tipped back to pour espresso and chuck cannoli down their throats, before leaning forward on the pedals to propel themselves onward to the next town and the next opportunity to stuff themselves with something delicious a few miles down the road? I couldn’t wait. The sun was out. At last it felt like spring was the dominant season. And now, at a lower altitude, we could pack away the winter riding gear for good. Surely our time in Italy was going to be La Dolce Vita on two wheels?
Looking back, my memory of the riding itself is that it was dull and uneventful. It felt anti-climatic. Perhaps this was because one month into the trip we were no longer running on adrenaline. Our deviation into Italy was wholly unplanned and maybe in the back of my mind, I still hadn’t quite let go of images of Austrian forests and Romanian meadows. I suspect this was the first instance of route-regret; the grass is always greener somewhere else, right? We've since come to realise there is no right or wrong decision on a trip of this scale; you can’t go everywhere so you simply make a choice and nine times out of ten you make the most of it. Back then, with a vague sense of extensively scenic riding opportunities somewhere else in Italy, I felt it was a shame our chosen route proved to be a bit of a dud. Our logic had been as follows: we didn’t want to head too far south and the more interesting roads heading directly east via the Dolomites were still under snow; so we headed south through Milan to the River Po, which we then followed east towards Venice before heading back up around the top of the boot and into Slovenia via Trieste. There was nothing wrong with this route; it made sense geographically but it was just a bit forgettable and not to my taste.
Anyway, although it’s a major part, the cycling is still only one part of a trip of this kind. And although our route was flatter and less dramatic, the people we met certainly weren’t. We left Italy with vivid memories centred around some truly wonderful people and experiences; none in the least bit forgettable. And when pedalling the hours away between towns and villages we were kept entertained by the antics of the 'beaver-rats' which seemed to be everywhere in spring.
Apparently, these are locally known as ‘coypu’ or ’nutria’ and a growing pest to the agricultural authorities. To us, they’ll always be beaver rats and it was hard to find them anything other than joyful. It was not just the monotony of a flat road that made them remarkable; Ruth was actually enjoying the riding (zero hills and a gazillion coffee opportunities) and yet was equally enchanted by the unexpected delights of the beaver-rats. The first time we saw one was just south of Milan. We didn’t get a proper look. We weren’t sure what it was we’d seen. It was kind of round-faced and toothy, strangely sentient-looking, and absolutely massive; was there really a fat little rodent in Europe that was bigger than a cat? What the hell was it?! Before long we found we were spotting them everywhere. They appeared to operate in little family units and be incredibly social; which seems wholly appropriate for Italy. We must have seen hundreds over the next few days; grazing in the wetlands and ditches around the Po, often just watching us pass, but sometimes diving back into the water and snaking away in a single file line, little brown heads and tips of tails just visible above the water, towards the nearest burrow entrance. They became such fun to watch that we’d be genuinely sad each time we had to weave our way around the carcasses of those that evidently hadn't make it back from a foraging trip across the road. They look sweet & gentle in their natural habitat and appear to be gifted movers in the mud. Unfortunately, judging by the number of comic death poses, they must be a bit ungainly & awkward on drier land.
The beaver-rat; a surprise favourite of the trip so far but definitely not one for a road race.
With the exception of espressos, which are regarded as a god given right and for which you generally only pay a few cents, Italy is an expensive country. So, like Switzerland, it was tricky to navigate from a budget point of view. Especially when all the food is so saucy and carby; exactly what you crave during a cycling day, but not always what you can afford time after time. So, again like Switzerland, the Warm Showers app became vital to us. It’s hard to put into words quite how appreciative we are that we can pull out a phone, open the app, and connect with people all over the world who live close to our route and are willing to give us a meal and a bed for the night. It is one of the only ways in which a trip of this scale has been financially possible for us and it’s certainly enabled us to meet a great many wonderful people. Early on in Italy we had the pleasure of meeting Shia and Shani; a musical couple from Israel who live in Cremona where Shani is studying violin making. Cremona was the city of Monteverdi, Amati and Stradivari. It's famous for its violins and their flat has a dedicated corner complete with the most extensive domestic collection of files and chisels I’ve seen, all hanging neatly above a bespoke violin-maker’s stool. A half-finished instrument on the desk, the raw wood glowing gently under a lamp. I remember staring at it, listening to Shani and Shia sing Amy Winehouse together whilst cooking shakshuka in the kitchen.
Italy also presented us with our first mechanical hitch when a rack-lug on my fork popped out and my front right pannier decided to try and abandon ship, dragging me to an abrupt halt. Thankfully an abrupt halt from a snail’s pace is not a dramatic event and a couple of cable ties did the trick for a couple of days when we came across a magical-looking bike repair shop in Ferrara. With the nuts and bolts of bikes of all shapes and sizes hanging from all surfaces, it had the air of a bygone era. As did its quintessentially Italian-looking mechanic, Giulio, who, flourishing a drill in one hand and a smile behind his thick dark moustache and little round spectacles, quickly improved upon our temporary fix by bolting straight through the fork for us. He chuckled at our ambitions of reaching China. (At a certain point, when asked where we were going, we’d begun saying ‘China’ for ease of translation - rather than ‘around the world’). Giulio refused payment & bid us ‘bon viaggio' with a smile. Rack intact, Ferrara’s cobbles now no match for us, we went on our way.
Having moaned about the lack of dramatic scenery I should say there were parts of our route through Italy that were very eye-catching. The width of the Po, particularly near to the Venice Delta, becomes quite a sight to behold. And after following any river for a while you begin to enjoy even the most nuanced of changes. In fact, we were enjoying it so much at one point that we made the mistake of following the Po to its sea estuary. We’d been referring to an offline map on the Eurovelo phone app. Without fully zooming in I hadn’t appreciated that there was no bridge near the river’s eastern-most point. I was suspicious but the cycle map indicated a fully joined up line and didn’t make it clear that this includes a series of boat taxis that island-hop around Venice. Something you can only do in the tourist season. We’d arrived too early. There was no hustle and bustle, no gelato or ferry. We sat and had a cup of tea from the flask whilst looking out to sea, wondering how long it would be before the inevitable drizzle began, staring wistfully at little empty boats that bobbed around in little empty harbours before resolving to turn around and head back, thirty kilometres or so to the nearest road bridge north.
Just as we were leaving we heard a shout. Two men had emerged from a bar and were approaching us. They gestured that they had a boat and would ferry us across the river mouth. Their names were Simone and Sarulo, perhaps father and son though we couldn’t be sure. I think an old man who’d been watching us a few minutes earlier, had gone into the bar having guessed our less than mild predicament, to rouse a resting fisherman or two and persuade them to give us a lift. That’s my best guess anyway; so thank you to whoever that old man was. We didn’t see him again. I love moments like this; when the unexpected happens, and the trajectory of your day alters course. It’s usually to do with people and it almost always for the best. We quickly whipped the panniers off and Sarulo deftly hauled the bikes onto the boat before lending us a steady hand down too. A few minutes later we were on the north side of the Po cycling between wetlands as the sunset. Pointing every now and again at groups of pale flamingoes.
In previous blogs we've mentioned our riotous evening of table football with Roberto, being treated to a ‘backstage tour’ of the gelataria by Luca and Andrea in Luzzara, and the sheer loveliness of being invited to stay and spend the Easter weekend with Alberto, Sabrina, Agata and their extended family; young and old. I have a much-loved elderly grandfather back home in the UK and over the years our family has often been able to get together at Easter. Being able to take the day off the bikes and share it with Alberto’s family meant a lot. I even was able to call home and describe the scene to my own gathered family, omitting from my description the fact that I had some regurgitated lasagne between my toes: Ruth’s final demi-vomit had just neatly dropped through the handle of a third plastic bag and onto my feet. A good aim; yes, but only up to a point.
After more roads, pasta, and ice cream we then briefly stayed a night with Mario and Luigi in a small B&B. Though the significance for a child of the nineties seemed lost on them. I was probably eight or nine when the first Nintendos were released and although by no means a gamer, the Mario Bros theme is a tune which I find playing away in my subconscious every now and again. Like Frere Jaques, Chumbawumba and Star Wars. With Mario probably in his sixties and Luigi in his eighties, the Nintendo reference was understandably irrelevant. There was a note pinned to the door when we first arrived. The family were out celebrating Mario’s mother’s birthday and by the time they arrived home we had fallen asleep. We emerged sleepily from the bedroom to introduce ourselves and had an en-masse pyjama moment on the landing. Luigi open shirted with boxers and Mario in a set of stripes worthy of Morecambe and Wise. The next morning we woke up around nine. Check out wasn’t till midday so we figured there was no hurry. And after 110kms the day before being horizontal a little longer was ever so welcome.
I went outside to see if I could fine-tune a couple of my upper gears that had begun making themselves heard. I pulled on the chains a bit too. After 2000 kms they had begun slipping occasionally and I suspected they were reaching the end of their journey with us. Again I wished I hadn’t tried the 3-in-1 wash-come-lube from Decathlon. It created a thick black molasses-like ooze that attracts grit and grime. It was a good water repellant though (1 of its 3 claims); my hands and t-shirt will attest to that.
The garden was beautiful in the sunlight. Mario’s house is a lovely old house on the end of a row just off the main road through Canussio. With swinging shutter doors, creaking floors, a copper sink in the washroom and old paint-flecked beams above the dark wooden bed, it feels like you’ve stepped into a period set initially. A film set with a scattering of anachronistic touches in the form of Zefferelli and Fellini posters, trainers on the stairs, and a laptop in the corner. I liked it a lot.
His elderly mother; Anuncetta, appeared from another corner of the garden and gestured the question ‘coffee?’ I unwittingly wiped chain gunk onto my forehead, smiled, and nodded gratefully. We relaxed for another couple of hours; I tinkered unsuccessfully with the bikes whilst Ruth posted a couple of pictures from the week before. Then, after a bowl of muesli and an orange, we set off. I was typically uptight about not leaving at the time we said we’d try to leave. I’ve since got over this but at the time, aware we’d probably end up cycling in darkness yet again, couldn’t help but grumble at Ruth and resent myself for faffing.
As we cycled we played a category based game that Ruth had taught me; ‘I went to the moon’. Over the course of the day the landscape began to get more forested and dynamic and the road beginning to curl upwards towards the border region with Slovenia.
Our final couple of nights were spent with Nino and Jennifer, in Opicina, in the hills above Trieste. In their profile, Nino pretty much sums up how I feel about our own experiences of Warm Showers. As I remember it he writes; ‘So far Warm Showers has only been a beautiful experience for me and my family.’ A simple statement which made me keen to meet him.
As usual that evening we arrived in darkness and met Nino and Jennifer, their daughter; Carina, and their dog; Maxi, whose little furry nose appeared, snuffling, under the section of harris fencing we mistook for a gate at one end of their garden. They showed us to our bedroom and shower room, which are in a converted garage across the garden from the house, told us to take as long as we needed, but invited us to wander back across to the main house, in our own time, to have a glass of wine with them before bed. It immediately felt very warm and welcoming.
Jennifer teaches art and is originally from Boston, US. Nino is Sicilian; which he cites as a factor in his great love of hosting. The two met on a plane to the US in 1995 and in a scene worthy of a film with a happy ending, Nino asked about the area of New York he was headed to, and Jennifer ended up showing him around. When you meet them you feel very much at home.
Although we had been planning to leave the next morning, Nino painted a picture of Trieste as a place worth passing a little time and told us we could spend the next evening together if we would like to stay another night. I wanted to get new chains for the bikes and my rear wheel bearings checked out, and we needed to catch up with a few things online, so we gratefully accepted the invitation to stay another day.
Wednesday morning became a rudimentary laundry session followed by us hurtling down the hillside into Trieste, hands clasped tightly around the brake levers most of the way, to find a bike mechanic. Having sorted the bike chores; (grazie, Stefano & Milena), we settled in a cafe by the old canal in the centre of Trieste. A cafe with reasonable Wifi, decent coffee, and excellent veggie burgers.
The next few days of our trip - our route through the Balkans down to Istanbul, had remained largely unplanned since we deviated from our original Danube itinerary and choose to go AWOL over the Alps. After re-reading various cycle blogs about the region we settled on a route and Ruth began to break it down and research likely places to camp and/or accommodation options. What she proposed looked fantastic and I was very excited about what lay head. After an Aperol Spritz and a dash to the florists to pick up a thank-you-cactus we began to drag ourselves back up Via Commerciale towards Opicina. It was, as Nino had suggested, a long slow horrid steep climb, nigh impossible in sections. Ruth had the ‘hatred-of-hills’ look about her. It starts in her facial expressions and with small acts of procrastination; acts of dissent against the forthcoming ascent, and ends up taking over her whole physicality. Ruth is one of the most buoyant and life affirming, wonderful people, I’ve ever met. She’s always upbeat and a joy to be around. I feel very lucky to be with her. So when she’s not her usual cheerful self it sometimes takes me by surprise. It’s not that either of us is any worse than your average cyclist on hills - within the last month we had done Alpine climbs with fully laden touring bikes - so both of us are capable, she just wasn’t in the mood in this particular instance. And the hills out of Trieste are unforgiving at the best of times, let alone when you’re not in the mood for a hill.
Once back at the house in Opicina we realised the laundry was far from dry and dug about in the panniers for the little washing line Mum or Richard & Catrin had put in a stocking for us at Christmas. (Thank you Santas)! We hotboxed the room as best we could and strung the line between a couple of coat-hooks. Et voila, a very dippy washing line slung across the entrance to the room. An obstacle every time we wanted to leave or go to the toilet.
We then realised we had run out of snacks. We’d run out of food of any kind in fact. Better here; on a rest-day, an hour or so before a certain dinner, than in many of the places we might have run out of food, but one of noticeable changes we’ve experienced over the course of the trip is a disproportionate increase in our appetites and, when hungry, a childlike demand for immediate gratification in the form of carbs and foody stodge.
We were due to join Nino and Jennifer for dinner; and given how comfortable they’d made us it would undoubtedly be delicious and it was a safe bet there would be plenty of it. We were very much looking forward to it but the fact was dinner wasn’t going to be for another hour or two and we’d run out of snacks. At that point it was just past seven and there was a kebab/pizza place open just round the corner. It was going dark so I donned my hi-vis and wheeled the bike back out. A little cheeky garlic bread the prize in mind.
The guys in the kebab shop were lovely - it turned out they were Turkish and, having asked about the bike and where I was from, were full of enthusiasm for the journey. Which led to a long and animated conversation in which I was stood, clad in hi-vis, illuminated in the shop doorway, complete with touring bike in one hand and a takeaway pizza box containing a small margarita in the other (it cost the same as the garlic bread). Given this was the main street through Opicina, the longer I was stood there, the more conspicuous I felt and the more anxious I became about being caught red-handed buying pizza before dinner.
The kebab shop brothers, Masheed and Omar, were great fun though. Two brothers who had another in Manchester, and further family in Istanbul. I wish I’d had the camera on me as it was a hilarious conversation pieced together with a range of gestures and online translations. I had originally imagined stashing the pizza in my backpack but wasn’t sure the box would fit and didn’t want to roll it up into some kind of cardboard-calzone right in front of them. Having said that I also didn’t want Nino or Jennifer to drive by on their way home and spot me holding a pizza. Thankfully my kebab shop dilemma was resolved when Chiara, a passerby who spoke some English, joined the doorway discussion and also ended up enthusing about the trip and wishing us 'Bon Viaggio'. Thankfully the brothers persuaded her to place an order so they returned inside and I left with the pizza concealed in my backpack.
And thank god it fitted in the backpack. Moments later Nino was arriving back just as I reached the garden gate. Maxi had received his seasonal haircut and the once curly lagotto looked like a different beast altogether. Inside our room Ruth and I devoured a couple of slices of pizza, put the rest aside for the next day's ride, and made ourselves a bit more presentable before heading across to spend the evening with our hosts.
It was such a nice evening. They are not cyclists themselves but discovered Warm Showers via a colleague of Nino’s who had agreed to host a pair of cyclists in 2015 but who was no longer able. She had asked around at work to see if anybody else could host them and Nino had promptly stepped up. Both Nino and Jennifer are very naturally open and social. And at various points in their lives both have also lived abroad, far from their countries of birth. Jennifer spoke of the difficulty of truly integrating with Italy; whilst it is her home and she’s happy here, she told us ‘I think I will always be the foreigner; the American, to many of them’. Perhaps knowing what it is to be a stranger to a culture or a newcomer to a city, Jennifer and Nino feel a sympathy towards people passing through a place and instinctively extend their very genuine and heartfelt hospitality without much of a second thought. Whatever the reason, they are phenomenal hosts and I hope we’ll see them again.
We talked further about the nature of hosting and hospitality; how no matter how different everybody is there is a real openness and ease of connection. And Jennifer summed it up saying; ‘It reminds you how similar we all actually are.’ And then, to our unanimous amusement, we then discovered a friend in common; Rebecca Lowe; who cycled solo from the UK to Iran and who had met us one Saturday morning last year to share some insights over a cup of coffee. Rebecca had stayed with them three years earlier when she’d passed through Trieste. It is such a coincidence, like Blanca having stayed with Karin and Marten, but one that makes the world seem a smaller and friendlier place. Small enough and friendly enough to continue cycling around in fact.