Crossing into Italy brought some relief weather-wise as we exchanged zero degree temperatures and low cloud for clear skies and sunshine.
Cycling down the length of Lake Maggiore with a backdrop of snowy mountain peaks on a sunny day was a delight. We couldn’t really say the same for the ride into the heart of Milan…… although wrinkled little old ladies on ancient oversized bicycles seemed to negotiate the fearsome traffic with ease. One look from one of these aged crones would shrivel every testosterone charged, leather-clad, lead footed lout on the road.
So far Italy is food – so much to eat, so little time!
We are in Milan for a week, visiting Ed’s daughter Jess, before heading south to the Cinque Terre and onwards to Brindisi and the ferry across to Greece……. hopefully we can soon break out the suntan lotion and spare the odd thought for those facing the winter ahead back home.1,500 kilometres down – only around 28,500 left to pedal!!
Newsletter 2 – Spending Time with Granny
We’re seven weeks in now and have settled comfortably into the rhythm of the road.
The week off the bikes in Milan was great – a chance to rest the legs and give the stomach a workout as we attempted to sample as much of the Italian diet as possible. This was aided and abetted by Jess’s Italian ‘family’ – her partner Michele and his brother Niccolo and Mum Adrianna. Jess gave us the insider’s guide to Milan life, including of course the best places to eat and drink. We have created our own personal country evaluation scorecard, which is heavily weighted towards food, but also takes into consideration the weather, scenery, friendliness of the locals, availability of stove fuel, temperament of the canine population and other factors.
Italy rated very highly for food, but unfortunately lost points in the serenity department (where is it?) It seems that when you stuff around 70 million people into a relatively small space what you get is complete pandemonium. It’s all very good natured chaos though and we soon learnt that trying to obey the traffic laws (for example) just left the locals hopelessly confused. Far better to do as everyone else does and ignore traffic signals, ride the wrong way up one way streets, never give way and if anyone objects yell at them and wave your arms around frantically.
We noticed the ‘style police’ were out in Milan – quite literally as the policewomen strode around town in high heels with long hair flowing. The Italians do seem to have a bit of a uniform fetish ….. everyone from the ever-present ‘carabineri’ (military police – often pimply faced adolescents brandishing very large guns), to the officious ‘lollypop ladies’ (a far cry from the benevolent grandmotherly types who usher kids across the roads in Australia), wears a crisp uniform with a stripe down the leg and a jaunty cap with a nice shiny badge. It can get quite confusing – you never know if you’re about to be arrested, given a ticket, shot at or simply ushered across a busy road.
An early challenge was to master ‘footpath etiquette’. This is a special technique required to navigate the narrow, potholed pavements of Milan. It’s necessary to maintain a constant pace and relaxed demeanor despite the fact that there is a motor scooter hurtling up the footpath, a car has just driven over the kerb and parked in front of you and you’ve stepped in a pile of doggy do.
Another feature of our visit to Italy has been the road tunnels. We had a early introduction to this phenomenan when, in a state of excitement at our arrival in Italy, we accidently strayed onto a freeway and found ourselves in 3 km of dimly lit tunnel. The echo of the tunnel amplified sound so that the buzz of a tiny Fiat sounded like a turbo charged highway monster. We were deafened by the roar of trucks thundering past and just hoped like hell the drivers were awake enough to notice the feeble blinking of our tail-lights. The thought of getting a giant bullbar imprint up the backside was enough to propel us through at warp speed and we popped out into the sunshine in a rush of terror and adrenalin.
After leaving Milan we headed south to the Mediterranean and the region known as the ‘Cinque Terre’ – the Five Villages. We set up among olive trees at a campground in the pretty little village ofTellaro, about 15km from La Spezia, the main town of the region. This village was in many ways nicer than the better known ‘Five Villages’. It was obviously more a weekend holiday spot for Italians than a tourist destination and the village itself was a delightful tangle of narrow passageways with flower baskets overflowing from little balconies and washing lines crisscrossing the lanes.
We soon discovered the regional speciality was foccacia, a thick, moist spongy bread that we enjoyed each day until we regretfully rode out of the area. Next morning we negotiated two buses and the train to arrive at the first of the five villages of the Cinque Terre – Monterosso. Before long we encountered a sub-species of traveller – the German trekking group. They tend to take their hiking pretty seriously and were seriously well-equipped. With their stout walking boots, impressive backpacks and brandishing trekking poles, they looked a pretty fearsome bunch and we gave them a wide berth. I only wish I could have seen their first aid kit – no doubt it would have been comprehensive enough to equip a small hospital. In comparison the American contingent wandered casually along in little more than a baseball cap and sandals, making up for their lack of equipment with the sheer volume of their conversation.
And of course there was us – if we stood out it was probably because of the amazing volume of food we managed to consume along the 12km ‘Blue Route’ from Monterosso to Riomaggiore (being Italy, this was marked with red and white stripes).
From the Cinque Terre we turned inland to visit the Tuscan town of Lucca. Everyone raves about this part of Italy and no wonder, it really is beautiful. We took some peaceful back roads to wind among the olive groves and vineyards, passing crumbling old villas and farmhouses. Spring seems to have exploded in Italy and the exuberant green of the countryside made a stunning contrast with the terracotta roofs. We arrived in Lucca in the early morning and spent a pleasant hour cycling lazily along the old city wall, joined by a variety of locals jogging, walking the dog and cycling off to work.
Our stop that night was another walled town – San Gimignano which is a tourist hotspot but nonetheless definitely worth a visit with some inviting back streets to explore.
The first challenge some mornings is to escape from the campground. Most have impressive security gates and as we are usually the first out at 7am everything is generally tightly locked. Not sure if this is to keep the baddies out or to ensure that naughty campers don’t run off without paying.
The next week seemed to be all work and not much play as we picked our way carefully around Rome and started the long pedal to Brindisi. Some long days in the saddle and late afternoon stress attacks as we struggled to find a spot to rest our weary bodies for the night, left us feeling pretty wrung out.
The south of Italy certainly felt different, more Mediterranean and had more of a ‘wild west’ atmosphere. We’ve already encountered the ‘staring squads’ – groups of bystanders who stop and gawp blankly as we pass. It’a a relief when people respond to our greetings with a smile and wave as the blank stares can get a bit unnerving after a while.
All of a sudden the dog population has come out from behind fences and on chains – now they’re out there roaming free, just waiting for a tasty cycling morsel to come pedalling past. We’ve read of other cyclists carrying a ‘Dog Dazer’ device to deter the nasty beasties, but we’re currently trialling a less sophisticated technique …… first you wait until the salivating hound is near your ankle, then hit it with your most menacing glare and bellow ‘GETTA WAY BACK YA BLOODY MONGREL!!!!! If this fails then follow up with a swift kick and pedal like crazy. So far we’ve had reasonable success with this approach but probably do need to work on a back up plan for further down the track.