Italy / Greece
As we dropped from the Alps and entered Italy the locals clapped, cheered, and danced along the glistening streets. Not one drop of rain had fallen in one hundred days and the entire winter harvest was under threat. Of course, the moment we crossed the border from Switzerland into Italy, the heavens opened.
As we climbed away from Lake Como, I glanced upwards and cursed the personal rain cloud that had followed us from Oxford. But I had chosen a bad time to take my eyes off the road. As a huge lorry thundered past, I heard a loud thud and felt myself flying forwards into the handlebars. I looked down to see my front wheel wedged deep in a canyon-sized pothole and one of the front panniers in tatters.
We were suddenly abandoned and alone in a strange land; aliens in a bicycle free landscape. After the smooth-surfaced cycle paths and brilliant sign posting in the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Switzerland, Italy was a shock. Cycling through the Italian speaking quarter of Switzerland we wondered how we would know when we had reached Italy proper. People kept telling us: "Don't worry - you'll know". We knew.
It was still raining when we pulled into the village of Breme, situated in the middle of the flatlands that dominate northern Italy. After spending all day searching for food, we were thrilled to find a shop that was actually open. As we balanced the bikes outside, an old man welcomed us into his tiny store. A thatch of wispy white hair sat balanced upon two warm smiling eyes and his leathery wrinkled face told stories of icy winters and scorching summers. Our mouths watering, we selected olives, and home made panini, which he placed in a rusty weighing machine to calculate the price.
He then asked us in Italian where we were going to sleep that night. Not yet knowing the Italian word for 'tent', we used our hands to draw pictures in the sky. He understood but kept asking us questions about our sleeping arrangements. Frustrated at not being able to communicate, we bade him farewell. As we cycled up the street the door closed, the shutters rolled down and we realised how close we had come to a hungry night.
As darkness enveloped the land, we spotted our trees up ahead. As we got closer however, we discovered the entire woodland was under several feet of mud and water. I looked at the map and saw that the next green space was twenty kilometres away. Although we were both tired and grumpy, we decided to push on. Hours rolled by and it was nearing midnight when we finally pitched the tent in a copse beside the road.
We woke the next morning with our feet in the air - one result of sleeping on newly ploughed land. Still exhausted, we ate breakfast under the careful gaze of a thousand passing motorists and wondered if the friendly baker in Breme was inviting us into his home. We resolved that the next time someone tried to help we would listen more carefully to their words rather than rushing for the door.
We carried on south towards Genoa where a box of
solar panels awaited us. We had initially intended carrying the eco-friendly
battery savers all the way from England, but a combination of
Fourteen days were spent sitting in the TNT office waiting for our custom-made panels to arrive. We began to fear the worst. Battling our way through miles of Italian red tape it finally emerged that our parcel was lost "...Somewhere in the world - we are not quite sure where..."
Frustrated at being two weeks behind schedule, we abandoned the panels to their fate and sadly reloaded the bikes. Cycling through a surprisingly quiet Genoa the next morning, we stumbled upon a carnival. It transpired to be "Car Free Day"; an Italian Green Party initiative. Once a month 150 towns across Italy close their normally heaving roads to traffic, and the result is thoroughfares filled with people enjoying a magical day out.
Families were everywhere, strolling up the middle of four lane highways, pushing prams and chatting away as only Italians can. Music played, policemen guarded corners and colourful streamers draped from the smog-stained buildings. Suddenly everyone was a tourist. "It is as though we are seeing our city for the first time" shouted one roller blader in wrap-around shades and a silver helmet.
We had visited the same street only twenty four hours earlier but now found the polluted and incredibly noisy freeway transformed into a thriving communal space. Instead of rushing through the shops and escaping at the first opportunity we found ourselves perched on a redundant traffic island watching life go by. The only real noise came from a hundred school children, dressed in identical black and white costumes, as they performed an intricate dance routine for their proud parents.
Rejuvenated and full of the possible we turned our handlebars to the east and headed towards a cyclists' haven: Reggio Emilia. But although our destination was billed as a two wheeled paradise, the journey there was not. National Route Nine is a cyclist graveyard. Twice we pulled off the road and screamed at the heavens in desperation. Was it really so wrong to want to travel by bike? Did we really have to die for the environment?
Claudio Pedroni, a possible saviour in a land of lorries, understood our fears: "In this area, the plain of the river Po, we have 8 to 10% use of the bicycle but you can measure this high use of the bicycle in terms of the people who are killed by cars."
Claudio is designing a national cycle network and we spent several days relaxing with his family in their beautiful farm house. Afternoons were spent sitting in their tulip filled garden drinking cups of tea sweetened with honey from a neighbours beehive, and discussing the current state of environmental awareness in Italy. He highlighted the need for change: "Politicians need to understand that the bicycle is a form of transportation both into and outside the city. We in FIAB (a 10000 member environmental cycling organisation) are not yet satisfied with Government policy for bicycle commuting."
At last the sun was shining for us and our personal rain cloud had - for the time being - got lost somewhere over the plains. After marking our map with his proposed bike route to Rome, Claudio escorted us along the first 30 kilometres of the as-yet unsignposted path. As we peddled he explained that Italian road signs have to be a certain size, and until there was a change in the law it was illegal for FIAB to put up signs specifically for cyclists. And that change in the law is not a priority for Italian politicians.
With this in mind we continued east until Bologna, before turning south towards the mountains that protected the entrance to Tuscany. For three days we cycled through some of the most beautiful green rolling hills we have ever seen. I finally understood why so many people enthused about the region. You could almost hear the energy of spring pulsating through the land as we followed the country lanes. Although more hilly than the tarmac rivers that filled the valleys, the views (and lack of crazy Italian drivers) more than made up for the aching muscles.
As soon as we arrived in Florence we peddled straight for the Youth Hostel. Set in the hills just outside the city it is a living heritage site. Flowers covered the walls and the voices of a thousand nationalities echoed through the arches. The city itself was incredible. Full of magnificent buildings and more museums than we could count, it also managed to squeeze in more tourists than we thought existed in the entire world. Every building had queues of thousands wrapped around the walls.
After nearly three months on our own it came as a huge culture shock to find ourselves thrust into the centre of the global tourist trail. Overnight the weather changed from 6 degrees to 30 degrees; we went from being the only cycle tourists on the road to eating and cycling with people from the UK, Canada, France and Australia on the same day; and from being the sole guests in the hostels to sharing them with 350 others.
But soon it was time to escape the Renaissance chaos. We bypassed Rome and turned east back towards the Apennines; the spine of the nation. As we climbed into the hills we left the hostels far behind and once again faced the daily campsite challenge. Our experience with the baker in Breme gave us the courage to seek the help of the locals. Our entry ticket to many farms and vineyards was our photograph in IL SECOLO XIX, one of the national papers.
After a lifetime in England I have never experienced the isolation we found in the south of Italy. Cycling along the barren ridgeway we cursed ourselves for carrying so little water. Suffering the first effects of dehydration we spotted a farm house high on a nearby plateau. After tense negotiations with a pack of snarling dogs we made it to the door. Explaining our predicament she took pity on us and offered us the geese-infested orchard for the night. But after a cursory glance at the newspaper article, her brown eyes lit up.
"Mama Mia!" she exclaimed, "You cycle from England to Australia!!! We must give you a room in our guest house. It is our present."
Cycling through a country is like reading a good book. It takes a while to get to know the characters before you sink your teeth into it and lose all trace of time. But before you know it you have nearly finished so you try to slow down and savour every last page.
Italy was like this for us. As the ferry pulled out of Brindisi we watched the twinkling lights of the harbour disappear and felt sad to leave the beautiful, madly chaotic, intoxicating land full of affectionate strangers...But soon it was time to cross the deck, look towards the distant mountains of Greece, and feel the excitement and anticipation of starting all over again.....