Visiting Italy was the fulfilment of a childhood dream. When I was planning the route I asked Kim which countries she wanted to visit. Italy came the immediate reply a combination of the culture, romance and attractiveness of the football team had captured her imagination from a young age. So how could I argue with such determination.
Italy was also the wettest county we visited. But that was mainly because everywhere else we went was so dry. The first day was beautiful though we set off straight from the ferry. The crossing had been very uneventful we went for a deck ticket, the cheapest option, but there were plenty of plush sofas for us to lie out on which seemed far more comfortable than the airplane like seats which were the more expensive option. I was impressed with the company’s (Super fast ferry) climate change policies. They had a leaflet explaining how you could reduce your greenhouse gas emissions on board and at home and they carry electric cars and hybrids for half price and bicycles for free. We had a comfortable night’s sleep and plenty of time for breakfast before landing at around 9. Just in time for a bit of cycling.
Heading up the coast in brilliant sunshine it was the hottest we’d experienced in weeks. I was very tempted to plunge into the inviting looking azure waters as we sat on the shore eating lunch. And was gloating on social media how wonderful the weather was. In the evening as we approached the old town of Andria the sky darkened over and whilst we were waiting for our host it began to rain. Danielle was lovely. An experienced touring cyclist she knew exactly what we needed. A good wash for us and our clothes and a big plate of pasta washed down with homemade wine. In fact nearly everything seemed to have been home grown by her father on their small holding. Tomato sauce, chillies, olive oil and even the grapes and dried figs she gave us as a parting gift. Our host had just returned from a year working for an NGO in South Sudan so we had some interesting conversations too.
It was still raining the next day and continued to do so until evening in what turned out to be the worst day of the whole trip for me. It wasn’t just the rain, it was cold and the water proof jackets we’d bought in Vietnam turned out not to be waterproof. Then to compound everything the scenery was really dull. Flat and featureless, just field after field of crops with not even a tree to break up the monotony. We hadn’t even been able to find ourselves a host to give us a warm welcome. Cold and wet as we were camping didn’t seem very appealing at all. So we found ourselves a hotel and hurried inside to warm up. The hot water of the shower splashing on my frigid limbs felt like heaven.
In the morning the rain had stopped, but it wasn’t any warmer. The thermometer on the pharmacy we rode past read 11°C by far the coldest temperature we’d experienced in months. However the landscape had improved. It was still very agricultural but there were hills with ancient villages perched on the tops. But it was dull and grey and the fields were dull and brown, having been harvested and ploughed already in preparation for the next crop. It had been raining really heavily over the previous few weeks and great gullies had been carved into the bare earth by the water running off the steep slopes. I guess it would be far more attractive when there is something growing there.
We didn’t fancy camping in those temperatures and with the threat of rain present I hooked something up on Airbnb. It was a lovely family run Agriturismo place. When they found out the purpose of our trip they gave us a discount on our room. It was a gorgeous place and we settled into our palatial and cosy room to shelter from the cold and rain which was battering on the window. At least we could be content that the fierce wind was heating our room sustainably as the wind turbines on the farm spun furiously. It was still raining as we tucked into our enormous breakfast so as we didn’t have so far to go we retired to our room to wait it out. Unfortunately our time ran out before the rain did so we had no option but to rug up in our wet weather gear and face the elements. Before we did that we had one more nice surprise. The family were so impressed by our journey that they have us our dinner for free too. Warmed by their generosity we headed out into the rain. We continued on down the road into the valley below as indicated by Google maps until suddenly the surfaced road took a sharp turn into a farm. The road ahead turned into a grassy track. It didn’t look too bad and as any change of route would have required returning up the steep slopes we’d just descended we continued on. Big mistake. We slithered down another steep incline having to push our bikes. At the bottom we encountered a sea of mud. A week of almost constant rain which had led to flash floods, landslides and killed 5 people further down the valley had turned it into a quagmire. The mud soon filled our mudguards and the wheels stopped turning. Luckily it was downhill so the jammed wheels kind of skidded along the slick muddy grass. The mud caked onto our shoes, forming huge appendages which only fell off when they got too big. I felt like I was pushing a heavy artillery piece through a world war 1 trench. At last we reached the glorious tarmac at the bottom and set about cleaning our bikes.
As we were scraping the mud from out of our bikes the guy from the house across the road appeared with a power washer in his hand and beckoned us over. He began spraying the mud out of all the nooks and crannies of our bikes, then cleaned our panniers and finally hosed down our shoes. His wife appeared with a handful of apples and enquired “Google maps?”. I nodded sheepishly. A few minutes later she reappeared with a loaf of bread.
Then when we were all cleaned up he communicated that they were bakers and that we should come and have a look at their bakery. We went inside and he lit the wood fired oven then indicated Kim should take off her sodden shoes which he placed in the door of the oven to dry. Next we’re being handed huge freshly cut sandwiches with big hunks of cheese and their own home cured ham. Then the wine comes out. “but we have to ride bicycles” “it’s cold outside ”
” ok just a small one “And I’m handed a cup filled to the brim with wine. Distracted by all the food and wine we fail to notice that Kim’s socks are burning inside the oven. No problem they say and return with a pair of their daughters socks. Just one of the many beautiful encounters we had with so many wonderful people.
Fully revived we return to our bikes.
With a large glass of wine sloshing around inside me I neglected to check if my panniers were on securely after their power wash and sped off down the hill. One of the front ones wasn’t. It leapt of the rack and into my spinning spokes with a loud crack. I slammed on the brakes but the damage had already been done. The top hook where it attaches to the track had sheared off. Shit. We did some rearranging of luggage. Kim took a bag and I strapped my pannier on to my back rack and we hurried down the valley.
At the bottom we saw the full force of the destruction that had been wrought by the floods a few days previously. The river had smashed down the valley uprooting trees and scattering debris down a broad ribbon of the flood plain. When it reached the town of B it had overwhelmed the flood defence and swept through the town. As we passed through workers were clearing up the tide of thick mud that coated the low lying streets. There were piles of muddy furniture on the pavements and people were carrying more items out of their houses to add to them.
Another consequence of climate change. The atmosphere can hold 7% more moisture with each 1°C rise in temperature. When this moisture condenses it can have terrible consequences. With sometimes a while month worth of rain falling in a matter of hours. Extreme rainfall events have increased by 24% across Europe over the past decade.
The nights were drawing in now it was past the equinox and it was dark when we reached our destination. There had been a change of plan and the host we’d arranged to stay with couldn’t host us but took us to meet the local priest who would put us up for the night. Father Albert who had a permanent smile on his face was originally from The Congo but had been living in the village for more than 20 years. He’d enlisted the help of another long term resident, an Australian woman who’d married a local, to act as a translator. He showed us to our comfortable apartment next to the church hall and then took is out for our first Italian pizzas of the trip. They were delicious although Kim was less impressed. She was beginning to seriously miss Vietnamese food after going months without it.
The following day on the route north we visited a cute medieval town recommended by our hosts. It was built along the cliff like sides of a bend in the river. Like many such towns cars are banned because the streets are so narrow so it was pleasant bumping around on the limestone cobbles on our bikes.
We hadn’t been able to find a host for the evening so as night fell we set out to find somewhere to camp. But it was very agricultural with orchards and houses everywhere. We pulled into one farm to ask if we could camp in their field and they offered us a spot in their barn. It was a welcome respite from the chill wind that was blowing and they even provided us with a table and chairs so we could enjoy our dinner in comfort. It was an apple Orchard so they piled us up with some of the most delicious fruit I have ever treated as we left in the morning.
It was the weekend and the ride towards Rome was beautiful. The sun was shining and crowds of lycra clad cyclists shouted enthusiastic greetings as they sped past. The scenery was gorgeous too, gradually giving way from the largely flat and agricultural vistas of Puglia to a much more mixed landscape filled with trees, pastures and hilltop villages protected by castles and fortifications.
Sunday is definitely the best day to enter the capital. The roads were quiet and the drivers seemed much more relaxed so crossing the city to reach our host was relatively painless. Much easier than finding a host. Like many other similar cities with large numbers of visitors and expensive hotel rooms it’s hard to find a host in Rome. We’d fired off dozens of requests all to no avail. Trying another tack I searched for environmentally minded people and bingo got a response from Francesco who had a keen interest in renewable energy, sustainability and climate change. He put us up in his lovely apartment , prepared delicious vegetarian meals for us and showed us round the town.
Rome is a captivating city. Layer upon layer of history stretching back millennia. And it was the first time either of us had visited. AP TV wanted to film a story about us so of course they chose some of the most iconic locations in the city and turned it into a bit of a tour for us. They started at Altare della Patria and moved onto the Coliseum filming us riding through the crowds of tourists.
Like most Italian cities Rome definitely isn’t designed for the motor car, so naturally the transport mode of choice for Romans is the car. Cars are crammed everywhere in the picturesque streets. With space at such a premium parking is a nightmare and getting around isn’t much better. Every stunning vista is enhanced by row after row of ugly steel boxes with their bland conformist designs utterly lacking individuality as if they had been conceptualised by the same committee of talentless creators. The government is making some efforts to resolve these problems. Public transport is improving slowly with a metro gradually spreading across the city. But with history literally everywhere they dig progress is painfully slow. They would do much better to bite the bullet. Ban all cars and roll out a tram or light railway system across the surface with trolley buses, electric taxis and shared electric cars and bicycles to fill in the gaps. Alas I can’t see it happening any time soon.
On the morning of our departure AP wanted to do some more filming and interview me so it was late when we headed out of town. However one of the journalists was a keen cyclist and so helpfully suggested a route out of town to reach my friend Katie’s house. It was a little longer but was almost all on an off road cycle track along the river Tiber and was easily the most beautiful exit of a city of our trip. The only thing lacking was the weather . There were showers as we left the city and it settled into a dull drizzle as we headed onto the road. A dullness that perfectly captured my mood at the sight of oh so young looking African girls (I don’t like to use that word to describe women, but many barely seemed to be women) in their oh so tight clothes standing forlornly in the rain waiting for clients. Katies husband explained that many are tricked into travelling with the promise of a better life and held in virtually slavery by threats to their families back home in Africa.
Our route headed off the main road which climbed steeply up a gorge onto a path along the river bottom through gorgeous wood right next to the misty waters. Then disaster. The path was blocked with a barbed wire fence. With no way forward we retraced our route and cut back to another road which led back to the main road but it was incredibly steep . I pushed Kim’s bike to the top and then struggled up with mine, then it was straight back down to cross the river we’d just been next to. By this time it was dark, the rain had ratcheted up a notch or two and we’d still got a fair few kilometres of climbing to reach Katie’s house. Finally exhausted and soaked through we arrived and were welcomed into the warm comfort of their beautiful home. A revising shower and delicious dinner and we were beginning to feel human again. After our three nights in Rome we had another day of rest among the olive groves in the foothills of the Sabine mountains and it was lovely to have nothing to do. No interviews, no presentations not even any sightseeing. We had a lovely lie in and later went shopping and had a look around one of the local towns.
Suitably refreshed we headed off towards the historic town of Viterbo. It was another gorgeous day through river valleys but topped off with a steep 2 hour climb before reaching the town. We were greeted by a couple of students who were very enthusiastic about our trip, they’d found lodgings for us with the local church. And then took us for pizza with a group of friends who were keen to hear about our trip. Unfortunately we were rather tired by that final climb of the day and the huge pizza had a further soporific effect and we didn’t exactly dazzle them with our witty tales of the road. After going on a tour of some of the sights we retired earlyish. In the morning we revisited some of them to get a better view in the light of day. The town has had a long history and was the seat of a number of popes after they were chucked out of Rome so there was plenty to see in the cold morning light.
Over the next few days we appreciated the splendour of Renaissance Italy visiting first Sienna, Florence and Pisa. Marvelling at the beautiful architecture, art and thinking that blossomed and had such an influence throughout Europe. We didn’t have a guide book so just wandered through the towns enjoying the things we stumbled across. We probably missed out on loads but as we don’t know what we missed out on it doesn’t really matter. Our budget was too tight to allow us to see any museums and galleries either but we still got to see so much. Actually one of the highlights for me was the bike ride from Sienna to Florence through Chianti.. There was a bit of climbing but it wasn’t too steep and the views were just so rewarding rolling valleys filled row upon row of grape vines with their autumnal leaves glowing in the bright sun. Simply gorgeous. Although that was no doubt enhanced by the free wine tasting I received at 10:30 in the morning. I popped in whilst I was waiting for Kim at the top of a climb and when they heard about our trip gave us a complimentary tasting. Whilst I was enjoying the wines I asked about the impact climate change was already having on the region. He told me that the climate was becoming much more variable. Last year the harvest had been badly hit by a cool and rainy summer, whereas this year was hot and the harvest was excellent. In the future conditions could be even worse. One study predicted that without action to prevent climate change harvests could fall by as much as 85% in Tuscany and in other major European wine producing regions such as Bordeaux and Rhone by as soon as 2050. Literally a sobering thought.
Whilst we were in Florence we were welcomed by the local branch of the environmental group Legambiente and they invited us to give a presentation. In typical Italian style we began with some food and wine which seems to me like a very civilised way to commence a meeting. After my talk they told us about their work raising awareness of environment issues within the city. They also described two highly unusual storms over the past few years which had uprooted thousands of trees in the local area and are precisely the kind of weather events which climate change is ampliphing and creating.
The only real disappointment of our time in Tuscany was the tower in Pisa. Originally I’d not planned to visit the city, but Kim insisted because she wanted to see the famous leaning structure. However both of us were underwhelmed by the tower which was much smaller and less impressive than we were expecting. However that was more than made up for by our amazing host, who was so enthusiastic and full of energy cooking us dinner and then sharing stories over a bottle of wine. Then even giving up her bed so we would be more comfortable, much to out protestations.
Earlier I had picked up the replacement part for my broken panniers that other awesome host Francesco from Rome had arranged to be delivered for me. We’d phoned most of the Ortlieb stockists in Rome, but it was an old model and no one had the correct part. So over the next few days he spent hours phoning the distributer – who were on holiday that week, calling them back when someone was in the office for a couple of hours, persuaded a campsite in Pisa which was closed for the winter to accept the delivery and then have someone on site when we arrived in town and then paying for the order and delivery. Talk about going above and beyond. Thanks my friend. Sadly we had no time to explore the city time was now pressing if we wanted to arrive in Paris for the big demonstration.
From there it was back to the coast. And a couple of yet more wonderful hosts. First to La Spezia and the home of a scientist who lived at the top of the hill behind the town. Followed by a climb through the forest overlooked by spectacular mountains and a great family with their very cute kid who was intrigued by the strangers he couldn’t understand. Then to my favourite part of our ride through Italy. The section of the Italian Riviera between Chiavari and Genoa. Cute seaside resorts wedged into the steep sides of the hills with gorgeous twisty climbs looking down unto the blue water below. It was developed but still retained a lot of its naturalness and character. It was relatively short but still took a while with all the ups and downs.
In Genoa we had time for a brief chat with our host before I took Kim out for a belated birthday treat. Her first ever football match. Sampdoria vs Fiorentina. She has been a fan of Italian football since she was a girl so she was very excited as we made our way through the crowds. I was studying my ticket trying to work out where our seats were when a passing fan shouted “Don’t worry about that. This is Italy. Go where you like”. The atmosphere was amazing. We were sat opposite the Ultras so could see their spectacular display when the teams took to the field. And right next to the Fiorentina fans so could listen to their glee as their team took near total control of the game scoring a goal in each half.
Genova is another city steeped in history. A port that was once one of the most powerful cities in the world. It’s power long gone but it’s faded grandeur lives on. We only got to scratch the surface of its imposing buildings and rambling alleys and then it was off up the coast towards France. It couldn’t quite compete with the scenery from the day before. It was more developed and the resort towns were uglier with rows of modern apartment blocks.
However it was much flatter and we bypassed some hills by following the path of an old railway sections of which had been converted into a cycling and walking path. Further along the coast there was a much longer section of 25km which was lovely. Spectacular views but the very gentle inclines of the railway and no cars!!! One of the tunnels had even been turned into an exhibition on the famous Milan San Remo cycle race which passes nearby. There was also a couple of mediaeval towns interspersed among the apartment blocks. And one final coushsurfing host or two in the same house to be precise. They both had profiles and both had accepted a request for the same evening so their one bedroom apartment was rather full. But we enjoyed some great conversation and one final experience of Italian hospitality, some home cooking and of course wine. Heaven.
One quick dash along the cycle path and then back on to the roads and suddenly we were in France. Our tenth and final country.