After a brief visit to Monaco I crossed the border and arrived in Italy to a very Italian welcome. It was carnival season and soon after crossing the border a festival procession passed by with children on floats wearing an array of different costumes. Whilst waiting at the traffic lights and watching the display a young Italian girl threw a full bucket of confetti over my head. I cycled off chuckling and haemorrhaging confetti in my wake. In Switzerland I heard the locals describe the French as a little “chaotic”. I wonder which adjective they would choose to describe the Italian mentality. I cycled past cars at jaunty angles in Italian town centres, less parked and more abondoned with hazards flashing and as I approached Italian cities the apparent distance to my destination would intermittently rise and fall according to which road signs you chose to believe.
I had to rest in Genoa. There was no getting away from it. The hills and cold had taken its toll on my body, or more likely my student days of hedonism and indulgence which had spilled over into my postgraduate life had led to some serious deconditioning. This, I realised, would take a while to reverse. In any case I have lost almost 10% of my body weight in the last two months despite a voracious appetite. To ensure my weight plateaus I have introduced a new meal into my daily routine and “Middle breakfast” will now take place between breakfast 1 and breakfast 2. Twice I have wondered which component of my bike was clicking only to realise the sound was emanating from my left knee. This then proceeded to become painful and swollen. My back has been giving me the occasional spasm and I have some tendonitis in my hands due to clutching too hard to my handlebars. I took heed of my accident and emergency acronym RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) and put my feet up in Genoa for a few days before pushing on. My plan was to take off into Cinque Terre; a strange rugged coastal landscape with terraces spread over steep hills. My Lonely Planet guide to Cycling Italy described the riding as “demanding”. I naively shrugged this off forgetting that whilst I might be on a world tour as opposed to the average LP reader, I have a fully loaded touring bike and a dodgy left knee. But reinforced with cappuccino, cold pizza and a tubigrip I felt up to the challenge, at least mentally.
A rouge glow at dawn heralded the change coming my direction. The weather turned and it was my fault. I had commented to a friend the previous night that since reaching the coast I had been lucky with the weather. Hex number one. Then foolishly I believed the forecast on the BBC weather website and should have known better. The sullen murk descended and I was robbed of the views that I had worked so hard to enjoy, but every so often the grey veil lifted to reveal a glimpse of the landscape below. The road snaked towards and away from the coastline in a series of sharp chicanes. With an offshore breeze this gave the strange sensation of slowly fighting a headwind on the descents followed by exuberant sprightly climbs uphill with the aid of a tailwind. But things were about to get even steeper. I had saved money on my map of Northern Italy and mine gave little information about the altitude although I was in little doubt as to what lay in store. All the signs were there. The road I had started on was a series of S shaped curves on my map and I saw a sign stating that the road was open but that coaches were not allowed to proceed. I noticed young Italians passing me in four wheel drives with skis and snowboards strapped to the roof racks. Worryingly I also realised that even those Lycra-clad hill junkies of the coast were nowhere to be seen.
I began the thirty five kilometres of almost continuous uphill climbing and by lunch had reached the pass, cycling from roughly sea level to 1200 metres and back into the snow zone. My knee was complaining but I felt exhilarated and glad for the challenge and the change. The Riviera had felt crowded and claustrophobic with little countryside and I had been yearning for some wide open spaces. A group of Italian men bought me a glass of wine at the top of the pass. “Fantastico!”, pat on the back and I plunged down the other side to the pancake flat terrain of the Po river delta and on to Venice.
“You need to oil your chain”.
“I know, thanks”
“Your saddle is too high”
“I think its OK”
“When you come home you will have huge ass”
The gentleman then pranced around with his hands held out behind him to mimic my grossly engorged buttocks. His posse roared with laughter.
The ride from Venice to Trieste was complicated by torrential rain which persistently without cessation for three days and nights whilst I cycled and rough camped at petrol stations, staying clear of the swollen rivers. Many times as I cycle I sing. This is not a habit I had at home and for good reason. The more horizontal the rain and the more punishing the headwind the sunnier my songs become. On the third day I had bashed out an assortment of reggae classics and I was launching into “in the summertime” by Mungo Jerry when I spotted a hunched figure walking through the aerial onslaught in the road ahead. Poncho, beard, pack, a look of resolve. An adventurer. As I greeted him he turned towards me and his face lit up.
“You’re are the first travelling man I have seen in two months” he said with a French accent
“Where are you walking to?”
“I walk to Mongolia!” He announced.
After establishing we were on equally preposterous missions we took some time to share food, tea, stories of alpine cold and tips on how to live cheap on the road. Mateo is a French sculptor and as he walks he leaves cairns along his route. I hopped off my bike and walked with him for fifteen kilometres through the night. We camped together in the park before parting ways the following day. I admired his pluck and his ambition but also his resourcefulness. On his year and half march across the Eurasian landmass he gets by on very little by cooking on open fires and resolving to never spend money on accommodation. “There is always somewhere to sleep” he told me. He had no map but simply walked towards the rising sun in the morning and followed his compass bearing east through the day. This is his blog, in French but with good photos of his work.
Croatian drivers are faster than the Italians. This is a significant statement. In Italy I had begun to suspect someone was putting amphetamines in the Foccacia. As I cycled down the Adriatic coast cars and motorbikes whizzed by and I tried not to look at the roadside memorials, most for young Croatians and many I suspected had died on the road. The fierce weather continued to slow my progress but the rust coloured rock of northern Croatia looked spectacular in the wet. Whenever the sun came out I converted my bike to a rolling drying rack, clothes flapping in the breeze. A cycling rag and bone man. I knew that soon there would be no more putting on wet socks in the morning. Friends were waiting near Zadar with curry, beer, a bed and means to wash and dry the sodden conglomerate mass of fabric that used to represent my clothes.
I said goodbye and set off but again the recurring theme of my journey showed its teeth. As I rode through the hills I saw a flash in the distance. Sheet lightning. Soon I was in the midst of the storm. I had seen electrical storms of this intensity only once before in India. Forks of lightning were visible every ten seconds and I saw one hit the ground perhaps only two kilometres from my location. Milliseconds separated the spark and the boom. In the hills I was exposed and vulnerable. I sought refuge at a small cafe and ate Jaffa cakes whilst I watched for two hours as storm after storm rolled in and lightning lit up the horizon in almost every direction as I looked on. The next morning began with crimson patches of light scintillating over the eastern sky and the new day was a stark contrast to the one before. Sun, sea and the winter tranquility of the Adriatic coastline conspired to make this the best cycling of my trip so far. I coasted south over gentle undulations with the help of a slight tailwind. By nightfall I had covered 160 km. My front light wasn’t working but with little traffic and a full moon I continued into the night, exhilarated and high on endorphins. I reached Dubrovnik, the pearl of the Adriatic, on the last day of February. Time to kill with another friend, time to rest my knee and time to explore the nearby island national park of Mljet.
I leave Western Europe behind with my budget in tatters and hoping to gain some fiscal control in the cheaper and beautiful Balkan lands ahead. Tomorrow I start on my way to the next stopping point, the European capital of culture and the end of continent number one… Istanbul.
Random statistics from my journey so far…
Distance cycled: 3470 km
Top speed: 67.1 km/hr (The Approach to Gap, Les Alpes)
Countries travelled through: 8
Nights I have paid for accommodation: 9 / 58
Most amount of Milka consumed in one sitting: 450g