Category Archives: Italy

Climbing to Austria (Days 26 – 29, 19 – 22 June 2015)

Friday 19 June

In Meran I seem to have left behind the last of the immigrants – everyone has been white and mostly German-speaking since I left that city for the smaller towns between here and the border.

The climb is now more discernible but still, mostly – but by no mean always – gentle. From Naturns to Laas I follow the narrowing and increasingly torrid river. Cycleway-side cafes advertise Forst Beer, pretzels and sausages. And yet all around me – Italians, whether they like it or not.

Late in the day I stop for a coffee and fantastic apple strudel (Guten Tag German-speaking bakers … so nice to see you.) There I meet a woman from Darwin. In nearly four weeks of travel I’ve met few Australians – few foreigners at all – a testament to how travelling by bicycle is to travel amongst locals.

The woman from Darwin is here celebrating her 60th – she had begun with a yoga retreat in Bali before flying to Milan, spending time with a friend in Tuscany, and coming to this area for a few days riding before joining a cycling tour from Verona to Venice. For the day itself friends and family are coming to Italy to join her in celebration. Well played.

A couple of Dutch cyclists arrive at the campground in Laas just after I do. Jill and Aart Jan are riding from Holland to Australia over three years and are travelling with comfort in mind – they have very light chairs and a big tent with an anteroom – for the chairs, in bad weather. It’s all light for its size. I envy their chairs.

It’s Friday. I’ve cooked for myself a few days running. I want trout. I wander into town – it’s all so German or – I guess, really, Austrian. The architecture is Austrian. The look of the shops and what they sell is Austrian. The fonts of the signs are Austrian. The people are all speaking German and do not look Italian at all. I find my trout and it is good.

Back at the campsite Peter has arrived. He’s from Brisbane (two Australians in one day!) but originally a Pom – which I can hear and the Dutch couple cannot. He’s riding with the lightest kit imaginable – including some homemade super lightweight panniers – if you can call them that. He’s shaved down every excess for he is crossing the Stelvio Pass – the most famous/notorious of passes in Italian cycling. It’s a funny pairing – the Dutch with their roomy, homelike tent and Peter with his polymer bags and one change of clothes.

Saturday 20 June

The church across the river from the campground awakens me to the clamorous noise of the striking of seven o’clock. Another difference in German-speaking Italy – on the hour four clangs than a different tone tolls the hours, at a quarter past a single dong, at half past – two, and three-quarters past – three. In Italian speaking Italy they just do the hour itself.

The morning is rainy, windy  – just uninviting so I take my time getting started. When I pedal away the sun has come out but it remains cool and windy. This day’s riding is, finally, genuinely hard. I climb all day – steadily and at a tolerable gradient but, still – all day.

Along the way I see my very first cycling road sign pointing toward international borders and I pass my 1000 km mark – which includes 435 kms cycled in Australia. Both are pretty exciting moments for me and that sort of excitement helps me drag myself up into the Alps. There is pushing – that is walking and pushing my bicycle. And even then there is stopping to catch my breath.

I arrive in Burgeis – a place where cows live in town. It seems dairy farmers lead their cows to paddocks on the outskirts of town during the day, bring them for milking in town, then shed them beneath their houses.

The tourist information office has closed for the day. I ring the bells at a couple of hotels without response. So I hop on line on my phone, find Hotel Maraias on booking.com and secure a room for the night. I arrive at reception at the same time as my booking.

I am wrecked. Shattered. Happy to agree to spend an extra €13 for half-board (breakfast and dinner). I shower. I drink a beer. I marvel at the view.

The dinner is exceptional and utterly enormous. How these holidaymakers who are not riding their bicycles over the Alps consume this much food is a wonder. Here’s what is served: there is a salad bar and heaped basket of bread; first I’m brought cheesy-spinach dumplings in a butter sauce, then tomato soup with a dollop of cream, the main is beef goulash served with mashed potatoes, and for dessert a crème caramel.

I retire to my room – exhausted, stuffed like Thanksgiving, and having decided to spend another night. I turn on the television and find a mystery show – it feels like a telethon or variety show where people ring in. Everyone is wearing traditional Tyrolean attire (performers and audience) and there is music. Truly weird. I liked the mystery. I fell asleep thinking of Austria.

Monday 22 June

I spent Sunday writing, cleaning my bicycle, relaxing and recovering. I took a walk around town and ate another huge dinner at Hotel Maraias.

I wake to an overcast Monday morning ready to push over the top of Reschen Pass and into Austria, Switzerland and Austria again.

So much of the day is exceptional.

The mountains and scenery continue to be too beautiful. I have a few moments of outright giddiness and teary happiness. First when I finally get a downhill run cruising toward Lake St Valentin. It is icy blue. The mountains before me are ragged, dark grey granite peppered with pine green. Behind me – far behind me – more majestic mountains, iconic, snow-capped and cloud kissed. Around me are wild flowers – white clusters, red poppies, little blue things in fields of pale but vibrant green. In other fields freshly cut hay is being raked into piles by farmers. There is the persistent but not pungent smell of cow dung and the occasional clank-clank of the bells they wear while pasturing higher up the hills. Regularly I pass rushing rivulets of water pouring from everywhere and draining toward the lake and into the Adige to retrace my route and beyond to Venice.

I pass the last Italian town on my map and I’m freewheeling through a meadow into Austria. AUSTRIA. I have ridden my bicycle to Austria.

I feel … wonderful. I feel like I’ve really achieved something. Like this ride is a metaphor for life more generally: just keep pedalling, 20 metres at a time if you have to, you’ll get there. Sometimes you might get a little lost – like I did in Nauders – the first Austrian town I passed through. But eventually I found my way and was soon riding my brakes down 11 switchbacks to meet the crystalline blue River Inn and the Swiss border. I barely put a foot on the ground in that country as I pedalled about 15 kilometres and back into Austria where I find a campsite and call it a day.

I’ve reached my first big riding goal of the trip – I’ve crossed an Alpine pass and reached another country – I have plans to meet a friend in Paris in 11 days and no idea how I’m going to get there. I have some decisions to make.

Visiting the Missing – The Merano Jewish Museum & Synagogue (Day 25 – 18 June 2015)

Thursday 18 June

My tourist map shows a Jewish Museum. One of my goals for this trip is to explore my Jewishness and look our European history more squarely in the eye than I have been previously keen to. I haven’t done anything about that yet – if there were museums or old synagogues in Milan, Genoa or Florence I missed them. This one I would not.

Centrally located but tucked away on a residential side street it took a bit to find it. Just walking onto the grounds stung a little – even before getting inside. As I suspect all European Synagogues without congregations to be, this is a haunted place, even if the ghosts are just in my mind.

The door is locked but the sign says they are open and to ring the bell, so I do. A bored and suspicious looking Italian-speaking woman in her 60s lets me in but says nothing until I take this photo and she says, “No photos.”

I’ve looked around and think maybe that’s all there is and I might go  – she asks if I wish to see the museum. In the basement there are display cases with mementos of Jewish life in Merano. Happy people in black and white snap shots celebrating birthdays, playing tennis, getting married, having picnics … but I already know how this story ends. But they don’t – that proud young man posed with his parents on his bar mitzvah in the 1920s, that bride in the early 30s. It’s hard. It’s a hard place to be – alone in this basement of a place that should rightly still be the centre of a community’s life.

Then the darkness begins to creep into these lives – newspaper clippings announcing racial laws and describing Kristallnacht, clothes with yellow stars of David affixed, copies of letters seeking visas, photos of people on boats.

Two artifacts: a photograph of bright-eyed, dark-featured 13-yea-old Franco Cesana who was killed fighting as an Italian partisan and an original order to the Auschwitz chemist for Phenol (carbolic acid) signed by Mengele. Signed by Mengele. I bend closer and look at his handwriting, his signature – so normal, so neat, so ordinary. I feel ill.

Emerging into a warm overcast 21st century day I still feel ill. My breath is short and shallow, I am a little nauseated. Franco’s smiling but serious face, all those happy people, that signature of one of the most evil men in the whole of human history. I sit on a stone wall and write. As I do a military patrol stops in front of the synagogue and two soldiers in camo wearing their alpine corps caps with the feathers patrol the ground – they smile, they say ciao – but they are here because people still hate us, because people want to kill Jews for the blood in their veins.

Now I really just have to go.

I walk on the suburban street passing mums with kids in prams and older couples out for a stroll. But all around are the ghosts, the people missing from this community who are, I suspect, not missed at all.

I am glad to get back onto my bicycle and just ride. To just ride away from those shadows – I know I’ve committed to seeing these places and confronting this history but as I pedal toward the Alps, toward Austria and Germany, I don’t know if I can. I don’t know how many of these experiences I’ll be able to stomach.

But the day is lovely, the scenery gorgeous, my fellow cyclists friendly enough – I am soon distracted by a switch-backing climb and stunning mountain vistas. The hard physical work is good – it clears the ugliness from my lungs and pushes little Franco to the corner of my mind.

In early evening, after another short riding day, I make camp in Naturns/Naturno – a soulless resort town surrounded by sheer beauty.

On the Divide: The Cities of Trentino-Alto Adige/South Tyrol (Bolzano/Bozen & Merano/Meran)

Days 22 – 24  (15 – 17 June 2015)

Monday 15 June – From Rovereto to Bolzano

I wake to the sound of the nearby church bells striking seven and pedal away at 8:15 only to stop at the first café I see.

I take my cappuccino and Germanic pastry (apples, nuts, some sort of cheese) at a table on a cobblestone square with a view of Neptune’s ass – the café is behind a statue/fountain. A couple seated nearby are switching between German and Italian through out their conversation and, as I’m getting ready to go, they ask about my journey. They have a friend in Berlin who they think I’ll have lots in common with. I give them my card and hope to hear from them. It feels like a good start with German speakers.

It is another long day of riding on an almost entirely separated cycleway. The scenery is beautiful and the climb almost indiscernible. I ride through vineyards and apple orchards and greet my fellow cyclists with “ciao”. I miss Australia’s public toilets.

 

 

Nearing the 90 kilometre mark for the day I realise it will be 100 km plus if I ride all the way into Bolzano. There are dark clouds gathered in the valley in the direction I am going and the trail-side maps show I am nearing the last of the convenient train stations. And like that I am, again, dragging my bicycle onto a helpful European train.

Bolzano, or Bozen in the German, is the town from which my then-husband and I set off for our long walk in the Dolomites in 2011. I had loved it then and it is still very charming. It has been raining heavily but is tapering off as I find my way to the tourist office by memory. There, I am directed to the street where I’ll find my host, Martin.

Bolzano is in the semi-autonomous region of Trentino-Alto Adige/South Tyrol and it lies on the dividing line between Italian-speaking Italy and German-speaking Italy. From here, going north, Italian will diminish and German will come to dominate well before the Austrian border. This was the southwest of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before World War I. Martin will tell me that in school (at least the German speaking ones) they teach that it was President Woodrow Wilson’s fault this area isn’t in Austria.

The old town is Germanic in its architecture and offerings. In the new town – on the other side of the river – there is much grand fascist architecture, triumphant heavy marble edifices.

Bolzano/Bozen is a popular tourist destination with German and Italian speakers alike – as Martin will say later – the Germans like it because they are in Italy but can speak German and the Italians like it because it’s like going to Germany without leaving Italy.

Between old and new – two gushing mountain rivers meet. Green hills dotted with homes and churches fill the eyeline but then, when the sky is clear, your eye is pulled higher than the green hills to the enormous grey-white and spired Dolomites. It’s a stunning place.

Tuesday 16 June – Bolzano

This town is as fabulous as I remember it – beautiful, compact, vibrant, and intriguing.

It’s been raining and I spend the morning getting practical stuff done at Martin’s and the afternoon running errands: I’ve recharged the phone and finally been able to buy the right sort of gas canister for my camp stove; I got a bicycle map for the coming few days, posted some more excess items to Cornelia to hold on to for me until I get to Ireland, and purchased a one-cup stove-top espresso maker.

With my errands complete I’m back at Martin’s and plugging away at some computer work when I hear a sound. I ignore it at first but it’s a familiar yet unexpected sound – an aluminium bat striking a baseball. I remember from my last visit that Bolzano is home to a lovely baseball field and that it was in the nearby parklands but hadn’t given it much thought.

I wander out to the street and follow the sound to the field. There are a bunch of Under 13s on the field being put through their paces by coaches in Team Italia gear. I ask a few of the parents if they speak English but have no luck. As the kids are wearing uniforms from all over the country I presume it is their U-13s National Selection Trials or some such.

So unexpected but lovely. And so nice for it to not be work (before I left Australia I worked for Major League Baseball and would, on occasion, attend such events in a professional capacity).

Wednesday 17 June: Bolzano to Merano

It’s nearly noon when I pedal away from Martin’s place and then I get terribly confused trying to find my way out of town. Martin has set me up with Orux off-line maps and these will serve me very well in coming days but today I just can’t figure out where I am on them. The problem, I realise is I am on one river when I want to be on the other. A special young woman, who likes my colourful helmet, is the person who recognises my confusion and offers assistance by showing me where on the map we are. It took an hour for me to get out of town. An hour. Embarrassing.

On the right path at last I am joyful at the loveliness of it all – to begin with there is a fully separated cycleway along the river with flowering shrubs lining the route. The river, greeny-white and rapidly falling toward the sea is beautiful but cold and dangerous looking.

The day is sunny with a bit of breeze – very warm but not quite out and out hot. The path is busy but not crowded. The steady stream of Italian-speaking cyclists offering “ciao” as they pass have given way to German-speakers who sometimes (but not nearly as frequent as the Italian-speakers) offer a “hallo”.

It’s mid-afternoon and a sign offering a Bike Break Station stops me mid-pedal. A kiosk (closed), picnic tables, couch, vending machine (drinks and snacks) and e-bike recharging station beckon. This cycleway – the Via Claudia Augusta as it now most definitely is – is a cycle tourist’s dream come true. Nearly fully separated cycleways for several hundred kilometres slowly ascending into the Alps – rushing river, beautiful mountains, vineyards and orchards – then on top of all that Bici Grills and Bike Break Stations.

I take off my shoes and socks, letting my feet cool in the grass while I have lunch and make a little coffee – the first with my new espresso maker. Perfect. Couldn’t be happier. By the time the wee machine cools and I can pack it away it’s nearly 4 pm and I know I’ll be having a short riding day.

Meran (in the German or Merano in Italian) is a small graceful city once famous for its spa. The Orux Maps Martin has loaded onto my phone lead me right to the gate of the busy but welcoming municipal campground.

I pitch my tent with the help of a stake mallet offered by a neighbour. Once it’s up I see there are wee aphids swarming on the tent, my bicycle, anything sitting on the ground. But I can’t be bothered to move it – the tent area is crowded and there are no guarantees of aphid-free camping elsewhere. If I can just keep them out of the tent and food I should be right.

I find a gorgeous little fruit and veg shop nearby and get a few things to have for dinner – garlic, zucchini, carrots and a punnet of the most beautiful strawberries. Down the road at Eurospar I get pasta, cheese and 250 mls of French red wine in a little box which is selling for €0.49 (or AUD 0.75).

Back at the campground I make my dinner, drink my wine and feel pretty good about the way the trip is going right now – staying with hosts or camping, cooking for myself, making my own coffee and riding through a great landscape with good cyclists’ infrastructure. If only there weren’t all these damn aphids.

As the sun is setting I go for a walk around Meran. The area near the campground is all pretty modern but the city centre is a older – shopping streets with cobblestones, a few dramatically lit statues, people wrapping up their nights at restaurants and bars. In a town the same size further south in Italy – where people speak Italian – even on a Wednesday night the town would have still been going strong. I’ve crossed not just a linguistic line but a cultural one too.

The tent hasn’t been infiltrated by the aphids and I sleep pretty well despite being near enough to my fellow tented neighbours as to hear some snoring.

Along the Adige River Toward Old Austria (Days 20 & 21 – 13 & 14 June 2015)

Saturday 13 June – Firenze to Verona

I could take the train from Firenze to Verona with changes in Prato and Bologna, but manoeuvring the bicycle and the bags on and off trains and through stations is a pain best avoided when possible. I haven’t ridden in days. I’m keen to get back on the bicycle and just ride. So I set out to cover the 20 or so kilometres to Prato and skip one transfer.

I won’t say it’s a mistake – because I am glad to be back in the saddle – but it’s a pretty shitty ride. Not the suburban and light industrial areas I pass through to leave Florence but the 15 kilometres on an ugly, hot, heavily trafficked state highway. Motorists are, as usual, respectful but it is not a nice place to ride. Once on the train, however, the journey is smooth and easy.

I was in Verona with my then-husband in 2011. We were on our way to Bolzano and a walking holiday in the Dolomites. We had flown to Milan and arrived at this train station to begin that adventure. Ah, there’s the bar where we had coffees and, now, where is the city centre? Right out of the station and then a left. Ah, yes, just as I remember. It is strange revisiting a place we’d only visited together.

The Primavera B&B is run by a stooped older woman who speaks no English at all and tries to make up for it with an endless stream of rapidly spoken Italian. If she would just slow down and use only the key words I’m sure I would understand more of what she is saying, I’m sure of it.

She shows me a handwritten note explaining that from 9 am to midday the following morning all of central Verona is to be vacated while the authorities deal with undetonated World War II ordinance. “Bomba, bomba” she says and that much I understand.

Europe I think, where history isn’t just a story.

Sunday 14 June – Verona to Rovereto

There’s nothing like the anxiety of a small 80+ year old woman dashing about her B&B saying “bomba, bomba” to see me get on the road early. But there are two young guests who have barely stirred 20 minutes before we are all meant to be out of the city centre. When her increasingly frantic encouragement fails to register with them our hostess simply gathers her bag and leaves. I expect she is old enough to have some memories of le bombe falling on Italy – she isn’t prepared to fuck around.

I pedal through very quiet emptying streets and past emergency personnel manning blockades at the perimeter. And then, just like that, Verona, and her bombe, are behind me and I find myself on the pista ciclabile (or cycleway) I will follow for days to come.

If my ride to Prato yesterday was a reminder of how bad it can be, this is a reminder of how good it can be: a fully separated cycle/walking path which follows a canal. It is clean and busy with Sunday morning walkers, joggers and cyclists. It’s fantastic – I smile and feel a rising joy.

The day is overcast, warm, and humid; the riding is easy. I climb into a village, stop for coffee in the piazza and pop a couple of postcards in a letter box. This is just the sort of riding I imagined when I planned this trip.

I stand at a roundabout waiting for Google maps to tell me where I am when an old man on a Vespa approaches and offers help – in Italian, though he suggests German as an alternative. We muddle through in Italian but it’s a sign I have entered the German/Italian linguistic border zone and that the next few days will be particularly challenging. From here to Austria most people – while they favour one or the other – speak both German and Italian but not a lot of English.

Following his directions I rejoin the cycleway to find it even better than before – I am winding through vineyards, the walls of the valley fill my peripheral vision, the Adige River gushes – it looks icy cold and full of sediment, a sort of whitish green.

I stop for lunch in a village bar where the only other customers are two local men. They are drinking glasses of white wine and having an animated conversation which might be an argument. Some rain begins to fall as I ride on. It gets heavier and I pull on my jacket. Just as it switches from steady to heavy I come to a Bici Grill – a café situated right on the cycleway. They have WiFi, coffee and a selection of cakes – I stay a while and watch the rain fall.

All day I have been going back and forth with a possible Warm Showers host in Rovereto. The actual host is away but her flatmate will look after me although he’s out of town until 9 pm. As the sun doesn’t set until then and I still have plenty of riding to do this suits me fine.

Rovereto is a pretty place with a fantastic old town area which seemed, in my 13 hours there, under-touristed. In the gloaming I push my bicycle through the meandering cobblestone streets as a nearby church bell strikes nine.

Fahmi, the host’s flatmate, is helpful and pleasant if, I think, a little unsure what this hosting thing involves. He is one of several flatmates – they seem to be a group of students. He greets me, helps with the bags, shows me a room, gives me sheets, asks where I am from and assures me if I need anything at all to simply ask. And, with that, I am left alone.

I have ridden about 83 kilometres and have a similar day tomorrow so I’m happy to not have to socialise. I shower, make the bed, and fall asleep.

The Warm Embrace of Friendship Renewed – Firenze (Days 17 – 19; 10 – 12 June)

10 June 2015 – Wednesday

It rains while I am on the train to Florence. A pelting rain slanting into the Tuscan landscape of green hills, fields of crops and towns whose names escape me. The station in Florence, Santa Maria Novella, is a huge building from the fascist era – modern and art deco-ish. The main hall is utterly jammed with people through whom I walk my bicycle.

Jerry Lee lives a few kilometres away and I make my way to his piazza and there we meet for the first time in 25 years. He’s the same; I’m the same; we’re completely different and have led whole lives in the interim.

Me and Jerry Lee

We take my stuff to his place then go out to a laundromat. We talk, as people do, about this and that – we walk around his 500 year old neighbourhood waiting for my clothes to dry. We meet his partner, Davide, at the supermarket where we choose fruit for breakfast. Jerry remembers with certainty that Davide and I met in the mid-1990s at a Steak and Shake in Downstate Illinois but it’s a meeting neither Davide nor I remember.

Home again then out for dinner at a local trattoria – just Jerry Lee and me. He gives me the short version of his past quarter century and I give him mine. We talk and laugh and don’t run out of things to say. We are the last in the restaurant. It’s really quite lovely.

Having spent some time finding my own way around unfamiliar cities it’s nice to just follow Jerry Lee as he leads. We visit a bar and sit with our drinks outside in a cobbled laneway enjoying the cooling night. Laughing and talking; sharing and catching up. It’s nearly 1 am on a Wednesday yet people still bustle about and the gelataria is open and calling. Lavender gelato … ah-mazing.

Jerry Lee leads us on a meandering tour of the central sites of Florence, his Florence –we turn a corner and there is the Duomo. Bold colourful marble brightly lit against the black night sky – it’s breathtaking.

Jerry Lee has studied art history and is full of stories and details. It’s a fantastic way to see his city but now it’s genuinely late and we make our way back to his place where I sleep a weary sleep on the sofa bed.

11 June – Thursday

What a nice, simple, lovely day this was.

Jerry Lee had work to do; I had work to do. We each sat at our computers at his dining room table working and talking much of the day. Intermittently we spoke of our lives, our work, what we were working on now and various subjects of interest.

In late morning we go to Jerry Lee’s printer (he’s a photographer) and then for coffee. In late afternoon we go for groceries and stop for an apertivo with a good buffet in his piazza.

In the evening he cooks us dinner – pasta with Davide’s mum’s sauce. Davide arrives home just in time to eat with us. It turns out he is from the same part of Italy as Madeleine, my Italian teacher, so I was able to understand enough of what he said to impress him.

It may not sound like much but it was a really special day. It is simple and nice and given it’s been a quarter century since we last hung out – that is was comfortable and easy is no small thing.

12 June – Friday

I work more in the morning but finally get out to see the Boboli Gardens at Pitti Palace. Jerry Lee has some photos in a temporary exhibit about women in the fashion industry in the Costume Gallery. Given my lack of interest in fashion this is an exhibition I would have skipped but there are some beautiful and quirky clothes on display and the stories of the women are interesting.

The woman Jerry Lee photographed is Susan Nevelson who, along with coming across as one of those women who are seemingly just simply amazing made her name as a designer of audacious prints for Ken Scott.

She’s in her 90s now and, judging from Jerry Lee’s photographs still quite fabulous. I know she’s told him that life begins at 50 – lots of people say such things but a from a woman in her 90s who is clearly still quite vital and engaged in her passions it carries some extra resonance.

(See more of Jerry Lee’s photos of Susan here and more of Jerry Lee’s work in general here.)

The Boboli gardens are enormous. The weird thing is you enter the palace from a crowded urban area and exit into the gardens which could be in the countryside. The gardens slope uphill from the palace and there are places with views over the city but at the top the view away from the city seems bucolic.

Jerry Lee has to leave town in the evening for a job but Davide is happy to have me stay another night – which was very sweet of him. I see Jerry Lee off at the train station and am really quite sad to do so; we are both sad to say farewell again so soon after having not seen each other in 25 years. I’m determined to get back to Firenze before I leave Europe for Asia next year.

Leaving the station I finally feel like a proper, kind of lost, tourist again – I’d spent the past couple of days letting Jerry Lee lead the way or simply following his directions.

I wander. I find a Tiger shop – my hostellier in Genova had suggested it as a place for notebook saying it was the sort of shop where you always found some little thing that you didn’t know you wanted until you saw it there. I have to say, it was a quite fabulous place full of all manner of knick-knacks: craft stuff, kitchen stuff, some bicycle decorations, party supplies, all manner of things.

I have apertivo at a bar Jerry Lee had suggested and the buffet was an excellent spread – cheese things, and fruit things, chicken wings and stuffed eggs, a bunch of different salads. Dinner sorted for the price of a Sydney cocktail – with the cocktail included of course (10 euro).

Arriving home, Davide is already there and we have a lovely time chatting through the evening. He like deserts, and solitude, and driving; he’s Australia’s perfect tourist (although with a bad case of arachnophobia). We look at my photos from Uluru and the Top End – and I tell him of the beauty, and sounds, and magic of the place.

It’s nice to have a chance to really talk of home and the magic of Australia’s central desert (photo from Dec 2013).

These few days in this ancient city teeming with summer tourists has lent me a soft domestic space to rest and refresh and I leave with an old friendship renewed and and a new one sprouted.

Into the Mass Tourism Beast I Go – Cinque Terre and Pisa (Days 15 & 16 – 8 & 9 June)

Travelling solo, and not being inclined to wear obviously branded clothing, I think people are a little confused by me. It’s a thing I notice on the train to Cinque Terre. The few words I speak to the conductor are in Italian. The many English-speaking travellers around me don’t know if I can understand them so I sit there quietly, watching and listening.

Cinque Terre will be my first full-blown tourist experience of the trip. I’ve been places with other tourists already, of course, but these have usually included a lot of Italian tourists and been places full of locals too. Such as the piazza in front of the Duomo in Milan, for instance.

As we near the Cinque Terre stations the train fills with English, German, Scandanavian, Chinese and Japanese speakers mostly dressed for hiking – walking shoes, walking sticks and sun hats. I have read up on Cinque Terre on the way and have some notes prepared. What I haven’t prepared for, though I knew it was a possibility, was for the Blue Track to be closed due to landslides. That route is the “easy” 12 km walk from village to village.

Riomaggiore is a narrow artery of a village clotted with tourists. Many are in organised groups – wearing little stickers and following a folded umbrella; and a lot of them are sort of, well, loud Americans asking one another where they are from and talking of suburbs outside of St Louis.

It feels rather like the Cinque Terre of tourist hell (cinque terre = five lands).

The trails that climb up into the hills are open. But the lady at the information counter warns: “Very steep, very hot, too hard.”

I wasn’t going to allow my visit to Cinque Terre to amount to taking the train from one village to the next and elbowing my way around fellow tourists. So at 1:00pm I start climbing. My legs are not impressed with the decision. The walk is the hardest 1300 metres I’ve ever walked. Sweat pours off of me as I press upward in the baking sun on a narrow dusty rocky path.

Stuffed. Wrecked. Rooted. But the views ….

But distance gives me the village views I’ve come for. Down there amongst the hordes the village is cute but crowded with tatt, above you see it as the ancient remote human settlement it is. Up here in the hills I am walking (climbing really) past their terraced gardens and vineyards which are held into place by remarkable dry stone walls.

My favourite places on this trip have been those where modern life is active and present in ancient spaces. The places which are preserved for the sake of preservation and where the life lived in them is dedicated to an economy of tourists bore me. That’s what I loved about the old city of Genova. That’s a real, living, neighbourhood that tourists pass through. There are children playing in the alleyways and friends chatting, there are grocers and hardware stores. Life, just like you and I live it, only in narrow ancient alleyways in one of the world’s greatest historic ports.

When I arrive in Manarola I am pretty shattered. I’m glad I have done the walk but my body is protesting loudly. I have lunch by the little harbour watching local and visiting kids jumping off rocks into the water to the admiration of their ever changing audience.

I take a ferry to the second-last of the towns, Vernazza – the ferry was dearer than the train but it’s good to see the Cinque Terre villages from the sea.

They are all, but one, port villages after all. Vernazza is cute enough … with a little rubbly beach and the usual crowds of Americans asking one another where they were from. I’d had enough. I needed a coffee and a train back to Riva Trigoso.

Once there I visit the grocery store and walk through the town proper on my way home. It’s a nice antidote to Cinque Terre – everyone is speaking Italian and people are going about their afternoon business.

….

I had hoped to leave in time to catch the 8:20 am train to Sarzana which would cut some 13 kilometres of undulating road off my ride to Pisa. I fail. Instead I get a train to La Spezia and have to cycle from there.

At La Spezia station I fall into conversation with an American I like and who has a cool attitude about life and travel – it was a nice moment for me and good to reminder to be wary of my prejudices and, instead, be open minded and take people as they come.

La Spezia has a nice feeling to it and I wish I had time to hang around. I am still running at a deficit (rest-wise) and am just motoring on. Beyond the old town La Spezia has a large and active port which I have the pleasure of riding past and then through a very ugly industrial area on roads shared with big trucks (Sydneysiders think some combination of Botany and Port Kembla).

There is climbing, though nothing too severe, and the usual amount of confusion which comes with exiting unfamiliar cities. I keep hoping and waiting to reach the sea and the long flat road which lay next to it that will take me most of the way to Pisa.

I might say something here of the plethora, veritable multitude, of road cyclists I’ve seen every day here. On my ride in Australia I saw maybe a handful of other riders of any sort. Here, every single day, I have seen lots of road cyclists – only a few tourers – and thousands of everyday cyclists, you know just people going from A to B.

The road cyclists, almost to a person, have given greeting – anything from a nod of the head to a big wave and shout of “Ciao! Ciao!” They have also almost all been men of middle or mature ages. Mostly of mature ages (mid-50s plus) – which may reflect that many of my riding days have been weekdays. I’ve also seen some quite young riders (in their 20s). One group of these were all wearing Team Lampre kit. In Australia I would have presumed them to be fans. Here, I realised, there was a good chance they were professional riders out on a training run.

I stop in a little resort village for lunch. An Italian dad walks with his sons who are carrying a li-lo down to the sea; two boys are racing back and forth on their bicycles. In the bar a worker of some sort, a regular, has a couple of limoncelloes (I think it was) before resuming his labours.

Then, finally, the seafront. Again … having been spoiled by Australian beaches these hot rocky shores leave me a bit … meh. The spectacle for me is the mountains – sharp peaks of dark grey granite, carved areas of white. I am nearing Carrara – of the famous marble and I think the white are areas of quarrying.

I am reminded, in a general way, of Queensland’s Gold Coast, but without the skyscrapers or the good surf. And with added industry.

In mid-afternoon I spot a sign pointing away from the water “Stazione” – yup, I’ve had enough. It’s time for a train into Pisa.

….

Pisa is another lovely old-town. I’m staying at the Hostel Pisa Tower on the opposite side of town from the station – I get to cross another river to get here – the Arno. The hostel really has a view of the Tower – it’s clean and comfy, the owner welcoming and helpful. My interest in exploring Pisa suffers from my exhaustion. I go look at the Tower and the Cathedral – which are beautiful, really amazing. But I am too late to pay 18 euros to go up the Tower.

Bapistry of St John, Pisa Cathedral & the Leaning Tower

I batter away the immigrant touts with their trays of watches and sunglasses, tarps full of hats and random little trinkets. I note that within 100 metres of the tower are a Burger King, McDonalds and Subway. I shun the camerieri spruiking their English menus and walk on seeking something a little more local.

I find the Osteria La Toscana – recommended by the hostel. I am early, not quite 8 pm – a good time for a solo diner. I have the place to myself as I enjoy the pappardelle al chinghiale (pappardelle pasta with boar sauce), roasted vegetables and a glass of Chianti.

I walk back through Piazza dei Cavallieri – and the insanely beautiful building there turns out to be the library of one of the universities. Fantastic – not preserved for preservation’s sake but repurposed and useful in everyday life today. I walk through the campus and find uni students being uni students – there is anti-establishment graffiti and posters for upcoming concerts on the walls.

Piazza dei Cavallieri – Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa
Its a uni library.

Back at the hostel I find a chatty young woman from Ukraine in my dorm room; we speak for while – which is nice – but I am wrecked and ready to sleep. Which soon I do.

The Ligurian Coast – Hot, Hilly, Beautiful (Day 14 – 7 June)

Wednesday 10 June: I catch up, then I fall behind, I catch up, then I fall behind. I’m struggling to find the right balance of riding, seeing the places I’m visiting, writing about them/organising my photographs of them and sharing stuff.

I’m here to ride and to see but the writing consolidates the experience and if I don’t stay on top of the photos then at the end I’ll have thousands of images of stuff that I don’t really remember,  where it was, or what was interesting about it. So doing the work is important to me it’s just a matter of finding a schedule that works. So far I haven’t. I’ve been writing but haven’t published any blog posts.

It’s been so hot. The records will say mid 30s but on the road, with the reflected heat from the bitumen it’s surely more like 40+. A reason, too, why I haven’t been getting work done in the evenings because I’m just freaking wrecked.

I ride out of Genoa on a blinding, hot, Sunday morning. When I reach the sea I am reminded of Bondi and Sydney’s eastern beaches … an undulating road full of traffic next to the sea. As an Australian I don’t find these pebbly Riviera beaches tempting or appealing but the locals are flocking to them.

While I’ve found Italian motorists polite and respectful (waiting patiently to pass and then doing so with a good margin) I am growing weary of sharing the road with so many of them, sucking in their exhaust, and being exposed to their added heat. I found myself singing “Drivers to the left of me, parkers to the right, here I am stuck in the middle …”

The sea is pretty, though, and the little old villages cute and, you know, Italian. Eventually I get beyond the Genovese Sunday beach goers and the traffic thins. I stop for a coffee at the top of a hill and notice my shins are sweating. Seriously … that’s some hot and humid when I find beads of sweat coursing down my shins.

At the bottom of that hill I find Recco – looking exactly as a Riviera beach should … identical umbrellas in perfect formations, a pebbly beach, all the boys and men in speedo-type suits, and the water a really beautiful blue.

From there I begin the serious ascent of the day – switchbacks and steadily climbing roads. There is little shade. When I find some, I stop to catch my breath. I would stop for lunch but there are no bars unless I want to lose elevation to descend into a village and that’s simply out of the question. Around 1 pm I find some shade near some buildings and a set of stairs where I stop and spend an hour relaxing and eating what food I had.

Did I mention it was fucking hot?

My legs, having gone cold, complained vehemently when I started again but I kept climbing – thinking about what equipment I could do without so to lighten my load. I stop in every patch of shade. Catching my breath, drinking the nearly hot water in my bottles.

There is less traffic here allowing me more opportunities to appreciate the trestles of purple flowers (bougainvillea perhaps) as well as the scent of jasmine.

So how hard was it? It wasn’t as hard as either Crawney Pass or the Moonbis. It was very hot and it was hard but I was carrying less gear than on those days; it was dry, and the traffic was accommodating. And, of course, I was looking at the Ligurian Sea.

About three hours after I left the seaside I reach a village on the main road where I find a caffe from which I could look down … way, way down on to that town with the perfect umbrellas.

I feel … tired, hot and hungry, but glad to be here, glad to have made the climb. It was what it was – I arrived knowing Italy isn’t flat. As I had no elevation profile for the ride and my map didn’t make it clear, I didn’t know how much more climbing I had to do. I pedalled away expecting more.

What joy, then, when as I leave the village and ride through a short tunnel that on the other side I find the road rolls downward. All the way down, down, down. I laugh with glee. The climb is over – pale stucco houses with terracotta roofs fill lower slopes, the sea sparkles and winks with some sort of reminder that this sea, this coast – or at least that of the broader Mediterranean – informs all western ideas of the Beach and Sea.

I can see Australia everywhere, which is to say I can see the way these Mediterranean cultures have transported themselves to Australia and become ingrained in Australian culture – the terracotta, the plants in the gardens, something in the style of the buildings.

And just like that I pulled up to a gelataria in Rapallo.

I know it’s wrong to complain both of Americans not travelling overseas enough AND of encountering them when they do but sometimes you meet an American whose attitude is so disappointing as to really piss you … me … off (admittedly this could happen with people of any nationality but, you know where I’m coming from – and I should note for readers who don’t know me personally, that I am American-born and a very happy immigrant to Australia).

Expecting a train to Sestri Levante I pedal the last 600 metres to the station and as I am heading for the ticket office another solo female cyclist approaches me and says, in English, “they won’t let bicycles on”. To which I reply, “But it’s a regional train.” And she says “You’re American!” like this is the greatest discovery one can make on an overseas holiday.

In short, she was wrong – but there had been a strike earlier in the day and there won’t be a train we can take our bicycles on for another hour and a bit. I used my tiny bit of Italian to learn this and buy a ticket. I invite her to get a beer – because that’s what you do, right? I thought I’d been a bit short with her already and should try to be nicer.

She’s about my age, maybe a little older, from outside of Milwaukee and a seasoned bicycle tourist. Maybe I expect more from such a person and that is part of my disappointment. First she has a whinge about shops closing in the afternoon and asserting its bad for their economy.  And Italians don’t like it either – she says – where she got this information remains a mystery – given she doesn’t speak “the lingo” – as she noted I did when I spoke with the ticket office.

Every native-English speaking country in the world does a shit job teaching their young second and third languages – it’s a terrible, arrogant failing. Fine. And, yes, I’ve spent real time studying Italian to get to the very basic, mediocre level I have achieved. However, as a guest it’s really on you to at least be able to apologise for not speaking the local language and asking, in that language, if they speak English. Even if you just ask “Inglese?” But this woman couldn’t be bothered with even that much. She would just ruck up to people and start speaking English.

At the bar when she goes back for the second round, she says she won’t know what to ask for, I suggest “due birre” – she says she won’t be able to remember that for the two metre walk to the barman.

If this was not enough to make me not like her several of her stories involve her arguing with people while overseas to the point of threats to ring the police – a sure sign that she had been argumentative and aggressive in a situation where understanding and calm probably would have served her better. One story was of her first night at an Italian campground where – as is the norm here – she was charged for herself and for her tent. That’s just the way they do it here. She said what if I don’t put up my tent? Seriously, what an asshole.

Okay … so she couldn’t be bothered learning even a few polite words and faced with things being done differently than at home has argued about it … two strikes. Lastly she said “I often wild camp at cemeteries. There’s usually no one around and there’s always water.” Look, I’m all for wild camping and I’m all for asking locally for a quiet place to pitch one’s tent. And if they send you to the cemetery, fine. But for a middle aged woman on a three week holiday to assume it’s okay to camp in local cemeteries? Firstly, I would think that almost anywhere in the world people would find it disrespectful to find you camping next to their parents’ grave. Secondly, you’re on a short holiday in a part of the world with ample accommodation options, including loads of campgrounds which are, I think, pretty reasonably priced. If you can’t afford not to sleep in the graveyard maybe you should just stay home.

To top it all off, she too had ridden the road I had just ridden but had, on the basis of looking at a map, expected the road to follow the sea, at sea level. Because she doesn’t do research and was utterly ignorant of the area she was riding through. So not surprisingly she was taking a train right past Cinque Terre but not stopping … probably in part because she didn’t know about Cinque Terre.

Okay … so she put me in a pretty bad mood about the ignorance and arrogance of some travellers and I was glad to be rid of her – though every time I’ve passed a cemetery since I think of her and growl.

I arrive at Sestri Levante and ride to the campground at nearby Tiva Rigoso. It is up on a hill (yippie) with a view of a shipyard and the sea – which I kind of really like – the view that is. I need my bit of Italian to get though the transaction with reception and imagine how unpleasant it would be if I had just bowled in with English and aggression.

This is my first camping experience in Europe and its good. I have a nice little terraced space in the area of the campground with on-site vans and tent sites (the RVs were elsewhere). The ablution block is good, although I nearly lock myself in a toilet stall – all part of the adventure.

There is a restaurant on site and I gorge myself on a mushroom pizza. And that is about me for the day … I am completely wrecked. My quads and hamstrings argue against the walk back up to the campsite. I fall asleep in a space where’d I’d last slept in Urunga – but under a northern sky. Tomorrow: Cinque Terre. Cinque fucking Terre.

Genoa: No expectations, thoroughly delighted (5th – 6th June, Days 11 – 12)

“The Most Serene Republic of Genoa ruled the Mediterranean waves during the 12th to the 13th centuries, before deferring to the superior power of Piedmont. Its crusading noblemen once established colonies in the Middle East and North Africa, and its emblematic flag, the red cross of St George, was greedily hijacked by the English.” Lonely Planet

I still had some 15 km to go to reach my hostel after I left the first gelataria I had found once I’d hit Genoa. The route followed narrow, heavily trafficked, streets with far fewer bicycles than, say, Milan. But still the motorists gave me space and none showed any agro.

I arrived in Genova ignorant and without expectations. I pedalled a major roadway boarding the port with a highway overhead (like the Cahill Expressway in Sydney but bigger and uglier) stopping now and then to refer to Google maps for directions to my hostel. When I turned off the major road I found myself almost immediately in a cool dark warren of narrow ancient roads lined with shops of all variety (not just tourist crap) and bustling with people. Wow.

And then: is that a prostitute? Oh, oh, yes it is, and there’s another, and another. Oh look she’s negotiating with a customer. The idea of prostitution doesn’t bother me – it’s called the oldest profession for a reason and so long as men will pay for sex there will be women who will sell it. I think it best to accept that reality and make the transaction as safe and fair as possible. That said, the presence of active prostitution makes me uncomfortable and I was pleased when I left that part of via Maddelena behind.

My hostel is on the third floor of a very old building on a road that is actually stairs. These were challenges I could have done without at the end of a long hot day of riding. However once arrived I find OstellinGenova lovely and welcoming.

Davide, one of the owners and the person staffing the hostel through most of my stay, points me toward a popular-with-locals hole-in-the-wall restaurant with award winning pesto (a Genovese speciality). It was just what I needed – a short pasta liberally dressed with rich earth pesto, fried calamari and ¼ litre of house red for A$23.

I emerged to see the city, rising on the hills above the harbour, bathed in late evening tangerine light which also danced and sparkled gently from the water. Genova’s waterfront has had the Darling Harbour (Sydney) and Inner Harbor (Baltimore) treatment – an attempt to beautify and make commercial an old industrial area. Of course here the old industry dates to Roman days. Like Sydney they built an elevated highway between the harbour and the city, and, like in Sydney, it’s a scarring mistake.

I’m wrecked and with some light still in the sky I retreat to my hostel bed for a well-deserved night’s sleep.

6 June –

My hostel is full tonight but they have found a bed for me at a nearby hostel. I’ll have another day and night in this beguiling place.

It’s already hot hot when I head out mid-morning to have a more thorough look around. I begin with via Garibaldi – which is UNESCO listed and, back in the day, the residents were required to host visiting royalty, popes, and other dignitaries. It’s impressive and yet I know the glories and decadence is actually hidden behind what are, in comparison, modest facades. One now seems to serve as a municipal marriage hall; several bridal parties are lingering in the courtyard and applause and cheers come from rooms above.

I am heading for a focaccia place recommended by Lonely Planet (another Geovese speciality) when I come upon a busy piazza. A busking trio of fiddle, bass and accordion play a gypsy-ish swing; a couple dance. A kiosk overflows with flowers. An 11th century church rises at one end and beneath it a hardware store with old-school window displays full of too much stuff. Masses of people – tourists and locals alike crowd past each other coming and going from the dark cool alleyways that lead off the piazza in five directions.

Hunger gets the best of me and I spot an especially interesting looking focaccia in a window: a base of an almost liquid white cheese, mozzarella slices, tomatoes, olives and a sprinkling of oregano. I buy a piece and take it to the steps of the San Lorenzo Cathedral. I watch kids kicking a ball and immigrant street sellers moving their tables closer to the gaggle of tourists being led by a guide; theirs is a vain hope of someone wanting cheap fleuro sunnies. The focaccia is interesting, messy and good. When I finish I notice the name of the focacciaria on the wrapping … it’s the place I’d been looking for.

I make my way out of the maze and traverse the port side of the old town through a shop-lined arcade – fishmongers and junk shops, pizzerias and kebab stalls. Life and commerce spilling out all around. I am heading toward Palazzo Reale and trying to keep from the harsh hot sun as I go. I find myself in a Muslim quarter and suddenly everyone speaks Arabic.

I share my hour at the Palzzo Reale, observing the decadace of old Genoa, with five other tourists. Gold and red velvet, mirrors and crystal chandelliers. Grey and white marble terraces the size of children’s football pitches bake in the glaring sun. The view beyond is of the machinery of the modern port. Above me, a group of young people lunch on a roof terrace of a nearby apartment block and all around laundry flutters on washing lines.

I have a moment tonight when it all sorts of hit me – I feel a little teary, a little emotional. The setting sun, again, does magical things – this time lighting up voluptuous clouds in way that doesn’t happen at home. There is a warm, wet, sea-salty softness to the light. They are the clouds of old world paintings – where are the cherubs with harps? A woman is singing with a strong, clear, unembarrassed voice to piped in pop music. I am passed by more of these beautiful dark featured blue-eyed Italian men … smoking. (Italy: smoking like its 1983.) I arrive again at the waterfront and the undeniable whiff of sewerage. Two young men stroll skulling a bottle of red wine.

Genova is doing my head in. Mostly in a good way. A city of such contrasts and in such proximity – the whores, the ancient wealth, the voices of women coming from churches, the immigrants hawking crap from cardboard displays – it is life in all its vibrancy.

That’s a hardware store beneath a church.

On Italian Roads: from Pavia to Tortona to Genova (4/5 June – Days 11 &  12)

4 June – Pavia to Tortona

I didn’t pedal away until 11:00 – so much for an early start. It was easily 40* on the road today making the 51 kilometres, well, hot. I left Pavia by riding over the covered bridge – which was cool – then I was back into the outer suburbs with their light industry and big box discount stores. The road was busy but traffic accommodating – giving me room and no agro.

The ride was not lovely. Basically I was crossing river flats full of outer suburbs and agriculture. I managed to get stuck at a roundabout not far from Pavia – it took me about 10 minutes to figure out which road I needed to be on.

I crossed the River Po on a narrow footpath next to the highway … like the Great Western in some ways. But – yo the Po, very cool. It was wide, high and an earthy green someplace between olive and a greeny tourquoise.

Me and the Po, yo. Crossing the River Po south of Pavia.

The heat was bright and dusty – not shimmering. I stopped in the worst of it in Lungavilla for lunch at Bar Sport. I rode on through Voghera into my destination for the night, Tortona. Another lovely old town area of paved narrow roads, lively with everyday businesses and people getting on with it as they have here for, what, a couple of thousand years?

The problem with simply making it up as you go is it’s expensive. I went to the tourist information centre and they helpfully found me a place (in English) – a hotel for EUR 55 (with breakfast). Il Cavallino is in a very old building, on the edge of the old town, with renovated rooms and a fantastic shower – though a wafting odor of sewage.

I went walking through the city – having a looking into the Duomo and another church where a service was on going. Fifteen women with an average age in their 70s and two blokes make the congregation. Their voices – so strong, so certain. Beautiful round sound filling the space of this 10th to 14th century church. The priest doing as all have done, pretty much the same, day in and day out for 1000 years.

Tortona: Chiesa Santa Maria Canale

I apertivo and watch the fashionable – in a sort of Gold Coast-y way – Tortonians enjoy their evening strolls. By 7pm the heat is finally going out of the day though a clock at a chemist’s says it’s still in the mid 30s.

There are hills between me and Genova; I wish I could find an elevation chart for tomorrow’s ride. It’s going to be some 75 or 80 kms mostly following a river so it might not be too bad.

5 June: Tortona to Genova

In Milan, when I spoke of riding to Genova to Luca and Daniella they both spoke of the hills. Luca had never done the ride – “there are mountains” – and Daniella said the climb wasn’t too bad with just the last bit to the pass being tough then it was all downhill to Genova.

When I pedalled away from Il Cavallino around 9am – an early start by my standards – it was already hot enough to have me sweating while packing up the bicycle. I had a long day in the saddle ahead I would need to take care with my pacing.

Pedalling away from Tortona on Via Emilla

An hour in I pull into a little town following the road toward a church – expecting that near the church will be a piazza and in the piazza a cafe. But the old part of town is dead quiet at mid-morning.

I did find this cool portrait of Fausto Coppi – one of Italy’s greatest ever cycling/sporting heroes, he was from around these parts and died in Tortona. I had seen a thing on a wall about him the previous night as well. He was the leading cyclist on either side of World War II – winning the Giro d’Italia five times and the Tour de France twice, among many other victories.

It turns out that just like elsewhere all the business in town is now on the highway so it was there that I found my morning coffee and a bit of bread for lunch later.

I’ve been thinking about the ideas of HERE and THERE. We travel from HERE to THERE for those things which make THERE different but of course when you arrive now you are HERE and many things aren’t that different and for the people who live HERE, the THERE you’ve just come from seems the place that is different.

Of course some THEREs are more different that others; Italy and Australia aren’t that different. Somethings, certainly, are very very different – elements of the culture, the history, the language, the architecture – but somethings less so: nearly everywhere I’ve stayed I’ve spotted at least some IKEA products, there are the some of the same cars on the roads, some of the same stuff in the shops.

Setting aside these commercial aspects, the very stuff of everyday life is the same HERE as it is THERE. I write this sitting on a park bench outside a doctors’ surgery where a child wails in the waiting room and its mother tries to soothe. People are going about the business of life – of working and shopping, of socialising and taking care of their families. The world is lovely in its sameness as much as for its differences.

Meanwhile … with some 30km done and 50km to come there has still been no climbing to speak of.

And there really wouldn’t be much to speak of at all. The road rose, almost imperceptibly, parallel to the river and the train tracks nearly to Busalla, where I met my first other bicycle tourists – three men in their 60s or 70s outside a bar. We chatted a bit in broken Italian and English – which was lovely. I understood their questions even if I couldn’t answer in complete sentences.

As I rode out of town, at last, a definite incline. Not that much of one but enough with some 50km already ridden in 35*+ heat. I finally dropped down to a small gear and just pedalled and wondered how long it would last. I looked for shade at the side of the road and took refuge there, two or three times. And then, maybe 30 minutes after I began climbing – I was passed by a road cyclist who said something about being nearly finished. What? And then I saw “200m” painted on the pavement, then “150m” and sure enough I was over the pass and cruising down the other side toward Genova.

Most of the switchbacks I had seen on my map were on the far side of the pass. I didn’t pedal for many kilometres and then, just like that, I was on a chaotic narrow street in the outer reaches of Genova and looking for that magic word “gelato”.

Working Days and Holidays in Pavia (2/3 June – Days 9 & 10)

Later in the trip it will probably seem strange I spent so much time in Pavia. During my week in Milan I recovered from my journey, dealt with my delayed baggage, saw the sites and enjoyed saying ‘yes’ to invitations from my hosts. So my blog hasn’t been updated and I have a backlog of photos unprocessed. There had also been some stuff I’d meant to get done before I left Sydney. These things were piling up on my conscience and so I’m taking a few quite days here to get caught up.

What I’ve noticed in these first 10 days or so is that I can’t treat a gap year as a long holiday. When I holiday I really fill the days to make the most of the time. I expect to get home a little worn out. But I can’t do that for a full year. And I don’t feel like I’m on holiday either. Its more that this is my new reality, albeit a temporary new reality. Here I am … in Italy. Of course, I’m meant to be riding my bicycle and there’s been precious little of that so far. It will come, it will come.

So today was Festa della Republicca – Italy’s national day marking the anniversary of the vote held on 2 June 1946. The Italians were to choose a post-war form of government and 12,717,923 voted for a republic to the 10,719,284 who favoured restoring the monarchy.

Google led me to the Citta di Pavia website when I asked what was on for the day. It seemed there was march at 10:00 am followed by a ceremony at 10:30 am. I failed to find the march before it had begun to enter the grounds of the University for the ceremony – where I joined them.

It’s funny how alike national day ceremonies are from one country to the next. Or at least from Australia to Italy. It was almost identical to Anzac Day in Urala. There had been a procession of groups: veterans, first-responders, and fraternal organisations who then formed up with their banners to line a red carpet which led to a flagstaff flanked by soldiers in fancy uniforms.

An MC listed all the participating organsiations and a politician inspected those lined along the carpet. She then spoke – I’m guessing about sacrifice and national pride – before a school choir and band performed the National Anthem. The crowd sang the first verse with gusto then faded out; the conductor was awesomely expressive. As they sang the flag was raised one centimetre at time. The politician returned to speak of new Italians and people coming to Italy from around the world – a handful of whom were called forward and handed a document. I’m guessing they were new citizens: people from Africa, India, and the Middle East. Lastly a Cardinal (perhaps – though he was wearing pink rather than red) of the Catholic Church spoke of God and led the people in prayer. Afterward there was a rush to tables at the back where free stuff was handed out and I got an Italian flag bucket hat.

I spent much of the rest of the day comfortably ensconced at the desk in my little hotel room catching up my book keeping (knowing what I’m spending will keep this thing going) and the processing (editing, saving, and backing up) of photographs.

In the late arvo I began thinking I might stay another night here in Pavia. Another day like today and I should be all caught up in a way that I’ll feel confident of keeping up with. Once I’d made that decision I went out for an evening walk in the old town. I enjoyed apertivo and a gelato and called that dinner.

Walking through the narrow, cobbled streets of the old town in the evening I was reminded that all around me were people’s 21st century homes – the sound of domestic voices, the clatter of cookware and smells of dinners being prepared.

3 June

I’ve devoted the better part of another day to getting work done and feel like I’m in a much better place to move forward. I’m not completely caught up but I feel like I’m on top of the writing, the blogging, my photography and my bookkeeping.

I did go out in the morning to have a look at the (outside) of the castle and the (insides of) the Duomo and San Michel – both of which were cool and lovely.

At the Duomo I arrived for the last few minutes of a service in a side nave. When the priest had finished the gathered sang something about Maria. Their voices were full and round and filled the space perfectly.

San Michel was built in the 11th century (?). As the descendant of immigrants to America and as an immigrant myself to Australia … 11th century buildings sort of boggle my mind. The church bells struck midday while I was at San Michel – the heavy brick deadened the sound but still they were there as they have been, I guess, for hundreds of years.

It was good to see Pavia on a normal week day with the streets lively and market stalls set up in the Duomo Piazza and elsewhere. My favourite was a bicycle stall offering repairs and selling a variety of basic parts, tools, and accessories.

After lunch I worked some more and thought about riding out to visit the Certosa di Pavia. It would be a nice 8km ride each way. But it was about 40* and I still had more work I wanted to finish. I wondered, in the end, which would disappoint me more: not seeing this one place or leaving Pavia not nearly as caught up as I would like to be. And with that I stayed and worked.

Once I’d gotten the photos all caught up – which is to say fully backed up, edited and duly classified on SmugMug – and published a blog post I went out into the late afternoon heat. It was still in the high 30*s. I had every intention of having an actual dinner tonight but again … I stopped for a beer and apertivo. Once consumed I felt full enough to skip ahead to gelati (fragole e yogurt) and call myself fed.

I still don’t quite know where I’m riding tomorrow but I do need to get an early start to avoid the worst of the heat.