Time for Italia
Our cycling introduction to Italy was far from divine.
We had cycled all day out of the mountains. For the last few hours we had been on a very long-and-skinny, straight-and-busy road where cars drove faster and closer to us than ever before. Often resulting in us shouting out in shock and swerving awkwardly to a stop. We arrived, sweaty and exhausted at a roadside campsite and were shown to a gravel pitch that looked like a parking space for a smart car. We were immediately asked for 25 euros (showers not included) by a man who just seemed to be walking around but was – he assured us – the owner. It all felt very odd. There was a strange tingling in the air that seems to alert you to the likelihood of being taken for a ride.
Everyone seemed to be a permanent resident of the campsite. The caravan population sat inside their ‘temporary’ homes, wheels buried long ago into the ground, gnomes placed carefully in the tiny front gardens, enclosed by miniature white picket fences. It was all very odd. I felt very out-of-place. Welcomed only by twitching curtains and suspicious glances.
Once the tent was set up we went to pay our 50 cents for a shower – which would end up being all of three minutes long and ice-cold for the first two. The ‘Reception’, which was clearly written on the front door of a house on the grounds of the ‘campsite’, opened into a family kitchen full of women busily preparing food. They all turned and glared at us with narrowed eyes – the intruders. We apologised and waited outside. Odder and odder. We left first thing in the morning.
That is the funny thing I began to learn about cycle touring while in Italy. You don’t research somewhere, book it, get on a plane, experience it and fly back. You cycle in some sort of line, a long incision across a country. You have to take a path through a country to continue the journey and that unavoidably includes all the gritty, boring, ugly bits that most tourists pay not to see. And more importantly you just have to accept this or you end up spending your time being either very angry or very sad about what you’ve stupidly chosen to do.
The trip was becoming a huge lesson in accepting my environment no matter how desirable or undesirable that environment was. Sure you can do some research, choose which roads you take and how long you stay in certain places (money depending) but most of the time you just end up picking a vague direction and going for it. You have to cycle through whatever that country may hold. Sometimes ‘through’ being the operative word.
A good example of this was Turin. We hadn’t really planned on going to this fairly industrial city but my derailleur (despite Jean-Michelle’s best efforts) was making cycling very challenging for me. I can tell you it’s not a nice feeling, cycling up a steep incline, trying to change gear to ease the leg strain and nothing happening. Then when the mechanism does try to randomly crunch into gear later – the chain flings off – leaving you pedalling desperately into thin air and slipping backwards.
Luckily, a lovely Columbian couple from Couchsurfing accepted our request to stay. Maria, Filipe and their friend Carlos. We immediately felt completely welcome and they said we could have showers and wash our clothes. Turin wasn’t going to be so bad after all.
We were both exhausted. We still hadn’t had a proper rest since before tackling the Alps and we were really feeling the consequences. Time in Briancon had been amazing but it had been far from relaxing.
Our deep tiredness was eased by how lovely our hosts were. They cooked gorgeous traditional Columbian food of rice, bean stew and fried plantain with salt. So delicious!
They said they would like to show us some of Turin. All I wanted to do was lie down in a dark room for two days and have some one occasionally massage my legs and feed me. But unfortunately this would have been a strange request for our hosts so we agreed to cycle around the city with them. They took us up to the top of a big hill (yes … a very big hill) to see the view of Turin, remarkable mainly for the fact that it is the flattest city I have ever seen. Maybe my exhaustion was tainting the view.
I hadn’t been giving my body any love or time to rest and not surprisingly woke up on the floor of their apartment at 4 o’clock in the morning with an agonising burning in my bladder. I ran to the toilet and pissed blood. I had developed really bad cystitis (a woman’s bane on the bike) very quickly. We went to the pharmacy as soon as it opened the following morning and got some strong medication. I explained to our hosts that I wasn’t very well and really needed a day to rest if that was OK with them. They were very sweet and kind to me. Maria rang her mother in Columbia and asked for the recipe for a special parsley tea that she made to help with my pain and to flush out my system. They even offered Haydn and I their bedroom to sleep and rest for the whole day and night.
The next day we had to go into town to try to fix my bike. The first bike shop we went to was closed permanently. The second one was closed but would open again in a few hours so we walked around for while, my bladder throbbing.
Thinking it was time for a treat we went to a café that had come up on my phone as being a vegan place. We realised when we walked in that it was absolutely full of cats. On the floors, on the chairs, lying on the tables next to the cutlery. I’ve never been a huge fan of cats ever since one nearly blinded me with a claw when I was a toddler. But walking into that café, I was so exhausted and in pain, that I was not really very surprised by this bizarre spectacle. Everything was turning into a surreal disaster anyway so a cat café seemed to befit the day quite well.
We shuffled over to a table with the smallest cat population, ordered some food and sat in sad silence waiting for it to come. An enormous plasma television loomed over our table with an animal rescue channel playing on mute. A giant dog loomed over us on the screen, panting with its massive, wet, pink tongue lolling out. A woman was furiously rubbing the dog.
The food finally arrived after a long wait.
It was unbelievably awful. We sat quietly for a while picking and then turned to each other and our eyes said everything. I just sat a cried into my bland bowl of rice and limp vegetables. I felt like I was the food in front of me. This was all turning into a bit of a nightmare.
The tiredness was so deep and so overwhelming. I had no idea how people did this kind of trip long-term. The novelty of the experience had worn off weeks ago and we had both reached burnout. Nothing was fun anymore and everything was hard work. We had been cycling for about two months solidly since leaving Calais and had barely rested at all. I had no idea where or how we could rest for long enough to begin teasing out these knots of fatigue.
Later, a kind bike mechanic tried to bend my derailleur back as best he could and said I would need to buy a new one as soon as possible. He didn’t have the replacement and would have to order it in – which could take up to a week. That was too long. We thanked him and cycled back to the flat.
The next morning we said our hugely grateful goodbyes to Maria and Filipe and left.
We decided to cycle from Turin to a campsite on the edge of Lake Viverone, 65km north-east. We thought perhaps we could rest there for a while.
It somehow ended up being one of the most epic cycle days of the trip so far. The roads were endlessly long and busy leaving the city. The heat just seemed to build and build oppressively; the air was thick and heavy. I had to work really hard to keep my spirits up. Having to abruptly pull off the road, run a few meters into the scrubland and try not to shout out in pain while peeing.
We cycled past a petrol station that afternoon and saw the numbers 43 next to the symbol for degrees Celsius. I looked open-mouthed for a minute. It was 5 o’clock in the afternoon and it was 43 degrees. We had been cycling hard next to this horribly busy road all day in 40+ degree heat. What were we doing?! I sat down for a minute. I felt like scrambled egg and not in a good way.
I knew we were just stumbling through this experience. Not knowing how to learn from our mistakes but suffering terribly from them. I think we were actually too tired to make good decisions and function like rational human beings anymore.
We looked at the map and our sat-nav, the lake didn’t look far away now. An hour later and we had both fully reached our limit. We had no energy left to give to the day. I fell off a few times coming down this very rocky, rudimentary path. My bike fell on top of me and I instantly got the searing pain-squeeze of needing to wee. I just half pulled down my shorts with one hand and peed with my bike still on top of me. It was all getting a very sad and pathetic. After about half an hour of pushing our bikes (as the rocks had gotten too big to cycle) we realised that this horrid rock road had been wrong all along. We could see that the lake was behind us through a large dense forest. That was it. Haydn screamed and I melted onto the floor and sobbed. How had this happened again? How? We were trying so hard to get this right and we just kept failing. We kept coming back to this point; both of us hating this so fiercely due to our own decisions. It was so painfully humiliating.
A pick-up truck drove past and Haydn flagged it down while I sobbed into my knees. The man spoke no English and we spoke no Italian but Haydn said – Camping! Please help us!
The man looked over at me and nodded. He helped load our bags and bikes into the back of his truck. I deliriously wiped the tears from my face and shook his hand, saying ‘Grazie mille’ over and over. Luckily these were the only Italian words I knew so far. He drove us for about 20 minutes along a thin rocky track that went up a huge, steep hill and then came out onto a road that snaked around the lake and finally got to the campsite. We thanked the man profusely and tumbled out of his truck.
We shakily walked our bikes to the reception and asked for a pitch for the night. The middle-aged woman looked at me as blankly as a frying pan and said – Sorry, we are full.
I sat down on the nearest chair and the tears just welled up again and didn’t stop until her slightly more compassionate husband said he would find a space for us.
We set up the tent on a tiny patch of grass between the white walls of two permanent caravans. The air a thick fog of mosquitoes. Sweat dripping off both of us even after a cold shower.
It was by this lake that we realised our exhaustion had gotten to a ridiculous and crushing level. Any hope of us continuing to enjoy this experience was impossible while being this tired. We had to have a rest. A big rest. Otherwise all the fun and adventure would be sucked out of it. And then all your basically doing is a hell-load of exercise and crying.
Big Rest in Biella
Oh beautiful Biella and beautiful Air B&B – you nurtured my weary body and mind back from the brink.
We looked for a place not too far from the dreaded mozzie infested lake of Viverone and found a sweet little cheap apartment to stay 25km north in Biella.
The very kind, old owner of the apartment, a gentle giant called Valerio, let us stay for two extra nights for a reduced price just because he liked us and saw how tired we were. Five whole days of heaven. We had our own perfect, little kitchen to use. There was a fridge! Clean towels that didn’t smell like grub and bag. A double bed with cool clean white linen. A shower. A sofa. All these simple yet deliciously luxurious things that we forget are so special. We had a whole new appreciation for these things now that we were living the day-to-day lives of trampy nomad adventure cyclists. We were both so happy to be in that small, solid, space and revel in all the pleasures of easy, domestic living.
Leaving Biella was really hard.
Those five days had been so precious and so deeply needed that it was hard to even consider loading the bikes back up again and going out into that hot, harsh, unpredictable world. But we couldn’t stay in Biella forever.
The day we left Biella we made a promise that we were going to try to take it easy. But that was much easier said that done. We cycled along a very busy, narrow road the entire day and then found a wild camp spot in the early evening that seemed fine. But lo and behold the dreaded mozzies came on like a plague again. Buzzing around our faces and exposed limbs while we tried to throw the tent up. I dove straight in to escape, my whole body flaming and itchy and sticky with sweat and bites. It is a very big challenge to maintain a feeling of wellbeing when you are extremely physically uncomfortable and know there is really nothing you can do to make it better. I just lay down and tried not to move to cool down. Deep breathing can be a life saver.
Haydn heroically cooked dinner outside and we went glumly to bed.
I was woken up by the feeling water dripping on my face and body. I could hear Haydn swearing and rustling around outside the tent somewhere. It was pitch-black. I called out – Are you OK, what’s going on?
I could just about hear him answer over the rustling – The one fucking night we don’t put the flysheet on, the one fucking night!
Then I realised what was going on. It had been so hot that we had decided to try not putting the waterproof outer layer of the tent on. We had just put up the internal part of the tent, that is really just a glorified mozzie net and waterproof base with a pole skeleton to hold it up.
At 3 o’clock in the morning it had started to rain. To absolutely pour.
Haydn put the flysheet over the tent in the pitch black, torrential rain, being savaged by mosquitoes. When he finally managed to clamber back into the tent like a big slippery seal, I realised he was completely naked. What a hero.
Time For New Tactics
We thought it was time to try something new. We had remembered Alexis’ advice. If you are struggling – ask people for help. It’s just having the balls to ask in the first place.
So that following day we tried it. We got into a village at the time that we had done enough cycling for the day and decided to ask to camp in someone’s garden. I had written an Italian translation onto a piece of paper, explaining what we were doing and asking if it would be alright to camp for one night in their garden.
We saw a man with a lovely large lawn and a fancy car. We asked him for some water and while he was filling it up Haydn and me passed the translation between us like a hot potato deciding who should ask him. When he came back outside, I shyly showed him the piece of paper, with a smile. He read it and looked over at his lovely flat, manicured lawn, then back at us. He shook his head. No, no, but there is a golf course up there – he pointed up the hill. A golf course! What a strange recommendation.
We thanked him and cycled back into the centre of the town to ask someone else. Alexis had told us not to be put off by rejection. So we tried again.
I sheepishly cycled up to two old Italian women and showed them the note. They read it intently and then smiled and patted me warmly. They explained in fast Italian that they didn’t have gardens. At least I think that was what they said. Then they went on to say a whole load of other stuff very fast that I was completely unable to follow. They gesticulated wildly, trying to make us understand. It was very sweet but very pointless. After a while we thanked them and cycled off in the direction they insisted that we went for a still unknown reason. Then we spotted a woman stood by a gate looking at her phone with lots of dogs at her feet. I cycled up to her and she smiled at me warmly. I showed her the note. She read it and immediately said – YES! You can have a room!
Our magic piece of paper had worked! And it had brought us to Glorious Gloria.
She immediately made us feel very welcome. Showed us to a private double room to stay in. Gave us towels for a shower and brought out a big plastic bottle of frozen, homemade sangria. We sat and talked and defrosted the sangria, surrounded by her huge menagerie of animals. A dark storm stirred up the sky. Soon the rain was pouring down and we thanked Gloria for saving us from another night out in the wild.
Gloria’s daughter Beatrice came home later that evening and Gloria fed us all homemade paella, wine and ice cream. After, we all sat around to watch Game of Thrones like a family. It was enchanting to be welcomed so wholeheartedly into someone else’s space after just showing them a piece of paper.
We slept very well that night. In the morning when we left, Gloria and I both had a little tear in our eye. Such kindness. What a strong, yet fleeting connection.
After that we had many more wonderful experiences of generosity after asking for help. A lovely couple, Elisa and Emmond, let us stay in their holiday home while they went out for the night, bringing us coffee and biscuits in the morning. A kind farmer and his family invited us in to stay in a huge old-fashioned guest suite full of dusty relics including an ancient off-key piano. We ended up not sleeping in our tent for five nights in a row.
We decided if we were travelling across northern Italy it would be stupid to miss all the beautiful lakes that rest between the mountains there.
We arrived in Como and felt very out-of-place. It was very swanky and heaving with traffic and tourists. We felt about as trampy as you can – eating our lunch of stale bread and cucumber on the pavement by a roundabout.
Over that trampy lunch we made a snap decision and agreed to avoid Como altogether and head straight up into the mountains. It was hard work getting up into the Italian Alps but very quickly became quieter, cooler and much prettier.
We were planning on wild camping but soon realised that might be harder than we had imagined. The road snaked up into the mountains. To the left of the road, the mountain raised steeply upwards and to the right the road sheared away down the mountainside. All flatter areas where populated by small towns with little space for secretive camping.
We looked on the Warmshowers app and saw that there was a host in a village not far away. We sent a message. It was already two o’clock in the afternoon. Very late notice. We prayed that they would be the kind of person who had their phone right by them and would reply straight away. We cycled on and found a café to sit and wait in. No reply. I tried to call. No answer. We wondered what we should do. The house was only ten minutes away but we thought it would be too rude to just show up and ring the bell. We sipped our drinks slowly. Listening to the old Italian locals seated around us. I tried to call again. Nothing. We finished our drinks and I said – Let’s just go for it, they can always say no. It wasn’t too late, so if they said no, we could still cycle on and hopefully find somewhere to camp.
We arrived at the door and rang the buzzer. A woman’s voice spoke out from the machine in Italian and I did my best to convey who we were without babbling. It felt very strange to turn up at someone’s house and ask if you can stay, right there and then. I could feel my heart beating hard in my chest with embarrassment.
A very slight woman with a long floral skirt and paisley cardigan came skipping out towards the gate. She had a wild mass of frizzy grey hair like a floating cloud that she had tried to tame at the end with loose plaits. She said excitedly in perfect English – So are you the French couple? The ones I was expecting on Tuesday?
We explained that we weren’t, we were very sorry for just turning up and that we had tried to call and message her. She looked intensely at us and then with a huge beaming smile, opened the gate further and ushered us in.
Marieke and her eighteen-year-old son Emmanuel were two of the kindest and most gently welcoming people we had met so far. They sat us in the garden where a wonderful mixture of animals lived. They brought us drinks and fruit and said we could just relax with them for a few days. I felt like we had accidentally come to heaven. The steep, beautiful mountainside was visible, high into the sky from the small, perfectly kept garden. The chickens and cats and guinea pigs, a rabbit, a tortoise, all wondered around happily.
We asked if there was anything we could do to help. At first she said no and then gradually as we spoke she mentioned the tree against the hedge at the back, right of the garden. Half of it had died. Haydn said – I can sort that, I was a gardener for a while. Do you have the tools?
We got to work with hand saws and Haydn cut the dead half of the small tree down. I dissected the branches into small lengths for the fire as we went. In a couple of hours it was done and the wood was sorted neatly into baskets. I felt less guilty imposing ourselves on these lovely people once we had done something noticeable to help.
Emmanuel taught us how to make jewellery with resin and found objects. We went for a walk and gathered little flowers and leaves and beautiful-dead beetles with shells like the sheen of petrol on tarmac. We sat around late into the evening, all wearing head torches, arranging little natural objects into moulds, small crystals and metal fillings and then sealing them in with resin. We both went to bed very happy.
I came downstairs in the morning to Marieke translating a music book from Italian into English. I put my hand on her arm and asked as bravely as I could if perhaps we could stay one more night as my period had started and I was suffering with cramps. I felt so limp and tired and weak. The idea of cycling off again up the mountain roads felt so cruel to my aching body. She smiled and said we could stay as long as we liked. I felt my body singing with relief as I gave her a huge hug and climbed back up their funny ladder staircase and crawled back into bed to cradle my belly.
We stayed for three nights in the end and felt a pull of sadness when we left.
It was such an honour to meet these beautiful people. These eccentric, charming characters along our path.
We came down out of the mountains to skirt along the edge of Lake Lecco.
Lake Lecco was very different to Como. It had a gentler, family vibe, which we were very enchanted by. It was also quite spectacularly beautiful. We spent a few nights camping around the edge of the lake in different campsites, whose one-night prices made us gulp. Unfortunately sometimes we really had no other option when there is nowhere else you can possibly do a sneaky wild camp. Mainly when somewhere is just very far from being ‘wild’ and is being fully enjoyed by a massive amount of human life. We had no choice but to ignore the price tag and enjoy the incredible views from our spot.
Italian Alps – Finally Getting the Whole Wild Camping Thing
We came very steeply up and away from Lake Lecco into the Italian Alps. It was very hard on the old thighs but the views became more and more dazzling every hour. We had climbed all day and as it got to about five o’clock we came across a field that sloped upwards. Haydn went to investigate and came back down saying there was a perfect spot higher up but we would have to get up there. We took all the bags off the bikes and carried everything up separately. The only flat spot in the field was up high, protected by an old ruin and hedges. I set up the tent while Hayds went back down on a light, bag-less bike to find some water. I sat there looking at the view and filled up with this huge feeling of pride and excitement. This was what it was all about. This was the magic of being a wildling, of roaming around and finding secret places with rich treasures for the eyes and food for the soul. Later Haydn and I watched as a dark storm rolled into the valley below. I had never felt like I was above a storm, looking down at it. It was like watching theatre. We were both transfixed and smiling from ear to ear. This was what we had been searching for. This was why we were doing this.
The plan was to meet up with my family for the last week of August and beginning of September in Italy. They wanted a holiday and my Mum had found this amazing ‘Agriturismo’ place where they specialised in vegan/vegetarian food and organic wine and oil. We arranged to meet on the 28th August in a place called Solferino, south of Lake Garda.
What a strange and wonderful feeling it was to hold and be held by my Mum and sister and Dad again. The bond of whole life knowing and shared excitement at us getting this far – with the legs they had always known and yet had never been challenged like this before!
What a surreal and enormous lifestyle change that holiday was. In one day we had transformed from trampy nomad cyclist to holidaying tourist.
I felt almost embarrassed by how luxurious and heavenly this new environment was. How were our lives allowed to be quite so easy and delicious again? When so many others in Calais that we had met and fed and spoken with, so many people all over the world would never experience this. It had never felt so obviously unfair before.
Gliding in the clear water of the pool, eating the most exquisite food, laughing about ridiculous parts of journey so far. Slumping so readily into that gorgeous comfort of family that want to love and look after you. I felt painfully lucky and had moments of feeling ashamed of that luck. I had done nothing to deserve it. No matter how far I had cycled, no matter how uncomfortable it might have been, this kind of luxury now felt unjust. And yet, this was just what a treat was for my family. Before I had been blissfully oblivious to my extreme fortune. But now the blinkers were off and just as I could have moments of heavenly forgetfulness, sometimes a crashing sense of the rest of the world would fill me and make me distant.
The days slipped by so easily and then before I knew it, an intense anxiety set in about setting off again. My family left a day before we did and the spacious, luxurious apartment felt so strange and empty without them there. I shed a few tears when hugging them goodbye and that was the beginning of a two-day torrent. I just kept braking down crying. My anxiety felt enormous like it filled my whole body and my skin felt paper-thin, only just containing it and concealing it beneath the surface. My eyes became red and puffy from anxious sobbing. Haydn did his best to console me. I felt completely incapable of keeping myself together. I hadn’t really explained to my family quite how hard it had been for most of the time so far and how many times I thought I couldn’t carry on. All that had been left unspoken was coming out now in my floods.
As Haydn had predicted, I felt better once we had left. The anxiety mellowed once we had gotten out and were focused on our day-to-day lives on the road again. I was teaching myself over and over that even when you think you can’t – you CAN just keep keeping on.
I had never thought I was very strong. I had always known I was a very sensitive person to the world, outside and in, but I had assumed in the past that this meant I was a weak and fragile person. For a lot of my life so far, I had been. But leaving the beautiful gates that hid away that beautiful place where we had stayed with my family, that was the last time I cried with the thought that I was too weak to continue. That was the last time I doubted myself and what I was capable of. That was the shedding of a skin.
We cycled long days through the flatlands between Solferino and Trieste. It was a dull and hot comedown from the time spent with my family but we were both feeling strong enough not to complain about it. We felt the profoundness of our fortune and we weren’t going to be caught thinking otherwise for a second.
We stayed with a beautiful family in Trieste, our last stop in Italy. The husband, Alejandro, worked integrating and supporting refugees in Trieste. His wife, Irini had worked with refugees and was now a translator. They had a tiny, happy, very cute baby called Ines-Sophia. They had a tiny apartment but were hugely generous, relaxed people and we instantly fell in love with them. We happily would have stayed with them for a week but the wildness of the Balkans was calling.
Looking back from where I sit now, our time spent in Italy was a huge learning experience for us both. This country pushed us both to the outermost borders of our endurance limits and hammered home the extreme fortune that we are blessed with but have done nothing to deserve. Italy was a big surprise to us. We had visions of sailing through Italy, eating delicious food, getting a lovely golden tan and camping wherever we fancied in the cypress studded countryside. But it had not been like that at all. The beginning of Italy was when I thought I was going to quit. To pack it all on a plane and put two fingers up to the window as I flew home and away from the painful life we had found on the road. I am so grateful that I stayed. And strangely glad it was as hard as it was. It was a profound time of learning for me.
People say that you can be educated in the University of Life.
Italy was that for me.
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