Friday, 22 August 2008

Wednesday 30th July - Pieve Fosciana to Roma

Well, despite yesterday's misgivings about the possible disasters of today, it actually turned out quite well. I've managed to blag free laundry and unwittingly also got the use of internet for free all day, along with a very cheap train ticket from Lucca to Roma. Yes, that's right, a train ticket.

I can't help but feel like I've been really hammering it recently and waking this morning after and undeservedly restless night, I decided to cycle down to Lucca and have a little look around this beautiful walled Tuscan city, before getting the train to Rome.

The Tiber

It was more a matter of necessity than laziness, as my budget is already stretched enough and Rome is not going to be a cheap place, so I traded in a couple of days cycling budget for a cheap dorm bed and train ticket.

Tuesday 29th July - Parma to Pieve Fosciana

Um, yes, the cyclists here do have style

One of the silliest cycle paths I have ever seen

Christ, what a day! After taking a much needed rest day in Parma, I got up at 6 to leave at 6.30 this morning, to try and get a head start on the fierce Italian sun. It worked out well, as by midday I had reached Villa Minezzo and climbed about 600 metres, roughly half way through the Apennines. I felt much fitter too, sticking only to fruit and sugary stuff rather than any 'proper food' seems to be the way forward and I was able to get up out of the saddle and just keep climbing. Also, although my toe is bugging me a bit (I had a fall in the Black Forest and think I have fractured it), my knee seems to have done the worst of its protesting and hassettled back into quiet, uncomplaining submission.

The scenery of the Apennines here, especially above 1000 metres, is absolutely gorgeous. After cycling through the stuffy microwave of Northern Italy, getting up into the mountains was a real dose of greenery and fresh, cool air. Finally, after a rewarding and not unpleasant effort, I reached the Passo della Radici (1529 metres). The descent was a long one, taking over an hour, yet my rebuilt bike continues to impress me with its lovely handling and braking abilities.

As I descended I could feel the hot, muggy air of the Italian lowlands start to constrict around me like a hot damp blanket. Is there no respite from this incessant heat? Whose stupid idea was it to go cycling through Italy and Greece in the middle of summer anyway? Oh yeah, mine, hmm.

When I reached Pieve Fosciana at the bottom of the valley, I went into the local Coop to get some juice and decide whether to stay the night there or carry on another 50 odd kms to Lucca. As it turned out, the decision was emphatically made for me; from the moment I stepped outside I was caught in a flash storm, bizarrely starting off with hail, before becoming a full-scale torrential downpour. Along with this unexpected treat, the elation of having conquered the Apennines had by this point faded away, leaving me with legs of jelly and a 3 1/2 km cycle to the nearby campsite through a hellishly muddy gravel track.

When I finally arrived, I had a meagre 9 euros to my name and, in return, the vast unsmiling matriarch of the site wanted 11.70 and had a defective card machine. Her son, translating into English for me from his fierce looking mother, was telling me that I would have to head (read 'swim', by this point) into the nearby town and find a cash machine to make up the 3 euro difference. After some horrible mangling of the Italian language and an emphatic, pleading 'per favore!' on my part, mama took pity on me.

She looked down at the soggy crumpled note and loose change collected in my outstretched palm, her face cracked into a broad grin and she looked at her son knowingly, parroting my impoverished 'per favore' with a shrug that implied there was nothing she could do now to resist the power of that magic phrase. She let me off the odd couple of euros, and I trudged off to set up my tent in the deluge, where I am now writing this; warm, soggy and in contemplation of what possible minor disaster tomorrow could bring...

Av. 16.8 kph, Max. 57.8 kph, Dist. 142.53 kms, Time 8.29.36

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Sunday 27th July - Como to Parma

The road to hell.

This morning, I was in bicycle heaven. On Sunday mornings, the more athletically inclined Italians get out their beautiful shiny De Rosa's, Colnago's, Bianchi's and Cinelli's and take to the hills in a flourish of pink, yellow and lime green. I lost count of the number of friendly 'ciao's I got this morning as cycle clubs blurred past me downhill and it made me want to ditch my luggage and join them all for a 'proper' ride.

The 'river' in Parma

Sadly however it was not to be, for 200 kms later I feel I am way out the other side of proper ride and well into proper physical meltdown. The ride was largely flat, rising a little from Como and then carrying on pretty steady the whole way. The big problem was that it was Sunday, a day in which the entire Mediterranean stirs only for church and big family dinners, and thus leaving me with a banana, a meagre hotel breakfast and some Nutella to get through this long ride.

By Piacenza I had finished off all of my paltry rations and still had 60 kms to go, so I took the unforgettably dreadful decision to take the most direct route to Parma and cycle along the never-ending highway; a hellish, scorched stretch of blacktop where the rules of civilisation cease to apply and driving was of the 'canus canum edit' variety and in which, sadly, I had no chance. When I finally arrived I devoured two pizzas, being much the only food I could afford, and on reaching the hostel and sloughing off the baked on layer of grit and grime I had accrued, realised that I had been dry roasted, having been in 35 degree sun from 8 that morning until 7.30 in the evening. I was parched, baked and exhausted, so I fell into bed for twelve hours at the hostel, promising myself a day of culture, rather than cycling, when I woke the next morning...

Av. 22.4kph, Max. 46.5kph, Dist. 199.87kms, Time 8.54.48

Saturday 26th July - Airolo to Como

After the torturous combination of heat and height yesterday, today's ride has a cool and thankfully downhill start. I decided on a route that allowed me to skirt two of the Swiss-Italian lakes and on the shores of the third at Como. It was again a glorious ride, but I definitely got the impression that the landscape of the Italian side of Switzerland was less sacred than that of the French or German, pitted as it is with quarries, log piles and industrial developments.

I was also greeted by a veritable concertina of car horns and the fabled...ahem...'style' of Italian driving made itself quickly apparent. The only thing that will keep me sane throughout this peninsula is knowing that for all of their crazy on-road stunts, the Greeks are still worse drivers than the Italians (although there's a pretty good chance that either will be the end of me and I have no idea what mental motivation I will use once in Greece!)

The ride was a long one, perhaps the longest yet, but I felt surprisingly fit today after yesterdays trouble and guess it must have been the extremity of the climb that did it, rather than the distance.

Of all the languages I don't know on this trip, Italian seems certainly the least daunting and I'm hoping to have mastered the basics in a few days like I did with German. I also managed to meet my third astrophysicist so far (not counting Toby, the potential astrophysicist that started the trip with me.) He also happened to be a Dutch cycle nut; no shortage of them on this trip either. Until now however, I have not met a single other Brit. I don't know whether this is testament to the fact that my countrymen and women a) don't travel outside of package holidays, b) don't cycle, c) all know something I don't or d) all speak the language of their host country fluently and seamlessly integrate whilst I struggle along as the hopeless cyclist ignorant of both Italian and German. I rather doubt it is d), but the other three may well have something going for them. Indeed, I discover the answer today, for they are all in Como!

It's a crowded, starstruck place, host to a bunch of celebrities and their adoring, 'Hello!'-reading real-world analogues, decked as though for a space outing in Prada suits and enormous, wraparound glasses. They totter from boutique to salon to boutique, clutching their designer wallets stuffed full of their husband's credit cards in between lurid false fingernails. From this herd rises a cacaphony of accents, from Essex to East Yorkshire, Manchester to Gloucester and amongst them dart dark, crumpled-looking old ladies on bicycles, moving with the pace and certainty of London bike messengers. Watching this circus are the young Italian men, swaggering with the tide of the evening, clutching their phones and cigarette packets tightly in one hand and swinging their keys methodically with the right. Then there is me, hot, sweaty and dressed in lycra with 50 kgs of bike and luggage, looking on in bewilderment and utterly out of place. The scene says 'Bienvenuti in Italia!', the parentheses say 'Terra di caotico'...

Av. 22.5kph, Max. 59.5kph, Dist. 158.36 kms, Time 07.02.04

Friday 25th July - Merlischachen to Airolo

I woke early this morning to my favourite sounds in Switzerland; the lapping of a clean fresh lake inviting me for a morning swim (better than ten cups of coffee) and the constant tinkling of cow bells. I set off early at 6.30 to cover the miles of today, not just the route to the Gotthard pass, but over it.

As expected, cycling through the Alps was both stunning and epic. After a week of dull flat Rhine farmland it was a visual tour de force; the only other time I remember having such a vigorous sensual reawakening was on my first trip out of polluted Athens after three solid months of voluntary incarceration years ago. The colours and contours just grab your eye and won't let go, and the deeper I got in to the mountains as I skirted and left Lake Luzern, the more breathtaking it became. I think this is what cycle touring is all about.

Sadly though, I knew climbing the Alps was never going to be easy, but in the end they got the better of me. I managed to climb to 1447 metres at Andermatt, before my right knee finally gave in on me in protest, as it has been threatening to do for weeks. It's my own stupid fault for fitting a race groupset rather than a mountain biking one, and the pedal mashing on the way up was getting more and more painful. I can safely say that (apart from learning Akkadian!) trying to cross the Alps by bicycle is the most difficult thing I have ever done.

So, in the end I had to skip the Gotthard pass and catch a (depressingly quick) train to the other side, arriving at Airolo, the first Italian town on this side of the Alps. The town is pretty dead, just a strip of pizzerias and hotels, although exploration is rewarded by some more attractive, cobbled residential streets off the back of the main road. However, the first major indication that I have entered the Italian sphere of influence is that I was able to haggle down the price of my room, something that was impossible north of the Alps and I hope will become a more regular feature of this trip from now on. As for my knee, luckily it is all downhill to Como tomorrow...

Av. 16.6kph, Max. 44.9kph, Dist. 80.10, Time 04.49.50

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Thursday 24th July - Basel to Lake Luzern

This is the most 'Swiss' picture I could get; it reminds me of chocolate wrappers

Firstly, an apology. I have been really lax in updating this blog, partly because I've found it hard to find an internet cafe to write something meaningful in between days of heavy cycling and also because it is an expensive habit I can afford only occasionally. So I apologise to the doubtless legions of would-be blog readers who think I have either fallen off a cliff or can't be bothered. Neither is true, but I have now reached Athens and have free time and internet so am writing my posts from my journal to catch up. Hope you enjoy reading it still and this slightly inauthentic time delay doesn't spoil it! British School at Athens - 17/08/2008

It seems that all of the hill training I did in England was for nothing, for after two weeks of cycling down the Rhine I have got proper soft. Still, to be fair Switzerland is not a place of gentle inclines, but thigh-busting, life-defining two-wheeled ordeals, always rewarded with a gallon of sweat, a beautiful view and a seriously fun descent. It's just a shame the climbs the climbs take so long and the descents are over so quickly. It reminds me of being at major theme parks as a child; the rollercoasters are a blast, but the queues are so long that you can only manage three in a day! It's a trade a laborious build up and an exhilarating 5 minute reward and for cyclists, Switzerland is one of the worlds most beautiful and exciting theme parks.

One weird thing that happened was a dragonfly flying full pelt into my left cheek whilst clocking 50 kph downhill; it felt like being punched in the face. Dragonflies are really irresponsible pilots, truly. By the end of the day I was aiming to get to Fleulen on the far side of Lake Luzern, but ultimately only got to Merlischachen on the near side, staying in a nice little campsite right by the lake (it is next to impossible to wild camp around here). This means that to keep to The Schedule™ I'll have to cycle 90 kms tomorrow to get to around Fleulen and THEN ascend the Alps to 2108 metres to the Gotthard pass, before rolling down to Airolo in the Italian part - that's a fair ride! I'll give it a good shot, but I'm not afraid to take an extra day if necessary. This is the kind of thing that really gets me going!

Seriously, is that not one of the most inviting things you've ever seen in your life? Fleulen

18.8 AV., 57.1 Max, Dist. 125.03, Time 6.38.43

Tuesday 22nd July - Frieburg im Briesgeau to Basel

Today has been one of the most enjoyable days cycling so far. Ok, so it wasn't very sunny and I didn't get to ride through any UNESCO World Heritage sites or anything, but it just seemed that every kilometer was a real treat.. Strangely this was the result of the usually all too irritating and common knack I have of getting lost. There were plenty of hills which, masochistic as it sounds I really enjoy, as all of the best bits in cycling are born of the 'pain-pleasure' payoff rather than coasting down a flat riverside for weeks. When you've seen one field by the Rhine you've pretty much seen them all, but the hills and lowlands of the Schwarzwald are a constant array of gorgeous unpolluted rivers, woods and old rural villages. Today I saw a 6 year old boy driving a tractor through the fields, followed later by a septuagenarian woman waiting calmly on one at the traffic lights in town. I got happy hellos from everybody I passed, got thoroughly lost and ended up at the top of an enormous hillside vineyard and feel I am finally getting in to this cycle touring thing. My fitness has rocketed and I always wake up feeling lean, energetic and motivated. I only wonder how good it must feel to do this around the world...

So it didn't take me very long to finish the remainder of my German leg. Coming into Switzerland was like a soft velvety slap in the face; it was only 10 seconds after I whizzed downhill past a little hut and checkpoint that I realised it was the Swiss border crossing. Suddenly the signs had changed and I knew that the vague ability of comprehending German I had picked up in the last week would be next to useless for I was now in Swiss German territory, a language it is often said can only be learnt at your mother's knee. I have gained a thorough vocabulary of German in the most esoteric things, particularly bike parts, but menus are still a mystery to me here; as is the way in which an entire nation's diet can consist only of the letters s, z, g and w. I still generally just have to point and ask in restaurants, although on the bright side, I'll never be quite as bad as the woman who asked me if I spoke 'American' in the bar yesterday.

My host in Basel was Manuel, slightly shy and eccentric, but absolutely great fun and a brilliantly accomplished cycle tourist himself. When I turned up at 6 he was a little confused about my arrival, thinking that I was an Italian cyclist called Marco also supposed to be arriving that day. Eventually Marco turned up around 8, pedalling his way north from Southern Italy to Iceland, which basically meant that along with Manuel's flatmate Arienne the whole place was heaving with bicycle-obsessed eccentrics for the evening. Manuel told us many stories of his 16 months of two-wheeled expeditions across South America and the Tierra del Fuego; covering the continent top to bottom, over desert, tundra and rainforest. Amazingly, he had also hand built his own bicycle for the trip, ordering the tubing direct from Dedaccai and Reynolds and welding it together himself. Needless to say, he was a rich source of information and a very inspirational person to stay with. In comparison this trip really does feel quite pathetic, but he motivated me to ditch the plan of cutting across to Venice for the ferry and instead to cycle the bulk of the Italian peninsula, even lending me the maps to do it. What a guy.

I spent two nights with Manuel, using the next day to have a good look around Basel and vainly attempting to update this blog. All I knew about the city is that it recently hosted a fair chunk of Euro 2008 and that it was Carl Jung's beloved hometown, hence the reason I've wanted to see it since I read his biography years ago. Basel is an attractive place, with long tall buildings clustering by the water and a pleasant justified sense of satisfied self-importance. Switzerland is an expensive place however, and I don't think I'll be able to stick around here long, four days at the most. That means going to Luzern tomorrow, with a day or two to cross the Alps and the Italian part down to Como. Better get cracking.

19.4 Av., 50 Max., 80.60 Dist., 3.18.34 Time