The kindness of strangers

Breakfast at Fabrizio’s place was great. Coffee, cake, juice and toasted sandwiches. I was well prepared for the day ahead. Fabrizio and I said goodbye to his mum then set off together for the Fablab. As it was dark when we arrived the night before, I didn’t get to see much of the place, but as we headed to the car I was surrounded by tall trees, with the mountains in the background. Fabrizio told me it feels like he lives in the forest, and it really did. It was breathtakingly beautiful with the fresh morning air.

We got into the office just before 9. As we walked through Toolbox there were a few people hanging around the front desk chatting. We were the first to arrive at the Fablab. Fabrizio began setting up the (very cool) laser cutting machine and I starting packing my stuff. I thought the chances of me getting gas for my camp stove and an Italian SIM card were pretty good in Torino, so Fabrizio showed me where to go and I headed off on my bike. There was a big sports and camping store across town, so I went there first but despite selling the same stove as mine they didn’t sell the gas. The guy at the store said I might try another place at a shopping centre a few km down the road. I found the store, but they didn’t have it either. Still I managed to find a phone store and get a SIM. By this time it was already after 11 and the train I wanted to catch to La Spezia was at 1:30PM. I had to get moving!

After a few wrong turns, and blasting of horns from morning traffic, I made it back to the Fablab in one piece. I was finishing loading up my gear when I got a message from my friend Jordan. His wife, Brooke had just given birth to their son Dustin Alessandro. I was very happy to hear the news. I told him I would have a coffee and gelato in Torino to celebrate. “Make sure it’s from his namesake’s cafe” Jordan replied. That sounded like a challenge!

I said my final farewell to my friend Fabrizio and thanked him for his generosity in showing me an amazing time in Torino. We would keep in touch and hopefully, if things worked out, meet up again somewhere. Bike fully loaded, I set off to the station, but first I made a detour. I happened to find a cafe called “Lilla Cafe’ Di Cappucci Alessandro” on the way. While they didn’t have any gelato, I stopped for an espresso to celebrate little Dustin’s birthday and send his dad a picture.

Happy Birthday Dustin Alessandro!

Happy Birthday Dustin Alessandro!

The journey to La Spezia was fine. There was provision for bicycles on the train so I could just wheel it on – much better than the bagging ceremony. I removed the panniers, hung the Surly up in place and locked everything for peace of mind. The journey south to the coast and the start of Cinque Terre took four and a half hours. Along the way we passed through a few of the towns I would later visit and I got my first glimpse of the stunning Italian coastline.

La Spezia itself is not that impressive. It’s busy, a bit run down and a home to a big shipping port. I made my way as quickly as I could out of the traffic and followed the signs to Cinque Terre. On the way out of town I stopped at a tiny cafe for a coffee and something to eat. The lady spoke no English but it was simple enough to point at things in the pastry cabinet and ask for an espresso. Italy was playing Costa Rica on the TV, and a couple of other guys were there fixated on the screen. I watched it for a few minutes as I finished eating, then got back on my bike. As I was about to ride away I heard these cries from the cafe and apartment above. Someone must have scored but I didn’t hang around to find out who.

Cinque Terre is a remarkable place, that I only found out about a few days before left from Tim and Sarah. When they described it to me I knew it was a place I had to visit. Roughly translated, the name means “the five lands”. It is a rugged and remote part of the Italian coast, consisting of a network of walking trails linking five villages, with houses, restaurants, hotels surrounded by hills with farm land, grape vines and forest. The whole area is designated as a UNESCO world heritage area, to protect it from development and preserve its unique environment.

My lonely planet guidebook indicated that there was camping at the first village, Riomaggiore so if I could make it there and set up camp tonight I could continue the ride tomorrow. The climb out of La Spezia was a big wake up. I hadn’t done much climbing yet on this trip, since the route I took in France was mostly following the valley. From almost sea level it rose to 300m in less than 10 km, but it was rewarding to glance over my shoulder and see the cliffs of coastline unfolding. Along the way there were a few tunnels cut into the rock, which spooked me in the dark, so I my lights out to see. Further along the Cinque Terre road the traffic died down considerably and it was lovely to have a quiet road with an amazing view. The evening weather was perfect for cycling and the sun, low in the sky gave the place an enchanting glow.

Finally reaching the sign to Riomaggiore I could see the road led straight down to the cliffs on the coast. It was only 800m to the town from the top, but I knew if I went down, I’d need to come up again. At least I could get a good night’s rest at the camp site and worry about tackling that in the morning. I flew down the winding hill with a thrill with the amazing scenery washing over me. When I got to the bottom I hesitated looking for signs to the campsite, hoping that I hadn’t missed something coming down. All of the villages are blocked to traffic with boom gates, so I stopped at the boom gate and asked the locals about camping. Once we got through the English/Italian translation, they told me there was no camping in Cinque Terre, only in Levanto (on the other side). I was distraught. I pulled out my lonely planet book with the camping sign clearly shown and he just shrugged. Another guy made a phone call to see if he could get me accommodation at a hostel but they were full. Doh! Since I was here, I took the opportunity to roll down to the town and around the streets. Such a beautifully strange place, with cobbled streets and these buildings literally stacked on top of another, etched into the sides of the cliff. It was hard to see where a camp ground could have been because there was no flat ground to speak of. The lonely planet had clearly been wrong. There was nothing for it, I had to climb back up to the road and keep going, in the hope I might find somewhere to sleep.

The steep ramp out of Riomaggiore was taxing, but I got into a rhythm and managed it at a slow and steady pace. I rejoined the road where I had left and continued on my way. The vista was so irresistible I stopped frequently to snap a photo. As I rode my eyes scanned the sides of the road for a place I could pitch my tent. After a while I came to a vehicle turnout with a view of the Riomaggiore town below and few cars parked there. I saw a couple there with the hatchback of their car open, and a camp stove cooking. I pulled up to take a picture from the look out and called out “Hello”. They replied in English, so I moved over to start up a conversation. I told them how I had got Riomaggiore expecting to camp but was now stranded. They told me how they were going to sleep in their car. They had a quick conference in German, and then the guy said to me “Would you like to join us for dinner?” I was taken aback, but he was very earnest, and I gladly accepted.

Leyla and Daniel were from the south of Germany, a really lovely couple. We had a great time chatting, sharing stories and enjoyed a delicious pasta dinner together as we watched the sun go down over Riomaggiore. Their kindness was heart warming and just what I needed. As it got dark, Daniel suggested I find somewhere for my tent. I looked around the place, but to no avail. There was just no flat ground. The only option it seemed was to put the tent down on the asphalt near their car and somehow fix it down without any pegs. Daniel was feeling ill with a cold, so he went off to bed early.  With Leyla’s assistance, I managed to erect the tent using a sophisticated system of bungees and counterweights to support it. It wasn’t great, and if it got windy or rained I was probably stuffed but it should do the job for one night.

It was a long night. The wind picked up on the top of the mountain and the tent flapped around mr ears threatening to collapse. Every hour, right through the night I heard the church bells sound, and for hours after I went to bed I could here the distinctive sound of Piaggio 3 wheelers screaming past on the road. As the church bells sounded 1 o’clock, then 2 o’clock, the wind continued with me drifting in and out of consciousness. Sometime around 3AM the wind was intense and the front of the tent started to collapse around me. I grabbed my rear panniers, weighted them down a little more and managed to use them to anchor the tent just enough to keep it standing, and slowly drifted off to sleep.

The night certainly hadn’t gone as planned, but meeting Daniel and Leyla was a highlight of my trip. Without their assistance and generosity, I have no idea what might have become of me, riding alone in the dark, cold and hungry. I’m truly grateful for the kindness of strangers, but who are strangers anyway? They’re just friends you haven’t met yet. So, to my new friends Daniel and Leyla I say thank you.

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5 comments

  1. It’s good that you can still find kind and caring people when you need them most. Keep up the amazing account of your travel. Loving it. X val

  2. Hey Phil! Glad to see you are doing well! All going to plan Ben and I will be in Italy tomorrow too! Climbing the Col de Gran Saint Bernard at first light. Enjoy Italy! Maybe our paths will cross 🙂

    1. Thanks Rishi. I’ve been following you guys. Sounds like you’re having fun too. Doing the Col – that’s crazy, but you guys are fitter and lighter than me!!

  3. Hi Phil – love your adventure account! Can you give some details like how much weight you carry? Your tent looks like a mini marquee (no doubt very comfy). My GVBR this year will be a humbling experience in comparison. Will be in France and Italy next month – will have coffee and gelatos on you. Arriverdecci!

    1. Thanks Alex, I’m sure you will have a great time. I think I’m carrying about 40kg (including the bike). It’s not a light set up by any means. I will create a page that details all my gear, because I’m sure it will be useful for others.

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