Despite not getting much sleep, I still woke early so decided to make the best of it and get on with packing my things to leave. It was about 7:30AM when I gently knocked on the door of the car to wake Daniel and Leyla. They asked me to make sure we said goodbye before setting off. They were headed in the opposite direction, to La Spezia, so we wouldn’t pass each other again on the road. With a quick good bye and another big thank you, I set off in the direction of the next village, Manarola. It wasn’t a long way down the road, but I was already climbing. I knew it was going to be a big day.
Deciding that it would be too much to visit every village on the way, I set Vernazza as my goal for breakfast. My friend Tony had been to Cinque Terre only last week, and said of all the five villages this was his favourite spot. After about an hour of fairly constant climbing into the hills, with an outstanding view of the coast below, I came to the turn off for Vernazza and Corniglia. I knew from the description Tony gave me, Vernazza was right on the water, which from this altitude was a long way down. Over 400m down to be precise and in only 5km. Unlike the night before, when I thought I only had to go down the hill, this time I knew full well that every metre down was another metre I had to make up again. I made the turn and started down the hill. Gliding, winding through the switchbacks, I dare not take my finger off the brake. Every now and then the road would pitch even steeper as the descent went on and on. After more than 10 minutes I reached the bottom and a little cafe called “il Pirata delle 5 Terre”.
After a breakfast of coffee, panini, juice and brioche, I set off to explore the little town. There were many tourists, mostly american, but I got the impression from the looks people were giving me (locals and tourists alike) that they don’t see many people ride a fully loaded touring bike into town. I suppose not many people are that crazy! It was worth the journey though. The village was a gem, with colourful apartment buildings clinging to the cliffs around cobble stone streets that lead all the way down the water where some small boats were moored. I could see why Tony had recommended this tranquil little paradise. I lingered for a few minutes, then turned around to begin the long journey back out of the village.
I started off slow, strong and steady, pedals turning in rhythm grinding up the climb. It didn’t last long before the gradient became overwhelming and I could pedal no more. Riding with 40kg up a hill is bad. Pushing 40kg up a hill is worse. I watched my speed with gritted teeth as it hovered around 3km/h. At this rate it would take me an hour and a half to get back to the road. Every now and then when a car would come past, I would look over my shoulder longingly to see if there was any chance they might give me a lift back to the top, but most of them were little hatchbacks or delivery vans. I had cursed the noisy little Piaggio 3 wheelers the night before, but now I wished one would come along and save me. What is more, the sun was now up and beating down on me, even though I could find shelter and get some relief under the trees. I continued the dance of riding where I could, then pushing when I was spent. Pausing a moment for a gulp of water, or to take a picture of the awesome surroundings. I pressed on and eventually reached the top. What had taken me ten minutes going down, had taken an hour to come back up, but I was back on the road to Monterosso al Mare, the last of the five villages, with no thoughts of regret.
With the road still constantly winding it’s way through the hills I eventually passed Monterosso al Mare, and began the rewarding descent into Levanto. Levanto is the only place along the route that naturally leads you to the sea. I arrived just after 11:30AM and found a cafe right on the beach for an early lunch. In front of me there were rows of beach chairs laid out under umbrellas with people laying down basking in the sun. I was tempted to don my board shorts and go for a swim to myself, but decided that salt water and cycling up hills don’t mix well. Looking at the map, I still had about 40km to go until Sestri Levante. With my train scheduled for just after 3PM, that left me with 3 hours to make the journey but the Passo del Bracco still stood between me and my destination. Now at sea level, I would need to climb 615m to its peak.
Immediately after leaving Levanto, the road headed up into the hills once more. Looking back I could see the beach where I had taken lunch and the rugged coast of Cinque Terre beyond. Soon the road swept inland away from the coast, the climb winding its way. While not as steep as the morning climb from Vernazza, the road to Passo del Bracco had very few trees and with the midday sun directly overhead there was no relief from the heat beating now. Not even a breeze to cool me down. I was wet from head to toe with sweat pouring off me, but pressed on. Whenever I came to a spot with even the slightest shade, I would slow for a moment’s reprieve, then continue on my way. My mind wandered back to the beaches of Levanto and Vernazza thinking how good a refreshing swim would be. I watched my Garmin slowly ticking through the distance travelled and altitude gained. Lycra glad cyclists would occasionally come whizzing down the hill in the opposite direction, and call out with a smile. I knew what they were thinking – crazy tourist. An hour passed of constant climbing, then soon after I saw a spray painted marker on the road “Ultimo KM”. I’ve watched enough of the Giro d’Italia to understand what that means and my heart kept for joy. 1 kilometre to the summit! I pressed on. Then came 500m. Then 300m. Then 100m. Then finally “Arrivo”. I had made it to the top.
The road undulated for another few kilometres then turned straight downhill and I coasted all the way to Sestri Levante. Nearing the town, the traffic began to increase. I wound my way through the city streets following the “Statiozione” signs to the train station. I arrived well in time before my train. I was exhausted but it had been one of the most rewarding and memorable days of cycling I had ever had.
I approached the ticket desk to check the details for my train and make a reservation. The plan was La Spezia first, then change for Rome. The man behind the counter spoke no English, but told me “No Bici! No Bici!” which meant that I couldn’t take my bike on the train. In desperation I underlined the passage in my Lonely Planet with the phrase “La bici dev’essere in una sacca”, which translates to “The bike must be in a bag”. “Si!” he replied, and I told him “No problem”. Satisfied, he issued my reservation and I found a quiet place in the station to begin the bagging.
The platform change at La Spezia was awkward, since the lift wasn’t quite big enough for the bike. Struggling down the stairs with my bag and bike an American guy, stopped and offered help, for which I was very grateful. I jumped on the train, found a place for my bike and we were on our way to Rome. Once I got on the train it hit me how tired I was feeling. An espresso from the on board cafeteria did little to keep me awake and I drifted in and out of sleep all the way to Rome. One cool thing about the long distance trains in Italy and France is they all have a power point at your seat, so I pulled out my power board to charge my array of gadgets.
Arriving at Rome, I reconstructed my bike on the platform, putting everything in its right place before wheeling my bike out of the station onto the street. I had been warned about the traffic in Rome – that it was crazy and I should really play it safe. I had a campsite booked in the north out of town, and I knew there was a cycle path that ran along the Tiber river, so I just had to make it across to the river and I should be ok for most of the way. Most of the time it was 3 or 4 lanes of cars moving at speed, with little scooters darting about. It was almost 9PM so the light was fading fast, so I was glad to have lights on the bike. As I rode, I passed monuments, statues, fragments of ruins from thousands of years ago. It was a bizarre clash of the modern world with the origins of western civilisation. As I cleared the worst of the traffic I noticed a few more cyclists on the road. Feeling a sense of safety in numbers we rode together up to each traffic light. Soon I had found the river, but there was no clear access onto the bike path, I had to hunt around for a while until I spotted a suitable entry. It was a relief to get away from the traffic. I stayed on the path for a while until it started getting increasingly rougher. Giant gaps in the concrete panels emerged like tram tracks running up, down and across my path. After a while I came to a spot where some people were fishing. Ahead, it looked like the path was blocked, and it was confirmed by one of the young boys who called out “blockade!” I had no choice but to haul my bike up the stairs to the street again. With no signs back to the bike path, I continued as best as I could following the foot path but eventually ended up back on the road. The campsite was not so conveniently located off a major highway, so for a few kilometres I had to brave it in the dark, riding with cars zooming past me. Soon I saw the campsite to the left of the motorway, but I was in the rightmost lane and there was a barrier. I had to exit and make my way across the overpass, but got there without incident.
I checked in at the reception and was delighted to hear the restaurant was still open. I headed directly there and parked my bike. The place was packed, and I had to wait for a table. When I finally got to sit down I ordered a bruschetta, mixed grill and mixed salad. Followed by an espresso it was just what the doctor ordered and about 11PM, I got to setting up my tent. I had made it through another big day full of adventure.