So long Sicily…

By the time I got going on the road out of Catania it was about 8AM. I found the signage quite confusing, but after a short detour into an industrial estate I came across a little village where I could get some cash out and buy a few basic things from the supermarket. There were no satisfactory breakfast options there so I pressed on to try and find the main road that would lead me along the east coast heading south. I ended up on a busy road that took me around the airport, and I felt like I was going in circles. At a place not far from the airport there was a traditional Italian bakery, buzzing with activity so I stopped for some breakfast. I locked my bike to a fence out the front, then proceeded into the shop to order some baked savoury thing and a cream croissant (cornetto). The best thing about cycle touring is you can really load up on breakfast. I decided not to sit, because of the legendary table service charges in Italy, so thought it best to keep moving. The pastry was exquisite, easily the best I had in Italy, so it was not hard to see why it was so busy. I stood for a few minutes munching away, then reached into my pocket for the key to my bike. It wasn’t in my regular pocket, so I tried the others. Nope. A wave of panic struck me as I meticulously emptied my pockets, checked every flap and fold in my wallet, then started scanning the ground around me. Oh no. What was I going to do now. I paced up and down inside the shop scanning the floor among the crowds of people, so see if I could spot the key anywhere, then looking up to the counter I saw the man who had served me waving to get my attention. He reached into the glass pastry cabinet and produced my key with a grin. He said something in Italian as he handed it to me, and I just smiled saying “Thank you so much”. Relieved, I headed back to my bike and I was on my way again.

Finishing my breakfast on the bike, as I pedalled away from Catania, I started second guessing my directions. The GPS was telling me my bearing was South West, when really, if I wanted to follow the coast it should be more like South East. Seeing there was no other real option I pressed on, eventually heading due South, but still nowhere in sight of the coast. It seems the road was busier and more inland than the map had indicated, so as the day started to heat up, it became a weary grind along a major road with no interesting scenery to enjoy as trucks whipped past me at speed. Occasionally the variation in terrain led me through some undulating hills, with a glance of the water way over to my left. I could see villages near the coast, but was afraid if I took one of the rough, unsealed roads in that direction I would reach a dead end and have to come back out again anyway.

The time passed slowly until I came to brown coloured sign indicating a left turn towards the coast. I had a good feeling about it, so I got off the main road and followed my intuition. I rode for about 15 minutes down this rough, narrow road until I rounded the corner to find this little oasis. Some small shacks adorned the rocky coast with boats tied up in the water nearby. To the left of the rocks, there was a sandy beach stretching out as far as the eye could see with me people sunning themselves and swimming in the shallows. Eureka! After the monotony of the morning ride, this was bliss. I parked my bike up near a small kiosk, quickly donned my swimming shorts and ran down to the water. The sand was coarse under my feet, but the water was wonderfully refreshing. I paddled around in the small waves for a few minutes, looking back onto the beach and thinking how happy I was to find this secret hideaway. I got out of the water, rinsed off in the shower then sat down at the kiosk to enjoy a lemonade. It was getting into the late morning so I decided to press on.

I got back onto the main road and shortly found myself nearing Augusta. I really didn’t know anything about the place, but it had a regular train service down to Syracusa, then Pozzallo so I picked it out as good destination to stop on the coast. Entering the town, I could see it was more of an industrial place, but also home to some sort of military base. Deciding I’d had enough of cycling on the main road I found the train station, bought a ticket to Syracusa on the next train leaving in an hour so, then went exploring. The main street had a series of small shops leading down to the water where a bridge crossed to the Castello. Always up for checking out a Castello, I followed the signs through an arch in the wall and up the hill. In the area surrounding the Castello, there were a few narrow streets that must have been the old town, but it had seen better days. It was quiet and not much was going on. From this point I had a pretty good view of the surrounding area. I was running low on water, so I stopped at a fountain where an old man was filling bottles. I filled my bidon, and took a sip but it had an odd taste. I thought I’d keep it in case I got desperate. I made a lap around the Castello, which was closed to the public and had a military helicopter displayed out the front. I could see battleships in the harbour from here too, so I figured it may still be used as an operational military building. It was getting onto lunch time, so I rolled back down the hill into town. I came to a fruit and veggie store where I bought the smallest watermelon I could find, still about 3kg! I sat down in the shade of the bus stop, cutting up the fruit into large chunks and devouring it. I managed to eat half, before I felt completely full. It was a perfectly delicious way to take on some extra fluids. I wrapped the remainder and precariously strapped it to rack on the back of my bike under the towel that was spread out still drying from morning swim, then pedalled back to the station.

When I hopped on the train, the two spaces allocated to bikes were already occupied, so the conductor indicated for me to lean my bike up against the wall of the carriage. It was a short trip down to Syracusa, and as we pulled in a German couple, owners of the two touring bikes got up to sort out their luggage. The guy smiled when he saw my bike, and guessed that I was Australian. They were from Munich cycling and camping around Sicily. I told him I had cycled from Catania to Augusta today, but the road was not very good. He had read that, which is way they opted for the train. They were not staying in Syracusa long, but riding out from there to Avolva where they would camp. We said goodbye at the station, wished each other luck and I headed off into Syracusa. For once the station platform led out of the station, onto the street without having to negotiate any stairs!

Syracusa was a nice coastal town. Had I not been sick, I probably could have spent some more time there, but as it was I grabbed a map from the tourist info point and quickly did a circuit around the waterfront, through the town, then back to the station. I managed to find a proper bike shop, probably the first I had seen in Italy, with Bianchi frames displayed proudly in the window. With my makeshift repair to my brake cable, I still had the excess tucked under my pannier bag, so I went in to see if they could cut it for me and put on a cable end. The old man didn’t speak a word of English, but could see what needed to be done. He shuffled off, grabbed his wire cutters and crimp, then fixed it up. Somewhere along the line (on the way to Pompeii I think), I managed to lose one of my gloves, my favourite Roeckl fingerless gloves with gel padding, so I asked him if he had any gloves. Having helped me with the cable, I thought it would be nice to be able to buy something at the shop too. He led me into a back room with several tubs full of gloves, socks and other sundry items. I had a quick rummage through and even though I thought a pair of Bianchi gloves would make a nice souvenir, it’s hard to replace Roeckls, so I passed. In the end, he didn’t ask anything for cutting the cable, he just smiled and gave me a pat on the back.

The train trip to Pozzallo was interesting, as there was no space for my bike (despite me having a ticket for it). I had to pull all the pannier bags off and the conductor found a spot for it in his little private area of the carriage. It was a short trip, but long enough for me to fall asleep and then jump out of my skin when the conductor came through announcing the station. I grabbed all my bags, threw them on the platform, then went back for my bike. The watermelon I had been carrying had now slipped off the back of the rack and was dangling in the towel like a sack. Once everything was back in order I pedalled out of the station in search of the ferry port. I tried booking a ticket on the website, but it crashed so decided to take my chances and buy one when I got there. Signs to the ferry port were in the Italian tradition, vague, but I did manage to find my way without too much trouble. By the time I approached the ticket desk it was about 7:10PM. Plenty of time I thought to get my ticket, then go and find some dinner. The guy at the desk said go to the first window at 7:30PM and if there is space, we will sell you a ticket. Huh? I stood there, gobsmacked for a minute and then saw the other 2 or 3 people hovering around the first window. I told him that their website was broken, but he just repeated the same instruction. This is where I met Nigel. He had been on my train to Pozzallo, although we hadn’t spoken. He was an English guy on a short break to Milan, Rome, Sicily and now Malta. We got chatting and shared our surprise at the ticket sale situation. Nigel already had a reservation, but still needed a ticket apparently. Finally the first window opened, with a face that looked remarkably familiar 😉 We got our tickets, but were told boarding would start in 10 minutes. Lucky I arrived over 2 hours before the ferry was scheduled to leave, rather than getting food first! Despite their warnings, we chanced it and walked over to the only kiosk in sight. The only thing on offer that resembled food was some basic prosciutto or salami sandwiches. Nigel was reluctant, but I decided better eat something now or who knows when I will get to eat again. In the end, he also decided to play it safe. We had a good chat about many things on the ferry, travel, politics, work. It was an enjoyable way to pass the time, and we had a bit of time to pass. The ferry left late, then arrived late, with no explanation why. Nigel said his taxi driver would probably be angry, and I was thinking of poor Warrick waiting to meet me in Valletta now almost an hour late. Still we eventually arrived. I said good bye to Nigel, and spotted Warrick waiting for me. I was very happy to see him, and apologetic for the delays. Even around midnight the air was still warm, but I had made it to Malta. It was a short trip back to Warrick’s place, where I left my bike with the luggage in the hallway, crept up the stairs to the spare room and flopped into bed.

The emergency room

I had only been asleep for a few hours, when I woke up in a sweat feeling like i was going to be sick. I rushed out of bed and to the bathroom. I’ll spare you the details but by the time I crawled back into bed there was nothing of dinner left in my stomach. That was 20 euros down the toilet (literally) I thought to myself. I tried drinking some water, then getting some sleep, but in the hot night air, I couldn’t get comfortable so I sat up on the balcony outside in the wee hours of the morning. I eventually managed some sleep but at about 6am, headache throbbing, guts aching, I headed downstairs to the vending machine to buy some lemonade. I didn’t even manage to put a coin in the slot before I was forced to rush across the street where I was sick again, despite having nothing left to throw up. It had been warm all night, and now with the sun out the day was already heating up. After a few minutes, my body settled down enough to manage a bottle of lemonade, followed by a bottle of water. I’ve had symptoms like this before, although never this severe, when doing 24 hour mountain bike races, so I suspected it was probably heat exhaustion and dehydration. I went back to bed for a few more hours and when everybody was up, I explained to Joe how I was feeling. We had planned to go out together that day, but I told him to go on without me, while I got the hostel to arrange a taxi to take me to the hospital. Knowing I still had a long journey ahead of me I really didn’t want to take any chances.

There was some confusion with the taxi driver, who spoke very little English, when I asked him to take me to the hospital. He wanted to know ‘which’ hospital as there were several in Catania, and I couldn’t communicate that ‘any’ or the ‘closest/nearest’ was where I needed to go. Finally he called one of his colleagues that I was able to get across I was sick and just needed to see a doctor. This caused me to consider what will I do if I get there and no one speaks English? I got to the hospital and spotted a sign for triage. That sounded like the right place so I went inside. There was a waiting room full of people with various ailments with a desk at the back where a nurse stood behind a glass panel. A queue of people where jostling around the desk so I walked up and joined them. As I was waiting the doors flung open where two young guys came in carrying another young guy who was banged up, obviously from a motorcycle accident. The nurse jumped out from behind the desk and shuffled them into a back room, through which I could see many more people with injuries being treated. After some time, with a few people pushing in ahead of me, I managed to get the attention of the nurse behind the desk. Feeling a little like a reanimated corpse, I did my best to say “I’m sick. I need to see a doctor.” She looked at me blankly, helplessly saying “No English”. I thought the situation was hopeless when I remembered the Google translate app I had downloaded to my phone. I grabbed my phone out of my pocket and frantically typed in “I’m sick. I need to see a doctor please” and held up my phone with the Italian translation on the screen to the window. He nodded, then got the attention of one of her male colleagues who came out and ushered me to follow him into another building. He spoke a few words of English, enough to understand I was Australian and feeling ill. Almost immediately, he took me in to see a doctor, who also spoke no English. I typed in “I think I may be dehydrated. I feel weak. headache. I’ve had vomiting.” I have no idea how good the translation was, but he seemed to understand. The first guy left me with the doctor who told me to take my shirt off, lie down, then started examining my stomach. After this he told me to sit up and prepared an injection for me. My immediate thought was a jab in the arm, but no, he gestured for me to drop my pants and bend over. Oh boy. I winced as the needle went straight into the left butt cheek. I pull my trousers back up and gingerly sat down again leaning on my right. Then he went for another one. Stand up, bend over, right cheek. Ouch. With my glutes throbbing I certainly wouldn’t be riding a bike today. He told me to lay down on the bed, and I was soon drifting off to sleep. I don’t know how much time had passed but I woke with a start, to see the first guy standing by the bed calling out “Mister!” The doctor was laughing and pointed to my head, to enquire if my headache had subsided. I was feeling very groggy, but better than before. I typed into my phone “I think I’m feeling better now. maybe I just need some more rest?” I showed the doctor my passport, who took down my details, then I thanked him and the first guy lead me out of the building into the court yard. I showed him the card for the hostel and he called me a taxi. As he waited with me, he told me to stay in the shade and said the Sicilian sun should come with a warning!!

I spent the next few hours sleeping it off at the hostel. In the early afternoon, Joe came back to ask how I was getting on. Feeling much better, I decided I would get up to see some of Catania. It was inevitable that I would need to spend another night here, so I may as well see some of the place, hoping that I would be well enough in the morning to move on. After a quick shower, Joe and I headed across the road to the Castello Museum. It was a short walk and indoors so seemed like a good option. The Castello was a very cool 13th century medieval structure surrounded by a moat, that at one time was filled with lava! The museum itself was quite an eclectic collection of items from all over the region, including roman artefacts, sculptures, paintings, armour and some really interesting early Christian wall paintings that had been excavated for display in the museum.

Passing my first test feeling fine, we ventured further afield and wandered into the city centre. Catania is quite a nice old city when you get into the middle of it. There may be some shabby areas surrounding it, but the main piazza with it’s fountain and surrounding buildings is impressive. We explored a few places before sitting down at a cafe for a gelato. We managed to find the Roman theatre too, similar to the ones I had seen in Pompeii, albeit in poorer condition. Bizarrely the surrounding terrace houses that had been constructed in the centuries after the theatre, were build right on top of it, so that they were integrated into the structure. One of the houses, dating back to the 18th century I think, had been restored and was furnished according to the period.

We returned to the hostel, briefly and then headed out to dinner with a couple of the girls from the hostel, April and Yuen. April is from Hong Kong, but has been studying humanities in Denmark. Yuen is from China, but has been studying Greek in Greece. They met on a previous trip and were now holidaying together for a week in Sicily. We wandered up and down the main streets of Catania, until we settled on a little place for dinner offering a range of traditional Sicilian cuisine. The waiter did a pretty good job explaining the menu to us in English and for once I was confident that I knew exactly what I was getting when I ordered. However, when the meals came I still ended up with the fish instead of risotto! It didn’t matter though, it was still delicious and I traded part of my fish for a taste of April’s risotto anyway. We finished off with a beautiful pistachio gelato, then walked back to hostel. As Joe was getting up early to catch the early ferry to Malta and I was planning to make an early start on the bike, we said our goodbyes and turned in for the night. After the drama of the night before, it was hard to believe I had still managed to pack in a fun filled day feeling fine, but I had learned my lesson not to push myself too hard. Tomorrow I would be back on the bike to explore more of Sicily as I headed south for the ferry to Malta.

Trains on boats and new found friends

I descended the hill into Minori and found the tourist information office. Most of the town was still fixed on the football match that would dictate Italy’s world cup campaign. I could hear the cries from the windows of houses and restaurants as I passed. The lady recommended a place to me called the Hotel Europa. She said, its near the road, not anything fancy, but cheap. Sounded perfect for me. She gave me a postcard with this colourful, pristine depiction of an idealistic holiday resort. It may have looked like that once upon a time, but now it was looking a bit tired. As I approached the building, this little old lady approached me and started beaconing me to come in. Pointing and waving he hand like she really meant business, while muttering something in Italian I couldn’t comprehend. I got of my bike and walked it into the foyer of the building, with the little old lady fussing over me, pointing at where I might rest it. There was another lady at the counter, probably in her forties with thick curly hair and think rimmed glasses who cried out in a shrill loud voice “HELLO! You want a room?” I got checked in and parked my bike in a little room of the dining hall, then made my way up the stairs to my room. A group of four Italians were playing cards on the balcony and we exchanged a quick “Ciao!” as I passed. Heading back to the main town square, it seemed appropriate to dine at the Café Europa for dinner, while I sat surveying the activity of the waterfront, before retiring to bed.

The next day, I woke to the sound of traffic so clear, it was like it was in the room with me. I had a quick shower, then headed downstairs for breakfast. The duo from the night before were putting on a scene reminiscent of Fawlty Towers with the younger woman barking out “Mama!” and the old lady muttering in Italian before shuffling off to take care of the latest errand. There were a number of hotel guests around in the dining hall, and it became clear that the younger woman at the hotel had one one volume for her voice. At one point she came over to give me the Wi-Fi password for the hotel, and with her head leaning over my should proceeded to belt out more orders to “Mama!” and carry on a passionate tirade with another customer. I winced as the sound pounded into my left ear while trying not to laugh out loud at the spectacle.

Eventually I packed my things, checked out and said goodbye to Minori. With the extra distance I had done the day before, today would be a very easy ride. The next village was Maori, another quiet little place set among the hills. The road was still quite busy and now i started to see a few more lycra clad cyclists that i had seen the day before. one of them came up behind me and passed on a team sky Pinarello. I sat on his wheel and he asked me where I was from. I told him “Australia. Just like Richie Porte. You’re riding his bike.” we chatted for a few minutes before he said he had to stop now and go to work. Not bad to have a quick blast down the Amalfi coast before heading off to work at 11AM I thought! I passed a big group of people on scooters who were parked at one of the turnouts taking pictures. When I called out “Ciao!” as I went by there was an enthusiastic roar of “Ciao!” followed by cheers which put a smile on my face.

My guidebook warned me that the roads coming into Salerno would be confusing. It was the end of the little coastal villages and hello to a big port city. My first thought was to catch the ferry from Salerno to Sicily (or even Malta if possible). I managed to find my way across the lanes of traffic and follow the road that ran along the water front, hoping that the ferry terminal would be pretty obvious, or there would be some information point there. I continued along this way for a while, until I saw a sign for the passenger ferry. That must be it, I thought but as I pulled in to have a closer look, there was not much there and the sign was for smaller ferries to Sorrento and Amalfi coast. So then I decided to follow the signs to the tourist information centre, but after a while they just disappeared. The first sent me down the water front, which I kept following, until I reached the end of the pavement and ended up on the road heading out of town. So I gave up on the phantom information centre and the ferry and went looking for the train station. Train stations are generally big and easy to find. When I got there, the next train to Catania was leaving in 20 minutes. From Catania, I would need to make my way to Pozzallo where the ferry to Malta would leave on Friday. With my bike, the conductor told me to get on the last carriage where I left it precariously in the doorway and locked it to a hand rail. Since my reservation was for another carriage, I just found a seat wherever.

The train had these little compartments with 4 seats facing one another, like a modern version of the Hogwarts Express. I found a cabin where a couple were sitting, and sat down. They guy was sleeping and the girl was reading a book, so I got my laptop out. After a little while, the guy woke up and I noticed that they were signing to another. Always keen to meet new people, I got out my notebook and introduced myself. “Hi. My name is Phil and I’m from Australia. What’s your name? Where are you from?” The girl’s eyes lit up as she grabbed my notebook and replied “Hi Phil from Australia! We are from Hawaii! Misella and Bryce.” We carried on the conversation for a while passing my notebook back and forth. Misella has been here since April with Bryce just joining her. They will spend 2 months touring around Europe together. In July they will be camping with other deaf Europeans in the UK. It was lots of fun and I enjoyed getting to know them, and sharing some of my stories.

Suddenly there was a commotion with the engine driving the train being removed, and some of the carriages being disconnected. We all jumped out of the cabin to investigate. Then I realised what was happening, the train carriages had been shunted onto a ferry and we were going to sail across to Sicily. I did wonder how we would get there, whether there was a bridge or something. Then I spotted another guy in the carriage and called out to him. He was excited to hear someone else speaking English. He introduced himself as Joe from Bristol, and I introduced him to Misella and Bryce.

Once the train was secured on the ferry, we were free to roam about so the four of us went exploring. We made out way out the back where we could see the water, then another passenger told us we could access the upper deck, so we headed up there. On the upper deck it was quite windy, but we had a great view as we came into Messina. The ferry trip was very brief, so we had to jump back onto the train, but we watched with interest as the engine was reconnected and then coupled to the other carriages. Joe came and joined us in out little cabin, and we went on chatting, passing notes to one another. Bryce and Misella were getting off one stop before Joe and I who were going to Catania. We waved them good bye and exchanged details so we could keep in touch.

Joe was booked into a hostel in Catania. Since it was late, and I had nothing arranged, I decided I would make a reservation there too. That way we could keep each other company (and I wouldn’t get lost, hopefully). The hostel was a short walk from the station, and despite the cryptic directions we made our way there. It helps that it is located directly opposite an enormous Medieval castle! When we checked in we were both surprised at how nice, new and clean it was for the price. We dropped off our bags in the room, set up our beds and headed to the restaurant next door for dinner.

With the rush to get the train, I had skipped lunch. We shared some nibbles on the train, biscotti, prociutto and Misella even gave us some of her delicious homemade strawberry jam, but I was still pretty hungry. At the restaurant, a band was playing and it was packed, so we had to sit inside. It was good really, because we had a great view of the band, particularly the drummer. They played a mix of Italian songs, then some in English – lots of the Police and other classics of that era. The pizza and salad that I ordered was great, but too much to finish. We hung around for another song or two before heading back up to the hostel. It had been another great day, meeting more great people but I was ready for bed!

Cruising the Amalfi coast

I must have been tired, because I slept well into the morning. By the time I surfaced from my tent Anton has all packed and ready to leave. He had decided to catch the train to Napoli today and spend a few days there before taking his flight back to Munich. This first thing I wanted to do was check out Sorrento, so I left my things in the tent, grabbed my camera and rode off on my bike to explore. Sorrento is a busy tourist town, with lots of narrow alleys and one way streets full of souvenir shops, restaurants, hotels and cafés. I tried to make my way down to the waterfront, but quickly realised most of the fancy hotels occupy that precious real estate. Eventually I found a road down the the port, where the ferries operate. This was a narrow winding, cobbled road. Once there I saw a number piers for the larger ferries, and plenty of smaller private boats that you could take out for diving or whatever. The place was busy with tourists, mostly foreign, but I found a spot at a little café to enjoy some breakfast while I watched the boats come in.

After breakfast I climbed back up the hill, and took a right turn following the road. A little way along, I came to what appeared to be a private courtyard, but was actually a (comparatively) quiet little piazza. I ordered my first granita for the day (melone) and sat down to take in the view. I stayed for a while after finishing my granita, then weaved my way through the village streets again and back up the hill to the campsite. I packed my things to go, but before heading off I took a quick dip in the pool. It was very refreshing. After the swim, I bungee’d my shorts to the back of the bike (so they would dry out) and set off down the coast.

The journey took me around the coast of the Sorrento peninsula, through some lovely views of the water with a backdrop of hills. The traffic was pretty steady with a narrow windy road, but everyone gave me space which made me feel very safe. The only thing that startled me was a bus honking his horn to warn us all as he came around a blind corner. They do this a lot, since the road in places is too narrow for cars to pass in either direction, they give a little toot of the horn to let you know they are coming. Despite the cars, the buses and the scooters buzzing past, it was still a nice ride and the best way to take it in.

The first real climb of the day took me to a restaurant called Mira Capri, with outdoor tables position perfectly to survey the beautiful view of the Capri island just over the water. I stopped here for a light lunch, and found myself dozing off in the chair sitting under the shade of umbrellas with a gentle breeze. I could quite easily have dozed there lazily all day, but thought I should really keep going. I ordered an espresso, to give me a bit of an energy kick before setting off. While I sat there another couple, clad in lycra, riding road bikes arrived, something that unexpectedly had not been a common sight thus far. I said a quick “Ciao” before moving on.

The road undulated through the hills following the coast, looking down from rugged cliffs to the water crashing on the rocks below. Every now and then I would pass a hotel or villa clutching to the edge of the cliff face for unparalleled views over the water. Some had lifts and stairs down to their own private section of the beach front, adorned with an array of brightly coloured chairs and umbrellas. On other side, orchards of lemon trees and grape vines were etched into the hill side. Suddenly as I was descending a hill I felt a snap and my rear brake lever went dead. The cable had snapped. Luckily I still had my front brake, but not having a spare I would have to take it easy and nurse the bike now until I could find a bike shop. Something told me in this part of the world, that would be rare. Not long after, the cyclists I had seen at Mira Capri came past. I showed him my brake lever and asked him if there was a bike shop in Positano. I have no idea if he understood what I meant but directed me to the village turn off.

The goal for the day was Positano, a mere 35km from where I started in Sorrento. I planned to arrive in the mid afternoon, relax by the beach for a while, and then make my way to the campsite La Tranquilità, 5km east. Positano is a lovely picturesque village, with it’s narrow windy streets and buildings covered in flowers, but it seems that every tourist also knows this, so they make it their holiday destination. With hardly a square metre not covered by people (I could hear lots of American, Australian and Asian accents) it wasn’t really a place to relax. I decided to find the tourist information centre and ask for directions for the campsite. I started following the signs to the beach, which led me further and further downhill. Soon the road disappeared and I found myself negotiating steps through the souvenir shops, with my loaded bike, still surrounded by people on either side. I heard a few comments as I passed, with many who just stopped and stared. A man and his son from Korea stopped to ask me about my cycling journey, and were amazed to hear about it. Struggling, I finally made it down the steps to the beach that was buzzing with people moving around the cafes, on the beach, in the water, and at the pier for the ferries. I wandered around for a little while taking it in, then ordered a gelato to enjoy for moment to defer the inevitable march back up the stairs. After studying the map for sometime, I wandered off in the general direction of the tourist information. When I found it, I told the girl I had two questions please: First, where is the nearest camping ground? Second, is there a way to get back to the top of town without taking the stairs? She told me the nearest camping was Sorrento (where I had just spent the night) and there was no camping on the Amalfi coast. Then told me the only way to get back up, even with a bicycle, was back up the stairs. I was a little forlorn. Lonely Planet had let me down again it seems, I now had to lug my 40kg bike back up all those stairs and there was clearly no bikes (let alone bike shops in Positano!). Coming out of the office, I remember seeing little porter buggies on the beach that would take people’s luggage as they arrived at the port. Surely, they had a way to get back up to town, so I went investigating. I found this little tunnel, that went under the road, the popped out the other side and climbed, quite sharply through a series of switchbacks to the top. Haha! No stairs 🙂

Porter's tunnel in Positano

Porter’s tunnel in Positano

Once I had escaped Positano, I continued along the coastal road, looking for any sign of the illusive La Tranquilità or any other indication of camping. A few kilometres up the road I came to a sign for an info point. I stopped, but only to find out that it didn’t exist anymore, and the girl at the drinks stand agreed there was no camping that she was aware of. Bummer. I thought I would keep going until I found a nice little village, then find a hotel for the night. I continued along the road, the breathtaking scenery washing over me, and occasionally pausing to snap a picture. Just before the town of Amalfi, I came across a little stall on the side of the road selling granita limone. I pulled over to see an old man and woman who called out to me. As I came over the woman called out “Granita?” to which I replied enthusiastically “Granita!” It was truly the best I have ever tasted. I sat there for a while under the shade of their makeshift awning, and tried to make small talk with the old man. I wonder if you can call it “small talk” when it is a series of key words, gestures and smiles? At any rate, we muddled through happily. After finishing the granita with a couple of their fresh apricots I said “Ciao!” and went on my way.

Amalfi itself is also a lovely place, but like Positano it was hideously overcrowded. It was like disneyland without the cartoon characters. I stopped long enough to get a sense of the place, let it soak in and then pushed on. With all these undulating hills I was riding the front brake pretty hard. If it gave way too, it could have serious consequences. Then, out of nowhere this little shop appeared on the side of the road. I spotted the word “Bici” and thought it is worth a try. I showed the guy the broken cable, and he went through his box of spares pulling out something that might be suitable. I tried threading it through a section of outer cable, and it worked so it was worth a shot for 1 Euro. There was no place on the side of the road, or inside the little shop to make the repair, so I carried on until I found a place to stop.

The bike shop!

The bike shop!

Eventually I came to the charming little village of Minori. Much quieter, I had a good feeling about the place so decided to stop. I went past a restaurant with a big screen in the courtyard playing the Italy/Uruguay match. It was packed with people wearing the national kit, kids with faces painted. It was a real event. It was early in the game, and while I had no chance of getting a seat, I ordered a drink and watched on for a while. Rolling down to the water front in search of a tourist information office, I spotted a sign La Campanile – a camp site and picnic ground. Excellent. The signed pointed me away from the beach and through the town. I followed the series of signs all the way out of the town, up a long and winding hill. Finally I came to a sign that seemed to be pointing me up some stairs. I thought that is weird. Then a bus came along, and stopped so I asked about the campsite. Yep. It was up those stairs. OK. I could see about 20 stairs so started pushing the bike one at a time. I rounded the corner and the stairs went on further. I thought there must be another way. Then I saw a sign with a phone number so I gave them a call. There were 200 steps to the campsite and no other way in. Hm. Ain’t nobody got time for that! I tried to explain I had a bicycle, and they said they would come and meet me. After a quick chat, it was clear I had no choice but to roll back down the hill into town and find a hotel. However, I wasn’t keen to do that with only a front brake, so I got the tools out replaced the brake cable before setting off back into town to find a place for the night.

Afternoon in Pompeii and sunset over Sorrento

I had a lazy start to the morning, taking advantage of the breakfast hall at the campsite. Every morning they would play pop music videos during breakfast and I had forgotten how terrible that can be. I don’t think I’lll ever get that awful “World Cup” song out of my head now, you know “show the world where you’re from, show the world that we are one…” gah! After breakfast I headed back to the info point, where the girl helped me to work out what trains would take my bike as I headed to Sorrento today. It seemed that the train form Rome to Napoli would be no problem with rolling the bike on, but the small regional train that ran from Napoli to Sorrento would require me to bag it up again.

I packed my things and headed back down the bike path into the city. I was now familiar well familiar with this route into the city, particularly the little tricks like knowing when to take that unsigned turn and when not to follow that section of the path to avoid being confronted by a flight of stairs or being launched into the Rome traffic. As I said before, it all kind of works, but not quite. I had to find a spot to get off the path, and up to one of the bridges to cross the river. The path is quite low, near the water, bordered by tall walls on either side up to the road level. Consulting my map, I needed to get off about here and head to the station. I came to the bridge and there was no ramp, only a long flight of stairs with a very narrow metal ramp for wheeling a bike. No chance with a full loaded touring bike, so I kept going. I passed 4 more bridges before I came across a suitable ramp that I could ride up. Even then it was covered in cobble stones.

The ramp popped me out near the Circus Maximus, where I was the day before, which was great because I got to check it out sans Rolling Stones. However, there was still an aftermath of the event, with crowd barriers that had been removed from the road, but dumped in the bike path, that I had to negotiate. Before long, I abandoned the bike path altogether and headed into the traffic. If you are confident, riding in Rome traffic is actually not that bad. In fact drivers here still seem much better than drivers I encounter in Australia with regard to bikes. Perhaps it’s because there are so many scooters (if not bikes) that the drivers are constantly aware. Also the fact that they driver smaller cars helps a lot, since bikes can be invisible from the lofty heights of a Toorak tractor driver’s seat.

Making way way through the crowd at the station, I purchased my ticket from an automated ticket machine, including an additional ticket for my bike. Simples! Check the boards I had about 20 minutes to kill, so it was gelato time! When the train came, I made my way up the platform to find a spot for my bike and the conductor. It happened to be right up the other end! When I got there, far from “rolling on” the bike, I had to haul it up four big steps, but with the help of the conductor we got there in the end. He then told me, regrettably, that I need to walk the length of the platform (again) to validate my ticket at the machine. Wah.

Once I was aboard it was a smooth ride all the way to Napoli, with some spectacular views of the surround hills and towns. I was glad to avoid Napoli, the city. I had heard that even by Rome or Torino standards it was a  scary place to ride a bike. The way things worked out, I only needed to see the inside of the station. I’m sure it’s not all bad but on this occasion I was glad to pass it by. I bought my ticket from the ticket office and asked about my bici. The guy didn’t seem to care at all, so I took that as permission and wheeled it through the gate. Then I got to the platform entry, but there was no lift or ramp, just more stairs. I had to carefully nudge the 40kg bike step, by step, fingers gripping the brakes to avoid losing control. Once on the platform I met another Aussie family, from Brisbane with 4 kids under 10! It looked like they were still having fun, but the nerves were getting a bit frayed. They were going to Pompeii for a night, then spending a few days relaxing on the Amalfi coast.

On the train to Sorrento, I stood and held my bike as there was no luggage area to place it in. This seemed to work fine as I was not obstructing people getting in and out. After a while, four Americans got on the train, and one of them, wearing a name tag Jack, asked me about my bike. We got chatting and he told me they were here on a tour visiting Pompeii and a few other places. I told him I probably wouldn’t make it to Pompeii as I was heading to Sorrento, but he was adamant I see it. “It is amazing” he said. He had convinced me, and knowing my schedule was dictated by nothing other than what I felt like doing, I got off with them at the next stop and walked up to the entrance of Pompeii Scavi.

After some preamble of locking my bike, putting my panniers in the luggage storage, grabbing an audio guide I jumped right into the complex. Wow. Pompeii is amazing, and it is huge. I thought I might spend an hour there, but you could easily spend two days. Apparently the area is 14 hectares, a real a city with so much complete detail. If I was impressed by the ruins in Rome, this was an order of magnitude more impressive. So much has been preserved, since it hasn’t been subjected to wrecking and rebuilding of subsequent empires or pillaging for creation of new temples. There are complete mosaics, Roman baths, theatres, Roman style ‘fast food’ outlets, even rude murals on the walls of the brothel. More than any other place I have seen, you get a true sense of what life was really like for these people. And I met a real life archaeologist, a team in fact, but I was too star-struck to speak to them, so I just took a few sneaky pictures. I wish I had more time, but I had to rush and get my bags before they closed at 7PM.

From Pompeii, I jumped back on the train and travelled the rest of the way to Sorrento. Negotiating the gates at the station was a challenge as I managed somehow to get my bike caught between the barriers, until one of the station staff came to rescue me. I’m increasingly getting the impression that Italy is not that bike friendly 🙂 I didn’t stay in town long, but headed up the hill toward the camp at Nube??? After checking in, I made my way down to the terrace over looking the beach to pitch my tent. There was another cyclist there cooking noodles for dinner. His name was Anton (or Antonio in Italian) from Munich, another really nice guy, who was riding his bike for 3 weeks, while contemplating his future. He had worked for a big bank for 35 years, and now with a recent merger his work life was terrible. I could relate to that somewhat. It caused me to reflect on where my own career might lead me once this cycling adventure was over. It had been an intention of mine to use this time to work some of that out in my mind, but I have found myself so caught up in the moment of every day adventure, I’ve hardly given it a thought, but there is still more than a month to go before I face the real world again.

After setting up my tent, I made my way to the restaurant and sat at a table outside to admire the sunset over dinner. Tomorrow will be an easy day, cruising around the Sorrento peninsula and the famous Amalfi coast. It’s going to be great!

Roaming Rome

The campsite I stayed in was Flaminio Village, and I would recommend it to anyone visiting Rome. If you want to pitch a tent or park a camper van, it is ideal, but if you just want a place to stay that is away from the city they have bungalows too. The train station is right across the road, the bus stop is a few metres away and it is a short journey to the bike path on the river that leads all the way into the city centre. I found all this out in the morning when I went to the information centre in the campground. The girl there was very friendly and helpful. Her mother was Australian, so she spoke english with a familiar accent. She gave me a map of the main attractions, circled the ones I should check out first, and gave me directions to the bike path that I had lost somewhere the night before.

I left my luggage in my tent and only took my crumpler bag with my usual kit (laptop, camera, phone, passport, guide book). Once I found my way through the traffic to the bike path it was hard to believe I was still so close to Rome. Long grass encroached on the sealed path as it roughly followed the direction of the river passing sports grounds and even an equestrian centre. There was a steady stream of joggers, dog walkers and other cyclists out and about on a Sunday morning. As the path neared the city, the signage became more inconsistent. It is great that the path exists, but it seems a bit piece meal with the way it has been implemented. Following the path I came to a set of stairs going down, with no choice but to hop of and walk down. Thankfully there was only 10 or so steps, but the poor woman on the fully loaded touring bike next to me found it difficult. The contrast from the Loire à vélo in France could not have been more distinct.

The path led me to a ramp of cobble stones up to the street level again, where I rejoined the chaotic traffic. Crossing the river and riding back a little way in the direction from which I came, I could see the massive crowds gathering. The Rolling Stones happened to be playing at the Circus Maximus that day so in addition to the usual peak season tourist crowd, there were blockades, concert goers and an entourage of security. With the bike it was actually and advantage as I could quickly weave my way through the pedestrians without concern for traffic.

Coming into the old city of Rome I was struck by the magnitude of it. Everywhere you turned there was piece of history. Some archaeological sites fenced off on the side of a road with explanations of discoveries dating back to the first century A.D. I made my way up the cobbled street to explore the ruins of Marzio field where a building with arches like a miniature colosseum and three columns still stand. Here I found the remains of the oldest quadriportico in Rome, dating back to 146 B.C. After milling around here for a while in constant awe of the buildings that surrounded me I turned back onto the street and headed up to Campidoglio. I parked the bike and went up the steps to explore. Here there was a crowd of people queuing to enter the Michaelangelo exhibition, in honour of 450 years since his death. I considered checking it out, but with the mass of people, I decided I’d rather spend the time exploring the city. Down from the Campidoglio is the impressive white marble structure of the Altare della Patria, adorned with bronze statues.

Eventually I turned down the cobbled street, past the Colosseum to the entrance of the Palatino. At the place where I entered there was the Arch of Titus, dedicated to the emperor after his victory over Judea in A.D. 70. Weathered over time, you could still see clearly the sculptured panels showing the sacking of the temple, carrying away the seven branched candlestick, and the procession of Jews, now captives of Rome. It was chilling. The Palantino is a huge area of Roman ruins, and I wandered up and down exploring the sites where this once great empire existed, now mostly reduced to rubble.

Exiting the Palatino and the Forum, I found myself on the opposite side to my Surly, and had to walk the way around through the crowds to get to it. It made me really appreciate how good the bike is for getting around the city, as the walk in the hot sun seemed to take forever. Grabbing my bike from where I left it, I check the times for guided tours, and saw there was one starting at the colosseum in a few minutes. I bounced over the cobbles with my bike and headed down there. Riding a bike around Rome on these cobbled streets and negotiating the mass of people was great fun, and the Surly Crosscheck was perfect for it. I think I would have felt very nervy on a regular road bike.

I joined the tour for the colosseum, with a crowd of mostly americans, but also another couple from Brisbane and a family from Mexico. The tour guide was quite a character, and as he went around asking everyone they came from, he made reference to Australia as being the home of Russell Crowe, from the Gladiator movie, that was actually filmed in Malta. Having a guide’s perspective and insight was really valuable and I got a lot more out of the experience while having some fun. The colosseum is immense and given the amount it has been plundered over the years by the Vatican and the numerous earthquakes it has withstood, it has survived quite well. I was surprised to learn in fact that most of the Roman monuments where used as quarries by the Catholics to build the Vatican, with the Pantheon being an exception because they turned that into a fancy church.

From the Colosseum I headed north taking in the Piazza Navona, Pantheon, Palazzo Chigi and found myself at the Piazza del Popolo. I climbed the hill to the top where I stopped to survey the city below. It was only 7PM but I was wrecked. I found a park to sit for a while under the shade of a tree and watch the world go round for a while. As much as I wanted to keep going, I thought it best to start making my way back to camp for a big bowl of spaghetti and an early night. Rome had been an amazing experience, immersing myself in this ancient history that had such a significant role in shaping the world. To see, to touch, to feel the remnants of a civilisation thousands of years old was incredible.

Across the five lands

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.

Crazy tent setup

Crazy tent setup

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.

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.

Ciao Cicerone Fabrizio!!

It was a 6AM start to get ready, have a bite to eat and catch my 7AM taxi to the station in Lyon. I was still eating when the taxi arrived by the guy at the hotel started loading my bike into the taxi for me while I finished. It was a bit of a challenge putting the seats down in the little Mercedes hatchback and sliding it in, but we managed. Although my train to Chambéry wasn’t leaving until 8:40AM I thought it couldn’t hurt to get there early, since I didn’t have a reservation and the transport strike drama continued. Lucky I did, because my 8:40AM was cancelled and I had to jump on a 7:30AM train to Chambéry immediately to have any chance of making the 11AM connection to Torino. I was very grateful to the station staff who carried my bag for me to the platform to be sure I made it in time. The train was almost completely empty and there was even a dedicated space where I could hang my bike. Arriving into Chambéry, I went to the information desk to ask about my train to Torino. Surprise, surprise that was cancelled too. The next train would leave at 1:30PM and again, there was no chance to make a reservation, I just had to hope. The station staff kindly offered to make an exception and let me store my luggage in one of their offices until my train left, so I could freely explore the city.

It was only 9AM so I had a good four hours for adventuring. First stop was the tourist information office where I picked up a map with all the sites. I then headed to the vélostation where I hired a bike for 3 Euros to get around town. The map had all of the major sites numbered so I started at number 1 and made my way through the list. I visited the Chateau (of course!) that was once the residence for the dukes of Savoy. While the building is still in use for county council offices, the gardens are open to wander around and there is a museum for free. Next I went down the Rue Basse Du Chateau, a very cool  medieval street with one of the last overhanging footbridges left in the town. Then I came to the Elephant fountain in the centre of the old town with the mountains in background. I only passed through the museum, because I was short on time and stuck my head in the Cathedral to check out the painted ceilings, apparently unique in style. Around midday I found a brasserie and enjoyed double steak blue cheese burger with all the trimmings for lunch, before riding back to the vélostation to return the bike. At some point I realised that in the rush, I had forgotten to return my room key at the hotel, so I dashed off the post office and sent it back with a very apologetic letter. I’ll have to watch my credit card over the next few days to see if they charge me! Chambéry was a really lovely place, and not too big to get around in a day. It was great that things had worked out the way they did and I got to spend some time there.

Soon it was time to board the train and say goodbye to France. With all my luggage in tow (fortunately they had trolleys at the station) I waited nervously with a crowd of people on the platform. When the train arrived it was already full. I approached the conductor, showed him my rail pass and explained I needed to get to Torino. To my relief he was very cool about it as he looked at my bike and other luggage and basically wished me luck in finding room. If I could find a place, I was in. I went up and down 2 or 3 carriages, looking in the baggage areas. Stuff piled up everywhere, it was crazy. Eventually I came to the last carriage where there was a tiny bit of space to squeeze into. I jumped aboard with my bike and bags. It would be a rough ride for the next few hours, but at least I was going. On the train I met a couple of guys from Pensilvania, Connor and Zack, who are spending 24 days on a summer vacation backpacking around Europe. There was a another guy travelling with them, but he had managed to find a seat in one of the other carriages. They had already been to Spain, Holland, Italy, France and were now getting to the end of their trip, but having the time of their lives. There was a scary moment at one point when I got off the train to let another passenger out, then mistakenly thinking it was Torino, put my bag down on the platform. As I turned to get my bike and other gear, the doors closed. I called out in panic, my mind racing, trying to think how I would get myself out of this predicament with my bike in Milan, and me stranded in a regional town somewhere near the French-Italian border! Luckily that didn’t happen because one of the station staff saw me and the doors opened again.

One of the main reasons for visiting Torino was to meet one of my fellow students, Fabrizio, who is studying the Design Anthropology course at Swinburne online. We had commented on each other’s work throughout the semester and exchanged a few emails about meeting up. With all the train cancelations, my plans had been shuffling around, but luckily i still had some credit on my french prepaid SIM so i could keep in touch by email as things changed. After mistakenly sending him to the wrong station in Torino, the “bearded guy on a blue bike” was there to greet me when I arrived. It was an amazing experience for both of us, having only exchanged messages online, to now meet one another in the flesh. “You’re real! Swinburne is real!” he said when he saw me. Fabrizio is a super cool guy and was keen to be my “Cicerone” (tour guide) around Torino. The first stop was Toolbox and the Fablab, the coworking space and maker lab where Fabrizio works. I had heard a bit about it, and done my research project this semester on coworking so I was really interested to check it out. Fabrizio gave me the tour and introduced me to a few people, before we left my bags and headed off on the bikes to check out the city.

Riding in Torino is a bit scary. In France, bikes are king, so much so, when the Loire à vélo crossed the motorway outside Tours, I had a line of 20 cars on either side stop and wait for me to pass! Not so much in Italy. It’s more like Melbourne where you get the impression most drivers don’t like you and you live in constant fear of your life. That didn’t deter us though. We cycled along the river seeing castles and parks. We crossed the river and saw the bridge that inspired the iconic Fiat 500 logo. We climbed the hill where we had an unimpeded view of the city. We then flew back down the hill, crossing the river the historic part of town seeing piazzas, palaces, statues and theatres along the way. After a while we stopped and Fabrizio bought me my first Italian gelato, a delicious combination of Baci and Pistachio. I don’t think I will ever be able to have ice-cream in Australia again. It was a brilliant way to see the place. After gelato we headed back to the Fablab for dinner.

The Fablab is a super-cool place where awesome people make some amazing things. I was really fortunate to meet a bunch of these people who welcomed me so warmly. Maria at Toolbox was lovely. Christina was fun trading ideas of Aussie and Italian stereotypes. Davide and Christian shared some funny anecdotes about shoes… The conversation with Julia was hilarious as Fabrizio introduced us, she said in Italian “I don’t speak English”, which Fabrizio interpreted for me, and I replied “That’s ok. I don’t speak Italian.” Enrico showed particular admiration for my bike (he clearly has impeccable taste). There was also Diego, Elena, Pedro, Giancarlo… and many more. A truly great bunch of people, that I was so glad to meet and really hope I get to see again someday.

Dinner was a traditional Italian pizza (Christina and Fabrizio ordered a delicious Quattro Stagioni for me) while there was presentation made discussing the recent activities and achievements of the Fablab community. Despite it all being in Italian, I got the gist of some really good projects that they are working on in RFID, Arduino and 3D printing. After dinner, Fabrizio and I were both feeling pretty tired. We went back to his place, in the village of Villarbasse where he offered for me to stay for the night. Fabrizio’s mum was very kind, making up a bed for me to stay and offering me something to eat (although I refused). I was really touched by the generosity of these people who I’d only just met, but welcomed me so warmly into their home. After playing with Fabrizio’s dog Kirra for a while and meeting the cats, Phoebe and Mia, it was a quick shower then off to sleep.