From Aosta I headed East to St Vincent, stopping beside the River Dora Báltea for the night, it was crystal clear with sandy banks, perfect for an early evening dip. The views were stunning, however I felt in some respects there is only so many pictures of Mountains one needs to take.
From St Vincent I headed to Biella planning to visit the lakes nestled into the lower mountains of northern Italy. The
weather had a different plan however, I cycled in circles trying to pass Biella without going through it, whilst scanning the scenery for somewhere to sleep, getting very wet. The terrain is just flat once out of the hills, farming crops cover much of the available space, mosquitoes harassed me back onto the bike whenever I investigated sparse opportunities to camp.
I headed north of Biella to Valle Mosso already resigned to finding a fixed shelter for the night. My tent is double skinned, the inner mesh skin goes up first, then the outer waterproof skin, which makes it very versatile and I look forward to star gazing with just the inner skin, when the opportunity presents itself. However, putting it up in the rain is always going to lead to a wet inner and a very unhappy camper.
Valle Mosso was deserted, the home to a massive and now derelict factory and little else. I passed a doorway with light shinning out and decided to stop and ask where I could find shelter for the night. I had a fantastic conversation of sorts with three charming youngsters ranging from 15 up to 20 years old, whom very kindly called a local hotel to find out if I could stay. I could, and two of the youngsters drove to a junction, pointed to the name of the place, ‘Ponzone’, I needed to head and gave me the name of the place that I could stay, ‘La Poste.’ Fantastic! Only a six kilometer climb in the pitch black between me and the first actual bed I’d seen since, Canterbury, England.
It was a real treat to have my own room and en suite and quite a contrast to living out of a tent for the best part of three weeks. I spent the next day writing and catching up, with rain still lashing down outside, I decided to stay an extra night, it was exuberant indeed and I couldn’t resist the Italian food on offer. Fully recharged, feeling somewhat guilty about the lavish excess I had enjoyed, I was keen to get moving toward the lakes.
It was the start of a week that took on a life of it’s own, each day a plan was broadly thought out, then, before lunch most days, it was flapping in the wind along with my will to pursue it.
On reaching Arona on the banks of Lago Maggiore I had already clocked a new, all time top speed EVER of 44.3 mph, it was clear twenty four hours spent eating and relaxing had made an immediate impact to my performance on the road. Sadly, before I finished lunch at Lago Maggiore, the rain was back with a vengeance and during a brief break in the clouds, I made a dash for the slither of sunshine I could see on the horizon. And so started a seventy mile, five hour race against the rain, the relaxing couple of days I planned to spend circling the lakes, was over. I had cycled thirty miles to Lago Maggiore in the early afternoon and now on a mission to get warm and dry, I cycled south, then east, north of Milano through Monza. I must add, although I only stopped to fill my water bottles, Monza is a stunning place and if not for the rain on my shoulder would have made a lovely location to feed and watch the world go by.
Alas, eating in the in the rain sucks, so onward I raced through the built up metropolis that surrounds Milano, now resigned to clearing the hustle and bustle before rest would come. As the miles clocked on and the sun descended, my attention was absorbed with a confluent target that one hundred miles was possible before night fall, but only if I didn’t stop to rest or eat.
On and on I cycled, tired but defiant to reach an essentially innocuous and irrelevant goal, for no other reason than to satisfy my ego. Or perhaps, I need these smaller seemingly irrelevant goals, to give substance to days, otherwise lost in the act of cycling on. I think it is the remenance of a different life, a life that needs to evidence progress of some sort each day, in justification of being alive, that causes me to push myself on, harder, further, longer. I dont know.
Whatever the reason, once in my mind there is little can be done to change it. I reason with myself that I will stop exactly once I reach one hundred miles and not before. Instinct takes me from the main road, to follow a side road, exhausted, dark, in the middle of nowhere, hungry and essentially lost, I stumble upon a twenty four hour car wash. I don’t have a car that needs to be washed, but this convenience comes complete with picnic benches and a playground that could make a very suitable campsite, with a little imagination.
I had cycled 100.3 miles in 7 hours 12 minutes at an average speed of 13.8 mph.
I sat and made coffee, devouring sandwiches with tuna and of course, chocolate spread, planning to set up camp in the playground next to the car wash. I had out run the rain. For about twenty minutes it was bliss, then the local bad boys and girls arrived in their souped up cars. it’s an obvious place for the congregation of Italian youth, but nevertheless, one hundred miles on a bike with nowhere to stay, this was my car wash, they had homes to go too.
I sat quietly, listening to heavy house blasting out from boot sized stereos wired up to modified hot hatches, waiting patiently to sleep. The rain crashed in, thrown indignantly from lightening and thunder striken clouds all around the sky above, it was to be the worse night sleep so far. Still wearing my cycling gear from the day, I added four extra layers to counter the cold, rolled out my sleeping mat on the picnic bench and got into my sleeping bag liner. Shivering my way through the night, tiredness overcame all and I woke to the shuffling of a rather bemused cleaning attendant, consciously making his way about readying the car wash for another day. On the upside, the usual hour spent decamping and repacking the bike was reduced to just thirty seconds, and on I went.
I was tired of the busy, long, straight roads and felt like I wasn’t really seeing the parts of Italy suited to a travelling cyclist, so went in search of another river. Picking up the River Oglio, south of Asola was the highlight of a day spent fighting the trivial annoyances released through the mind virus of fatigue.
The River Oglio joins the River Po and is shadowed by a tarmac road which forms part of a European wide network of cycle ways, brilliant. I had also reached a safe distance from the rain, far enough south to find the sun again, what a difference a day can make.
At piece with the world and keen to fully indulge my newly found sanctuary, I vowed to follow the River Po until it reached the sea. An overnight stop near Ostiglia was the starting point for another, unintentional century of miles, eventually ending in a hostel near Pila, 102.4 miles further on.
It was fairly typical of the week, nothing quite went to plan; stopping to eat, finding a supermarket or somewhere to buy a sim card, all often led to the inevitable – cycling on, until I eventually reached the sea. I met a very nice couple from Rome cycling for the first time with their two and a half year old daughter (very brave!) and they told me about the hostel and a cycle route I could follow up the coast to Chioggia.
The area surrounding Pila is like a patchwork of lakes, reservoir, marinas and rivers, through which I made my way to Porto Levante, on the off chance I might catch a lift across a short stretch of water by boat. I was in luck, as I cycled to the end of the road, I asked a chap if their was a boat I could catch, to which he replied, I could go with him. Fortunately for me, he was about to go on a three day cruise with some of my fellow countrymen and as a result, waived the five Euro fee. It’s not the first time that being Scottish has brought good fortune and I doubt it will be the last, I’m proud to belong to a nation so gratefully received where ever I go.
Two days combining writing and cycling reduced the miles and I stayed at a campsite in Chioggia, to upload the last post. Sadly I found a five centimetre gash in one of my rear panniers, which I think must have happened getting on or off the boat the previous day. A quick Google search offered up some possible solutions. I opted to first stitch it using dental floss and then patch it, inside and out, with a section of thick, washing up glove and stretchy Loctite glue, time will tell, seems to have worked a treat.
A short ride up the coast stopping near Malcontenta, faced with limited wild camping options and a ridiculously expensive campsite, I stumbled into an experience as truly bizarre as it was wonderful. I could see a couple of groups of people independently partying in a kind of natural commune area that was organised with temporary tents, tables, chairs, barbecues and tree swings next to a canal. As I approached an older gentleman, Mario, was leaving the site and I asked if there was anywhere I could put up my tent for the night. ‘Ce, ce, three Euro’ He replied. Now we’re talking, I thought.
Mario showed me around and called his daughter to help translate, before introducing me to one of the groups; a lovely bunch of people originally from Moldova, now living in Italy. Within seconds I was sat at their table with a plate of food piled high and a drink in my hand – amazing! Vesil, Pedro, Lilia, Silvia, Ann and Auroria (apologies for the spelling), were all friends in Maldova and had moved, collectively, to find work in Italy and ‘live the good life.’ I was treated to liver, bread, potatoes with cheese followed by cake, as we did our best to communicate in a strange mixture of English, Italian and Moldavian, all to the soundtrack of Moldova’s greatest hits blaring from their car stereo.
The other group were Italian and listening to dirty club classics and as I set up my tent in between the two groups, I chuckled at the weirdest concofony of culture playing out around me as shouts and whistles from both camps accompanied the music. Under the cover of darkness I striped down and enjoyed a shower by the canal side, unable to control my amusement, only to have my second incident of indecent exposure as a car passed on the opposite side of the canal, lights shining right at me. What a site that must have been; a brilliant white and brown stripy Scotsman, in the nude, covered in soap, laughing hysterically at his own sorry predicament. What has become of me, it’s a good job I keep moving on each day, I’m going to be known as the nude, soapy phantom cyclist, in every country I pass through at this rate, even if the catch me they won’t be able to hold me.
I rejoined the Moldavian group as they prepared yet more food. This time a delicious rabbit stew of carrots, onions, tomatoes and white wine, complete with more cheesy potatoes, grilled polenta and salad, finished of with fresh water melon – Fantastic!
It was clear that this tight group of friends were ‘living the good life,’ as they danced and laughed together, trying to teach me their energetic and rhythmic dance moves, I wondered how our lives had come to meet. Generous, kind, wonderful people, so welcoming to a complete stranger randomly crashing their party, thank you.
Mario explained through his daughter, that they would party until twelve and then would leave, and they did. I didn’t make it to twelve and woke the next morning to silence all around, without a sign of the evening before, only Mario’s arrival as I savoured breakfast was evidence that it did actually take place, outside of my mind.
You can look up ‘Amici Del Territorio Onlus’ on Facebook and if you find yourself in the area, I can recommend you visit, from what I can tell Mario has a long and eclectic list visitors that frequent.
I visited Venice the next day, beautiful, but no place for a bicycle tourist, six stepped bridge crossings convinced me it was time to move on and after a night under a bridge inland from Cárole I made my way at dawn to Slovenia.
Now moving into unknown territory, I feel in many ways that after cutting my teeth on the foreign but familiar countries of France, Belgium, Luxemborg, Switzerland and Italy, my second apprenticeship is complete, the stablisers are off and into the world I go…..
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