The day began with astonishing ease. Resting for a day has given my backbone a chance to realign. Valter oiled my chain and Christina gave me a hug, then I did the mad little hop onto my bike and off we went. The voices in my head were louder, and my bike was beginning to take on a personality too. She was my dependable travel buddy. Nobody overtook us for the next 30 kms on the first dedicated cycle track (piste) of the trip. It was a fabulously fast ride at a constant pace soaring over the flats of the Po valley towards Modena.
Thanks to yesterday’s cyclone, the underpasses were flooded and impassable. Vehicle drivers needed to take evasive action when I crossed over highways and spaghetti junctions. One needs to have some faith in humanity. There are humans behind the steering wheels of those trucks, happy to take evasive action if need be.
Getting into Modena was exciting. That is where I found signs for the “Euro Velo 7” bicycle route. Called the Ciclopisto del Sole – The Sun route – part of the European network of cycle routes, it runs from the Alps all the way to Sicily. Not that there has been any sign of it up till now.
The problem with losing yourself in a chaotic three-dimensional intersection with intercepting bridges, byways, flybys, fly-offs and contraindications, is that you cannot be helped by a map, whereas on Google Maps I can pinpoint myself as a pale blue dot. That is if you have phone signal, wifi and battery power all at the same time. But Italy is notorious for its blind spots. My phone signal was connected less than fifty percent of the time.
The arrow signs pointed both the way out of the city and the way into it, but I wasn’t sure which arrow meant what. Modena is a beautiful old city, full of arty treasures. The streets are cobbled with round river stones and the squares are immense.
A pretty bride wearing filmy pink wafted into the municipal palace with her beautiful bevy of bridesmaids. People sitting at small round tables under the arched portico, watched the wedding party, looking them up and down and judging their elegant outfits. The Italians know how to dress beautifully for an occasion, not sparing money or effort on details. I drank an excellent cappuccino, made by a genuine Italian. Mostly Chinese barista this side of the Gothic line.
Romance then took another turn.
My map app refused to load so I was forced to ask directions at every corner. For an unknown reason I kept losing the eurovelo 7 signs. Everyone has a different understanding of the streets in Modena, almost as if they have the ability to change the layout of the city according to their individual creativity.
An old man on a cranky bicycle beckoned me to follow him: “Come this way, I am going to see my mother in that direction”. So, I followed him for a long way, until he waved me off at what appeared to be a dead-end street.
I went to the end of the broken lane and found myself completely lost. After some further complications a happy couple shouted to me from the opposite side of a flooded underpass tunnel, “It is ok! You can ride in the water! Va bene!”.
I launched into the dark and splashed through about thirty meters of sludgy water, the pedals just tipping the surface enough to wet my soles. Soon after that, a group of men told me to go back the way I had come.
“There is no way here, vai indietro!”
So I sloshed back through the tunnel again. One large person was most concerned about me and insisted that I should stop at a nearby restaurant to eat something. After many rubbishy intersections, I found myself mired in the pile of debris from the recent flood, trapped under a highway overpass. The inner catastrophist said nothing.
Then Giorgio Giliberti swiftly appeared from somewhere on his bike and saved me from the trench.
I rode behind him as he told me about his life. He is a photographer by profession and shows his work at exhibitions and produces many books. He had long curly hair and an open face. He looked a bit like God on holiday.
I happily followed Giorgio along the river Secchia, on top of the dykes for about twenty kilometres. He then took a turn off so I followed. We cruised through a maze of narrow country roads, between pear tree plantations and vineyards. Suddenly he veered off into a farmyard full of strutting geese and chickens and vanished behind the house. The inner catastrophist hissed in alarm. I edged my way around the corner into the backyard, not wanting to seem rude, but ready for fight or flight.
Giorgio introduced me to Antonella – “Ooo ciao! a pleasure to meet you”
She served an amazing lunch fresh from her bountiful garden, washed down with a bottomless glass of homemade Lambrusco wine. We sat in the dappled shade under the trees on plastic chairs, a soft breeze flittering the leaves, and munched on fava beans, liver and onions, feta cheese and prosciutto.
A large butcher arrived and said nothing, he sat down and ate his food. As he got up to leave, he turned to me and said “what you are doing is rubbish, let me buy you a train ticket home?”
I thanked him and declined his offer with a giggle “No grazie Signore!”
A local friend of Giorgio and Antonella, also a dedicated cyclist, came by and brought me the cutest little round bottle of Balsamic vinegar, which he held out to me cradled in his calloused hand. He softly whispered, “it is very old, certainly as old as yourself”.
I choked up with gratitude thinking of all the generosity along the way so far. What an amazing outpouring of goodwill if you show even the slightest interest in people.
Giorgio Giliberti took a picture of my bike and me standing on a dyke, then photoshopped a road sign into the background – Rome to Oslo – which he sent me later via Facebook.
Distance covered …650 kilometres from Rome to this point.
After lunch Giorgio rode alongside me, chatting, almost all the way to Mirandola, which was a bit off track. He told me to go there so I did.
There was a terrible earthquake in the area in 2012. Broken buildings still lie around in heaps of rubble, or are propped up with scaffolding. All three Churches in Mirandola were severely damaged, and whole apartment buildings stood empty, broken windows looking onto the street like skull eyes.
The new hotel Pico on the modern outskirts of town offered me a good room. There was nothing available in the historical centre. A nice young man at reception helped me to lock up my bike in a cage of gas cylinders, and then suggested that I go to the “Memory festival” to mark the day of the earthquake.
After a necessary and pleasant shower, I tramped into town and sat down for a Campari Spritz at a crowded café under tall plain trees. The festival programme was packed with speeches, concerts and shows. Culture, food, music, art, cinema, theatre…a reminder that a the true heritage of a community is the people and not the buildings.