I’m sneaking through the bushes along a little path in the woods this morning at Mantua. A large sticky spider web attaches itself to my back, and I take its owner for a short ride before swatting and swerving crazily. A couple of swans hiss at me over their goslings. Rabbits hop about. The fairytale continues.
Surprisingly, my knees seem to be holding up, and my back is unusually pain-free. It’s amazing what biking can do for a granny as gnarly as me. A nice lady points the way to the cycle track which leads out of Mantua towards Lago di Garda, and soon I’m cruising between wheat fields once again. I’m so happy to have a cycle track to follow, instead of those truck-infested roads.
This is the lowest point, geographically speaking. of my route across the valley. From now on the road will begin to rise up onto the foothills of the Alps. The catastrophic inner voice has been forbidden to speak of the Alps.
Farmers are turning hay, throwing up great clouds of hayfever-provoking dust. I hold my breath when a cloud billows my way. Tiny bits of wheat stalk stick all over me. A niggly dry cough hacks away at my energy, and my fingernails are black as they collect dust and carbon from scratching my itchy face.
A pig-swill truck swerves onto the cycle track, and the stink is so horrific it makes me gag. On a bike one is bombarded by the full buffet of smells, from star-jasmine to cow urine, to wet grass, to algae ponds. Water is everywhere. Gushing, chalky blue, over weirs, rushing along canals, fiery green in ditches or dripping invisibly off trees. I’m astonished at the number of pumping stations, locks, dykes and concrete walls. Whatever have we done to our beautiful natural rivers!?
An obsolete castle on a hilltop surrounded by a little forest brings history into perspective. I stop for a moment in Monte Borghetto to look at the charming Medieval village and a Metasequoia tree. Also known as a Dawn Redwood, they were initially only found in fossil form, but a few living trees were recently discovered in China, and have been brought back from the very brink of extinction.
The quaint medieval village is festooned with pots of scarlet geraniums, gay splashes of colour against the mossy stone walls. A softly cascading river curls through the ruins of an old tower.
For some unknown reason, the bike battery, although plugged in all of last night, has not fully charged, so I am a bit anxious about how far and where to go next.
The catastrophic voice asks: “How will you ever ride over those mountains my girl? Don’t you think it’s time to go home!”. But my feet continue pedalling in answer, while my brain runs amok with anxiety. It will be bit like paddling a canoe over a tsunami.
Lago di Garda
The first glimpse of Lago di Garda is reached at Peschiera, the most southern village of this long lake. The road around the lake is too narrow and dangerous for a bicycle, so I’ve decided to cross it by ferry.
A man in a sailor suit standing alone on the pier tells me: “You have missed the boat. There are no more today”. At the information office I ask a tall dark girl with impressively long mauve fingernails. She points at the timetable, the nails clicking as they touch the card. I ask if there is another ferry today. Judging by her reaction she has been asked that question way too many times. The answer is a definite no.
I pedal gingerly west along the southern shore, using as little battery power as possible. My loaded bike is impossible to pedal without it. At the ferry port of Sirmione, a man sitting in a small white ticket box interrupts me while I’m asking him about the next ferry, shouting repeatedly over the loudspeaker: “Schlange auf der rechten Seite”.
A group of German ladies giggle each time he yells. I ask which is the furthest jumping off point and he replies “Riva”, so I buy a ticket for there. The boat leaves at 15:30, just enough time to taste a peachy ice cream at the elegant Grande Cafe italia. My bike parked at the table with me.
He yells again: “Please queue on the right side”. About fifty of us stand in a hot line until the ferry arrives and my bike is safely wheeled on board and tied to a pipe. What a relief to sit down and travel on a flat chair. The cough sounds tight and wheezy. I realise the only thing I’ve lost since Florence is my appetite.
We chug over the rocking water reflecting late afternoon light and shadows up onto the ferry ceiling. Heavy fumes trailing behind us, away from the flat white-hot sky and coming storm. All around the lake, the green-blue mountains of the Alps surge up into the sky.
Heading north we cross from coast to coast, village to village, picking up and dropping off passengers. The deck is made of iron and painted apple green. Three young sailors man the ropes, shouting to the harbour hands to set the gangplank. When they’re not throwing ropes, they sit behind the bar and laugh into their phones.
I scuttle around the deck photographing the astonishing views. Italy radiates unearthly light. The sky turns to apricot, the mountains glow gold, and the dark water shimmers with bright reflections of crayon-box houses along the shore.
We pull up to Limone del Garda, clinging vertically to a towering cliff. Her fantastically terraced “limonaia” orchards are now beginning to be renovated after a total collapse since World War II. The ruins of old stone pillars half-stand in honour of the greatness of her lemony past. Thankfully, tourism has brought new life to the town of Limone.
The colours of sunset sink slowly into the lake as we drift up to the darkening pier of Riva del Garda.
Riva del Garda
My battery expires outside the nicer-than-expected Hotello dello Sport. Luciana gives me a warm handshake and shows me the dungeon where I’m to store my bike. She helps me carry all my things upstairs and shows me to a lovely, newly decorated room with a balcony and a delicious shower. I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and – Ugh! a big piece of grey spider web is attached to the back of my arm. It must have hung off there all day. No wonder nobody spoke to me on the ferry. They probably shuddered at the sight of me. As if I had leprosy or something.
I plug in my battery and put on my one evening outfit – black knitwear pants and a white sleeveless non-crease blouse, and head into town for a little supper. A solo eater at “Al Vaticano” restaurant is a noticeable rarity.
In Italy one tries never to eat dinner alone. I’m a bit embarrassed to be within hearing distance of neighbouring conversations. A young couple nearby are having a quiet fight, full of hisses and groans.
The staff make an effort to pep me up with small jokes, as if they are almost ashamed of my loneliness – “With her one glass of wine and lonely candle.” They would be shocked to know I’m not alone at all, but having a conversation with a throng of internal voices. They’re discussing the mountain pass for tomorrow. And Catastrophic is furious that I haven’t checked my tires once in 800 kms.
See the route. From Mantua to Sirmione. The boat ride from Sirmione to Riva del Garda is not included.