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Day 38 – Monheim am Rhein to Duisburg – Goodbye Rhine.

bicycle along the river, watercolour by Leanne Talbot Nowell

The sun gradually dragged the billowing sky down to the smoking chimney stacks. A giant storm growled through dinner, but not a drop of rain fell on my Erdinger sponsored umbrella at the factory food place.

Getting here by cycle track from Monheim am Rhein took me through Düsseldorf, where an enthusiastic young man at the central bike shop sold me a stretchy gadget that looks like a condom with strategic holes. He wrapped the phone onto the handlebars with it, making it possible for me see the screen while riding. You are probably rolling your eyes and wondering why I didn’t get that sorted out at the beginning of the trip. Two reasons would be – I’m a slow organiser and I have a ‘make do’ attitude left over from the war.

Düsseldorf surprised me with it’s simplicity, and I had no problem at all getting into town, and out of it again. Doris, who we met doing the Francigena in Italy, had kindly invited me to stay with her here. At the time I didn’t know exactly where the city of Düsseldorf was. So it is quite surprising I made it here at all. Would be nice to know if she ever reached Rome and what she thought of our complex home city. Unfortunately she’s not in town at the moment.


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North of Düsseldorf, the cycle path takes me into a poem.

So beautiful. Huge old trees line the road, many old people pedal along too, some in wheelchairs, some on roller skates. You can go for miles and miles through the fields without interruption. The wild ancient forests are all gone, but what remains is a stunning hint of what was there before.

A lunch place popped up with tables set out under a dark canopy of trees. Alte Rheinfähre.

The waiter dressed in black and white had a special look about him, he stooped down to get my order, and I nervously pointed at the middle of the menu. The surprise plate was …matjes, with roast potatoes and a creamy dill dressing. Marinated fish, really delicious.

Afternoons on the bike tend to get a bit hot and complicated. Most of it is done standing on the pedals. My right hand is certainly not well. After the googley girl told me to go around the same field twice I switched her off and just road willy-nilly. That’s the nice thing about not knowing where to go is wherever you go is ok.  It’s not wrong at least. I went through many small towns, mostly very quiet. On the skyline begin an ominous line of enormous factory towers and billowing chimneys.


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Flammkuchen is a thin pastry crust with high edges. It is smeared with a thin layer of sour cheese, and usually served with traditional onions and speck sprinkled on top, but I opted for the veggie version with sliced tomatoes and rocket. Eat it fast while it’s hot.


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Losing sight of the Great Emotional River Rhine.

The route will take me slightly eastward and away. It is a moving goodbye. I will miss the scintilla, the dark swirls and reflections. The whole thing rushes into the Netherlands and merges with the sea at Rotterdam.

Thankfully there has been a great effort over the past few years to clean it up. Fish are beginning to return and the stinky chemical slime has moved on. The only trouble is the e-coli from sewage processing plants and the heavy boat traffic but some good people are working on improving that.

A small bottle of water cost me Euro 5 this afternoon. More expensive than beer.

While being lost in the town of Duisburg, I found myself doing a u-turn in front of a police station. It looked approachable, so I went in and declared the theft of my glasses. An officer wrote up the report..

Typing intently on his old clickitty-clacketty computer keyboard at high speed, after about fifteen minutes he printed it out for me and stamped it. Astonishingly he only managed three sentences. Seriously, this report will be sent to the police in Linz am Rhein, where I have declared the thief stole my bug glasses and sun hat. There they will investigate the matter further. I’m sure they will, this is Germany. What a bother.


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Spent the night in a hostel Jugendherberge, Duisberg, Landschaftspark…in a rusty restored Industrial zone.

The girl at the hostel desk has given me their special handicap room, most likely because I’m the oldest guest by far and I look like I could use a walker. It is sparkling clean and comfortable with a chair in the shower, and a red switch next to the bed, which I pressed thinking it was the light switch. It blinked for a while, then I blinked off to sleep.

66 kms.

See the route map here.

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Andiamo

Andiamo Appia Antica by Leanne Talbot Nowell

Andiamo

Departure day is here with an early start. The sky is a sharp blue. I put on my padded tights trying to “be like water” as Bruce Lee, the karate guru, once advised. He is known to have said “water can flow, but it can also crash”.

Crashing is my biggest concern. Nevertheless, I hoist up my panniers (saddle bags) onto the big black bike. They seem surprisingly heavy, after whittling down my list to the absolute bare minimum.

“Have you checked the tires?” Simon asks.

“Umm, no, I forgot to buy a pump!”

He checks them for me and suggests we go for a cappuccino at the coffee bar just fifty meters from our house. I feel quite annoyed at the thought of stopping for coffee so soon, but he insists. I’m flowing with adrenaline and stopping now would feel like crashing.

The bike is dreadfully heavy to push up our steep cobbled street. According to the guidebook specs it weighs 23 kilograms, and my panniers weigh at least 18 kilograms, possibly more. Added together that is almost as much as my total body weight.

It’s a glum struggle to the caffè. Simon zooms up the hill on his ‘normal’ bike, his panniers gleaming yellow like boosters.

“SURPRISE!” A bunch of friends have come to see us off! All gathered around a table at the far corner of the Wunderkaffe. So good to see their positive smiles. They give me sweet going-away gifts of energy bars and homemade Limoncello, which I squeeze into my panniers.

With a churning tummy full of cappuccino I do my best to set off properly. No crashing to the ground in front of the send-off crowd.

As soon as we get around the corner my body starts to shut down. Teetering terribly I disembark and stand holding up the heavy bicycle at a dangerous angle, feet frozen to the ground like a rabbit. Is this an adrenaline override, or a lack of courage?

Simon circles back to see what has happened and says with exasperation “Come on Sweetie, at least let us get to Rome!”

Sometimes my husband can be quite ruthless.

Appia Antica

We have ridden this route many times, downhill all the way to the Colosseum, along the dead straight Roman road. The ancient Appia Antica or Appian way in English. I should be feeling quite content that my dream is coming true.

This good old road is paved with enormous blue-black basalt flagstones. Many of them have been carried away to build other structures and some have been haphazardly re-implanted which makes the bike buck. “How will you ever reach Oslo on a bike? Silly girl” says an inner voice. The sky glitters on a sorry little tear of self pity.

We melt into a classical landscape, pedalling between the low crumbling stone walls and tombs. Pieces of sculptured marble lie on the verge. The beauty of the campagna around Rome is wholly poetic if you look past the litter and broken fences. Cicada’s trill in the high dark foliage of the Roman Pines. Cyprus trees stand stiffly bottle-green, bushy pink oleanders and swathes of poppies flop over in the heat. The raw smell of wet sheep wafts over us. A shepherd sits with his crook propped against a broken block of marble tomb.

I’m began to feel carried away with the romance of it all. It would be hard to find a more auspicious start to a bike ride. I’m thawing out and beginning to flow like water.

Spring turned to summer in a matter of hours as we ride through the lovely Appia Antica Regional Park. Flowers have gone berserk. Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, St. Peter and St. Paul are just a few of the famous characters who used this road. Which has not needed much maintenance since 312 BC.

Suddenly I’m flying through the air, something has catapulted me sideways. I dive, do my best shoulder roll, jump up onto my feet instantly and look nonchalantly around to see if anyone noticed. Nettles sting me through the lycra. There is a rock in the path, hidden under the stooping grass. My pedal obviously hit down on it and caused the crash. The panniers have fallen off, and it takes me a few minutes of fumbling with shaky hands to clip them back onto the carrier. I do a mad little hop to get back up on the bike and race after Simon. He didn’t notice.

We pass through the catacomb gardens, along a lovely avenue of old Cyprus trees, laurel hedges and the heavy fragrance of grape hyacinths. Gnarled olive trees shimmer a vibrant silvery green.

Roman gelato

Entering Rome via the gate of Saint Sebastian, we go cobbling smack into the overcrowded streets, negotiating right-of-way with bus drivers by giving them a meaningful glance of intention as we weave between them. This is how the city moves – by domination.

Passing a long queue of tourists outside the Bocca della Verità  – Mouth of Truth – which is said to bite off the hands of liars. The story is told in the film ‘A Roman Holiday’ with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck.

Something we cannot avoid in the city center is a visit to the old Gelateria Giolitti, the world famous ice-cream parlour. Sour cherry ‘viscole’ is Simon’s absolute favourite, never to be deviated from, whereas I deviate between the nut flavours – two balls of Nocciola (hazelnut) or mandorla (almond) with a scoop of café.

There is an art to ordering gelato in Italy, one must pay your money first, then queue, all the while straining your neck over eager shoulders to glimpse the enormous array of choices. When the server claps his eyes on you, hand him your receipt and quickly shout your preferred cup or cone size and flavours. He’ll give you a generous scoop of each and ask if you desire ‘panna’ (cream) on top. Today the answer is yes.

No sitting down at the elegant round tables in the 50’s style salon. That incurs an extra fee, and anyway we can’t leave our fully loaded bikes standing outside. We shuffle out to join the crowd of fellow gelato lickers. We all stand together concentrating on the ambrosial experience.

Then, with a mad little hop, back into the torturous Brooks saddle.

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Twenty seven days.

Lecce castle oil painting

If you’ve been under the hammer lockdown for about two weeks now, you are probably feeling pretty kak about the whole idea. It’s the point where the novelty wears off. It has been a bit like going into a tunnel with dark glasses on. But now your eyes are beginning to adapt to the dark, enough to see the gloomy mess of crashed plans. But you still can’t see the light at the end.

Here is an excerpt from my 2018 BIKE RIDE diary…

“The tunnel was unexpected, a frightful 88 meters of velvet darkness and glaring headlights.

Suddenly I was in it, together with the enormous noise of unseen motor vehicles.

My dark glasses rendered me instantly blind, I squealed like a bat out of hell as my feet flipped off the pedals and floundered around. The echoing boom of truck engines roared ever closer, louder and louder until my bones rattled!

A pinpoint of solid light appeared ahead. The bright spot steadily grew and grew, until I shot out into the peaceful green and blue of a sunny spacious heaven. Laughing with relief and promises to never ride into a tunnel like that again”.

To tell you the truth, I did ride into tunnels again. With terrible trepidation and anxiety. I also rode over very beautiful high mountain passes to avoid tunnels. My bike trip, a 4200 kilometer journey in two months, was quite similar to being in lockdown. That sounds strange, but the principles are the same. One is forced to organize your days with brutal determination and you learn to put up with your very own glum personality.

After 27 days in strict lockdown, we have settled into simple routine. Simon has meetings with his colleagues online. We make a miraculous lunch on the terrace, with no shortage of bread and wine. The neighbourhood gardener did not pitch up to clean the weeds yesterday. At 18:00 every evening the speakers blast us with the National Anthem. We wait for the daily press at 18:30 where the coronavirus stats are presented. Our Marino numbers are now at 27 sick and 3 dead. We watch all the news channels, and see all the drama going on around the world. All the shocking strumpf.

Good news is Italy seems to have peaked. But where there are peaks, there are also dark tunnels.

(oil painting owned by Hilde – Lecce Castello)