I have been happily illustrating and writing about the cycle ride for 25 days now. Only a quarter of the way in distance – which gives you an idea of how long the long distance ride was. After some thought I’ve decided the story can be divided into three parts to prevent OVERWHELM. lol.
Part ONE being the ‘Italy and over the Alps’ section, The Rhine river and crossing through Germany to the North Sea will be the second section, and then Scandinavia the third.
So I thought this a good moment to take a little break from the writing. My house is rather neglected and Simon has invited me to go for a bike tour with him next weekend in the Rome region. That means a small interruption in the long distance story, although in reality it was never interrupted.
Thanks for all your dedicated reading, and all the wonderful comments and encouragement. All most appreciated and motivational in getting this story written down.
I will be back on the 3rd June for PART TWO. That’s our official end of quarantine in Italy. An auspicious day to continue with the bike tour. Until then I will be painting and preparing the illustrations. Putting the “Lockdown” blogs into a book, and getting my summer clothes out.
Looking forward to seeing your escapades on facebook and Instagram in the meantime.
No sign of the famous Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte so far. Maybe the world-famous Black Forest Gateau will make an appearance at my next destination, which would be Freiburg, although I doubt I would make it that far in today. The world famous black forest is looming on my right (north). That’s where they make the Kirschwasser or ‘cherry water’ with a volume of 40% to put in their delectable cake. Apparently the Swiss also add it to fondues.
The journey is not without highs and lows, although the terrain is flat. The river runs into water works! A blockage, necessary to prevent flooding. Everything is under control here except the weather. Sunny and hot.
After a good breakfast, I rejoin the river at the Aluminium works. There are more clean looking manufacturing parks around here. Very important to the economy and to improving our comfort zones. The big mish-mash of pipes and chimneys and blank buildings hum with chemical smells.
Back to pedalling along the edge of the shining river, along the weed free cycle track, and thinking about all the people I love.
Swerved up to the big city of Basel to see a bit of Switzerland again before diving into the depths of Germany. Basel is immaculate and beautiful, definitely worth a visit. They take great care of their parks, fountains and signage. There are explicit rules for cyclists though, and beware if you don’t follow them. I cruise through town gaping at the amazing architecture.
The lipstick-red signs tell me where to go at every street corner. In a roundabout traffic circle, a sign points to Freiburg 77 kms. Golly, that’s a long way. I follow the arrow but find myself circling a few times in search of further pointers. I stop to ask a policeman which road to take. He replies “I don’t know anything about the way to Freiburg”.
So veer off on a random road which takes me to Huningue. It sounds good enough but I’m horribly lost. The map on the phone screen just cannot figure out where to go next. So I ride on over the border into France and through many vacant chic French villages, and then Niffer and Blodelsheim and Fessenheim. None of which had people in them.
At a greenly painted hotel I come across the first rude woman of my trip. She rolls her eyes dramatically when I ask if she could be so kind as to charge my battery a little bit. I offer to pay. She climbs up a ladder and plugs it into a hanging cord with an impatient gesture. There were some very long and lonely stretches here, and I have to admit to performing my first bush-pee. Being open and flat country anyone could see me squatting amongst the sugar beet blushing in my luminescent pink top.
Lunch consisted of stolen goods from B&B Jasmin. My bike served as a picnic table. Nutella, hard boiled egg, apple, and a slice of horse food (sour bread). Washed down with the last gulp of water. There are no water fountains or places to buy water along the this route.
On the way to Freiburg
The photography of the day is dismal due to my speedy urgency to reach Freiburg before dark. My brother said I should definitely go there, it’s his favourite town in Germany. It’s way off my track but I obey my brother as usual.
The final hours on the bike included a few incidents: a side-on collision with a boy on a push scooter … golly that was a close call! He shot off the pavement without looking. Then I hit a large hole which clattered my teeth and sent my phone flying out of the little handlebar pouch. I only noticed it was gone about 2 kms down the road so raced back and found it lying in the middle of the path. Thank heavens! It would be a disaster to lose that. And, I had a wasp up my sleeve which stung me repeatedly while I was on the phone booking my accommodation.
The stings hurt but were nothing compared to the fatigue pain.
Negotiating the chaotic bike traffic in the university city of Freiberg at 18:00. No rules apply. There must surely be a million bikes here!
I forgot to enquire about a lock up area for my beloved bicycle. Gasthaus Löwen does not have a place so after removing everything possible from the bike, including my whale bell, flower, carriers, lights etc, I reluctantly push her in amongst all the other bikes parked on the street and lock her up nicely for the night.
New record distance: 114 kms.
The person in charge of the rooms is not around with the key, so I sit down for dinner with flat hair and smelly clothes. A gentleman who has retired to Lago Maggiore bravely sits next to me. He knows all the Alpine cycle tracks. He tells me that my bike will definitely be stolen, whether chained or not. Thieves will cut the chain in seconds.
According to the restaurant staff, there is a secure bike parking at the train station. So I wearily take my bike downtown to the modern train station in the dark. Rows of bikes are parked under the bridge. To leave it there is more dangerous than being locked outside the hotel! So I ask the eyelashy girl at the info desk in the station building. She says “no, there is no parking for bicycles”.
There is a large spiral bike parking tower 50 m down the road. A pretty young lady, who is also locking up her bike, helps me figure out the in’s and out’s of the ticketing system. All written in accurate German. One must stand on a sticker spot and then the gates open and close. It’s weird to see bikey stripped bare and caged like a boney zoo animal.
My clothes need washing, so I have decided stay here tomorrow and pick up a bit of culture at the same time.
Hardly slept last night in the overheated attic room. A large extractor chimney, originating from the kitchen by the smell of it, blasted hot oily air directly into my window. There was no way I could spend another minute in that place, so went out into the morning, staggering under two panniers, battery, handlebar bag, carrier bag, handbag…down the street to somewhere else.
A more expensive place run by university students. They couldn’t allow me to put my bags in the room before 15:00 and they had no place to store them, so I sat in the dining room all day. A shabby looking person like me is the type you move to another table when guests arrive. I was asked to move five times. It was necessary to occupy the kitchen door in order to get my lunch order in.
When the room was finally ready, I dumped my luggage and went out to find a laundromat. A very-very thin man dressed entirely in black helped with the money.
As my friend Jane says “no matter how fast you ride laundry always catches up with you!”
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.
Known for her exquisite beauty, Mantova of Lombardy is yet another World Heritage site. Virgil was born nearby, and Shakespeare’s Romeo was banished here after seducing Juliet.
Finding a place to stay every night is challenging. It is midsummer and certainly a dream to cycle through this fairy landscape, but there are floods of tourists gobbling up all the accommodation. Sleeping alfresco would be a nightmare.
“You’re such a softy” Simon says on the phone. And another thing, this painful saddle has not improved and neither have my knees. And my wrists are feeling it too.
I left my comfy hotel room in Mirandola after an egg breakfast this Sunday morning. It’s one of those mustard and blue Van Gogh days with ripe wheat all over the place. There seem to be a variety of grains growing here. People prefer the ancient grains for making their daily dose of pasta. Not only are they more nutritious but also much less damaging to the environment than the hybrid types. Poplar trees rustle with heat along the Secchia river. I’m back on the dyke again today.
On the flats one tends to focus on the things right in front of you. Yesterday Giorgio said he usually goes up onto the dykes to see the sunset. It occurred to me that when you live on level ground, one doesn’t get to see much of the sunset. Going up to dyke height can make all the difference. But is also good to focus on what is right in front of you. Namely stones, holes, sharp objects, glass, snakes and anything that could make you fall down.
You’d think cyclists would prefer downhills to uphill’s. But like life, the ups are way more interesting, and you get a great sense of pleasure when you reach the top. Whereas the downs, as in life, are mostly just a whizzing blur and then you feel a little sad that it’s over so soon.
On my way I quickly visited the small town of San Benedetto Po, centred around a spellbinding monastery founded in 1007, the Abbey of Polirone. I popped my head into the great door of the Basilica. The air was impregnated with incense and candles glowed in the spicy darkness. I couldn’t leave my bike alone, so rested under the enormous cloisters and chatted with a family from France.
I’m very excited to reach the Po river, the longest, biggest river in Italy. This is the second day of cycling in this enormous catchment area, known for the great cities of Turin, Milan and Venice. Over millennia, the Po has been the life blood of a large part of Italy. Water tests have shown shockingly high levels of cocaine. Four kilograms per one thousand people to be exact. Until 2002 all of Milan’s poop flowed directly into the river without treatment.
At last I caught a glimpse of the dark Po. Wide, green and calm. It lapped at the feet of a restaurant where waiters served me a plate of serrated tagliatelle with smoked salmon (no cream), and plenty of roasted vegetables drowning in olive oil. The outdoor dining area is closed to the river with plastic curtains. Views are not a high priority. Understandably the Great Outdoors is full of dangers, this spot in particular must have seen many marauding tribes, maybe a Goth or a Gaul, or even Obelix himself making a crossing. A long green snake crossed over my path, poor thing wiggled as fast as it could beneath the wheels.
I rolled into Mantova this afternoon at around 16:00. People strolled along banks of three lakes, which are actually moats built to protect the town.
732 km from Rome.
48 hours in that …. saddle since the ride began.
Finding a place to stay
Tonight, I am going to Industrial street nr.4. A B&B “Un passo da.” Translation: “A step away from.”
Industrial street 4 is an address with connotations. The place happens to be on the other side of the lake and not in the quaint centre of town. After I cross the bridge, my heart sinks a little when the Google voice directs me into a cement suburb. I only switch to voice guidance on Google maps when a recharge is imminent. Zigzagging along grey streets, my heart sinks again when the road takes me onto a highway. Big trucks threaten to smear me along the barrier rails. Soon I careen into a circle which brings me to a fly-off, and fly off I do, onto a smaller road which leads to the house over the railway and behind some factories.
Two lovely ladies, Lucy Liu and her sister-in-law Stefania, are most surprised to see me on a bicycle. They greet me warmly and help me in with the panniers. Lucy Liu offers to drive me to a local restaurant for pizza, then pick me up again much later. She has another engagement to attend to. I decline and take a shower, spending the evening painting in my diary before collapsing in a hungry heap on the bed, pizza-less.
Day 3 – Flying along on the bike this morning. Legs pump away the back pain, but the saddle, oooh the saddle. I try to be stoic. My bum blisters have ballooned. One on each cheek. I haven’t seen them yet, but they feel like incorporated gel cushions.
At the coffee bar in Vetralla, a jolly well-dressed “Signore” orders a ‘whiskey corretto’. Normally people ask for a cafè coretto, which is a dash of alcohol in a shot of espresso. There are a myriad ways Italians prefer their dose of caffeine. We order cappuccino – hot – no sugar.
There are long queues of traffic waiting to get passed the road works. Trucks blast us with acrid black fumes as we weave our bikes between them. Gasping through his neck scarf, Simon shouts his slogan: “FOLLOW ME”. He is not afraid of traffic and holds the road. This is something seasoned cyclists know how to do – hold the road. It means to ride your bike in the middle of it, so that vehicles cannot overtake. Italian drivers are patient and road rage towards cyclists is quite rare. It goes against everything I’ve learnt about survival.
We stick to the pilgrim route as much as we can, preferring the white gravel farm roads.
Recent spring storms have washed gullies into the surface. My bike has rather narrow tires and I do my best not to get stuck in a rut. But ruts are inevitable on these roads, as in life itself. The thing is to not panic, be dexterous and hold on tight. Gravel roads are better than tar, not only are there fewer potholes, but I’m happier knowing that insects and animals have a better chance of crossing over to continue their livelihood activities on the opposite side.
We shout ‘Buon Camino’ to oncoming pilgrims tramping along under their hot backpacks. Poppies dot the verges and turn the fields red.
Signage, what there is of it, faces the opposite direction. We must rely on the cell phone and google maps. Simon is navigating, which leaves me free to learn how to operate my bike properly. I am beginning to like my trekking bike very much, particularly the boosting battery. It’s still cumbersome, and staying onboard while skidding on rolling pebbles is becoming my speciality.
With a lot of help from my booster I keep up with Simon as we cruise into the ancient city of Viterbo. Her grandiose architecture and rich history are as enticing as her boiling thermal baths. It is too warm to think of submerging ourselves in hot water, so we go directly to the bike shop for a spare tube in case of a puncture. Can’t believe I didn’t think of bringing one. Fixing a puncture features low on my skills list. The thought of a puncture gives me the shudders, especially if it happens in the countryside where large white maremmano-abruzzese sheepdogs find cyclists threatening. You don’t want to be hunching down with a tire when a dog shows up.
The town of Montefiascone is located high on the rim of a volcano with a fantastic view over the crater lake of Bolsena. Getting up this small back-road is so steep I worry about flipping over backwards! I am leaning forward, chest on the cross bar and zigzagging desperately trying to lesson the gradient. All I can say is ‘thank you’ to turbo battery power. Simon pushes his bike slowly up the near vertical slope.
There is absolutely no way I could do this ride without my e-bike assistant. We eventually reach the sweaty summit in time for a 3pm panino at Milioni il Caffè. Quaffing icy cold pineapple juice for the anti-inflammatory effects before flying downhill through the old oak forest into the crater. My speedometer records a top speed of 59,8 kph. My knees shake as I disembark in front of the convent in Bolsena.
The ancient town of Bolsena is on the shore of a huge round lake. Mother Superior makes us sit down in her reception room and tells us she is 90 years old, followed by a long story about the history of the Church in Bolsena. I’m not sure if her sense of smell still functions well, after a day of sweaty riding we must smell rather pungent. However, in perfect prose she explains the story of “Il miracolo” (the miracle).
“A priest from Bohemia, named Peter, passed by this place on his return from Rome to Prague in 1200, but he was having doubts about the bread and wine, what we call the Eucharist.
“Is it truly the body of Christ?” he wanted to know.
The following day as a visiting priest, he celebrated Mass in the Church. When he broke the Host (consecrated bread) blood fell from the bread onto his hands, on the cloth, and dripped down the altar to the marble floor below.
That expelled all doubt and Catholics have performed the Corpus Christie ever since”.
Our Mother Superior graciously showed us to our immaculate bedroom with a vaulted ceiling and windows overlooking the Church and piazza. We embalm our sunburned faces with scented moisturizer and sleep deeply, wrapped in crispy clean sheets. In the morning Mother stamps our credenziali before we fetch our bikes from the little shed at the end of a purple flowering pergola.
A statue of Madonna stands praying for us under an arch of blood red roses.