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Day 27 – Freiburg to Erstein – Cycling

day 27 Rome to Oslo, watercolour Leanne Talbot Nowell

A bicycle has two sides to it. Not only is cycling a mood altering activity but is virtually harmless to our Earth. It also cures diseases of the body, mind and soul. Better than yoga, better than pills, even better than a glass of wine.

You can pedal elegantly along at thinking speed or beat at the pedals with your foot fists. Either way you leave negative thoughts behind. Go ahead and smile, sob, struggle, sing or scream on a bike, it’s an emotion-balancing instrument. By the time you reach your destination everything will be fine.

You can propel yourself along at a manageable speed, neither too fast nor too slow. Freewheeling down and grinding up the hills. A bike easily becomes an extension of the body and mind. You can slow down to see the black sheen of a raven’s back as it flaps across your path, or speed up to overtake a sewage processing plant. Thereby maximising the amount of beauty you see going by, and minimising the ugly bits.

Freiburg to the river Rhine

This morning there was no dilly-dallying except for a quick stop at a stationary shop where I bought a gift for my bike. Picked out some flower stickers to brighten her up. Half-ran, half-walked with excited expectation to the station to retrieve her and bring her back to the hotel to load up the panniers. Cities are nice for a bit, then all that complicated noise and bad air gets too much.

It has taken me all day to muddle my dizzy way along lonely paths between farmlands and forests to reach the river. The knees joints are the most stressed part of the engine. By kicking my legs out sideways the kneecaps tend to jump back into place. The vertigo seems to be vanishing I’m trying to keep level-headed.

Asparagus

It appears to be asparagus season. Here in Germany the loamy soil is neatly combed in long rows called ‘hillings’. Wispy green plants fringe the lines. Farmers pile the soil over the asparagus rootstock, keeping the new asparagus shoots covered. The darkness prevents them from developing chlorophyll. The season lasts only a few weeks. Harvesting this ‘white gold’ involves much painstaking labour. The soil is carefully brushed away and the ghostly shoots are cut by hand. People buy bags full, fresh from the farmer. Then rush home to cook and peel – or peel and cook (I don’t know) before guzzling them with buttery sauce. In France they prefer them green.

Another white thing to experience on the German side of the river is the salad dressing. They make luscious lettuce salads smothered in a mysterious white sauce. I had to look up the recipe. Ingredients are a blended cream, lemon juice and sugar. French dressing is made from finely chopped shallots, red or white wine vinegar, fine sea salt, Dijon mustard, extra-virgin olive oil, freshly ground black pepper all whisked together in piquant harmony.

At Rust I came upon the Europa Park, a huge amusement park which seems to be closed. After two laps around the fantastical town looking for lunch I finally found a seed bun to eat at a bakery. There a middle-aged ‘Kauz’ spent a while trying to catch my eye and eventually told me he was 70 years old and he rides his bike 50 kms every day and also swims. I thanked him for talking to me.

Like a painting, the subject needs a focal point.

There is a surprise at the end of the road! A little ferry motoring across the water between Germany and France. It’s not my intention to cross at this point, but ‘what the heck’ why not visit France again. That’s the nice thing about this part of the Rhine valley, you can easily flip back and forth between cultures.

On French soil at Rhinau there was a strategically placed tourist information office. It was mid-afternoon and time to look for a place to stay. Like a bee to a flower, I went in for some nectar but the lady behind the desk said “no accommodation”. I looked at her pleadingly with brimming eyes. So she huffed and began flipping through a brochure. To my surprise she called up all the hotels in the book. Not giving up until she had a positive answer. Certainly the spirits had something to do with it because that room was the only one available within cycling range, even though it was far and beyond the track. It would have been a cruel night if I hadn’t been guided into that office. The lady marked the place on a printed map, and off I buzzed to reach the place before dark.

Beware of information desk staff who make random pen marks from across the desk. It leads to much inconvenience and many unnecessary kilometers. Luckily she had written down the name of the hotel.

Eventually I found the place on google maps app, which found me – a blue dot on the screen – and the Googley-girl voice told me where to go. Google maps have a flip side. Technically convenient yes, but one misses the wholesome challenge of deciphering locations on a paper map while it crinkles and flutters in the wind. Today is quite windy, head on of course.

Dinner is delicious at the Hotel des Bords de L’ill in the small town called Erstein. Their chef uses a flourish of aromatic herbs and honey. There is a full complement of Dijon mustards on the table……I am in France!

No wifi in the hotel. Feeling doubly lonesome. The only company I have this evening is that annoying inner voice demanding to know why I’m doing this to myself. I’m lying in a single bed looking out of the square hotel window at the waxing moon. It will be full in a few days. Maybe then I’ll know what I’m searching for.

With no wifi or phone signal I don’t even know where I am exactly, let alone where to go next.

78 kms today. The map is not perfectly accurate due being lost most of the time.

See the map route here

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Day 20 -Landeck to Stuben – the Arlberg pass

Alpine lupins, watercolour by Leanne

The thought of cycling over any Alpine pass makes me nervous, especially this one, so I delay it and dabble with my paint-box instead. Sitting flat on the road in the still sunshine and painting the river bank full of chaotic lupins, dandelions, daisies and the bright water. I’m trying to have poetic thoughts but all I can think of is the upcoming monster.

According to the hotel manager, I must most definitely go by train through the tunnel, but Simon says “Go over the top, you’ll be sorry if you don’t”. It’s true, my goal is to ride all the way to Oslo. Some people suspect me of cheating which is understandable, they probably would in my position, but I really don’t like cheats so why be one.

Almost immediately the road turns up through an avalanche gallery crowded with zooming cars and buses. The booming echo sets off my tunnel panic. I look up and see a bus full of people staring down at me. A big sorry sob comes bubbling up, and I need to make an imaginary emergency call to my backup team.

The answer is immediate “Mom. Just pedal!”

No sympathy at all!

Well, I go through 550 meters and come out the other side where the views are astonishing. Scree slopes at oblique angles, all dotted with Norwegian Spruce. Pointy peaks streaked with white ice. A luminous sky leaning toward the colour of purple lupins.

I plug in my earbuds and play some music to get me up the hill. Not something I do very often because my phone runs out of battery too soon. Today I plan to stop overnight in St. Christoph which is just up the hill. So for once the battery power isn’t my main concern.

Oliver Sacks said “Music can lift us out of depression or move us to tears — it is a remedy, a tonic, orange juice for the ear. But for many of my neurological patients, music is even more — it can provide access, even when no medication can, to movement, to speech, to life. For them, music is not a luxury, but a necessity.”

Avoided a second tunnel by going over it on a service road. Stopped for lunch at an Alm in St. Christoph am Arlberg, where I’m sitting under a bright orange umbrella at a dizzy altitude, eating delicious Tiroler Gröstl. A copper pan filled with roasted potatoes, fried eggs, bacon and onions. A bowl of krauti salad on the side, and an Almdudler to drink. Most satisfactory. Seems as if my appetite is coming back. Good thing because my arms were beginning to look like two brown chopsticks.

I ride around to find a room at one of the hotels. They are all closed for the summer. So I’m forced to ride on. The battery is almost empty…and the thought of another vertical climb puts me in a spin. But the road wiggles along some curves and then gratefully falls, zigzagging steeply. Harley Davidson motor-bikers come up against me, blasting with noise and shining colours.

I stop at a panoramic viewpoint to check the app and book a room at the next village – Stuben. The Après Post Hotel is the only accommodation available and at a reasonable rate. After almost falling down the cliff, I arrive at the hotel and think “oh golly” this is going to be expensive. Way too posh for my budget. These new polaroid glasses of mine probably blurred a zero when I was making the booking.

However, my happiness level soars when the receptionist confirms the price. Golly, how lucky! To top it all, the pretty waitresses dressed in traditional dirndl costumes, help me carry my panniers to the room.

Use of the spa is included in the price, so after a good shower I find myself wallowing in a large whirlpool made of stainless steel. At first the dark shimmering shadows play games with your imagination (jaws) but if you calm down it turns into a fabulous undulating rainbow-flecked reflection of the steely peaks above. There is also a basket swing chair pod to snuggle into, making it really easy to fall asleep and almost miss dinner.

Only 40 kilometres today. Over the Arlberg pass which is 1793 mt high at St. Christoph.

Lessons – avoid shortcuts….. and expect the unexpected.

At the dinner table now thinking about all those people on the tour bus, and how they missed the transparent stream hidden by the barrier rail, missed the cow that talked and the two running weasels. They didn’t catch the scent of that marvellous flowering tree in the fresh air… and they missed having a sob in the tunnel.

see the route map here.

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Day 17 – Trento to Merano – rainy day

Merano - watercolour by Leanne Talbot Nowell

Riding along warbling a song when I hear popping noises on my helmet and my glasses turned into kaleidoscopes. It is raining again. The body is doing fine, wrapped in plastic but the atmosphere is sheer gloom. After a couple of wrong turns, it’s now full speed on track.

The government has done well making us this cycle track. Smooth, clean and fast. The fields around blur with wispy asparagus plants. New shoots pushing up out of the mud. Two monster tractor machines are moving down the cycle track towards me, mowing the spring flowers growing along the big banks of the dykes. Long arms, meters wide on each side, cut and suck bees, butterflies, grasshoppers, along with forget-me-nots, poppies, fennel, buttercups and other beauties, all into a big bin truck.

I get off my bike and gesture to the drivers to stop, but they ignore me and continue their devastating job. The resulting scene is a boring mass of chopped-off stalks for the next 15 kilometres. I pedal furiously along the bulging Adige river. She looks grey and devoid of flowers.

What is this coming up? A proper bicycle station, with restaurant and clean toilets! I feel pleased as I park my bike under a little roof with all the other bikes and go inside for a cappuccino. How pleasant to commiserate with fellow cyclists on a rainy day?

But nobody speaks to me. The guests are all athletic men dressed in racing gear. They wouldn’t speak to an eeee-biker I suppose, or could it be that I have taken my unattractive look too far? My face is completely naked – no lipstick – mascara – eyeliner – brow pencil – or concealers. Helmet hair isn’t gorgeous either.

The hot soup at Egna Neumarkt Post restaurant is good. Not realising that the padded bum-bum of my tights retains water just like a nappy, I plonk down on a cushiony couch to look at the newspaper. When I get up to go to the loo, there’s a wet patch on the seat. “Oops, was that me?” The waitress gives me a sour look.

A big yellow detour sign “Deviazione – Umleitung” stops me in my tracks. The alternative route is full of puddles, apparently a practice ground for young men in fast cars. Trucks come thundering passed blasting dirty road spray.

I find myself lost and going into Bolzano by mistake so I phone Simon who is in an important meeting. He says turn around and go back. The umleitung tricked me into missing a pedestrian bridge across the Adige river. This is the junction where the valleys fork. I’m supposed to go left to Merano. The track leads uphill through some barrel-vault stone tunnels, nicely lit for bicycles. Then curve steeply up a mountainside between pretty farms and thick forests until I realise the river is missing.

Wrong VALLEY! This is way the back to Lago di Garda!

Another U-turn and a fast decent back to the river. That mistake cost me an extra ten kilometres, and a serious climb. On the way down I narrowly avoid a face-on collision with a squirrel who happened to be hanging off the end of a branch eating cherries. We come eyeball to eyeball for a fraction of a second and I crick my neck to dodge the little thing. There are other small wild animals here in the mountains – a black velvet mole that nudged my foot in the grass earlier and a lost duckling who couldn’t see his mother duck down the road, so I get off the bike to herd it towards it’s mom.

Happily doing 30 kph along the flat -topped dyke heading straight for Merano. The lovely valley is tranquil and radianting green. The clouds break and the air becomes thin and unearthly.

Merano – South Tyrol

Merano looms up and shows off her beautiful public gardens and thermal baths. I have never seen such gorgeous colour coordinated flower beds. Wine red to candy red, pink to peach to cream to mustard yellow. The spring flower show is spectacular here.

Outside the camping ground is the groovy Bar Erika and a nice man plugs in my flat phone behind the bar counter. For accommodation he points his yellow smoking finger at hotel Isabella down the road.

A sharpish waiter at Forsterbräu Meran Birreria brings me goulash and beer for dinner. My mother-in-law told me beer is poison for the joints. She is right, but how can I avoid beer with goulash? My hands are becoming claws, so sore I find it difficult to hold a knife and fork. At night I flatten them out carefully on either side of me and wait for sleep to overcome the pain. My bum is black and green across the sit-bones. I know this because I took a photo of it (permanently deleted now).

Record distance today 108 kms. The sinews in my legs are beginning to show.
61 hours in the saddle since Rome.

Total 967.15 kms.

See the route map here.

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Day 13 – Rocca Vignola to Mirandola – being lost.

Giorgio at Antonella's place - watercolour painting by Leanne Talbot Nowell

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.

Lost

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.

See the route here.

Rocca Vignola
Rocca Vignola
B&B Civico 7 a Rocca Vignola
B&B Civico 7, Cristina and Valter in Rocca Vignola. Cycle track to Modena.
flooded underpass on the way to Modena
Flooded underpass on the way to Modena
Cycle track into Modena, Italy. Speedometer shows me going 26 kms per hour.
Cycle track into Modena, Italy
eurovelo 7, Modena
Eurovelo 7 cycle route signs
Modena, Italy. My bike.
My bicycle in the center of Modena.
Lost in Modena, Italy
Lost on the outskirts of Modena.
Lunch at Antonella's place
Generosity in Italy is astounding. Giorgio takes me to lunch at Antonella’s place.
Leanne Talbot Nowell cycling tour. (double the distances on that sign)
Leanne and bike outside Modena, Italy. Photograph thanks to Giorgio Giliberti. He added the signage.
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Day 8 – Radda to Poggio Pratelli

Day 7 Simon at a shrine, watercolour painting by Leanne Talbot Nowell

Saturday morning sees us waving off between lime-green vineyards. Little did we know what was ahead. But first a very fast downhill. I whizz down at the terrific speed of 58 kms per hour. Simon goes much faster. My pannier bags soar up on either side of the bike like wings.


Then the nastiest hills of all but my e-bike propels me swiftly up ahead of Simon, who labours up through the vineyards on his normal contraption. When traveling by bike you notice the ground as it passes beneath you.
The changing colour of soil and road things like lizards and their fallen tails, sharp stones, butterflies, terrified snakes slithering quickly across your path, and the bodies of those who didn’t make it. You see the tragic remains of hedgehogs. You notice the quality of air, and your breath, holding it as a tractor drives too close to your shoulder, or a gasp as a patch of sand pulls you into a sideways skid.


You feel the wind dragging off the back of your arms like a silk scarf.


The buzz and prick of insects colliding with your face, and the strange musty scent of olive orchards. Clusters of tiny creamy yellow flowers hanging between the silvery green leaves.


You notice the tiny roadside shrines, usually made from stone or wood. In the painted niche stands a statue or an icon of Mary Madonna or St. Antonio holding a child. The locals decorate them with vases of flowers, rosary beads and trinkets. They are also comforting to passers by. A reminder that life is sacred.


This was our last day of riding together. Simon must return to Rome tomorrow by train. We take the morning slowly, riding along dappled roads and a camouflage of landscape.


Casanuova Locanda e Fattoria is a Garden of Eden. We make our unexpected way down the driveway to be welcomed by Ulla and Thierry, who were busy preparing the pretty courtyard for a concert that evening.
Ulla has successfully published a cookery book (written in German), obviously inspired by the delicious platters of prosciutto, salami, cheeses, marmalades and crispy homegrown bio salads which she serves. We languish long under the leafy pergola before throwing ourselves back on the road for the last pull up the mountain to the Agriturismo Poggio Pratelli, home of Maló and Guido. We share the heart-expanding privileges of both friendship and co-grandparenting.

Poggio Pratelli


Maló’s garden is absolutely popping with fat pink roses, lavender and blue cornflowers, rosemary, poppies and fruits of all kinds. Bees buzz over the daisy lawn which rolls to the edge of a grand view of the valley and layer upon layer of blue mountains.
We cin-cin our Prosecco glasses full of delicious golden bubbly from their family estate in Lombardy. A most auspicious cin-cin indeed, the news just arrived that our children (Megan and Stefano) are expecting another baby!
Maló conjures up vibrant salads, picked a moment before and sprinkled with intensely perfumed wild strawberries. Her food is perfectly dressed in homegrown green peppery olive oil. What a pleasure to be resting here under a pergola of flowers.


One week of riding so far. Tomorrow I will stay and rest my old body. I avoid thinking of what is coming. The ridiculously scary idea of riding off ALONE…!!! Maybe I’ll change my mind.


One thing is for certain – everything will change.