FIX THE PLUMBING, BY JUPITER!
I have never done a bike trip quite this long before, but on several occasions, I have spent weeks on end doing long distance trekking in the mountains. Thus, I know how meditative and therapeutic it can be, to do a long, physically demanding trip where one strips his/her life of everything except the bare necessities: wake up, eat, drink, pack, move, drink, eat, rest, move, eat, sleep. Repeat. I remember taking off from Berlin, and looking forward to spending some time alone on the road, enjoying endless hours of cycling meditation, but after 4 weeks, I was ready for a change.
When I reached Verona, I cycled directly to the city's main train station to pick up two friends. Fer and Aitor, who had come all the way from Madrid with their bikes, would accompany me across northern Italy to Turin, some 350 Km away. It had been almost a month of solo travel, and I was really looking forward to having some company.
After a few hugs and mutual admiration of our bicycles (they had come with impressive double suspension mountain bikes), we headed to a camping, conveniently located on a hill overlooking the city center. We pushed our bikes up the steep, narrow roads until we reached the camping grounds and enjoyed the view over the city. Verona is spectacular. If one ignores the crowds of tourists that flock its streets at this time of the year, one can almost envision Romeo walking down its streets heading to Juliette's balcony. The city definitely strikes a romantic nerve.
Statues in front of the Arena di Verona
Fer and Aitor had had quite a trip to get there, flying from Madrid to Milan, and taking two trains to reach Verona. It was late in the evening, and they hadn't eaten anything since leaving Spain early in the morning. We quickly pitched our tents and started making our way downhill to find a restaurant. It had been a hot day and, since we were in Italy, the big boss, Jupiter, decided to give us a light refreshment. He opened the sprinklers in the skies, that started cooling the city with a light drizzle. A great gesture this would have been, had there not been a terrible malfunction with the celestial pipeworks. A breakdown of the divine plumbing caused a torrential downpour of tropical proportions, which made the hill's inclined small roads only navigable by kayak. We found refuge under an archway, and waited for the holy plumber to show up… he did not. After an hour of giggles and terrible jokes about the weather, we reluctantly ran/swam back to our tents. I offered Fer and Aitor one of my emergency muesli bars, but they were not as enthusiastic about them as I was. Drenched and famined, we went to sleep.
OUR WAY TO CREMONA
The next morning we packed our soaked tents, prepared the bikes and headed down the city to finally have something to eat. While my friends devoured some Italian pastries, I met up with Giorgio Migliorini, president of the Verona delegation of FIAB (Italian Federation of Friends of the Bicycle). This organization has been advocating and lobbying since 1989 for more rights, infrastructure and respect for cyclist in Italy. After a very enlightening interview, he offered to show us a nice way out of the city and he rode with us a few Km. Just outside of Verona, and before saying our good-byes, he made sure to phone Piercarlo Bertoloti, his FIAB counterpart in the province of Lombardia, to arrange lodging for us at the city of Cremona. All we had to do was pedal the 110 Km that separated both cities before the end of the day.
Speaking with Giorgio in Verona
It didn't take very long for me to realize how fantastic it was to ride in company. The miles seemed to fly by as we were immersed in conversation and silly jokes. Friendly banter and cycling camaraderie were a welcoming change to the countless hours I had spent pedalling alone. A few Km after lunch, Aitor started showing some signs of fatigue… no wonder! They hadn't eaten anything the day before and they were both riding bicycles engineered to go down rocky slopes, not eat up long distances on asphalt. On top of that, riding over 100 Km is a challenging feat for any person that hasn't trained for it, regardless of what bicycle they're riding. The last 20 Km dragged on, but somehow we all made it to Cremona.
Piercarlo, Giorgio's eloquent and friendly colleague, was waiting for us in the entrance of the city. We followed him to a hostel where he had arranged a room for us. He told us he would come an hour later to pick us up and take us to his son's restaurant. We stored our bikes in the hostel's garage and took a much needed shower.
White wine, warm gorgorzola, exquisite cold cuts, bread as light as a cloud, and an array of diverse appetizers were already set on the table as Piercarlo's son approached again. „I guess you also want some carbohydrates right?“, he kindly asked. It was an overwhelming display of culinary hospitality, and my two friends and I were only too happy to accept this unexpected feast. We ate like kings. With our bellies full of Italian goodness, we thanked Piercarlo and his son and went to bed, happy hearted and exhausted. The endless stream of generosity I had been experiencing since entering this country didn't seem to stop!
SWIMMING POOL = HAPPINESS
The next morning, we were again escorted out of the city. Franco, a retired bike enthusiast who had heard from us from Piercarlo, met us in the morning and showed us a beautiful bike path to the medieval city of Pizzighettone, pedalling with us for about 30Km. The way went mostly along a canal that was once built to connect the cities of Cremona and Milan, to allow for easier transportation of goods. „The canal was never actually finished“, explained Franco in a charming Italian accent. „It only goes few Km. It was nice idea, but you know...“, he said as he gestured eating something with his hand. „You know… The mafia eat it, the financing“, he remarked as he repeated the gesture and sourly laughed. The canal was now mainly used by bikers, fishers and kayakers. As we reached Pizzighetonne, Franco turned around and headed back to Cremona. My friends and I found a restaurant and sat in a terrace to seek some shelter from the scorching sun. After the previous day's journey, Aitor's legs were understandably exhausted, so he decided to take a train to Pavia. Fer and I would pedal there and meet him in the evening.
Lunch with Aitor and Fer
Fer is (and always has been), a very stubborn person, and stubbornness can be, especially in certain sports, a phenomenal ally. He came to Italy with the clear goal to make it with his bike from Verona to Turin and he was going to do everything he could to make it happen. I had already been rolling for a month, and my legs were used to doing long stages. Fer had not trained for this, and he still managed to hold on all the way to the end on this second day of cycling. Chapeau! We reached Pavia in the late afternoon and went to the train station, where we met up with Aitor. He had arrived a few hours before and had found a camping nearby for us to spend the night, and surprise, surprise… the camping had a pool!! We set up the tents, changed into our swim shorts and went to the blue oasis to relax. I like outdoor pools, but after a long day of cycling… love would not begin to describe how I felt. It was heaven on earth.
KITCHEN OPEN, JOIN IN!
We got a really late start to the third day of cycling, as we couldn't resist relaxing by the pool in the morning. It was actually noon by the time we left Pavia. The day was hot, and there were no clouds to provide some patches of shade. We were riding very small roads, so as to avoid cars. Accordingly, we were going through very small towns. We had had a late breakfast, so it was four o'clock by the time we started getting hungry again. As we went through these small towns, our hunger got the same answer at every local bar/restaurant: „Sorry, kitchen closed“.
As we entered the town of Semiana, the smell of a fire grill made our stomachs twist. We followed the scent like ravenous hounds and ended up in the inside patio of an old house. This courtyard was immense and looked like it was being prepared to host a few hundred people, a celebration of some sort. I approached a group of shirtless men that were working on hundreds of skewers and tried to ask as politely as possible… „Can we buy some food from you?“. One of the younger men saw our bikes and asked us where we came from. When he heard that we had cycled from Verona, he invited us to sit down in a nearby table. They brought some bottles of ice cold beer and opened them for us. Good start! They told us that, once a year, Semiana held a big party and around 500 people came from all the surrounding towns to celebrate. That day was the day, they were preparing for it and we were invited to celebrate with them later that evening!
Our generous hosts in Semiana
A woman came by with three plates full of food and the young man brought more beer. Just a half hour earlier, we were stumbling from town to town in search of anything we could eat, and now we were being pampered by these joyful and generous people. Their offer to stay and party was incredibly tempting, but it would mean not making it to Turin by bike in time. Fer and Aitor had to catch a flight back home at Turin's airport the next evening, and this still lay over 100 Km away. Staying would mean they would have to catch a train in the morning to make in time for check in. I didn't mind either way, as I would have to pedal onwards regardless of what we did that evening, so they had to make the decision. It was a really close call, but, as I said, Fer is stubborn and wanted to make it to Turin by bike.
Before leaving, I quickly went to to the toilette. When I came back, Fer and Aitor were talking to the young man that had invited us to sit down, giggling about God knows what. „Hey, you should try this interesting herb liquor!“ Aitor said. As I approached, the young man took a sugar cube and dunked it in a small glass containing what looked like liquid criptonite. He handed the cube to me, and as I put it in my mouth, my friends giggled again. „Dude, that's Maria“ they said. „What an interesting name“, I thought. It took a few seconds to actually compute… „Maria.. do you mean marihuana??“ … Yes, that was concentrated liquid marihuana that was sipped by the cube.
TELETRANSPORTATION IS REAL
As we packed our bikes, the Semiana crew restocked our water supplies. We thanked them heartfully and took off. The sun was still roasting the road, but we felt re-energized. Happy about our good fortune of finding such generous people since taking off in Verona, we merrily pedalled onwards. Unfortunately, our cheerfulness was not last.
A few Km after leaving Semiana, the surroundings became rapidly humid. The heat seemed to be intensified and the air became thick and heavy. It was like getting slapped on the face by a wet sweaty palm. We looked around and noticed that we were suddenly surrounded by endless rice fields. Had we just went through a portal and appeared in south-east Asia? Or were these hallucinations triggered by the marihuana-soaked sugar cube?
Rice paddies in the Po Valley
The Po is northern Italy's main river. Feeding from numerous subsidiaries that run down from the Alps, it makes the plains where it flows through very fertile. As we approached the eastern borders of the province of Piedmont, we entered a section of the Po valley that is particularly well suited to grow… rice!
The flooded lands that we were now surrounded by were not just ideal for rice cultivation, they also made the perfect habitat for millions of mosquitoes.There always seems to be some people who's blood attract these insects more than others and, in our case, this was undoubtedly Fer. Since going through the portal in the marihuana-rice-mosquito continuum, we had all been bitten. But Fer got the king's share. Not only that, he seemed to be allergic to these insects, and their bites quickly developed into aching red marble balls on his skin. Our new mission became quite simple: we needed to get out of the rice paddies before sunset to set up camp for the night. We rode, and rode, and rode, and rode, but the rice never ended… and neither did the mosquitoes. The sun had already hidden under the horizon and we were still riding, looking desperately for another portal to transport us to a dry, mosquito-free haven.
„Let's look for any patch of land that is somehow dry and quickly camp“, I said, having avoided cycling at night since leaving Berlin. We didn't have a great lights on our bikes, and I didn't want to unnecessarily risk cycling in the dark. „You guys do whatever you want“, Fer shouted, „I will not stop pedalling until these $%&* rice fields disappear!“. I am sure he would have pushed on all the way to Madrid if necessary… The mosquitoes had gotten under his skin, literally.
Thankfully, a few Km down the road, we found a warehouse with an entrance ramp that looked dry enough. We set up camp at record speed, jumped in our respective tent, closed the zipper and called it a day.
LAST PUSH TO TURIN
Just before dusk, and afraid of being caught camping on private grounds, we packed up the tents and quickly pedalled away. The air was still moist, but the morning was cool and it felt good to feel the fresh air on our faces as we pedalled towards Turin. Just 30 minutes after leaving the warehouse, the rice fields finally ended.
We felt like stopping for a coffee, but it was very early and most businesses were still closed. As we approached the town of Castelrosso, just 30 Km away from Turin, we saw a group of (motor)bikers gathered around a café and slowed down to have a look. Being still amazed at the fact that every day since leaving Verona someone had had an act of generosity towards us, I jokingly said to my friends: „How strange, it is already 7:30 in the morning and nobody has invited us to anything“. Well, sure enough, one minute later, one of the bikers came to greet us, introduced himself as Stefano, founder and director of the Bisko Motoclub and invited us to sit in the café (which belonged to the club). We exchanged anecdotes about road travel on 2 wheels, and he got us two coffees and an iced tea. Unreal. Not long after saying goodbye to Stefano and his biker crew, we reached Turin.
Arriving at the finish line.
I must say: hats off to my friends. Without any specific training they managed incredible distances on bicycles made for other purposes. More importantly, in sharing part of this adventure with me, they supported my efforts, made me laugh and lifted my spirits. Gracias Fer. Gracias Aitor.
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