Friday, May 23, 2008


Growing up in southern California, we are used to rainstorms that come infrequently, and when they do they pass quickly. But any misconceptions we had about Italy being an arid country have evaporated. We hit a stretch of very wet weather as we headed from Florence to Ravenna. The combination of a persistent weather pattern pumping moisture into the area we were traveling, as well as the orographic effect of the Apennine Mountains, left us soggy.

The Apennine Range form a spine along the length of Italy. Although not particulary high in elevation, it was a challenging ascent due to the weather. The last nine kilometers were a steep, steady climb, and we did it as misty rain fell on us. At the pass we bundled up in all the water resistent clothing we had, and descended into the town of San Benedetto in Alpe. It was late, after 6 pm, and we were ready for dinner and a hot shower. Pulling into the campground, we were greeted by a locked gate. The campground was closed. With no other camping alternatives nearby, we entered into the campground through a small open gate to the side. We wandered around, hoping to attract attention and sympathy to let us camp anyway. It worked -- the proprietor found us, and somehow between her few words of English and John's improving Italian, we settled on a price. Lucky for us, there was a nice gravel plot and cabin with a porch and table and chairs for us to cook. And hot water for showers.

It was a quiet night, but by 4 am it was raining hard. It continued as a torrent for the next four hours, with thunder and lightning for accent. It was obvious we were not going anywhere that day. So we settled in on our little porch, doing mending and crosswords, while episodes of rain continued throughout the day. The afternon cleared, and so did our spirits, as our tent dried and we looked forward to cycling the next day.

Rain returned the next morning just before sunrise. It was a rough night for me, since I was aflicted with a stomach ailment, most likely caused by my sampling of the mouldy rind from the block of cheese we had for lunch (hey, John, this part tastes the best!). We decided to make a break for it, and try to get out of the mountains. Without the help of satellite imagery and weather prediction tools we have via the internet, we were not sure if this is how it always is in these mountains (the local crop is mushrooms, for goodness sakes). So we donned the rain gear once again, and sailed down the winding roads to the flats of the Po River valley.

We had to stop a few times as waves of rain passed through, one time for about an hour and a half under the eaves in the center piazza of the small town of Dovadola. We were a bit of attraction in our saturated state to a group of schoolkids. As I was sitting in my state of nausea on a bench, I could see John's head over a circle of umbrellas. They were very anxious to help us, and drew us a map to a local agriturismo. We ended up pushing on to the town of Forli, where we checked into the Hotel Marta to dry and allow me to recover.

A night in close proximity to a bathroom was helpful, and after a good nights rest we were on the road again. We bought bread at a bakery in Forli, and everywhere the town was alive with vans and booths full of merchandise promoting the Giro d'Italia, the national bike race in Italy. For 10 Euros you get a backpack, t-shirt, stuffed bear, sunglasses, all in bright pink that probably looks great on TV, and is also the color of the jersey of the current race front-runner. Apparently stage 12 of the race was starting from Forli that day, but we headed out of town in a different direction than the racers. Had they been going our way, they surely would have overtaken us -- they cover 200 kilometers in 5 hours, and we did a mere 50 that day.

Pulling into Ravenna we were greeted by one more torrential downpour, be we stayed dry under a roof just outside the city at the Porta Nuova.

Today we toured the city by foot, and it is sunny and dry. The city of Ravenna is known for particulary stunning mosaic art. And tomorrow we cycle on north towards Ferrara and Venice, hopefully with blue skies, flat terrain, and wind to our back.


The town of Pisa, located on the coast west of Florence, was not on our planned route. But for a mere 10 Euros round trip, we hopped a train for a day trip to see the famed Leaning Tower. Rain pelted the train windows as we passed through the flat countryside on the way, and we were glad to be protected from the elements instead of cycling.
The town of Pisa is ordinary enough, but the area of the tower and its accompanying duomo, museum, and cemetery were very interesting. The complex was crawling with busloads of tourists fresh off cruise ships parked in the port nearby. It was quite comical to see people taking pictures of their traveling companions, posed to be seemingly holding the tower up with their hands. The rain cleared by afternoon for some classic photos of the tower against a backdrop of blue sky and puffy clouds. A nice diversion for a day.


The most direct route from Siena to Florence is via a major highway. Despite lung-busting climbs, we had not gotten enough of the countryside of Tuscany. We made a couple day detour towards the town of Volterra, another hill town which is a center of alabaster art carved from the stone quarried nearby. The campground was within walking distance, and so we went to sleep and woke to the sound of church bells. Threatening rain kept us there an extra day, which allowed us to vist the alabaster exhibit and catch up on internet business.

The next night we stayed on the edge of the Chianti region, just outside the town of Fiano. The campground we were looking for turned out to be 10 kilometers beyond where we thought it should be. We follwed the signs with the familar tent symbol as it went up some incredible grades, some which I had to push my bike rather than pedal. The reward was a campsite on the highest ridge overlooking the hills and valleys of the Chianti region, where vineyards form a woven pattern on the slopes. As is customary each morning, we bought bread from the local bakery and continued our ride towards Florence, passing classic villas on the way.

Florence deserves its reputation as one of the world's great cities. The concentration of so much great art and architecture in one place, with its setting along the Arno river and the ancient bridges, makes it an amazing place. We spent three days doing the customary museum and church visits. In this city is Michaelangelo's David.

We were particularly impressed with the banded facade of white and green marble of the Cathedral.

Our campground was within a half hour walk of the old city center, overlooking the classic view of the Ponte Vecchio. We were fortunate to have a beautiful sunset on our final evening in the city.

Monday, May 12, 2008


Traveling has taken on a rhythm. We are now biking most days. We are ravenous for every meal and aching for slumber by the time the church bells toll 9 pm in what ever town we are nearby each night. In the morning, after packing our tent, boiling water for tea, and eating our standard breakfast of muesli and melon, we are ready to roll.

Region boundaries tend to follow topographic features. We crossed from Lazio into Tuscany as we crested the edge of the caldera north of Bolsena. The wind was howling following our day of rain, but the landscape is rolling green hills with a patchwork of farms (click here to see a video). It is glorious country to ride a bike in.

We are now connecting the dots between the medieval hill towns, and each day of cycling involves at least two or three very steep climbs to get to the next town. We went out of our way to visit the town of Pitigliano because of its particulary dramatic setting. As seen in the above photo, we were not disappointed.

Some days we cycle 80 kilometers, some days 50, depending on the hills or how many stops we make for visiting sites of interest. One stop was the Abbazia of Saint Antimo, a Benedictine monastary on the way to Siena. Above is a detail of the rock work.

We reached Siena and spent a day walking the city. The highlight was both the interior and exterior of Duomo di Siena. The level of artistic achievement and architectural construction is astounding. Surrounded by buildings of brown, its marble exterior stands out in vivid contrast. Siena is not a large city, and we were able to see the town in one day. One day was enough...we were anxious to get back to the wide open spaces of the countryside. From Siena our plan is to take an indirect route towards Florence, seeing more of the Tuscany countryside before more city, art, and architecture.

Lago di Bolsena

The train left us out in the evening light of the coastal town of Ladispoli on the eve of May Day, a national holiday in all of Europe. The campgrounds we have encountered so far are one of two flavors -- those frequented by primarily Italians and those by Northern Europeans. This one was of the Italian variety. Small trailers are parked year-round on small sites, and have constructed around them entire structures, including canopies, small sheds with stove and fridge, and tiled decks. Large familial groups come together play on the beach and share meals. We occupied one of the rare squares of grass between this metropolis of caravans. Since it was a holiday, the campground was packed. Kids were playing everywhere, running between sites and playing soccer in the roadways. The Italians don't eat their evening meal until 8pm, and the barbeque right next to us was fired up just as we were ready to roll into bed. It was a frenzy of activity, as if the vacationing Italians transferred the intensity of their home cities to their weekend getaway. After our travels in Rome and Naples and this little city of campers, we were ready to head out into the country side and start biking in earnest.

From Ladispoli we went north along the coast to Tarquinia. Nearby are some of the best Etruscan tombs in Italy, and we spent the morning of our exit from Tarquinia visiting them. The tombs date from around the 6th century BC, and more than 6,000 tombs have been located in the region surronding this town. The tombs are subterranean, and the site we visited has constructed about 20 shelters with stairs leading into the tombs. Behind glass in a climate-controlled environment are the colorful frescoes, amazingingly vivid for their age.

It is spring, and the wildflowers are blooming all around us. In California the golden poppy is the state flower, and during its peak blooms it colors the hillsides orange. But here the poppies are a bright red, appropriate for the bold colors the Italians favor in their design motifs.

The contrast of the old and new throughout the country continues to amaze us. Above John rides by an aqueduct from the early 18th century.

As we moved eastward into the interior of the Lazio province, we headed towards two large lakes indicated on our map -- Lago di Vico and Lago di Bolsena. Both are formed in the calderas, much like Crater Lake in Oregon. It was a long, hot climb to get to the rim of Lago di Vico, and an exhilirating descent back down to lake level. We traveled on country roads with light traffic in an area not frequented by foreign visitors. Lago di Bolsena is the larger of the two lakes, and Bolsena is a medieval fortress town on its east shore.

Rain kept us there an extra day, and we spent time exploring the narrow streets. We noticed several sculptures and planters around the town of Bolsena with a distinctive human head form. Later we came acoss the studio of the artist and his small shop from which he sells his work.

It was a peaceful day in Bolsena, our transition from the city to the country, from the ancient to the medieval.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Amalfi Coast

One of our goals while in this part of Southern Italy was to bike the Amalfi Coast. Our guidebook described the route in detail, and its claims of this stretch of coastline being the most spectacular in Italy and quite acheivable by bike. We decided to ignore the looks of horror in the eyes of fellow tourists when we mentioned we would be cycling the road.

It was a cold and damp and overcast day when we left Sorrento, so the views of the highest cliffs were obscured by clouds. There were a couple of steep grades, but in general the most scenic stretches were nice and even. Many times the only thing separating us from the cliffs below was a rock wall and no shoulder. But the rock wall was more substantial than any guard rail in the U.S., and cars and scooters were also enjoying the view and moving at a reasonable speed. We just tried not to look down while moving

We passed a group of hikers also traveling the road (the red blob sharing the road with me in the photo above).

We took two days to do the coast from Sorrento to Salerno. In the midsection of the coast are towns built literally on hillsides. Roads go impossibly up, but the highest parts of the towns are only reacheable by foot. Construction materials are carried up by horse and mule. And on the slopes are terraces with groves of lemon trees

Our plan was to find the campground menitioned in our guidebook, but we could not find it. It was still early, so we continued on. We decided to just try and find a hotel or pension house along the way. By the time we got to the town of Minori it was getting late and we were cold and tired. We noticed an agriturismo sign with a tent symbol for Il Campanile -- just our style. But it pointed uphill, and we were not sure how far it would be. We ducked into a travel agency, where the agent spoke enough English to call the proprietor of the farm, and he met us at the office. We followed him by bike until it got so steep we could pedal no more, then walked the bikes to the bottom of a very steep set of stairs. From there we took off the panniers and walked a thousand steps, came back and carried the bikes up the same steps. Our host was a gentleman and carried my bike -- good thing, because I don't think I had it in me to do it myself.

The bikes were parked within the front gate, and the bags were shuttled up another thousand steps. to the top-most terrace of the town. We were surrounded by terraces of lemon trees and vegetable plots. We were shown to a grassy terrace, and at the end was a bathroom with shower and toilet. We were told dinner would be at 7 pm, on the patio where we parked the bikes (one thousand steps down).

That evening we enjoyed a home-cooked meal of local specialties overlooking the lights of the town far below -- pasta, grilled sausage and pork (there goes that vegetarianism out the door again), fresh bread, salad with tender greens grown by our hosts and topped with the juice of lemons from the groves surrounding us. They seved us wine from grapes grown on the farm and bottled themselves. By the time we finished a liter of the wine we were too drunk to say no to home-made limoncello. We stumbled up the thousand steps to bed, happy and satiated.

The next day we finished our Amalfi Coast tour, arriving in Salerno by noon. We headed for the train station, and bought tickets to Ladispoli, a coastal town north of Rome. Within an hour we were on the train, looking out the window at the landscape we had biked just a week earlier. From here we would begin the next leg of our journey, heading north towards Siena and Florence.

Monday, May 5, 2008


We crossed the Bay of Naples on a half hour ferry ride to the town of Sorrento. A picturesque harbor town, it is frequented by many British and German tourists. We stayed here for four nights at a campground built on terraces with views overlooking the town. This was our base for viewing more great sites -- Pompeii, Vesuvius, Ercolano, Capri. Public buses and trains took us everywhere we needed to go, and without our bikes we once again we blended into the tourist crowds.

The bus ride up Vesuvius was itself worth the price of admission. Steep and winding, and often not wide enough for two tour buses to pass each other. Our bus driver had a showdown on our descent, making the uphill bus back up to a wider spot in the road so we could pass. The whole time cars and scooters flowed through the gap between the noses of the bus. At the end of the road it is a short walk to the rim of the crater, where steam still seeps from the rocks. It was howling wind, with 50 mph gusts, so the view below as hazy from dust and smog. Thanks to the gentleman at the curio shop at the end of the trail, we were able to locate Pompeii in the distance. He was able to point out the site in four languages, rattled off in succession when asked.

We spent an afternoon in Ercolano, a town also destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. This is a smaller site than Pompeii, but what makes it different is it was covered by mud flows, instead of hot ash. As a result, charred wood and iron grates were preserved.

Our last day we took the ferry to the island of Capri. We walked the narrow streets, like mice in a maze. Wide enough for just two people with walls towering on either side preventing a view to orient oneself, we walked for a mile, emerging just a few hundred feet from where we started. Most touists who wish to reach the high point of the island, Monte Solaro, take a single-person ski lift to the top. We opted to walk, hiking through a forest path lined with spring flowers. We had a beautiful day, and the waters of the Mediterranean were azure blue. A nice ending to our stay in Sorrento.

Thursday, May 1, 2008


From Rome we cycled three days towards Naples. We reached the coast on the second day, and passed through resort towns, quiet and vacant prior to the summer season. We passed through agricultural towns, and bought melons bursting with juice from roadside stands. There are small markets everywhere, but they all are stocked with the basic essentials of good quality -- cheese, bread, vegetables, fruit, olive oil. Food is plentiful and excellent, but we need to be sure to get it early, since shops close in the afternoon from about 2 to 4 pm.

Outside of the tourist routes foreign travelers are less common, and the people have been so kind to us. We stopped to eat our lunch of bread and cheese at a gas station and market. Sitting next to us were a couple of gentleman with lunch bags the size of a small coolers. Out came multiple courses -- bowls of salad, cheese, bread. One man pulled out a salami and started slicing off chunks. He offered a large section to us. We hesitated at the unexpected generosity and our supposed vegetarianism. But we took it, and found it to be very delicious. Apparently made by the man himself, he beamed when we expressed our pleasure.

Our goal was Naples. Having made a contact with the Langella family through, a networking site for bike tourists, we had a place to stay. As we approached the city, we encountered dense traffic and more cobblestones. We called Francesco, our host, and he met us by the docks on his bike. He then us led us throught the streets of the city to his home in the old part of town, through tunnels of buildings and narrow streets, where vendors display their wares, throngs of people walk, and scooters and cars buzz by with just a cautionary honk. For the next two nights we were spoiled by a personal tour of the sights of the city, home-cooked Napolese cuisine, and the company of our superb hosts.

We visited The National Archaeological Museum of Naples, and also the famous cloister of Santa Chiara, where the painted columns were strikingly beautiful. We met our host for a hike for a panoramic view of Naples from the Castel Sant'Elmo. We stayed up too late, ate too much, but left happy and with the joy of a new friendship. On our final morning, Francesco led us through the city of the last time to the dock, where we loaded ourselves and our bikes for a trip across the bay to Sorrento for the next leg of our journey.


It was not our intent to cycle through Rome. But we arrived at the airport at 5 pm in fading light, and we found out that bikes were not allowed on the express train we intended to take to the hotel we booked for the first night. So we got on another train. We sat huddled with our map of Rome, trying to figure out which stop to get off on. Emerging from the station, it was dusk and the streets were wet from a recent thunderstorm. We donned our bright vests and with John's sixth sense of direction, we headed off, sharing the streets with scooters, Fiats, and Smart cars, all traveling faster and maneuvering much quicker than us.

We merged onto a street of rain-slicked cobblestones that began to curve, and as we turned we saw the Colosseum. There was a backdrop of clouds highlighted golden by the setting sun, and the arches illuminated by the last light, a collision of the ancient and modern. It was magical.

The next day we decided to avoid the train to get to our campground north of town. We got different stories -- bikes allowed after 9 pm, bikes not allowed anytime, bikes allowed only on some trains. So we cycled. It was more like mostly pushing and some pedaling through the city center. But we saw several sites, and we must have been a sight, too, based on the stares we got as we wheeled our way around with bikes fully loaded with panniers. Eventually we reached the bike trail that follows the Tiber River, passing beneath ancient bridges, and to the campground.

For the next five days we were regular tourists, without bicycles, blending into the crowd. We walked from morning until night, visiting all the biggies -- Vatican City, the Forum, the Colosseum, museums, churches, and fountains. We took public transport everywhere, and felt secure and welcome wherever we went.

The day we left Rome we headed south on the same bike trail on the Tiber River. Towards the old part of town the path turned from asphalt to cobblestone. Besides the discomfort, it also made progress slow, made even slower by the flat tire John got from glass on the trail. But we pushed on, leaving the bike trail and exiting Rome through the gates at the Via Appia. As we went south, there were fewer cars and bigger cobblestones. Most of the trail were interlocking cobbles maybe five inches square, but some sections had very large stones, a couple of feet square. These dated from the time of the Romans, and one could still see the grooves from the carts etched in these stones. It was quiet, bumping along under a canopy of trees, and we felt like we were transported back in time.

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