I know I am not the only one who has spent the past 20 odd months avidly following Steve and Kat’s adventures on their journey back from New Zealand so you can imagine how excited James and I were to spend a week catching up with them in Italy.
We’ve never done any cycle touring before as I’ve always said I’d go cycling OR camping but never both together. If ever there was a time to break this rule camping in January didn’t seem like it, but then again I am stubborn and I had decided that we were going to join in the fun and make the most of our time together. I’m so glad we did because we had so many lovely relaxed conversations over meals in the campsites that we would have missed out on otherwise.
I am a bit of a planner and the packing spreadsheet was getting progressively longer when we got word from Steve and Kat that they arrived in Naples. A few days later with the checklist ticked off and the bags packed we were on our way to join them!
Pirates & Pizza in Pozzuoli
Steve & Kat met us at Naples airport after stopping to help a fellow cyclist en route who had come off his bike in a busy tunnel and was trying to flag down cars with a broken arm. We’d arranged to pick up some hire bikes at the airport and although that didn’t exactly go to plan (one of the bikes had a broken rear axle!) it really didn’t matter because we worked it out between us – Steve & Kat pulled our trailer across the city and up the hill to the campsite in Pozzuoli and we got a lift from the bike hire bloke. By the time were all re-united we’d managed to pitch our randomly similar tent in the beautiful surroundings of the Solfatara volcano. Thankfully it is long dormant but that didn’t stop me from having dreams about the crater suddenly exploding or opening up like something out of a Bond movie!
As you might expect the campsite was pretty quiet. The cafe was closed for the winter so we thought they wouldn’t mind if we pinched a few tables and chairs to make our little pitch home. Kat lit the scented candle her Mum had given her at Christmas, Steve got his petrol stove going and we had a delicious dinner of spaghetti bolognese with fresh Italian pasta and buckets of Grand Padano. Once the wine started flowing it didn’t take too long before I asked if I could have a game of ‘What Can You Hide in Steve’s Beard?’
The best thing was definitely the Cravendale pirate…
The next morning we woke to the distinctive whirr of the stove which could only mean one thing; time for Steve’s campsite cappuccino, or Campuccino as it’s now known. Over the course of their trip they have honed their campsite cooking skills and it would be rude not to start the day the Italian way with some proper good coffee. Gently heating the milk in a bottle and giving it a good shake made the perfect frothy base for the shot of espresso that was added to it from the coffee engine. Good times!
We thought we’d be silly not to check out the campsite’s sauna, heated naturally by the volcano. It is certainly an experience that will stick in our minds for years to come… Not quite the holistic experience that might be offered by luxury spas, we managed about 5 minutes sat in the damp sulphury (= eggy!) cupboard that passed as the sauna before deciding we were too cold to stick it out any longer. Time to shower, change and check out the rest of the volcanic sights on offer.
Listed as one of the 40 thermae of the Phlegreaen Fields, Solfatara is found in quiet countryside away from the hustle and bustle of central Naples making it a popular tourist destination. We chose it because it is one of the few campsites open in winter but generally people come to see the vapour rushing out of the fumeroles at high pressure and the bubbling pools of mud. Wikipedia tells me that the name comes from the Latin Sulpha terra meaning “land of sulphur” or “sulphur earth” and apparently the vapours have been used for medical purposes since Roman times. The volcano itself was formed around 4000 years ago, last erupting in 1198. No need for me to worry about present day eruptions right? I was not reassured to learn that you can make the volcano rumble by dropping rocks onto the ground – eek!
One of the things I love about any trip to Italy is that you know the food is going to be delicious! We’d had a great campsite feast on our first night so we thought we’d give the chef a night off and sample some local pizza.
James has a history of making poor pizza choices when we’re abroad. Last time we ate pizza with Steve & Kat was in Santiago de Compostela after Smouty & Virginia’s wedding where James thought he had ordered a tuna pizza… turns out that aceituna means olive, one of James’ least favourite foods, and the pizza was solidly covered in them! This time it was his choice of pizza fritta ripieno giving the rest of us a bit of a giggle. Each of our pizzas arrived one by one with James’ left til last when he was presented with what looked like a massive pasty. We’ve had calzone before so no worries there but it was when he cut into it and discovered it was essentially an oddly shaped doughnut stuffed full of ricotta that he realised it was going to be another challenging pizza.
Enjoying our laid back day together in the January sunshine we walked down the hill into Pozzuoli for a stroll along the promenade. As the sun started to set we found ourselves a bench and took the chance to watch the world go by. There were couples walking arm in arm, families out admiring the view, the odd runner and cyclist, and some amazing rollerskating by a little girl who hadn’t quite got the hang of it yet, walking awkwardly on her little wheeled feet.
Two Tales of Ischia
Rain, Rain, Go Away
Every sound seems amplified when you’re in a tent so what sounded like a downpour turned out to be drizzle which stopped just long enough for the obligatory Campuccino, a tasty breakfast of scrambled egg with onion, mushrooms and pancetta pieces and the chance to pack up in the dry.
This was the first time we were moving on and I don’t think I’d really appreciated the effort required to pack everything away almost daily. I suppose so much happens in the time between each blog post that Steve & Kat don’t mention the things that think of as part of the daily routine. It is amazing to see everything end up in one of the many panniers or tucked into the trailer but everything has its place. There is the kitchen pannier, the one for technology, another for warm clothes… and when Steve asks where something is Kat is able to find it in seconds.
We knew there were ferries going to the islands from the harbour so it was just a case of rolling down the hill and getting tickets in time. After a few spots of rain the heavens opened but with tickets in hand and a massive ferry in sight we joined the queue of cars hoping that we’d be on board soon enough. Half an hour later we were pretty soaked and still waiting. People kept gesturing to take the bikes to the front like the foot passengers we’d seen pass us by but with several boats tied up along the harbourside one false move with a fully loaded tandem could have made one very big splash.
Once we’d made it onto the ferry we were so wet that we weren’t really warming up much. The initial plan had been to ride across the island and find the only campsite that was open in winter but after reading that they charged a fee for bikes Kat got to thinking about other options… A bit of searching found that since it was low season there were hotel rooms that were literally two or three Euros more than what we would have paid to camp. A roof over our heads, a chance to dry everything out and breakfast included… What’s not to like?
Once we reached Ischia we knew we needed to cycle from the port to the hotel but with no let up in the weather we managed about half an hour before we decided to stop and refuel. Spotting a pizza bar we sheltered from the rain and enjoyed some of the largest slices I’ve ever seen. With just a little further to go we were soon at the hotel and after using the free WiFi to make our reservations at the bargain online price we were checked in and drip drying our clothes on all available furniture. Another perk of the hotel was the thermal spa pool, steam room and sauna (not an eggy whiff to be sniffed!) so it wasn’t long before we were all warmed up and ready to find something for dinner. With all the essentials – wine, crisps, bread, salami and cheese – we put some tunes on and chatted into the early hours of the morning toasting Kat’s ingenuity with some local Limoncello.
The Sun Has Got His Hat On
We took full advantage of a complimentary breakfast and feasted on cold meats, cheese and lots of sweet treats before heading out to explore the island. Greeted with glorious sunshine everything looked so different and there was no need to load the bikes since we’d decided it was such a good deal we’d stay second night.
Even though we’d seen the silhouette of the islands as we’d watched the sun go down in Pozzuoli I hadn’t quite twigged how hilly it was going to be. It was at this point that James reminded me Ischia is a volcanic island so it was likely to be a bit lumpy!
Riding across the island was another insight into the harmony of the Tandem Turners. After initially thinking he was saying it for the benefit of me & James I realised that Steve was counting down “3, 2, 1″ before we set off so that he and Kat were in sync. Then there were the calls of “up” or “down” before the gear changes so they were both knew what was coming. Watching them go sailing off down the hill on Hooch was something special although it was coupled with a small amount of terror since we weren’t sure the brakes on our hire bikes were going to offer much in the way of stopping.
Yesterday’s rain seemed like a distant memory after an afternoon cycling with the sun on our faces and being able to sit outside enjoying a beer together. We reaped the benefits of all the climbing too since it was downhill almost all the way back for another dip in the pool. Although I had tried to keep it under my hat it was my birthday while we were in Italy and Kat very thoughtfully surprised me back at the hotel by setting up a little table of treats (and a particularly good sketch on the wrapping paper) in their room before we headed out for some dinner.
A lot of the dog encounters that Steve & Kat have had along the way have been pretty hairy (bad pun!) leading to the various ways they have tried to keep them at bay: Kat’s pocket full of stones, the thing that emitted high-pitched sounds or most recently the dog stick. When a few stray looking dogs started following us down the street I was a bit wary… Turns out that one particular dog was actually quite the charmer. Once we’d found a local pizzeria that was open we thought we would be able to sneak in and leave the dog outside but he had other ideas. In true cartoon fashion he ran through the gap in my legs and into the warmth of the restaurant before I was even through the door. After a few attempts at coaxing him out, and then Steve trying to drag him out, a very kind waiter came over and said “It’s okay, your dog can stay inside!” at which point I sheepishly explained it wasn’t mine. It was at this point that the dog trotted off to the kitchen, wagging his tail as he went! When we asked what had become of the dog the waiter told us that he was warming himself by the cooker since it was so cold outside. That gives you a bit of an idea of what a friendly place it was. We were treated to an extra couple of courses which we initially thought meant our order had got muddled up (“You’re still bringing the deep-fried cheese right?”) but it was actually just their way of welcoming us to Ischia. A very memorable way to spend my birthday with good friends and good food!
Cycling With Celebrities
The next part of the plan for the week was to catch the ferry to Naples and head down to see the ruins of Pompeii. Not a raindrop in sight, we checked out of the hotel and were straight onto the ferry. Before we knew it we were on the bumpy road to Pompei (only one ‘i’ for the modern city!) with Steve & Kat leading through the wide cobbled streets.
There was plenty to see as we rode on the bone-shaking volcanic bricks – described to us later as a gift from Vesuvius – that formed the road passing through tall buildings with washing hanging out on every balcony like jubilee bunting as we wound our way through the towns, but seeing people’s reactions to the Tandem Turners as they went by was definitely the best bit. This far into their adventure they know they are an eye-catching sight and Kat will often give people a wave as they go whizzing past but following on behind them meant that James and I had a great view of the impression they make. There were a few times we passed by a playground or park and a kid would excitedly call out to his mates ”Come and have a look at this!”, pedestrians would wave and grin, passengers and drivers would crane their necks to take it all in as they overtook. One of my favourites on this route was definitely a fella who was absent-mindedly eating some crisps while waiting to cross the road. The tandem went past and he caught a glimpse as he looked up and then did a proper double take watching them ride off into the distance then looking back at the crisps as if to say “Wow, these are made from some powerful potatoes”.
Stopping to check the map as we went the locals were really friendly and helpful. A well-dressed lady came up and asked us where we were headed reassuring us that we were going the right way, a bloke pulled over to tell us we were on a newly built road after seeing our puzzled faces staring at the map and a group of workmen downed tools to talk to Steve and Kat as we stopped at a junction telling us that Pompei was not much further on.
Camping Spartacus had been recommended to Steve & Kat by fellow cycle tourers that they’d met along the way and it certainly didn’t disappoint. At €10 a night we were allocated a plot nestled among the trees and told the oranges were free!
Settled in to our new home we searched out the local supermarket, quickening our pace past the dogs roaming around and barking at each other through fences, and prepared a hearty pasta dinner. Not sure if it was the late nights catching up on us or the fact that it was really cold but we were all tucked up in bed by 10pm!
Camping in Pompeii in the shadow of Vesuvius I did think for a split second that the klaxon that woke me in the night was the volcano alarm we’d joked about earlier in the week… Turned out to be a car alarm somewhere nearby but it still gave us a giggle over breakfast the next day.
After copying the lizards and basking in the sun for a bit after breakfast, we made some sandwiches and headed across the road to the ruins of Pompeii.
When Vesuvius erupted in 79AD the surrounding area was buried under the hot ash and pumice that fell. The ruins are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and possibly Italy’s most popular tourist destination since the lack or air and moisture meant that objects underneath the volcanic layers have been incredibly well preserved.
During the excavations over the years plaster was poured into the voids to establish where people were when they had died – quite an eerie sight (photo below).
Since it is a town frozen in time there was quite an area to navigate around. Kat was armed with their Kindle loaded with all the Lonely Planet books, including a handy section on Pompeii, and James did his best with a discarded Italian map of the site that we found. We covered quite a lot of ground having a look at the various temples, market squares and houses, and had a look at the erotic frescoes preserved on the walls of the brothel before stopping to have our packed lunch on the steps of the grand amphitheatre.
Worn out by all our sightseeing Steve cooked us all some amazing chips back at the campsite proving once again that there is no limit what he can do on that little petrol stove. The chips were just the starter for our last dinner together as I had a go at being camp cook whipping up a mushroom risotto.
It was still pretty cold as we sat around chatting with our bellies full and the cartons of wine flowing. We even had a nightcap of Guatemalan rum to warm our cockles courtesy of a fellow Brit, another Steve, who was staying at Spartacus for a few nights during his camper-van tour around Italy.
We knew it was coming but we had reached our final day together. With the bikes loaded up we headed back to Naples with the Tandem Turners still amazing everyone along the way. The traffic was much busier since it was Saturday but that just meant there was more time for people to have a good look at Hooch and give Steve & Kat a big grin.
There were also other cyclists out on the roads. You could see the penny drop as Kat listed all the countries they had passed through and the person asking realised that they weren’t New Zealanders but rather had cycled all the way from New Zealand!
As we approached Naples we pulled in to check the map without realising we were right outside a barbers. A few well groomed blokes came over, scissors in hand, and asked if they could have a photo with Steve. They struck a comedy pose pretending to snip away at the beard cultivated over the past 2o months. Steve was smiling in the picture but later admitted to being a bit worried that they were actually going to give him an unwelcome trim!
After a final pizza together we went our separate ways: Steve & Kat headed back to Solfatara for the night before starting their journey to Rome and James and I to a hotel by the airport ready to fly back to Gatwick the next morning.
The week went by too fast but as the saying goes time flies when you’re having fun and it as so lovely to catch up: our cycling time is represented by the little squiggle on the Where Are Tandem Turners map and I have had the opportunity to write this guest blog and share the memories made with you all.
The only thing left for me to say is: Steve & Kat you are both utterly brilliant and we are all with you on your final stint back home!