Arriving in the southern Italian city of Bari was a joy but as we cycled off the boat we were plunged into a fashion parade we had not been prepared for. Everywhere we looked Gucci and Prada trotted past. Even the old folk oozed a boutique style and class; demure old ladies entering their grand apartment blocks in stylish furs with yappy little pooches in handbags. We had slept the night on the floor of a ferry and hadn’t washed for days…but we were given a warm Italian welcome, if only from a safe distance; our aroma naturale causing diamante clad shihtzu to warn their owners with a yelp and a grimace of utter distaste. Luckily for us the style in Italy is paired with simplicity; eating was to be joyous with simple foods cooked to perfection and fantastic coffee on every street.
After a night in Bari, located on the heel of Italy, we headed inland towards Naples on the opposite coast. To get there we would have to pass through the rural south and the hilltop towns of the Basilicata region. We found the small country roads pleasant riding, lorries laden with the olive harvest and room in the groves for cheeky campers. We were drawn to the small town culture where evenings saw families out on the streets, walking and talking, children selecting from an enticing selection of rich gelato while the adults sip espressos and laugh over warming aperitivo. On the romantically lit cobbled streets of Canosa de Puglia, a little lost in the dark, we were met with much interest. We made friends with Luigi who walked us in the right direction. A professional fisherman he gave us a lucky fishing weight for our first born to put on his or her rod. It was very touching, although a lucky float may have been a lighter gift to cycle home!
It wasn’t long before we were climbing and winding through the small communities up in the hills. While in most parts of the world we have found the majority of people living in the valleys, this region is different with houses packed tightly together at the top of steep hills. This had historically offered protection from enemy raids and mosquitoes in the swampier valleys. Today they offer wonderful vistas and are protection from cyclists who have to be very keen to try and get up to them. In our case, it was my poor route planning. Still every cloud has a silver lining.
Spotting a nice piece of grass next to this little church we asked Andreas who lived next door if we could camp there. He had no hesitation in letting us camp and filled up our water bottles but Granny would have none of it. We couldn’t camp out in the cold, she mimed, so Andreas gave us the keys to the old primary school building in the village. It was fun to be back in the classroom albeit in an empty one in a village that we can’t find on the map.
What do you carry on that bike?
Half the time we couldn’t tell you all the things that lurk in the bottom of our panniers. However, camping in the classroom gave me the chance to at least set out all of our camp kitchen. Well… we certainly don’t go hungry or thirsty and it is probably unfair to blame Luigi’s fishing weight when we struggle up the hills!
The last push to Naples
We had about a week to get to Naples to meet our friends, James and Becky. It turned out a bit harder than we thought with all the ups and downs. It also got pretty cold. One morning on a long descent we were engulfed in a thick and freezing mist. Concerned that cars behind may not see us we decided to outrun the cars at breakneck speed to avoid being tail-ended. It was like a terrifying roller-coaster in a cloud.
When the sun came out however, we were able to enjoy the rustic charm of the south.
We had heard a few warnings about Napoli – the crime, the Mafia – but for us we found no hostility only more hospitality. Mind you when the only thing you have to extort is a ragged beard, perhaps this gives you some immunity.
A cycling holiday
So began a fantastic week cycling around Naples and Pompeii with our mates. It was a lovely change to have the company of friends for a week. You can read about this fun-fest in Becky’s Guest Blog. Thank you both so much – a week was too short but it gave a boost to push on home through Europe and its challenging winter. x
After saying our goodbyes to our fond friends as they headed to the airport, we got utterly lost in the steep back streets of the city centre. We discovered some lovely old buildings and atmospheric alleys but it was time to start cranking out the kilometres and press up the coast. Next city – Rome.
All roads lead to Rome
It was exciting to be on the road to Rome, another big landmark. Tree-lined avenues, flat and straight, guided us in the right direction. The fertile and long-established fields, groves and gardens, were charming and we couldn’t help but wonder about all the care and toil that must have been invested in this land over the millennia.
Arriving in Rome, the skies opened and we ended up in the outskirts of the city eating cheap pizza and trying to warm up. We were excited because we had the prospect of some comfort and hospitality from Anna, a friend I had made during my teacher training. We were apprehensive though; her lifestyle of teaching, living and partying in the centre of such a trendy city sounded very glamorous. Dripping puddles into our plastic chairs and Kat pulling rogue strings of mozzarella out of my beard, we felt less than glamorous.
It was a strange moment when we met. Anna was just strolling down the road after popping into a supermarket on her way home like it was just everyday life (it was). Us, on a heavily-loaded tandem taking on the Roman traffic and snaking effortlessly around potholes and ringing our bell at passers-by like it was just everyday life (it was). Crossing paths on a zebra crossing, I think we all had a double take. Once we managed to get the tandem and all the bags up into Anna’s flat a glass of wine was well received. Of course it was just like old times and to our relief we were able to hold our own in Rome.
It was fun to go out for drinks, meet interesting people and be a tourist for a few days. Yes, we had missed all this and we were both taken with the Roman lifestyle. If the food, passion and buzz were not enough, history surrounded us and the echos of the past still reverberated in even the smallest corner of the city. Rome was a great city just to walk.
Crunching the numbers… Tandem Turners do the Vatican, country number 17
On our way out of Rome we made a quick visit to Vatican City. It was a reminder that statistics don’t always mean much. Here we took a few snaps, looked at the Nativity and chatted to a few other visitors. Then cautiously under the watchful eye of the best casino canada police managed about 50 metres of cycling before we crossed the ‘border’ back into Italy. In the space of 20 minutes we had added a country to the list and a flag to our bike.
Numbers and statistics on a cycle trip can reflect a narrative. We will often recognise and recount the events of a day long passed by just looking at a set of GPS data. Kilometres in deserts or climbing uphill or headwinds represent real sweat and tears but numbers are in themselves meaningless. The Vatican = 1 country, Australia = 1 country. 100 kilometres on mountainous dirt roads and 100 kilometres with a tailwind on flat tarmac are different stories and emotions, although the numbers are the same. And perhaps it is with genuine relief that we probably won’t break the World Record for the longest tandem journey because while that number would represent an epic adventure, perhaps our memories of these years would end up being framed by that number and the real meaning of our time together reduced to a numerical distance.
Camping on the road to Naples
Italy was proving to be one of the hardest countries to wild camp in. The well-populated coast and fenced off land was proving a bit of a headache. This was further frustrated by the fact that there were hundreds of campsites lining our route, none of which opened until April. In China underpasses became the fail-safe camping option. In Italy we discovered that the best place to find a place to set up home was by slip-roads and on roundabouts.
We began to plan our camp spots around the spaghetti junctions we could find on the map and this practice saw us camping in some strangely private places, just metres from the thunder of highway traffic.
Cooking lessons from our Italian family
One Sunday morning after an hour’s cycling a car pulled up across the road and the driver waved us down enthusiastically. We struggled to understand what he was trying to say but it soon became apparent that he was inviting us for lunch. While we had barely covered 10 kilometres, we couldn’t resist the offer of Sunday lunch from such an excited man. We were not so sure if the passengers were so keen on the idea.
We arrived at a warm apartment and were quickly welcomed by the family. As we chatted and relaxed in the communal kitchen, my eyes were drawn to the fridge, which groaned with cured meats, cheeses, olives, preserves and alluring smells. Anna Lisa was keen to cook us a local dish and we decided we liked the sound of Amatriciana, the most traditional pasta sauce from this region around Rome. While I talked a bit about bikes with Riccardo, Katherine was shown how to dice and fry pig cheek and time the adding of the few simple ingredients that make this centuries old dish. The food was a real treat, but as the case should be, it was the warm company that lingers in our memory from those few happy hours.
Pisa was wet, very wet. While we have learnt to put on a brave face and try to enjoy the sensation of being soaked to the bone, it is easier said than done.
The river Arno that passes though Pisa was threatening to burst its banks and the army was bought in to bolster the banks with sandbags and big metal walls. Luckily, the rain retreated and the river banks survived. We enjoyed our moment as minor celebrities when an English couple staying at the same guesthouse recognised us from an article in Chat magazine. It took some time to realise this as we were slow to admit that we had been in the magazine and they were slow to confess they had read it! It was lovely to chat English though and realise how close we were to home; they had just popped over to Pisa for the weekend!
We enjoyed a day off and then did our duty of holding up the old tower for a few minutes before we left.
Rain, mountains and risking rims
It was not far to France now but Italy had a few little challenges up its sleeve…
First the rains returned with a vengeance, making the roads run with torrents, hiding potholes and stripping Hooch of lubrication. The upside was that children’s playgrounds became viable for camping – no kids, climbing frames to hang our soggy socks and a squashy rubber floor away from the mud…
Then the mountains came and while burning off the extra pizza calories, we discovered our rear rim was splitting yet again. Hurtling down the coastal descents became seat-of-the-pants affairs. On massive downhills in Uzbekistan we had learnt to launch ourselves up emergency runaway sidings and sandpits to prevent over heating the brakes. In Italy we careered off the main road, up small private driveways and doused the rims with what we had available on the bike – cheap red wine. This rather decadent technique causing claret steam to pleasantly choke our breath away. Lidls wine pricing, we salute you!
A new rim ordered, we were back on the road. We took a risk and arranged for it to arrive in Nice, a few hundred kilometres away in France. Hooch would just have to hang on a few more days. Come on Hooch!