ITALY, 23rd April – 4th May 2017
The alarm woke me at three thirty in the morning. I must tell you, I really wasn’t that much into being woken at three thirty in the morning. But Dea had an early flight to catch and, being the gentleman that I am, I’d offered to walk her to the bus station. I’d made the offer the previous evening of course, when it was much easier to be chivalrous. Now I slightly regretted trying to be such a good boyfriend, but it was too late to reverse my decision. I dragged myself out of bed and pulled on some clothes, and Dea and I wandered out to the quiet streets of a sleepy Bologna.
“Would you like me to carry your bag?” I asked.
“Yes, thank you.”
I slung Dea’s orange pannier over my shoulder. It was heavy. Really heavy. ‘When will I ever learn?’ I thought to myself.
We walked for twenty minutes beneath Bologna’s covered walkways, where a few homeless people lay twitching beneath blankets. To our surprise one old woman sat up, rubbed the sleep from her eyes and asked us the time. I held up four fingers and said “Quatro,” which may or may not be the Italian word for four. When I returned back past the same spot half an hour later she had moved on.
Dea and I made it to the bus station just in time, where our goodbye was intruded upon by a faulty ticket scanner and a bus driver who eventually just threw his hands in the air as if to say “Fuck the ticket scanner, just get on the damn bus.”
Dea waved to me from the window as her transport to the airport pulled away. She was off on a sort of reverse-vacation, home to Denmark to see her friends and family, and to meet her new nephew for the first time. It would be seventeen days before we would be reunited at this same location to continue our trip. Seventeen days that I had all to myself. Seventeen days where I had to find something to keep myself busy. What was I going to do? I started, of course, by going back to bed.
I needed a little more time to figure out what I was going to do with myself for seventeen days, so I spent the entire first one hanging out in Bologna with Nicolo and Suzy. We cycled together to what had been described to me as a ‘soup festival’. This certainly sounded like something worth investing my time in, especially as Nicolo told me there would be free soup. Lo and behold, he was right – there was a lot of free soup at the soup festival. It was a really interesting and fun social event, with hundreds of people, each grasping their own bowl and spoon, wandering amongst a few dozen stalls offering small samples of free soup. As well as the soup there were bands playing live music and people walking about on stilts. There was a really nice atmosphere, it was a great event, and nobody, least of all me, could complain about free soup.
Nicolo and Suzy also showed me around Bologna’s historic old town and we sat and ate piadina, a classic Italian warm wrap thing, at a quaint little restaurant.
“How would you describe piadina? To someone who never tried it?” Nicolo asked.
“Erm, I’d probably say it was a classic Italian wrap thing.”
There was a slight pause.
“I’m not that much into food really,” I added. “I mostly just eat peanut butter and jam sandwiches. But I think this is really good.”
Nicolo was a nice guy. A teacher, he was busy planning his own trip for the summer holidays, a tour of European cities. His plan? To travel by bus/train/plane between cities, then take out his folding bike to cycle around them. “I just got my folding bike recently, and I love it!” he told us, with real joy in his eyes. “Really. It changed my life!”
Once done eating we moved on to a bar to meet with some more friends of Nicolo and Suzy. One of them, whose name has escaped me, was particularly taken by my cycling and was very interested. Noticing my shoes, his enthusiasm for my project even went so far as to offer me a replacement pair. This was probably because he had noticed that the only thing preventing my shoes from completing their evolution into open-toed sandals was a couple of carefully placed cable ties. In my defence, I had been on the lookout for a new pair of shoes for a while, but somehow the collective charity stores and second hand shops of Edinburgh, North Shields, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Liechtenstein hadn’t turned up anything in the right size. This was a problem, because if there is one thing I refuse to do in my life it is to buy new shoes new. Either you buy a cheap pair and they fall apart in a week, or you buy an expensive pair and you’ve got no money left for peanut butter. Much better to get a good pair with plenty of life in them cheaply second hand. So I was disappointed to hear from Nicolo that Italy didn’t really have charity shops, and even more disappointed when he revealed to everyone that I was soon leaving town, and the idea of his kind shoe donation was soon dropped as the conversation moved on.
So it was with my old shoes still clinging on the best they could that I made my way out of Bologna. It took me most of the day to get out of the city; not because it was a particularly big city, but because I was being spectacularly lazy. I’d by now made my plan for the following sixteen days, you see, which I shall take the time to explain to you now. I’d first looked into the possibility of making a tour down to Rome and back. Never having been to Rome, I thought it a place I really should visit, especially as it’s got its own country in the middle of it. But after I put the idea to Google maps I was told I’d need to average around 100 kilometres per day to make it down as far as Rome, and I didn’t really feel like cycling that much. Then I confirmed that the Vatican City, though considered by some criteria to be a country, is NOT actually one of the 193 full members of the United Nations and therefore could not be counted towards my attempt to visit 100 of them, and I lost all interest in the idea. Instead I thought a tour of Tuscany at a relatively sedentary fifty-kilometres-per-day pace, taking in Florence, Pisa and Siena would be enough for me, when combined with a side-trip eastwards to visit that fine little republic, San Marino. Yes, yes, the Vatican could keep the Sistene Chapel and the Pope and all that. San Marino was what I wanted to see, with its beautiful, beautiful full United Nations membership.
But, as I said, getting out of Bologna was a bit of an adventure in itself. I wanted to leave to the south, but the nearest Lidl was to the north of town, so in the name of cheap groceries I had to make a bit of a detour. Luckily there was a bike path all of the way, although it was on the footpath beside a busy main road. As I was waiting for some lights to change I was approached by a man who had been sitting on the grass at the roadside with a girl. The man was wearing three-quarter length khaki trousers and a waistcoat, and he had dread-locked hair tied beneath a brown hat and a goatee beard that was somehow both tidy and scruffy at the same time. He introduced himself with a big smile that seemed never to leave his face. He was Milan, his girlfriend was Margo, and together they were travelling in Europe, along with six friends who were riding on bikes. Though Milan and Margo were going by train and other transport, they met up with the cyclists in different places, and they were waiting for them here.
“But why are you waiting here?” I asked, looking around at the nondescript road junction.
“Watch! I show you!” Milan said, grabbing something from his bag and then leaping into the road. The lights had just changed to red and Milan positioned himself in front of the waiting traffic. He had two sticks in his hands and a third that he tossed between them. He juggled it, he flicked it, he dropped it on the floor at one point, he picked it up again, he bounced it on his head, he tossed it, he flicked it some more. Then he did a big “ta-da!” and took a bow, before removing his hat and striding between the row of waiting cars. One driver wound down their window and dropped something in Milan’s hat and as the lights turned green he ran back over to me brandishing his takings.
“How much did you get?” I asked.
“Twenty cents!” he said, his smile as big as ever.
The hills started immediately to the south of Bologna. Given my relaxed schedule I’d decided I would use the smallest roads possible in order to distance myself from the ‘everyone thinks they’re a racing driver’ Italian traffic, but these were incredibly steep. I found them terribly hard work and I even began to wonder what the point was in doing this. I felt lonely with Dea suddenly no longer at my side (or, more accurately, ahead of me) and I wondered how it was I had managed to live this lifestyle for so many years as a solo cyclist. But my spirits were lifted by the views as I got higher into the hills and I found a sense of satisfaction in conquering these insanely steep climbs. Just to prove that I’m not exaggerating the severity of these hills, on one steep section a couple cycling on road bikes found the going was just too much, and got off to push.
In researching my trip I’d read of many people cycling from Bologna to Florence in a single day. It took me four. This was partly because I took the small roads with the steep climbs, partly because I’m lazy, and partly because when I came out of the hills I got so excited by the sight of a library with good wifi that I spent a day and half in it. But I did eventually reach Florence, cycling into it along the banks of the Arno river. This route took me through a large park beside the river which was destined to be my best memory of Florence. The thing about Florence is that it must be so very great if you appreciate art and culture and things like that. I’m just not that kind of person. I’m more into nature – mountains, rivers, forests, butterflies making love, that kind of thing. So I don’t know why I went to Florence really, and I didn’t stay very long. I pushed my bike around among the crowds of tourists outside the Duomo, the big cathedral, which, to be fair, did take my breath away when I first saw it. Then I went and saw Michaelangelo’s David in some plaza. It was a statue of some big naked dude. I know Michaelangelo’s David is the most famous sculpture in the world, but I wasn’t overly impressed. The thing is, it was outside a doorway and there was another sculpture just next to it, and this other sculpture had TWO naked dudes on it. So in my opinion Michaelangelo’s David wasn’t even the best sculpture in the doorway, never mind in the world. But my opinion doesn’t count for much, as, and I think you may have gathered this by now, I don’t really know what I’m talking about. And before you all start writing in, I know what I was looking at was only a replica of Michaelangelo’s David. The real one, I know, is in a museum that you have to pay to see, and queue for half the day to get to, and then probably get forced to shuffle past very quickly. I did that with the Mona Lisa once, I wasn’t going to make that mistake again. And while I was doing my research online about Florence I read many people writing that you have to see the real one to really appreciate Michaelangelo’s David. They said seeing a replica just wasn’t the same. I can only assume that these people don’t understand the word replica. Means the same, doesn’t it?
While my uncultured mind couldn’t really appreciate Florence I was still glad that I went. I knew enough to understand that the Renaissance was kind of a big deal, and to stand in the same plaza as Leonardo Da Vinci once stood, to walk the same streets as Michaelangelo and Donatello, it was special for me. As a child I was a big, big fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and it was a real honour to see where it all began.
From Florence I headed west towards Pisa and I was quite taken by the beauty of the Tuscan hills. Olive groves and vineyards and lines of poplar trees covered these hills, which were dotted with the orange tiled roofs of farmhouses. In villages old folk shuffled along and freshly laundered clothes flapped from every balcony. It was a fine part of the world for a bike ride and I was back into my stride and enjoying my little solo tour. Along the way I bumped into a little town called Vinci, famous for an association with Leonardo that I couldn’t quite work out because nobody could speak English. There was a museum but it cost money and the tourist information office either did not exist or was a gift shop, I wasn’t sure. Presumably this was the town that Leonardo Da Vinci came from, but whether he was named after the town, or the town named after him, I could not tell you. I could look it up online now, of course, but I can’t be bothered, and if you really care I assume you’ll do it yourself.
I eventually found myself in Pisa. There are no prizes for guessing what I was in Pisa to look at. That’s right, crowds of people standing next to each other all posing for photos with their hands in the air turned sideways so that they might come out looking vaguely like they are holding up a big tower. Except, of course, that if the illusion is effectively created the big tower won’t look that big, it’ll just look the same size as the person holding it up. Anyway, due to the fact that every single photo of it I’d ever seen before had someone holding it up, I was quite surprised when I got to the Leaning Tower of Pisa to see that it could actually stand up quite well on its own. I was also quite surprised to see that the tower was not a solo building, but stood next to a large and grandiose cathedral, which everyone ignores and leaves out of their photos, presumably because it just looks so straight and boring. Now I’m not religious, but if I were, I’d say this probably pisses God off a bit.
I was glad I went and saw the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It’s such an iconic landmark, that just to see it right there in front of me being all leany kind of gave me goosebumps. I wasn’t silly enough to pose for a photo pretending to hold it up though.
From Pisa I headed southeast through some more very pleasant Tuscan hills to Siena and began having some nice encounters with people. Not Italian people, however, who mostly kept to themselves and didn’t seem that interested in me, but American people, if you can believe that. First I met a man on holiday from Las Vegas in a Lidl car park, who spotted my bike and wanted to know what I was up to. (And I should just clarify that he was not on holiday in a Lidl car park, but that he was on holiday in Italy, and we just happened to meet in a Lidl car park.) And he was a very nice man named Bill, and he thought it terrific what I was doing, even if he did look a bit sceptical when I told him I usually had a girlfriend. We chatted for a while, then I think he must have noticed my shoes, because before leaving he gave me twenty euros. I really don’t like taking money for nothing, so I gave him a copy of my book in exchange, which was a bit silly because it was the last copy I had of my book, and I was supposed to be reading through it looking for errors.
Then after Siena (another old town, kind of interesting, kind of touristy, I bought some underwear in a market) I met a really nice older man called Crispin up in the hills. He was leaning on a wall looking all friendly, so I said hello and we had a jolly chat about life and things. He told me he came on holiday every year with his family to this little village in Tuscany, and it was really a nice village, and really a nice chat. It was good to talk with someone in English and it put me in a good mood, so later in the day when I reached a town called San Giovanni Valdona I arrived in a Lidl car park (you’ll notice a theme developing here) in the mood for making friends. Now more or less every Lidl car park in Italy (and I had some experience of them by now) had an African man in it and this one was no exception. The man was leaning on the store window watching me as I pulled up on my bike and he had a friendly face, so I asked him if he spoke English and before I knew it I was making friends in a Lidl car park all over again.
The man was called Andrew and came from Nigeria, so he spoke perfect English. I could tell he was a nice guy and I listened sadly to his story. He used to have a good business importing car parts to Nigeria from Europe, but the exchange rate had plummeted and there was no money in it any more. Now he was reduced to hustling in a Lidl car park for money, helping people with their shopping, taking trolleys back for the fifty cents they would release. With this he was getting by trying to support a family with two kids. He was clearly an intelligent man, and when he spoke of the problems with his country, the corruption and the lack of opportunities back in Nigeria, I felt sadness and anger at the injustices in the world. But I was also cheered to see the way many of the regular customers interacted with him, and in the way he was still smiling.
And this is where this long blog post finally stumbles upon its happy ending. For also in this Lidl car park there was another man named Aji, which is a name I have almost certainly misspelt. Aji could not speak English, but Andrew told him about my trip, and Aji looked impressed. Then he looked at my shoes. He said something to Andrew, who translated.
“He says that he wants to give you some new shoes. Good ones. But you must agree to throw those ones away.”
“Really? That sounds like a very fair deal to me!”
Aji disappeared off on his bicycle, returning a few minutes later with a pair of blue trainers. He placed them down at my feet, then indicated, with a fierce emotion that I think might have been bordering on anger, that I should take off my old ones and put them in the bin. I removed the old shoes and slipped on the blue ones. They each had a small hole in the toe, but they fitted quite well, and they had an Adidas logo on the side that made me think they might last for a while. I looked up, ready to thank Aji for his kindness, but he was already several metres away, throwing my old shoes in the bin.
Bologna – Florence – Pisa – Siena
478 kilometres cycled
The Flickr album for this blogpost is coming soon!