ITALY, 9th – 17th May 2017
“Do you speak English?”
I sat outside the central train station in Bologna waiting for Chris. The same morning I had woken up in Copenhagen and now I was suddenly back in the world where I spoke English rather than Danish. It was a rhetorical question the young man next to me had asked, as he had seen I was reading a book in English. Obviously he just wanted to talk with me. He spoke many languages himself and his granddad had told him that you are as many men as the languages you speak. He had dark hair and eyes and he seemed calm and cheerful so I engaged in the conversation. He was from Afghanistan, had been in the army, but had fled to Europe. He told me how scared he was arriving the first night in Paris without anything, no money, no phone, no belongings, only the clothes he was wearing.Fortunately he had relatives in Paris, a stranger had let him use his phone to call them, and that was all he had needed, people he knew that would help him. Now he seemed happy living in France and in Bologna on a trip with his friends. I mentioned what I was doing in Bologna, he didn’t pay it much attention, and I could understand why it didn’t have much relevance to him and his life. He left for his train and I was alone again waiting for Chris to arrive, and when he did it felt like my life came back in its tracks again.
I had spent two weeks in Denmark touring around the country to visit friends and family. Of course it was my sister and little nephew that were the main reason I flew home and it just felt so right to hug my sister and see and hold that little boy. Then I finally understood what had happened. But two weeks was too long to visit just them, and just about enough time to also visit all my other close friends and family. It had been really great and comforting to see them and feel that they were all content. It had been a lot of socializing, a lot of coffee (so much it made me dizzy one day) and a lot of catching up and saying goodbye again. And it had been so different from life on the road, like I was thrown back into my life before I began travelling although I was really not a part of that life any more. Back in Bologna next to Chris I was back in my present life again. All I needed now was my bike!
So we walked to Nicolo’s house and got reunited with him and me with my panniers and my dear, green bike that had been locked up in a dark, dusty basement. It was still in good shape, except from that bent rear wheel that I was going to tackle the next day.
Chris and I dared to make pizza to our Italian host who had never before had sweetcorn on his pizza, but he ate some and said it was nice, and that was very nice of him.
The next day we had to move house, since Nicolo had a friend coming to stay. We said goodbye and wished him a great trip around Europe over the summer on his foldable bike. Then we pushed the bikes through the cool archways in the narrow, one-way streets in the city centre, passed the tower and the central plaza before cycling wobbly to the place of Marco, our second warm shower host in Bologna. He was an energetic, talkative guy who apparently had guests from Warmshowers or Airbnb almost every night. He and the elevator helped us get all our stuff up to the fourth floor and here we were installed in a spacious flat we could have to ourselves, while he went out for the evening. Marco had let us have some bike parts sent to his address so I quickly got into the challenge I had been looking forward to: changing my rim. As when I built the bike I didn’t know how to do it, but I had Chris as my teacher and my own stubborn obsession with doing it all myself and that was enough. Chris showed me how to tie the old rim together with the new and then move one spoke at the time from the one to the other. Once I got it he left me to it for an hour or two, while he provided me with food and drinks. As all the spokes were moved I took the two rims apart and could see my work: I had a wheel with a new, strong rim in my one hand and my old, worn rim with a big crack in it in my other. YAY, that was a great feeling! I tightened all the spokes a bit and then I put the wheel back on the bike and immediately saw, that there were much more work to be done. The wheel wobbled to all sides and up and down when I span it around, so now I had to systematically tighten and loosen spokes to slowly build up a balanced tension all over it, like Chris had explained to me. I got the worst wobbling fixed myself, but there was one part of the wheel I just couldn’t get straightened no matter how much I tightened and loosened. My patience thinned, but Chris stood by with help and support and before we went to bed I had a fairly straight wheel on my bike again with a strong rim that hopefully will get me all the way to China.
Whether Dea’s fairly straight new wheel will get her all the way to China we cannot yet say, but one thing I can tell you is that it got her all the way to Chioggia. That’s the Adriatic port town that was our gateway to Venice, that we reached after a couple of days of cycling across the north Italian plains (a couple of days which could only fairly be described us unremarkable). Chioggia was a delightful little town of colourful buildings and canals that hinted at the Venetian wonders ahead of us. We’d eventually chosen to come this way after a bit of indecision. Our other route choice would have been to head around the Italian mainland and cycle to Venice across the causeway that tethers it to land. I’d already done this once before, back in 2012, and so I knew this wasn’t a particularly pleasant ride. So we’d opted to come to Chioggia and take a series of ferries across a string of islands instead to reach Venice, and it was a decision we would not regret, despite the sixty-six euros (!) it cost for both of us to have two-day passes for all of the Venetian ferries.
The first ferry took us in about twenty minutes to Pellestrina, a long, thin island that (along with Lido) forms a natural barrier between the Adriatic Sea and the Venetian lagoon. Within minutes of arriving on Pellestrina we knew that we had made the right choice. It was simply a wonderful place to ride a bike. We cycled on a series of little paths and streets, to the left of us the Venetian lagoon, to the right rows of brightly coloured old homes, full of character. Fishing boats sat in the water, while old women sat on the promenade and gossiped, like women have no doubt done here for centuries. There were lots of people sitting, or casually wandering about, or leaning out of windows and watching. The atmosphere was easy, life here seemed laid back, and in the same mood we turned our pedals slowly and tried to soak it all in.
Further down Pellestrina the houses thinned out and we switched to the Adriatic side to find a beach. It took us a while to find somewhere we could get our bikes past the large concrete flood defence that lines the island, but it was worth it when we did. A private beach and a refreshing swim ensured we would leave Pellestrina with nothing but good memories.
A second ferry took us to Lido, a similarly shaped island. We would explore Lido more the following day, but our immediate priority was to find somewhere to camp. Our research (looking at Google Earth) had told us we would find forest at the south of the island and we were pleased to arrive and see this to be correct. What we weren’t so pleased about were the signs warning us that it was a Military Area. Still, it was only the Italian military, how dangerous could it be? (Had it been the San Marinoian military I might have been worried.) So we pedalled off down a trail into the forest until we arrived at a fence and a gate. With nowhere suitable to pitch the tent we needed to turn back, yet we could not help ourselves but to stop and look at what was behind the gate first, particularly as there was another sign telling us that this was a Military Area. Within the fenced off Military Area, you see, was an extraordinary ensemble of animals. The most extraordinary of these animals were the peacocks. There were three males and about eight or nine females, and the males, it seemed were in the mood for showing off. They were fanning their tail feathers up above them in that impressive courtship display and making advances upon the females. Unfortunately for them, none of the females seemed to be in the mood for anything besides pecking the ground. It was all good fun to watch though, and it got even more interesting when a family of goats arrived and started mingling with the peacocks (and the geese, who were also there, by the way). The goats were cute and seemed to annoy the male peacocks who were, of course, getting a bit sexually frustrated. Then suddenly a cat ran in from somewhere, and all hell broke loose.
But what all of this has to do with the Italian military, I cannot tell you.
Satisfied that we had nothing to fear from this Military Area, we camped a little further along in the forest and woke the next day excited to get on and see Venice. But first we had to cycle the length of Lido, and it was another nice island, if a bit more developed and lacking the charm of Pellestrina. The best thing about Lido was found at the nice beach where we swam. It wasn’t the soft sand or the clear water we liked most, though, it was the completely free warm shower that stood at the back of the beach. Oh, how we enjoyed that! “This is the best thing about Venice!” I cried out to Dea, as she suggested we move on, and I pressed the button to get just a few more minutes.
Eventually I was torn away from the warm shower and we headed for the island of Venice. Bicycles are not allowed in Venice (and would be impractical anyway with all the stepped bridges) so we locked them up securely on Lido and jumped on a passenger ferry. This took us to San Elena, a leafy park on the east of the island. From there we wandered towards the centre, the unmistakable tower of Piazzo San Marco visible from afar. As we neared it the crowds of tourists grew and we did our best not to be swept away by the Chinese and Indian tour groups as we paused to look at the Bridge of Sighs en route. Still, the crowds were a small price to pay for being in such a wonderful city (no cars, come on, of course I think it’s wonderful!) and reaching Saint Mark’s Square made it all worthwhile. For Dea it was her first time in Venice, and I could see from her face that looking at Saint Mark’s Basilica was a special moment. For me, being back in Venice was also special, for slightly different reasons. When I’d visited in 2012 I’d arrived very early in the morning and Saint Mark’s Square had been almost completely empty. I sat on some steps and looked at it and was unimpressed. I’d been travelling for two years at that point, and I was getting tired of it. I wondered if it was really what I still wanted to be doing. Now here I was, in 2017, back in the same square, somehow still travelling, somehow still loving it. What changed? I don’t know. But I know that morning in Venice in 2012 was an important moment for me. It had somehow helped me find my way. It had led me to all the things I’d done in the last five years, and therefore had led me somehow to Dea, and so to return five years on with her with me was really special.
From Saint Mark’s Square we made our way to the Rialto Bridge. We were amazed by how busy the waterways of Venice were and we wondered what it would be like to see Venice from the water, but we couldn’t afford a gondola. Luckily our two-day travel cards gave us unlimited time on the ferries that plough up and down the Grand Canal, and so we hopped on one to try and get our money’s worth out of our tickets. And it was interesting to see Venice from the canal, except we got on the wrong ferry, as it was the one heading for the train station at rush hour, and we so we got a bit squashed. After escaping to wander on foot through the maze of back streets we tried our luck on a quieter ferry, and this was more enjoyable, especially when it gave us a view of Venice that Dea exactly remembered from a jigsaw puzzle she’d done as a child. It was lovely to see the happiness in her eyes to look at that view and remember, and in a way it felt like this was what travelling was all about. To find those places we dream about as children. To make them real, to bring our imaginations to life.
Yes, it was an incredible and strange moment when I looked at that scenery I had spent hour after hour studying as I made my 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle of Venice so many years ago. When I made jigsaw puzzles I would order all the pieces from their colour tones, so I had different piles for different parts of the picture like the cathedral, the sea, the white building, the boats and so on. Then I would start to build up these parts by studying the single pieces and find those that had similar colour tones or connecting lines and figures. Gradually the little details and connections would grow into a boat, a building, a harbour and eventually the picture in its whole. In that way I had studied this view of Venice very, very thoroughly, and now I recognized every little detail like the stripy pylons, the balconies and façades of the light buildings, decorations of the cathedral, the shape of the gondolas and the shutters at the windows. All these little details that I had used to put together a whole picture. And as we sailed away from Venice racing the big cruise ships that like us went on for their next destination under another beautiful sunset, I thought how our journey was a similar thing. Every day was a little piece connected to the day before and the day after by similar colour tones, shapes of the landscape and feelings of the atmosphere, gradually changing and slowly becoming a more whole picture and a story. Every day I studied a little piece of the world thoroughly like a jigsaw puzzle piece and day by day it changed my imaginations of the world into the real thing. The piece that was Venice had been like a little holiday, we had had ice cream and beach time and hot showers and last but not least the iconic and beautiful Venice.
The next piece would be less peaceful and a little bit dramatic.
I laid awake most of the night feeling very small as mighty roars of thunder rolled over my head and shook the ground. It was a few kilometres away and I was worried it would come any closer. I was worried lightening would strike us. It was unbelievable to me how Chris could sleep so soundly by my side and it was a shame to experience this powerful performance of nature alone (and not to have a hand to squeeze), but I didn’t bear to wake him up. When morning finally came I was very tired and a headache was on its way (I get some mild migraine from time to time). But it was Monday morning and we should continue our ride towards our next destination that was Slovenia. The evening before we had taken another last ferry from Lido to the thin peninsula that connected with the Italian mainland north of the Adriatic Sea. It was getting dark and we had cycled around desperately looking for a place to camp but again there were fences around every square metre of land. In the end we camped on a path on a small dike, only just hidden from the houses nearby. We had maybe lost our sense of directions a little and Chris’s phone that we used for navigation had run out of battery, but we had found a cycle route that we had followed and we relied on it to take us to the town of Jesolo and the mainland. We set out cycling through a great area of wetlands on small roads surrounded by large, low lakes. Dark clouds still were looming over our heads and it wasn’t long before rain began to fall. We followed the bike route for 6-7 kilometres, the road grew smaller and finally the signposts ended and left us at a dead end. There were no more roads, just water and swamps. We cursed the deceiving bike route and said to each other that this would never have happened in Holland and then we turned around. We knew we would have to backtrack all the way back to where we camped and further back, as there were no other roads out there. It rained heavier and it was just one of those moments where things were not going so well, but we took it in our stride and said “There are no wrong turns just different parts of everywhere”.
We passed our camp site and got to a café that was closed, but we stopped there to try and get some wifi so we could check the map on my phone. There was no open wifi, so I packed my phone away again, and while doing so I pushed my little toilet bag hard down into my pannier. In this bag I kept a small, very pointy pair of scissors and because this was one of those moments where things didn’t go so well, I was now pushing my hand hard down into these pointy scissors that came through the toilet bag and right into my palm. It took a second or two before I realised what was happening and when I did I quickly drew my hand back to see blood coming out of the hole the scissors had left in my hand. I let out some kind of “Ouch!” in shock more than because of pain. It was loud enough so that Chris heard it, but for some reason he didn’t think I needed any sympathy. I went over to him, told him what had happened and showed him my bleeding hand and he showed me great concern and took me to sit down in the chairs in front of the café sheltered from the rain. The owner, a middle-aged woman, had now seen us and came out to help. She took me to the sink in the bathroom, gave me some desinfection liquid to pour over the wound and some plasters. She then sat me down on a chair with a glass of water as I was a little dizzy, she gave us the wifi password and let Chris charge his phone. She let us stay in the café as long as we wanted while it was still pouring down outside and she even gave me cup of coffee. Her name was Lucia, like Saint Lucia, and she sure was our angel that broke the chain of misery that otherwise had befallen us that morning.
The wound was not too bad, a little deep, but a small, clear cut at the surface that would heal fine, and we soon cycled on with the skies already looking much brighter and finally going the right way. It was already a much better day. We got to Jesolo where we spent some hours in the library, then we went on to the next coast town where we planned to camp in a small forest we had found on the map. The forest was full of tracks and Chris and I split up to look for a place for the tent. There weren’t any good places as the forest was full of small tracks and there were people around too, two men, one who walked towards me with a cheeky grin on his face and one walking the other way just a few metres away in some tight leggings. I went back to Chris who said: “There are lots of condoms on the ground, I think something… erm… happens in these woods” and I think I had just seen the actors of this something walking away from the scene of action. We quickly left the forest and instead went to the nearby Laguna del Mort.
“How do you feel about sleeping in the Lagoon of Death?” Chris asked me.
“I think it would be the perfect place to end a day like this” I said.
And so we had a beautiful evening in the Lagoon of Death, I played my ukulele and Chris liked it, then we went to sleep peacefully. When we woke up the next morning our mattresses and sleeping bags were mysteriously wet although it had not rained a single drop. We realised they had been soaked by water that had come up through the ground underneath us as the tide rose in the lagoon and I knew it was going to be a luckier day than the day before, as we hadn’t died in the Lagoon of Death.
The next three days we cycled and cycled, zigzagging through the north eastern corner of Italy as we used the network of small country roads to avoid the more direct, but too busy main roads. It was flat, tedious and hot and I was frustrated that it took us so long to cross this less interesting and highly populated area. I was keen on getting to Slovenia and the adventures I expected was waiting for us in the Balkans. Chris seemed to be more frustrated by the hayfever he was suffering from and the high prices of the medicine in the pharmacies that meant he didn’t buy anything to relieve his suffering. Not until his skin began to itch so bad that he jumped right into a water basin in the centre of a small village like a madman. At first this surely gave relief, but at a closer look the water was green of algae and smelly and I don’t know what people in the town thought of us. The madness had to end, and in the next town we found a pharmacy that luckily had some cheaper medicine and he was a happier, but sleepier man.
On our last day in Italy we once again went into a small town to find the library with wifi when a guy with dreadlocks on a bike with panniers and a dog called Gypsy in a basket at the front stopped to talk to us. His name was Diego, he did some cycle touring himself and was also going to the library, so we chatted with him as he led the way there. He had done some trips in southern Europe and was planning a trip at the Croatian islands this summer with his girl and the dog of course. He always brought Gypsy with him, the dog seemed to like to cycle tour too, although it was made to jump off the bike going uphill. He had a big map of Italy, Slovenia and Croatia and he gave us some good advice on our route in Croatia, but he was a bit concerned about the hilly terrain there and our heavy loaded bikes. “600 metres!” he pointed at the map, “1100 hundred metres!”
I was not so concerned, only so keen to get to the hills, the forest, the different part of Europe and an area I had never been to before, so I was happy when we finally reached the first hills and big, wild forest close to the Slovenian border late in the afternoon. It already felt so different from the flat farmland of Italy and I was excited and full of expectations when we went to bed in the tent that night just a few kilometres from our next country, the first of the Balkans, Slovenia.
Bologna – Chioggio – Venice – Jesolo – Latisana
393 kilometres cycled