17 Oct 6: A cycling renaissance (Italy)
Geneva to Trieste (Aug 15 – Sep 1) Total miles cycled: 600 Thigh status: ominous
For those who have seen the film Melancholia, you’ll recall the scenes depicting a giant planet looming menacingly on the horizon, growing ever-larger – before (spoiler alert!) it ploughs point blank into Earth and smashes Kirsten Dunst and a few billion less important members of the human race to smithereens.
Now, if you replace the planet with the Alps and me with Kirsten (plus the rest of the human race), you’ll get a good idea of how I feel leaving Geneva for Chamonix. For several days, I’ve viewed the silvery peaks from afar, my trepidation soothed by the comforting salve of distance. But now I’m aiming right at them, watching their soft shading morph from white/grey to grey/blue to blue/green as I’m slowly digested into their giant mountainous bowels.
The only difference, in my case, is that the impact never really comes. For the best part of 45 miles the road slopes only gently uphill, wending its way through the valley. And for the first time, I’m feeling strong. After a two-day break filled with good food, deep sleep and a newly configured bike that shifts my weight from hands to arse – courtesy of the lovely Clement from Geneva’s ‘Bike Passion‘ shop – I have the sensation of a corner being turned. I am no longer a complete bike touring amateur, I think exultantly. I’m no longer a Ramsbottom United or Ossett Albion. I’m a Bromley or Kidderminster Harriers – at least. Maybe even a Grimsby Town.
It’s an uplifting thought. But I’m still not quite big league enough yet to make it all the way to Chamonix with my chunky 100lb load. This would entail an additional 13-mile slog, the first third of which comprises a daunting 800m, 11% climb (to give an idea what this means, the gradient of the average Tour de France climb is around 6-9%). Instead, I stop in St Gervais les Bains and catch a train. The ride is steep and stunning, and I hang my head out the window like a dog, cleansing my cobwebs with deep gulps of crisp Alpine air.
At the top, I’m disappointed to discover a throbbing Disneyland of designer tourists and overpriced tat, so I swiftly escape to a nearby campsite with a clear view of Mont Blanc. Here, I spend a soggy, semi-sloshed night under canvas, cowering from the elements. It’s my final night in France, and it’s with no small relief that I’m forced to jump on a train to Milan the next morning: my only escape route to Italy, as the Mont Blanc tunnel is closed to cyclists.
I don’t stay in Milan for long, however. I find I am developing an aversion to crowds, which now ooze and blister about me with cloying regularity. So instead I journey east, through Vaprio D’Adda, Lake Iseo and Desenzano del Garda. The Italian countryside is not as pretty or relentless as France, but the roads are (mainly) fast and flat, and laden with friendly cyclists. Particularly prevalent are swarms of spandex-clad old goats, their nuts and buns hoisted with wishful elasticity. When does that moment come, I wonder, when such attire seems appropriate? Is it a gradual constriction over time or do these men wake up on their 70th birthdays and find their pants suddenly shrunken to half their former size? I’m genuinely interested to know.
Accompanying me are all the ingredients of a glutton’s paradise: Prosecco, pizza and pasta, plus a dangerous array of excellent cheap local wine. Lugana, made from the Turbiana grape, is ever-suppable, while the Soave Classico Superiore is pure silk. Such ‘superior’ wines, I am told, have to pass a multitude of stringent tests, covering grape ripeness, barrel maturation and production standards, so the moniker is hard-earned.
Understanding how much Prosecco and pizza I can consume while still remaining upright in the saddle is an important lesson I learn early on. In fact, every day is a learning curve. I have learnt, for example, never to put loose cartons of soya milk in my panniers. Or loose bananas in my bar bag. Or wear my clip-on security alarm to the loo, where it is at risk of falling into the toilet and going off for ten minutes, attracting the frenzied attentions of half a dozen restaurant staff and an off-duty policemen.
Most importantly, I have learnt that you can never have too many wet-wipes. And if I don’t take anything else away from this trip, that alone will be enough.
After two days on the road, I arrive at the vast, serene cobalt pool that is Lake Garda, and I’m delighted to find a camping spot right on the water’s edge. Here, I fully intend to schmooze with the locals, but instead find myself wined and dined by a couple of bolshy Lancastrians who motorcycled here from Blackpool to celebrate their 50th birthdays. I bond with them over my Boltonian roots, and they shower me and most fellow females in the vicinity with roses, while talking animatedly about the forthcoming Lancastrian Tractor Pull.
At Lake Garda, I also meet my first solo female cyclist: a charming 50-something Belgian who is on her way to Rome. Like the Blackpudlians, she is a keen motorcyclist, riding a Honda Transalp XL700V at home, but downgrading to an electric bicycle for this trip. The hardest part was telling her mother, she says, who begged her not to go and forced her to write a blog. It all sounds oddly familiar! If anything is universal in this world, maternal angst is surely it.
Having met no lone women bummlers until now, two then come along at once. I meet the second en route to Verona: a pretty, 20-something cardiovascular surgeon from Munich, who has spent the past week biking in the Alps. ‘It can be tough,’ she says. ‘There’s not a lot of women doing this kind of thing.’ No, I say – though I happen to have just met two of them. Perhaps there are more lurking in the shadows, waiting to be smoked into the open?
Women may be few and far between, but tour cyclists now appear in droves. I have mixed feelings when I see one. I feel an instinctive kinship, but also a slight affront. You’re nothing special, they seem to say; you’re on a well-trodden path. And cyclists can be an odd bunch. They love cycling for a start – a perverse, solitary pursuit requiring little skill other than steel will and steelier buttocks – and seem often a kind of sociable loner, combining a blinkered single-mindedness with a penchant for bonding with strangers. One man with a pair of truly enormous panniers (not a euphemism) tells me he has cycled 1,000km across Italy despite having a wife and baby daughter at home. Did they mind him leaving them behind, I ask? ‘È complicato!’ he exclaims, throwing up his hands. ‘My wife – she, how you say, molto difficile!’
My next stop is Verona, where I stay in a campsite high on a hill. It’s clearly a beautiful city, but in August it’s not at its best, its charms choked at source by crowds of selfie-snapping feeders. Many are British, and reflected in them I see myself, swarming and pestilent, like some kind of grotesque fairground hall of mirrors. So I stay only one night before moving on, bypassing Padua for the countryside. Following a little stream, I cycle until the buildings fall away and sun starts to set, and settle in the centre of a soft, spongy wheat field. It turns out to be the best night’s sleep I’ve had – as well as one of the loveliest mornings, as I awake to a glistening meadow of sunkissed dew.
The road to Venice is perfectly flat and punctuated by a series of featureless villages. There seem to be a lot of them about in Italy, as if they’ve poured all their beauty into their chief attractions, with none left over for the parts inbetween. The entrance to the city is particularly gruesome. A huge, convoluted intersection leads onto a vast 2.5-mile bridge, where the walkway ends suddenly at a gnarly knot of roadworks, spitting you into the path of speeding cars.
The worst thing about this experience was that it turns out to have been completely unnecessary. Unable to lift my bike without assistance, I am as useless as a Dalek when it comes to staircases — and when I arrive, staircases surround me on all sides. I am stuck fast. Am I destined to end up rotting here forever like that randy, choleric old pederast from Death in Venice, I wonder (this being my only cultural reference point for the city, other than Don’t Look Now, the 1970s Gothic horror with graphic sex and a psychopathic dwarf — both of which would considerably liven up my trip).
But I’m not, as it turns out. With alluring youths few and far between, I instead I return to the mainland and check into a campsite, returning an hour later by bus to explore. I am excited to be in one of the world’s most beautiful cities – but, like Verona, the crowds prove oppressive. And I am not the only one to think so. ‘Everything is tourist, tourist, tourist,’ a cafe owner tells me. ‘There’s nothing for locals anymore. And prices are crazy. My brother earns more than €100,000 as a gondolier, but even he can’t afford it. The soul of Venice is dying.’
Much like the cholera-ridden water of Death in Venice (to labour a theme), tourists are clearly both the lifeblood and death knell of the city. They provide the income, but also suffocate local industry and inflate prices. Even vaporettos, one of the city’s great historic symbols, are now reportedly being imported from Greece. As a conseqence, the place is emptying fast, its permanent population dipping below 60,000 in 2009. To mark the occasion, a coffin was borne down the Grand Canal, symbolising the death of the great Venetian republic.
Without serious intervention, this former great trading hub is at risk of becoming a faded fresco; a lifeless parody of commoditised beauty and romance plucked from the shelf. It’s a deeply sad state of affairs, and I console myself with a delicious pizza and glass of Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore – the finest of the sparkling wines, made exclusively in the Treviso province of Veneto.
Back at the campsite, I meet a couple of cyclists from Germany who cycled from Fuessen via the famous Via Claudia Augusta: a Roman road through the Alps dating from 15BC. Apparently they met a couple en route who told them about a woman cycling around the world from Canada, and they thought I might be her. So there’s another one, I think! How many more hiding in the woodwork?
My final stop in Italy is Trieste. It’s a fairly easy cycle, and when I’m three miles away I text my hosts to say I’ll be on time. And I would have been – had it not been for the small matter of the Scala Santa.
The Scala Santa, in a nutshell, is 1.5 miles of hell. This is not an opinion, it is fact. Its average gradient is 16%, but frequently surpasses 20%. Small cars avoid it. Motorcyclists think twice. Rock climbers perish. Unfortunately, at the start I know none of this, and start up it with mindless, naive optimism. This lasts about four minutes – perhaps a little less — before descending into deep, unremitting despair. And then I start pushing. And pushing. And pushing. And sweating. And swearing. And despairing.
Every ten steps I stop, gasping for breath, arms and legs screaming, my full weight needed to keep the bike at a standstill. At times, I feel amazed I remain attached to the slope, rather than tumbling to the bottom by sheer force of gravity. At one such moment, I meet a wiry old walnut of a man zipping down on his bike and we stop for a chat. ‘Yes, it’s very hard,’ he says helpfully. ‘It’s probably not the best way to come on a bike.’
An hour later, nearing death, I finally heave my clammy carcass to the top – and run straight into N-, my host, who has come on his motorbike to find me. ‘I’m so sorry!’ he says, genuinely distraught. ‘I’ve been meaning to tell people about that hill.’
Despite such an inauspicious start, Trieste turns out to be lovely. It is also interesting geopolitically. Bordered tightly by Slovenia, it has been influenced throughout history by its location at the crossroads of Latin, Slavic and German cultures. Italy annexed the city after World War I, forcing out several thousand Slovenes, and it was returned to the country in 1954 following seven years of independent rule.
N- has an American wife and two daughters, and they are the perfect hosts. I learn about the wild boar, plentiful and aggressive, and Aperol Spritz, the go-to Italian cocktail made from oranges, rhubarb, gentian root and fizz. I learn about the local Osmizza, when people sell their own food and drink tax free for eight days of the year, and the local dialect, Triestine, which is markedly different from Italian and apparently often spoken to non-Triestines to emphasise their outsider status.
I also learn the expat view of Italians. They are style-obsessed, I am told, and highly conformist. Wardrobes completely transform between summer and winter, and few deviate from the code: light shoes in summer, dark in winter; a thin piumino in summer, a thick one in summer. Summer ends on September 15th, no matter what. And draughts are to be avoided, for health reasons.
I could stay in Trieste much longer, but know I must push on. So as August draws to a close, I head off towards Slovenia: my first stop in what transpires to be a fascinating two-month tour of the Balkans.
To be continued…