Alive and Well

November 29, 2016:

We are alive and well! We haven’t been run over by crazy Italian drivers. We haven’t been swallowed up by the recent earthquakes in central Italy. We haven’t gone native. I simply didn’t have the mental energy to write. But now that I’ve rested for a few weeks, I’m finally able to sit at a computer and compose an update.

I’m writing this from Sacramento, California, USA. Yes, we’re home.

In our last update, we were about to become pilgrims on the Via Francigena, primarily so we could stay in cheap pilgrim accommodations and not free camp with the cinghiali (aka wild boars). The Via Francigena is a pilgrim route that stretches from Canterbury, England to the Vatican in Rome, Italy, and continues on to Jerusalem. Our plan was to do a short part of the pilgrimage: Lucca to Rome.

We left Lucca on October 3, 2016. The official pilgrim route took us through some beautiful countryside to many of the most famous hill towns in Tuscany, but to be honest, I was so knackered I rarely had the energy to enjoy their old-world charms. We did eventually make it to Rome, but it was arduous riding. Hills, hills, and more hills. And not American-style hills with well-graded roads that switchback (relatively) gently up a mountainside. Nope! These were STEEP hills, at times on muddy single track. And with 100-pound bikes, it was grueling work.

Eleven days, 642 km (398 miles) and over 11,500 meters (37,730 ft.) of climbing later, we arrived at the Vatican. As proof of our insanity, we received an official “Testimonium” or certificate of pilgrimage. I’ll talk about the pilgrimage more in a future post. Let’s just say that by the time we reached Rome, I was exhausted. Physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Being in perpetual motion was taking its toll. The nomadic life is really tough. Nearly everything is in constant flux and nothing is easy. Even grocery shopping is an ordeal. Every day means finding our way through a different market. Foreign language. Unknown brands. Is that can with the photo of luscious ripe tomatoes on the label actually tomato paste, tomato sauce, pasta sauce, diced tomatoes, whole stewed tomatoes or an unknown foreign tomato concoction? While I speak Italian pretty well, Mark doesn’t. One day he came “home” with buttermilk for our morning coffee. Blech!

At the beginning of the trip, this was a fun part of the adventure. And for Mark, it continued to be. But not me. I was tired of having to work for everything, never being able to take anything for granted. Although we were seasoned cycle travelers by now, I still endured a constant, low-grade hunted feeling. Where will we sleep tonight? Tomorrow night? Is that cloud a sign of imminent rain?

We were still having amazing experiences, don’t get me wrong, but the fatigue was making me numb to them. When we cycled into Rome, I was so tired and homesick for the familiar that if I could have convinced Mark, we’d have pedaled straight to the airport and flown home. By now, I rationalized, we’d cycled more than five months and 5000 kilometers. Totally respectable. No shame at not riding all the way to southern Italy as originally planned.

But, Mark was still thoroughly enjoying himself. We’d set out to ride to Puglia, the “heel” of the boot, and he was determined to finish. He offered to go it alone and I could meet him at the train station in Bari, but that did fill me with shame. I didn’t want to be a quitter. If he could do it, so could I.

Seeing that I wasn’t going to convince Mark to fly home directly from Rome, we took a train across the Apennines to Pescara on the opposite side of the country. We spent a few days with some wonderful Warmshowers hosts there, and then began the final leg of the journey.

The riding was actually fantastic in many ways. We rode Strada Statale 16, aka the Adriatic Coast Highway. The road conditions were the best we’d seen in all of Italy, with beautiful, newly laid asphalt. Drivers were much more respectful. The route was relatively flat, and the coastline was beautiful. But I was so exhausted I could barely enjoy it. See a pattern here? I was burned out and needed a vacation from my vacation.

We made good time down the Adriatic coast, our legs and bodies strong after all the hill climbing we’d done over the previous month. But for me, the riding had become a daily grind.

Mark, though, was still having the time of his life. He wanted to keep going. He kept trying to dangle Greece in front of me, as if that were a carrot and not a stick. “Think about it…we could keep riding and winter in Greece!” he’d gleefully suggest, as if flourishing a lollipop in his hand and offering it to a kid.

Ugh! Talk about hard work! Greeks don’t even use the Latin alphabet. Out of the pan and into the fire. At the beginning of the trip, or even two or three months into it, that might have been an enticing proposition. But not now.

As we continued south, we met more wonderful people, ate more scrumptious Italian food (the food gets better the further south you go), and enjoyed gorgeous, sunny weather most of the time. It was Italy at some of its finest. So I don’t mean to make our last month sound horrible. It wasn’t. But my memories are shrouded under a veil of exhaustion and homesickness.

We finished cycling on Tuesday, October 25, 2016, 5 ½ months after we began. The last day of cycling was one of the best ever. I’m sure the fact that it was our last day on the road, and that I knew I could finally rest my tired bones and mind, improved my disposition. But beyond that, it is epically beautiful countryside. We were riding in the Itria Valley near Alberobello, one of the most iconic towns of Puglia, famous for its conical “hobbit” houses called “trulli.”

The Valle d’Itria, as it’s known in Italian, is in the interior, in southern Puglia. It is a steep climb up to the top of the “valley” from the coast, but totally worth it – even when exhausted! More a plateau of gently rolling hills than a traditional valley, the sunny Valle d’Itria is full of quiet country roads lined with the area’s ubiquitous low white limestone rock walls. Olive groves (some of them ancient) as far as the eye can see, punctuated with trulli. Gorgeous!

We were so enamored with the views that we stopped every few feet to snap photos – a habit we’d fallen out of in the last month or so. We dawdled, drinking in the final views of our epic journey. I felt like a new woman…or at least a new cycle traveler. I savored every minute of the ride. A perfect end to our tour.

At the end of our ride, my odometer read 5259 kilometers (3268 miles). That’s the equivalent of riding across America! Wow! We’d done it! We’d properly cycled in 7 countries (France, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy), with forays into 2 more (Lichtenstein and Austria). We met so many wonderful people, ate so much delicious cuisine, experienced so many different European cultures, saw so many amazing sights, that despite the exhaustion at the end, we had a marvelous time.

We spent a few more weeks in Puglia, resting, visiting with old friends, resting, making return travel plans, resting, eating our fill of Puglia’s exquisite cuisine, resting, and did I mention resting?

At last, we’d found boxes for our bikes, made our travel reservations, and it was time to come home. And at about midnight on Wednesday, November 16, we collapsed into our very own and much-loved bed in Sacramento, California.

Can I just say how much I LOVE my bed??? It was a tad disorienting returning to the US after so many months abroad and on the road, but my bed, my beloved, comfortable, cozy, soft bed was like psychic medicine. I was home! Finally home! I practically giggled each time I lay down. It was a delicious feeling to slide my legs under the covers, knowing that I could stay as long as I wanted. No more feeling hunted. I would return the next night, and the night after that. I have a solid roof, four solid walls, an indoor toilet, a real bed. What riches!

Now, after taking a few weeks to get over the jet lag and to plow through six months of mail and bank statements, I might even get a chance to start sorting our 100 pages of field notes and 4000+ photos! As time permits, I intend to fill in the gaps in the blog. So stay tuned…

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21 thoughts on “Alive and Well”

  1. Glad to hear you’re home safe and sound. Dave Magaw and I have wondered as so much time had passed since your last post. Sounds like an amazing adventure, though quite challenging as well. I very much enjoyed your blogs.

  2. Welcome Home! What an incredible adventure, and you really do have a book here, get it published, or publish it yourself..you are a really fine writer! Hope you and Mark can make it to the December Thyca Support Group meeting on December 12!
    Bill

    1. Thanks Bill! Not sure I’ll ever have the stamina to write a book, though. If I can at least get the blog done, I’ll be really happy! 🙂

  3. Hello Sweethearths. So nice to reed about your trip in Italy and good to hear you both are safe back home. 10 of desember i will stay one week in San Fransisco and i hope we can meet and talk about good old wet and rainy days in Italy. My blogadress for USA is ab-reiseblogg.blogspot.com

    Hugs from Anna the Norwegian.

    1. Thanks Marsha! And yes, we have many more stories to tell, both past and future. I’m sure we’ll be cycle touring again…just maybe not for 6 months at a go! 😉

  4. Congratulations 🎉 on completion of a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. And, yes, there’s nothing better than your own bed with your own sheets and an indoor flush toilet just steps away.

  5. I have loved reading of your adventures and am, also, glad you are home. The adventure sounds amazing, like nothing I could have done. You both are completely my heros.

    1. You could totally do it, Susan! If an inherently lazy homebody like me could do it, darn near anybody could. Just go at your own pace! Whether you are crazy enough to do it…well, that’s another story! 😉

  6. Thanks for reminding those of us who rely on & pay for hotels while traveling that there is another way, a more intimate way to experience other countries & cultures: up close & personal! What you brought to light is valuable in every sense & encouragement to break free from average accomodations & jump into the abyss (once in a while).

    1. Thanks Lita! Camping (either at home or abroad) might not be on everybody’s bucket list, but couchsurfing or using warmshowers (if you’re a cyclist) DEFINITELY should be. Museums and restaurants are an important part of dabbling in other cultures, but there is nothing like breaking bread with somebody in the intimate setting of the kitchen table to truly experience life in another land. And if you aren’t able to travel the world, you can bring the world to you by being a host. I can’t recommend it enough!

  7. Hi Julie & Mark!

    Wow, what an amazing journey you’ve both had! Thanks for sharing with us all the nomadic experiences you endured. That way of life sure isn’t for the faint of heart!

    We were just thinking about you two when your latest post came in our email. So glad you’re back home safe, sound, and enjoying the comforts of home! Rest well and when you’re up for it, let’s meet up soon.

    Take care! Julie & Conrad

  8. Julie, I followed your trip with great interest but not envy. (I am only envious of the southern Italy scenery and great food!) I simply could not commit to such a long, grueling route. You and Mark managed it with determination and a lot of making decisions on the fly, and it is no wonder that wore you out. I hope after enough nights in your bed you can take great satisfaction in the fact you did it, finished it and captured the experience and friendships in notes and photos. What an adventure! Loved reading about it – thank you! Sally

  9. Welcome home, Julie and Mark!
    Cheers to Team Lumaca from beginning to the final finish! A trip of a lifetime. I have truly enjoyed your blog and following the adventures. You will enjoy going over the field notes and recalling the sweet memories of meeting so many amazing people, the beauty of the countries, and the delicious meals you enjoyed. And yes, coming home is also great!

  10. What a lovely summary of your trip’s end! You both are so inspiring! I am really looking forward to seeing some photos and hearing more of your stories along the way. (And Mark, you MUST convince Guilia to do your next trip in Greece! 😉 Bravissimi to both of you!!!

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