Easy Street…Or Not

October 2, 2016:

Ciao from Italy! I know it has been a long time since I updated the blog. We’re still pedaling and every day continues to be a new adventure.

At our last update, we were in Germany, approximately halfway along a bicycle route that follows the Rhine from its mouth at the North Sea in the Netherlands to its headwaters in the Swiss Alps. After my last update, we continued cycling south through Germany, and then Switzerland, with short forays into France, Lichtenstein, and Austria. Along the way, we stayed in campgrounds, and with friends, old and new.

And the sun finally started shining!!! Since mid-August, the sun god Apollo has finally graced us with sunshine and gorgeous weather. We’ve had a few short episodes of rain, but infrequent and usually at night, when we’re cozy in our tent.

The ride up the Rhine was surprisingly level until the last 75 – 100 km. We followed a published route almost all the way up to Oberalppass, where the headwaters of the Rhine are located. Just shy of that pass, we switched routes to a Dutch route that crosses the Alps and ends in Rome. Following the Dutch route, we crossed the Alps at Splugen Pass (aka Passo di Spluga in Italian).

For a number of reasons, we took three days to cross Splugen Pass, including waiting for a replacement part for my bicycle to arrive from the USA. (Between the three and four-month mark, we started suffering a number of gear failures. Not surprising, given the rough roads, the rain, and the hard use we’ve put all our gear through.)

We ground our pedals up one steep, long mountain and crested Splugen Pass on September 13, at an altitude of 2117 m above sea level (6945 feet), and crossed from Switzerland into Italy, whose border runs along the top of the pass. Then coasted we down a terrifyingly fast and furious descent. And that’s it. The Alps: conquered!

“Wow! We crossed the Alps! We are rock stars! We’re on Easy Street now!” we told ourselves, “We’ve just climbed our highest mountain. I speak Italian reasonably well, so I’ll be able to communicate with the locals. The food from here on out will be legendary, and the prices very reasonable. We’ll arrive in the heel of Italy in no time!”

We were so focused on crossing the Alps that we didn’t take in how LONG Italy is. We still had an estimated 1500 – 2000 kilometers or so to go. And somehow, we forgot how mountainous the country is. And then there are the crazy Italian drivers, the bad roads, and the navigational challenges of Italy’s warren of old world alleyways and blind corners.

We are currently in Lucca, near the Tyrrhenian coast on the west side of the country, still several hundred kilometers north of Rome. We crossed the Apennines, and found them to be more challenging than the Alps. And now we’re about to ride through Tuscany to get to Rome.

We got a sneak peek at the Tuscan hills yesterday when a cyclist we met on our ride into Lucca invited us to go with him (in his Jaguar!) to l’Eroica, a non-competitive cycling “race” that takes place in the Chianti region, near Siena. The area is gorgeous, but…eek!…we’re about to undertake our most challenging cycling yet! To calls these “hills” is a bit misleading. They remind me somewhat of the Blue Ridge Mountains: a horizon of hills, one peeking out behind another, seemingly into eternity.

But what has really taken us by surprise here in Italy is the lack of campgrounds. Northern Europeans, despite the awful weather, have a strong culture of camping, and campgrounds can be found all over. Not so in Italy. There are campgrounds along the major lakes and the seaside, but not in the interior of the country. And those few that do exist are closing (or are already closed) for the season.

This has meant that we’ve had to free camp quite a bit since arriving in Italy. Within cycle touring culture, a certain mystique surrounds free camping (aka ‘wild camping’ or ‘stealth camping’). Now that we’ve had some experience with it, I have to say it isn’t always so romantic.

Most cycle tourists who free camp do so on the down low. They find a relatively hidden spot, wait until dusk, and then stealthily set up their tent. I’m too much of a rule follower. I worry that the police will come and roust us out in the middle of the night. Very unlikely in Italy, which has a culture of “rules are meant to be broken.” Still, not my style. Instead, I like to ask for permission. And since I speak Italian, I have no excuse not to. Which always turns into an adventure in and of itself.

A few nights ago, in a tiny village in the Apennines, we got permission to sleep on the lawn next to the local church. Luckily, one of the locals mentioned to me that this is wild boar season and recommended we don’t sleep down by the river (which we had been considering) since the boars are nocturnal and feed at the water’s edge. All night long, the boars’ snorts and roars echoed in the narrow, mountainous valley, like reptilian lions. We’re calling that night “Camp Jurassic Park.” It was scary enough at the church, high up on the hillside. Just imagine if we’d camped down at the river’s edge!

Our Jurassic Park experience has emphasized the “wild” in ‘wild camping,’ so we reconsidered our route options. We can’t come all the way to Tuscany but not ride some of the best (though arguably toughest) riding in the country. On the other hand, we don’t want to brave the local wildlife at the end of long, grueling day of cycling. Not to mention that there are no showers to be had when wild camping.

We have decided to ditch the Dutch guide and become pilgrims instead. We will ride the Via Francigena to Rome, a pilgrim route similar to its more famous cousin, the Camino de Santiago. Pilgrims can stay in special accommodations along the route, mostly convents and monasteries, with pilgrim prices ranging from free to, at most, €25 per person per night.

The hills on this route are more formidable than those on our original Dutch route, so we spent quite some time weighing the pros and cons: hills vs. wild boars. The hills win. For me, it’s even more about the shower than the Jurassic Park soundtrack. There is nothing worse than cycling long and hard all day, only to crawl into the tent sweaty and stinky…and repeating it again the next day.

I may question my logic once we start climbing those formidable hills tomorrow, but I think I’ll be able to manage the extra ascents knowing we have a clean bed inside four solid walls, and a hot shower awaiting us.

We picked up an official Pilgrim’s Passport in Lucca (and received our first stamp!). We expect to take 10 – 14 days to get to Rome, including a visit with Italian-American friends at their second home in Montefiascone, a hilltop town directly on our route.

After we finish the pilgrim route, we’re not quite sure how we’ll proceed beyond Rome. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. In the meantime, we’re looking forward to being official Pilgrims along the Via Francigena.

The adventure continues!

Note:  Some people have been asking us for a mileage update.  As of today, my odometer reads 4360 km (2709 miles).


21 thoughts on “Easy Street…Or Not”

  1. Great job and update Julie and Mark. Wondering if you will run into some Sacramento Wheelmen & Bikehikers who are on their Italy tour. I believe they are near Amalie coast but could be wrong. What a memorable journey you are on. Enjoy the rest of your travels.

    Ruth Wells

    1. The Amalfi coast is epic! I’m sure they will have an amazing trip. It would be fun to run into our Sacramento paesani but it is unlikely since we’re hoping to ride the opposite coast after we finish being pilgrims. We’ll keep an eye out, though, just in case!

    1. Darn! I’m sorry I lost track of time and we didn’t have an opportunity to meet up. I hope you thoroughly enjoyed Tuscany!

  2. Congratulations on such an accomplishment! And for sharing all the experience so we can live vicariously.
    Dave and I are currently in Avignon enjoying the culture, history and food of France. The “mistral” is quite strong here today so I am happy we aren’t biking. Leaving for Barcelona on Wednesday. Safe travels, Pam and Dave

  3. Great to hear from you! Sounds like you are in a beautiful part of Italy(one of many!)and are chugging along, one mountain at a time. Don’t blame you for opting for beds and showers over boars. Carry on—enjoy this amazing adventure!

  4. Hi Julie and Mark! Glad to hear from you! Hope you had a chance to eat some cingiale (sp?) when you were among the little snorters (haha – I know they are humongous.)
    My brother walked the Santiago de Compostela (about 500 miles) last year – said the bicyclists were made to wait until the walkers had come in – discrimination for doing it the ‘easy’ way. Hope that’s not the case in Italy!
    Have fun! Love hearing about your adventures!

    1. In fact, I did make it a point to eat “cinghiale” (wild boar) the next day. 🙂 We are having an excellent “camino” and since we’re in the off season, we’re not having trouble finding pilgrim accommodations. But, we’re going into our first weekend on the trail AND we’re getting closer to Rome, so we’ve definitely seen an uptick in the numbers of people looking for pilgrim accommodations. We have started making reservations in advance to ensure we have beds. And I must say, I am LOVING sleeping in a real bed again!!! It’s going to be hard to go back to sleeping in a tent.

  5. TOTALLY green! But so excited for you! You are now official bicigrini (or bicigrinos, as they are called on the Camino de Santiago). Take notes! We’ll be walking that part of the Via Francigena hopefully in 2019. It’s so great to hear your latest.

    1. We’re definitely taking notes! I must say that the region of Toscana is going all out to capitalize on the Via Francigena – which means good accommodations and pretty good route marking. We feel very lucky that we’re experiencing it now, before it gets too well known and overrun with tourists.

  6. Yes it has been a long time since the last Blog and qwe were worried about you.
    It is good to know that the adventure is going well and that you are both safe. We have had a recent holiday in Wellington with good friends and Julie is ready to go for the next term of school.
    Do keep up the blog.
    Love Chris and Julie NZ

  7. Greetings Julie & Mark! Always enjoy reading your updates and glad to heat you’re in Italy now. Quite the adventures you’ve both had and continue to have. Take good care and happy cycling! 😉

  8. We love reading about all of your exciting adventures! Such amazing memories that remind me of my favorite Robert Frost poem. Enjoy, and looking forward to seeing you again soon!

    The Road Not Taken

    Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
    And sorry I could not travel both
    And be one traveler, long I stood
    And looked down one as far as I could
    To where it bent in the undergrowth;

    Then took the other, as just as fair,
    And having perhaps the better claim,
    Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
    Though as for that the passing there
    Had worn them really about the same,

    And both that morning equally lay
    In leaves no step had trodden black.
    Oh, I kept the first for another day!
    Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
    I doubted if I should ever come back.

    I shall be telling this with a sigh
    Somewhere ages and ages hence:
    Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
    I took the one less traveled by,
    And that has made all the difference.

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