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).