United Kingdom, Italy · 24 Days · 82 Moments · July 2016

Accidental Italy: Genoa to Bari

10 August 2016

One last look at the view from the hotel roof garden, and then back on the bike for the short ride to the airport.

9 August 2016

I don't know if this is just a typical Tuesday night in Giovinazzo, but what an amazing place! It's not just architecturally beautiful, it's also one of the most vibrant places I've ever seen! And not in the pressured tourist sense, like Matera yesterday, it's natural and easy and just buzzing with life. It's hard to pick out tourists from the locals; watching people's interactions, it looks like it's mostly locals. La Passegiata perfected - what a brilliant town!
A little night walk around the town, and then a couple of pale ales and a burger (both Italian style) in the trendy little pub next to the hotel, and a little time to reflect on my trip.
B&B - right... I appear to have developed more upscale tastes for my last couple of nights. (For the record, all of these photos were taken without leaving the hotel). What the hell, it's my last night of a once in a lifetime trip. Oh, and before last night, I think it was nine days since I had last slept in an actual bed. Those are my excuses anyway...
Journeys end (pretty much) at Giovinazzo. After getting my wheel fixed, the day has been pretty much of a straight charge to get back close to Bari for my flight tomorrow. Steering clear of the city, I've aimed for the airport side. I checked out Bitonto, a town about 8km from the coast and just 6km from the airport, as a possible stopping point, but there was absolutely nothing about the place that said "I want to spend my last night here". And it seemed wrong not to finish my ride by the sea. This whole ridiculous venture has been a unique and bizarre sort of coast to coast (and it is a bit of pleasure having got here, to see the incredulity in people's faces when I tell them where I have come from). I'm not sure where I'll spend the night yet, there's a choice of B&Bs and campsites near here. And Giovinazzo is a very pretty and relaxed harbour town. Right now, it seems like the perfect spot to get a beer and draw a line under this whole preposterous venture.
And a delayed departure from Matera. The cobbles and potholes had claimed another two spokes at morning inspection, enough to send me searching for a shop for repairs. With just 60km to go, I didn't want to tempt fate. Clearly if I ever plan to put this bike through is sort of abuse again, I'll need to get a stronger set of wheels built for it. But I've asked a lot of the Charge over 1,500 hard kilometres and, a couple of broken spokes aside, it hasn't let me down. Up for anything, that bike. I think I'm going to call it 'Cojones'.
A leisurely start in Matera. The ancient city is bewitching and bewildering maze. They filmed The Passion of the Christ here; if they had cared to, this morning they could have filmed The Disorientation of the Cyclist.

8 August 2016

I made it to Matera - not something I thought I'd manage a couple of days ago. So when the campsite I'd aimed for turned out to be about as appealing as scrofula, I decided to take action and look for a B&B right up in the town itself. The first one on my search was bit more upmarket than that, and put me right in the heart of the old city, and I wasn't in the mood to shop around. Sod camping, just for one night at least!
Gravina in Puglia. Beer and fuel stop in a very handsome town. About a minute after taking the first photo, the very dapper (and possibly gently unhinged) fellow in the foreground of it, tapped me on the shoulder and gave me a full and detailed history of the town, its key buildings, relationships with it's saints and the ancient town that came before it... all in Italian. More of which I understood than I thought I would, I think largely due to his slow and carefully enthused delivery. Even the bits I couldn't understand were a pleasure to listen to, such was the joy and passion in his tone. I thanked him and told him about my journey and where I had been. He listened and nodded politely, but his eyes only lit up when I mentioned his part of the country, and off he went again! What a charming and utterly engaging old gent! I can only wish him an even longer and happier life than the one he already appears to have lived.
The road to Gravina in Puglia. Very pretty, but eerily quiet, and lined with what would have been some very grand buildings in their day, just standing derelict. A little insight into the troubled history of this part of the country.
Arrivederci over morning coffee to Claudio, Marco & Klara, as they continue their trip down the coast towards Lecce, and I make one last guts or glory dash inland towards Matera. One last target to tick off before I start heading back towards Bari tomorrow for my flight home on Wednesday.

7 August 2016

A bit of catching up after an eventful day! Sunday morning was without a doubt the most miserable part of the trip so far. It took three attempts to get out of the prison town own of Mattinata, as each was repelled by another violent, stabbing thunderstorm. When I finally did get onto the twisting hairpins of the last climb off of the peninsula, not even the spectacular lightning show over the bay could make up for the soaking that followed. Eventually, I wound may way down into Manfredonia, surely the ugliest town Italy has ever thrown at me, and undoubtedly the worst place to find yourself on a soaking wet Sunday with no indoor privileges. I was ready to jack it in for the day, but not in this town, so I headed for the station to look into getting a train to Foggia, which at least might be a nice place to find a B&B for the night. Which is where the day took a turn...
...for the better! It was at the station where I met an Austrian couple, Claudio & Klara, who were waiting for their Italian friend, Marco to join them on the last leg of their ride down the Adriatic coast. While we chatted the rain stopped and the sky started to brighten, and as we were all headed the same way, we decided to ride together. Our multinational quartet travelled down the coast towards Bari, through several towns preparing for their annual Festa (a big deal in Puglia), past the beautiful port at Trani, and onto a pretty walled campsite with a nice courtyard restaurant and pitches under olive and fig trees (free snacks for everyone!) Our number increased to five at dinner, when the Italian lady in the next pitch, who was on a 2,000km bike tour of her own joined us. None of us actually got her name, but she was slightly nuts and good company. After the mornings rain, a cracking day from the least promising of starts!
And it's back - bigger, badder and angrier!

6 August 2016

I've dodged a couple of thunderstorms so far in the last couple of weeks, but no such luck today. Not too surprising either, given the heat of the past few days. So I've called it a day early and set up camp to shelter, even though frustratingly, I still haven't made it off the damn peninsula; I still have one last ridge to cross! Call me the Prisoner of Gargano! It was the right call though, it's nasty out there now, and it looks like it's in for the night. I wouldn't have wanted to be caught in this right up in the hills. So in the absence of any sweeping scenery, here's the view from the warm and dry inside of a wet tent instead.
I swore that I was going to keep it easy after I got down from the mountains, but I continually underestimate those contour lines on the map. The south coast of Gargano has been breaking my legs all morning, with a succession of sapping climbs, aided by the heat and a headwind. Still some beautiful coastal views though.
Mixed promises in the air for today; a little sun, a little cloud, a blustery wind and building humidity. A real chance of storms later and the waterproofs getting their second airing.

5 August 2016

Just when I needed some inspiration for the southern end of my trip, the Gargano peninsula has delivered! I nearly didn't carry on with it; disappointed by the Lesina to Torre Mileto stretch, which felt like a tired and half baked extension of a slightly tacky coast I was already getting bored with, I worried that Gargano might just be 150km of more of the same, in spite of it's reputation. In the end, it was the promise of a sea breeze to relieve the cauldron of the day that kept me on the Peninsula coast road, and I don't think I could have made a better choice. After a while, everything started to look more driftwood and old rope, and once the mass of the peninsula started to rise, the road started to deliver an awesome mix of climbing and descending on swooping, hair pinned roads; alternating spectacular sea views with welcome shady woodlands. By the time I stopped at a nice, peaceful campsite near Viesta, Garagano had delivered an excellent days riding. And it still isn't over!

4 August 2016

Toto - I don't think we're in Tuscany any more...
We all find strength from somewhere...
Don't know whether it's the after effects of a long day yesterday, or the heat getting to me for the first time on this trip; could be both. But there's not a lot in the legs today and the miles are clocking by grudgingly. I sort of feel that after all these days, I should be feeling pretty invincible, and fairness I've felt strong for rhe last few days now. Today is not shaping up that way though. I headed inland a bit to escape the constant thrum of the coast road, and found hills, heat and a landscape bordering on spaghetti western country (not quite, but close!) it's fantastic to see the landscape changing as I go. I just wish my legs would propel me through it just them at little bit better today!
Some calm up away from the beach in the old village of Termoli, right on the headland. Suddenly the contrasts of bright walls, dark shadows and deep blue backdrops has me feeling for the first time that I'm really in the south!
There is nothing chic or elegant about the Italian seaside. It's as cheesy as hell. In fact it's not unlike it's British equivalent, but with nicer weather and better organisation. And given the state of chaos much of the country exists in, that last one is a constant surprise to me. But you mess with their umbrella gridding system at you peril!

3 August 2016

And another! For some reason I thought they would be quite scarce, but there are loads of them along that short stretch of coast. Very traditional items of the local fishing industry, they lower catch nets in from those big booms. Many of them double as little seafood restaurants now, but sadly the only one I found open was booked out to a private party. Fascinating things just to look at though. They really do seem to be cobbled together from driftwood and anything that was at hand!
My first trabucco! The ramshackle, idiosyncratic fishing machines that give this coast it's name. I'm going to celebrate with a gelato!
Finally made it to the sea again, although Ortona may not be the place to drop down and dip my toes in it. That'll have to wait a few miles more. I've been amazed at how much climbing I've had to do to get here! It's been a process of trying to find a path away from the busy trunk roads, but each diversion onto a rural side road leads to another eye watering climb over another startlingly steep ridge! When I first started thinking about this trip, the vague plan was to follow the Apennines, although in relaxed that idea to accommodate things I actually wanted to do and places I wanted to go. But in Abruzzo, as I've found out, it makes no difference. You don't follow the mountains, they follow you. Even from 100km away, the long fingers of the Apennines reach right out to the coast, and they're reluctant to let you out of their grip. Still, just time for a healthy beer and salad lunch, and the it's off to look for what I've really come to this coast to find!
Some thoughts on the nature of "artisanale"; artisan made. It's a word they're pretty big in out here. A few days ago I was I a little shop in the mountains that was all about the artisanal produce. I wanted some sort of biscotti to snack on as I rode, so the lady showed me their range, all proudly made right there in the village. She described each kind, too fast for me to keep up, but kept returning to these interestingly mottled ones, insisting they were her favourites. They looked very attractive in the packaging, and it was only when I tried one later that I realised what the secret ingredient was. Sugar Puffs. They're basically Sugar Puffs baked into a biscuit. Five bloody Euros for something your kid might have made at school and some fancy packaging. As the Honey Monster might have said back in the day, "Tell them about the artisanale, mummy!"

2 August 2016

Well, that hasn't worked out too badly. I haven't quite made it to the coast, having spent too long in Castel del Monte, and I was rapidly converging on the motorway system towards Pescara at just the time I needed to start thinking of where and when to stop for the night. So I changes course and swung back out into the country side a bit to look for a bivi. No joy, but I did find a proper, old fahioned agricampeggio; a micro campsite put up next to the family farmhouse to bring in a bit of extra cash. Simple as they come; just a shower block and a patch of grass under an olive tree and a great view across the valley for just €10 (a bargain in Italian camping terms!) And I've got the whole site and the view to myself.
Morning coffee in Castel Del Monte, setting for the moody George Clooney flick, The American. So far, nobody has mistaken me for Mr Clooney, but then I've only just got here. It's only a matter of time...

1 August 2016

I had read the story of Santo Stefano and one mans mission to revive it's fortunes some years ago, and had wanted to see it since. You can read the story yourself, here: http://ind.pn/2as69ln But I hadn't realised that the town and the project had been hit so hard by the 2009 earthquake. Even now, one end of the town is essentially a massive building site, encased in scaffolding. The scaffold ghost of the tower that the article mentions is still there. But there is a lot of work under way it seems, with builders and noise and activity. 20 years ago, this town would have been been a lost cause, not worth saving and no doubt left to crumble had the earthquake hit then. It's lucky to have a benefactor with the money, drive and the vision to save it and see it prosper again.
In amongst all the building work, finding actual things in Santo Stefano was surprisingly difficult for such a small town. The shop such as it was couldn't have been more tucked away. It was very charming though, and did sell me an excellent sandwich, but it was a good indication of how this town markets itself. Very artisanale, you wouldn't shop there daily for your essentials. And why not, in a town making the leap from poverty to upmarket destination? For me on my travels though, the rule is simple; "Produtti Tipici" = good food attractively packaged to bag the most of your tourist dollar. "Alimentari" = where normal people shop and pay everyday prices. And over here, they demand the same quality, just without the fancy packaging!
Well, that's my mind made up and not made up at the same time. Impromptu rest day. Bike needs attention, gears and brakes both need tuning up, I've just discovered a broken spoke that needs replacing, (slightly awkward one too, without cassette removal tool), and everything else could use a once over. I need to shop for food too, I've a few more things that, if I'm honest, could use a wash, and it probably wouldn't hurt to give my legs an easy day either. So I've booked another night on site here in Santo Stefano. There's a bar and cafe here, and it's just a short walk to the village. Back on the road tomorrow, with another day to consider which road to take.

31 July 2016

(Part 2) Slowly though, I've taken control, and somewhere along the way (probably around the time of that last Werthers Original), the line has been demoted to nothing more than an optional guide. I've already changed it, and have scrubbed upcoming sections. I don't want to go all the way over to the Amalfi coast now, to get caught up in busy tourist traffic and Naples overspill. Not when there is so much in Molise and Bascilicata and Puglia that I can explore. But the line does still feature key points that were added for good reasons. And some of those are strong draws. And some of them may conflict. As I finish the high mountain phase of my journey, I find myself with a choice. East or west; go in search of a unique seafood restaurant, or visit the ancestors. Or, off schedule as I am, can I still do both?
There is a map of Italy on my wall at home with an enthusiastic felt pen line drawn across it. It bounces effortlessly from one side of the country to the other and back like popcorn ricocheting around a thigh boot. It's fun to trace routes across maps like that and to plan and dream of where you might go. But when it comes to the actual business of riding, I'm still not great at treating those lines with the contempt that it deserves. It's always a mistake to feel beholden to that line; period. But on this trip as with every trip I've done, I've found myself fighting that. It's taken time to start letting my pace dictate my path rather than vice versa. I've had to actively fight the notion that I 'should' push on, when I want to just stop somewhere. And I've wrestled actual guilt when I've chosen to diverge from that line. (Continued on next note, due to Journi's inadequate word allowance).
Well that's that. Campo Imperatore; 2,100m and the highest I will get to on this trip. Strictly speaking, 400m higher than I needed to go. The climb up to here was brutal and completely pointless; the only thing for me to do now I'm here is to have a beer and a monster of a sandwich, and then turn round and go back down. Just because it's there, right? In the absence of functioning leg muscles, this climb was conquered by a sachet of emergency energy drink and sheer bloody mindedness alone. And to be fair, of the many, many people making their way up here by car, camper, motorbike or bike, I swear that no one had chosen a less advantageous combination of conveyance and load than me. Still, I started at the coast, I'm now standing under the highest peaks in the Apennines, and I finish at the coast next week. So, all downhill from here, right?
Il Corne Grande; the highest peak in the Apennines. I merely rode across the shoulders of giants.
"A sheep", I thought, "no, it's a dog! How sad, someone's dog lying dead in the road, no doubt hit by a tourist camper van, too busy looking at the view!" As I thought all this and drew nearer, the dog looked up at me and growled lazily. And I realised that I'm just in the sort of place where farm dogs take a kip in the middle of the road.
Up with the sun to get some climbing miles in early, before the heat of the day arrives. What I didn't realise was that I didn't have too much climbing left to do, I had cleared more than I thought last night. Instead, I had a couple of hairpins before the top levelled out, followed by some eight miles of descending on a perfectly pitched, swooping,snaking road, watching the sun come up and shower the far side of valley with a strengthening light, and lapwings start and whirl around as I sped past. An incredible start to the day! Now I'm climbing again, the big one to the Gran Sasso and the Campo Imperatore. Just time for coffee and croissants, and to catch up on email while I've got a data signal (it's getting patchy up here) while the World Youth Sky Running Championships gets underway around me, and lots of frighteningly fit looking people make me feel bad about myself.

30 July 2016

I felt I needed to try and make up time after yesterday's snap early finish. I've covered good ground today and though, passing out of the Castelluccio plain and dropping into the valley south and getting a start on the climb into the Campo Imperatore; the highest point in the Apennine chain. Tonight I've just found a secluded spot up a side track to bivi; at about 1,400m altitude, so it could be a chilly night! Tomorrow should bring some spectacular sights, including the high plain of the Gran Sasso, and at least one movie location!
A longtime landmark on my route plan; I knew that as soon as I reached the lake at Campotosto and crossed this bridge, I'd be on the threshold of the high Apennines.
In transition between one set of hills and the next.
The misty morning after. Somewhere down there is my road.

29 July 2016

I'm going to be babbling about this place for ages, so I apologise in advance for that. Ever since I first saw pictures of it, Castelluccio di Norcia has been at the top of my "must see" list for this trip. The only concern being the usual one; will it live up to the carefully composed photos I've seen on the internet? The truth is that any amount of photos could not do justice to being in the middle of this remarkable valley (which hasn't stopped me from taking any amount of photos). It's stupefyingly beautiful, kill-me-now-and-bury-me-here beautiful. On a perfect summers day like today, it has an afterlife tranquility. I came here to look and move on, then stopped for lunch and couldn't bring myself to leave. I found a room and stayed to just wander the tiny streets, see sunset and watch night fall. I'll probably never be here again, so I can't leave it too fleetingly.
Mean and moody "I got up that bloody great hill" selfie...
There comes a day on every such endeavour when one sheds the lizard skin of the tourist, and accepts citizenship of the road beneath their wheels. When one leaves behind the soft, lily-white Englishman who stumbled blinking from the airport; limbs and neck now coloured by the heat of the sun, sinews carved by the tutelage of the hills. It is a day marked, nay, measured by one singular event; an event which severs ties and frees destinies. It is the day when one consumes one's last Werthers Original. That day, my friends, is today. I'll see you on the other side!
Big days ahead, so I need to keep my strength up! I'm at Visso, 700m up into the Apennines (on market day) and over the next couple of days I'll reach some of the high points (certainly geographically, hopefully in all senses) of my trip. Starting today with 25km and a further 600m of climbing to go to Castelluccio di Norcia, a place that I'm very excited to see!

28 July 2016

There's a storm coming....
A word for Le Marche, which began where Umbria ended, at the top of the climb where I had been duelling with Petere. That climb had been gruelling (and to tell the truth, I'd been glad of a little light jousting to spur me up it), but the descent and long valley road into Le Marche was one of the best sections of road I've ever ridden. Everything about it, the scenery, the weather, even the joyously smooth tarmac, was flawless. And the end point of Pioraca, a tiny village where the breath taking valley is suddenly pinched between mighty rock outcrops, was as idyllic a spot for a lunchtime rest as I could have hoped for. A brilliant morning; one to remember!
The devil takes many guises. Today he took the form of an incorrigible leather-tanned 60 year old called Petere, who passed me while I was taking a break in the shade on the long climb up from Bagnara. He stopped to taunt me about how hard the hills were and how hot it was, before carrying on his way. As I restarted, I soon found myself catching and passing him on a short descent, greeting him as I passed. No sooner had I done this than I heard "Weheeeeee!!" and with a blur of legs and a huge grin, he shot past me once more, slapping his thighs and shouting "Forza!" to show how strong he was. The road was climbing again now and as he settled back into his pace I found myself regaining on him. As I caught him, he laughed and shot off again. This pattern repeated on and on up the long climb. Further up we rode together and chatted. He asked my age and slapped his legs some more, asking me to guess his. "I'm 60! 60!" he cried, then sped off a final time. This time I wouldn't catch him.
Good morning from the road to Norcera Umbra. I love the colour of Umbrian towns. The stonework almost glows.

27 July 2016

Sometimes you have to just admit that it's not going to happen. After two good days, feeling stronger and noticing significant improvements in my pace and fitness, today it appears was payback day. Just nothing in the tank. It happens. I still covered 60km and crossed one of the sets of hills I need to cross off, but by early afternoon it was clear that my body had had enough. Best thing to do in that situation is just look for somewhere to stop early and get some rest. After the only campsite in the area turned out to be a wild goose chase, I started looking out for "agriturismo" signs and thinking about a proper bed for the night. And there in hangs a tale...
"Agriturismo". It's an enticing word, but one that is also wrapped in mystery. When you follow any given agriturismo sign from the roadside, you can't know quite what you're going to get. Traditionally a simple way for farmers to earn some extra income, they can still be a very basic form of room and board. Increasingly though, they are much more upmarket affairs, mixing high quality accommodation and top class catering. Roadside restaurant/motels are starting to adopt the name, although it wouldn't traditionally apply to them. And then they could be... Well, they could be this place. La Franceshe. A styrofoam monument to a world of defective many-headed monsters and crap fortresses. I leant my bike against one of the walls and dented it. Yes, I am staying here. After a day when my energy failed me and the only nearby campsite on my map turned out to be a cryptic crossword clue, I just followed that random 'agriturismo' sign. I just wasn't prepared for quite how random it would be!
I only passed through Gubbio with enough time for coffee and to stock up on provisions, but it is as handsome and elegant a town as I have seen in Italy. It looks very much like Assisi, enough that it could body-double for it's near neighbour from some angles. But without the lure of St Francis, I suspect Gubbio might be an easier and more relaxing place to negotiate and spend your time. Don't get me wrong, Gubbio is plenty 'turistico', but in terms of the crowds it attracts, Assisi is the Catholic Zombie Apocalypse Movie of tourist destinations...
Umbria deserves more attention. It could easily absorb a chunk of the Tuscan tourist trade without spoiling it's tranquility, and you sense that it would be grateful for the business. And it is, on the whole, unutterably beautiful!

26 July 2016

Spooky! I'm camped on a ghost campsite this evening! I've left the bustle of tourist Tuscany far behind now, climbing up into the hills of Umbria, a far more quiet world! I had prepared to just bivi tonight, but as there was a remote hilltop campsite near where the end of my day, so I decided to check it out and found it completely deserted! The barrier was closed but not locked and one of the shower blocks was even open, but teaming with flies. There was no water and electricity. The reception hut was shuttered but had stickers for 2015 awards and activities, so it must have only closed this season. On the way off site this morning, I met a Dutch cyclist who had also camped free for the night there. We agreed it looked like it would have been a nice site when it was open, and it was a shame. An indication of how beautiful Umbria still struggles to compete for visitors with the big flirt that is neighbouring Tuscany.
(Part 2) ...so I went back down to the main road and had lunch at the slightly less well appointed (and possibly pirate themed) La Cambusa instead. My lunch was served by the proprietor, a gruffly friendly man with a staggering number of exotic animals printed on his t shirt, and I'd like to say that it was every bit as good as the food up the hill would have been. Except it wasn't. I make better pasta from a packet meals at home when I'm in a hurry. The wine was interestingly non specific. The insalate verde was just lettuce. But the owner was friendly and asked me about my trip, and wished me luck when he heard how foolhardy it is. And he did have so, so many animals on his t shirt! So the whole experience put a smile on my face at the very least. And I didn't have to listen to a bunch of over privileged people telling each other that Henry has a wonderful shop selling shirts in German Street, you really must go! Like hell. I bet Henry's shirts don't have that many animals on them!
Monterchi - one of those background scenery little towns you pass by, yet if you take a few minutes to ride up to them, you discover they're full of charm and silence, and shade. Except for the little restaurant, which had plenty of charm, but was full (as in "no room at the inn" full) of plummy English expats, braying about how simultaneously lovely and awful everything is, and denying me the table space to buy a hard earned lunch... (continued next post)
You stop for a bit of shade wherever you can.

25 July 2016

First impressions and all that; I knew I'd hat the camp site on the edge of Arezzo as soon as I set eyes on it; the full Eurocamping experience. It had been horrible to get to by bike as well, involving a stretch of trunk road where I found passing trucks so close to me I could have reached out and touched them - with my elbow! However, this camp site as it turns out, is run by a very laid back and personable chap from New Jersey, who has torn up the rule book where Italian camp sites are concerned. No restriction on first check out time, no keeping your passport in a box behind the counter to ensure you can't actually leave before they deign to open the office. No allocating you the worst pitch in the site because that's the way the system works... Just a lot of "pay now, so you can leave as early as you want", and "pitch wherever you like that's free, it's your choice." It's radical stuff! If this was a movie he'd be played by Kevin Bacon and the town elders would hate him!
Welcome to Arezzo!
Figline Valdarno waking up to a new week.
Having pitched up in Florence, I could think of no better place to stay than Poderracio where we had stayed three years earlier when the road World Champs came to the city. So I contacted the host, Francesca who came up trumps at the eleventh hour, finding room for me even though they were officially full, and even inviting me to join them for their family dinner! Many thanks to Francesca (and Stella, and Birra) for your great hospitality at such short notice. And I am now travelling with a bottle of Poderracio olive oil to go with my food once more, and that makes me happy!

24 July 2016

So - Saturday was just a long, hard day in the huge hills of the Garfagnana, (still feeling the effects of the past few days but without any sign of the fitness gains yet) and with an almost as long hunt for an even basically acceptable bivi spot at the end of it. Looking at my route, the next few days could end up being just more of the same toil. I decided I needed to make a change, for the sake of staying at least close to my schedule and for some faster, flatter miles to spin the hills out of my legs. So at Pontepetri I took the road south to Pistoia and the Arno Valley. This woke my tired limbs up nicely, and before long I was testing my pace on the long, straight flat against the many, many roadie groups out for their Sunday club ride. Unsuccessfully for the most part, but I managed to latch onto a couple groups for a few kilometres. And that, in short, is how I ended up unexpectedly in Florence on a hot and sunny day.
Well, this time yesterday I didn't expect to be here today - or at all for that matter! Slight change of route. I'll explain later.

23 July 2016

Lunch at Ponte al Serraglio, on the way to see a bridge that is famous for being in Bagni di Lucca, but isn't in the actual village of Bagni di Lucca, but more in the general area. Something I only found out when none of the bridges in the village looked quite right, and Google showed me that it would be a 10km detour in the wrong direction now. On the day I decided that wouldn't be worth it. It's called the Ponte della Maddalena though. Look it up; it looks very pretty! *Note to self; do better research...
OK, I'm posting this because I'm not sure people believe me about Italian road signs. Here's the sign sending you across the bridge towards Bagni di Lucca, 6km away. The second picture is the next sign, turning you right on the other side of the bridge. The two signs are about 100m apart, but in the 30 seconds it takes to get from one to the other, Bagni di Lucca has mysteriously moved a further three kilometres away! The next sign, exactly one kilometre on from the 9km sign (yes, I measured it), shows 7km to go. This happens bloody everywhere!
Some hills, hanging around and looking tough.
Barga also had Scottish weather for authenticity, although that had been following me all day. An overcast start at first light led into a monster of climb up to 800m that I was totally unprepared for so early. At the top the rain started, along with two hours of descending on increasingly wet roads, and several costume changes to suit the conditions. I arrived in Barga with my luggage and my spirits both dampened, and bought coffee and an apparently random doughnut from a cafe that had no idea what it was doing. I wandered the town buying food, with little enthusiasm until I found a market stall selling a Pecorino that made me feel sorry for all other cheeses. At that point my life developed new purpose and the sun even came out a bit. Hopefully it'll hang around enough to dry me all out.
Castlenuovo di Garfagnana may be the capital of the Garfagnana region, but it looked pretty 'meh' passing through, so I pushed on to Barga, which is much prettier. And where I found myself completely surrounded by Scottish accents. Barga is the most Scottish town in Italy apparently (who knew there was even a contest?), with many links to the auld country and a healthy Scottish expat community too. It even has a "wee library" in a phone box (given the history of most phone boxes, that could mean it's either a very small library, or a library that smells of wee). (Continued on next note)

22 July 2016

I've finally left the traffic and the tourist bustle of the coast behind, as I start to climb into the Garfagnana and the Apuan Alps, the mountainous region that forms the northern border of Tuscany. Everywhere is suddenly sleepy and peaceful, and breathing feels freer. Right now, I'm waiting for the sun to set before settling in for my first olive grove bivi of the trip.
Some inspirational reading for the journey (I've been saving this since Xmas - thanks mum!)
So, there was no trouble catching the boat this morning, just an extra €9 for the bike. A far more scenic and less strenuous way of seeing this incredible stretch of coast. Loading and loading was what you might describe as 'inelegant' though; the little gangways were not designed for my cargo, and I had to clumsily man handle everything aboard with no help whatsoever from the crew. A fellow passenger did help me getting on, but largely I think, because I was in his way. The trip was well worth it though; the sight of that coast ad those villages from the water is truly unique! Just time for a quick lunch in Porto Venere too (the unofficial sixth member of the Cinque Terre; sort of the Pete Best of the Ligurian coast) before heading inland towards the Apuan Alps!

21 July 2016

Things to love about Italy; when you order a beer, and this lot comes included in the price.
What can possibly go wrong when I have the Madonna Dell Acqua to watch over me?
"Coast road" sounds so easy and relaxed, but I discovered the true nature of this coast yesterday. This is essentially a place where a mountain range succumbs to the sea, so maybe I shouldn't be surprised that the slightest twist in the road can kick you up 200m without thinking about it. When the topography does put in some effort, it can grind you up to over 600m of vertical ascent, eroding the hours and your energy in the process. All this to drop in helter-skelter style back to the shoreline at Levanto, to catch a boat that I'm not even sure I'll be allowed on with my bike, and make my way down the Cinque Terre the way they should be seen; by sea!

20 July 2016

Paddle borders enjoying the sunset off the coast at Camogli. (Pretty much where my photo from the plane was taken before we landed!)
It felt like it took an eternity to escape from Genoa (not helped by the inevitable and totally unintentional tour of the airport, the docks and the mind bendingly complex one way system that really, really wanted me to go north), but I finally did, and found the coast road; the sea to my right and the hills towering above me to my left. Time for a early dinner a little harbour side bistro.
Accidentally found the historic centre of Genoa while I was trying to find my way out of the crappy bits.
I could so easily have flown into Pisa or somewhere! Have just landed practically in the sea at Genoa, after a flypast that gave me a perfect view of the hills that separate this coast from the rest of the country, and the hills beyond them, and the hills beyond them, and so on. My legs seem keen to just stay on the plane...

17 July 2016

I'm off on my latest and biggest Italian trip next week, so took a quick spin out to test the luggage and get a feel for the load today. After five years of doing these things in my old Cannondale, a failing front shock has led me to pick the Charge for this trip. It's a shame not be doing this in my old faithful, but the Charge really is becoming my one bike for all occasions it seems!