Tag Archives: Italy
16 July, 2015

Lapping the Salento Coast

Red-legged grasshoppers bounced, leapt, and ricocheted off the ground, our bikes, and our panniers as we pedaled our way along a rocky road, flanked by endless fields of barren farmland stretching to the horizon. Hundreds, if not thousands of these insects, a swarm unlike any I’d seen before, scattered like ping-pong balls on triggered mousetraps as our wheels crunched over rock and bug alike. Their existence proved, in the course of the mile they inhabited, that a comment I made earlier to Kristin was completely wrong: something could live in this environment. Not much later, on a road actually shown on my map of Puglia, but still in a landscape only barely suited for human existence, we pulled over under the first tree we’d spotted in far too long. I handed the dwindling contents of my three water bottles to Kristin and all-but force-fed her the remaining apricots in my front, non-drive-side pannier. Her pace had slowed and I saw in my mirror that she was beginning to wobble. Heat stroke, in all likelihood, was setting in. A little while later, rejuvenated by the healing powers of ice cream and Fanta, Kristin was smiling brightly for the camera as we marked our ten-thousandth mile pedaled on the highway into Matera.

I’ve said it a thousand times: the highs are higher and the lows are lower on a bike tour. And you’ll experience both in a matter of minutes.

Home to Paleolithic-era caves carved into a clay cliff face and adorned with 16th century facades and a gauntlet of cobblestone pathways and staircases leading up to the palazzo and churches left behind by the city’s wealthier gentry, the Matera of today is a must-see trip back in time to antiquity. Forty years ago it was a national disgrace, site of a forced evacuation, and home to what may well have been the foulest living conditions in Western civilization.

The sassi lit up at night.

Sasso Barisano lit up at night in Matera, as viewed from Piazza Duomo.

Carlo Levi, in his book “Christ Stopped at Eboli,” recounts a description of Matera as told to him by his sister, a doctor who came to visit him in exile, in the 1930s:

The houses were open on account of the heat, and as I went by I could see into the caves, whose only light came in through the front doors. I saw a few pieces of miserable furniture, beds, and some ragged clothes hanging up to dry. On the floor lays dogs, sheep, goats, and pigs. Most families have just one cave to live in and there they sleep all together; men women, children, and animals…

I have never in all my life seen such a picture of poverty. I saw children sitting on the doorsteps, in the dirt, while the sun heat down on them, with their eyes half-closed and their eyelids red and swollen; flies crawled across the lids, but the children stayed quite still, without raising a hand to brush them away…

In the dark smelly caves where they lived I saw children lying on torn blankets, with their teeth chattering from fever. Others, reduced to skin and bones by dysentery, could hardly drag themselves about. I saw children with waxen faces who seemed to me to have something worse than malaria, perhaps some tropical disease such as Kala Azar or black fever. The thin women, with dirty undernourished babies hanging at their flaccid breasts, spoke to me mildly and with despair. I felt, under the blinding sun, as if I were in a city stricken by the plague.

The book, written about his year in political exile in Salento, the part of Puglia that forms the “heel” of Europe’s boot-shaped appendage, shone a light on this forgotten, beautiful, unique, disease-infested land and the peasants who inhabited it. Decades later, after several failed policies attempted to solve the problem of Matera’s deplorable living conditions, the evictions were complete. Then, in the late 20th century, a cleanup began. People had realized Matera’s cliff-side sassi were a world heritage gold mine. Caves were scrubbed and made inhabitable, inns opened, ristorantes popped up, and even Hollywood movies such as Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” were filmed here. Conservation begat restoration begat profit.

Our two nights in Matera turned into three; it was too special of a place to leave too soon. Our mornings were spent wandering the maze-like collection of alleys and stairs in Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano and by night we dined al fresco with the Matera residents on Via Ridola. Our first night in Matera, by sheer coincidence, we were able to celebrate our mileage milestone with a free classical concert in a church square just a short stroll from our inn. There, amongst hundreds of Matera’s residents, we sat in rapt attention as one of the most gifted pianists I’ve ever seen performed in front of a fifty-piece orchestra. And no more informed or respectful audience was ever assembled! Such a joy to see a performance where no smartphones were held aloft, where nobody watched the event through a camera’s LCD! Premature applause that often, at classical concerts, accompanies the end of a movement mistaken for a symphony’s conclusion was politely hushed by those who knew the tune. If there was any complaint to raise it would be that one particular gentleman sitting near us saw to it to hum along with the music. What a night!

The Trulli houses of Alberobello are worth an hour's visit, but I was most excited about spotting this watermelon popsicle. I hadn't seen one of these since the 1980s! Complete with chocolate "seeds." Who remembers these things?

The Trulli houses of Alberobello are worth an hour’s visit, but I was most excited about spotting this watermelon popsicle. I hadn’t seen one of these since the 1980s! Complete with chocolate “seeds.” Who else remembers these things? And it tasted even better than I remembered!

From Matera we pedaled our way to the collection of squat, conical dwellings known as Trulli houses in the town of Alberobello and then, rather than head straight to the port of Brindisi, we turned south again and decided to trace the coast of Salento in a counter-clockwise loop, keeping the multi-hued waters as close as possible. One more week in Italy!

We pedaled our way along the gently-sloping Ionian coast, around the cape, then north back along the more rugged, cliff-laden coast of the Adriatic Sea. We stretched this short 220-mile loop into five days in part to concede to the sun’s unrelenting pressure and also to allow more time at the beach each day.

Kristin pedaling into the historic city of Gallipoli, once a part of "Greater Greece" and then warred over for, oh, about two millenia.

Kristin pedaling into the historic city of Gallipoli, once a part of “Greater Greece” and then warred over for, oh, about two millenia.

The Salento region of southern Italy is where Italians go for summer vacation. And, whether you’re on a bicycle, in a rental car, or in an RV, you should too! We hit the coast in Torre Castiglione and followed the coastal road as it wended its way through numerous beach towns and farming communities from one campground to another. Roadside brush fires closed the road, smoke billowed in the distance, and the heat from recently-charred landscapes  was close enough to feel, but the air smelled not of char, but of licorice and olives and the sea. Beach traffic was thick at times, particularly around historic Gallipoli on the Ionian side of the peninsula, but the drivers always gave us plenty of room and passed with care.

Sand, coral, and crowds. The Ionian side of Salento, particularly north of Ugento, is packed with people.

Sand, coral, and crowds. The Ionian side of Salento, particularly north of Ugento, is packed with people. And this wasn’t high season yet. The prices jump starting in late July and August is apparently booked full well in advance. Come in early July!

Though a big part of the Italian beach experience involves attending incredibly crowded beach clubs and being shoe-horned into meticulously aligned rows of matching umbrellas and lounge chairs (something we managed to avoid), we found plenty of opportunities to pull off on the side of the road and claim a peace of solitude along the water’s edge. And sometimes, like in the historic city of Gallipoli, Leuca, and Tricase, we just joined in with a smattering of locals down by the harbor and took a quick dive off the breakwater before getting back on our bikes.

Beachfront camping resorts provide another option. The furthest thing from a wilderness experience I can imagine, these sprawling complexes contain hundreds of campsites, a market, restaurant, and even a discotheque. They are also not without their fair share of Italian bureaucracy. Two of the larger campgrounds we stayed in on the Ionian side insisted on the following procedure. First, we had to wait until after 4 p.m. to be allowed into the campground. Quiet hours were 2-4 p.m. and though the deejay would blare its music until well past midnight, we were not allowed to set up our tent until after 4 p.m. for fear of disturbing the slumbering campers. Secondly, once finally registered, we had to wait to be escorted by an attendee who would personally show us the available sites and then radio back to the office which one we chose. He then gave us a plastic ID number which, upon paying, would have to be turned back in in order to retrieve our passports. The whole thing was maddening and, aside from the mosquitoes, offered no commingling with nature. But it was cheaper than a hotel and we were steps from gorgeous turquoise-colored crystalline waters and white sand beaches, not to mention the absolutely stunning bikini-clad scenery on the beach. The water of the Adriatic and Ionian Seas are so salty that floating is a breeze; they’re so clear that I could count individual sand grains while standing in shoulder-deep water. If only there were waves, it would be perfect.

One way to beat the heat is by keeping a constant stock of apricots, plums, and cherries on the bike at all times. Fruit stands and trucks are everywhere and the fruit is seldom more than 1 Euro per kilogram.

One way to beat the heat is by keeping a constant stock of apricots, plums, and cherries on the bike at all times. Fruit stands and trucks are everywhere and the fruit is seldom more than 1-2 Euro per kilogram.

We didn’t sleep well in the campgrounds due to the noise and they’re not particularly cheap or wild, but we believe travel is more than centuries-old cultural sites and museums, but experiencing things the way the locals do. And this is how Italians do the beach.

Enjoying a short section of winding bicycle trail along the Ionian coast.

Enjoying a short section of winding bicycle trail along the Ionian coast.

We rounded the cape at Leuca and climbed steeply up onto the cliffs north of the town. From there, as we pedaled the undulating coast along the Adriatic side of Salento we came across what just might be one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. From a bridge some 30 meters above the water, we saw a series of staircases descending to a narrow funnel-shaped canyon with room for two dozen people. The cliffs fanned out into the sparkling sea, people snorkeled along the base of the cliffs as young boys took turns daring one another to leap from higher and higher perches. Kristin and I looked on from atop the bridge and, not wanting to risk leaving our bikes and gear unattended, breathed a hefty sigh and pedaled onward, though with another entry in our ever-lengthening list of places to return to.

If there's a more gorgeous beach than this one, a few miles north of Leuca, than I'd love to see it.

If there’s a more gorgeous beach than this one, a few miles north of Leuca, than I’d love to see it.

It was about 20 feet down to the water from this chunk of coral the boys were leaping from.

It was about 20 feet down to the water from this chunk of coral the boys were leaping from.

We greeted the air conditioned comfort of our B&B in Lecce with a sigh of relief, but were soon longing for our afternoon swims and nightly dips in the sea before dinner. Fortunately, we’re headed to the Ionian Islands and region of Peloponnese in Greece. There will be plenty more beaches in store for us this summer. We just hope we won’t have to cycle through another record heat wave in order to reach them.

Heading north along the Adriatic Coast towards Otranto.

Heading north along the Adriatic Coast towards Otranto. The roads have a lot less traffic down near Leuca.

2 July, 2015

Brutal Cycling in Beautiful Abruzzo

I’m a fan of symmetry and even numbers. I like bookends that match, months with thirty days, and I love that my half-birthday is on April Fool’s Day and that my mother’s birthday is my brother’s half-birthday… and vice-versa. Neat and tidy, even-Steven. Whoever he is.

When it was time to plan our return to Italy, retrieve our squirreled-away bicycles, and rejoin the open road, I knew it had to be on a certain day and to a certain place. Because symmetry. We left the USA on June 23rd, six months to the day we last rode our bicycles. Unfortunately, because of time zones, layovers, and the vagaries of utilizing hotel rewards points, we couldn’t check into the Rome Cavalieri hotel until the next night: six months and a day.  Drats. Nevertheless, just a few doors down from the very same room we boxed our bicycles up on December 26th, I anxiously reassembled our steel steeds and, after a brief tune-up from a local bike shop (who generously replaced a missing part with a used one they had lying around), soon had them ready to roll with new brake pads, chains, and cassettes. We pedaled out of Rome on June 27th, six months to the day we left that same hotel, sans bikes, on a train for Napoli.

This time there would be no trains.

Just as we never thought it would take nearly seven months to eventually cross Italy, we didn’t quite expect it to take five days to reach the Adriatic Sea from Rome. Despite my best efforts to ensure that the only thing that changed in our trip was the month — that our six-month detour could be harmlessly plucked and set aside like a single hibiscus from a bountiful shrub — I had forgotten a very important piece of equipment: our legs. And it was without those road-tested legs that we found ourselves wrestling our fully-loaded bikes up one of the Giro de Italia’s mountain stages.

We seldom pass a market without stopping.

We seldom pass a market without stopping, especially one that is “Not Just Fruit!”

I never heard of Abruzzo before last week. Tuscany, Umbria, Amalfi Coast, Rome, Napoli, Cinque Terre? Yes, of course. All of them and more. But Abruzzo… never heard of it. Allow me to enlighten. Abruzzo is a region in southern Italy that reaches from the crest of Monti Simbruini east of Rome (Lazio region) all the way across the country to the Adriatic Sea. It’s home to several regional parks, dozens of hilltop towns, winding rivers, turquoise lakes, and more mountains than I care to mention while the wound is so raw. Too soon. It’s also home to Barrea, where Kristin and I were reminded, for the umpteenth time, what a magical, wonderful world we live in.

Our route out of Rome first led through Rome. All roads as the saying goes. We soon made our way onto the backroads of Lazio, angling northeastward into a headwind that would accompany us all week. Our first climb brought us to the hilltop town of Tivoli, a town with a lovely name, perched atop a steep cliff, flanked by waterfalls, and covered in beige. So much beige. We set out with the plan of riding no more than 40 miles on our first day back on the bikes and stuck to the plan, having done plenty of climbing under a scorching sun. We stopped often for large bottles of acqua minerale, frizzante per favore and tried to hide in every bit of shade we could find as the thermometer on my sun-baked Garmin read 106.4° F.

With no campground to be found, and not about to wild-camp five hours before sunset, we happily pulled into a small guesthouse with a pizzeria on the ground floor. An Italian every-grandma showed us where to lock our bicycles in her personal garage and insisted on helping carry our panniers up the stairs to our room. It wasn’t camping, but it was great to be back in small-town Italy.

Kristin back in the saddle and making her way up our biggest mountain pass.

Kristin back in the saddle and making her way up the biggest mountain pass of the week.

The next few days rank as some of the most difficult cycling we’ve done on this tour, and arguably the toughest in Kristin’s life. Whereas I have a long and demented history of throwing my periodically unfit self at ill-conceived tests of endurance, Kristin prefers to wade in gradually. She can suffer with the best of them, I’ve seen her do it, but always with a gradual build-up.

We should have known our route was of questionable sanity when a group of road cyclists yelled, “No, No!” to us as we veered off a highway onto a narrow road leading up a steep hill. It climbed nearly 900 feet in 2 miles. Whose idea was this? Mine. While on a computer, in Florida. The descent into the town of Subiaco lifted our spirits. We sipped our espressos on plastic chairs while eyeing a collection of classic Alfa Romeos that had gathered in the parking lot. But the climbing soon continued, our first of three mountain passes. Cycling-themed graffiti covered the roads, encouraging slogans and designs aimed to inspire riders a fraction of my size, on bikes lighter than a single pannier. This was not a good sign.

Local flavor in Filettino, Italy.

Local flavor in Filettino, Italy.

Kristin was off and walking. Early and often. The heat, the hills, the headwind, and lack of conditioning were taking their toll. Yoga was no preparation for this kind of test. Too much too soon. I zoomed out the elevation profile on the GPS and saw, just beyond this mountain pass that Kristin barely survived, lay another major climb just a few miles beyond the descent. Her eyes begin to water at the news.

Bicycle touring, as we were quickly reminded, is a series of highs and lows. As is life. But, as you may have gathered from reading this blog over the past 15 months (wow!), the highs are higher and the lows are lower out on the road. And the changes can come quickly.

We reached the base of the next hill, again too early in the day for stealth camping without shade and low on water. Kristin was all but trembling with fear at the thought of another climb when we rounded a bend and encountered the sign for a campground. The campground was still under construction, having recently been revived after years of closure, and we were quite sad to hear that the restaurant advertised on the ages-old sign was not open. Nor was the snack bar and store. The teenage girl from reception approached our campsite a few minutes later, arms full of room-temperature bottles of Peroni. A gift to the tired cyclists who had just ascended 3,900 feet of climbing in 30 measly miles.

Mountainside springs like this provide crisp, tasty, clear water.

Mountainside springs like this provide crisp, tasty, clear water. Just don’t drink from the pools.

The next day, our first in Abruzzo, was even harder. I load up on fresh fruit and cold pizza in the cute little hilltop town of Filletino and prepare for another sun-baked mountain pass. I wait every mile or so for fifteen to twenty minutes, hand over some apricots or a handful of cherry tomatoes, and we continue on. Kristin spends the day fighting back tears and willing her legs to work to no avail. Her spirits rise on the descent into Capistrello and then fade just as soon as we realize we have another climb before us in order to reach the town of Avezzano where a bike shop points us to a friend’s motel on the outskirts of town.

Hilltop towns like Capistrello lose their charm after a long day in the saddle.

Hilltop towns like Capistrello lose their charm after a long day in the saddle.

The fourth day back on the bikes, some fifty miles short of where I thought we’d be at that time, wasn’t the most difficult, but it was the worst. A long approach to the day’s major mountain pass, a portion of this year’s Stage 8 course on the Giro de Italia, didn’t help restore Kristin’s strength, nor her confidence. Off and walking near the base of the climb, I finally had to resort to leapfrogging both bikes up the mountain on my own when finally, in a world of pint-sized Fiats and Citroens, a white pickup truck rounded the hairpin beneath us. I waved the driver over, a twenty-something guy with a Specialized S-Works mountain bike in the bed of his truck, and pantomimed that my tired wife needed a lift to the top of the mountain pass. He understood and nodded his agreement and less than two minutes later, I was back on my bike watching Kristin drive away in a stranger’s car, her bike and panniers strewn across the back of his pickup truck. But I wasn’t worried: mountain bikers are good people.

Rolling past the eastern end of Lake Barrea.

Rolling past the eastern end of Lake Barrea.

Free to enjoy the climb, I shifted into a stiffer gear and attacked the hill. My legs were back and I was in Italy, cycling one of the mountain passes on the Giro! Life is beautiful, indeed! And Kristin was safe (I hoped!) and relieved (I knew!). We had a marvelous lunch of capicola, provolone, and ham sandwiches together some eighty minutes later, a meal that would have taken place hours later had that pickup truck not have come cruising by.

We finished the final mountain pass on our route to the Adriatic in a campground in the hilltop town of Barrea where, on our walk back from dinner, we were treated to a view so exquisite that I almost had to pinch myself. The twinkling lights of several hillside villages shone in the twilight as the last rays of the sun speared the distant clouds, illuminating the mountain-ringed lake down below us. If I had seen a view so spectacular before, it was only on the cover of a glossy travel magazine. The photo below barely does it justice.

The view we encountered on the walk back to our tent after a lovely dinner in picturesque Barrea.

The view we encountered on the walk back to our tent after a lovely dinner in picturesque Barrea.

We reached the Adriatic on our fifth day after a 62 mile, primarily downhill, ride from Barrea to Fossacesia. Kristin rode like she had the nine months prior to our detour. She just had to knock the rust off. She would have preferred a chisel over the sledgehammer I handed her. We’re spending a couple nights at a campground on a cobble-strewn beach, resting up before following the coast southeastward. It’s not the wilderness we prefer, but it’s got a pool, a restaurant, WiFi and a market stocked with groceries. All within walking distance. The bicycles will not be ridden today. That’s a promise.

One of the best steak sandwiches I ever had (made!) while camping!

Campground Steak Sandwich: Sautee sliced onion, one red chili pepper and sliced olives in oil with salt & pepper. Add 2 tablespoons of tomato paste and mix. Set aside. Pan-fry a 1/4″ steak in olive oil, sprinkle with garlic powder, melt two slices of provolone on top. Serve on a hoagie roll topped with the sauteed vegetables. Absolutely delicious improv dinner from camp store groceries!

Special Thanks: Kristin and I would like to once again thank Ron Helm and Pacific Biomarkers, Inc., for their generous monthly sponsorship of our trip. We raise a glass of Limoncello in your honor!

6 January, 2015

A New Year in An Other Italy

“So where are you now?” It was the standard start to the weekly conversations we  have with family. What used to be time spent talking about the weather and our jobs is now occupied with ritualistic queries about where we are and where we’re headed. Next week, the second answer becomes the first and a new location becomes the destination named second. Ad infinitum, as they may have said during Roman times.

“We’re in Naples.”

“Ooh, nice,” came the reply, drawing out the words as one does when impressed by something glamorous, as if we had mentioned we just bought a Mercedes-Benz or were staying at the Ritz-Carlton.

Listening on speakerphone from across the room, I gave a start. Nice? It was a comment that ran counter to the myriad warnings, smirks, and raised eyebrows given by everyone we spoke to, Italian and otherwise, concerning our planned route through Italy. Nice was not a word one used when discussing Naples. No, definitely not nice.

Struggling to think how one could come to the impression that Naples was a nice place to visit, I came to the conclusion that, like many things, it was Florida’s fault. The younger Floridian town of Naples, one of the wealthiest cities in the United States and home to the second largest proportion of millionaires per capita in the country (not to mention palm trees, golf courses and widows), had apparently not only borrowed the Italian city’s name, but had succeeded in becoming the default image an American thinks of upon hearing the name Naples. I wondered if those beachfront Floridian towns with names like Naples and Venice, developed in the early 20th century to lure second and third generation Italian-Americans away from the wintry northeast,  didn’t just capitalize on snowbird pensions, but their idyllic, unrealistic memory of the Old World as well.

Or perhaps there had been a postcard. Or a very carefully selected route through town, en route to Pompeii, behind the safety of a tour bus window. After all, the original Napoli, as it’s referred to in Italian, does offer some waterfront appeal, particularly as one looks south across the bay to Mount Vesuvius from Castel dell’Ovo, or up into the hills of the Volermo district.

Looking south across the Bay of Naples to Mount Vesuvius from the spit of land connecting Castel dell'Ovo with the Chiai neighborhood in Naples.

Looking south across the Bay of Naples to Mount Vesuvius from the spit of land connecting Castel dell’Ovo with the Chiai neighborhood in Naples. The castle is on a peninsula to the right, the city is to the left.

The rest of Naples, however, does not look like this. It’s a gritty, graffiti-covered labyrinth of rutted cobblestone streets snaking their way past the crumbling facade of unappealing post-war, multi-family homes whose ubiquitous clotheslines and flapping laundry are the only ornamentation. It’s a city where even the cathedrals and statues are not spared from the rampant vandalism; where one walks through litter and broken glass as if it were leaves on a forest trail. No, Naples is not nice. It’s a city by a sea whose salty air can’t be smelled above the noxious fumes of rampaging motorbikes and the pungent rivulets of garbage juice flowing through the cracks in the basalt paving stones.

And that’s just the area where it’s reasonably safe for tourists to go.

A small trash fire in front of a cathedral in the historic quarter on Via dei Tribunali, one of the most popular streets for tourists to visit in Naples.

A small trash fire in front of a cathedral in the historic quarter on Via dei Tribunali, one of the most popular streets for tourists to visit in Naples.

Naples, a perpetual contender for Europe’s highest murder rate, is comprised of thirty quarters. Venture away from the five districts nearest the castles and historic quarter (Volermo, Chiai, Montecalvario, San Ferdinano, and San Giuseppe) and you quickly enter a different, far more dangerous place with even less appeal than I’ve described. In short, you enter the territories of the Mafia clans, the very neighborhoods that fuel the vast criminal network that controls so much of southern Italy. Roberto Saviano, a son of Naples, in his critically-acclaimed investigative book “Gomorrah: A Personal Journey Into the Violent International Empire of Naples’ Organized Crime System” writes:

It’s strange how no matter whom you’re talking to, no matter about what, as soon as you say you’re going away, you receive all sorts of good wishes, congratulations and enthusiastic responses: “Good for you, you’re doing the right thing, I’d leave too.” You don’t need to supply any details or explain what you’re going to do. Whatever the reason, it will be better than the reasons you have for sticking around here.

We stuck around for the four days straddling the New Year’s festivities for which Naples is known for. Italians from all over the country made their way to Piazza del Plebiscito for nine hours of live music and entertainment, a party that didn’t wrap up until six in the morning. Like so many of the Capodanno revelers, we took the train, leaving our bikes in Rome. Not only was it extraordinarily windy during our time in Naples, but very cold as well, with snow flurries in the air on two of the days we were there. The route would also have taken us through some of the aforementioned Camorristi-infested neighborhoods, only to plunge us into an area so unfit for cycling that we, for the first time in memory, went four days without seeing a single bicycle. We were glad we left them behind.

The historic quarter is home to a large number of churches and tremendous amounts of graffiti.

The historic quarter is home to a large number of churches and tremendous amounts of graffiti.

Our guesthouse, for which we needed four separate keys to access, was within a ten minute walk of the square where the party would be. It was just two blocks off the main shopping street in Naples, where counterfeit leather bags and designer perfumes were sold on collapsible tables outside legitimate stores for one-fifth of the price inside. A shop downstairs from our room repaired (rigged?) slot and video poker machines. The incessant roar of 500cc scooters–no cute Vespas in these parts–echoed throughout the narrow, hilly streets of our temporary neighborhood. It wasn’t the only noise we’d hear during our stay.

Naples is known for its trash problems. We're told things are much, much better these days than a few years ago. Let that sink in while you look at this photo.

Naples is known for its trash problems. People say things are much, much better these days than a few years ago.

The owner of our guesthouse explained a few important things to us concerning our New Year’s stay in Naples. For starters, Italians receive what amounts to a thirteenth monthly paycheck, tredicesima, at Christmas. Neapolitans, we were told, spend this money on fireworks. Temporary fireworks shops were set up on every street corner by mid-morning and staffed well into the dark, their wares being exploded round the clock throughout the neighborhood. Never were you out of earshot of the explosives. And not those little firecrackers you sometimes see lit off in packs of 25. No, these were cherry bombs, M-80s, and other explosives that were deemed illegal several decades ago in the United States. In the narrow streets of Montecalvario, the reverberations of the M-80 bombardment, explosives originally developed by the U.S. military to simulate artillery fire, were constant and, when combined with the rapid fire blasts of lesser fireworks lit in bunches, simulated an aural warzone.  The imitation sounds of mortars, assault rifles, and flares were all there. The siege lasted for days.

The usage of fireworks was so constant and so widespread that the city of Naples, home to a nationally-televised New Year’s celebration (think Times Square in New York City) doesn’t set off their own fireworks until 2 a.m. so as to not compete with the people lighting their own off. We were in the Capodanno crowd, along with well over a hundred thousand other people, and hastily-emptied bottles of cheap Prosecco were tossed to the ground as lighters throughout the crowd were struck. Fireworks began rocketing into the air from all directions: roman candles, small mortars, sparklers, balloon-like lanterns, and firecrackers began going off all around us. There was barely room to turn in place, the crowd was packed so tight, yet that didn’t stop the pyrotechnics.

A small burst of fireworks at midnight in Naples. The main show didn't go off until 2 a.m.

A small burst of fireworks at midnight in Naples. The main show didn’t go off until 2 a.m.

By the morning of January 1st, centuries-old streets were stained with gunpowder residue and a couple visiting from northern Italy, proudly told us what a successful Capodanno it was for Naples: there weren’t any fireworks-related deaths. “Usually there are three or four,” the woman said.

Minutes before the new year in Naples. And yes, that is a Stinky Spoke hat.

Minutes before the new year in Naples. And yes, that is my Stinky Spoke hat.

Fireworks aren’t the only thing to watch out for on New Year’s in Naples. Another tip we were given, in addition to the fireworks warning, was to only walk in the center of the street at midnight. “Neapolitans,” the lady of the guesthouse explained, “take the phrase ‘out with the old and in with the new’ quite literally. At midnight, they throw bottles and glasses from their balconies down onto the street. Some will throw their dinner plates and even pots and pans too. Some people even throw furniture or small appliances. Anything they wish to get rid of, so you should really stay in the square or go inside at midnight.”

Hearing this reminded me instantly of being a kid in New Jersey and going out on the front steps and banging our pans together as the clock struck midnight. I always thought it was a really odd thing to do. But it suddenly made a bit more sense. Though I can’t be sure where this tradition originated in my family, the fact that my grandmother’s family came from Naples at least allows me to wonder if, unbeknownst to us, we were tapping into our own distant, faint, Neapolitan roots. I’d like to think so.

The next morning, over breakfast at our guesthouse, a photographer from London commented, “You’ll either love Naples, or you’ll hate it. There’s no middle ground with such a city.” Though I can see why he’d say this, I have to admit that I’m still on the fence.

A final image to leave town with, and hopefully the one I remember the most years from now.

A final image to leave town with, and hopefully the one I remember the most years from now.

We spent the first day of 2015 struggling in vain to avoid stepping in the broken glass strewn across the streets, all the while trying to form an opinion on this city. Sure, there are the issues with the garbage and the graffiti and both major and minor crime, but this is also a place that’s alive. Unlike Florence or Siena or even Rome, Naples has a lived-in aspect that is endearing. It’s not putting on airs. Life here is hard and ugly and you’re never more than a half-step from being run over by a motorbike, but it’s also the birthplace of pizza, a city where even the nicest restaurants will serve you a bowl of fried doughy zeppole as an appetizer, and where anchovies are added to everything, turning any dish into an alice delight.

So no, I don’t hate Naples. Nor do I love it. Kristin and I discussed the city’s pros and cons over a final pair of margherita pizzas — red, white, and green for the Italian flag and named after Queen Margherita in 1889 — and decided that we’d return. We’d come back to eat. We’d come to shop. And then we’d get the hell out of town and be thankful we don’t live there.

Just as my ancestors did.

Special Thanks: Kristin and I finished up 2014 with a wonderful day-trip to Pompeii, followed by a terrific meal celebrating her birthday. Kristin would like to issue a personal thank you to family and friends who sent along some birthday cheer. It means so much to be remembered, even when out of sight. Similarly, we also want to thank my mountain biking friend Chris Newman for his generosity. There’s nothing better than hearing from someone we didn’t even realize was following this blog. We also want to thank Mark Gifford, a Wyoming resident who sneakily picked up our tab at a pub last weekend where a bunch of Americans had gathered to watch the NFL. Lastly, we have to thank two tour companies in Rome. We were fortunate to enjoy two excellent tours with Angel Tours, one of Vatican City and another of Rome, the latter of which was a Christmas gift from one cyclist to another. Thank you Sean! And though we didn’t end up using Amazing Rome Tours due to a scheduling conflict, the company’s manager, Nicola, put us up in his lovely apartment for two nights, cooked for us, and took us on an excellent, private tour of Rome’s parks and aqueducts. You guys were the best and anyone going to Rome should not hesitate to contact either of these companies!

24 December, 2014

All Roads Lead to Rome

While the mental hassle and physical challenge of touring in Morocco managed to sap some of our enthusiasm for bicycle travel, it only took a few days in bella Italy to fully rejuvenate our spirits–and then some! For nowhere else does it feel perfectly normal to stop in the middle of a mountain climb, wet from the rain, and enjoy a four course gourmet lunch over a bottle of the house Chianti.  For few are the places where we can pedal out of a medieval town in the morning, turn the wheels through a landscape of olive groves and vineyards, and arrive in a town more stunning and historically important than the last–and know that the next day will bring one even more stupendous. Oh, wonderful Italy! How I am so happy to be here, with all the time in the world, making the most of every day we have by sometimes doing nothing at all. From the museums to the food to the lonely forest roads whose habit of suddenly turning to mud and gravel keeps the cars at bay; it has been everything we hoped it would, and so much more than others have suggested.

The view of the Piazza del Campo in Siena, site of a twice-annual horserace on a tight, hilly course.

The view of the Piazza del Campo in Siena, site of a twice-annual horse race on a tight, hilly course.

The topic of cycling in Italy is a strange thing. Throughout our travels in Europe we have spoken with numerous cyclists, roadies and tourers alike, and they all said the same thing: Italy is their favorite place to travel, but they would never want to cycle there. Perhaps it’s because they often come in the summer when the country swells with visitors and heat-stricken Italians take to the roads to vent their frustrations. Perhaps they think only of the congested roads of Rome where driving is known to be a contact sport. Or perhaps they think only of the narrow, winding roads of the Amalfi Coast. I don’t know. What I do know, first hand, is that Tuscany and Umbria are lovely places to bicycle in December. Yes, it can get a little rainy, but the temperature has seldom dipped below 40° F (5° C) except above 3,000 feet (1,000 meters) in the Apennine Mountains, and the roads have been wonderfully devoid of traffic. And the drivers we have faced, including within the city limits of Rome and Florence, have been no less courteous than anywhere else. And though we haven’t spotted many bicycle paths outside of Florence, we’re practically as big as most Italian cars, what with all of our bags and 29er tires. No, the only downside to bicycle touring in the winter in Italy is that the campgrounds are nearly all locked up tight for the season and the widespread agricultural, private, and steeply-sloping land makes stealth camping a challenge. That and having to dim the lights in hopes of remaining unseen through 14 hours of darkness.

Kristin weaving through the traffic in front of the Duomo in Florence.

Kristin weaving through the traffic in front of the Basilica di Santa Maria in Florence.

So we haven’t used our tent in Italy, but we probably wouldn’t have wanted to in summer either. With towns like Lucca, Florence, Siena, and Orvieto, to name a few, what draw would there be to a crowded commercial campground? No, we are plenty happy to visit these towns whose architecture, art, and food we’ve only ever read–and dreamed–about.

Continuing south out of Tuscany.

Continuing south out of Tuscany towards Umbria and the Medieval town of Orvieto.

Our first day out of Livorno, the port city where we arrived by ferry at close to midnight, took us right through Pisa. We didn’t have any desire to pedal out of our way to see the famed tilting tower, but we were riding right past it on our way to Lucca. The little boy that still lurks inside me shakes with joy and wonder over this last statement. Who among us wasn’t amazed by this mythical leaning tower as a child? Yet there we were, knowing our agenda was so filled with world renown attractions that Pisa was little more than a quick stop for lunch, warranting no more attention than Clark W. Griswold gave the Grand Canyon. So we took our photos, ate our pizza in Pisa, and moved on to Lucca, then into the mountains en route to Florence, former home of Dante, Michelangelo, and numerous other one-name superstars. I want to talk about David.

The famed Ponte Vechio bridge on the Arno in Florence.

The famed Ponte Vechio bridge on the Arno in Florence.

You see, David and I go way back. To 1993 to be precise. I was Co-Editor-in-Chief of the high school newspaper and and we were spotlighting the International Travel Club’s recent trip to Italy on the front page. Above the fold in journo speak. The selection of photos we were provided with were, to use a scientific term, crap. No group photos. Nothing really showcasing Italy’s scenery or architecture. Except one photo: Michelangelo’s David. I had taken an art history class and had an appreciation for Renaissance art and knew there were few things more Italian than this statue. My co-editor agreed. And neither he, nor I, nor our teacher-advisor, considered the fact that the newspaper was distributed throughout the entire school district, not just the high school. That’s right ladies and gentleman: full-frontal male nudity sent straight to every eight year old little boy and girl in town. I was stripped of my editorship halfway through first period. But, look at me now! And look at David! Let’s see you shut down my blog, Principal Torre!

Yes, I had Kristin take this photo specifically for telling this story about the David and my high school newspaper.

Yes, I had Kristin take this photo specifically for telling this story about the David and my high school newspaper.

I kid. Principal Torre is no longer principal, but he still is the uncle of one of my great friends and I actually got to see him just two years ago at a wedding. The genitalia of biblical characters did not come up in conversation.

Florence was amazing, simply amazing. Paintings by Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo and statues everywhere, and the cathedrals and Medici palaces, and the bridges, and the food. Yes, the food. But not the food in the cities. We ate fabulously well in Siena, splurging on our last night in Tuscany, and we ate similarly well at an apertivo in Florence called Soul Kitchen where, purchase of a cocktail gets you access to a delicious, never-ending buffet of really good, albeit basic, Italian dishes. No, the meal I wish to talk about was up in the mountains above Lucca, en route to San Momme. We were the only people there, it was the only source of food we had seen for over 20 miles. It was raining and cold.

Christmas in Florence!

Christmas in Florence!

I head inside while Kristin locks the bikes together and dilly-dallies with her helmet and gloves. Lei parla Inglese? The woman tells me to wait one minute and disappears into the kitchen. And then, moments later, out walks a stunningly beautiful twenty-something Italian woman, smiling wide, completely ignoring the fact that I’m dripping wet in cycling attire, and that my helmet is still on. She’s as charming and welcoming as can be. She shows me to a table near the window, presents the prix fixe menu, and walks to the bar to get the bottle of fizzy water I requested. I was sad to see her go, but I loved watching her walk away. That’s how the phrase goes, right? Just checking.

In need of a cold shower, err, to see what’s keeping Kristin, I went back out into the rain. “Listen, honey, I know you’re a bit self-conscious about how you look when we’re in the cities, and I know you’re feeling wet and schlubby and grubby right now, but I just have to warn you Miss Italia is our waitress.” Kristin rolls her eyes. “No, I’m serious, Miss Italia is our waitress, but she’s very nice. You look great in your raingear and I love you and I’m sure she couldn’t pedal up that mountain.”

We get to the table and, after placing our order, Kristin expresses her surprise at just how attractive the woman is. “You’re right, she’s unusually beautiful,” she said. I then directed Kristin’s attention to a bulletin board near the lobby that featured awards and news clippings from several years ago. The woman was quite literally Miss Teen Italia just a few years prior. And after our incredible meal, we then chatted with the beauty queen, her mother, and her grandmother for nearly fifteen minutes, telling our story and answering their questions, all the while receiving complements and detecting not a trace of conceit or pretension from our gorgeous, down-to-earth interpreter who, over the course of a lunch, shattered every stereotype we’ve heard about beauty queens and proved false everything the Lonely Planet guide had to say about Italian women.

More holiday lights in Orvieto. Buon Natale!

More holiday lights in Orvieto. Buon Natale!

Oh, mi scusi, you thought I was going to talk about the food. Okay, for the foodies among you: fried polenta crostini with porcini sautee (appetizer); porcini risotto and spinach & ricotta ravioli in a walnut cream sauce (primi); mixed grill with potatoes (secondi); chocolate tort and espresso (desert). No, we don’t normally eat like this for lunch in the midst of a huge ride (PB&J is more our style), nor would we ever down a carafe of Chianti while doing so, but when in Rome…

And that’s where we are. We’re in Rome. We arrived in the Eternal City exactly 9 months and 9,524 miles after leaving Seattle. Just in time for Christmas which, even as a seldom-practicing Catholic, is pretty neat. And speaking of Christmas, the clock struck midnight on Christmas Eve as I typed the words Eternal City in the previous sentence and fireworks and bells could be heard outside our hilltop hotel room. We stepped outside onto our balcony and listened to a chorus of church bells ringing throughout the city below us as we stared to the illuminated dome of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year everyone! This has been an incredible year for us, one that was a long time coming, and every pair of eyes that falls upon these words plays a part in our success. Thank you.

Christmas market street vendor in Orvieto with some pretty good beer (Deliver us from Peroni, Amen!)

About to cheer on our Seahawks in Orvieto with some good craft beer, care of Kristin’s friend Megan back home in Seattle. Deliver us from Peroni, Amen!

Special Thanks: Tremendous thanks to everyone who thought of us this holiday season! Tina and James Miller, Megan Knight, and Brittany Taylor all helped make a season bright and, for that, we thank you all a ton! We’d also like to thank our parents, siblings, and dear friends Alan & Katrina for remembering us while we’re away and for stuffing our Paypal stocking with plenty of yuletide cheer. We love you all!

And in Other News: I’m also very excited to announce that an essay I wrote this past October was accepted for publication in Adventure Cyclist magazine. I’m still awaiting the details, but I’m told it will likely appear in a 2016 issue. Adventure Cyclist is the only magazine in the United States devoted entirely to bicycle touring and is free with an annual membership to the Adventure Cycling Association of America, a group whose ranks have swelled to 47,000 dues-paying members. If you enjoy cycling in any form, do consider becoming a member.

Our Waldorf Astoria Stay: The desk I’m writing on is made of a gorgeous blue and gold-flaked marble. There was a bottle of champagne on ice when we arrived, chocolate covered strawberries on the coffee table between two luxurious armchairs, and we have a private balcony overlooking Rome and the Vatican City. For free. I’m using the last of my Hilton Honors points for five nights in one of the finest hotels in Europe, a hotel bedecked with 17th and 18th century art. I say this not to brag, but to underscore just how wonderful it can be to use hotel loyalty plans if you travel a lot for business. I had to travel a lot the past few years for work. But I knew it was all building towards this moment. Here’s a rundown of how I put my Hilton Honors points to use: 3 nights in Quebec City, 4 nights in Edinburgh, 4 nights in Amsterdam, 3 nights in Madrid, and 5 nights in Rome. Not only did using the points earn free hotel rooms, but free breakfasts, complementary wifi, access to Executive Lounges (i.e. free drinks and appetizer buffets), and room upgrades. I inquired about extending our stay here in Rome for one extra night. Our upgraded room is 390€ per night ($475 with a historically good exchange rate) , but they’d let me have it for the basic room rate of 280€. No thanks, we know when it’s time to move on. We might not be camping, but we still have our limits. Anyway, I know there are budget travel purists out there who would chafe at this frivolity, but using the hotel points proved extremely valuable this year, especially in Edinburgh during Fringe Fest and in Amsterdam on a weekend, where hotel rates are through the roof. And, besides, a little pampering does the body–and the marriage–good.

13 December, 2014

Escape from Morocco

Our time in Morocco has come to an end and, beautiful photos and a few choice memories aside, I coudn’t be happier. And it’s disappointing to say that, as Morocco was one of the three countries I always listed when asked where I was most excited to go (Scotland and New Zealand were the other two). We knew going in that there would be some petty annoyances — touts, loose dogs, and begging children, to name a few — but there was something far more insidious lurking in the background, ultimately making it very difficult to relax and enjoy oneself. And it was never more evident than during our ten day stay in Merzouga, at the end of the road in eastern Morocco. The hotel, a recommendation from another cyclist and reader of this blog, was comfortable enough. The food ranged from adequate to superb, depending on the night. All in all, money well spent. I’ll spare you the gory details, but just know that nobody — absolutely nobody working in Moroccan tourism — can be trusted. Those who get a beer or two in me and are up for a long-winded rant about a hotel trying to cancel our taxi and a tour guide trying to bait us into leaving bad reviews to bolster their friend’s business can hear the full story in person.

Our bikes were strapped to the roof of a 1984 Mercedes taxi for a 12 hour drive from Merzouga to Tangier.

Our bikes were strapped to the roof of a 1984 Mercedes taxi for a 12 hour drive from Merzouga to Tangier.

But let’s keep things positive. Here’s the slideshow I put together before leaving Morocco. The memories of the scenery, some of the people we met, and of our camel trek and the food will certainly shine brighter in my memory years from now, once distance puts the annoyances and frustrations firmly out of view.

Not wanting to pedal back the way we came, we opted to spend an extra week in Merzouga and hire a taxi to drive us 12 hours back to Tangier on December 7th, leaving us a day to head back into Tangier (surprisingly enough, a town we preferred over Fes) for a haircut and one last meal at Ray Charley’s on the Petite Socco.  Then, the next morning, we pedaled the 20 miles to Tangier Mediterranean Port for, what would be, a 53 hour ferry ride to Livorno, Italy.

We set sail on the Ikarus Palace across the length of the Mediterranean. Krstin was thrilled to see a circus board the ship with us, including a trailer marked "live animals."

We set sail on the Ikarus Palace across the length of the Mediterranean. Kristin was thrilled to see a circus board the ship with us, including a trailer marked “live animals.”

If you’re curious what being on a ferry for over 2 days is like, here’s an in-depth summary of the many ways you can pass the time: Sleeping, reading, playing cards, and eating. That’s it. There’s nothing else to do. So, yeah, it’s kind of like a cruise, minus the really cheesy stage acts. We opted to get a cabin and pre-paid three meals a day, which turned out to be a great bargain. And it was nice to not have to worry about our bags when we’d get up to walk around, though many of the people on board, particularly Moroccans, just slept out in the open in the hallways and lounges. The only downside was we didn’t get to Livorno until well past 11pm, forcing a very cold, dark 4 mile ride to our hotel around midnight. We carried headlights for 9 months and never needed them. Until that night. Better safe than sorry; bring your lights!

Our cabin aboard the Ikarus Palace.

Our cabin aboard the Ikarus Palace.

I spent some of the next day updating the Countries Visited page with route and expense information for Morocco, as well as a bit more commentary on some of the things we liked and didn’t like about the country. I suspect anyone who visits the country as part of an all-inclusive tour will be shielded from many of the annoyances we faced, but those of you out there travelling independently should know to stay on guard. The people in the countryside are wonderful. The professionals you meet in the cities are similarly likeable and trustworthy, but many of the rest of the people you deal with will try to treat you as if you are a money-filled pinata. And they will try to get themselves and their friends as many swings at you as possible.

We met Alessandro in line for the ferry, as he was finishing up a motorcycle tour of Morocco and headed back to his homeland. We ended up meeting up for a few meals so we could hit him up for travel advice and he got to practice his English. I told him my grandmother was from Italy. He replied by telling me his family lived in Pisa for a thousand years. So it's kind of the same thing, right?

We met Alessandro in line for the ferry, as he was finishing up a motorcycle tour of Morocco and headed back to his homeland. We ended up sharing a few meals (and an espresso or two) during the crossing and we hit him up for travel advice and he got to practice his English. I told him my grandmother’s family was from Italy. He replied by telling me his family lived in Pisa for a thousand years. So it’s kind of the same thing, right?

We’re currently in Lucca, Italy in the midst of a loop through northern Tuscany, en route to Florence (Firenzi) and Siena, then southward through Tuscany and Umbria to Rome in time for Christmas. Look for an Italian post in the next week or so. Ciao!

Sunset over the Mediterranean. Spain to the right, Algeria to the left.

Sunset over the Mediterranean. Spain to the right, Algeria to the left.