Italy Part III: Wild & Weird

Oh my…I am hot and tired! I sit and begin writing this on my first train since coming to Europe after attempting to cycle half way to Florence yesterday but I ran into snags. I am supposed to stay with a Warm Shower’s host tonight (little do I know at this point what’s in store for me). Okay let me back up a bit…after staying up way too late with the Czech fellows and the hotel craziness, I was tired but felt much better once I got going on my bike. A well-marked, nicely rolling cycle path took Steel and I the 50 kilometers to the to Laga di Garda, the North end anyway. We dropped into the lake area, and began going around the east side of the lake. I stopped in each campground asking about prices, but each time something was a bit off about it…$10 was the toothless, overly friendly host, others were pricey and no internet, or no grocery store near by, or up a hill. In the back of mind, I was still curious about Bardolino, the place the guy in the park the day before had dreamily recommended. After cycling another 50+ kilometers, it was starting to get dark and I was physically ready to be off Steel. Low and behold we came upon the name sake, beautiful town of Garda and just after that a sign for Dubliano, and then a campground for $38! What? Totally…bummed I unexpectedly inquired at the next campground, and well…the nice worker said, “We have a special for people that bike in.” Yes??? “Just $10!” I wanted to hug the fellow.


It took all I had to muster a shower and head out for some Italian eats. I cycled along a lakeside path into the lovely town of Dubliano, which at night just oozed with romance -candle lit little cafes twinkled along the cobblestone walkway up and down alleys and along the edge of the lake. I stopped to observe an impressive body-painting contest, and then picked a sweet little place to dine and watch people stroll by. Wandering back to camp we passed couples enjoying salsa dancing at another establishment along the water. Although Steel wanted to give me a spin, I could no more than gape – that’s shows how tired I was.


I awoke to threatening skies. I packed up some stuff and headed quickly to Garda for a coffee…and found a place with a plug and wifi just as it began to pour. I spent the rest of the day writing, and cooked up a meal and was asleep early. I awoke to sun and opted for a day of writing in the sun. Also, I needed to consider my future options as my European visa is about to run out, and I have at least a month of writing remaining. The only way to extend my stay abroad would be to get into countries that are either not part of the EU, or EU but not in the “Shengen area” of the EU, like Crotia or the UK. I really wanted to cycle to the Eastern European countries, but my options to eventually fly back to the states would be very limited as I must fly out of city where United flies to directly in order to take advantage of the cheap flight (buddy pass), my friend who works for the airline is giving me. So if I ride east, I would eventually need to double back and that would involve ferries and trains. I poked around online, and unbelievably found a one-way flight from Rome to London for $59 including my bicycle! It said only 2 seats were left, so I pulled the trigger and bought the ticket. The only trick was that there was only one day this fare was offered (dates on both sides for weeks were 4x as much). After I bought the ticket and looked closely at routes, I realized that I would have some long cycling days ahead of me to get there in time, but I could do this!!


Up and out not so early, I went to a sweet little hotel for coffee and wifi, and seriously made a plan as to how I would get to Rome. I contacted a Warm Showers host in Florence and was offered a stay. When I realized the distance between where I was at the Lake and Rome, I decided I needed a big biking day today, not the 1/2 day I was antcipating. So at 1:30 p.m., I set off for Modena about 124k south. It was easy enough cycling (flat and well marked bicycle paths). Just as I was getting to the town of Borghetto, an older Italian fellow cycled by on a bicycle and chatted me up -sort of. He did not speak English, but my Spanish was helpful to this engagement. After a bit of jumbled attempts to chat, I understood that he thought I should see this upcoming town, and then led the way. I’m so glad I did, as it turned out to be the most beautiful old city I’ve seen in Italy. A dilapidated castle perched above the town overlooks the rushing water that flows through it. Stone walls line the path up to it the castle –all crumbled and beautiful in a way that only Italy seems capable of making seem utterly romantic. I do believe my guide said some movies had been filmed there. He rode with me a brief ways out of town and I learned that he has a farm some ways back and makes cheese professionally. He ensured that Steel and I got back on the correct cycle path, and then bid us farewell -“arividerchi”. The super nice interlude definitely made my day.


At about 6 p.m., I rolled into the city of Mantua a cool old world heritage city 60 kilometers south of the Laga Di Garda, and was ready to eat! After briefly chatting with three, twenty-something, Polish fellows touring on bicycles, I sat down in the beautiful center plaza for a very quick lasagna meal (lasagna $6, Coke $3.50!). I had already made up my mind that tonight would be a wild camping night-hence the eating out. I figured I could probably make it to Modena by 11p.m.-ish, and shucks, I have not cycled much at night. Plus in Italy, I’ve been on dedicated cycle paths most of the way. I thought it would be rather exhilarating to ride at night. All I had to do was keep following the Euro Velo 7 cycling route that I had been following all day. Easy, right?


For the first couple of hours I was thinking all was good. I enjoyed cycling in the cool night air and felt very stealth-like cruising along in the dark. Mosquitos were a bit of an issue, but not bad as long as I kept moving. All seemed good until where the Velo 7 (north/south route) and Velo 8 (east/west) join together for a bit. The signs for Velo 7 were pointing me east, but my gps was saying that Modena was South. Often though, the bicycle routes wind. But the problem was I did not have a map to confirm my route. The one I had been using throughout Italy, stopped at the end of Lago di Garda, and I intended to pick up another one at a gas station that day, but never passed an open one. It was after 11 p.m. when I realized that the bicycle signs were only listing the Velo 8, I stopped and pitched my tent in the most mosquito infested farm field ever and had a hot, itchy, non-restful sleep! I’m still scratching!


In the morning, I doubled back four hours to Mantua in the pouring rain. I still have no idea where the Velo route 7 turned south. The biggest problem was that I had a Warm Showers host awaiting me in Florence that evening, and there was no way I was going to get the 147 more miles to Florence as it was midday already. So Steel and I went to the train station to explore our options. $15 Euro -cool! This was justifiable given that I had a 2 day free stay in Florence awaiting me. Alas, the began my “train with bike” nightmare. The ticket agent spoke no English and could not tell me what platform to go to, let alone how to get my bike up and down numerous flights of stairs. While there was an elevator inside the station, there was no ramp to get into it. A nice traveler helped me carry Steel into the station. Steel & I barely squeezed into an elevator. His tires squeaked against the walls as we rode down a level, and up another bitty elevator to the proper platform. More help onto train, only to be told we were in the wrong car. Eventually, the conductor let it go. We departed to Modeno where we had to depart, and change to train #2. Although bigger elevators, we quickly had to navigate through a larger station. I tried to go to the last car where I had been told bikes are put, and had various people yelled at me in Italian. This trained did not have a bike car, so finally, a nice gal who spoke good English helped me lift Steel into a regular car. I stood and chatted and laughed with the friendly Italian gal for the 20 min ride to Bologna, where I had to change trains again. After more kindly assistance getting Steel off, a swindler (posing as helpful passenger) grabbed Steel and carried him up two flights of stairs and then was demanding money. I was saved by train attendant, who came up and told me that I could not get on the train, but rather had to take a regional train to Prata. Oh man! Back down and up lifts to another platform, I caught train #3 to Prata. I was starting to get concerned that I might not make it to Florence that night after all. From Prata, I finally caught train flipping #4 to Florence. Six hours later, I arrived at the very bustling station in Florence only to realize that I did not have an exact address of my host. So first things first, I had to find a wifi connection. My host had been very exacting about the time I needed to arrive (like I had a 15 minute window between 8-8:15 pm), which was definitely unusual and was curious to find out why.


After all the events of the day, I was pretty pleased when I got to him home only about 15 minutes late. However, Leonardo was not as pleased, the quirky fifty-something Italian fellow began asking me about the train times and telling me what I should have done differently. I walked into the apartment and the kitchen was bustling with young people cooking. Leonardo showed me to my bed behind a movable screen, and around the apartment, and gave me the low down on the rules. I kept passing and saying hello to more and more people. I finally learned that Leonardo is really into hosting not only Warm Showers guests, but Couch Surfers too, over 2000 thus far! Eight of us guests were there that night from a myriad of countries -Poland, Taiwan, Italy, Mexico, and Hungry. The deal is that if you stay three nights or more, Leonardo asks that you make dinner (preferably something typical of your country) so the three Polish friends were in the kitchen cooking up a traditional Polish dish. The dinner was delicious, and it was very fun to chat with all the folks from around the world. Unfortunately, I was so tired that it was all I could do to keep my head from falling into the potato soup with eggs in some yummy broth (made from the Polish gals’ grandmothers starter that she had brought on their trip!). Afterwards, I was asked to contribute a $1.35 to the meal -quite a deal for such a great dinner! Accessing the bathroom was a bit tricky with that many people, but I was happy to have a bed –I guess some others slept in a tent on his patio. One of the rules was that all guests needed to up and of the house when Leonardo leaves for work, and you can’t come back home until he returns later in the evening. While this is totally understandable, it did not really work so well for my purposes, so I opted not to stay the second night as I intended. Instead I bid my farewell, and was off to find a campground.


I still felt tired from the events of the last couple of days as I cycled around Florence looking for a home. Cycling into the Michelangelo campground was like coming upon an oasis. I set up my tent under an olive tree and then went to hang out at the sweet little cafe that overlooked Florence. I was so happy to just relax and enjoy a coffee. I did not even go and check out Florence until later in the day. Breathing, relaxing, and writing was much more appealing…

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