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Vagamonde: Chasing Euphoria and Getting Hit by Reality
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Saturday, March 12, 2011

Across the ankle of Italy

We hate taking the plane with our bikes. Here is the reason why. We got up at three in the morning. At four, I was starting to worry that our stuff wouldn't fit in the taxi van. It finally did, and after 40 euros, we get dropped off at the airport, just in time for the nightmare to start. Multiple lineups with only one person working behind the counter. Obscure bicycle drop-off areas where we are asked to wait with only 20 minutes left before our plane leaves. Huge security lineups that we had to butt in front of to get to our gate on time. In Barcelona, while boarding our second plane, I watch one of our bikes being loaded into the cargo hold. The box has two huge holes in it. Keeping in mind that it cost us 50 euros for each bike.

Unable to stop running through my head disastrous scenarios, I spend the whole flight chewing my nails. Turns out that my bike is fine but Michèle's forks are slightly bent out of alignment. Luckily I was able to straighten them with the help of Francesco, our WarmShowers contact in Naples.

Our bikes assembled, we follow Francesco through the large and narrow streets of Naples. Some of them jiggling our teeth off the gums due to the cobblestones. We are tired, but stress seems to vanish during the ride. Francesco lives in a large apartment with exquisite design. He shows us pictures of his travels, including pictures of Iceland that make ours look like some cheap polaroids. They feed us like kings and it's off to bed.

Michèle comments: Seeing Francesco's photos from Iceland brought back such good memories of our travels there from way back in May/June 2010 at the beginning of our trip. I would love to return to Iceland one day. I loved the perpetual summer light, but I am even curious about going there in winter. But now we are in Italy, and determined to head east towards Turkey. Francesco had recommended that we cycle the Amalfi coast, from Sorrento to Salerno, but the weather wasn't being supportive of the idea. We knew that we couldn't stay in the constant good weather of the Canary Islands forever, but I don't think we really expected to face chills and rain right away.

The next morning we decide to take the train to Benevento. It's pissing rain and I've got a cold coming on. On top of it, the road out of Naples is supposed to be a nightmare. This is the first real rain we've had since Scotland. Strangely enough, I'm enjoying it. Riding through Naples is pretty crazy. Another car-centric city. I guess I should be academic and talk about the sights and history of the city. But all I'm noticing are street vendors selling umbrellas out of baby strollers. There is one every fifty metres. I guess they must be doing good business today. At the train station, it's the usual confusion. Where is the train and where do you buy tickets? We do eventually figure it out. Then, over the PA system, an announcement in english says to watch out for pickpockets. Michèle's face turns very serious. I tell her not to worry. There are pickpockets everywhere.

Michèle comments: Yes yes yes, there are pickpockets everywhere, but it disturbed me that there was suddenly this warning in english, as if to underline how the tourists are targeted. But I soon felt better after we stopped at one of the coffee bars in the train station. I love the coffee culture in Italy. Especially that you stand at the counter, with one foot propped on the ankle-level metal bar, and have your shot of espresso, as if it were a shooter filled with booze. I also love that the coffee is fantastically good and strong. We heard that bicycles are not officially allowed on the trains, but that we "should insist" if anyone tried to hassle us about them. I bought the train tickets, not mentioning the bicycles, and with the exception of trying to heave and squeeze the bikes through the narrow steps onto the train, we didn't have a problem at all.

We get to Benevento where we meet up with a friend who will host us for several nights. He is a member of an association involved in protecting the local environment. Later in the day, we drive by a group of workers cutting down trees by the side of the road. Our friend tells us that the trees are being cut illegally. He asks me to take a few pictures of the workers as we drive by. He slows down and pulls up beside them, gets out and asks to see their permit. They don't have it with them. He gets back in the car and we head out. Later that night, our friend gets a call from the police telling him he must come down to the station at once. After several refusals he agrees and we all head down. It turns out that the owner of the company cutting down the trees has accused him of racketeering. He proceeds to tell the inspector the real story and magically the charges are dropped. It's like a scene from a movie. There is an overweight, balding police inspector typing away at the police report while our friend dictates the full story in accelerated Italian. Michèle and I are sitting in the background, occasionally looking at each other. The whole ordeal finally comes to an end and the final result was that our names ended up in the police report. But the funniest of all, is that next morning, in the local newspaper, there was an article about three environmentalists threatening road side workers. I guess it doesn't take much to be an activist. You can read the article here.

Benevento has been a shower of hospitality. We have been treated like royalty, invited for dinner and driven around.

Our host even got us into a roman arena for free by telling the ticket agent that we were archeologists from Canada.

Michèle comments: While in Benevento, we stop by the Gilardi bike shop. There, I finally got my derailleur hanger straightened. Since we first got our new Sherpas delivered to France, we noticed that mine had been damaged during the transport. That was almost eight months ago. It seemed only so slightly out of alignment, but now my gears change as smooth as butter.

It's time to go to the next town and the weather is not great. It's cold and wet, but the good news is that spring is coming. For now, we are wearing long sleeves, fleece and rain gear. I've even taken the good old sou'wester out of hibernation and I am, once again, glad to have thick waterproof shoes. Shoes that were a bit too hot for the deserts in Morocco.

Michèle comments: After a morning downpour, the skies cleared and gave us some beautiful glimpses of the Italian countryside, with its villages perched up on hilltops. The traffic eased and our enjoyment of the ride increased. One notices very quickly that there are so many dogs! Most just bark excitedly at you from behind fences with "Attenti al cane" signs. Sadly, some chase after you, running out onto the road without any notice of the cars racing by. I watched with dread as one dog nearly got hit by a car as it tried to come towards me. The driver didn't slow down, but luckily the dog tucked its tail between its legs and scootched out of the way just in time. The dogs we encountered were "all bark no bite" and not at all scary. In fact, when we slowed down to pet them, they would turn tail and run away.

The road leads us to a town call Savignano where we have a contact. It's an old folks home where we were told we could possibly camp. Upon arrival, I go in and get shuffled to various people who don't speak french, english or spanish. The all look confused but entertained. One guy speaks a bit of english so I ask him if we can camp for the night. He gives me a strange look and says.
- Why don't you just use one of the rooms.
So, we end up setting up camp in a small gymnasium. But the hospitality doesn't stop there. A woman on staff asks us if we want to have pizza tonight. Thinking we would share one or two slices with her and some of her friends we say yes. Turns out that she brings us three medium pizzas plus three beers. All for us alone. And, in the morning, it's coffee, juice and croissants.

I have to admit that I have trouble with such unquestionable generosity. Would we do the same? I was taught to cling on to things, to mistrust people. I've even seen individuals laugh when others can't afford things. The need to return the favour to the universe is lurking. But until then, I will go to the penalty box and feel shame. Maybe others should do the same.

Michèle comments: The generosity since we arrived in Italy has caught us a bit off guard. Of course, we knew of the Italian reputation for hospitality, yet so much of it in such a short span of time left us blinking in surprise. The amount of food that was offered to us was above and beyond all our expectations. Both of us are hearty eaters (fuel for the legs is our excuse), but our stomachs just couldn't keep up with the enormous meals coming our way. Instead of outright refusing yet another helping, we came up with the idea of accepting the food for the next day's picnic lunch!

In the morning, the old bitties of the home race for a spot beside a radiator. One of them sits in the heat while counting her rosary beads. After the arrivedercis and the grazies, we head towards a town called Candela. It's cold and rainy and I'm starting to get sick. I get flashbacks to Scotland where we both had a cold for two months.

When we get to Candela, the night has fallen and something tells me that our fortune has deflated. We look around for what is called a Pro Loco: A volunteer run tourist centre where we were told we could probably find accommodation. But all we get is a wild goose chase. It's dark, cold and wet. Camping is not an option. So, we end up staying in a nice, but expensive, B & B. The next day, the weather is sporting thick fog and heavy rain. The owner of the B & B gives us a deal on the room for a second night.

The next day, the sky is clearing. So, it's on to the next town. The road is flat and we have a tail wind. We eat up 96 kilometres without noticing it. Our final destination that day is Trani. Once in this city, we head down to the cathedral. It's the tourist attraction there. It's strange, I don't seem to be on this trip for the historical sights. Sure, it looks nice but I feel mildly interested. I sit back and look at the herds of tourists. There's even a guy playing the accordion. He comes up to me and plays a few bars. Then, he does what most living tourist attractions do. He puts out his hand and give me a wet puppy dog look. My tourist hide has became thick. So, I guess my generosity will have to wait. At the moment, it's being drowned out by my strong dislike for tourism. For us it's off to an other expensive B & B we can't really afford.

Michèle comments: The road from Candela was flat and not so interesting. The only thing that broke the monotony was seeing a group of army guys in camouflage by the side of the road, huge machine guns in hand. That, and the flooded fields from all the rain lately.

The next morning it's time to go to Bari. Aside from the villages it goes through, the road has industrial scenery and tons of traffic. What a shit ride, especially entering Bari. At our meeting spot, we wait for our WarmShowers contact. We are tired and stressed from all the cars and trucks passing us. I inch a little closer to a bad cold.

Michèle comments: We heard that Italy gets a lot of its gasoline from Libya, and with the troubles there recently, the price per litre has shot up. Yet, it doesn't seem to stop people from driving. Cars cars everywhere. I remember a time about two years ago when it cost $1.50 per litre of gasoline in Montréal, an outrageous price for Canada. In Italy, it costs more than 1,50€ per litre.

As promised, a nice big cold is in full swing. Colds are much more difficult to deal with when on the road. You have to rest a long time to make sure the sickness has passed. If you don't, it will creep back in with the first effort you make. Especially if cycling in cold and wet. This rest period can be expensive if you are forced to spend five nights at a hotel. This time we are lucky. Alain (our host) lets us stay for three nights while I get better. I sit in his apartment, with not much to do, while Michèle goes out to run errands.

Unfortunately, we don't get to hang out with Alain for very long. He is extremely busy with his courrier business (Bari Bici Express). At his office, a friend of his interviews us about our trip. It's entertaining reading. Most of the stuff he wrote goes from completely wrong to darn right strange. You can read the article here. We end up going out on our last night and we all ride together to the catch the ferry to Shqipërisë (Albania).

All our Italy photos are here.


  1. Enjoyed your latest travel stories with your environmentalism and catholic guilt you noble savages. LOL

  2. Hey Mavis. Great comment. I see you read the interview with my blond hair and 2.5 cm wheels.

  3. It sounds like you guys are thriving. So awesome to hear.

    Lots of love from Vancouver,


  4. Je veux apprendre l'italien tout de suite pour lire tout cela!

    Bonne continuation.

  5. Brevin: Thanks guys. Yes, things are better. We are excited to start heading east. Stay tuned!

    Viviane: C'est vrai que la traduction n'est pas terrible. On a utilise google translate.

  6. dites donc vous devenez les stars des médias !


  7. Seb! Ca t'a pris longtemps a nous mettre un commentaire. On commencait a s'inquieter!!

  8. Ça me fascine toujours de voir que les journalistes peuvent être si fantaisistes, et ça donne à penser...

    Peut-être qu'un journaliste, c'est un romancier qui voulait avoir du beurre sur son pain.

  9. Noa: Oui, c'est facile d'exagérer. Comme les gens qui croient à toute sorte de complot. Mais, il est vrai que nous avons des roues de 2.5 cm!

  10. j'avais K et Pascal en visite ! :-)