Doubts in Italy
In October 2020 we arrived in Italy with our bikes, a beautiful cycling country that would seriously test us. Unfortunately, the next two weeks will not allow us to fully enjoy this destination. In this blog you can read all about our fears and doubts in la bella Italia.
A rough start in Italy
Today we are cycling from Switzerland to Italy, the next destination of our trip. We are curious to see what Italy has to offer. We read from many other cyclists that Italy is one of their favourite countries to make a cycling trip, our expectations are high!
Starting in Lugano, Switzerland (read all about our cycling adventure in Switzerland here) we follow the Benjamin cycle route that leads all the way to Rome. We hope to reach the capital through the Tuscan hills and we haven't got the faintest idea which cycle route we'll take after that. Will we stay in Italy a bit longer or do we make the crossing by boat to Spain?
During our last morning in Switzerland, the weather turns for the worst. We are completely soaked after only 5 minutes on the bicycles. Our faces continuously catch the cold rain due to heavy wind, it gets unbearable to cycle quickly and after only 10 km of cycling we are forced to take shelter. We take a break together with two other cyclists, girls from Switzerland, whom we met the same morning at the campsite. Our bodies appreciate a warm coffee and hot chocolate, but outside the rain is getting heavier each minute. The weather forecast is not good and only predicts stronger winds and more heavy rain the next 24 hours, so we decide to put on our rain cloths again and head towards Valmadrera, Italy. "It's only 62km, we can do this!" we say to each other and we jump back on our bikes. We need to reach this place because we have booked a nice Airbnb in order to take shelter from the heavy storm that is ravaging Switzerland and the north of Italy.
Storm Alexis rages ever more violently and once in Chiasso we call it a day. We can't cycle in this weather, so for the first time this trip we have to throw our bikes on the train. Everything goes smoothly up until the last change in Moltena, Italy. The conductor tells us the bikes are not allowed on the train, even though we have bought a ticket for them and there is literally only 5 or 6 people on the train. "Don't listen to him, he's a local idiot!" bystanders are shouting from the platform and they even help us lifting the bikes onto the train. Suddenly the conductor sprints towards us and aggressively turns to Niels, after which we quickly decide that getting into a fight is the last thing we want. We have no choice than to accept his bad temper, but here we are. Amidst the falling evening in an unknown Italian town, while storm Alexis fires one lightning bolt after another at us in the background.
There is no shelter in the train station and the next train will only be arriving in one hour. Our bnb is 12 km further away so we pull ourselves together to brave the fierce storm as it gets darker and darker. The cycle paths are completely flooded, the route takes us over a big highway with heavy traffic, something we try to avoid as much as possible. We can't trust Google Maps at the moment and try to find our own way, but we get lost quickly. "I'm scared", Stefanie says to Niels when we are in the middle of a flooded forest path. We literally get blown off our bikes, the branches fly around everywhere and we feel the power of nature like never before. "Unfortunately we have no other choice, we have to keep going!", Niels calls out to Stefanie and we keep pedalling. Unbelievable but true, out of nowhere a runner appears and we look at each other suprised. "Who on earth is going for a run in this weather?" we think. The jogger responds with the same look in his eyes. This friendly man, whom we later refer to as our guardian angel, runs alongside us for fifteen minutes. He leads us through small, muddy paths but in the end we get back on track, eternally grateful to him!
The evening has fallen when we finally arrive at our airbnb for the next few days. The wet clothes are taken off at lightning speed, we park our bikes safely and dry our wet stuff in the hallway. After a hot shower, Niels crosses the street to get the most delicious pizza ever. "Only 4.5 € , this makes my day!" says Niels to Stefanie. This cycling day felt a thousand times harder for us than climbing the Alps, for the first time we were really scared. Yet we are also grateful, despite the bad-tempered conductor, there were many people crossing our path to help us out. The people at the train platform, the jogger and the man who invited us for an overnight stay 100 meters away from the airbnb. We crawl into our warm bed but barely sleep, storm Alexis keeps raging fiercely all night and the blinds in our bedroom won't stop shaking. We are happy not to be sleeping in our tent for the next nights.
And suddenly things turn silent
When storm Alexis is finally over we take the opportunity to discover Valmadrera. A nice little town next to Como and a nice hike rewards you with a cool view of the city, finally a blue sky!
After taking a break from cycling for a few days we head towards Lake Como and enjoy the surroundings. We are in an interesting place, but something is bothering us. For the first time during our trip we both feel a little bit lost. We don't enjoy spending time on the bikes and we quickly realise we have nut fully recovered from cycling through the storm. We see flooded streets, trees are torn out from the ground and the river has burst its banks. You can't call it cycling, we are continuously zigzagging and have to change our route more often than we would like.
Cycling via the main roads is the only option at this point to keep going, but we soon get tired of this. Things turn silent, between the two of us but also with the people we meet. A friendly hello from our side is rarely answered by the Italians, we barely get a glimpse back. The campsites are closed because of covid or the storm, and we don't get any response to our Warmshowers requests either. Suddenly it feels like we're not welcome here and everywhere we look there is doubt in people's behaviour. Lombardy, where we currently are, is turning silent and we have to ask ourselves the question: "Is it the right time to visit this part of Italy?"
The highlight of Italy? Cycling in the Apennines!
For the time being Italy has not surprised us in a positive way. The contrast with Switzerland is big. No snowy mountain peaks in the background, predominantly badly constructed bicycle paths, a lot of traffic and not always safe for cyclists... We are still in the part that has been hit hard by storm Alexis which makes wild camping very difficult. The locals are understandably not ready to open up their gardens and we encounter many beaver rats (which makes wild camping even less attractive). There is little variation during these first days and we miss the mountains combined with the physical challenge. Who would have thought that at some point we would even miss the suffering.
Off course, we are not only experiencing bad things in Italy, we have had some great moments as well. However, we feel it's important to share this part of our journey with, because travelling around the world by bike also has its difficult moments. We don't want to be those people who are only sharing positive vibes, because sometimes life can throw many obstacles your way, so why hide them?
Once we are one week into cycling through Italy, we arrive at the Apennines. The Apennines are called the spine of Italy with a 1,200km length and peaks up to 3,000m. It is a wonderful place and offers challenging days in the saddle, while the weather turns sunny and cold. Our record for the mist altimeters in one day gets crushed (yes, more than a cycling day in the Alps), but physically we feel unstoppable.
At the end of our first day of cycling in the Apennines, we arrive at the only campsite that is still open. There is no one around and it feels we have just arrived in a little ghost town, we have to search for a while before we see anyone. Suddenly there is an older man working outside and we address to him, he tells us we can place our tent anywhere. When we take out the tent to pitch it, the owner of the campsite suddenly appears. "You guys aren't going to sleep in the tent tonight, are you? It's going to freeze really hard!". He offers us a place in one of his huts for the same price. Suddenly there is that hospitality we have been looking for in Italy, would it have anything to do with the healthy, fresh mountain air?
After a wonderful, but still cold, night in the mountain hut we jump on our bikes very early the next day. It's our best day of cycling so far and when the sun comes out we are suddenly cycling in our t-shirts again. Italy is making up for everything we had experienced in the first few days, and this evening we very easily find a place to sleep. We talk to a lady who is hanging out of her window and we are allowed to pitch our tent on her gigantic domain in the middle of Italian olive trees. Even though she doesn't speak a single letter of English (and we don't speak a single letter of Italian), she comes over to chat with us for at least fifteen minutes and hands over some fresh grapes.
When doubts take over
We are happy while cycling through the Italians mountains. We meet people, things aren't silent between the two of us and the sun is shining more and more every day. At the same time, however, messages from friends and family reach us. Italian covid rules would turn very strict and a lockdown is awaiting us, causing our doubts to come into our minds once again.
The atmosphere changes and it's time for an extensive conversation to put our own doubts, fears and feelings on the table. Stefanie says she wants to see how far Italy can take us and wants to stop letting herself be hounded by covid. Niels' doubts are stronger, but at the same time he knows it's important to let things go, otherwise the rest of this trip will be full of doubts. We make a decision together to keep our Italian adventure alive.
During a bike trip of this kind, or any trip as a couple of long duration, you have moments of giving and taking. With all his heart Niels want to enjoy Italy and let Stefanie enjoy this country, but it is just not an option to neglect his fears and doubts. Fear takes over and the recent appointment is broken by Niels the next day, a very difficult moment in our relationship and this trip. Any amenable reason, is outweighed by the fear of having to be in lockdown in Italy for an extended period of time. Stefanie quickly realises Niels his doubts are a lot bigger than hers. She frames very nicely that it is not up to her to estimate the magnitude of Niels' fear. Niels would be unhappy with cycling in Italy for a long time and Stefanie 'takes one for the team'. When we're in Florence we book tickets for a boat to Spain, where we can still enter without a PCR test and quarantine rules.
To this day, Niels is still very grateful of Stefanie following him in his thoughts about Italy. We can say that as a couple we came out stronger and how nice it is from Stefanie being able to put her priorities aside for the happiness of the other. After some time, Stefanie also acknowledges we have made the right decision financially and practically. Once in Spain we can stay with Niels' mom in Murcia. Warmer temperatures and family in a house where we are welcome as long as we want, surely a better place for a lockdown than in Italy.
An early departure
And so it happens. Not much later we're on the train with our bikes and belongings towards Civitavecchia. There we take a 20-hour ferry to Barcelona. A long journey awaits us but we accept our decision and try not to dwell too long on this sudden change of plans. The trip with the ferry makes us dream about a possible longer crossing with the boat, who knows, one day to South America. We look forward to cycle in Spain!
Our strange trip through Italy does, in our opinion, give a wrong image about this cycling destination. It is a beautiful country, but for us it had everything to do with bad timing. We realise our judgment is unfair and very subjective. Still, we are convinced that in better times we would like to give this bicycle route another chance. If you have any questions about cycling in Italy, adventure cycling routes or possibly the boat trip from Italy to Spain, be sure to let us know!
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