Archive for the Travel Category

(12.58 miles walked)

Despite going to bed at about 2:00 a.m., after such an awesome night on the town, my internal clock woke me up at 7:00 a.m. on the dot, and I decided I better quickly hop through the shower, since there were only two located on this floor of the hostel for the 20 beds.  I ate the free hostel breakfast in the restaurant next door, and then figured that I better get my bicycle packed so that I could spend the rest of my time in Rome without worrying about it.  I headed back to the Mailboxes, Etc. store where I purchased the cardboard box and packing tape, and tried to ask for something I could use to fill in the spaces around parts in the box.  I was hoping to find some old newspapers, or a roll of butcher paper that I could crumple up to fill up some volume, but the store only had a large roll of bubble-wrap at a price of seven euros per meter, which would have been way too expensive for my needs. Outside the store though, there was a little stand with free real-estate magazines, so I grabbed a stack and headed back to the hostel.

I was able to cut down the sides of the box and re-tape the corners to make the box a little smaller, and then I crumpled the paper until little balls filled all the open spaces. I also wrapped some of my dirty laundry around the bike, since my panniers had been right at the weight limit on the way over, but the bike box had had some extra weight allowance. I put the bike box back in luggage storage, and grabbed my camera to head out for the day of sightseeing.

Roman Column of Light, The Pantheon

Roman Column of Light, The Pantheon

The previous night, I had forgotten to bring my GPS data-logger to geotag my photos, so I brought it with me today, and started the day by retracing my steps to see the same sights in the daylight.  I quickly realized that Rome does not seem to have any public restroom facilities, or at least they were too hidden for my discriminating eyes during the at least fifteen hours I spent wandering the streets. At the height of my need, I stumbled into a McDonald’s but one of their restrooms was out of order, and there were 10 grade-school kids waiting in line ahead of me for the remaining one. I’m not sure what they were doing in there, but after ten minutes of waiting, there were still at least 7 ahead of me, and I decided to give up and keep looking. My search brought me to the metro station across from the Colosseum which also didn’t have any facilities. I will refrain from providing details, but what happened next, we, in science, like to call a “soil percolation test”.

The sun was high in the sky by this time, and beating down with such intensity that I started to worry about having forgotten to put on sunscreen before leaving the hostel in the morning. Despite the heat, which was easily in the mid-70s, I kept my jacket on, to at least protect my arms and to allow the collar to give partial neck protection. I found a great spot in the shade on a grassy ledge over-looking the Colosseum and decided to take an hour break for some people watching, and to listen to the Rick Steves Colosseum walking-tour podcast. I was also able to capture time-lapse photos of the activity in the plaza below, to use for making a pseudo-tilt-shift video.

When I decided to move on, I walked around the Palatino to the Circus Maximus, which was little more than a circular grass field surrounded on all sides by hills and being used by various natives and tourists for a little walking, jogging, and group aerobics. I followed the river north, until I crossed a bridge and made my way to the Vatican, although by this time in the afternoon my feet and legs were starting to get really tired from all of the walking I had been doing, and the sky was starting to get pretty dark. I took a single photo of Vatican square, but just couldn’t get up the motivation to do any more exploring.  I grabbed a cup of gelato while leaving the Vatican and started the two mile walk back towards my hostel. About halfway there, the rain hit, but it wasn’t too bad, and I quickly made my way through the streets to the dry shelter of my hostel’s common room.

Before leaving the hostel in the morning, I had talked to some of the roommates about getting dinner together that evening, and I arrived back at the hostel with about an hour to spare, before our appointed meeting time. When everyone showed up, we walked down the street, checking out restaurant menus and stumbled upon an internet cafe, which was perfect, because I needed to print my boarding pass for the next morning’s flight.  Despite not needing to access the internet at all, since I had my boarding pass saved as a PDF on a usb thumb-drive, the place required that I give them my passport so they could copy down all of my information, which seemed strange and a little disconcerting to me, but there wasn’t any way around it from my questioning, and I had to give in, since my friends were waiting. We ended up choosing a restaurant almost directly across from our hostel.

We wanted to sit at a table outside, on the sidewalk, and they ended up seating the six of us with a man and woman who were closer to finishing their meal. Our table was basically attached to their table, and I felt a little sorry for them that this (comparatively) loud group of people was intruding on their meal and space.  But they seemed nice enough, making jokes with the waiter and members of our party, so hopefully we didn’t disrupt their evening too much.  Although I was eyeing the omelet on the menu, I ended up choosing a pizza with ham and pineapple. This restaurant, like many in Italy, brought us a small basket of bread when we sat down, and we saw in the menu that they were going to charge us a 1.30 euros per person for bread, plus a 12% gratuity, whether we ate the bread of not, so we made sure to eat and enjoy every last scrap of it.

Dinner was all about the sharing of ideas on an international scale, and everyone in our little group was so willing to listen and be respectful even when it was clear that they did not necessarily agree with what was being said. Once again I was amazed at how fluently everyone was communicating in English, despite it not being the primary language for anyone but myself. And yet, I was also lamenting the fact that most people in this world will never get the opportunity to travel and experience cultures other than their own. Our group had been lucky– blessed with enough money and personal freedoms to widen our horizons, and in doing so, we were connecting and sharing in a way that would negate stereotypes.  It was the perfect way to spend my last night of an epic journey.

Ladíspoli to Rome (28.67 miles in 2 hours, 25 minutes moving)

This morning was strange. I woke up at the usual 7:00 a.m. hour, but knew that I only needed to bicycle about thirty miles to the hostel in Rome, and check-in didn’t start until 2:30 p.m. so I had plenty of time before I needed to get on the road.  I was feeling a little sad and introspective at the thought of my journey ending, and wanted to make the most of my limited time in Rome, so I lazed around in my tent all morning, re-reading my Lonely Planet guides, my hostelworld.com Rome guide, and checking out the (free to download from the iTunes App Store during the volcano air-travel shutdown) Lonely Planet Rome iPhone application. It was a so much more useful and easy-to-access information source than the PDF book chapters I had been using on the iPhone, with interactive maps that can even interface with the iPhone’s GPS.

I finally started repacking my bags and taking down and putting away my tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping mat for what would be the last time, after five weeks on the road. It seemed like only a week or two ago that I had been setting out from Lisbon, into the unknown, and it had definitely been a trial-by-fire experience, with so many firsts. First time traveling in Europe, first bicycle tour, first solo travel experience without a group of people to provide safety, camaraderie, and moral support. And before this trip, I probably could have counted the lifetime number of night’s I’d spent in a tent on two hands. Yet, through some combination of luck, perseverance, and preparation, I had actually survived the adventure, and in a few miles, would be riding to my final destination, still the same person, but with completely changed perspectives on the world which we inhabit. From the solitude of the pine forests in Portugal, to the beautiful blue-green waters of the Mediterranean coast, to the busy Italian highways of the last few days, I had seen the diverse landscapes in slow motion. I had smelled the fresh citrus air of orange groves in Spain, and the sweet perfume lavender of France.

And yet, there was still so much that I hadn’t even begun to experience in the history and culture on my transient passage over the land. With an extra day or two in each location, or shorter planned daily distances, I could have explored so many museums, savored long mid-day breaks for lunch in outdoor cafes. With a larger budget, I could have sampled more authentic local cuisine, instead of frequenting the supermarket so for the quick and easy bread/cheese/yogurt/chocolate which had become my food staples. These changes and goals will have to wait for my next travel escapades I guess.

The road out of the campsite took me along the coast to Ladíspoli before dumping me onto the busy SS1 highway again, and I covered the distance quickly with few breaks. I could feel the hot sun beating down on my neck, and my shirts quickly became soaked with sweat from the heat, in addition to the effort required from the constant rolling terrain.

For the last couple miles through the streets of Rome, I relied on the voice-guidance of my GPS, which just happened to bring me right past the Spanish Steps, with vibrant bright pink flowers in bloom, and a busy vibe of excitement as hundreds of tourists and locals congregated there. When the GPS finally told me that I had arrived at my hostel, the “Freedom Traveler”, I thought there must be some mistake. I was looking at a building with the correct street number on the right street, but there didn’t seem to be any large sign or any clue that this was the popular hostel only a few minutes away from the Termini station. Finally, I saw the name printed next to a tiny door buzzer for the building’s heavy wooden door. A buzz unlocked the inner metal gate, and I struggled to lift my heavy bicycle up the five or six marble steps to the office. When I finally got inside, it looked more like the hostel I expected, with two computers on one wall, and a common room with tables and chairs for eating, hanging out, or using the free wifi.

The guy at the front desk checked me in, and gave me a keyring with four color-coded keys (heavy wooden outer door to the building, inner metal gate, 2nd floor door from the stairwell to the rooms, and a room key) and I unloaded my bags for the last time, and folded and locked my bicycle in the locked luggage storage shed.

The first order of business was a shower and a completely fresh change of clean clothes, because while I don’t mind being recognized among the guests as “the bicycle traveler”, I don’t want to be known as “the smelly bicycle traveler”. Then my thoughts turned to getting a cardboard box and starting the process of disassembling my bicycle  for the airplane flight back to the States. I had researched a few bicycle stores ahead of time, and headed about a half-mile from the hostel to the closest one, hoping that they would have extra cardboard boxes that had been used to ship new bicycle frames to the store. They didn’t, but the owner pointed me another half block down the street to a “Mailboxes Etc.” store, which sold me their largest cardboard box (advertised as 80 x 60 x 60 centimeters) and a roll of packing tape for about 10 euros.

It had begun to lightly rain during this trip, but thankfully I was able to navigate back to the hostel without getting the flattened box too wet, as a wet and disintegrating box would do me no good. I spent the next hour measuring and remeasuring and calculating to try and figure out how I could reduce the size of the box to fit within the airline’s 158 linear centimeter luggage limitation.  Earlier in the morning, upon realizing that I did not have a measuring tape or stick, in a fit of ingenuity of which I’m rather proud, I had used a 5cm ruler on my iPhone’s screen to mark a piece of nylon cord at 5cm intervals until I could cut a 158 cm long cord, making it easy for me to measure and verify that my luggage fit the size requirements. I had to take a break though, because at 6:00 p.m. on Tuesday nights, the hostel throws a free pizza and beer party for their guests! I sat with two friendly brother and sister Canadians, Pete and Miriam (honest-to-goodness French-Quebec Canadians, not Americans who say they are Canadian when traveling abroad). It was a delicious meal, although I would have loved for the pizza to have more red pizza sauce, even if that isn’t the tradition.

After dinner, I got to work disassembling my bicycle, taking off the front and rear fenders and racks, unscrewing bottle cages, removing the handlebars, and folding the frame.  I forgot to unscrew the pedals until I tried to put the frame in the bottom of the box, and and it turned into quite a spectacle while I tried to explain to Pete and a German father and son who were watching about the reverse threading which is confusing enough to complicate the process, especially when the bike is already folded. By this time it was starting to get dark in the courtyard where I was working, and I still hadn’t managed to procure any newspaper or butcher paper or other protective stuffing to place around and between the individual parts in the box, so I decided to call it a night and finish the task the next morning before heading off for a day of exploring.

When I went upstairs to my room, I was talking to my roommates, two girls from Poland and Argentina, and another guy from Egypt/Hungary. I expressed interest at seeing some of the monuments lit up at night, and we decided to head out as a group.  It turned out to be one of my favorite experiences of the entire trip. I was the only native English-speaker, but all of my new companions spoke great English, and as we walked the streets of Rome, it amazed me to think about our new group of friends, brought together by a shared room, communicating and sharing stories and anecdotes of our lives and travels in English, despite the fact that noone spoke the same first language. It was so nice for me to finally be having a conversation with other people my age, after so many days of interactions that had been reduced to the basics of getting food and checking in and out of campsites.  I also quickly realized how many cliches, phrases, and pop-culture quotations/references I rely on in my speech, and it was fun for us to explain these references to each other and find out if there was a similar phrase or meaning in our respective cultures.

Roman Forum at Night

Roman Forum at Night

Rome at night was gorgeous. There was a nearly-full moon, with scattered clouds in the sky to filter and add mystery to the light. We wandered to the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, the Piazza Navona, the Roman Forums, and finally finished at the Colosseum before beginning the trek back to the hostel. The streets were alive and brimming with people, despite it being after 10:00 p.m. and the photo opportunities were boundless. There were pizzerias and gelaterias open on nearly every street, and I ended up having gelato twice, to celebrate my safe arrival in the final destination of my trip.  Or at least, that’s how I justified it, but in reality, I just have a huge weakness for gelato, especially the delicious fruit flavors. I was disappointed not to find any watermelon gelato, but the banana, mango, and cantaloupe were scrumptious. I had been lamenting the fact that I hadn’t gotten to do much photography at night and during the “golden hour” on this trip, but this night of exploring nearly made up for it.

Colosseo By Moonlight

Colosseo By Moonlight

Talamone to Ladíspoli (78.95 miles, 6 hours and 28 minutes moving)

Today was one of those Cyclist’s Sobriety Test days. It ended up being nearly 80 miles of bicycling, about 75 of which was on highway with little to no shoulder. So I spent much of the day riding the white-line, and I’d like to say I passed with flying colors, after only one car saw fit to honk at me to show their annoyance that I, a cyclist and legal user of the roads, was taking up a two-foot portion of his two-lanes of southbound highway. There weren’t many photo opportunities either, with the sun beating down from directly overhead, and a hazy horizon.

I didn’t plan for it to turn into such a big distance when I started out this morning. I was about a hundred miles from Rome, and my Garmin told me that there was a campsite near Civitavécchia, about 56 miles away, leaving me only 44 miles to cover on my final day of bicycling into Rome.  I thought this was a grand plan.

Tragedy struck early on in the day though.  As I was trying to start pedaling to leave the campground, my left foot, which wasn’t clicked into the pedals yet, slipped and sent the metal pedal platform deep into my shin.  I tried to “pedal it out”, despite quite a bit of pain with each pedal stroke, and I started imagining the possibility that I had chipped my tibia or caused a hairline fracture, and started to mourn the thought of having to take a train or bus the last 100 miles to Rome if I couldn’t bike anymore. And then I started to wonder if I could cycle to Rome with one good leg, if I had truly injured myself, such was my determination to finish the journey under my own power. Another mile down the road, I glanced down and saw that I had big spots of blood on my pant-leg, so I stopped to investigate. Sure enough, the sharp edge of the pedal had gouged my shin, and I had to turn to my first-aid kit.

For the entire trip, I’ve been lugging around a small quart-sized plastic sac of first-aid supplies, and a larger gallon-sized ziplock with more extensive supplies.  I have them both packed to the brim with gauze, rubber gloves, bandaids, some suture material, emergency candles and matches, CPR shield, a moldable splint, duct-tape, water sterilizing tablets, thermometer, and the list goes on and on. I think the combined weight of the two kits has to be at least two to three pounds, and thus far in the trip I’d been lucky enough to not require them once. And the one time that I need it, what do I use? A single band-aid. Possibly the smallest and lightest thing I have.  Please don’t get me wrong– I would rather be a little over-prepared in the first-aid supplies department, and I hope and pray that I don’t need anything that I brought.  But at the same time, it makes me think a little about how I could consolidate what I really might need/use, in order to pack a little lighter.

With my shin patched up, I hopped back on the bike and stopped at the first open supermarket that I passed in Fonteblanda. I hate to start the day carrying a full load of food, but my past experience has shown that Monday is not a day you want to rely on finding an open supermarket later in the afternoon.  Which is too bad, because the early afternoon is the perfect time to stock up, since usually you’re ready for a nice cool snack (vanilla or caramel pudding cups!) that can be consumed right after purchase, and then you also don’t have to carry all of that food very far to the next campsite.

With my daily shopping needs met after only 2 miles, I was able to join the highway and plug away for a few hours, stopping occasionally in the shade for some snacks.  Despite the slight headwind I had most of the day, I was making good time, averaging about 13.7 miles per hour until reaching my planned stopping point in Civitavécchia.

Just before I reached the medium sized port town, I came across two middle-aged bicycle tourers on the side of the road.  I pulled off to chat with them and found out that they are Austrian and have spent the past two weeks cycling down through Italy from Austria, with plans to reach Sicily in another two weeks before finishing their own adventure!  We posed for photos with each other, and then I headed off.  Since getting a sack of ice had worked so well the last time at McDonald’s, I decided to do that again, and enjoyed the same success (along with an M&M McFlurry). I contemplated continuing on down the road to spend the last night camping even closer to Rome, but the sky was starting to look a bit like it might rain, and I had seen a small chance of rain in the afternoon/evening forecast, so I decided to stick to the original plan and just be happy to have finished my day of cycling so early.

I headed back North and uphill out of town to the spot which my GPS showed a campsite.  It was completely non-existent. The supposed campsite had a tall fence, with barbed-wire looped around the perimeter, and signs saying something about it being a military zone with restricted access. It was only about 3:30 in the afternoon so I punched up the next closest campsite on the way to Rome, and found that it was going to be another 20 miles of biking. Although my legs were already starting to get tired, I had no choice but to continue on.  I should consider myself lucky that there was still plenty of daylight so I didn’t really have to worry about how long it would take me to cover the distance. It took me about another hour and a half, and as I got close to the spot my GPS was guiding me to, it was like deja-vu all over again. All I found was a huge field of grass with not a sign, building, or camper/tent.  There was a fence around the field with private property signs on it. So I selected the next campsite which was three miles further down the road, but as I was bicycling in that direction, I came to another campsite which was open, so I gladly called it a day!

After setting up camp, I decided to take a shower so I could spend the evening in clean clothes and I found out that the showers require tokens.  You can buy one shower for half a euro and three for one euro. Figuring one would be enough, I got my token from the change machine on one side of the campsite and then walked the 200 meters to the other side where the showers are. The showers were a little better than the terrible ones from a few days ago, but not much. I plunked my coin in the little box and instantly the water turned on, though it took about 20-30 seconds before it was hot enough for me to actually use. There were no water temperature controls, so you’re stuck with whatever they set it on. Thankfully the water was pretty hot and it felt great after the long day on the bike! I quickly shampooed my hair and then as I was starting to use my conditioner, I heard a short buzzing sound, but it didn’t seem to come from the box or anywhere inside my shower, so I paid it no attention. There wasn’t any sort of display or countdown or flashing light to tell you how much shower-time you had left, and I had barely gotten the conditioner in my hair before the water shut off abruptly.  I cursed myself for being stingy and not just using the euro coin in my pocket to get “three” showers, and decided that today I would have to settle for a “leave-in conditioner”.

Since I ended up having to go so far today to find a campsite, it looks like it’ll be a short 30 miles into Rome tomorrow! I have so much to do though.  In addition to finding and checking into a hostel and trying to see some of the many sights, I need to find a bicycle shop or somewhere to get a cardboard box of the right size to pack my bicycle back up for the airline flight home! I can’t believe how quickly this trip has gone, and I want to thank everyone who has been following along and offering their encouragement!  I am still short of my fundraising goals for Amylotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, so if you have been thinking about making a donation, now is a great time!

Caldana to Talamone (66.72 miles in 5 hours 7 minutes moving)

I got an early start biking today, (9:00 am is early for me) and right away passed through the town of Venturina, which provided some amusement for me, as in a little over a month I’ll be moving to Ventura, California for residency. I pretended that Venturina means “little Ventura” and made sure to pose for a photo with the sign.

Little Ventura!
Little Ventura!

There was a little bit of a tailwind again for most of the day, giving me my fastest average speed yet of the whole trip, and once again I was able to cruise in the aerobars. Under a nearly cloudless sky, the Tuscan sun was relentless and I also felt some of the hottest temperatures (mid-70s) that I’ve experienced this trip. I had to take in extra water to compensate and stay hydrated, and I found myself stopping more often in the shade of road-side trees when I needed to snack.  When I reached the town of Grosseto, I stopped at a McDonald’s for a one-euro chocolate milkshake, a restroom break, and to have them fill up my bag of ice so I could enjoy my evening ritual of an ice-cold Diet Pepsi/Coke after putting up the tent.

Thankfully my rear tire held today, and there was very little climbing, so the rest of the day passed quickly, allowing me to enjoy the pretty little towns and hills on the horizon.  When I reached Talamone, I turned into a strong headwind and saw the sky absolutely filled with kites! There were kitesurfers up and down the entire beach, with windsurfers zig-zagging between them in the perfect conditions. I had to bicycle past a few windsurfing and kitesurfing schools to get to Campeggio Talamone, and it was so nice to arrive before sunset once again. Two more days of bicycling and I’ll reach Rome!

Pisa to Caldana (56.17 miles in 4 hours 25 minutes moving)

I know that I’ve been complaining a lot lately, so I’m making a conscious effort to focus on the positives. After “Just a Ride” by JEM randomly played on my iPod today, the song lyrics reminded me that I have been blessed with an amazing opportunity to take this trip, and share my experiences, and I need to stop sweating the small stuff.

The chorus goes:

It’s just a ride, it’s just a ride

No need to run, no need to hide

It’ll take you round and round

Sometimes you’re up

Sometimes you’re down

It’s just a ride, it’s just a ride

Don’t be scared

Don’t hide your eyes

It may feel so real inside

But don’t forget it’s just a ride

I woke up and didn’t hear the now-familiar sound of rain on my tent! I used my towel to get most of the water so that it would dry quickly in the sun as I got everything else packed up, and I was able to put a nearly-dry tent back in its stuff-sack.  I said goodbye to Camping Torre Pendente and biked back into Pisa, past the Leaning Tower, and into the shopping district, where I was easily able to find the Vodafone store again. Positive: It was open and I was able to talk to the same employee who helped me last time and had added the iPhone internet plan to my SIM for free! Negative: After calling someone in Vodafone technical support, he assured me that I would get a text message in the afternoon, at which time my internet should work. Though I did receive the text, no dice on the iPhone internet access still.

My route took me through quite a bit of the city, before heading south out of town, and it was pretty easy for me to stay on the right roads today, because there weren’t too my turns, and in general, the street signs pointing towards various towns have been abundant! I barely even had to get out my GPS and double-check that I was on the correct route! I was no longer on a coastal road, instead enjoying the inland fields of Tuscany.  Only five miles into the day though, I heard an explosion of air, and then my steering became mushy. I pulled off the road, with a completely flat rear wheel, and made quick work of unloading the bike so I could fix the tire. Once again, there didn’t seem to be any foreign body puncturing the tube, but a portion of the sidewall had weakened at the place where it attaches to the bead, just as had happened with the worn tire that I replaced after the first 900 miles.  I’m not particularly impressed with these Kenda Kwest tires’ durability and will not be recommending them or purchasing them again. I thought that I could patch this tube, saving a new tube for another time if there was a larger blowout, so I did just that and then I used the roll of black duct tape that I keep attached to the strap of my messenger bag (travel tip!) to reinforce the inside of the tube in the weak area.  I’ve also heard about using a folded dollar bill for the same purpose.  A quick inspection showed that there didn’t seem to be any other problem spots yet on the tire, so I got the tube and tire refitted and re-inflated.  The whole stop, including unloading and reloading my bicycle took just 20 minutes and I was feeling mighty proud of myself! Until about three miles further down the road when I heard a slower hiss of air and had to pull off the road with another rear flat. I determined that the air had leaked out of the patched site, and decided to just put a brand new tube in, the whole time thinking “Please let me finish these last 200 miles to Rome without having to struggle with more flat tubes from these rapidly wearing tires!”

As I bicycled along, I saw field after field full of brilliant yellow wildflowers, but to my frustration, there always seemed to be ugly high-voltage power lines running through the field and ruining the photo opportunity. I’m a bit conflicted, because I need my electricity and high-speed data networks at least as much (maybe more) as the next person, but on this trip, I have seen so many beautiful locations marred by a large cable or four cutting through the view.  I know that I could Photoshop the power lines out of the photo, but then I would be lying about the beauty of these places I am visiting, right?

Yellow on Yellow

Yellow on Yellow

I was starting to theorize that it’s the electromagnetic fields that help the wildflowers sprout, but finally I found a nice field without any distractions! Although I started the day with a bit of a headwind, in the afternoon I suddenly found myself with a nice tailwind that gave me a chance to cruise in the aerobars at 15-17 miles per hour, and I arrived at Park Albatross well before sunset and just as my cycle-odometer flipped past 1400 miles total for the trip! This early arrival made me very happy, considering I had changed two flat tires and ridden 56 miles!  Albatross was absolutely huge, and even at such a late hour on a Saturday, there were teams of construction workers everywhere, working on renovating and building new laundrymat facilities, restaurants, and bars for the fast-approaching busy season. There were three zero-depth entry pools with large concrete “icebergs” in the center for climbing and sunning, and a poolside restaurant that wasn’t open, but would surely be a fun place for some mid-day drinks and lunch.  Despite all of the construction activity, I couldn’t find anyone in or near the reception desk to get checked in, so I picked a place and set up my tent.  I also couldn’t seem to find the bathrooms and showers, which I would have expected would be sprinkled judiciously around the campsite, given its size! Knowing I had a long day coming up, I called it a night early, but not before experiencing some extremely painful cramps in both of my thighs! I tried to stretch and massage them out, and hopefully they won’t give me more trouble during the last few days of cycling!

Rest day in Pisa, Italy

It started raining shortly after 1:00 a.m. last night, and I could hear the pitter-patter on my tent throughout the night as I rolled over in my sleep. The rain continued on through the morning, making it easy for me to stay and enjoy a rest day, because I didn’t want to cycle in the rain and take down a wet tent if I didn’t have to. I kept holding out hope that the rain would subside by early afternoon though, giving me the opportunity to go back into town for some more exploring, without getting soaked in the process. That wasn’t in the cards though. I spent most of the day in my tent, waiting for my laundry to be done (the dryers actually dried for two hours and 15 minutes, and even my cotton underwear was dry!), reading an e-book on my iPhone, and taking care of some other travel-related arrangements for the end of my trip.

By 7 p.m., I had snacked through most of my grocery supplies, so I decided to don my rain-gear and walk the quarter mile to the grocery store on the edge of town, and when I returned, I treated myself to a hot meal in the campsite restaurant. When asked what I wanted to drink, I asked for Acqua, and the waiter asked “naturale?”.  Not wanting to pay 2 euros for a bottle of mineral water that I had seen on the menu, I exclaimed “Si- yes”, and before I knew it, he had produced a bottle of mineral water called “Acqua Naturale”, and I was sipping a hugely over-priced drink with my ham/mushroom/mozzarella calzone. I had splurged a little on food over the past two days, but I think it was a coping mechanism to deal with the difficulties of travel. Since arriving in Pisa, whenever I see an airliner taking off, I have been thinking of my own fast-approaching flight from Rome back to Chicago. I have been starting to make little lists in my mind of all the things I want to do when I get home, starting with giving my Mom a big hug and kiss when she picks me up at the airport. It has been an amazing trip, and I plan to cherish each moment, every day during my final week as I bicycle the final two-hundred-odd miles to Roma. I hope my days will be filled with good weather and copious amounts of gelato!

Romito Magra to Pisa (47.94 miles, 4 hours and 35 minutes moving)

Today the weather was completely different from the previous two days, and despite having to start the day in a gross cement-grated shower with a trough of standing water underneath, I started out in great spirits. The road was reasonably flat, and there were quite a few cyclists getting some miles in. At one point when I stopped and was taking down the address of a Vodafone billboard and entering it into my GPS to see if it was near my route (it wasn’t- only 20 km out of the way), a gentleman cycled past me and then came back to talk. Everyone always wants to know about my bike with the little tires.  That is, if I don’t have the solar panel strapped to the back, which I didn’t today. After chatting for a while about my route, he wanted to get a photo with me, so we flagged down some passers-by. I had them snap one with my camera but his camera’s battery was dead, so I got his email address and sent him the photo.  I think he may be planning on bicycling about 5000 km across the United States later this year, so if you’re reading this, good luck, Antonio!

I stopped at one and sat on a bench overlooking a canal at the beach, and while it was not a particularly picturesque view, it was nice to relax, enjoy some food, feel the sea breeze and warm sun on the small portion of exposed face, and take it easy knowing that I did not have a lot of miles to cover today.  A few miles down the road, I came upon a Vodafone store that looked like it had actually been open at some point during the day.  The metal bars covering the windows and doors were swung open, but the inside was dark, and the glass doors were locked. It was a little after 1:30 p.m. at the time, and I really wanted to get my internet problem fixed, so I decided to have a second lunch at the pizzeria on the corner just across the way, with the hope that by the time I finished, the store would have reopened after the long lunch-hour. The half-pizza was delicious, my first since crossing into Italy, and I washed it down with a Coke-light that came in a tall, skinny can like a Red-Bull can, only large enough to still hold 12 ounces.

With the weather and time on my side, I lingered for one of very few times on this trip. At 2:05 p.m., the Vodafone store still wasn’t open, and I saw that the Telecom Italia Mobile store next-door wasn’t slated to reopen until 5:45 that evening. I still needed to pick up groceries for dinner and breakfast and had seen a sign for a supermarket a little ways back down the road, so I decided to backtrack, get groceries, and then check the Vodafone store before heading out of town. I ended up bicycling two miles back the way from which I came, only to find that the grocery store was ALSO CLOSED! Because people don’t need groceries on Thursdays. I stalled a little longer with a stop for my first gelato in Italy (the five or six flavors I tried were all delicious).

Now, having wasted almost two hours of the day, I gave up, cycled past the still-locked Vodafone store, and decided to continue on down the road. It was only about 15-20 miles to Pisa now and although the wind had changed directions to give me a slight headwind, I was finally able to comfortably ride at about 15 mph for long stretches, and I covered the distance quickly. There was a supermarket outside of Pisa that did happen to be open, and when I got inside, I was astonished to see that it was like a Sam’s Club discount warehouse from the States.  Huge shelving units were stacked from floor to ceiling with pallets of bulk goods.  The prices were great, and I managed to find most of what I desired, even in small enough quantities for me to carry.

Yet, I was even more surprised to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa peaking over the trees on the horizon as I reached the town.  I’m not sure exactly what I had expected, but generally the famous monuments are hidden, blocked from view by the great many buildings that spring up around them over the years. Yet Pisa seemed like a much smaller, unassuming community that had barely even spilled northward into the urban sprawl that strikes so many cities. The campsite, Terre Pendente, was a mere mile from the plaza that houses the Tower, so I checked in, unloaded the bicycle and set up camp, and then hopped on my now much lighter bike for the short ride into town. Although I had planned on spending Friday in town and exploring, I decided to take my camera anyway to get the requisite photos of the famous clock-tower, and it was a good thing I did.

Once in town, I navigated up and down the cobblestone and brick streets of the historic district, finally finding an open Vodafone shop, where they informed me that because I had used more than 5 hours of internet the other day, my account had been blocked until I paid a 5 euro reinstatement fee, which I did. I also inquired about using the same SIM in my unlocked iPhone, and the nice guy working at the store added the one-week iPhone data plan, which normally costs 3 euros, to my account for free! Although that part still hasn’t worked, presumably because I need to have Vodafone customer service register my phone’s IMEI number into their system, so the search for another open Vodafone store will continue. Hopefully it is all figured out before I arrive in Rome in a few days!

I returned to the Leaning Tower and took a few photos of the landmark, as it was bathed in the subdued sunlight of the golden hour, with the sun dipping behind the clouds. I watched hundreds of people pose for photos, lining up the camera just right so that it looked like they were either pushing over the tower, or single-handedly holding it up. The creativity award for the evening had to go to two boys who went a step farther.  Setting their camera up on a timer, one boy jumped down on all fours while his friend positioned himself so that it looked like he was “tripping” the tour right over his accomplice.

I listened to the languages being spoken in the square, and finally I heard a couple speaking English. Jens was from Sweden, and his girlfriend Khai was from Burma, though they had both been studying in a Masters program in Sweden, before starting their road trip in a camper-van. They were really nice, and Jens agreed to try and take a photo of me riding my bicycle up the tower, in continuation of the constant climbing that Italy has thrust upon me. They plan on finishing their travels in Rome a few weeks after me, and I hope that their vacation helps them recharge for the next portion of their lives!

The climbing continues in Pisa...
The climbing continues in Pisa…

Sestri Levante to Romito Magra (56.14 lies, 6 hours 21 minutes moving)

The day started off wrongly. After a good night’s sleep and a quick packing of my gear back onto the bike, I decided to check my email quickly before taking off. My cellular modem wouldn’t make a connection, but there were no error messages to tell me where the problem was. I bought the refurbished modem on eBay before my trip, wanting a cheap, unlocked (so I could use a SIM card from any country), and Mac-compatible one, and over the past few days, it hadn’t been working quite as solidly as when I was in Portugal. Sometimes it would need to be plugged into the USB port a few times before the dialer software would recognize it, and now that it wasn’t working at all, I wondered if I had just wasted 25 euros on an internet connection that I wouldn’t be able to use with a broken modem.  There wasn’t much I could do about it though, execpt hope that I’d pass through a town with a Vodafone store during the day’s ride.

What a good thing that I hadn’t tried to continue on to a campsite further down the road the previous night though! From my campsite, the road continued another 9 miles uphill, until I had crossed the 615 meter high Passo del Bracco.  Even with legs freshened by a night’s rest, I struggled to turn the pedals, even in the easiest gear, and became frustrated as my speed dropped from 6 miles per hour down to 3 miles per hour at the steepest portions.  Not having been able to find a good map of Italy to replace the useless one purchased in America, I had not known about or expected this endeavor.  Other cyclists rode past me as if I was standing still, smoothly gliding up the pass on their lightweight carbon-fiber racing bikes, and at that moment, I was actually contemplating just chucking all of my gear and panniers into the woods.  Logic prevailed though, as I don’t have the money to “credit-card” tour from one hotel/B&B/hostel to the next across Europe, and with the exception of a few things, I have been carrying mostly items that are being used, or would be needed in an emergency.

By mid-afternoon, four hours after starting the day, I had only covered about twenty miles. After stopping for a grocery store in the town of Lévanto, I started the climb out of town, once again, and was so very tempted to quit for the day when I saw a road sign pointing the direction to a nearby campsite.  I was heading towards the “Parco Nazionale dell Cinque Terre” which I had heard was one of the most beautiful coastal areas of Italy though, and thought that if I could continue on, the “Cinque Terre”, named for the five hillside towns connected by a remote walking trail, would give me a motivational boost.

Unfortunately, as I have been finding out, some of the most beautiful views do not have  nice flat roads leading up to them, and this road through the park was no exception. It wound back and forth along the cliffs, the road surface towering high above the miniscule towns and shore below. Clouds rolled up the mountainside, enveloping the nearly-deserted section of road in a blanket of nothingness. The air was chilly, but the work of climbing gave me an instant layer of sweat, which soaked my clothes. As I climbed, I found myself pulling so hard on the handlebars for leverage that my palms felt as if they were forming blisters under the pressure and wetness of my cycling gloves. At the top, before each short descent, I found myself having to put on my rain shell to keep my sweat from freezing, and then the process would start again at the beginning of the next climb.

Clouds envelope my world near Riomaggiore, Italy
Clouds envelope my world near Riomaggiore, Italy

The views, from what I was able to make out through the slits and sporadic breaks in the clouds, were magnificent though, and worth the detour off the easier and faster traveling SP1/SS1 road. From above, each of the little towns looked like miniature railway models, attached to the cliffside and retreating backwards along the natural landscape of the coast. The clouds and reduced visibility added an extra jolt of adrenaline as my bicycle sped down the small ribbon of road weaving serpent-like closer to the town center. The white shroud had the effect of removing the distant distractions from the landscape, and allowed me to focus on the details speeding into view around each turn. Upon reaching the town of Volastra, I was greeted with a large banner commemorating the stage 12 (time trial) of the 2009 Giro D’Italia, the famous bicycle race, that had been held on the same route (Sestri Levante to Riomaggiore) that I had just bicycled. To me, it was 60 kilometers of torture, punctuated by moments of joy and awe at the view, but to the pros, it had probably been just another day in Italia. They would celebrate with feasts of food to replenish calories burned, possibly enjoy some wine (or not) and sleep in their team-provided hotels or busses, while i still had to continue almost twenty miles down the road to a campsite.

Thankfully, after I left Cinque Terre, the road was much more flat, and I was finally able to pick up some speed. As I descended into La Spezia, I saw that it seemed to be centered around a large port, with several military warships at dock. I made my way around the port and back out of town (after stopping for a sack of ice at a bar), and the sun set as I was leaving town. I navigated the streets by the light of dusk until arriving at two campsites just before 9:00 pm. The boy standing at the corner didn’t speak English, but seemed to understand my Spanish when I asked which one was better. He pointed at the first and said it was one-star, and the 2nd was two-star. I wheeled my bike into the two-star site, figuring it would have better facilities to recharge my batteries.  Boy was I wrong! The shower/toilet block was the grossest I have encountered on this trip. There was water dripping everywhere on uncleaned floors littered with dirt that had become mud (or at least I hope it was mud!). This was not a place to hang out and write and my cellular internet wasn’t working, so I retreated to my tent, exhausted from the day of climbing, but looking forward to the planned short 36 miles to Pisa and then a rest day after that.

Genoa to Sestri Levante (45.06 miles, 4 hours and 50 minutes moving)

Today could be summed up by one word. Climbing. I got a late start, after having to find someone from the campsite to let me pay and get my driver’s license back.  The sky was dark and cloudy, and it looked like rain was going to be something with which to contend. My plan was to ride 56 miles, rain or shine, so I set up my bike with the tarp tied on top of all of my bags for an additional water-protective layer.

Right away, there was a big climb out of Genoa, which gave me beautiful sweeping panoramic views of the town (again, and again as the switchbacks kept coming). I had decided that I was going to try and eat a little healthier on the bike today, using bananas instead of candy-bars when I needed an extra boost of energy (also, I had run out of candy-bars) and I had to stop halfway up the climb for a break and some sustenance.

Sori, Italy
Sori, Italy

The ocean was a different sight from yesterday. Where yesterday it calmly lapped at the shore with the naivety of a teenager’s first kiss, it now slammed against the pebbled beaches and the rocky cliffs with an intensity reminiscent of pure animal lust.

The clouds stayed close all day, giving the ocean a haze which made it difficult to tell where the ocean ended and the sky began, on the horizon. I biked up and down for most of the day, passing through little towns every so often (most stores conveniently still closed, as if to confirm my theory from the day before).

Because of the clouds, it seemed much darker than the time of day would suggest, and my mood seemed to darken accordingly. Even without a drop of rain, by early afternoon, I was already starting to abandon plans for making it the fifty-something miles to the campground, out of fear that it would once again be completely dark when I arrived. I have started to notice that my mood becomes very dependent on the weather and other little difficulties that pop up throughout the day, and the clouds weren’t helping. Thank goodness I didn’t have a headwind with which to contend.

Sailboat near Zoagli, Italy
Sailboat near Zoagli, Italy

It was almost 7:00 p.m. when I reached Sestri Levante, and saw signs to about five different campsites. I had expected to go 14 more miles, but having learned from my earlier mistakes of trying to “finish out” the day, I decided I should just pick one and get the tent up before dark. I stopped at the first one that I was able to find, and it was actually open. Using a mix of English, Spanish, and the four Italian words I know, I was able to get checked in with the proprietor after which I sat in the vestibule of my tent and enjoyed another late meal of bread, cheese, yogurt, and bananas.

After supper, I stalked the bathroom for a working power-outlet but my euro adaptor didn’t seem to fit quite right.  I found one that worked on the front steps of the campsite office and set up shop.  After about an hour or so, three gentlemen stumbled by, visibly intoxicated and excitedly tried to tell me something about Barcelona, though I wasn’t able to understand.  They proceeded to go over to the proprietor’s trailer and bang on the wall until he came out, so that they could share their good news with him.  I liken their behavior to the low-tech version of a drunk dial.  They didn’t bother me anymore though, and I continued to enjoy my convenient cell-phone internet connection.  I lost track of time a little, and soon had used more than the 5 hours-per-day that had been advertised, but the connection didn’t cut me off, so I figured the real limit was 150 hours in a month.  I was wrong, as I would soon find out.

Imperial to Genova (71.72 miles, 6 hours moving)

Well, I did it again. I made the mistake of crossing into a new country on a day that wasn’t Wednesday, which is the only day of the week that stores might be open in Europe.  I tried to plan ahead this time, and had enough food for a day or two when I crossed into Italy on Sunday.  I didn’t expect or need any open stores, but I really wanted to purchase a new SIM card for my USB modem and cell phone, sometime during the day on Monday, so that I’d have a good source of internet during the last two weeks of my trip.

That shouldn’t be too tough of an endeavor right? I started the day’s bicycle ride in a pretty good sized city (Imperial) and at 11:00 in the morning, low and behold, a large cell phone shop, conveniently located right along my route, even on the right side of the street! But what’s this? Bars lowered across all of the windows and no lights on? It’s freaking-11-in-the-morning! Too early for the long noon to 3:00pm lunch hour, and late enough that you’d expect the Sunday-night hangover to be cleared.  So I cycled on, hoping to have better luck in one of the many other towns I would ride through on my way to Genoa (Genova).

By three in the afternoon, I’d cycled past three cell phone stores, none of which were open, and I was starting to really feel the need to refill some food supplies at a grocery store. Grocery store after grocery store was closed too!  I had to bicycle through three different towns before I finally found one that was open (after passing nearly 15 closed grocery stores). If the economy is bad in Europe right now, it’s because tourists have money that they want to spend, but none of the stores are ever open! They should put signs at the border saying “Welcome to (insert European country name here). Please enjoy your stay. We have thousands of commercial enterprises that would love your business on any day of the week, except for weekends, days which end in an even number, days of the month which are prime numbers, and days of the week whose English name ends in “Y”.

I finally cycled past an open Vodafone store as I reached Genoa though, and even though I had been researching Telcom Italia Mobile (TIM) as my chosen carrier, I decided to go inside and see what I could get. I ended up spending 25 euros on a SIM card good for 5 hours of internet daily, or 150 hours in the month, which actually might be a better deal, since the TIM plan would have been about 25-30 euros for 100 hours!

Feeling relieved that I had finally secured steady internet without having to pay the outrageous 4-8 euros per hour that most wifi points want to charge, I continued on towards my “campeggio” for the night, Villa Doria.  It turned out to be all the way at the top of a hill overlooking Genoa’s boardwalk (although set back far enough that you didn’t actually have a view, you just had to bicycle up and up for about three days to get there). It was 8 p.m. by the time I had checked in and set up camp, and then I had to walk all the way back down the hill (I exaggerated before as it is only about a mile) to the boardwalk in search of a bar that I could talk into giving me a sack of ice (giaccio). I stopped and picked up a yummy kabob in a shop before successfully getting a sack of ice for free from the neighboring bar!  Here’s a Europe bicycle tip: buy a large un-chilled bottle of pop at the grocery store before you stop for the night and at the same time, try and get a sack of ice from a bar.  After you set up camp,you can enjoy an ice-cold drink for half the cost and with twice the liquid of the pre-cooled variety!

I had one huge scare before bed that put a bit of a damper on my day. When I plugged in my laptop to try out my new internet card, it started beeping loudly at me and I had to pull the battery to get it to stop.  Then the computer was completely unresponsive to all attempts to revive it, and I started imagining the next two weeks in Europe without a functioning computer. I tried to stay calm, thinking it might be possible- I could download and geotag photos and post them when I got home to the US. I could use my iPhone for emails and internet, and possibly even do some writing for the blog. It would really limit my ability to research future destinations though, and cut back on the amount of writing I could do.  While all of this was going through my head, all of a sudden, after five minutes of flatline, I heard a beep, and my laptop sprang back to life, without any intervention on my part. I was able to get it booted up, though it crashed the first time. I was able to use it successfully the rest of the evening but the whole incident had me worried.  If this blog suddenly goes quiet, you can guess what probably happened!