On Monday, 14 September, we pushed our bikes from the hostel across the street to the train station. We changed trains in Bologna, and sped through the Bisenzio River Valley to Prato. Looking out the window, I thought that the Valley was just as impressive looking up as looking down. In Prato, we switched trains again, and soon found ourselves rolling back in time as we crossed from the train station south of Lucca through the massive gates of the medieval city.
Lucca has a complete set of walls, a unique feature among Tuscan towns. The wide moat outside the walls today serves as a broad lawn, separating the city center from the bustle, traffic – and pollution – of the 21st century. Consequently, we found the air in the narrow streets to be fresher and cleaner than we expected.
After locating our lodgings in the northwest corner of town, we rode to the market north of town for groceries. Cheryl had told me about the multiuse bicycle path atop the city walls, but I had not really understood it until we rode it. It is more than a walkway: it is a city park with lawns and trees, and a paved path down the middle. At each of the bastions over the city gates, a large ramp leads down into the nearby neighborhood, so the park serves as a bicycle beltway. One can quickly access any part of town by simply riding up to the wall and zipping around to one’s destination. The pavement was good, which was an added benefit considering the medieval cobblestones of the city below.
The next day we went for a ride in the country. We took a cute local train called Jazz up the Serchio River Valley to Castelnuovo di Garfagna. Students got on and got off; no one checked tickets. From Castelnuovo, we rode to Barga, a fortress-town overlooking the valley. As I had often had occasion to learn, the best views were at the top of steep climbs; Barga was worth the effort. We locked our bikes at the city gates after crossing the last bridge, and walked up to the monastery that looks south toward Lucca. On the way back, I made a wrong turn and did not realize that Cheryl had gotten ahead of me. After waiting an hour at the bridge where the Via Francigena pilgrimage route crosses the Serchio River (Eurovelo Route 5), I rode into town to find that she had been back for a while. We fixed our last supper in Tuscany and slept well.
Wednesday, the 16th, was a fixed day on our itinerary, because we needed to collect the things that we had stored in Rome. We almost rode to Pisa, but after looking at how complicated it would be after the bike path ended, we decided to take the train for fear of missing the train from Pisa. Consequently, we had some extra time in Pisa between trains. We used it to ride to the Cathedral and take a quick photograph of the Leaning Tower. I also used an ATM to load up on the cash we would need in Rome.
By early afternoon, we were back in Rome. Cheryl had found us an apartment off the Via del Corso, in Rome’s upscale shopping district downtown. We settled in, and used public transit and walking for the rest of our time together in the Eternal City. First thing, we took the Metro out to collect our dress clothes. To our surprise and dismay, our bags had been stored in a damp basement. My bag had split, and I had to carry it like a babe-in-arms to keep the contents from spilling. The bundle weighed considerably more than a baby. Cheryl’s Timbuk2 messenger bag was covered with mold, but the bag had protected her dresses and other nice clothes.
The adventure continued. By now it was rush hour, and I had difficulty navigating the crowds and the turnstiles in the metro with my moldy “baby”. I lost my wallet somewhere along the way. I felt frustrated when I discovered my loss as we walked to the flat from the Piazza di Spagna metro station. I also felt glad that I routinely spread my important cards and documents in at least two locations. Although I lost the cash, I still had backup personal and company credit cards available.
Thursday, we started out cleaning our clothes. Cheryl got the mold off her bag. Then we went shopping. Cheryl got some nice things to send home. We also found the Fratelli Bassetti flagship store, where Cheryl helped me pick three different fabrics, for a jacket and two pairs of slacks. The selection did not disappoint, so we were there for a long time. We probably walked ten or twelve kilometers by the time we returned to the flat to pack.
On Friday, the 18th, we caught the metro to the Termini train station, in time to catch the very first Leonardo Express train to the airport. Although it was a first-class train with plenty of room, the capotreno that morning chose to not allow bicycles on his train. Cheryl was fit to be tied, but I could see that we were about to both be thrown onto the platform. I pocketed my ticket, kissed her, and promised to be at the gate with her bicycle. Pushing her bike to the front of the Termini station, I ran into the darkness to the cab stand. My luck turned, because the first taxi I saw had a professional racing bike rack on the roof. It was second in line, but the chap who “rated” my fare generously conceded his place to his better-equipped colleague. We set off to beat the train in the empty pre-dawn streets. The cabbie rode with an amateur racing team and was an avid cyclist, which made for pleasant conversation as we sped to the coast.
I made it in plenty of time to watch the Sky Team Alliance between Alitalia, Air France, and KLM come unglued on the ground. Cheryl had an Air France flight, but Alitalia was flying the aircraft and processing the passengers. Air France and KLM would have allowed her to bag her bike without disassembly, but the reception people from Alitalia insisted on her paying to have the wheels removed and the bike shrink-wrapped. They seemed to take particular pleasure in making up new rules to frustrate her attempts to protect the bike and get it accepted for the flight. Finally, the plastic cocoon passed their inspection (from their faces I could tell that they had become bored, and were ready to stop playing). Cheryl checked in. I saw her off, and made my way back to the train station. Later, I learned that Alitalia bent the derailleur hanger handling her bicycle.
It was still early morning in Rome. I went back to the flat, and finished boxing the things that I did not need to cross Italy. After checking out, I pushed my bike with the box to the San Silvestro post office and shipped it to Piane d’Archi. Then I rode across town to a cheap hostel near the Tiburtina train station, from which my train would leave. I could not have picked a place that contrasted more with the places that we had stayed in the last three weeks. The hostel catered to Eastern European immigrants trying to find jobs in Italy. Not fleeing, miserable refugees, but not well-off either. Russians, Poles, Serbs, and Bulgarians. A pleasant lot, serious, but very poor. The staff let me lock my bicycle inside the garden terrace, so I was not worried about my stuff. I rode around the city that night, and had supper in a delightful restaurant that Cheryl and I had discovered during the Notre Dame reunion in June. A full eight hours of sleep felt very good.
The next morning, I declared my holiday over and worked for four hours, clearing emails that I had postponed writing, and checking the financial books. The budget had not suffered. I also bought some writing paper and posted a proper thank-you letter to Angela. I rode around easily, a 20-km “recovery day.” With the unaccustomed walking over the last two weeks, my adductor muscles ached. The right side still ached when I got up from sitting, but the left had cleared up. Riding made it all feel better. Wandering side roads below the Quirinale (Presidential Palace). I found a good Chinese restaurant around the corner from where I had eaten the night before.
On Sunday, I went to church at Saint Paul’s Inside the Walls, then caught the 1255 train to Chieti. The last time I had taken that train, the line was electrified only as far as Sulmona, and I remembered the coal-burning locomotives that pulled the cars from Sulmona to Pescara. The mountains took my breath away as we raced through some of the most dramatic valleys in Italy. Two stops before Chieti, we passed Torre de’ Passeri, which I remembered from summer vacations. The stone house where the DeGregorio family lived and the fields that they worked nearby were still there, surrounded by more recent apartment buildings and paved roads. It seemed strange to see that little piece of post-war Italy holding onto time, as if waiting for me to come back almost sixty years later.
I chose to go to Chieti first, because I wanted to find out where things were. I had an appointment at the Questura on the 25th, and I could not risk missing it by getting lost or running late for the personal interview for my Sojourner’s Permit. Reconnaissance turned out to be a good idea. Google Maps was hard to follow, with all the landmarks and my sense of direction obscured by buildings, but I found Harri’s Hotel without losing my way, after 19 km of switchbacks and climbs. It was billed as a four-star hotel, and it had a Michelin Red Guide rating, though the restaurant had closed for the season. The Wi-Fi in the room was not as strong as I would have liked, but the staff was incredibly pleasant, and the room was very comfortable. I decided that I would stay there again when I came back for the interview. After a shower and a change of clothes, I took the receptionist’s recommendation and walked to the trattoria up the street. It was classic: they were serving only what they were fixing, and it was all local and excellent.
I was surprised to find out just how hilly Chieti and the surrounding countryside were. Looking at the mountains on the map, I decided to take the coast road for my first trip from Chieti to Piane d’Archi. I could always take the SS 81 through the hills another day. The provincial road to Pescara was a wonderful, smooth, drop out of the sky straight to the coast. I took a right at Francavilla a Mare and headed down the Adriatic Highway. I never did see anything resembling a bike path between the highway and the sea, but there was a nice shoulder and good pavement all the way. The hills to climb around the promontories of Ortona and San Vito made me envy the drivers on the autostrada, plowing through tunnels, just like the train. I stopped for gelato at Marina di San Vito. The Gelateria Copa de Dora had won awards for their desserts, and I could understand why.
I expected the last 20 km to be fairly gentle climbing away from the coast, but the Via Sangritana (SP 119) turned into a potholed, winding mess after the first 3 km. It took me the better part of two hours to make my way into Piane d’Archi. The apartment building looked just like the pictures on Google Streets.
Maria, my new landlady, seemed delighted to meet me, and very excited. She was smart, petite, and exuberant. I was going to like her. The flat totally amazed me. Maria had put in just about everything you could think of to make the place livable, without filling it with kitschy decorations. All the furniture I could need was there, and more. My box was in the front room, and everything seemed to be in order.
I was going to like it here. After 3,337 km, Europe 2015 had come to an end. Soon I would begin planning 2016.
Next week, we will return to the regular format: every other week a sea story, and every other week something about living and working on the road. If you joined us in the last three months, you might want to scan a few articles from before June 2015, to see how that works. Each week will also contain a short trip update, just to explain where I have been. Of course, next week’s trip update will cover four months.
Please share your impressions and comments. Is there something that I should change? Is there something you expected, which I have not delivered?
Until next week,
Smooth roads and tailwinds,