On my way to Rome last Saturday, I learned that the usual places where I stay were filled. My friends were out of town. I booked a tent site at the Happy Camping Roma, across the Via Aurelia from my old high school. I had camped there in May 1986 (see the blog post for 10 May 2014), when it was still a primitive campground. Today it is a vast, modern complex with cabins, bungalows, dormitory “tent houses”, a pool, restaurant, bar and discotheque. Tent camping was a matter of picking any open space one can find. I chose a spot between the restaurant and the washrooms. Clean and convenient, even if I did have to enjoy the disco crowd until midnight.
Sunday morning, the sun woke me in plenty of time to catch a train from the San Pietro station to Pisa. The Europa Camping complex lay 35 km north of Pisa just south of Viareggio. Riding under grey skies over the flattest part of Tuscany, I arrived early enough to pitch the tent, wash and hang laundry, and find supper at the campground restaurant. I slept very well on my new Quecha air mattress, half the size and weight of my old Thermarest Neo-Air.
At 0600 on Monday morning, a single slap of raindrops woke me with a start. A quick check outside revealed that the rain had not really started. I broke camp, packed and had breakfast under threatening skies. Only the footprint of my tent was damp, from the ground-dew. The rain fell as I checked out and began riding to La Spezia. Fortunately, the wind was onshore, so I did not have to push into it. The weather system consisted of steady rain with isolated violent squalls. I saw one of those coming and pulled under the overhang of a closed business. Up ahead, I could see the stiff westerlies pushing the system inland. When it cleared the road north of me, I set out again. The rain trickled away to a memory.
Tuscany is beautiful everywhere, and the northwest corner is no exception. I rode past the ornate bathhouses of Viareggio and saw massive blocks of polished Carrara marble shining in the sun on big trucks going to the port. When I crossed the Liguria border, I thought that I was going to climb 896 m over the promontory overlooking Lerici, but the road turned inland and went around the hill, only rising 120 m all the way to La Spezia.
I had booked a room in a pleasant B&B called the Arianna Hill House. The name should have warned me. When I was only 3 km away, still at sea level, the road turned inland at a 17% grade and climbed all the way to the driveway, which was even steeper. I finally got off for the driveway, but I almost could not push the loaded bicycle up to the hotel. However, I was given the last sea view room available; the bed and a hot shower made the effort worth the travail.
That night, I walked up the hill (as if the B&B weren’t enough uphill already at 200 m. above sea level) about a km to the only eatery in the suburb where I was staying. The lady at the B&B warned me that Acadeleo only served a prezzo fisso dinner, which was fine. I expected a trattoria. After some trepidation over the jumbled street numbers (I was looking for 46, but they went 13, 19, 52, 54, 42, 46), I found a charming little building with a terrace overlooking the Gulf of La Spezia. The fixed price menu turned out to be a dégustation in the finest sense of the word. After seven antipasti ranging from seafood to meat though a series of different cheese, grain and fruit concoctions, I was treated to the primo, secondo and dolce followed by a complimentary limoncello. I expected Giada De Laurentiis and the camera crew to show up at any minute. Absolutely nothing was typical. Each dish was unique and presented with great artistry. I would not have wanted to wash the dishes after dinner! EUR25, plus wine (a Veneto merlot bottled for the restaurant).
While in La Spezia, I learned that a strike would stop the French railways on Wednesday and Thursday. Tuesday, I blew down to the La Spezia train station, more worried about overheating my brakes than missing my train to Ventimiglia. From the last city in Italy, I rode across the French border to Menton. The Gendarmes were carefully checking documents at the border, which backed up the cars. I had forgotten to get my passport out earlier, so I pulled over to the sidewalk to stash my Italian ID card and put my passport in my pocket. Then I walked over the border with the other pedestrians. The police were not interested in us at all. I rode to the Menton train station and caught the last train before the strike. It was going as far as Grasse, but I got off in Cannes, because I had fond memories of that city. I was in a mood to plan my trip during the strike, so I booked into the Esterel Hotel (free WiFi) across from the station, and had the biggest helping of mussels I have ever seen at the Splendid restaurant next door.
I planned to ride the recommend bicycle route to Avignon, and spend the night inland, but when I got up Wednesday morning, I just could not waste the incredible sunshine on an inland highway. I followed the coast, essentially reversing the ride I made from Toulon to Cannes back in 1975 (see the blog post for 5 April 2014). The wind came from the south, gently blowing enough to dissipate the occasional car exhaust. With few cars on the road, the air was rich with the scent of pine trees. On the Corniche de l’Esterel, I breathed in rosemary and sage, growing wild above and below the highway.
There were as many bicyclists as motorists, most of them men of a certain age, with silver hair and 14% body fat. Bicycling is one sport that a young person can continue to play at a high level into old age. I also saw women riders on road bikes in full bicycle kit, all twenty-somethings, each accompanied by one to three men. The women were kilometers apart, but I guessed that it was some sort of coaching event, because the women all sported the same jersey.
Beyond the colours on the cyclists and the lush vegetation, the Mediterranean Sea wore the intense blue that makes the Riviera famous. Crashing against the red rocks of the coast, the sea provided a feast for the eyes. The only sound for this sensorial banquet was often my own tyres on the road.
My first stop was at Saint Raphaël, 40 km from Cannes. After a crabmeat sandwich on a fresh mini baguette in the park, I rolled 20 km to Saint Maxime before looking for a place to pitch my tent. There were dozens of campgrounds. I picked the Prairies di Mer, because they had 1400 tent sites, so I did not have to worry about reservations. It caters to families on vacation, and there was an active night scene at the Long Bar with a live band playing classic rock.
Thursday morning, the humidity was so low (and the sandy site so dry) that I had no moisture on my tent and my laundry had dried overnight. Rather than the sea coast, I enjoyed the Parcours cyclable du Littoral, more than 60 km of separate, paved bike path following D98 and D559 from St. Maxime to Toulon. I rode 71 km, and spent less than ten of it on roadway. The path was closer to the coast than the highway, but this was not the scenic part of the Riviera. This was where the salt flats around Hyères and Toulon began. I remember the working salt flats from the mid-1970s. They were like the salt flats at Ston in Croatia (see the post of 19 December 2015), except that they had large piles of collected salt stashed around them here and there. This week, it looked like marshland, as if no one were farming the salt anymore.
While the highway west of Cannes was rich with smell of pine and later rosemary and sage, here I ran through dense clouds of olive, oregano and lavender. If nothing else, I knew I was in Provence. The ride was gentle, even when climbing into the Côtes de Provence (AOC – appellation d’origine contrôlée) wine country. The sun was tamed by light clouds, so I was comfortable all the way. As on Wednesday, there were almost as many bicycles out as cars. But Thursday’s cyclists ranged from zigzagging children to plodding seniors: locals, tourists and everything in between. Part of that was because the bike path actually goes somewhere: it connects the towns along the Var coast, and makes using a bicycle practical. It says something about the commitment to bicycle facilities that the pelotons of racers also use the bike path. It is in better shape than the road surface. In Italy, the cyclists on road machines never get on a bike path, because they know the maintenance is always worse than on the road.
Another pleasant detail was discovering that Google Maps has the bicycle option activated for France. I missed that while in Italy. Bike path construction is ahead of the Google updaters, but I could easily see where the bike path continued and ignored Google. One block after leaving the recommended route, Google Maps rerouted itself to include the bike path. I took a room across from the train station in Toulon and slept well.
By 0850 on Friday morning, I was on the train to Moulins, 30 km from Livry. The sun and pleasant temperatures have brought out the bikers, and every bicycle hook was filled on the three trains that I rode that day. In Livry, I am enjoying the hospitality of colleague translator and bicyclist David Wilson. Before we ever met, David built his life around my basic rules for career design: find something you would do for free if you did not have to make a living, then get people to pay you to do it. Like me, David is a translator, but he specializes in the cycling sector at a high level (www.velo2bike.com). This part of France is classically agricultural, with small farms spreading up and down the Allier valley as far as the eye can see.
I don’t mind slipping my outline of subjects in favor of the travelogue this week. I hope you enjoyed it. I am trying to determine whether to write more stories (sea stories, travelogues, and maybe even short fiction) or continue the 50/50 split of information and stories. What would you like to see? Next week, a sea story.
Smooth roads and tailwinds.