Two weeks ago, I changed my status and profile on the Warmshowers (www.warmshowers.org) and Couchsurfing (www.couchsurfing.com) websites. I have been “unavailable to host” since leaving Charlottesville almost two years ago. I decided to try hosting in my totally inadequate place in Formia. Almost immediately, I had three requests. I accepted the second two, when I realized that we could make it work. The first group, three men and two women from Lyons, France, only wanted a shower. Good, because I could not have fit six bikes and six sleeping humans. It took three hours to shower everyone, because the little 10-litre water heater had to reheat between showers. The second visit, a couple from North Ireland, stayed with me on Wednesday night last week. All seven of these young adults were interesting, fun, and overloaded. I was amazed by what they were packing on year-long odysseys. But, then, I had started out in 2013 with over 100 kg of cargo, too.
On Friday, I boarded the train at a comfortable 0902 and rode to Rome’s Termini station. A quick run to the Tiburtina station on my bike got me to the train to Florence in plenty of time. By 1500, I was riding west through downtown Florence to the mountaintop (250m) town of San Casciano in Val di Pesa, where I would spend a couple of days with my friend and colleague Maureen Young and her husband Alessandro. On Saturday, Maureen and I went to the Get-ToGether for the “Translators in Italy” Facebook group. Lunch was typically Mediterranean: three and a half hours. After lunch, Maureen and Alessandro and I went to the movies to see LaLa Land (yes, in Italian, but the singing numbers were in English with subtitles).
Sunday morning, I rolled downhill 20km to Empoli in less than forty minutes. Then I made my way another 35 km along the south bank of the Arno River to the town of Ponsacco, near Pontedera, the Piaggio world headquarters (maker of the iconic Vespa). My Warmshowers host, Nunzia, was a delight. We had dinner at Rosmarina, a slow-cooking restaurant worth a special trip.
Monday morning found me slogging through the rain to the coast. It rained for more than two hours, but for the worst of it, I took shelter in a McDonalds in Stagno and read a book. I was not in a hurry to cover the 87 km to Casale Marittimo, because my hosts would not be home until 1900. In Stagno I picked up the Via Aurelia, which I would follow almost to its end. By riding this stretch, I have now ridden every mile of the first great Roman highway in Italy. It is easy to see which roadway of the modern two-lane lies above the roadbed built by Caesar’s legions: it’s the one that does not need to be repaired every six months, because it does not sink and crack.
It stopped raining south of Livorno (about half-way). I picked up lunch at a Coop grocery store in Rossignano Solvay, which I ate in the bar right there. The last 10 km were uphill. Casale Marittimo is 220 m above sea level. Still, I arrived just after dark. Locked my bike and waited for Camille and Marco to come home. Marco fixed a fantastic lentil risotto and served a homemade chocolate liqueur. We chatted over that and tisane until almost midnight.
A view of the Maremma leading to the sea greeted me on Tuesday. Again, I rolled downhill to the coast, covering the 55 km to Follonica in about 3 hours. There was plenty of time to work at another Coop store until Roberta came home. She fixed a delicious pasta dish with cavolo nero (a sort of kale) and we enjoyed a blueberry (mirtillo) liqueur that her father made.
Wednesday, I pushed almost 90 km into a stiff southerly breeze, which made the whole ride feel like one continuous climb; never any coasting or easing up on the pedals. The morning was sunny and temperatures stayed above 15 degrees all day. A dark squall passed over while I was having lunch in Grosseto, so I considered myself lucky. Nevertheless, the headwind left me exhausted by the time I checked into Tony & Judi’s B&B in Orbetello. A hot shower and a rest never felt so good. That night I enjoyed fresh grilled fish in the restaurant next to the B&B, run by a crew of excellent Neapolitan cooks.
Thursday, the headwinds were even stronger on the 75 km to Civitavecchia, but at least the rain held off until I was snugly tucked into the Maison de Revel B&B. I could not help wondering at the understatement on the highway sign warning of high winds as far as Civitavecchia, after being blown around for four hours already. Yesterday, I stayed with my high school classmate Massimo in Ostia. The headwinds were gentler, and the sun stayed out until after noon. It was a special reunion, because I missed Massimo in 2015, and met his really cool bride Laura (she rides her bike everywhere, too). Today, I started out for Sabaudia, but changed my mind after 50 km, when I reached Nettuno. The surf was crashing into the breakwaters, and a grey, ugly sky threatened. I turned inland and rode to Cisterna di Latina. The distance was the same, but I hopped on the 1405 Regionale train to Formia, so I could save the money for another night in a hotel. The bit from Terracina to Formia is a frequent daily ride already; nothing special. I rode 600 km after leaving Florence. It was cold; it was wet; but it was never cold and wet. The headwinds did their best to toughen my lazy leg muscles. It felt good to cross the border back into Lazio and even better to get home. I am already raring for the next trip.
Communications can pose one of the more serious challenges to the international traveller. Travelling alone used to be less complicated: just find a pay phone for the occasional call. But not in the 21st Century. Today we need our phones for data connection to the internet, coordinating our movements with others in our party, booking train and ferry tickets and keeping up with email and texts (SMS) along the way. If we are living and working on the road, we need our phones even more, because in between hotel and café internet routers, our smartphone becomes our hot-spot – if we have remembered to buy a data plan for it. The smartphone is a great WiFi hot-spot for intermittent use. There are times when buying a data plan just for the computer makes sense, for example, streaming video for hours (movies). The phone might overheat trying to be a hot-spot for a more powerful device (the computer) engaged in streaming or gaming. With this plan, you are buying just internet data use, no voice or SMS/texting. Your computer must be capable to taking the SIM card, or you can buy a USB dongle from the phone company. In either case, the computer has its own “phone number”, but no one ever calls it.
The best time to figure out what to do about communications is before leaving, of course. Overall, we need to compare the cost and service of getting an international plan with our phone provider at home or buying phone plans abroad as we travel. The former allows us to keep our phone number, which may be important if we have an urgent care situation at home or clients who need to contact us. The latter is simple, and often affordable. Many phone carriers in the various countries have tourist packages, typically payable by the month, with a generous amount of calling minutes, SMS/text, and gigabytes of data use.
If the international plan is more expensive than we can justify, we can always check our voice mail at home every day on the road. Skype, Facebook Messenger, and Google Hangouts allow you to phone anywhere using VOIP (voice over internet protocol), often for only a few pennies per minute. I think it costs me less than three cents to check my voice mail at home. And toll-free numbers in North America cost me nothing from anywhere in the world, thanks to Skype.
On our travels 2014-2016, Cheryl and I found it convenient to buy new SIM cards from the local phone carrier (Vodaphone, 3, Wind, Orange, etc.) as soon as we arrived in a new country. The variety of packages is dizzying. So are the procedures in the different countries. Because our main use of the phone is to contact each other and data use (Google Maps, research, booking accommodations and tickets, etc.), it did not matter much if we had a new telephone number in each country. On our bicycles, we were going to be in each country more than three weeks, so a new SIM card made more sense than paying the international rates of our North American carriers.
If you already have a European phone carrier (as I do), a new SIM card is not always cost-effective, because the European Union requires that all EU phone carriers offer a minimum level of service Union-wide. My provider, Wind, gives me more minutes, texts/SMS, and data than I can use for EUR 2.50/day. No charge if I don’t use it. This allows me to keep service when passing through a country for less than two weeks, or to be able to take my time finding a local carrier If I will stay a while. Thus, when I passed through France last spring, I did not get a new SIM card, but when I arrived in England, I bought a Vodaphone plan right away. The Vodaphone plan in England was cheaper than paying EUR 2.50/day.
One of the more interesting offers available today is Knowroaming (https://www.knowroaming.com/). This service provides a ten-dollar SIM card that you can slip into your phone when you are about to leave your home country. It connects to the local network in more than 200 countries (unlimited data in 90 of them). Knowroaming also sells a Global SIM sticker for USD 30, which you attach to your home SIM card. It recognizes when you are travelling and connects you without your having to swap cards. You are always on a local network, hence the pun “no-roaming”. Obviously, with the Global SIM sticker, you keep your home phone number wherever you go. With the SIM card, you have a different number when you leave your home country, but only one. You still have to pay the local network costs, but if you must travel to many places, not staying long in each, this might be a cost-effective option for you.
Next week, the penultimate sea story. The blog will change format and purpose at the end of this month, so remember to let me know your ideas about what you like to read in it. Use the comment feature if you want to share your ideas with the other readers, or write to email@example.com to tell my privately.
Smooth roads and tailwinds,