2023 Italia: an inauspicious start

Sure, it’s not 2023 yet, but I expect this tour to take us into the new year. I also intend for 2023 to be a year of important changes, whether to my travelling, the publication and distribution of my books, or surprising life changes. Join me for the adventure!

Adventures often don’t go well. Depending on one’s attitude and surviving the setbacks, adventures can provide fodder for cocktail party conversation or long-lasting personal embarrassment. I prefer to laugh at my misadventures.

Both Cheryl and I deal with many obstacles that airline ground personnel inflict on bicycle travellers. For example, In September, JetBlue refused to board Cheryl’s bike in a box (packaged in accordance with the airline’s own instructions), forcing her to miss her flight and rebook with Air Canada.

I took every precaution not to have my bike block my trip to Italy. Back in August, I booked an ITA (Italian Airways) flight to Rome with a return flight ninety days later. In the middle of booking my flight with ITA, I found myself with a confirmed, non-refundable ticket and no way to pay for my bag and bike. The flight was operated by Delta, which was having a problem with its online interface. ITA would not get involved.

On the phone (typical wait time, two hours), the Delta customer services reps assured me that I would be able to check my bike and my bag at the airport. Right up to the last minute, online baggage payment was not working.

I bought a carrying bag for the bike, not wanting to risk being harassed about a box or a bike in a transparent plastic sleeve.

So concerned was I about the bike that I never expected to be denied boarding by the counter agent over my ticket. I had checked in online, so the airline computer had already approved me for boarding.

However, the agent told me that the ticket was for one day too long, 91 days. After trying unsuccessfully to change the return ticket by a day (different problem: the ITA rep was in Albania, which triggered a denial by the Visa security software), I missed my flight and walked away with my bag and my bike.

In fact, ITA had issued a 90-day ticket, but ITA (and the Schengen Agreement countries) counted the day of landing as day one, while the Delta computer counted the day of departure. I was out the cost of my entire trip over a disconnect between two partner airlines. (update: the travel insurance later paid my claim for this. Lesson learned: get the travel insurance!)

Disheartened, I booked a seat on the Northeast Regional and rode to Alexandria, Virginia, where my friends Mike and Susie put me up while I figured what to do next. Trash the whole trip? Go somewhere else in North America? Try Italy again, with some lessons learned?

I was packed and ready to live on the road for three months, so I did not need to return to my flat in Norfolk. For a week, I browsed options and tested different ticket combinations. Over the weekend of the 10th of October, I settled on a fully refundable reservation with a single airline: United. Non-stop to Rome (because the fewer times the baggage is handled, the better the chances of not having the bike damaged). I also made sure that I could pay for the baggage online before I checked in (done). I also chose to pay for an Uber to Dulles International Airport instead of riding there and bagging the panniers and the bike at the airport.

On Tuesday the 12th of October, I was up at 03:00, partly from excitement and partly from a desire to shorten the jet lag (it was 09:00 in Rome). It was a sunny, cool day. The Uber was only a few minutes late (last-minute change of drivers), and soon I was all checked in. With my bike and bags out of sight, I breathed a sigh of relief.

I was surprised to be served dinner and breakfast, considering all the extra fees other airlines have been adding to their services. While almost all my fellow passengers watched movies, I did not find anything more interesting than to follow the flight on the interactive map. I read a book when not dozing.

Things were also smooth at the Fiumicino airport. We landed at 08:20. By 09:30, I had my bike assembled, the panniers mounted and the rig rolling through the doors of the airport terminal.

The bike path heading towards Rome was being trimmed after what was clearly years of neglect, so I returned to the road after three kilometres of bushwhacking with my handlebars.

Immediately, I relaxed and enjoyed the comfort of riding in a country that is accustomed to bicycles. There are no shoulders, and no one panics for a bike. Instead, the cars are almost all small enough to pass in the same lane, and most drivers slow to pass safely, without waiting all day and blocking traffic. Only one person used a horn, and that might have been a friendly greeting.

Daniele checked me into the Airbnb that I had booked. After a short tour, we agreed to meet for coffee in Ostia while I was here.

Thirty-six hours after getting up in Alexandria, I turned in at 19:00, woke up briefly at midnight, and woke again at 11:00 the next day!

I had booked one week in Fiumicino, which would allow me time to research and book the next places, to recover from the trip, to call on the widow of a classmate in Ostia who died while I was organizing this trip, and to store the things I would not need until the return trip. The bike bag rolled into its sack and went into the backpack I used as a carry-on.

One of the first things I would need, however, was groceries. There was a big Conad grocery store next to a big Decathlon sports store at the shopping center near the flat. Everything I needed for the bicycle and my stomach close at hand!

My first meal in Italy included pasta Garagnano, which I remembered from living near Naples years ago. It takes twice as long to cook and is even a different colour than the white stuff found in most stores. With it I enjoyed a Nero di Troia, one of the best red wines I have ever tasted, from the Puglie region. Yes, that picture shows it as cheaper than “three-buck Chuck” at Trader Joe’s!

The next day, I rode to Bolliger Roma, only seven kilometres away, and handed the small package over to Fabio. I will pick up my backpack and the bike bag in January. Fabio and Carlo were very courteous. Carlo also answered my questions about how small a load they would handle, so I have my first piece of research done. If I decide to stay in Italy, Bolliger International will move my stuff from Norfolk to wherever I settle.

On the way to Magliana and the Bolliger campus, I passed the dairy where the milk in my refrigerator was made. Less than 1000 m from the flat. Talk about fresh!

After the Bolliger visit, I rode into Rome to the Trastevere station to test how easy taking my bike on the local train would be. It was painless. The state railway is working on the track east of Trastevere, so I will need my bicycle to go downtown.

Back in the apartment after the test run from the train station, I finished the short story for the week and uploaded it. (Love at first sight)

The next day, I did the laundry then went for a ride. I rode through Fiumicino in the winter of 2016 on my way back to Formia from Bologna. In the cold rain that day, I did not appreciate the bustle and the pleasant atmosphere of the downtown, and I could not take photos of the massive pumping stations that keep the Agro Romano and Agro Pontino drained. I love the name for them: idrovori. “Pumping station” sounds so dull compared to “hydrovore”, the cognate which captures the image of a massive concrete monster swallowing tremendous quantities of water and pumping it to sea level.

About this part of Italy, which most Italians and tourists simply drive through on the autostrade going to the beach or to Rome:

Top of guardrail is at mean low water, i.e. sea level.

The Agro Romano is part of the City of Rome. The Agro Pontino includes the southern half of Lazio, from Rome to Terracina. Together, this vast agricultural region stretches from Tuscany almost to Campania, but it is naturally a tidal marsh below sea level.

Throughout history it has been mostly covered by a shallow layer of water and countless mosquitos. Julius Caesar proposed digging canals as far as Terracina. Subsequent emperors had drainage channels dug to protect the Via Appia and to expose small patches, where villages began, which are cities today. If you follow the Via Appia through Lazio on a map, you can appreciate just how far away from the coast the dry land actually began.

Because this was a significant area of the Papal States, it is not surprising that popes since Martin V in the 14th Century tried to drain the swamp to create working farmland. Their efforts led to several outcomes that are still in use today: the recruitment of Dutch hydraulic experts, the use of a Europe-wide Request For Proposals (RFP), and the model for settling and farming the reclaimed land (consortia of farmers and landowners).

The most successful efforts were by Pius VI in the 18th Century (for whom the southern half was named: Agro Pontino, the Pontine Plain), and by an awesome woman, Anna Carafa.

Among other holdings in the south of Italy, Anna Carafa della Stadera was the Duchess of Fondi, around the corner from Terracina. In the middle of the 17th Century, she ended up with the low-lying marsh at the northern end of the Kingdom of Naples after her husband and his two brothers died (innocently – this was not the Middle Ages!). She ran her fief efficiently and managed to drain the swamp well ahead of her neighbours in the Papal States. Being courted for her immense wealth and power, she negotiated a marriage with a Spanish nobleman, insisting that the King of Spain name him Viceroy of Naples. This put her effectively in charge of the entire southern half of the peninsula. After reading Guzmán’s and Carafa’s biographies, I gather that she was by far the cleverer of the two, and responsible for guiding Naples through another eruption of Vesuvius, several earthquakes and a downtown beautification (much of which is still standing today).

It was one of the achievements of the Fascist era to drain the swamp and turn it into the breadbasket it has become. Beginning in 1924, the government overcame the problem of ownership and farming by threatening the landowners with State expropriation of newly exposed land if they did not join and actively work with the consortia. Even so, so much new farmland was exposed that the government sponsored a massive resettlement program for impoverished farmers from northeast Italy. Even today, the children and grandchildren of the settlers have left their cultural and linguistic mark on the region. One is likely to hear more northern and foreign accents among the people than Roman dialect. Rome has been expanding ever since the 1920’s, but most of this area is still farmland.

More recently, people have become aware of the enormous impact of all this human activity. A unique and extensive ecosystem was completely destroyed, replacing a natural carbon sink with energy-sucking and heat-generating settlements, farms and cattle. The national park at the southern end of the Agro Pontino surrounding the Monte Circeo (which was Circe’s island in antiquity) is an effort to restore some of the habitat that was lost.

The idrovori themselves require massive amounts of electricity and must be kept running around the clock. A loss of power for any reason would allow the entire region to flood in short order. In this sense, the area resembles the Netherlands – without the dykes. Thus, the availability of electrical power is a problem more serious than unhappy consumers paying their monthly bills.

Sitting at the mouth of the ancient Tiber River between Rome and the coast, Fiumicino is a working port for commercial fishing and yachting.

I rode as far south as I could on the beachfront bike path. I could live in a town like this. To my surprise, the airport can’t be heard most of the time, being surrounded by so much farmland that the jets don’t often come close enough to bother the humans in town.

On Saturday, I rode back into downtown Fiumicino. This time I rode north around the airport, taking in the long, straight roads, the sights on either side, and returning to my little flat. With the aircraft taking off and landing into the southerly wind, the lumbering jets looked like slow-motion videos with the sound muted.

Sunday, I met my colleague Sara and her husband Ciro for lunch, the first of what I hope will be many meetings with friends and colleagues over the next three months. La Marina restaurant on the riverbank across from the moored fishing fleet serves almost nothing but seafood: I was in gastronomic heaven!

The next three days included a daily, two-hour reconnaissance around the area, writing to friends trying to set up the next month. and hours spent working on the novel. All part of why I came here.

Although it is not yet Halloween, the Conad store was stocking panettoni for Christmas. I bought a small one to feed my annual craving for the cake-like dessert.

Wednesday the 26th of October, I checked out with my loaded bike and rode south 107 km to Sabaudia, near the national park around the Monte Circeo. More remote than Fiumicino, but still close to grocery stores.

For most of the day I rode on the low, flat coastline, but the coast road turned inland and climbed the promontory on which Anzio and Nettuno sit. Along the way, I noticed how much the pines beside the highways had grown since my childhood. Most of the straight Roman roads had these big trees planted during the Fascist era. Lest you think how romantic and beautiful these tree-lined roads seem, consider this very common sign. It reads “tree roots springing up” and the speed limit is 30 km/hr (18 mph) for a reason.

The cars here are not much bigger than my bike. The tree roots, potholes, and buckled asphalt can flip them over easily. Being aware of the hazards, the drivers know when I am approaching a pothole or a tree root. They tend to let me ride around the problem, passing me after I pull back over. Such awareness is non-existent in North America. Over a few kilometres, we look like a ballet company.

The sand dunes that separated the marshland from the sea have never been removed or replaced with manmade dykes or barriers. I was impressed to see what happens if you leave a barrier reef alone for centuries. Where we have thin seagrass on the Eastern Shore, the dunes of the Agro Pontino are covered with thick, healthy bushes, which have grown around the seagrass. Serious storm-proofing.

The National Park of the Circeo is a recent effort to save the small bit of the ecosystem that was destroyed in the last two hundred years. Pine forests grow out of the shallow water, and the lagoons between the barrier dunes and the Agro are at sea level. The idrovori are located farther inland than the ones on the Agro Romano.

When Odysseus ventured north from Carthage, Circe lived on an island surrounded by this shallow sea. The mount of the island dominates the vistas everywhere in the Agro Pontino, including the view from the balcony of my flat in Sabaudia. With global sea rise, I expect the promontory to become an island again. There is very little dry land on either side of the road around it now.

Sabaudia is a creation of the Fascist government, a model of Italian Rationalist architecture. No building here is older than 1938. My first impression has been positive. It is clean, nothing is run-down, and it seems easy to maintain.

Since checking in three days ago, I have drafted another two chapters of the book. Yesterday I also rode to the Monte Circeo. At this rate, odds are that my writer’s retreat will be a success. While I am here I also hope to visit friends as far away as Formia and Gaeta, where I have lived in the past.

In the coming months, if I don’t have a trip to report on, I will write a new short story for you, with a cross-link here. Come on back!

Smooth roads and tailwinds,


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