Grand Saint Bernard
Stretching beside the road in preparation to cycle up to the Saint Bernard Pass, one of the highest motorable passes in Europe at 2480 meters in elevation and closed to traffic during the winter, we saw a group of touring cyclists and decided to tag on the back.
Two of them Polish and the other English we had a good chat until everyone was a little out of breath. A couple of kilometers later and we stopped on the side of the road for hamburgers, which it turned out later might have been a mistake...
Just after we started again we found a mountain stream funneling down the side of the road so we stopped to fill our water bottles. The water was cold, really cold, and just filling up the bottles hurt my hands. Despite this I splashed the water over my face a few times, and felt immeasurably better. Not sure if its just me, but I love the coldness of water coming down from a mountain, there is something about it that makes me wish I could drink this water all day... Although, I hear that apparently this wouldn't be all that good for you.
Getting back to the riding. Another 10 or so kilometers up hill and we came to the point were the tolled tunnel section begins for motor vehicles, and the tunroff for the mountain summit begins, snaking around the mountain as far the eye can see.
At this point we were up around 1600 meters in altitude and we began to feel that the weather was getting cooler. Strangely the road began to deteriorate, almost to the conditions in Laos, a third world country, and the cyclists coming down the hill in the opposite direction were having trouble negotiating the rocks, bumps and machinery scattered over the road.
Further up and the road starts to improve, and as we reach 2000 meters in altitude the tree line stops, leaving only green hills, snow capped mountains, glaciers, jutting outcrops of rock and incredible waterfalls and streams.
The scenery is spectacular, so we stop, not just to catch our breath, but to take off our shoes and socks and wash our feet in the cold water, water coming from glaciers above us formed thousands of years ago.
Finally another hour or so later and we're at the top of the Saint Bernard Pass, the border between Suisse and Italy were Saint Bernard built a hospice for travelers that still exists almost 1000 years later.
We cycle through the border, and for the first time nobody says anything or asks for out passports, and just like that we are in Switzerland.
Suddenly feeling famished we lean our bikes against a wall near the hospice when, looking around for something to eat I hear Shanna yell in excitement, 'Francois!!'
We hadn't expected to see them until the following day but as it turned out Francois had ridden up that morning over 70 kilometers from Sion, and was just as tired and hungry as us. Fortunately we were able to shelve our plans to camp somewhere in the mountains as Francois had payed for us to stay at the hostel, were apparently you can only stay if you have either ridden or walked up. Cool.
That night we watched the end of the Tour de France in a cafe and then shared a communal meal with some hikers and young scouts in the old hospice dining hall.
Tucking into the soup with bread, and steak and potatoes in the warm old room, prompted me of something from the past. Although I cant remember exactly what it was, it must have been something soothing, so I sat there, warm amongst the chatter wondering, in search of lost time and memories.
As we rode closer to the mountains, they became larger and dominated the skyline ahead of us.
Near the town of Aosta, where we would take the turn-off to the Grand Saint Bernard Pass, we were surprised to see snow on the mountain peaks. At first we weren't sure if it was snow or rock, but as the occurances increased we realised in was snow. This was pretty exciting for me, my opportunities for seeing snow up until now being pretty limited.
As we rode through Aosta the dark clouds that had been threatening broke open and the rain poured down. Thunder boomed around us and we took shelter under a tree by the side of the road. We pulled our rain jackets out but it was too heavy to continue. We weren't as far as we wanted. We wanted to progress as far as we could up the mountain pass. And we planned to camp on the mountain. But here we were, stuck in another city, in the middle of a storm.
We waited 10 minutes, debating what to do, and the rain eased. We would keep going.
We made the turn onto the road up to the pass and the rain poured down again. We pulled under the cover of a carport next to an apartment block. Again we waited, and when the rain subsided we continued.
Not much further up the road my chain broke again - the fourth time on the trip! Luckily the rain had stopped, and luckily we'd been able to buy some extra chain links a few days earlier, so within 20 minutes we were riding up the mountain again.
We rode for another hour and made it to an altitude of 850m when we saw a rest area on the side of the road, with a path leading up into an orchard. Sam checked out the orchard and we decided it would be the perfect place to camp for the night.
We ate cereal for dinner (oh, how I longed for something else!) and set up our tent - without any mosquitoes around! It rained during the night, and with the cooler temperature at the high altitude, and the quiet of the sparsely populated area, we enjoyed one of our best nights of camping.
Tomorrow would be the day we had been looking forward to - riding to the top of the Alps!
We hadn't ridden far when a couple on the side of the road beckoned us to pull over. The wind was strong and the sun was hot, so when they suggested we head to their house for a drink we were happy for the delay. Primo and Michela were leaving in days for a short cycling holiday in Denmark and wanted to chat to us about our experiences.
We chatted over glasses of ice cold water, and soon Primo's mother was putting bread and cheese and meat in front of us, then the spaghetti was on the table... followed by salad, fruit and lemon sorbet. All the while we talked happily about bike riding in the mountains, Michela's 800km pilgrimage in Spain a few years earlier and their two dogs. We spent a few happy hours in their home before reluctantly hitting the road again. We wanted to make it to Ivrea that day and still had over 70km to go.
Battling the usual headwinds, although not as strong as we've often experienced, we made it late in the day. The mosquitoes were still a problem so we stopped at a run-down looking hotel, hoping for a reasonable price.
The elderly man running the place said we could stay for 55 euro with breakfast, plus he would cook us a meal that night and we could use the internet - even though technically the cafe area was closed (it seemed we were the only guests).
His son and his family were kind to us - helping us find somewhere for the bikes and making sure we had enough to eat and drink. It seemed that just as we were 100km from the Swiss border, we were beginning to really enjoy Italy.
Suisse, here we come
We lay tense in the tent as the four people walked past us, looking at us in 'their' spot. Would they challenge us? Would they wait until we were asleep and then steal our things?
Luckily we had secured our bikes together less than a metre from the tent door, and brought inside all the valuables, as we do every night. We heard rustling in the bushes nearby, but no one came near the tent. It took a while, but eventually we fell into a restless sleep.
It seems 5am is the time for homeless people to leave the beach. They were up and about - talking loudly, changing clothes.. one of them came over to our area and picked up a pair of undies that had been discarded and we'd kicked aside. They were wearing boardshorts now and pulled out a beach umbrella from behind some trees. A woman disappeared with the garbage bag and three men stayed behind - looking like any regular beach goers.
They were so loud - how would we get any more sleep?!
The police turn up. The men are moved along. The police peer into our tent. We pretend we are asleep. They look at our bikes. The walk around the other side of the tent and peer in. And they leave us without saying a word. Thanks to the police we are able to get a couple of hours more sleep.
We go to the post office. We want to send some items ahead to Switzerland to make our bikes lighter for crossing the Alps, and so we can move faster over the next few days. But we realise don't have their address written down. We search for internet. We find 5 places - four are closed and one is having connection problems. Eventually we access our email in a computer shop and go back to the post office. We manage to remove 9kg of gear from our bikes! It's a heavy package to send, but we feel like we're flying without the weight.
And quickly we're grateful, when we spend a couple of hours climbing a 600m mountain pass in the searing sun. At least on the other side the road is flat. And despite a late start to the day we are able to cover the necessary kilometres.
In the evening we look for a place to camp. We find the perfect spot in a field, behind some trees. But we are attacked by mosquitoes - more than we have ever seen before. Literally hundreds of them covered us. We got out of there fast.
Further down the road we see a small clearing amongst some trees, down a small hill by the side of the road. We push our bikes down and quickly we're surrounded by a swarm of mosquitoes again. We tried to swat them, but there were too many. We tried to wheel our bikes out of the field, but we were being massacred. We dropped our bikes and tipped water all over ourselves, trying to get rid of them. But as soon as we ran out of water they were back. There was a steep gravel road nearby and that was our best bet - to lose them in the wind as we flew down the hill. It was one of the most terrifying experiences as I lost all control of the bike on this steep hill. A few times I felt like I was about to crash in the gravel, but somehow the bike stayed upright and I stayed on the bike.
At the bottom of the hill there was a sign for a B&B just around the corner. We decided to go there, as it would be impossible for us to camp. We just hoped the price was reasonable.
We were lucky - 50 Euro including breakfast. After a shower we counted Sam's bites - over 50. And that was in less than five minutes.
A day at sea
Our day in Palermo was spent close to the ferry port, as we were catching our next ferry that night to Genova.
We spent a few hours in an internet cafe, catching up on the news we'd missed while riding furiously through Southern Italy. While we were there, a man with a large gold chain around his neck came into the shop and demanded money from the Indian woman running the place. She nervously handed some over, but it didn't seem to be enough, the man was unhappy. Further words were exchanged and the man left. It took longer for the tension in the air to disappear.
Riding around Palermo we saw fruit stalls, fish markets, bread shops... in the tiny streets dozens of cars and scooters competed for space, beeping at each other and going in the wrong direction down one-way streets. They kept up a frantic pace and in our tired state it was quite overwhelming.
We were glad to board our ferry that night. It was a 20 hour journey and we'd opted for a cabin this time. We had a shower! And beds! The first thing we did onboard was to wash ourselves and all our clothes. We intended to explore the boat - the most lavish we'd been on yet - but fatigue caught up with us and we were quickly asleep.
We spent most of the next day on the ferry - reading in the sun, floating in the pool (fulfilling another of my lingering cruise dreams) and watching a movie. It was great to have a relaxation day! We were just getting ready for another swim and then a nap, when we were informed that we had to leave the cabin, as the final few hours of the voyage they would be preparing for the next group of passengers - we had to take our things and wait on the deck.
When we arrived in Genova we headed straight out of the city. We needed to camp to save some money! After a couple of short detours to the supermarket and a bike shop, we were on our way. On the outskirts of the city we found a place to camp - on the beach behind some trees. There seemed to be an infestation of mosquitoes, but we assembled the tent in a different spot and quickly jumped inside as it was getting dark.
The spot we'd chosen had some cardboard laid out - which was perfect for sitting the tent on. And it seemed it was the perfect spot for a reason. Just after 10, when the final traces of light were leaving the sky, the people who lived there returned with their garbage bags of possessions...
We waited amidst the cars and trucks to board the ferry. Some of the freight being loaded on was amazing, these guys have some incredible skills to be able to pack it all so tight.
The ferry left around seven, and shortly after that we wanted to sleep, but we could find nowhere to lay down- we'd bought the cheap deck tickets... Despite, Shanna fell asleep in the lounge, but was soon woken up by one of the ship's staff, telling her 'you'a cannotta sleepa herea.'
About this time the world cup semi final started, and the ship and its temporary inhabitants suddenly roared into life, Italian, German or Spanish, united yet separated by a common cause. Concurrently, for those not interested in football, or more interested in other things, the disco/cabaret began, the ship ablaze with a heady concoction of sounds and smells, cheers and cries, swooning and singing, and a strong aroma of sea spray and alcohol.
Around midnight we finally nodded off in a remote corner of the upper deck were we'd found a place to put our sleeping mats. Quickly we fell asleep with only the roar of the ocean winds in our ears.
Loud speakers and people brought the ship back to life at 5am, bloodshot eyes opening through a haze of exhaustion to see the sun rising across sparkling waters. The cigarettes were produced just as the city came into view.
As the wind blew across the whitewashed 'pont', the fresh ocean breeze filled our noses with the scent of Sicily whilst we what this city, reportedly run by the mafioso, would have in store for us.
We'll keep what we saw in Sicily for another time, but just tell you that we came into contact with the mafia, a nervous shop keeper, some delicious food, the intoxicating smell of markets, fresh fruits, meats and fish, and saw a city teaming with life; paradox, and men and boys, crowding the streets of Palermo's bustling metropolis, a city striving towards modernisation amidst an old world of decay.
In the morning we found the archaelogical site of Pompeii.
When we learned that we were able to ride our bikes through the massive site we went back and retrieved them.
Then we spent almost three hours perusing the incredible ruins of this once thriving city, now protected in the night by a pack of energetic dogs... Even on bicycles this was exhausting- never could we have comprehended the sheer size of the excavated city, the ancient buildings seemed to stretch on forever, you could spend days here and still not see everything.
Back on the road and headed towards Napoli through the narrow cobble stone streets. Riding these gives me a great respect for the cyclists who have competed on these over the past century, I agree Cadel, cobbles are far worse than pave (a small cobblesstone)...
Just as these thoughts were rumbling around in my head and slam, a car door, a really big car door is opened onto me. A moment to react, I turn the bike just enough not to feel the full impact... My bag is ripped form my bike, a hole in the bottom, a small buckle, a broken box inside the bag, but I'm OK. Phew.
The rest of the day I ride scared, it is impossible to ride far enough from the parked cars in these narrow streets to avoid more possible doors, and there will be more (at this time we had already been lucky to avoid others).
We reach Napoli, relieved, sweating, and amidst the chaotic traffic we find the ferry terminal.
Our plan was to make it to Napoli in time to catch the ferry to Palermo, Sicily at 8pm. It meant riding about 130km, but provided the road went downhill to the coast we would be ok.
The start of the day featured some more uphill sections, but before long we were flying downhill, enjoying the small towns and cool breeze.
We reached Salerno in the early afternoon and realised we wouldn't make it to Napoli in time for the ferry. Looking at our map we decided to go to the national park at Mt Vesuvious and camp there for the night.
From Salerno we rode up a narrow, steep, winding coastal road with hundreds of other vehicles - cars, scooters, motorbikes and trucks... and us. It was crazy how much traffic was on this road! And the drivers did not respect cyclists. They would pull out in front of us, not considering the time it takes a cyclist to brake. We both had close encounters with cars for this reason. We felt more threatened on this road than we had in Asia! Thunder shook the sky and we were worried about a storm.
Following conflicting signs, a map with no detail and the GPS which only had the main roads, we found our way to Pompei, but couldn't find the road to Vesuvious. We spent an hour riding around until we accepted that it was too late - it was getting too dark to continue our journey that day. We found a hotel and walked down the street for some Italian pizza.
From our camping spot inside the bridge we could see a McDonalds sign in the distance, and determined to head there for breakfast. Riding in the direction of the golden arches we realised we had also found the road to Salerno, the one which had evaded us the night before.
The McDonalds was closed - didn't open until 11 - which was something we'd never heard of, so we ate bagettes and custard filled croissants from the service station next door.
We chose an alternate route to Salerno to avoid some long mountain roads featured on the map - but the road we travelled undulated all day anyway.
We saw some of the most beautiful buildings we'd encountered yet, when we went through the town of Brienza, at 700m elevation. But the name made me think of my family's cat...
After Brienza we went down a 15% gradient road, waving to the guys struggling uphill on their lightweight road bikes. We were glad to be going downhill for once.
We'd battled strong headwinds and high temperatures all day, so we stopped early near the town of Auletta to camp near a beautiful river. We swam, letting the current carry us in small rapids, i a beautifully cool clean and fresh river, one Sam has dreamt about since, and watched young guys fishing from a hidden cave, think grotto, built hundreds of years ago into the side of the rivers cliff...
The going gets tough
We were woken once by a pack of dogs, sniffing around the tent and bikes, but they only needed to be yelled at once to disappear.
We were sleeping soundly in the early morning when footsteps on the gravel woke us. A box was put on the ground next to the bikes and a young guy started to graffiti the wall as if we weren't there. The next 15 minutes were strange, as we tried to tell him to go away, but he insisted in broken English that he had to do it "at this moment". He was close to the bikes, and spray paint began to inadvertently land on them and our gear. He apologised and tried to move Sam's heavy bike. Sam yelled at him to leave. He insisted he had to do it so the people on the train could see... back and forth it went. Realising we would get no more sleep we gave in and packed up.
It was another tough day - temperatures in the high 30s, more altitude gained, nowhere to buy food or water, headwinds... It was a day to make us wonder why we do this to ourselves. We found a restaurant in a small town where we were overcharged for a small bowl of pasta each, but we met a friendly Italian, Pablo, who chatted to us about his motorbike travels around Europe.
It was lucky we had the pasta though - in the afternoon we went up a hill of 850m altitude with gradient of up to 15%. It was too much and we had to push up a particularly steep section. In the hot sun the mountain was particularly tough, but the plateau on top was beautiful, and drinking the cold mountain water we found coming from a well at the top made it worth it! For the rest of the day the road would lose altitude, only to gain it again.
In the early evening we rode into the city of Potenza at 850m altitude. The plan was to buy food and get out of there before dark. But we spent an hour riding around trying to find the road for the next leg of our journey. And we couldn't find a supermarket. We were getting very frustrated and worried we would have to stay in a hotel. We ate some pre-packaged sandwiches and were able to think clearer... We picked a direction to head in, and rode down from the top of the city. We had no luck finding our road, but luckily Sam found another place to camp - our most bizzare yet. It was inside a bridge near the freeway. No one could see us, it was cool, and we were too tired to keep going. It was all we could do to find the energy to put up the tent and eat our cereal for dinner.
Sam and Shanna Evans are from Melbourne, Australia