Thursday, 31 May 2012

Zweisimmen, Switzerland - Me, the goddess

After my Alpine walking break with Bart, I’m back on the bike, cycling my way across Switzerland and feeling like a goddess!

Throughout the trip, I have climbed some big mountains on my bicycle  – the Pyrennees, the Andes, America’s Appalachians and Rockies, New Zealand’s Southern Alps and now the European Alps. But today I probably did my last big climb of the trip, the 5000-foot Col du Pillon. I must confess to feeling very smug and a bit of a goddess when I power myself and my loaded bike to the top of these big climbs, especially when there is a crowd of onlookers of lard-ass motorists or coach parties or lightweight, lycra-clad racing cyclists who’ve carried nothing up there except their credit card. I always cycle the last section of the pass as hard and fast as I can then nonchalantly pull over at the top for a brief photo-shoot before stepping casually back on the bike and pushing off down the other side, as if I do this every day.

The day I cycled over the Col du Pillon it was grey and cold so I didn’t even arrive at the top red-faced, hot and sweaty. I was ... I believe ... looking like a goddess!


Sunday, 20 May 2012

Turtmann Valley, Switzerland - White van man

White van drivers can drive you crazy. I had one right up my tail as I cycled through a long tunnel on the Simplon Pass, my route from Italy to Switzerland. But I didn’t mind this time … the white van driver was Bart in his camper!

Those of you following my bicycle blog will be expecting tales of the hardships of tent life and the challenges of the long road home but be prepared to be surprised … even shocked! As, for a short time only, I have swapped the tent and the bicycle for boots and a campervan. One week ago, on a cold, grey day, up in the late winter snows, I pulled up onto the 2005m Simplon Pass, one of the few Alpine passes open at this time of year, and found what I’d been looking for … a large white van, with two high windows, a satellite dish and a good-looking Belgian man!

Three weeks after parting in Italy, Bart and I are back together for a spot of walking in the Alps. Our base is Bart’s campervan … it’s a bit of luxury compared to my tent with kitchen, a bathroom complete with a hot shower, lounge/dining area and satellite TV so we can snuggle up and watch movies on the cold evenings. There is a part of the van that Bart calls the “garage” where all the play things are stored – several bikes, skis, snowshoes and sledges. Above 2000m it’s still winter in the Alps and on our first day in this valley we sat at the door of the van and watched as a north wind brought fresh snow to our little camp spot and the mountains and glaciers that rise sheer above us. But where the snow has receded colourful Alpine flowers poke up through the ground, as do the frisky little marmots that we see everywhere. The van has wifi for internet access, no matter that we are currently parked up in an empty dead-end valley. Don’t ask me exactly how it works! And yes … there are aluminium chairs … though it’s been a bit chilly for sitting outside.

Before we tucked ourselves away in the Turtmann Valley for a few days with the cupboards well-stocked with food, we took a short detour and cycled up to the swanky tourist resort of Zermatt. The bikes were chained up and we hiked high into the woods through gorgeous villages of wooden chalets before putting on our snowshoes and trekking through the snow to get a spectacular view of one of the most famous mountains in the world, the Matterhorn. It’s sheer rock walls rose above us into a blue sky as a cold wind whipped across the little top that we had climbed for a good view. We took the express route back down on our plastic sledges. Here in the Turtmann Valley, the van is parked up beside the river where we take our water and each day we walk up into the snow-covered mountains above us. Sometimes we are hiking through the forests alive with cuckoos, deer and squirrels and above the forests we strap on our snowshoes to get higher up into Alpine peaks, passes and cirques for sweeping panoramas that take in another famous mountain, Mont Blanc. On the way back we are always looking for a good slope and some hard snow to sledge down.

And at the end of each hiking day, I can come back and enjoy a relaxing coffee in the white van with my white van man!

Photos and words on Flickr.


Friday, 11 May 2012

Lago d'Orta, Italy - A day in the life of ... ME

6am I’m up with the sun in a campground south of Bologna. It’s the day after I cycled over the Ponte Vecchio and north out of Florence. Campground was cheap for these parts at 10 euros but it is right beside a highway, a railway line and another highway under construction. Lovely! 

6.45am After a bit of kit packing I’m eating breakfast – corn flakes with sliced banana and dried fruit and nuts mixed through, followed by a fruit smoothie made with the rest of the milk and handy little sachets of fruit puree that you get in the shops, followed by coffee. 

7.30am Fully packed, on my bike and on the road, joining a stream of rush hour traffic heading into Bologna. Shortly after, my secondary road merges without warning onto a stretch of Italy’s A1 motorway. Ooops! I’m off again in under a mile, before the “polizia” pick me up and choose another road towards the city.

9.15am After an array of junctions and highway flyovers, I’ve found the right road west and I’m pleased I’ve navigated successfully across the outer urban sprawl of Bologna. I reward myself with coffee and a mini meringue at a “pasticceria”. I have to join one queue to get my meringue, a second queue to get my coffee and a third queue to pay for it all. Italian efficiency!

10.45am I stop for my second breakfast of a banana and rice cakes with Nutella and pick up things for lunch at a little supermarket in Anzola in case I don’t pass another one before everything closes for siesta. A local cyclist, a mature lady in full hair, make-up and designer outfit, chats to me. She thinks I’m very brave to cycle alone. People have said this to me throughout the trip and they say I must be very strong to which I reply “no, just very slow”. 

1.30pm I pull over into a village park in Ravarino for lunch - a stack of rice cakes with cheese and tomato, dried fruit and nuts, some rather expensive cherries, a 100g chocolate bar and an apple. I’ve enjoyed the morning’s cycle as I’m now rolling easily across Italy’s plains, a welcome relief from the never-ending, steep climbs of the mountains. The towns here may not be as spectacular but they are pleasant, homely, full of cyclists and empty of tourists. There is always a little treasure to find when you cycle onto a beautiful piazza or across a gorgeous old bridge. I lay out my laundry that I handwashed last night to dry in the sun. 

2.45pm I’m stopped on the outskirts of the large town I have to cross today, Carpi, trying to figure how the roads in front of me relate to the map – they don’t really. A local cyclist, Luca, pulls up beside me and offers to cycle with me across town to show me the way and I get a little tour into the bargain as we weave our way through the network of bike paths which are such a feature of towns in this part of Italy. Carpi was another little treasure with its enormous piazza overlooked by the castle and church, and its trendy pavement cafes tucked under the colonnades. It’s a stinking hot day now - I drink a cold can of coke in the piazza.

5pm After crossing more flat miles of farmyards, orchards and flooded fields of rice, I arrive in Guastalla and buy groceries from the Co-op for supper and tomorrow morning’s breakfast. I only buy a few things to add to what I’m already carrying but it comes to 10 euros. I’ve been amazed throughout the trip how expensive groceries are everywhere and I didn’t budget for that or for eating as I much as I have. I also get as much water as I can carry on the bike as I don’t know where I’ll be camping tonight or if I’ll have a water supply.

6pm No campgrounds on my route today so I’m starting to look for a spot to camp off to the sides of the quiet back road that I’ve chosen for this reason. I see a bike path heading into the trees and turn off onto it. It joins the banks of a huge river, the Po. I’m sure I’ll get a spot along here but cycle further to make sure I’m well away from the road access. I find a picnic table with a bit of mown grass beside it and decide this will do for a camp spot. I cook supper at the picnic table – a delicious medley of rice, green beans, tuna and tomatoes followed by fruit, rice cakes with Nutella, coffee and some sultanas. I have enough water left to wash off the worst of the day’s suncream, sweat and dust.

8pm A local cyclist stops for a chat. I ask him if its OK to camp here. He says there are lots of “serpentis” and there is a better place a mile further on. I don’t need much persuasion to follow him! It’s getting dark but we cycle to a restaurant on the banks of the river, its bright lights reflecting in the water. Next to it there is a sort of watersports club with an area for informal and free camping. There is a motorhome already there. I thank my second “road angel” of the day and with a shake of hands he disappears into the night. I pitch the tent as the sun sets over the Po, chuck everything inside and lock the bike to an adjacent tree.

9pm Write up my journal on the netbook and add up the distance I’ve cycled today (123km or 76 miles). Quick look at the map to note the route for tomorrow then lights out and I get off to sleep.


Sunday, 6 May 2012

Florence, Italy - Frenzy in Firenze

A long time ago my friends Graham and Andrew went on a group holiday to Florence. For years they have bored me with their tales of that trip – “Florence this” … “Florence that”. At last I can now bore them with my own tales! 

The cycle north to this beautiful city, which the Italians insist on calling Firenze for some reason, was an idyllic mix of rolling hills of vineyards and olive groves, and gorgeous little towns stacked on the hilltops … so many that I stopped taking photos or even remembering their names. It was always “Monte-something-o”, the clue to their lofty location being in the name. Some days I melted under a fierce sun and other days shivered in torrential rain. On those wet days I sat out the heaviest downpours in bars as every village has one. I had to remember to ask for my coffee “molto caldo” or it would come at a luke warm temperature, insufficient to heat me up after a soaking. The menfolk of the village can always be found sitting outside these bars during siesta. The amusingly-named village of Grotti had an electronic community notice board opposite the bar and so the menfolk sat there for hours, watching it spell out such fascinating facts as the pharmacy opening hours. It was the most exciting thing in Grotti. As I wasted away from malnutrition waiting for the “alimentari” to open so I might buy groceries for supper, I joined them. The pharmacy in Grotti is open … like most things in Italy … hardly ever! 

The last section of the ride has been most notable for a few little acts of kindness. One evening, after a long day of cycling and without a campground on my route, I was struggling to find a spot to put up the tent. It’s usually not a problem – late afternoon I simply start looking for a dirt track that heads off the road into the woods and somewhere along it will be a perfect little place for my tent in the dappled sunshine below the trees. But that day I just couldn’t find it. So I ended up asking a chap who was working in his garden if I could camp in the field next door. He said “yes” but as I was getting the tent out, came down to tell me that I could use the empty apartment below him instead. He gave me the key and that night I enjoyed a sofa-bed, a kitchen and a hot shower! Then there was the greengrocer who gave me free bananas when he learned I was cycling to Scotland and a kindly campground manager who donated milk and fruit when the shops were closed again. 

A few more miles and I rolled into Florence which was a bit of a shock as traffic, tourists and souvenir stalls crowded the narrow city streets. These last two weeks I have been cycling in a different world of quiet rural villages going about their business where bent-over grandmothers sweep the pavements and old men in flat caps poke about in the woods along the empty back roads. I’m not sure what day it is and I’ve forgotten who is Prime Minister … though I hope it’s not still that Thatcher woman. If you want lots of cultural information about Florence, you are reading the wrong blog! I simply had a pleasant time on a grey, wet day ambling aimlessly along the banks of the grotty Arno and crossing back and forth on the famous Ponte Vecchio with its quaint little jewellery shops. Yes, I admired the Duomo and the Baptistry doors, and giggled with the girls at the many naked statues of well-endowed men at the Palazzo Vecchio. But my favourite sight in Florence was Il Porcellino, a beautiful, life-size sculpture in brass of a wild boar tucked away in the Mercato Nuovo. I placed a coin in his mouth which is said to bring good luck and rubbed his snout to ensure a return to Florence. Judging by its shine, millions of tourists have done the same.  

I know this is an outrageous thing to say about one of the world’s most famous cities but I wasn’t blown away by Florence. A couple of days before I had cycled through a tiny town to the southwest of the city called San Gimignano. With its ancient towers and narrow streets reaching into a blue sky above a delightful Tuscan scenery of red-roofed farmhouses amongst rolling hills of vineyards and olive groves, I thought it oozed much more charm and magic than its more famous neighbour. But what do I know? 

I do know this … that my friend Andrew wrote a funny story about that holiday to Florence all those years ago and he’ll be peeved that I stole the title which was … Frenzy in Firenze!

To see new photos on Flickr - click on the Flickr link on the right then on the Italy folder!