Wednesday 25 April 2012

Barrea, Italy - I smell ... therefore I am!

Since arriving in Italy by ferry from Greece, campgrounds, and therefore showers, have been quite hard to come by. And so I think that maybe … if you were to stand too close to me … you might say that I smell! 

The first day of cycling in Italy for me and Bart was a dreary ride up the ugly coast north of Brindisi, where our ferry arrived. But at least on the first night we found a lovely camp spot and put the tent up inside an old cow shed in an olive grove. I do mean lovely! It was a beautiful old building with a large arched doorway and all its original features … except the cows! We soon left the coast and cycled up into the hills that form the spine of Italy. Here we found attractive old towns with sunny piazzas overlooked by grand churches and old men sitting outside cafes. We cycled up higher into the hills where the little villages became clusters of flat-roofed buildings stacked precariously one on top of the other on vertical mountainsides or, annoyingly for the loaded cyclist, on the very top of the hills, like the pretty old town of Melfi. I must admit that we did get a shower in Melfi as we stayed in a hotel – a treat from Bart at the end of our time cycling together. Bart is now forging ahead of me to catch his plane back to Belgium. Already I miss him and snuggling up in the tent together but we’ll meet again in a short time. 

Cycling solo again, I battled headwinds across the ugly but appropriately named area of Benevento where the only place I could find to camp was behind the football pitch above the small village of San Salvatore. I laughed to myself in the evening as I thought I had found a quiet spot but didn’t count on football practice starting and the floodlights being switched on full-beam! Next day, I started cycling big climbs over 1000 metre passes up into the spectacular mountains of Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise National Park. My efforts were rewarded by views of pretty villages at the foot of snow-covered mountains and quiet roads that wound their way through spring woodlands awash with wildflowers – I recognise the yellow primroses and purple cyclamens – and resounding with the calls of cuckoos and the drumming of woodpeckers. I found a beautiful camp spot on a grassy ledge above the village of Pizzone with the mountains all around. I’d been looking for a spot to pitch the tent in the late afternoon but the mountainsides were so steep that my tent would have slipped down like butter off a hot knife. At last I came upon a small farm with surrounding woods and terraced fields. I asked the farmer, who was chopping wood and tending his goats, if I could put my tent up for the night. He said yes with a sweep of his hand across the landscape that seemed to say “help yourself to any spot in Italy”. The view was gorgeous down the valley, especially after dark when the lights of the villages twinkled like those on a Christmas tree. Even the smell of manure overwhelmed my own smell on another evening without a shower! 

Today I am in an idyllic mountain village called Barrea but I have the triple delights of a campground, internet and a shower! So tonight I do smell again … but at least I smell of roses! 

Photos on Flickr - again, not many as the weather has been mostly grey and wet.


Monday 16 April 2012

Igoumenitsa, Greece - The silence of the lambs

Let’s get some things straight. I don’t do fashion or make-up; I don’t do babies and small children; and I certainly don’t do dancing. But somehow, at some point cycling somewhere in Turkey, I promised Bart that I would do traditional Greek dancing once we got to Greece. As we neared the ferry port for our boat to Italy, I thought I had got away with it!

As soon as our ferry from Crete had docked at the port for Athens we jumped on our bikes in the half light of early morning and started cycling north, eager to make a bit of fast time. But the weather had other plans and again and again over the next few days we found ourselves cycling through heavy downpours when we couldn’t even see the road for torrents of muddy water. We warmed ourselves in dark, smoky roadside cafes where the old men of the little villages we cycled through gathered in the mornings. We even checked into cheap hotel rooms a couple of times to escape the wet. As we cycled on through misty mountain towns we noticed many households were killing and skinning sheep as gunshots rang out across the valleys, silencing another poor sheep or lamb. We soon learned that Greece celebrates Easter one week later than Western Europe and that mutton is the traditional dish served on Easter Sunday. We also learned that on Easter Sunday every shop and every gas station and every restaurant is closed! And of course … we had no food … only the smell of roasting mutton drifting across the road. On empty stomachs we pedalled north then took a quiet road along the coast where we lingered over the map beside a campground that looked closed, trying to decide our best options for finding food and a place to pitch the tent. Within seconds we were being ushered inside to join the family for a traditional Easter lunch!

A whole sheep was roasting on the barbecue and the stereo was belting out Greek music as bottomless glasses of wine were pushed into our hands. Then the traditional meal was served - the sheep entrails were difficult to stomach but the mutton itself was delicious. And, of course, the Easter celebration wasn’t complete without some traditional Greek dancing and, with a bit of tuition from our hosts, I was able to fulfill my promise to Bart! As we board our next ferry across the Ionian Sea, I’m now looking forward to picking up some Italian fashions!

More photos on Flickr – not many but it’s been too wet to get the camera out!


Sunday 8 April 2012

Crete, Greece - A day in the mountains

After a few days of cycling along the pretty south coast of Crete, it was time to return to the north coast and cross the peaks that form the backbone of the island. It was time for a day in the mountains!

We woke early in the cheap room that we had found above the taverna in the quaint mountain village of Amoudari and Bart popped out on his bike to get fresh milk for breakfast and croissants from the bakery. We left most of our bags with our landlady, a grey-haired old Greek woman dressed in black, and only took with us what we needed for a day in the hills. We started our day in the usual way of cycling on Crete...with a long, steep climb on a gravel road! We rode up through pine forests that thinned out to snow patches and rocky ridges, giving us beautiful views of the snow-covered mountains above. Yes ... you read correctly ... snow-covered mountains on Crete! We chained the bikes to a tree and started walking, picking our way through dense bushes with vicious thorns and across boulders with holes in like Swiss cheese and then finally up steep snow fields. We climbed to a top at 2135m for views across the snow-plastered Askifou Plateau and tried to eat a snack as we were blasted by a strong, cold wind. We made a quick descent, running down the snow and then cycling back down the mountain, to enjoy a cold drink back at the taverna late in the afternoon. We picked up our heavy bags and a few groceries from the little supermarket before cycling over another mountain pass as we scoured the countryside for a camp spot.

We eventually found a gorgeous little spot for the tent beside a small chapel, tucked in olive groves below the mountains. The chapel was unlocked and in the evening people came to light the candles inside. We cooked supper in evening sunshine and looked back up at the snow-covered peaks with a feeling of deep satisfaction from a great day in the mountains.

Photos from Crete on Flickr - click on the link on the right.