Riding through Italy has matched my concept for this tour almost perfectly. After having imagined rolling green hills, sunny riding along the coast, eating delicious food at night, and meeting great people, it feels good to have experienced all of those things during my ride from San Remo to Rome. I entered Italy after having felt a bit low during my ride through France, which made a positive experience here a welcome change. The initial riding along the coast was, at times, almost too good. There is a 20Km (or so) stretch of bike path that runs east from San Remo along the Mediterranean, and it is the best I have seen.
The path is wide enough that it could carry car traffic if necessary, it has well-lit tunnels along its length, some of which are about a mile long, and it has water fountains, benches, bike racks and SOS stations. Of course, it also has great views of the water, the sun, and everything else you might expect to see on the ocean. This bike path was where things took a turn for the better. I got on it, started cruising, camped for a night right next to it, and then continued to roll long after its end into all of the places I have now seen in Italy.
The first target was Genoa, where I did not stay, but where I did have the chance to see a few gigantic ships and buildings. I took a few pictures and then continued south to a campsite. It is a remarkable city, although I pushed through it en route to points further east and south.
I stayed for a night in La Spezia, also a port city, which lies between Genoa and Florence. I was scouting at this point for a place that might work well to lay over for a couple of months to work on Seize The World publicity, and to gather some energy after four months on the road. La Spezia looked perfect on the map, with a huge harbor and a little green square to indicate that it was a fairly large city. I arrived to see container ships off the coast, and to see tug boats, fishing boats, naval vessels and coast guard boats all at dock right next to the city. There were only a few sailboats there, and it had a very industrial feel, at least from the point of view of the port. It was cool. For about twenty minutes I entertained the idea of walking along the pier in the morning to solicit work on one of the fishing boats. But when I got to the point that I would actually have to find a place to stay for awhile, perhaps some kind of job, etc. I decided that I would be better-suited to continue along the route toward Asia. My fishing career can wait. I made similar decisions in a couple of other smaller cities before and after La Spezia, and I am now settled on the idea that I will, generally, keep moving.
Within a day of departing La Spezia, I was in Pisa, where I photographed the leaning tower, and entered El Duomo. The cathedral is one of the most impressive I have seen. The entire complex, consisting of the leaning tower, the Cathedral, the Baptistry, and one other building whose name I do not remember, is situated on a giant, perfectly-maintained grass lawn, just within the ancient walls of the city. People are not allowed to walk on the grass, which extends for a couple of hundred yards in front of the giant buildings. The empty lawns give the entire complex a peaceful, calm, clean appearance. Beautiful white buildings, perfect green grass, and bright blue sky. One of the fields, however, in front of the Baptistry, had been settled by about two hundred tourists, locals, and dogs. People were out sun bathing, playing frisbee, or reading newspapers on this field, and the guards did not seem to mind. When a group of tourists moved in to take over another of the fields, however, a guard was immediately upon them blowing a whistle and shouting at them to get back onto the cobblestone walkways where tourists belong. In this way, the fields remain clear, the scene perfect. I have not found a better place to observe tourists in their natural state than Pisa. It seems that everyone there needs a picture of themself holding up the tower, trying to push it over, leaning against it, etc. That is to say, a picture that makes them appear to be doing these things. People are always at least a hundred yards away when they pose for photos of their influence on the tower.
The pictures look kind of interesting in picture form, but to see hundreds of tourists actually setting up the pictures, e.g. by raising their arms as if to support the tower, pretending to lean against the tower, etc. is perhaps quite a bit more interesting. It is funny because from the perspective of all but the camera lenses, the tower does not appear to have anything to do with the hundreds of tourists who are raising their arms, supporting friends who are raising their arms, leaning at various angles, etc. Bizarre… The scene is great though: beautiful buildings surrounded by thousands of people laughing at their own ridiculousness. Check this place out when you get the chance.
From Pisa, I moved inland a bit to get to Florence. I found a campsite on the outskirts of the city which gave me a full day to see it. I would likely not have camped there, except that I did not have enough cash to get into the Galeria de l’Academia on the day I arrived. The Galeria is the sight where Michelangelo’s David is on display. So I camped for a night and returned the following day in order to see David. Instead of being surrounded by thousands of tourists acting silly, David is surrounded by about 100 tourists at a time, most of whom take a moment to look at the sculpture quietly before sitting down to talk about various things among themselves. And it does inspire you to take a moment just to look. The sculpture is big, and it is more detailed than you realize before you actually see it. Veins on his wrists, toe nails, everything. It is all there, and to me it just emphasized how large the sculpture was. It was great to see something this old still in perfect condition. There is seating for about 30 people on a bench that runs in a semi circle behind the sculpture, so that people can relax and converse as they enjoy the view of David’s rear end as well as the view of about ten spotlights which are in place to illuminate him. During a visit to the restroom before entering the museum – necessary in order to hide my bicycle helmet inside my bag, because guards will not let tourists enter if they are carrying visible bicycle helmets – I saw that somebody had written, “mine is bigger than David’s” on the wall. These are the things that you do not know about until you actually go to see the statue. Or until you read it here. Now there is probably no reason for you to go. Sorry…
From Florence, I made my way further south toward Rome. I was riding through Tuscany, which is perhaps the most famous region of Italy. Its fame is deserved, although I have seen similar scenery in many of the other places along my route through Italy: rolling green hills, olive trees, vineyards, red tile roofs, white plaster walls. I am left to think that Tuscany’s fame comes from a great name and from good publicity. In Italian it is called Toscana. Before I knew it, my journey had taken me to a point just outside of Rome.
As is usually the case, my approach to Rome was heralded by large highways and thickening traffic. Places that make me think that the cars must think, (about me), “what the hell is that guy doing?” Just going to see Rome, I want to tell them, If we meet again in the city, maybe you can take some more time to honk your horn at me. I pulled off at an overpass along the SS2 – my route from Florence to Rome – to eat lunch, and had the great fortune to meet a man who was out doing some research for a pilgrimage route between Rome and London.
My new friend, Marco, asked me what I was up to, where I was going, from, etc. I told him, at first in my strange mix of Spanish and Italian, about Seize The World to the best of my ability. He understood me well, and I sort of understood his responses. Once he had my business card in hand, he asked, “Oh, you’re American?” with an accent that would have made me think he were English had I not already learned that he was Italian. We continued our conversation in English, and before long Marco had offered me a place to stay with his family in Rome. I immediately accepted the offer, and continued on my way, having gotten his wife Daisy’s cell phone number, and the name of the neighborhood in which I would find the family’s apartment. Marco was actually departing for London later that day, so it was important that I have the ability to contact Daisy if I were t have any hope of finding their apartment, and meeting the family. Something that I was eager to do after meeting Marco. Before we parted ways, Marco called Daisy – who is also American – to ask if she and the kids would be willing to put up a bicyclist who he just met on the road for a night. I managed to keep myself from laughing too hard as I followed the course of their conversation, which must have been something like this: (I could only hear Marco’s end, and much of it in Italian, so this is liberally paraphrased):
M: “Hey, it’s me…so, I just met this guy who is riding around the world on his bicycle, would it be okay if we put him up for the night?”
D: “Umm… yeah, I think we could probably do that. Who is he? He is a good person right? I don’t want to get the family killed.”
M: “Yeah, yeah, he is a good guy, it shouldn’t be a problem. (To me): You’re a good person right?”
Me: “Yes, I am a good person.” I just really need a shower, and I really need to wash my socks.
D: “Okay, send him over then. I think that you are going a bit off the deep end, getting involved in this work with the pilgrimage route, but I guess we’ll see what happens. Ciao!”
M: “Great, I will see you when I get back from London.”
So, armed with the blessing of both Marco and Daisy, I got back on the bike, now on a mission to find their apartment. Rome is huge, but with a cell phone number and the name of the neighborhood, I felt confident that I would find the family. Eventually. After all, I had used these two pieces of info – neighborhood name and cell phone number – to locate houses in Santa Fe, Little Rock, and Seville. Each time had involved anywhere from one to four hours of exploration, but I had not yet failed to find a house, and I did not want to miss the opportunity to get to know a family of Romans during my journey.
As it turned out, I had another chance encounter with Marco just as I was nearing the neighborhood where they live: he was driving home to drop off the car before his flight, and I was just following the route he had advised me to use in order to find the apartment. This was about thirty kilometers away from the site of our first meeting, and it was very fortunate, because we crossed paths at the turn off to his home and I do not know how much further I would have gone past the turn before realizing my mistake. He drove slowly and guided me all the way to the apartment, where I met Daisy and Greggie, who is their youngest child.
This was the beginning of four days spent at their house, which turned out to be long enough for Marco to make it back from London, so that I actually had the chance to talk a little bit with the person who had so kindly offered me a place to stay. The family was incredible, and at the risk of oversimplifying, it was just good to be around good people for a little while. During my time there, I felt very well-fed, welcomed, and rested. The cooking there is phenomenal. Fresh. My initial plan had been to go into the city to find a hostel on day two, but Daisy, Francesca, Bernardo, and Gregorio – the three children – were quick to offer me a place to stay for as long as I planned to be in Rome. So I spent day two going to the supermarket and resting, rather than spending it in search of a hostel. Strangely, I felt a bit seizure like during my time in Rome, perhaps because of a change in environment/pace. I am not sure. I capitalized on this situation by watching the entire Star Wars trilogy with the family while I was there. I may have been too depleted to safely move around the city, but I was not so depleted that I could not watch the three greatest movies of all time while in good company! I made it to the city too, but not until days 3 and 4. Bernardo and Francesca had been wanting to see Star Wars for quite awhile, and timing just worked out so that I was there when it happened. I watched Return of the Jedi while they were at school, but we watched A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back en masse. It was refreshing to watch the movies in the company of kids who were seeing them for the first time. I hope that they will become obsessed. I also left behind Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass in Francesca’s Nintendo DS. So this might be my legacy with Marco and Daisy’s family: children who cannot be peeled away from Star Wars and who cannot be bothered to put down their Gameboys because they are addicted to Zelda. I kind of hope so.
For me, I am left with the experience of living with a new family for a little while, of meeting kind people, and of feeling as though the world is a bit more of a welcoming place than it was before going to Rome. It is always interesting to leave each destination on this tour and then to compare the vision I had of that place before arriving with the reality of my experiences there. I had a vision of going to Rome, checking into a hostel, and then being blown away by the Colosseum and by St. Peter’s Basilica. As it turns out, these two places were just small components of what was, in reality, an experience of getting to know new people, and making new friends. And that is a great thing.
I am now at a hotel – or alborgo – in Perugia, Italy, publishing this update after having written it three nights ago in Terni. I will be in Venice in a few days, and then Trieste after that. Coming up soon are Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Albania, Greece and Turkey. And then my tour of Europe will be complete. For now. Check back soon for an update with numbers from the trip.