I’ve felt like a bear forced into back to back hibernation. I, like many, was sure Covid would soon be over only to have our hearts broken as it went on and on. Especially if you lived in Melbourne. Trips were cancelled, then rebooked only to be cancelled again. Dreams were shattered and an uncertainty crept into our everyday lives. Slowly slowly my travel world has reopened. I was rusty when I got to Tullamarine ready to head to Europe. How would I handle wearing a face mask for twenty eight hours. As it turns out not bad and everyone complied which kept the tension down.
No sooner was I in Frankfurt than a train sent me to Freiburg, a bustling student town full of funky shops and a throng of international students acting like the world had never stopped. My friends met me with a big smile and directed me onto another local train to Hinterzarten. A small village in the Black Forest which was a forgotten local holiday destination till Covid. Suddenly Germany like many places has rediscovered that local can be beautiful. We spent a few days cycling through the forest. Me on my all gears and no motor whilst I listened to the whirl of the e-bikes alongside. Twilight rides and outdoor meals left me feeling ready for my next destination, Norway.
I was only in Oslo long enough to choke on the price of everything before a train that Robyn and I had caught twenty five years ago dropped me in Geilo, mid point to Bergen. I’d arranged a bike hire but couldn’t find the hire shop. Three times I circled the department store till a sign in a chemist drew me in. A bloody chemist ? “Do you hire bikes” I asked sheepishly ? Yes you must be Jeff. And you must be psychic I replied. Sure enough my bike was ready. the hire business is their sons fledgling business. But best of all the bike was straight out of its wrapping. I celebrated with a beer, a A$20 beer. Never before has one beer actually sobered me up !
The following morning, having smashed the breakfast banquet, I set off to ride the famous gravel path, Rallarvegen which hugs the rail line to Flåm. Oh my god the riding was unbelievable even if my gravel/ mountain bike skills are basic. After 30 kms I almost came off and hurt my knee but pressed on intoxicated by my surrounds. I’d managed to make a sneaky sandwich at the buffet knowing I would be lucky to find anywhere for food along the way. I drifted from one fiord to another always with the railway not far away. The gravel path had been built to build the railway line one hundred years ago.
Mid afternoon another piece of magic. In the middle of nowhere overlooking another fiord was a small wooden hut serving food. I handed the guy my life savings and he gave me a soup, coffee and homemade cake. The vibe in this little alpine hut was terrific, the young student serving out his Summer job with puppy like enthusiasm. I didn’t want to leave but I still had fifty kms to finish in Flåm. Besides a strapping young Norwegian had just stepped through the door and ordered 11 slices of chocolate cake. His group waiting outside as they couldn’t all fit inside the tiny hut unless someone left. On I cycled the last two hours was all down hill.
Around 5pm I scooted down the last valley and into Flam. Elated for the ride, happy to get off the bike but concerned at the climb out of here. 105 kms of gravel riding is a long, long day. Flam only has a single camping ground but months earlier I had booked a room in the attached hostel. Most of the visitors are in transit or aboard a big cruise ship.
The camping ground receptionist supplied me with a disc which gave me a six minute shower in the communal shower block. “Be naked before you drop the disc in” was her sage advise. Clunk went the disc and then six minutes to soak my weary muscles and wash away the days grime. The best hot shower ever from a basic hose pipe.
Flam harbour is a tourism paradise with connecting trains and ferries. The sound of rolling cases being dragged by travel weary tourists is louder than the rush of water from the nearby waterfalls. I hit the town for a big meal and a few beers and tried to forget about the cost. More importantly I needed to wake up fresh to ride again tomorrow.
I woke with an idea, I could catch a ferry two hours along to Gudvangen and climb out of the valley there. So there I was with my loaded bicycle amongst the two hundred Chinese and American tourists admiring the crashing waterfalls cascading down the mountains into the fiord. It is breathtaking no doubt but I was the only one not to board a waiting bus to the next fiord. I did my own breathtaking to Voss.
The riding certainly got easier after Gudvangen, I was on bitumen and predominately back roads but every so often I was forced into a cycle permitted tunnel. They scare the hell out of me. I am wearing a fluro vest but that counts for nothing when you are in a dark dripping wet tunnel with the slow rumble build up of an approaching truck. But from where is this noise coming ? It’s impossible to guess until the headlights hit you, your front wheel wobbles and your heart misses a beat. I shall never enjoy them and where possible chase the longer road around.
My final riding day starts in Ostese, my weather to date perfect but not this morning. I could hear drains gurgling before I’d risen from my bed. I was resolved to being saturated, besides I had a room booked and paid in Bergen. I stood at the front door with the hotel receptionist beside me, both staring into the deluge. “You could try and catch the bus” she offered without turning her head. I rode off as wet as a shag before I’d left the car park. It went on for an hour or two. Head down, raincoat zipped tight and a constant river streaming off my nose. It was all up hill to start, therefore I was warm inside. It was the downhills that left you wet and cold, shivering uncontrollably.
By the afternoon I was close to Bergen, the sun came out and I joined the Friday night crowd heading into the centre of the city. Everyone here was in holiday mode. Bergen hasn’t changed much other than to get increasingly bigger. A funicular still climbs high above the town to give majestic views over the harbour. There is a big student population and it’s another cruise ship port. The highlight for me are the beautiful multicoloured timber houses clinging all the way up the steep cobbled laneways. Further out it’s modern flat roofed apartments but in the harbour it’s like a fairytale.
The last piece of my Bergen puzzle was to get my bike back to Geilo. No one would tell me if the train would take an unaccompanied bike. So early Saturday morning I waited for a train to Geilo to arrive and plead my case to the conductor. A scrum of tourists descended on the train the moment it stopped. That was my fear, that it was packed out. The conductor found me before I found him. I was helping a guy get his disabled son’s wheelchair aboard. I pleaded my case to have the hire bike taken aboard. I assured him that the owner would meet the train on arrival in Geilo four hours later. I think helping the wheelchair aboard worked in my favour. He gestured to put it aboard. I skipped away from the station and contacted the bike guy to be waiting at Geilo. A happy ending and free in a country where everything has a price.
From Norway it was a quick flight to Dublin and a few relaxing days chewing the fat and eating far too much with my uncle and others. The end of August is birthday week in my family and Graham had cooked for two days in preparation. We sat around his dining table celebrations each other and then tucked into course after course of flavour all washed down with copious quantities of wine. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when the clock said 1.30am and I staggered your stairs to bed. The bottle count in the morning explained my sore head. A few more days of this and any bike fitness will have disappeared.
I set sail for Liverpool on a Ryanair plane resembling the No 94 bus more than a luxury airliner. I guess that’s what they are trying to achieve. We got there safely so all ended well. My friend Jane had met me in Ireland because we have this thing with meeting in countries starting with the letter I. Don’t ask, anyway Jane came on to Liverpool. It’s a funky city full of ancient English empire type buildings which have all been repurposed into pop up bars and food joints. The chance to sing Beatles karaoke had been strong but unfortunately it only happens on weekends.
Instead we did a Beatles walking tour. An enthusiastic Beatles tragic, Jean met a handful of us in the city centre and we wandered about as she showed us the record shop where the whole Beatles thing started. Then onto a few other bars, finally The Cavern club where they really made their name. Jean told us of her mothers ‘missed by that much’ moment. Her mum stood in the queue waiting to get in. The Beatles were playing downstairs but there was a steep set of stairs. Her mother looked down, got spooked and refused to climb down. They never played there again. Jean’s shoulders slumped at her mothers missed moment and we walked on. The Beatles were certainly a change of pace for Liverpool which was in the middle of of its demise from an industrial strength. It’s a much more vibrant city these days with many of the buildings polished up and the sun shining on the Mersey river. But I couldn’t help feel that as a once important port town it had been more often the ‘stepping off place’ for many migrants hoping for more in some place else.
My weekend in London hit a bump when my unknown to most of you, inner hooligan had their Premier league match rescheduled at the last minute. This forced my spread of activities to read as follows. Start the day with a short browse in the British museum, an afternoon of tribal chanting in the stands at the English football and finishing off with sophisticated theatre in London’s West End.
Thankfully my hotel’s everything on offer, English breakfast was to be my saviour It would be post theatre at 10.30pm that night before I wolfed down anything other than some expensive crisps and a few pints of beer.
So with an empty morning I found myself in the nearby queue for the British Museum. Once inside and with few around I’m somehow standing in front of the Rosetta Stone with not a soul in the hall. An even older/ancient guy comes and stands alongside, stooping as he peers into the glass cabinet. I ask him what he know of its history. He turns and begins explaining how this large piece of stone unlocked Ancient Egyptian with the Ancient Greek inscribed on the same stone. It’s just the two of us for a good five minutes as he points out various inscriptions including the pharaohs circled in the text.
He turns and silently move on. I too wander off before backtracking to thank him for teaching me a bit more about ancient history. Further on I overhear an already frustrated woman explaining to her over inquisitive seven year old that the Elgin Marbles were produced by “a lot of men with hammers and chisels.” For sure these are a couple of moments for the memory bank. Soon the museum is bursting with thousands of tourists and I escape back to my hotel.
Rosie was at my hotel reception at midday, full of the chat and ready to cheer and shout for her team, West Ham. They’re playing Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, it’s one of the famous local derby’s in London and as such promised much chat. “I’ve checked,” says Rosie “and the away supporters, West Ham are meeting in Earls Court.” So that’s where we head to start the day with a cleansing pint. Then it’s a few more tube stops before we are swept up by the throng and drawn towards the ground.
This is when things took a turn for the worse. Whilst Rosie buys a program I asked one of a swathe of fluro vested officials where our entrance was. He caught my accent asked when and where I had bought the ticket and before I had even answered he had grasped the paper tickets from my hand. I had mistaken these officials for crowd control, when in fact they were employed to seek and confiscate tickets purchased from third parties. I protested strongly which is when he informed me that these tickets had not been bought through the Chelsea football club and would be confiscated. The excitement and expectation of our day shrivelled like a punctured balloon.
I waved to Rosie, sure her chat would be able to remedy the situation but alas no. I pleaded the innocent Aussie abroad, Rosie demanded to speak with his manager. Meanwhile I watched as the officials checked and confiscated other tickets around us. We had walked into a trap. Eventually it became apparent that we were not getting in with these tickets purchased at a high markup from a third party. But I’d had long enough to think that maybe there was still hope.
Dejected and frustrated I asked if we could at least try to buy other tickets and our man waved us through the wall of officials towards the official ticket office. As we walked Rosie was already asking if I had an electronic copy. “Keep walking but send me a copy just in case anything else happens” she mumbled under her breathe.
The ground was ringed by these fluro vested officials who now appeared to us as prison guards, to be avoided at all costs. Rosie picked her mark asking an older female official which way and we were funnelled towards our entrance. We strode confidently to the turnstile. I placed my phone against the turnstile reader, unsure what would happen, it flashed green. It had read the electronic ticket and we were in ! Rosie jumped through, another tap and I was right behind her. Up the stairs we went two at a time unsure who would meet us at the seats or worse if others were already sitting there. Thankfully our seats were empty, we plonked ourselves down and let out a sigh.
“Let’s get a beer” announces an overjoyed Rosie, both of us still running on high octane adrenaline. Downstairs we make for the bar where a noisy throng of excited supporters are full of hope and expectation for the game ahead. The chat is lively, the singing has already started. We down our beers only to find officials have blocked the stair and are doing further ticket checks. We wait, pick our moment and when the guy is busy we slip back up the stairs.
I don’t want to leave my seat again and spend much of the first half expecting someone to arrive and spoil our party. Meanwhile Rosie has one ear on her noisy West Ham supporters nearby and one eye on a spirited game below. Finally a West Ham goal has us rise in our seats only to quickly settle as we are in enemy territory, surrounded by Chelsea diehards. Chelsea soon reply then they score another. West Ham make a substitution, Cornet who has immediate impact first hitting the cross bar before repenting and putting in an equaliser. The West Ham crowd erupts only to have the goal overturned by a new review system. Emotions are rising and falling so fast it’s surely the buildup to a heart attack. Chelsea win 2-1 and the papers are full of doubt for the overturned goal. It was a great contest a great spectacle and Rosie is confident for the future.
We get swept up in a human vacuum down the stairs and are drawn without effort through a wall of supporters into nearby streets. Along the way snorting police horses oversee our departure whilst sirens blare and indecipherable loud speakers crackle and blurt important information about keeping a healthy Covid distance apart. Yeah well good luck with that, as we set a new record for the number of people jammed into a London Underground carriage.
You’d have thought we’d had enough for one day but no, an hour and a bit later we find ourselves in London’s West End walking in circles before finding the beautiful old Gielgud theatre for a performance of ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’ Yes a late call for more refined culture and yes no one jumped from their seat mid performance to call an actor for offside. It’s a terrific play in every way and much appreciated by us and an enthusiastic audience. We all rise and applaud loudly as the actors take a final bow. That is the thing about performance whether it be sport or theatre I love how the actors or players leave everything out there and how we the punters can roar our appreciation.
Out into the street and a short stumble into a nearby Chinese smorgasbord. ‘All you can eat in an hour’ is the menu. An array of stainless bins full of vaguely recognisable Chinese food. We scoff down two plates each before racing off in into the night. Poor Rosie has another hour North on the train it’ll be midnight before she arrives in Biggleswade. Talk about a jam packed twelve hours.
I woke sluggish the next morning wondering if yesterday had been a dream it was so full on. A slow breakfast then I headed to the Natural History Museum. I read it was very busy and extremely popular. Mainly for one reason…dinosaurs. In my childhood dinosaurs barely got a look in. Long gone from the planet and almost mythical but a lot of people have been snooping around and much is now known and guessed as to how they looked and lived. I struggle with something as big as a two storey house just eating grass and plants surely not, but that’s just me. I was soon following a line of parents and overexcited children along Cromwell Rd, South Kensington. It’s free to get in which helps and on a Sunday morning it was heaving.
Inside it was no different to yesterdays football crowd except it was children excitedly screaming out names of various dinosaur species. Dippy the dinosaur is a robotic dinosaur built to tap into the scientist Disneyland combo and it works. This animal rears it’s head it’s eyes darting about as it’s mouth chews not small children but grass. The crowd went wild whilst the parents grasped their wallets because before you leave there is a shop where the sky is the limit and try telling that to a five year old.
The museums massive size enables them to exhibit some incredibly large animals. Imagine elephants, a blue whale and every other sea animal. It was mind blowing and should be on everyone’s list to see. You can also see work areas behind the glass where scientists continue to do experiments, inspecting and caring for millions of samples from all over the world. So it’s a place of ongoing investigation which is good.
Two hours was enough and I headed back to my hotel for some quiet time. By late afternoon I was hungry for some Thai food, twice yesterday Rosie and I had tried to eat some. I found a place a km or so away just far enough to extend my knowledge of the area and not get lost. And I find it easy peasy.
I plonk myself down in this small restaurant with only one other customer on the next table. The place was open to the street, warm balmy and quiet. I nodded he remarked it must be the place for lone or lonely diners. One thing led to another and he, Melvyn explains that he lives nearby and worked in this area. Turns out Melvyn preferred photography to working in a city office so quit his job to click full time. Except he has his niche. Self esteem photography, half camera half physiologist convincing people predominately women with body issues to come and have a folio of photos taken. He handed me his card and said to check it out. I don’t have a spare few hundred English pounds and as I said most of his clients are women but he has a lucrative business which featured in Forbes business magazine. Lucky Mervyn I thought as I wandered home, spending his day convincing woman to pout, pose and suggest whilst wearing their cleanest underwear as he clicks his camera. He makes a decent living and the clients evidently walk away full of new found self esteem. https://www.youatyours.com/
Walk out into the world and be surprised by who and what you see.
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to being nervous before every major ride. I get the bike serviced and running sweet. I spend what I need for the best clothing available because any rubbing can make the days unbearably painful. But I can’t control the weather and simply have to shrug my shoulders and press on. So that’s what I woke to on my first morning. Steady rain, the sound of downpipes gurgling. Gerd & Troudl we’re up early to give me a final all things bread, cheese and meats breakfast and wave me on my way. They have been in my life since I was nineteen years young ! My European family, how lucky am I.
Of course I am keen to get some decent kms under the belt and have booked much further down the road than I should. But I get there. A couple of tall glasses of wheat beer and a heavy German pub meal. I’m a happy cyclist. Not so happy the following morning when the pub is locked tight and my bike is in the office. If not for a long term guest wanting an early morning fag I don’t know when I would have got away. Grrr.
My riding route incorporates some of the many international cycle paths that crisscross Europe. I use an app called Komoot which ties these routes and my exact destination into a daily route. It’s brilliant although every day it throws me a curve ball and I find myself slogging up a steep mountain with a loaded bike in cleated shoes. So… my overall plan, a good bike, a healthy body, Kamoot and Bookings.com. What can go wrong ? Hmm.
My third day’s destination is a town called Seedorf. Simple enough. I make a hotel booking, content I am sorted for tomorrow. Just as I doze off to sleep I think “I’ll just check how far google maps thinks this is.” A lot further than I thought because there is a Seedorf in Northern Germany (where I’ve booked) and another beyond the German border in Switzerland where I’m going. 1062 kms difference to be precise.
I make some frantic texts to the hotel and Bookings.com. Thankfully they refund me although they were within their rights to keep my money. Oh, I’m now making a late booking for Saturday night and there are no cheap rooms at the inn or anywhere near Seedorf, Switzerland. In fact there has never been a cheap room in Switzerland… ever. My following day just got longer. See how easy the wheels can fall off !
But the riding is magical, following rivers, through dense forests, into a cobbled square of some long forgotten village. Here nothing has ever changed but the coffee is strong and croissants are baked fresh daily. I smile even when the occasional shower sweeps over drenching me. I’m dry again soon enough.
I take the soft option at Gotthard Pass. I’ve been studying the map for days. Over 2000m to climb in around 50 kms, it’s too much for me with my loaded bike. A glorious red Swiss train takes me eight stops but removes the certain pain and suffering over the summit into Airolo. I’d do it again it’s a holiday not a slogfest.
The following day from high up in Airolo I fly like a champion down through the valley. Next to me is the silver coloured Ticino river. Off to the side there are granite quarries cutting monstrous blocks of stone for all the world’s kitchen bench tops. Further down the valley grape vines begin to appear loaded with red grapes ready for harvest.
I’ve arrived at the glitzy town of Locarno. Think cafe lined lake with many wealthy and many elderly. I walk, some hobble, others are on breathing apparatus. Ok I made that up but it’s old world. After my passagiata I settle for a pizza and a large beer. It’s a perfect balmy night. The first beer evaporates helped by a small plate of something. The pizza arrives, it is huge but I’ve ridden nearly 100 kms. Make that another large beer.
At the adjoining table sit a very bored couple, a lifetime together and she just wishes he’d die. They say nothing. She is immaculately dressed and slurps on a big bowl of something you drink at sunset, those sort of colours. She smokes like a chimney. I began to count as I feasted on my eight equal slices of pepperoni pizza. She chain smoked six fags in the time it took me to make that pizza disappear dousing her dragon breathe with regular sips from her drink. Meanwhile she stares blankly out onto the lake through her monster black sunglasses and pulls hard on her next cancer stick.
Heading East towards Lake Garda. The days can become intertwined although I should slap myself at the thought that I am taking this magnificent countryside for granted. The real highlights though are people you meet along the way or the brief feeling of immersion in local life. We all yearn that feeling of belonging.
I’m getting hungry it’s well past midday and my eyes dart about for signs of a bar, cafe or trattoria. I’m almost through the fork in three roads when I notice truck drivers shuffling towards a nondescript door. Now truck drivers only ever waddle so I knew I was onto something. I pushed at the door and entered a cacophony of banter, a room packed with around forty enthusiastic thickset diners. Wine is flowing freely as I am explained the rules. Three courses, pasta, meat dish and dessert with water, wine and espresso €15 or A$23. All hearty, all delicious and plates of sweet things sit at the end of each table. I’m the only one not engulfing in the bottles of red wine. I’m a little concerned that these truck drivers will all pass me after lunch.
Sometimes I know nothing of a town it is simply the right distance to ride in a day. Vicenza was one, such a surprise and so, so beautiful. I find a back street cafe, I just can’t do the prime cobbled tourist trap. I never get good service, the food is secondary to being seen and the cost is disproportional. So this place seems perfect, no glitz and glamour, local customers and a few heads bent eating. My meal is served by the owner who drops a large wine glass beside a table of six Germans. He apologies to the room for his clumsiness and begins cleaning up. However Germans being Germans get down to help him clean up the shards before resuming their meal. The food is a knockout and on night two, yes of course I go back, I get suggestions and a couple of limoncellos thrown in.
Content and with a silly grin on my face thanks to the unexpected limoncellos I wander back towards my hotel. It is just beyond the ancient part of the city, maybe two blocks. As I navigate the last intersection my eye is drawn up to a bright light, just turned on, revealing a bare breasted woman standing silhouetted in the light. The light is only on for a moment but she has caught my head lifting up to the window. She leans on the windowsill beckoning me to come on up. I was never going up there…honest. But I do love her set up, near a hotel, right on an intersection and the bright light to draw in all the creatures of the night. A younger me may well have been caught in the trap.
First thing I do after riding into Treviso is head to the railway station to sort my upcoming days. I luck in with an unflustered, well spoken English ticket seller. I get my ticket & bike ticket for Bellumo for tomorrow. I get my return ticket to Venice for the day after. But she can’t sell me a bike ticket to Pisa for Friday ? It’s a fast train no full bikes you must fold or bag it. I can’t fold it so a bag is my only option.
It’s 6.20pm I google bike shops, the closest with any potential is 2.5 kms away. I can’t ring them I have insufficient Italian language to explain such a purchase. I start walking, quick, unsure whether they will be open till 7pm. I arrive sweaty and out of breathe at 6.45pm. They have a bag, too good to throw in Pisa but what do I do, I can’t carry such a large thing onwards. The guy has family in Melbourne and I get 10% discount ?
I carry the thick plastic jumbo bag back through the city. Eventually I stop for dinner and yes almost left it on the seat facing me. I slump on the bed when I finally get to my BnB but I’m sorted for Friday. The logistics and local rules on moving bikes does my head in.
I had a lovely day in Venice although it got off to a slow start. The 9.28 train didn’t arrive for over an hour. People were not happy as most were wanting to spend their full day in Venice. That was the down side. Early I asked a lady if she understood the problem as we were the only two on the platform. I was a bit unsure because unlike me in t-shirt and shorts she was dressed to impress in a shimmering turquoise jacket finely embroidered and perfect for the old world of Venice. By the time we stepped off at Venice she had to begrudgingly take it off, such had the temperature risen. She was going to meet friends for lunch somewhere in Venice. She was a retired English school teacher and although our wait was long, our conversation was great for me having been starved of any English discussion. So for two hours we talked about life in the Italian countryside. She and her husband live only a few kms from where I rode near Belluno yesterday.
I pretty much knew my way to St Marks square plus I had the help of hordes of tourists shuffling from one lane to the next. My tip is don’t always rely on the widest street because the snake charmers like to get you into the narrow laneways. Anyway I work my way over a few recognisable bridges and finally into St Marks square. It can’t but knock your socks off. I found the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana although it was convoluted process to find the entrance. It was a lovely calm hour spent with few people, free of the hordes and showcasing an interesting array of statues, coins, stories and artifacts from Venice’s golden era.
I then wandered to Florian, advertised as the oldest cafe in Europe starting in 1720. Why is it still trading? Surely the owners will never be able to spend the ridiculous amounts they have ripped from millions of gullible tourists over the centuries. The prices are outrageous, I just couldn’t, I couldn’t justify it to me or my bank manager. It’s $20 for an American coffee ? A double espresso $18.
Oh, the price for a pee has risen to the princely sim of €1.50 or A$2.25 in Venice and they had a brisk trade going after all those expressos. Finally I turned back towards the station then detoured over the bridge and did a stroll through the Jewish quarter which was really interesting and quite funky. A train back to Treviso, a gelato and a rest for my hot feet after so many steps.
The trains across Italy are seamless although I have to lug the bike in it bag between platforms and Italy doesn’t do ramps or lifts just terrazzo stairs. But it’s all good and then I am in Pisa rebuilding my bike on the station platform before dropping the barely used bag at the nearest bike shop. Now just thirty kms to my hotel in Lucca.
I’ve regained a few days with the train to enjoy a series of towns leading into Rome. Lucca, San Gimignano, Montalcino and Orvieto. Their common thread is that they are all hilltop towns. Think ornate Catholic churches close to god, think military high ground, think romantic vistas and thick bedroom walls if you are on your honeymoon. But it’s not how I tended to arrive at these hilltop towns. No, I was sucking in buckets of mountain air, blind with sweat having ground my way up the hill on a bike to my accomodation. Usually I was slumped outside my accomodation on some ancient stone wall watching tourists finishing the last of their local vino before venturing inside.
You will be mistaken for thinking that cycling into a bustling city like Rome is fraught with angst and traffic madness. I can ride into most on bike paths without getting near crazy, psychopathic drivers keen to put an end to my life. Thankfully Rome was a 15 km river path with only the last 500m amongst the swarming mass of tourists that is every day Rome.
My days were spent getting out early and retreating till evening. Dinner and a walk then escape again. I get the same need to escape in India, the relentless passing of humanity. I find it all too much the hustle all day especially after spinning along out in the countryside on my own for weeks.
Plus my accomodation is next door to Parliament House and they are swearing in their new right winged government so one of the many police departments of Italy are on full alert and have closed down a large swathe around me. I carry my bike up to my room on level 3 and give it a few days rest, it’s a nice feeling for both of us.
Night-time has its highlights too. The Pantheon, such a massive ancient structure appears surreal just plonked down amongst everyday Rome. Like your great grandfather turning up to the underage disco. The other is the Trevi fountain not just for its unquestionable beauty and movement but for the party like mode it exudes. Hearing people singing as I walked the last hundred metres to the fountain surprised me as did the crowd and they weren’t taking a snap and moving on they wanted to stay and enjoy the carnival atmosphere. So did I.
Time to head home. The normal choice would be the overnight trains back to Karlsruhe but there is major work on the tunnels in the mountains. So it’s a Flixbus, a major network of buses going everywhere, everyday. I ride to Tiburtina bus station in time to leave at 9pm for Munich then a short wait for a connection to Karlsruhe. I luck in with a seat with plenty of leg room and pray at each stop that my space is not going to take it. Miraculously I drop off to sleep twice to the rhythm of the road joints on the auto strada, each time woken by the driver announcing a driver change and a chance for the whole bus to have a communal smoke. I am the only person on the bus not pulling hard on a fag.
All goes smoothly I manage to hold my space and wake to the announcement that we must prepare for a border check just out of Munich. The driver is confident we will be waved through but we are stopped. Fifty of us step out onto the cold German night to show our passports or identity cards. In fifty there was always going to be at least one problem… and I’m in a t-shirt. Sure enough a thickset guy,
Let’s call him thug looking, wearing Gucci and associated chains. He is pulled aside by the machine gun wielding police. His bags are searched and he now stands alone he obviously has history. An African wearing sharp street rapper gear shows the police a photo of his passport or identity card. When they tell him it’s not enough he starts to get lippy and suddenly there re six surrounding him. It’s gone from pleasant to full alert in six words none that I know but I certainly understood his protest. It goes on I’m getting colder and wish it all over. I’m expecting trouble as the yelling gets louder but this guys not coming any further into Germany and gives them a final spray before they get his bag from the hold and walk him away. We all get back in and doze off but I can’t help but think what will happen to him.
Munich is full of two types of people at 9.30am on a Sunday morning in October. Those that are staggering drunk and haven’t fallen down and those who have just arrived, well dressed in leather pants, long socks and a Bavarian hat ready for a big day. There were just as many frauliens dressed in traditional Bavarian getup ready to throw a few litres of Munichs finest beer down their throats this Sunday. I wish I could have stayed to see the carnage but we all know how it finishes.
I have a few last days in Germany, a chance to catch my breathe, enjoy a couple of easier cycling days and pack for home. What a trip. I’ve seen so much, met so many interesting people and eaten some terrific food especially in the rural areas. And then somehow ridden off the excess the following day.