Geography was never my strong point at school weird for someone who loves exploring new places. The thought of cycling around Lake Garda, Italy with a mate only spitting distance from Verona seemed far from strenuous, lakes are flat right ? The penny dropped slowly, lakes only form because there are nearby mountains and someone or something decides to trap the water. Here was me trapped and surrounded by commanding mountains.
Phil and I arrange to meet in Verona. The decision came late after we realised the final day of the Giro d’Italia aligned with our cycling tour nearby. The Giro is second only to the Tour de France and certainly worth seeing once in your life. I caught the 4am train from Karlsruhe, Germany, three trains and nine hours later Phil met me at the Verona station. It was only a few hundred metres to the 15 klm time trial circuit and the cyclists equivalent to the modern day gladiator finish at the ancient Roman amphitheatre in Verona.
In searing heat we watched as the world’s best cyclists bent low over their time trial bars arriving at the finish. All were completely exhausted after finishing not just today’s time trial but 3,500 klms in 21 days around Italy. The large crowd were here to support their local idol, Vincenzo Nibali but it was the Ecuadorian rider, Richard Carapaz who held him off. The small but raucous Ecuadorian crowd didn’t stop blowing trumpets, waving their countries flag and cheering until well after the race was finished. We slunk off into the shade and drank beers on the hour for rehydration purposes of course and to clear the din from our heads. Phil and I had our own Giro to ride it started the following day.
They are bullshit artists the Italians. Well at least the ones that have been cycle guiding us around the Lake Garda region are. Arms outstretched like lying fishermen they tell me that the climbing is little and the gelato is often. “We barely ride between coffee stops” they sing in unison. Bullshit. The first three days we do 300 klms and shovel in lunch at 4-5pm as the waiters packed up the buffet. Phew.
The physical beauty of the Lake Garda region is undeniable, the local food cooked from the heart and the zest for life an Italian birthright. Phil and I peddled puffing and panting up, up, up to a lookout at Tremosine. When our heart rates eventually resume normal transmission we are able to focus on the Lake below busy with ferries plying early summer tourists back and forth. We celebrated by eating gelato full of chunks of maraschino cherries and my eyes glazed over in pure bliss. We peer out over the precariously placed cafe’s ironwork impressed that we had climbed so high and immediately ordered another gelato. Lycra stretches right ?
Mid-week Phil and I transfer from Peschiera up North to the town of Badia high in the Dolomites. Our Garda driver, mechanic and cycle guide, Andrea pushed us out in Bressanone to ride over nearby Passo Del Erbe. It’s a long 30 klm grind ever, ever upward. The distinctive craggy, limestone Dolomites loomed ever closer. I’m barely doing 10 klms/hr and my butt is getting sore. The summit can’t come quick enough and after pulling on a wind jacket I hurtle down the other side so full of jubilation I almost throw my legs straight out like a child. Then the adult in me squeezes the brakes.
The Dolomites are silent but ever watchful, whichever way we turn you can feel them quietly observing. More than likely smirking at our inability to dance up their peaks like a scrawny underfed European. We normally ride the flatlands where carrying a few extra kgs gets you through the two months we call Winter.
Our guide in Badia is Matthius he is ever so tolerant and quietly grinds away somewhere within eyesight of us, our mountain shepherd. He is not judgmental and heaps unnecessary praise on our meager efforts. In Winter he is a ski instructor so his tolerance levels are set high. It’s appreciated. For all of this our steady climbing is pretty satisfying especially riding the famous four peaks of the Sellaronda. The icing on the cake is finding ourselves far from our hotel with 20 plus klms of gravity loving downhill to finish. My lungs are in jubilation as we hurtle down, down, my legs uncertain as to why the pain has ceased.
After a week of self inflicted pain, sublime cycling and eating in the Italian countryside we hand back the bikes and catch a mixture of transport options South to the town of Treviso. Treviso is a great option to staying in tourist saturated Venice with a local vibe and far better pricing. Plus they have gelato shop to die for, Dassie, it’s famous in this region. Don’t scoff you haven’t been can’t understand spell. A steady stream of content men, women and children dribble from the shop clutching cones from early morning till near on midnight.
We travel with the hoards to Venice by bus. Trudge over Rialto bridge peering down at gondoliers rowing their glossy black boats. Their passengers obviously have bank managers for husbands. The maze gets tighter as we squeeze through the tight laneways towards Saint Marks Square. We are now one mass of frustrated, sweaty, aimlessly wandering tourists.
Eventually the hordes become too much and we take refuge in the Doges Palace. We wander about without bumping into others, taking in what we can of the art work and frescos. I gravitate towards the rooms bursting with ancient armoury and blood thirsty weaponry. When I’ve absorbed my daily quota of culture I slump against the cold, thick stone walls or find a shady spot by a window enjoying a tiny zephyr of sea breeze. Early afternoon we retreat back to Treviso for another life saving Dassie gelato. Hazelnut is my new favourite… till next time.
The following morning it’s an early breakfast. We wait for Phil’s colleague, Roberto to pick us up for his version of seeing Venice. Not for him squeezed tight on a bus or train with overdressed tourists. No, Roberto is an ocean racing yachtsman and has kindly offered to take us to Saint Marks Basilica as they did hundreds of years ago, by sea. We drive to Jesolo harbour where his captain’s authoritarian voice switches on. He systematically checks all the boats gear and communications equipment before inviting us aboard. Another skilled sailer joins us, thank god, and even better, his name too is Roberto.
The final piece in Roberto’s jigsaw is Francesco, a local Prosecco wine maker of some fame. He arrives carrying a box of his craft. It is the last time I see Francesco smile for the next eight hours. Within half an hour of leaving port Francesco has turned green at the gills, his nose facing the wind and regular involuntary lurches towards the side.
Roberto tells us the sea is good with a nice breeze and the boat silently slice its way through the water towards Venice. It takes a few hours and then we are turning towards land and past the half constructed Venice floodgates and facing Saint Marks Basilica. As far as the eye can see are the magnificent ornate facades of a fifteenth century Venice. Today we are not arriving by bus or train as we did yesterday sandwiched in narrow laneways like sheep. Today we arrive standing on the deck as Marco Polo did 500 years ago. I feel very privileged.
We moor on the nearby island in the shadows of the church of San Giorgio Maggiore and slip the Port master a wink and a bottle of Prosecco. We munch on sandwiches and sip Prosecco against the church wall. In front of us water taxis, ferries, luxury motor launches and beautiful wooden speed boats all via for space. Saint Marks Square is awash with people in the distance. Meanwhile we wander about San Giorgio Maggiore church enjoying the peace and cool of the thick stone walls impenetrable to the heat of outside.
Back out onto the high seas I wished I’d bought a €1 tourist’s captain’s hat embellished with Venicia or a pirates eye patch to help set the scene. The afternoon breeze is kind to us and we plough through the water towards Jesolo and home. Travelling by sea is slow with only the slap of water and distant seagulls bombing the surface my only distraction. I don’t want to look at Francesco who again is clutching his stomach, fear in his eyes. Finally into our mooring and a quick clean of the boat. We celebrate a special day with another bottle of Prosecco on the dock.
The boats owner lives and works nearby. We arrive at her boutique early evening, a disheveled lot clutching a box of glasses and yet another bottle of Prosecco. We toast her generosity in the middle of the shop, thank her with glasses raised then make our way back to Treviso. We are ever so happy but tired, salty, sun burnt and a little pissed.
The alarm went off about the same time the birds started chirping outside my window. I stumbled half asleep towards Treviso station, waking everyone with the rumble of my wheelie bag across the rough cobblestones. An hour later I had checked my gun and flick knife in with Customs at Treviso airport. Evidently neither are permitted on flights into Sicily but I dare not go there without either.
The most stressful part of the day was getting a car from Avis. A long queue of tourists waved arms, wrung hands in despair and looked indignant when the Ferrari they thought they were hiring turned out to be a brown Fiat 500. I celebrated driving out of the car hire yard by doing five victory laps of the nearby roundabout. Actually I was trying to eyeball any sign pointing or even suggesting a road to Syracuse. To the relief of all other drivers I eventually made the right decision and spluttered Southwards kangaroo hopping a manual on the wrong side of the road.
Spent a few hours in Syracuse checking out the ancient theatre on the hill in blistering heat. Better to visit of an evening when you can sit under the stars enjoying a historic production and the sea breeze. Lastly some time on the Syracuse city island of Ortigia wandering the narrow, shady streets avoiding the sun and capturing glimpses of early Ancient Greek ruins. Evidently the Italians took it from the Greeks who have never come back. There are some beautiful honey coloured stone churches and public buildings here. But it was a particularly creamy pistachio gelato that will be my long term memory of this historical town. Eaten and licked at speed due to the seering heat.
Unsure if it was good luck or good judgement in my booking but the agritourist stay near Pozzallo was a gem. A run down farm of a few hundred years old had been renovated by a mother and son with UNESCO money. Opportunistic maybe but they have done a beautiful job in keeping the rural ambiance. The farm was situated in a far from flattering, rock infested valley overlooking the nearby coast. Our days were a perfect blend of morning history lessons and afternoon bombing competitions in the pool with nine year old, Marco Antonio. What a pool, plants in nearby pools being used to naturally cleanse the water with no chemicals. A real oasis.
I was curious to ask if many refugees turned up here, a first stepping stone onto European soil. I had noticed at least one small navy ship in each seaside town. The son told us a story of his wife jogging one Wintery Sunday eight years ago. Locals were out shooting as Sicilians do when she came across two Africans cowering behind a wall barely clothed and plastic bags to protect their feet. They had come by boat and were sure that they were being hunted hearing the gunfire. The son brought them some food, some clothes and shoes. Offers of money from the mother were refused only wanting directions to a bus stop and a phone call to a friend in Florence. Then they were gone.
Good night’s sleep and an early start for a big day’s drive from one corner of Sicily to the other via a huge Roman villa near Piazza Amerina. The ruins were excavated in the 1930’s and exposed brilliant mosaic floors depicting life at the time. Images show gladiators and hired help hunting and capturing wild animals and then hoisting them onto ships bound for Rome. The detail is amazing and in great condition. There is even a room full of bikini clad women competing in all kinds of sport which I found unusual as they are normally draped across stony furniture being fed grapes. Viva equality…
The detour to the Roman Villa had meant I received a perseverance badge for driving on every back road in the country. Eventually we sat stunned in the small town of Scopello scared to drink for fear of one not being enough. Nine hours of being tossed about on narrow roads scared to overtake whilst weaving from one hilltop town to another. The following day I clung to the edge of the hotel pool refusing to venture out.
Scopello was once a sleepy fisherman’s village, today it is a romantic, car-free, restaurant filled dream for tourists. Each night as the sun goes down truckloads of tourists fill the restaurants and eat half of the oceans remaining fish supplies then wash it down with local vino. High on the hill above a reconstructed castle turret lights up to complete the effect. But I’ve got to swim in the ocean, to do this I find myself slipping and sliding down a recently cleared field onto a stony beach. Once on the beach I am crab like trying to ease myself over the rough rocky shore and into the choppy water. It was not a graceful entry but ever so refreshing and I don’t think I was sighted.
The ferry from Sicily to Malta glided through the calm waters and into the fortified city of Valletta all broody floodlighting of the old city’s walls. It was midnight yet throngs of tourists were out and about enjoying the warm night. A fifty dollar, ten minute ride by taxi zooming through the streets and finally dumped at our hotel. The rooftop room so hot and airless that it was an hour before the a/c could cool it enough to make sleep possible.
Hard to get started the following morning after yesterday’s travel day but we eventually venture out late afternoon on one of Malta’s large network of buses. It’s a chance to escape the draining heat and see the sights. The buses are cheap, frequent and jam packed with tourists and a smattering of disgruntled locals. Their city is not their own in Summer. Our bus weaves through the narrow streets built for donkeys scraping gutters and causing us to sway against each other like a church choir but without the hymn books. The end of the route is Birzebbuga.
The name Pretty Bay had caught our eye but what greets us is a bay filled with container ships and a fully operational port. Completely oblivious to the gigantic ships swarms of local children are frolicking in the water whilst Dad is barbecuing Saturday night’s dinner on the rocks. The sun has finally gone down and an afternoon breeze washes off the water. Organised beach volleyball, 3 X 3 basketball, soccer it’s all happening with referees shrill whistles trying to keep the peace. It’s the only time of the day where you can escape the unrelenting heat. Pity about the backdrop of container ships busily being loaded in the background !
I didn’t think I’d like it, wandering the promenade at Birzebbuga but the exuberant vibe is honest old school family fun. We stumble across the Birzebbuga Bocchi Club and plonk ourselves down to enjoy a beer and the sea breeze. Music of another time fills the air, Elvis, Buddy Holly, the Beatles has the crowd tapping the tables then breaking into impromptu song. I find myself doing the same, every table along the promenade is swaying and voices croak along, not quite in unison. I try to imagine this happening back home but the image doesn’t surface. The old girls on the next table smile then turn speak in Maltese before singing again in English. One beer becomes two, nibbles arrive unannounced. It’s late when we finally make our way back to the heat of Sliemi
We visit St. Julian’s beach and Golden beach over the next few days. Each time I board a bus with the belief that their will be some nature, rolling rocky hills and a rustic taverna at the next bend but I’m an old fashioned romantic and twenty years too late. Surrounding every swimming beach is a sea of construction cranes and cheap nasty overbearing appartments. They have killed whatever charm the place once had and Eastern Europeans on budget flights are everywhere. I’m struggling to find the real Malta, who and where are it’s people ? I think they’ve escaped. No Maltese work the bars, restaurants or hotels, they are all from Portugal, Poland or Serbia.
We bid farewell to slimy Sliema and catch a bus and ferry to Gozo. It’s only a fifteen minute ferry ride but I get my first taste of what Malta was probably like before tourism took away its distinct character. There are still more buses than donkeys but it was far less frenetic and towns were generally intact in their honey coloured stonework. Locals carried shopping bags instead of navigating to the gelato shop with their phone held out in front. We celebrated by dumping our bags in Marselforn and slipping into the sea amongst darting schools of small fish.
The days are slipping away lost between swims, gelato, the local pastizzi filled with mashed peas and rocking rolling trips on the public buses. I’ve finally worked out where the Maltese are. They are generally older and venture out around sunset. They stroll the promenade then sit staring out to sea, enjoying the breeze and telling stories of their day or earlier times. It’s time to head home. Better have a last swim I’ve been told it’s freezing at home.
My last morning ended up making the Maltese Cross. I booked a room walking distance from Malta airport. A simple room in a three level apartment building and only ten minutes walk-in a nearby village. Kylie stayed in the city as she doesn’t leave until this afternoon. I woke up at 4am, happy that it was earlier than my 4.30am alarm. A quick wash and final packing of my bag. The accomodation is like Airbnb with the owner living some houses away.
I had been told to leave the key in the letterbox by the old lady who lived nearby but I thought why do that ? Why not just leave it on the dresser ? I closed my door, click, and went down two floors and went to leave but the inside of the strong street door was key activated. Yes the key I was given was behind a very strong door upstairs. I banged on three other doors but no one was answering. I was in the building alone with no phone connection and my German SIM card had run out three days ago.
I looked at my phone it was 5am, my airport check-in was only one hour from closing, I began to sweat. I tried to kick the door open but it was too strong. A window on the 1st floor was an option and for a moment I considered using a hose I found on the roof to lower myself down. Plan B. I went back up onto the roof and found a gas cylinder and took it downstairs and hit the door until it opened. I was happy to be free but concerned that I had damaged the door. It was badly marked but not broken and the lock was still intact.
I quickly opened the front door onto the street and left the key in the letterbox then ran through the dark streets to the airport. I arrived sweating madly, breathless. I went to the bathroom and washed my face. I stared in the mirror at my wet face thinking how stupid I had been. I had just enough time standing in the airport queue to email my details for the repair with the owner, so much for the cheap room !
My flight began boarding fifteen minutes after I arrived and I sat in my seat still imagining being locked in the staircase with no way out ! What a disasterous way to start my journey home