Dante Alighieri, considered by many to be one of the forefathers of Italian literature, penned his epic poem, the Divine Comedy (La Divina Commedia) between the years of 1308 and 1321. Written in the first person, the Über-long poem details Dante’s travels through the afterlife; from Hell, where he is faced with all the consequences of his bad choices, to Purgatory, where he’s made to pay for his sins and finally to Heaven, where he meets his maker, is redeemed and enjoys everlasting peace and quiet.
While most historians deem the Divine Comedy an allegorical journey of one’s soul from birth, through death and finally towards God, I personally think the literary masterpiece was simply Dante’s recollection of the motorbike trip he made through Italy in winter. Yes, indeed, I’m quite convinced that the Divine Comedy is the greatest work of travel literature ever written. The only reason I’ve come to this conclusion is that I have just experienced it myself.
We’ve now been riding through Italy for two whole months. In that time, I have suffered the pits of hell (compliments of the weather gods) the excruciating pain of purgatory (compliments of my family’s over-zealous feeding) and enjoyed more than my fair share of heavenly moments (compliments of the most beautiful cities on earth).
I often wonder why hard-luck stories are infinitely easier to sell than happily-ever-afters. Shouldn’t we find happy tales nicer to read? Or write about? Apparently not!
After nearly six weeks of happy-go-lucky sojourns with family, I feel an innate sense to type away, only after experiencing the riding day from hell. And I do mean H.E.L.L. While I can understand that writing about it and venting my frustrations on a keyboard is therapeutic for me, why is it that I get the distinct impression you will enjoy reading about my struggles much more than you’ll enjoy reading about my belly-bursting gorging sessions? Oh well, hope I’m wrong!
Whatever the case may be, let’s start with my hell.
Here’s a simple tale of complete and utter travel misery. It’s just the story of one single day, to remind you all that no matter where you go, or what you plan…there’s always a hell just itching to happen.
Part 1: Laura’s Hell
There’s something about overland travelling that brings one’s existence back to the most fundamental of roots. Away from all the comforting luxuries and securities of home, one is painfully aware that one’s own comfort depends solely, and almost exclusively, on the weather. While at home we barely notice the difference when the temps drop just a couple of degrees, thanks to the insulating wonders of our homes, offices and cars, live your life out on the open and you’ll soon discover just how much of a difference a few degrees can make. Being at the mercy of the weather gods is a humbling experience, and one which most sane people try to avoid at all cost. So I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that deciding to ride a bike through Italy in the height of winter was a tad foolish. I admit that sometimes the very same thought enters my mind.
To be precise, it was at exactly 4.10pm of Tuesday 29th January that the thought pierced its unrelenting way into my brain.
When we left our campsite in the Conero National Park that morning, and headed north towards San Marino, there was a slight drizzle, but it looked like it would clear up any minute. By mid-morning, the drizzle had increased exponentially, and by lunchtime the whole Adriatic Coast was engulfed in thick fog, heavy rain and four degree temps. Of course, had we known this in advance, we would have stayed put, yet the change was so subtle that by the time we said ‘we need to stop’ we were both completely drenched, frozen stiff and in the middle of nowhere along the Strada Statale # 16.
“What the f*** was I thinking?” I scream out loud under my helmet as we negotiate yet another snowy, icy and slippery bend in San Marino. I regret my outburst instantaneously. The yelling has fogged up my visor, and I have a hard time opening it due to the fact that I seem to have lost my fingertips. I know they’re still attached to my hand (I can see my soaked gloves hugging the handlebars) but I’ll be damned if I can feel them.
I can’t feel a bloody thing to be honest, and now, I can’t see a bloody thing either. I manage to stop the bike, remembering to only use the rear brake so as not to slide off. We pull over onto a mound of snow and I try hard to stay upright. It feels like my body is frozen solid, and the violent shivering makes me wobble all over. The bones of my feet and ankle are screaming in agony, the cold having penetrated deep. It feels as if they’re about to spontaneously break into a million pieces. I find it hard to stand on my feet; it’s as if I’m afraid my freezing legs won’t hold my weight. I use what little control I have of my body and open the visor; the only that greets me is a mouthful of icy air and a desperate cry from Chris.
“We need to keep going!” He yells from under his helmet, adamant that the sooner we find our campsite, the sooner we can defrost under a hot shower. But we’re lost. We’ve followed the signs to San Marino, but the impenetrable fog has made us lose our bearings completely. I can’t move, well not purposely anyway. Every muscle in my body is suffering from spasms, and the only thing I can do to keep them under control is to tense up as much as I can. I manage this for a second or two at a time.
In my side mirror, I notice a police car pulling over behind me. I convince my left foot to co-operate, and put Pixie on the side stand as I try my hardest to dismount. I take the first step towards the car and my brain twitches with excruciating pain; my boots are filled to the brim with frozen rainwater and it takes all my remaining strength not to scream out in pain, anger and frustration. The boots are actually waterproof, but the rain slowly seeped in from the top after my pants got drenched. Once the water went in, it had no way of escaping, so it just stayed there getting colder and colder by the minute.
As I ask Mr Policeman for directions to our campsite, Chris walks over to the car, and I can see he too is having problems keeping his shivering under control.
“We’re just 2kms away” I tell Chris and almost want to cry with happiness. As we follow the directions we’re given, we ride past the local hospital. “Oh if only I get pneumonia from this” I think to myself “I can spend a few days in a warm and comfy hospital bed!” I realize how stupid that sounds, but I am convinced that had you been riding behind me, you would have probably agreed.
The lady behind the campsite counter takes one look at us and jumps to her feet.
“Oh deary me, riding motorbikes in this weather? Do you have a death wish??” She asks with a bemused look on her face.
I barely manage a hint of a polite smile.
“Do you have hot showers and a heated room?” I ask her, having no time or energy for small talk just yet.
“Yes, of course” she replies promptly, having realized the severity of our predicament. “Our showers are very hot and I’ll get the maintenance man to turn up the heat in our common room straight away. Go and get out of your wet clothes and we can sort out the paperwork later” she says and shows us to our camping spot.
I find it hard to take my gloves off, and when I do I see only wrinkly, ghostly white digits. My hands look like they’ve shrunk to half their normal size! Spurred on by the thought of a boiling hot shower, my hands work their magic on the bag harness and I get the bike unpacked in record time. I drag all my worldly belongings into the shower block and out of the rain. I open my Ortlieb bag with trepidation, convinced that no amount of waterproof material could’ve kept that torrential rain out. But miraculously, the bag held up splendidly and within seconds I’m laying out a whole set of perfectly dry clothes.
I must’ve stood under the hot stream for half an hour; the first 10 minutes having a quiet little cry to myself, for only the second time in four months. It’s so weird to still be shaking uncontrollably from the cold whilst simultaneously standing under a hot shower.
Within an hour Chris and I are sitting in the warmth of the campsite’s communal room, our wet riding gear draped over every chair and table. We cook copious amounts of two-minute noodles and huddle around the heater for the whole evening. Chris re-tells stories of riding in -40 degree temps in Norway, while I retreat to my little head-space…the one that’s full of palm trees, crystal clear warm waters and refreshing cocktails. Only the cocktails are steaming hot right now. Riding through Norway in winter is one level of Dante’s Hell I never want to experience.
I can’t believe the day has come to an end; I thought it would never happen. Riding for eight hours in freezing cold rain has completely, and utterly, shattered my soul.
We reminisce about the first time we got soaked riding in the rain for four days. We had just left Florence and were heading towards Siena, San Gimignano and Assisi. The rain didn’t let up for the whole ride down to the Amalfi Coast but what made it bearable was the fact that we were still enjoying temperatures in the mid-teens. Mind you, at the time I thought it was a horrible experience, but today gave a whole new meaning to the term ‘hell riding day’. Back then my feet and hands got cold but not painful, my riding pants managed to repel the rain without having it drip into my boots. I even rode with my helmet open because I found wiping it with my glove every ten seconds a hassle. Fancy that: a hassle! Had I ridden with an open helmet today and I probably would’ve frozen my nose off.
Ride soaking wet in 2 or 3 degrees and it feels like you’re swimming in a frigid lake. You get SO cold you find it hard to breath or move, let alone brake and accelerate.
Compared to today, riding out of Florence was a walk in the park…
PS. To be continued
(Sorry for the lack of photographs this time around. Even I managed to lose my desire for pictorial reportage!)