We’re really starting to take this a little personally. Call us crazy, but it seems that wherever we go…disaster follows.
First of all, we’d been at our friend’s place in Genova for barely a day, and her cat decided to attempt suicide by jumping out of a 4 storey window. Granted, Annibale is cross-eyed and the bedroom window is the only one in the whole apartment without a ledge; but seriously, of all the days….
Cross-eyed puss survived the fall, and whilst our friend tried to dismiss my feeling that it was our arrival which caused the cat to, quite literally, flip out, my mum had no such qualms…
“Oh dear Lord, it’s because you took over the room!” She quipped bluntly once she heard the story “Cats don’t like change! Just last week I changed the bedspread and Lilla wouldn’t talk to me for 3 days.” I told mum that Lilla, in fact, had not talked at all for her entire existence, but she wouldn’t hear a bar of it.
If that’s not enough, it also seems that our entry into Il Bel Paese coincided with a wave of natural disasters. We’d heard that there had been some heavy rains, yet as we rode into Carrara, with the intention of camping up in the forest around the marble mountains, we entered a city in mayhem. The excessive rains burst dams and caused landslides all down the Ligurian coast. Traffic into town was at a standstill, the roads were muddy and the residents were emptying the whole contents of their homes into the pavements. At first I thought people were still cleaning up from last year’s mudslides (this is Italy after all), but when we enquired as to the mess, we were told that the nearby dams had burst the night before, and the city had been inundated once more. Oops.
So you can imagine with what kind of trepidation we visited the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Apparently, it has been standing precariously for over 800 years, yet I figured that if three really is a charm…its collapse on the day of our visit would be it. Luckily for all involved, our own wave of bad-luck-bringing ended there and I’m happy to report that the tower is still standing, and leaning, to its heart’s content.
I must say that our visit to Pisa restored my faith in my home country. After spending a month touring pristine and spotless Switzerland, riding into Italy left me speechless, for all the wrong reasons. The first few towns we encountered, from Domodossola to Lago Maggiore, were drab, grey, dirty and completely uninspiring. What on earth happened? I was still on an adrenalin high after visiting Zermatt and conquering the Matterhorn (albeit on a cog train) and just on the other side of the mountain all I saw was dilapidated, run down and filthy country. To be honest, the weather was horrible, and I do admit that everything looks a little drab on a rainy day, but I did have a feeling it was more than that. Nevertheless, spending hours wondering through cities like Genova and Pisa did wonders for my soul. Cleaner and much more atmospheric than their northern neighbours, both cities are charming and offered a hint as to why Italy is one of the most visited countries in the world.
If you’re wondering by now how on earth I actually managed to ride to the 4th country on our trip, considering the panic attacks I suffered the first few weeks, rest assured that my riding has improved dramatically. Gone are the palpitations and fearful fits I experienced at first. I don’t even have cold sweats when I have to tackle a roundabout nowadays…how’s that for confident? I can stop at a set of lights without praying under my breath AND, while we’re on the topic, you may be impressed to know that I even managed the Simplon Pass (the 2005m pass between Switzerland and Italy) at a very respectable 40km/hr! It was icy cold, foggy as hell and the side of the road was completely covered in snow. Yet I managed it! Not a slide in sight, not a tumble to be had…just easy riding. Sort of.
The one thing I am still doing is riding at low speeds. 60km/hr is now my signature speed, and I’ve come to the conclusion that whoever invented 5th gear completely missed the point of overlanding. Movement, and travel, is incredibly inspiring, but (in my humble opinion) only if it is slow enough for one to be able to absorb it all. Ride through a country like Italy at 140km/hr on the highway, and I guarantee you will miss 99% of its beauty. Actually, make that 100%, considering the roads are crap anyway. Take only secondary roads and glide through the myriad of miniscule towns and you’ll start to build a wonderful portrait in your mind of what the country is all about.
Our whirlwind tour of Switzerland saw us meet up with various travel friends, and enjoy the hospitality of some truly wonderful people. Martin treated us to our first cheese fondue and a wonderful stay in his medieval tower, the Hudsons completely bowled us over with their love and infectious energy in Steinen (after nine days even their cat contemplated jumping out the window) and our first couch surfing experience, in the insanely expensive mountain town of Zermatt, turned out to be a lottery win. Not only did we enjoy the company of an amiable host, but we also enjoyed superlative views of the Matterhorn and got to meet Charlie Chaplin’s grandson at a music gig. But that story’s for another day…
Chris and I take a day to explore the area around the mighty Matterhorn
Back to Italy.
What became almost painfully obvious, from the first day on Italian soil, was just how difficult it would be to find spots to bush camp. As opposed to Germany, Austria and Switzerland, where free camping is allowed anywhere it is not forbidden, in Italy it works the other way around: unless there’s a sign stating you can camp…then you can’t. Simple. Moreover, our own safety is now of paramount importance; whilst we need not worry about being ill disturbed during the night by unsavoury characters in the northern lands, Italy is somewhat dodgy in that regard. We devise a plan which we hope will help us avoid 1) the carabinieri (a part of the Italian army corp. in charge of public order which would fine us on the spot for trespassing) and 2) everyone else. We’ll keep away from big cities, and far away from their dodgy outer suburbs; pick only country or mountain roads and try and hide ourselves away from any major thoroughfare.
“But don’t Italians camp?” Chris asks one night while savouring yet another warmed up ravioli-in-a-can dinner.
“You mean like in a tent?” I comment “Hmmm…not really.”
By and large (and this may well be a gross generalization, but here goes) a camping holiday in Italy means packing the family into a campervan, booking a campsite spot in one of the major tourist hubs (possibly the same spot for 30 years), getting cramped into a sardine-can-style lot and spending the entire summer holiday there without moving an inch. The only Italians you’d ever see bush camping are ones who can’t actually afford a house. Hence the weird looks we keep getting from passers by.
Our first bush camp site trial was between Novara and Genova when, after following a country road, we stumbled upon an old abandoned church. The nearby gardens seemed well kept, or mowed at least, yet the neighbouring forest impenetrable on bikes. Considering it was nearing sunset, I urged Chris to stop and set up camp; should we be bothered here by the carabinieri, then plan B would come into play. I’ve always had the feeling that Italians are somehow nicer to foreigners than they are to their own countrymen and women, and I endeavoured to act like a dumb tourist should the police stop by. Just pretend I’m a foreigner of Italian origin and ignorant to their ridiculously strict laws, and hope for the best. I gathered it was better to pass for a dumb tourist rather than a sneaky local.
There is one law which is consistent throughout Europe actually, and this will always be the ace in our sleeves. While trespassing on private property is never allowed, stopping to ‘rest’ on public areas is not actually forbidden. Should you ever state that you are too tired to drive/ride, the police can’t actually move you on for 7.59 hrs. Anything under that is a rest, anything over that is an overnight sleep. If they do insist you pack and leave, and you have an accident, you can claim compensation.
That night outside Novara, I had a chance to use both excuses when the carabinieri stopped by, even though it turned out to be unnecessary.
As we were warming up our dinner, I spotted a sneakily familiar black Alfa approaching. The red side stripe and huge CARABINIERI sticker on the side of the car left no doubt. But they just slowed down and drove past. Then they turned around and drove past again.
“I think we’ve been spotted” I say to Chris
“But they’re not stopping…why would that be?”
“Well, I think they’ve figured out we’re foreigners and they’re just arguing among themselves as to who is going to converse in English”
Italian are internationally renowned for being the worst English-speakers in Europe, and I don’t entirely disagree. We all study it in high school, but somehow Germans, Spaniards, Austrians and Norwegians all seem to speak it fluently. Blimey, even the French can speak it! The fact that they refuse to, in their own country, is a whole other matter altogether.
So finally the carabinieri gather enough courage to actually stop. I reckon they want this encounter about as much as we do. Gulp.
“Let’s just smile and be friendly and see how we go” Chris says, reminding me to drop my bulldog stance. The Italian in me is gearing up for an argument, but I take his cue and develop a somewhat nicer (and dumber) stance.
“Buonasera” I try to say in a semi-English accent, and wave towards them
“Parla Italiano! Menomale!” one of them responds, which means “Oh you speak Italian…lucky us!”
AH! Told you…
After a quick 5 minute chat we both gathered that while it is (of course) forbidden for us to camp here overnight, moving us on would be foolish considering my splitting headache and tiredness. While the female carabiniere was intent on finding out exactly when we would be moving on, her male counterpart seemed to be taken by our bikes. With Chris’ Spanish, and lots of hand-signals, he finally understood that we were on a long-overland trip, and completely lost his composure. It was quite comical…
“ Ma no…dai…che figata!” He exclaimed, which roughly translates to “Oh no way…that is friggin cool!”
Not only were we then allowed to stay put, but they both assured us that this was a safe area, and that we wouldn’t be bothered by any ill characters during the night.
“We don’t have the problems of the South here you know” Lady Carabiniere assured us. This reminded me of the most common comment ever heard on the road: no matter where you’ve come from, or travel to, the next or previous town/village/country/region is always the bad one.
“Oh our town is safe, but the next one, oh you’d better watch out!”
“You came from there? Oh how did you survive? You’ll never have a problem here, but the next town is dodgy you know” And so the story goes, in Sudan, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Peru, Bolivia, Bulgaria and now, it seems, Italy. I’m quite sure that, when we get to the South, we’ll be asked how on earth we managed to survive the North.
It’s still not easy finding bush camping sites here, but things have improved since we left the coast. Every single inch of coastline is taken up by stabilimenti (beach establishments where one can rent chairs/umbrellas) and, while this is a dream for most Italians, it’s a complete nightmare for us. It’s only when we head inland toward country estates that we manage to find dirt roads leading to some kind of public greens. Tuscany is particularly great in this regard and, besides, the countryside of Tuscany and Umbria are reputedly the most natural enclaves in the whole country, so why not make the most of it?
Our next port of call is Florence, the birthplace of the renaissance and the medieval heart of Italy. Once the richest city in the country, it is here that one comes to if history, culture and priceless art gets one’s juices well and truly overflowing. First though, we need to actually find it.
For all those who never ventured here behind the wheel of a car, let it be known that Italy is also home to some of the most confusing road-signage system in the world. The saying ‘all roads lead to Rome’ was probably coined by a tourist driving around in a rental car. No matter where you are, and where you need to go to, you’ll find a sign pointing towards it. Pity it all seems to run around in circles, so don’t be surprised if you drive past the same intersection several times in an attempt to get out of a town. I suggest you stop at a bar, have a caffe’ (or 3) and ask for directions. Just like we do…
Anyway, who cares, we’re in Italy! We’ve got plenty of time to find Florence.