Friday, April 29, 2011

Hoboventure: Piece of Pisa

This will be a long, so I'll sum it up here for those who don't like our long posts (Kayla and Emily)

I went to Pisa, climbed to the top of the leaning tower, it was amazing. I then went in some other buildings that were baby jebus related. Ate pizza for lunch and left. Also I was named mayor and the tower is my new home, it is dubbed Torre Pendente de Matticus.

The full post follows:

I'll be honest, seeing the leaning tower has been on my mind for as long as I can remember. It's sort of become a symbol for Italy for me, similar to the Eiffle Tower is a symbol for France. As I've grown older and gone through engineering school, it's taken on a new meaning. A marvelous engineering failure that is an engineering feat. I had to see it.

The ride in the night before was amazing, even after (roughly) 100km I still had the energy to be giddy and pester Liz with calls, "hey look over there!", "look up! it's right there!" and "no, not there, in front of you!". Riding along the city walls and catching glimpses of the top of the tower was exciting, I was here, and by bicycle! It was the first time I really felt we had accomplished something.

I slept restlessly during the night, and was eager to get going in the morning, Liz got annoyed at me for trying to rush her along...I guess I do that a bit.

We left camp before 10, no real idea how to get in to see the tower, but we found our way quickly enough. First we had to direct some motorcyclists to the tower. Down through the tunnel, a right turn and there was a break in the city walls. We followed an old lady on a bicycle through stop and go traffic, using her as a shield. We darted through the street hawkers and entered through the opening in the wall. Not expecting what followed, I was shocked. It was a perfect spring day; the sky was blue, the sun was shining, a warm 23ish, only small clouds dotting the sky and in the midst of all that, a vast open space with vibrant green turf and 3 white buildings. A baptistry, a church, and the tower.

The whiteness of the buildings makes the colours of everything around it pop (sadly my photography skills aren't up to snuff). The grass may be the richest of greens that I've ever seen, the sky the most perfect shade of blue. It took me a few moments to understand what I was seeing. What brought me back to reality was the tourists. The square surrounding was packed full of them, buying things from the souvenir shops, taking silly photo's (if any of you tourists read this, those photos you took of you "holding up" the tower are just bad, the scale is all wrong!), relaxing on the grass. They were everywhere.

Fearing for a huge line, I sent (ha!) Liz to find the ticket booth, and I manned the camera and started shooting. This was a challenge, but eventually I got a few nice ones without the hordes of tourists in them. Shortly after, Liz returned, tickets in hand. I thought it would be nice to get a photo of the 2 of us. We asked a passing couple; he said yes, she slapped him for it and dragged him on. Really 2 seconds of your time, thanks for nothing...

Being "early" and having yet had a coffee, we found a place to sit in the sun at a "quiet" cafe across from the leaning tower and enjoyed the view (of men removing scaffolding from it) with usual coffee, cappuccino, and croissants.

The tickets you purchase for the leaning tower are reservation based and indicate a time that you'll be let in. Only a small amount of people (2 groups, 1 going up and 1 coming down) are allowed to be in the tower at once (also, the greatest rule ever: Nobody under 18 Unsupervised and no one under 8 at all!). Our time was approaching so we waited in the small que and took advantage of the scenery with the camera.

After waiting for about 20 minutes a lady in line informed us that bags are not allowed in the tower (Liz already knew this, but the tickets said you could store them in lockers close to the line) and then pointed out the locker room a couple hundred meters away. With time running short, we dashed to the locker place and back. Just in time too, we were dead last into the tower.

The leaning tower is a bell tower detached from it's church. Construction started in 1173 and took 177 years to complete! Only five years in, with the third level started, construction had to be halted. The building had already begun to lean. The tower was left as it was for about 100 years. This let the building settle and the soil to stabilize. If this hadn't happened, the tower would have collapsed.

I think this is the best part, In 1272, to adjust for the lean they built one side taller than the other on the new floors!

Currently, as a result of a massive engineering project (the tower in the 90's was past the projected topple angle at 5.5 degrees), the tower leans just over 4 degrees (over 4m from vertical, for a tower of 60m that's incredible!), to put this in perspective 4 degrees is roughly where the tower was 300 years ago. When it was completed in 1319, it was roughly 1 degree or 2.5 feet of lean.

I hope I've given you a little insight into why I love this building as much as I do, to read more check out the wikipedia page.

Ok, I get it, enough history. Up up we go, the stairs spiral around the outer side of the central core, and lean with the tower.  It is an awkward climb, the stairs are heavily grooved from the foot traffic of nearly a thousand years, and you have to lean at weird angles as you move around the circumference of the core. Sometimes it pitches you forward, helping you up the stairs. Sometimes it's an even worse uphill battle.

Eventually you come to an opening and the tower guards force you out onto one of the 7 tiers (this is to let the group coming down to pass). We snapped a few pictures and marveled at the lean and view of the old city centre. Shortly after we were rushed off the platform and up to the bell tower level (I think it's the 6th level). We walked around, snapped a few more photos and Liz tried to translate the inscriptions on the bells.

Having circled the bell level, we were funneled to the top, at this point you leave the large staircase and cram into a tiny little staircase barely shoulder wide, with the most rutted steps in the tower. It was slow going with 30 or so people trying to get up and down at the same time. A few minutes passed and we were on the top.  Wow, what a view, you can see for miles, (we were able to see huge cranes we'd later cycle past hours later on the coast). The cathedral looks amazing from above, the detail in the stonework on the roof is amazing.

The lean is very evident from up here, we snapped more photos and cornered an American couple to take a photo of us on the top. No time to savour the moment. Meer seconds later we were herded down and out.

At the foot of the tower is an inscription that Liz stopped to take photos of... [edit: Because it was describing the work of Galileo in Pisa. Legend is all about the cannonball versus the feather being dropped from the Leaning Tower. Reality is probably less exciting).

After the tower we took a look in the Campo Santo. It is a walled cemetery, it is remarkably beautiful. Another grand white building, it has an open courtyard that is green and lush. The construction started sometime in 1278 (it's architect died in 1284) and was completed in 1464. At one point the building contained a large collection of Roman sculptures and the walls were covered in fresco paintings (of the usual bible stuff). But during the war, the Allies bombed it. The roof caught fire and covered everything in molten lead, destroying almost everything.

What we see now is a result of restoration work that has been ongoing from 1945.  Apparently the building is mostly restored to original, but the scars of war can still be seen everywhere.  Only bits of the frescos survive.  It's a sad place, but then again, its a cemetery and I suppose it's supposed to be.

Our next stop was the Duomo, a medieval cathedral named Santa Maria Assunta. The building dates to 1064 and is Romanesque in style, simple compared to the gothic churches we've become accustomed too. However, simple doesn't mean the building isn't another example of grand excess the church likes to display. The exterior appears from afar to be completely constructed of white stone. Get closer and you'll find it is composed mostly of grey marble and a white stone. Closer still and the bits of coloured marble that are inlaid will stand out. The main doors are massive and made of bronze, as are the other doors. Some of these are replacements for original wood doors that were destroyed in a fire. Atop the building sits a massive dome, covered in copper or something similar, bleached to a grey-white colour by the sun. The inside is your typical church affair, white and black marble, granite columns, massive mosaics from the early 1300's, frescoed dome, intricately carved and polished wood and massive organ, oh I forgot the gold trimming.

It is much more grand when seen from above, the shape, decadence and scale are seen best from the top of the tower.

Feeling a bit rushed now, we had left our things at the campsite and were allowed to do so until 2pm. We headed into the baptistry. The baptistery dates to 1153, and is styled similarly to the cathedral, it seems the same stone was used for it's construction. The interior is 2 floors and extremely plain, the dome and walls remain undecorated.  It is however a massive building and seeing the steps we headed up to the second level for a better look. As soon as we reached the floor, a gaggle of loud giggling teens entered the building, followed by a chorus of "Shhhhhh!" from the guards. As the giggling got louder we headed down and out.

Hungry we headed back towards where we parked the bikes and partook of pizza at a sidewalk cafe. Not the best we've had, but now fully nourished once again, we grabbed the bikes, headed back to camp, loaded up and headed on our way.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Fast Forward

I admit it,  we've fallen a bit behind again.  We're working on it.

In the meantime,  I thought it would be a good idea to give an idea of our whereabouts.  We are currently in Barcelona. We're only here for the night and then off to see Liz's dad on the opposite coast tomorrow.

It's been an adventure,  i've been tracking our progress day by day with the gps (see the screen grabs below). All told we've traveled around 1500km by bicycle from Amsterdam so far, the rest has been trains and boats.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Hoboventure: Strong Arno'd into Riding

Our exit out of Florence involved a quick jewellery shop, and some bread buying. There was a lovely trail along the Arno river for 13 kilometres, which saved us from the roadway. Looking down at the river, when crossing one of the bridges showed the current going in our direction, and the wind against. Joy of joys. A headwind. 

Before leaving on the trip, I had told Matt about my distaste for wind. Head, cross, side. Everything is bad except for a tail wind. This conversation happened during a windy day in Amsterdam, when I had been blown over (and almost into the canal) by a cross wind. Actually blown over. Here, along the Arno, the wind wasn't so bad, but I knew it was there. At least it was flat an easy riding. 

Until the gravelly trail ended, and we had to follow the minor roads to Pisa. In the middle of the day's blistering heat, pushing our bikes up Apennine foothills above a sludgy river into a headwind, with locals in cars barreling past within inches. Yes, it got better. It gradually became flatter and cooler. The available shoulder became wider as the car numbers became greater. Consolation was that we were riding through the region that produced Leonardo di Vinci - we could have visited his birthplace, but for a 7% to 12% uphill grade. Besides, walls still can't talk, no matter how many museums one puts in them.

After a moment of possible highway adjoining, we found the proper minor road into Pisa. The road was lined with trees, providing shade and a place to ram a car into. As well as a series of miserable bumps from the roots breaking up the surface. Soon, though never soon enough, there was a bike path. The glorious bike path! It was so flat, and so smooth! Which was good, as Matt's bottom was so sore. Just say no to riding in denim. 

Entering Pisa was obvious. To the left was a thick and tall city wall. To the right, an aqueduct running through people's gardens. Matt pointed out the top of the leaning tower. I, being too exhausted, didn't turn my head in time. Instead, I kept navigating us towards the campeggio. Hairy centro moments included a teeny tiny roundabout with a not teenytiny number of vehicles, and a subterranean pathway. We arrived in daylight hours - amazing as we had ridden 97 kilometres. Easy enough to set up the tent, have showers and make dinner. So long as one ignored the knee/butt/leg/back pain.   

Moral of the ride: Go from Pisa to Florence, not the other way. 

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Hoboventure: Fiercely Firenze!

Florence, or Firenze. Matt asks how one name became the other, but I have no answer. Florence is both a dream and a nightmare. The number of tourists that flock here are atrocious. That is a bit hypocritical, as both Matt and I are tourists. At least though, we don't arrive with 50 clones on a large AIR-CON tour bus. Our arrivals are somewhat less comfortable. 

Having seen glimpses of the "important bits" the night before, we took our time in the morning. First, we stopped at the Piazza Michelangelo, to gawk at the hawkers and the rooftop view. It really was a glorious way to start the day. The sky was hazy, so the Apennines were lost in the distance. The close view was that of the red roofs of Florence. The cupola, and the bell tower, of the Duomo stood out. Various other large edifices also peeked above the regular surface height of the residential buildings. The hillsides were also coated in red roofed homes, but these were too far to see properly - and probably too far for us to visit in our short time. 

We rode our bikes into town - screaming down the road and scaring small children. Witnessed a photographer work at a destination wedding, which helped us avoid a 4€ espresso (to put that in perspective, an espresso should only cost 1€). As usual, our light breakfast and late start meant that it was lunch time. Sitting in a quieter piazza, we had pizza. The piazza was in front of the Basilica di Santa Croce. A closer inspection of the ticket booth told us that the entrance fee was 8€, and the sights to see were the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo and a few other important dead guys. 

I'm viscerally against wonton tomb worship. There is little to gain from standing near someone's dead body. If the tomb is a work of art (such as those by Bernini, or the Egyptian sarcophagi) then I will enjoy it as a work of art. When it  comes to someone like Galileo, who has been despised by his church - and then reinstated in full glory - paying to see his reconsecrated burial location feels like an agreement with his previous mistreatment. 

Anyway, there were too many people going in to do the circuit shuffle. Matt decided that walking around town would be better than taking the bikes, and boy was he right. Florence was a doozy. The streets were packed, and the streets were tight and narrow. Crazy car drivers were everywhere, and even the scooters were deadly. We putzed around until we hit the famous Duomo, which we went in (partly because it was free!). Toured around the outside of it, the baptistry and the campanile. ??????? In another church - Basilica di Santa Maria Novella - I was made to wear a weird skirt cover thing because my sinful knees were showing (but skintight leggings were A-OK). We'd gone in to see frescos and art from a large variety of Italian masters, but ended up getting caught in a student-run anti-AIDS fundraiser. Previously, we'd witnessed a beggar trip an old lady - evil time we live in.   

Somehow, after several gelato and coffees it was the end of the day. We pedalled our bikes back up the hill to Piazza Michelangelo. Looking across the eastern side, I was astonished to see a lush olive grove. I was more astonished to realise that it was our campsite. Our little nylon home was safe and sound. 

The next day we started in the same manner. Probably went downhill faster than before though. We spent the morning in the small Galleria dell'Accademia - where the original David and other works of Michelangelo are found. There were also a large number of medieval religious iconographies?? (it was dull as most of it looked the same as the stuff in the Louvre and all the small churches we'd been in). There was a small local food market, where our purchased proscuitto came in ¼ inch thick slices. There was also a clothes and leather market that wound through the city streets. Markets can have a great atmosphere and be functionally useful, especially if one is good at haggling (neither of us are).       

Continuing the shopping motif, we headed across the Ponte Vecchio. Earlier, we had crossed it during a marathon run. Now, it was packed with the tourists and even worse to get our bikes across. Live and learn. The bridge was originally crowded with butchers, but one of the Medici decided the stench was too offensive for his nose as he strode across his personal upper walkway. He had the butchers replaced with goldsmiths - which is how it stands today. Luckily standing, as all other Florentine bridges were destroyed during WW2.

Across the river, we tried to get into the terraced gardens of the Palazzo Pitti, but the entrance fee for some grass seating was too steep (it included 4 museums and a tour of the palace). Instead, we hung out on the awful 1980s concrete porch restoration. Funny hawker antics included finger wagging beration? by a pair of teenage girls, and a subsequent flirting. The heat of the day was till lingering at 4 o'clock, so we headed back to the tent to finish our domestic chores (just call me Queen of the  Washer Women). 

Think that's the end of our day? Oh no. I was adamant that we go into Florence at night. Our arrival that first night was stressful, but not enough to miss the fact that all of the city was quiet. For the second time that day, we wheeled our way down to the Arno river, and crossed a bridge. The campsite curfew was midnight, afterwards we would be locked out. Our time was limited, but then again, so were our options. We got a bit lost - things are so different in the dark. Finally, we found ourselves in front of the  Loggia della Signoria. Precisely where I wanted to be. Here stand sculptures dating from Roman to Renaissance times. My favourite is still the Rape of the Sabines, while Matt preferred the bronze Perseus with Medusa's head. A guy with a guitar was crooning top 40 songs, the surrounding piazza was empty and the lights were just right for some shaky photography. Afterwards, we went into the mismatched Palazzo Vecchio. MIsmatched because it has been renovated by numerous people, each in the current architectural vogue. Inside was a "special" exhibition showing a £15 million  diamond encrusted 17th century skull. Being cheap, we stuffed the idea of the skull and only visited the permanent exhibit - which was really just the decorations of the rooms.

And the decorations would put most wallpaper producers to shame. Rooms were designed and themed around mythological gods, artistic benefactors, and the ruling family. The walls and ceilings were all painted - intricately and delicately. The palazzo, as mangled as it was on the outside, had been pulled together on the inside - mainly due to the genius of Giorgio Vasari. Somme of the apartmental rooms were closed off, as the palazzo is currently being used as the Florentine mayoral offices. Which is good, as that was one of its intended purposes. Better as a public office with a museum than as an unkempt private residence. 

Late as it was, I stopped outside to just take it in. My chosen route home wasn't the most direct, and let us see the Duomo and the Basilica di Santa Croce at night. Matt was getting time-crunched, so finally we headed back up that damned hill to the olive grove that had been our home.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Hoboventure: Oh Baloney!

Back to Bologna

The next morning, we headed back into the depths of the city to catch a train to Florence. Unfortunately, the Trenitalia workers were on strike. This meant that the earliest bike-carrying train wouldn't be until 1800hrs that night. And, the train wouldn't go all the way to Florence either. With no real options in front of us, we waited it out. Looking at the information board showed that all the trains were cancellato

Waiting it out meant a lackadaisical ride around the city. More cafe sitting and structure gazing. Food shopping in a market. And finally a sit down in a park overlooking a university market (skull rings, rasta hats and nepalese blankets are not the products your usual italian family is looking for). There was an adorable puppy going on a walk, but he was tired and kept flopping down in exhaustion. There were less adorable kissing couples and hipster tightrope walkers, but they were easily ignored. As the sun was waning, we headed back to the train station to get our Appenine hill crossing on. 

The entrance onto the train was easy. Wunderbar. The arrival at the last station, Prato, was also simple. On discussion, we choose to wait for the train to Florence, rather than ride the 20 km. Darkness was the main factor there. We had dinner from a vending machine (hot chocolate and kinder bueno) and finally made it onto the third train to Florence. 

Worst night ever followed. 

First off, it was 2100h upon arrival. Secondly, the traffic control road islands made a vehicular zoo around the train station. Naggy was basically useless, and we were mapless. The internet info said the campsite gates closed at 2200h.  Tired, scared and confused there was a freakout and some yellin's. The usual arrival into a new city. 

We made it to a pedestrian piazza, and felt a bit better. Look, there's the Duomo with it's famous cupola. Okay, okay, we're going. Yes, that's Michelangelo's David. No, it's just a copy. Yes, those are millennia old statues. Okay, okay. Just across the river and then it's nearby - says Naggy. Turn here, follow the road for 900 meters. What? Naggy - those are stairs, we can't go up stairs. Oh, follow the neighbouring road? It's vertical!? We hauled our bikes up the narrowest, curviest, cobbliest, darkest, scariest road. By "hauled", I mean we pushed and swore and hated every thigh-burning, back-aching, hand-sweating moment. Hated. 

At the top, past Piazza Michelangelo (no, it's a bronze copy of David), there was the campeggio. Of course, the night time building of a hotel room involved finding a site to set up our nylon house, a shin bruise the size of Malta, and an amputated tree. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Hoboventure: Lazy Riding.

Day ??: Modena to Bologna

The morning in Modena found our bikes laden up again and us in the centro. We explored around an indoor market, after spending 20 minutes trying to lock up our panniers, bikes and backpacks with one lock. After buying local cheese (from the Parma - Reggio region) and balsamic vinegar (from Modena), we unlocked bags and bikes and got ourselves happily lost on the way to the train station. 

We were training to Bologna because of exhaustion. Of course, the task of getting on and off trains isn't the easiest either. This time, Matt had an epic struggle to load onto the bicycle section of the train. Probably because I was too dumb to help. The conductor was also useless and instead of letting us put the bikes in the proper hanging location, she made us move them from side to side for each stop. 


Bologna (buh-lon-ya) was to be our first campeggio. These are specific locations with permanent "tents", shed sized bungalows, parking spaces for camper-vans and spots for bring-your-own tents. Generally, the campeggi are found on the outskirts of cities, and have full facilities to accommodate even the most weary of travellers. Bathrooms, showers, laundry machines and dishwashing stations, restaurants, cafes, food markets. Nothing like camping in the Canadian wilderness.   

Leaving our stuff in the office, we headed into Bologna centro. As we prepared to go,  the VanMoof caught the eye of a traveller. He had heard of the brand before, and showed interest in our trip and the bikes. Surprising because he was from Malaysia. Less surprising as he was flying to Amsterdam that day. Hopefully another VanMoof was sold because of Matt's enthusiasm. 

Bologna is known as a university town and a foodie haven, with a few interesting architectural details. With cloudy heads wandering aimlessly, we passed through the bustling university section. We meandered under some of the miles of notorious colonnades, ending up in front of the local San Petronio Basilica. The Basilica was built to rival the size of St. Peter's in Rome. The contemporary Popish guy (Pius IV) wasn't very happy about this, and so built the first formal scholarly building to one side - it was the first University .  This effectively halted the construction of the wings - there are unfinished sections at the side showing the ceased construction. 

The library did not only stop the sides of the Basilica from being finished, but also the facade. The city of Bologna, who backed the project financially, ran out of cash. The facade is half completed, with colourful marble on the bottom and unfinished brickwork up top. Or apparently that's what it looks like. To me, it looked like scaffolding, with a picture.

Very Annoying.  

Regardless, we sat in front, had an overpriced and unpalatable cafe. One must learn that the nicest places to sit - those in sunshine with good views - are usually the highest in euros and lowest in value. Watched some balloon origami, and student antics in the square. Heading out into the busy streets, where bikes and scooters rule - with buses a close third - we came across the towers of the city gates. One leans oddly, and the other is short. Had prize winning gelato, which was good, but possibly not 15 minute line up good. Beside us, as we ate, were the original types of Bolognese arcades: wood supported overhangs. 

Back at the campsite, the neighbouring campervan asked if we would like to join him in partying Bologna style. He was with two university friends, travelling from Stuttgart. They had a week to road trip, and had made it to Bologna before needing to turn around. High prices for gas and the beefy vehicle were not favourite topics from them… Hope everything turned out well though!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Hoboventure: Vroomtown

Day 12: Viadana to Modena. 
So, waking up in the cold, with frost lining the tentside and a tractor noise way too close to comfort was less than awesomesaus. Luckily, the tractor was in field option #1, and we only had to deal with the grunting and groaning of moving our bikes back uphill. We went back to our sunning spot of the day before, to dry our the tent fly and make breakfast. 

Breakfast was to be pancakes. Except we needed eggs. So instead, we had mostly cooked pancake goo. Mm Mm Good Enough. A lady asked us if we had slept there (which was reasonable, as we had exploded our stuff across the pathway). Of course, we answered "No, just stopping for a nice light snack" as stealth camping is illegal in Italy. A small dog was exceptionally concerned for his master's wellbeing as he passed the drying tent fly. Apparently large brown flapping objects are to be feared. 

Cycling in the morning included two looong bridges. The first had a path to the side, which would have been fine, except it felt like I was going to hit the railings or fall off the side into the river below. It was an exercise in balance. The second bridge was just as extensive, but crossed over a valley and had no escape side. Instead, it was a fast stressful crossing, ending in a roundabout and the relaxing sideroads. 

A while on, we came to Naggy's suggestion of a highway. We recalculated a route, and ended up at a dead end (near a dead bird). Luckily, a gentleman from the water-power-pumping-plant place we were at drove up and let us through. This led us to a canal side gravel path (dubbed "hot mess") for a few clicks. Which in turn led to an osteria for the best lunch ever. Soft zucca filled tortelli pastas (invented nearby and my new favourite), local cured meats (including the headcheese I vowed never to eat) and polenta. 

It's always hard getting going after lunch. Stomachs are full, and legs are too rested for much work. This time though, we had a decent direction to head, and off we went. Naggy provided her first "great solution". Small roads, newly paved and unused. Quiet villages and blooming trees. Until, of course, the outskirts of major towns. We passed over the north of Reggio Emilia, towards Modena. We got caught in an industrial zone, and had to go along transport truck laden roads. These were not highways, technically, but might as well have been. Awful. Somehow we found a bike path. 

The bike path was well signed, and we followed it for kilometres into the centre of Modena. We sat briefly and ignorantly in the Enzo Ferrari Park. Once in the centro storico (historic centre), a quick look-see showed us another beautifully scaffolded sight. We needed to sort out the iPhone Italian internets at a Vodafone, and also to find somewhere to stay. Camping was out of the q, and that left us looking for cheap accommodations. While Matt and the Vodafone dude farted about with his iPhone at the shop, I used their demo Android phone to book us a hotel. 

After exploding our stuff in the hotel room, we had to find food. Google maps led us the 3 kilometeres there (Naggy iPhone, fail!). Then sleep. This time, not cold and no tractors. 

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Hoboventure: Off to find the River, the wonderful River of Po.

Day 10: Crema to Cremona 

The morning was uninspiring for cycling. The night before there had been rumblings of staying another day, just to miss the rain. But the weather, though grey, was still good enough to bike in. 

We passed through Crema centro fairly quickly. The hotelier had said that it was about 1 kilometre, gate to gate. He had also said that the Duomo was worth a visit. Perhaps, but when we passed it was wearing its winter coat of steel and mesh. The city's two entrance porto we passed through were staid and functional. We ate breakfast at the far end, where a lovely old man and I had a conversation of Engtalian regarding the trip so far. 

Of course, there was the moment of lostness, this time at a 6 way traffic circle. The diameter of the roundabout was equal to that of Convocation Hall at University of Toronto. There was a fountain in the middle of it, for crissake! Trucks barely need to slow down off the highway to circle it. Cars speed up. It would have been madness to take a bike on it, so we high-tailed it back to our "last known position" and recalculated. 

Along some dirt roads. Through towns bearing Italian flags. Beside an enclosed 11th century cloister. By blooming white and pink magnolia trees. Holding still, waiting for a train to go by. Past solar farms and abandoned homes. At some point, it rained. We learnt then that a sprayed waxed cotton jacket may not be as waterproof as advertised. A North Face Summit Series jacket is. There may be a garbage bag poncho in the future. 

We slowly arrived into Cremona from the western suburbs. Navigating by signs works best. Sometimes, there are miscommunications, and the signs wish us to follow roads we can't. Sometimes, we turn ourselves into pedestrians to reach centro. In Cremona, it was drizzling on and off. We sat at a covered sidewalk cafe to figure out our cunning plan. The local campsite (campeggio) was closed - which left wild camping or hotel as our options. Ibis hotel it was. 

Cremona is intertwined with musical history. Folks in the 16th centuries lived here and produced string instruments. The name known best to the world is that of Antonius Stradivari. There is a piazza and a statue dedicated to him, right beside the main Duomo piazza. He, and the Amati and Guarneri workshops, made Cremona the destination for apprentices. Today, the number of lutherie workshops is astronomical. People have moved here from all over the world to live and work in a place of history and learning. Most of them are labelled as violin makers (on the brown "tourist attraction" signs), but walking by shops shows the large variety actually made (viola to cello, and beyond). Some shops were perfect examples of a workshop - hunched backs over a half-completed bow in the setting sunlight. Other shops were clearly attuned to a different crowd, with artistically laid instruments and an ornate desk. 

Our walk (biking is hard sometimes, yo.) took us by the Duomo in the fading light, and a creepy closed down hospital. There would be time in the morning to look a the church. At look at it we did, over an espresso. There was a funeral going on, and unlike the school group, we decided not to invade. Instead, we looked at the campanile (bell tower) made of brick (either the tallest or second tallest of its kind in Europe) and the Romanesque facade of the Duomo. Unlike the Duomo of Milan, that of Cremona solidly despises excess decoration. The majority of detail is that of a series of square columns and perfect arches - known as loggia. There are a few statues, but of fairly relevant types (saints, muses, gods and bishops). One could comment about the human heads adorning the columns that hold up the facade, but I'll leave it alone. The facade was built starting in the 1100s in a Romanesque style, and renovated over the following centuries in a Gothic, Renaissance or Baroque style, depending on contemporary fashion.  

Day 11: Cremona to Viadana

After the funereal espresso, we moved on. We escaped Cremona easily. Because of the current heat and rain the day before, the fields were steaming. Cycling involved a few dirt tracks with a whole bunch of puppies who greeted us. Our path finally crossed that of the Cycling Italy (Lonely Planet) and we decided to try the route given by the book. This dependence led us firstly along a wonderful quiet road, and secondly along an extensive wrong turning. Cycling Italy is now stuffed in the bottom of a bag somewhere - ignored and lonely. 

The countryside in the northern valley fields of Italy is scattered with abandoned buildings. They're everywhere. Nearby are usually well-cared for family homes with flowering trees and manicured gardens. It's almost as if the buildings are let be because there are fewer farmers and families to fill them. People are also venturing out beyond just farming. "Agritourismo" hosts guests in exchange for work or monies and there are direct sales of the local produce.   

Tootling along, we found the Po river. Biked along it and the embankments until the town of Caselmaggiore. The town annoyed us, and we needed to find water and food. That done, we moved on, with the intention of finding a place to camp for the evening within the hour. This area along the Po was built up - industry, farming, residential and recreational. The only places that were out of sight of people were man sown forests. As we reached the confluence of the Po and two other rivers, in the city of Viadana, we hit major industrial sections. The bike path began to disintegrate beneath us. It was partially slipping into the river, with cracks large enough to swallow bikes whole. Black holes of doom. I equated it to the baby-heads of skiing or mountain biking. The cracks were that large and that potentially dangerous. Bike eaters! 

Finally, we decided we had gone too far. The options were to stop and search for a tent spot, or keep going with risk of darkness and lostness. Staying still seemed a good option, as the upcoming route was to take us through even more built up areas. We spent a few minutes in the sunshine, sitting on a park bench. Then, we looked around for a place to pitch the tent. Option 1 was a nearby plowed field, just off the paved pathway and beside a dog-training area. Option 2 was a slightly further away plowed field (yes, in the midst of a city), off the closed gravel pathway and closer to the road. We picked #2, as it was more secluded. 

Our selection sucked. Really, both options were bad, and we made the best of the situation. The long grass was damp and cold. The mud was hard and deeply furrowed, and so difficult to move the bikes through. We cooked inside the tent vestibule (which added to the dampness) and slept fitfully from fear, noise and the cold...

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Hoboventure: My lane, oh!

Day 7: Milano

Milan is loud, it sounded like the entire city was up at 6am. I had to check my watch a few times to make sure of the time was what i was reading. The regular quiet breakfasts of usual. I wonder when or travels will take us to another.  

With the lazy morning wearing on, we packed up all our stuff headed to the bikes. Regretfully, still there. Put the seats back on and walked them to our next hotel. This time a 4 star located in what looks to be an old grand cafe.  The entrance hall is full of polished red marble and gilt wood.

Our room wasn't ready so we hunted down a park and sat on some benches in the sun.  You can really tell were not from around here: no jackets, shoes off and sweating, all while the locals are still in heavy winter gear.

After noon we headed back to the hotel,  checked in and let our bags explode. The day's plan was to find a laundromat and sit in the sun catching up on our writing. This didn't go as planned. The hotel being a business hotel charges an outrageous 5 euro/hr for the internet. No internet means no maps and no idea where laundromats are or decent cafes.

Being the intrepid travellers that we are, we asked at the front desk if there was a laundromat near by. No, was the answer. Damn, no wifi to find one and it doesn't show up in the iPhone. I was really hurting for that app my dad had suggested (hands off to you potential iPhone app writers. I be doing it).

So we hatched a cunning plan: find a prepaid data SIM card for my iPhone, use the myWi to share the Internet and look for one that way. No luck there either, Sissy informed me at the store that the hotel had kept both our passports to photo copy.  Double damn. No options left but to look for a pay-phone and phonebook or an open wireless network, we went for another one of our long walks.

We had just found the main shopping district when we heard a commotion from behind us. A woman yelling, a thud of a helmet, a Vespa tear off and a man in a purple shirt and fanny pack run after it.  I thought the rider must have hit and run, Sissy being more observant tells me that the rider had jumped on the scooter and stolen it. What is nuts about this is that the woman was standing there holding while it was idling! The guy literally stole it from under her. Shocking to the point of speechlessness

We began to look for a lunch place that had wifi, found one. A pizza place, but the Apple products refused to connect. Oh well. The lunch was great, one pizza of tomato and pesto and another of cheese, sausage, and fresh basil.  The bill was a bit of a surprise, take note of this when visiting Milan. You pay a seating fee, so 5 euro for the pair of us and back on our quest for a laundromat.

We found a Vodaphone store. While I was asking questions, Sissy was using a display model and had found a street with a laundromat . We began the walk. We found the place, 300 feet from the park bench we had sat on before, and about 400 feet from our hotel. 

A nice old man waited for us to load the wash into the machine, told us to come back in an 1 hour and asked for 7euro. We paid and returned to the hotel.

After the hour was up we wandered back to the laundromat, were informed 10 more minutes so we sat next-door at the cafe in the sun. 2 cappuccinos later and a bill of 2euro we returned to the laundromat to our fresh laundry sitting in a basket. We tipped him nicely and left for the hotel again.

We spent the remainder of the afternoon browsing the shops having planned to see the important sights tomorrow. 

Day 8

Tomorrow rang, and we woke up. It was a nice room, nice breakfast (with more individually sealed 30 gram nutella packages stolen), and a nice walk in the morning. We'd left the bikes locked up outside the hotel, and they were still there - regardless of the warnings of various Milanese and the scooter scenario the day before. However, riding in a new city, especially one of the busiest in Italy was not on my bucket-list. Biking in Milan is deadly. 

We walked towards the Duomo, which is overly decorated and overly sized. . Walking up to it is an effort of distraction. It is the largest and most ornate Gothic cathedral in the world. There isn't a single place on the entire building that isn't covered in a statue or artistic foliage. The roofline is jagged, because of the number of spires and carved figures poking up. Of course, part of it was covered in scaffolding. Constant restoration and reconstruction are the norm for these buildings. The inside, I'm sure is also nice, but we didn't go in. Instead we headed into the piazza and towards a colonnaded structure. 

The arcade we went into was the primo shopping section of Milan. Earlier, we meandered through the outside shopping that housed H&M, Sisley and a variety of other mass market stores. Here, in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II were all the high fashion houses of Milan. Prada, Gucci, et cetera. The building itself was airy and light, with a simply elegant mosaic floor. The store windows were gaudy and oversaturated in Italian fashion. 

We moved on to a quick cafe stop, and then a peek into a biblioteca with a da Vinci video. Wandered laneways until we found the Castello Sforzeca: a Renaissance fortress that now houses a series of museums. We walked through it, and through the park behind. The castello is heavy and blocky - perfect for defines and living through a siege. Unfortunately, this makes it boring to look at. Again, I am sure that the inside is very nice, but we didn't go in. 

It was now the middle of the afternoon. Sadly, because of the quick planning of this trip, neither of us have had time to look up the "tourist attractions". We're getting better as we go, but in Milan we missed critical things. Both of them are da Vicni related (I am a bit of a fan-girl). One is the da Vinci museum: which was closed for the day. The other was the fresco of the Last Supper, by da Vinci. The fresco itself is  falling apart, by current reports. To see it requires pre-booking weeks in advance. Next time, right? Along with opera, the museums, and shopping. 

Day 9: Milano to Crema. 

Milan is a city best known for fashion, performance arts and living the good life. Matty and I, if you haven't noticed, are a bit Scottish. We're cheap. For fashion, we spent 100 Euros on a half-dozen essentials (t-shirts, shorts, etc). For performance arts, we wandered through the free sections of a couple museums and saw the outside of the Duomo. And for the good life, we had awesome breakfasts, courtesy of the hotel (there was cake! multiple types! for breakfast! which I ate!). Basically, we spent one day relaxing looking for , and one day sight seeing. 

This morning, we were both grateful to get out of the city. Not that there is anything wrong with Milan, it's just that it was a starting point for the Italy trip, and we wanted to start. Our destination was to be Cremona, about 75kms away as the bird flies. Was to be. Why? Because it's flat. Other directions lead to the Alps, or the Appenines (which we'll have to cross at some point, but not now.)

We started by picking a direction. Knowing that Cremona is south-east of Milan, we started out by heading south. In a city, it rarely matters if one's direction is slightly off. The streets are so tight that even a wrong heading will sort itself out, and the right direction will be found. However, that doesn't mean one can just keep going without consequence. By the time we had reached the suburbs of Milan, we were definitely south. Not south-east. The decision was made to head eastward to try and rectify the situation. I grabbed the map, and in attempting to fold it properly, I hulked out and managed to rip the entirety in half. 

I can't even believe that this happened this morning. I am exhausted. 

First, we ended up participating in a marathon with runner and recumbant-riding amputees. Afterwards, it was bouncy traversing of narrow cobbled roads, shared with trams and cars. We ended up in some sketchy ass ghetto park, of which we had to travel 3 sides of a square to get around. We found a series of run-down allotment sheds and abandoned cow barns in the midst of multicoloured apartment blocks.  Then, it was a sub-suburban McDonalds, for the wifis (which failed) and a coffee. We had about 6 minutes of good riding with the iPhone Nagivator (henceforth known as "Naggy") until it decided that a highway was the best route. To avoid the speedy road, we literally went 10 kms out of our way, through random little villages on the outskirts of Milan. We skirted the ring road highways, and saw the local trade in action. By that I mean we passed by 6 prostitutes. Um. It was a bit weird, really. They each had white plastic lawn chairs at their "station". At one point, there was a cop car who broke up a date by the side of the road. Also, I really don't think that mini-skirts (or for one, no skirts) is advisable attire in 10C. 

Even with our effort to avoid traffic, we ended up on a semi-major road. The shoulder was… existent, mostly. But was about as wide as the skull of a 4 year old child. We were getting passed within inches, there was gravel strewn across our path and the road was collapsing in place. This road took us to Lodi, as did the signs. I kept seeing signs for "Milano 27 km", which was disheartening, as it felt like we'd already gone 50 clicks. In Lodi, after seeing dozens of billboards for grocery stores (which were all closed on Sundays), we found food! Hunger and exhaustion make even the simplest foods taste fantastic - and the parking lot ground can be as couture as a tablecloth in a Michelin starred restaurant. 

In Lodi, I took the time to look at a detailed map and write down a brief regarding directions to Crema on the backroads. We knew now that Cremona was not going to be reached, and that Crema was even a fair jaunt still. Even though the SS268 (or whatever) would lead us directly there, the riding was miserable. It's far better to have a pleasant long ride than an awful short one. Well, it can be better. Until one ends up in a national park, on dry-river bed and sand pathways with an upcoming stream fording. And a bunch of skittish horses. Matt shamed me the whole way as we back-tracked. So maybe I should have listened to Naggy, but it's really annoying taking directions from a stupid phone with a stupid voice that talks all stupid like. 

The other downside to small local roads are the farms. Oh my. I think I smelt every type of poop today. I'm starting to distinguish which comes from what. We certainly know what sheep poop smells like, as we passed by a flock being herded across the street. That was just outside of the town of Prada. No jokes. 

After exiting the park, and getting away from the especially stinky farms (pigs = ewwky), there were only about 10 kilometres left until Crema. Matt looked at the tracking of our route, and proceeded to inform me that we had gone over 70 kilometres. The last distance was hard. Our knees, never in the best condition were worn out. Our bums… oh our bums! They are hurting even now. Heads, backs, hands and patience had all taken a beating. And to top it off, we needed to find a proper campsite or a cheap hotel - tomorrow it is supposed to rain. 

We headed into Crema (where I nearly got run over for the fourth time today), and found a hotel. The hotelier kindly gave us a detailed map of the region, and helped us park our bikes. He also told us that our bikes are not exactly correct for touring. Eh. He might be right, but who cares!?

It's raining now. But only outside. Here, we are happy and exhausted. Tomorrow will be better. 

Friday, April 1, 2011

Hoboventure: Train to Train.

Maastrict to Strasbourg

We woke early clambered down the four flights, then packed and loaded the bikes.  We had a long way to travel and Liz had another 7 kg of clothes to mail. 
After waiting for the post to open, and paying through the nose, we left centrum looking for a cafe to get breakfast in. We found a nice place in front of the Maastrict train station.  I was worried about all our things (securely fastened to the bikes) being left outside unattended, so we got our breakfast to go and sat on a fountain and ate.

Back on the road, we followed the river south into the country along empty lanes and on bicycle specific tracks.  About an hour after leaving we had reached Belgium. No sign, just a change of language and different bike route signs.  A bit perplexed as to where to go next, we eventually figured it out.  We followed the river into Vise and up a small hill to the train station.  Purchased our tickets and started the task of unloading the bikes of our gear to get them down to the platform. After a brief period and some confusion as to where the bikes board the train, we were on our way to Liege. It was cheaper than the Maastrict train. 

Arrival in Liege was easy, the bikes were fully loaded, so we were able to "throw" them down the stairs onto the platform and head off. Liege has a beautiful new station, all glass and white painted steel. The sun was shining and it felt like summer. Our next train was over an hour away so, with time to kill I found a stand that sold coffee. Then we experimented with taking the bikes up and down escalators and rocked out to some sweet tunes on the iPhones.

Back on the train, this time to Luxembourg, we were on our own to find a place to store the bikes. After training all the way through Belgium into Luxembourg, the conductor decided our bikes had to move. Ten minutes of unloading and futzing about, the bikes and gear were stowed to his liking. We think.

This is where things got a bit hairy though. As we were approaching Luxembourg city, the train filled up and the car we were in was overflowing with people. Trying to get unloaded in just a few short minutes in these situations stress us both out.  A bit excitable on exit: glasses were broken and bikes dropped, but we had arrived.

The station in Luxembourg is an older station from the looks of it.  It's currently under renovation. I didn't get a chance to look around much, we were only here for 30 minutes. There is the start of what will be, a curvy steel structure clad in glass over each platform.

However, the journey wasn't over yet.  Whilst I sat with the bikes and fussed with my bent glasses, Sissy was off sorting the tickets for Strasbourg.  Again she came through and after a brief confusion as to which platform the train was leaving from, we were sitting in a proper bicycle car on a "short" hop to the French city of Metz. I say proper car because all day we had just been stuffing the bikes into the spaces between cars. These cars have spaces specifically allotted for bicycles.  It's really just a hook to hang the front wheel on and a slot to jam the rear wheel into.  Both bikes being incredibly heavy in the rear were easy to hook up into the top. Sissy's, being Dutch, was just too long to fit, so she had to sit crammed next to it for the journey to prevent it from sliding about and falling down.

After we arrived in Metz, we realised the train to Strasbourg wasn't for another 1.5 hours. We headed outside, spotted a nice looking restaurant and grabbed a quick bite.  The plates were huge and our bellies full. Matt wouldn't let me stay for coffee because he kept looking over my shoulder at the bikes. That, at least, was better than the previous seating arrangement, where he was twisted around searching for possible thieves.

Back on another train, this time to Strasbourg - which sits on the border of France and Germany. We headed off the empty train, through a dark train station (it was at least 2130 by now). On the bikes, the Naggy gave us cycling instructions to get to our hotel. It sent us through the heart of town, along cobbled streets ad past busy cafes. Suddenly, the cathedral exploded into view as we turned a corner. It was lit all around, and seemed like a lone sentinel in the city. Unhindered by annoying instructions, we found the hotel. Booked in with a helpful young lady. Cooked our dinner and went to sleep. Train travelling was as exhausting as cycling. 

Strasbourg to Basel

Day 5
We took breakfast in front of the Cathedral, still as imposing as the night before. We spent a few moments getting lost in the town core, as Strasbourg has a main island and many small ones. However, through luck and engineering, we found the canal side route out of Strasbourg. In some suburb we got lost, but the handy-dandy compass gave us directions. Or rather, our lack of caring where exactly we went gave us a direction. There was a swearing and bell-dinging incident with an angry French hag driving a hatchback. After some colourful houses and abandoned villas, Matt found us a nice park that we went through for a few kilometres. The pathway was dirt, but not too rocky or difficult for our bikes. It led us to another off-road route beside a hydro-power reservoir. This one was a bit more frustrating as the effort required to keep slogging along was way more. The day was getting hot, and our breakfasts weren't providing energy anymore. Finally, the off-road portion ended at some minor village. 

After some roadside travel, and a map conference with a German man, we found another canal route. We kept finding the canal side as our journey was taking us through the Rhine Valley.To the east of us, we could see mountains rising in the haze. To the west was the Rhine itself, and then Germany and its hillside. At no point did we actually see the Rhine. The canal we followed sliced in a straight line through the countryside. Instead of having to continue turning left-right-left to go south along the roads, we only had to follow the pathway. The riding was dead easy - flat and windless; and navigation was clearly simple as well (options were to go forward, or stop). We did encounter a problem in the late afternoon. After having ridden along a paved section, we hit a hard-packed gravel stretch. The gravel turned into dirt, which turned into soft dirt and gravel. Going was tough again, and we were pooched. As we approached an official looking vehicle, we were asked to stop. In a garble of Frengerlish, the nice gents told us that the section was actually closed, and that there was a large machine further down. We may possibly have understood the "No Access Except for Official Vehicles" signs - even if they were in French; but we also may have ignored them (like many of the locals). No worries though, the gents let us pass and we exited the canal path. It was only a few more kilometres along the D468 to the next majorish town on the road. There, we played the "find the Coop store" game. Which started with following signs and ended with asking for directions. We bought our requirements (water!) and pressed onwards. After some nifty bike / farm vehicle routes, and a quick look around we found a wooded region. Twas a national park that seemed utterly abandoned. So we went into it about a kilometre, found an appropriate spot and set up camp. 

Since this was to be our first night stealth camping, every noise seemed like a park ranger. At one point, we even hid under a tree, quiet as mice, as a low flying plane went overhead. Paranoia much? Yes. All was well. We made dinner, and fell asleep - after looking up at the starry, starry night. 

Matt says he woke up a bit cold, especially at the feet. I say bully to him, I woke up at least half a dozen times throughout the night, frozen like a popsicle. Perhaps it had to do with the sleeping bags - I have a liner bag that is only meant to be used to increase the rating of an actual sleeping bag. Matt has a Dutch bag that is rated for comfort of about 10 degrees Celsius. Perhaps it had to do with the tent, which is a three-season Tarn 3 from MEC. Fantastic size (it's huge, why did you let me buy it Tara?), but not meant for hovering-around-zero temperatures. Perhaps though, it has to do with my personal thermo-regulation. 

Day 6
Anyway, because of some personal paranoia, Matty woke up at 7 am. I'm not sure why I think he was on the lookout for people travelling to work (or that was what he muttered at me the night before). He did jumping jacks to warm up and de-thaw his shoes, proceeded to make coffee and wake me up. We were out of the campsite by nine, with no trace left behind. Good timing too, as we left the park proper (placing our garbage in the receptacle) there were 30-or-so hikers coming in. All ready with hiking poles and extra jackets. 

We rode through the continuing Alsacian farmland - past freshly plowed and fertilised monster fields. These are the types of fields that feed the world: mono-crop, machine worked, enormous sprayers. The area has probably been farmed since the dawn of mankind in the region. Now, it is perfectly flat, treeless and rockless. And kind of boring to ride by. 

This time while riding, we found the large shipping canal that runs beside the Rhine. The pathway was too difficult to ride, so we had to follow along road, the D52. Not the happiest cycling of our lives, but manageable. We meandered on and off this road throughout eh day, sometimes heading off it into villages, sometimes on a bike path. At one point, our map gave out on us, and Naggy came out. It was idiotic, first leading us through a closed park with full-on potholes doubletrack (7 clicks was enough of that), then leading us east instead of south (we ignored). We'd found the Eurovelo Route 5 the day before, and today had picked up Eurovelo 15 and 6. Compared to the Dutch routes, the signage was incomplete and difficult to understand.

Lunch was had a bar somewhere, and consisted of a hot Alsacian sandwich - basically a baguette with two wieners and tonnes of dijon. Enough to make the back of my skull hurt. popping back onto the D468 we kept southward. The D468 kept coming back. I think we went on/off it a half-dozen times. It was going where we were going, but we didn't want to go on it. 

Slowly, we were reaching the tri-nation area, where Germany, France and Switzerland share a border at the Rhine. The last few kilometres towards Switzerland were along the Rhine and then a small canal. At one point, we met a chappie coming home from India. He'd started travelling in June, rode his bike to India, spent a while there, then flew to Zurich to train to Basel. He was now heading back home through France and the Netherlands to England. He looked thinned out from his travels - clothes hanging off him. He was well equipped with front and read Ortlieb panniers, and the matching duffle bag. Giving him our map, we wished him good travels. I hope he makes it back home happy and fulfilled. 

In Basel, we passed the imaginary border line through the imaginary customs. The train station was so annoying to find - partly because we were exhausted and broken. Basel is filled with one-way, parallel, altitude differing laneways. When on a slight grade with a huge rake, dude. By the bus ads, Baselworld was on. That's … nice. Train station arrival. Tickets bought. On train, gone. With an unknown 3 minute transfer in Bern. So we sat in the compartment door's stairwell. 

Off, down, chicane, across, tilt, push, in, away. Another train, now to Milan. Nice clouds in the sorbet sunset, entering the Swiss Alps from the plains. A few Guiarda di Finanzia chappies with dog. We eventually got seats on this train. We dozed. Arrived in Milan and found a hotel.