Saturday, May 28, 2011

Hobo venture: Tarquinia Turtles

We discovered a bit of an ant problem in the BnB. Stupidly, we had left open the food bag, and even though all was encased in plastic bags, the ants ferociously inhabited the pannier. A quick swipe and dump seemed to get rid of them all.

Saying goodbye to the BnBs garden turtles (so old and cute!), we hauled our asses up the hill, out of medieval Tarquinia to the Etruscan necropolis of the ancient and destroyed city. I questioned my feeling of deja vue, but didn't think that I could have forgotten an entire city in the span of five years. Later on, asking Dad, I was informed I had forgotten my first visit with family.

The place Matt and I were at now was a huge necropolis site, used from the fifth century BC to the second century CE. Similar to some of the necropolis in Populonia, these graves were set deeply underground in man made chambers. The Tarquinian Etruscans, and later Roman inhabitants, carved beds and pillows for the dead; but also created a space reminiscent of the rooms of the living. The ceilings was peaked and decorated with colourful and intricate patterns. The walls were painted with scenes of the daily lives. For the hunting man, painted sacrificial animals were chased about by the scantily clad. The rich dame was given a feast with nubile dancers and exaggerated pugilists. The chambers became family crypts, with the old and the young and the in betweens placed together... Forever... What A Nightmare!

The necropolis stretches over hectares of land, of which only a small percentage is open to the public. Of the opened tombs, some were undergoing restoration and were also closed. That's the way it is though. Ancient artefacts need care and attention. And that attention must be done by trusted professionals in a controlled and uninterrupted environment. I get it. I don't like it, but I get it.

The visual pillaging of the tombs left us hungry, and so there was a hunt for bread and nibbles. The bread was found eventually in the town, and nibbles were got from the food bag. The food bag that earlier was cleaned of ants. Except the steaming heat of the day had brought the ants out from all the crevasses inside. Hundreds swarmed out of the bag. Matt did his anti-critter dance while I, being the pragmatic non-lily-livered one, removed the little buggers, shoving cleaned cans into Matt's hands.

Of course, we're still finding bloody ants in the cookware occasionally. And there's a large amount of food bag paranoia.

Leaving the tomb site gave us the opportunity to rush madly along the steep hills of modern Tarquinia, which is actually a medieval town by the name of Corneto. The city was renamed in an attempt to bolster Italian heritage pride. Unlike the attempt in Populonia in the middle ages, this was done in 1922 CE. A slightly ridiculous move by the Fascist government. We got to the coast and followed it by zona militare. Signs outside threatened to snipe trespassers. We finally reached a more hospitable area of kiddy parks and fairgrounds. Once reaching the city, we picked a campsite address from an Italian iPhone app. The address given ended up being a single parking spot for a camper van. At the next attempt, the campground was only for camper vehicles.

We said a big "pppffllltttt" to camping, and got a nice and cheap hotel. We are the worst campers ever.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Hoboventure: Go Go Grosseto.

Grosseto ended up being a poor decision. There was no way back to the coast, and the only road out went up. Tuscany was wrecking her rewenge! for us ignoring her inner landscape. At the first easy hill - barely an incline from the horizontal - I was done. I had a bit of a moment of hating the bike and the road and the heat and the everything. Maybe because it was noon, and the land here is parched. The midday Tuscan sun drains energy. Riding felt the same as when trying walk with a child attached to your legs. After a quick break, which let me straighten my very bent rear wheel, we continued up. There were hilltop towns, olive groves, sheep filled fields and walled cities. At the walls of Magliano in Toscano, our path turned downwards, nearly back to the coast. We ended in Albinia (not Albania!), which is an entry point to this weird outcrop of land called Orbetello. It's weird because it's basically an island, except it has three perfectly oriented land bridges. The thinking was that we could get from Albinia down the coast to a place two days' ride from Rome.

Nope. The only road we could take was the one we'd been on. And we'd have to backtrack 15 kilometres uphill, with another three days of hills to follow. Every other road out of this twee town was a highway.

Fine, crazy Italian road planners! You won! We took a train to Tarquinia. Found a cheap and excellent B&B for the same price as a campsite. Hot water? Comfy bed? Balcony? Yes, please!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Hoboventure: Etruscan Exploration


Our arrival was perfectly timed. We were just at the gates of the archaeological park at it opened, with no one to keep us company. The archeopark covers a part of a hilltop town of the Etruscans, called Fufluna. The town was inhabited between 1200 BC (Italian Bronze Age) and 570 CE. Life was based on the economy of fishing, metal smelting and trade. By the appropriate intellectuals (i.e. Etruscologists), it was once the preeminent town of the region. Its domain stretched from the occupied hilltop to the islands of Corsica and Elba and inland to the lost Lake Rimigliano. It was truly a strong city of the Etruscan peoples. 

But the rise of the Romans nearly wiped it out entirely. There were changes in the architecture, as can be seen by the large public areas (baths, temples and plumbing), as well as the construction of a typically Roman road. The housing of individuals changed more slowly. However, it recovered partly. To be used as a mainly metal smelting industrial town. Elba provided iron oxide, and the surrounding hills of Populonia (now called by the Romans) provided the wonder materials of copper, lead, zinc, tin, iron and silver. That means that the town could produce bronze and steel, as well as the luxury of silver. 

Populonia was abandoned by its population in 570 CE. This was partly due to the change in environment around them: the inland lake became silted as farming increased - which means there was a loss in the local food supply  of shellfish and an increase in malaria; and the sourcing of metal changed in quality and ease of access. Also, it was sacked by the barbarian northern Lombard tribe. The population had been decreasing over the centuries anyway. People gradually figured out that lugging themselves up and down a bloody hill was stupid. 

Apparently though, we were stupid enough to have attempted it that morning - with the bikes and all our kit. Matt didn't want to leave our stuff locked up at the side of the deserted road (danger from squirrel gnawing?) so we walked everything up. There was no way we could have ridden - maybe with better bikes. The downhill return was excellent fun. We did find out that hairpin turns on steep descents require braking forces. And braking for an extended period of time with a heavy load means we pooched our hubs for a while. The rear hubs are coaster brakes, and work by expanding an internal ring against the hub, causing enough friction to slow the bike down. The grease inside heats up, becoming less viscous, and oozes out the (poorly sealed) hub. Heat expands everything, making it harder to pedal once done with the gravity-aided motion. We gave our bikes an hour's rest  while visiting the necropolis.

The Etruscans had put a lot of effort into their burial rituals. Set into a nearby hillside, the journey from the city of the living to the city of the dead was a 6 kilometres walk through dense forest  and uneven terrain. The graves were embedded into the rock of the hill: steep tunnels were carved downwards, with steps and an entranceway. Within a small rectangular chamber were one to three beds carved out. Some even had small stone pillows for resting one's head. Once finished, the entrance was sealed with a single block of stone, and the passage way was filled in. The tombs were set side by side, with the tree canopy over head or a rock overhang. The largest series of tombs were placed in a vertical rock face in a large open space. The rock face wasn't natural, but had been carved out over time by the quarrying of the hill for raw materials. Grave chambers were set at intervals all the way up the 50' cliff. I quite felt like shoving all of the visiting school children in one and sealing it again. Matt says one was going to throw rocks at him. I'd let that one live.  

Obviously, we started riding late in the day, at about 1330h. The route took us away from the coast, cutting across a peninsula and cutting out some kilometres. Of course, as soon as one goes inland in Italy, one hits an elevation change. The Apennine Mountains run down the italian boot, and their foothills spread from shore to shore. Eventually, the gradual incline turned into an actual hill. Zut! That was tough. Right at the crest, we were passed by a pair of mountain bikers (it's big here, 'cause the terrain is excellent for singletrack). Very soon after, our lumbering selves caught them up. Matt was about to pass them when I called him off. Partly because I had no way to go faster and partly because I had gotten myself into a high-speed tank slapper. The entire rear end of my bike had started swaying violently and there was no way to stop it. Terrifying. 

The view at the valley was of more hills, luckily less extreme than the first. Slowly, we wound our way to Grossetto. The last few kilometres were a smooth bike lane. It's always nice to end a long day with an easy section. Especially when the bikes and the legs are both pooched. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Hoboventure: Al Tende

So the great and glorious campsite taught us a few things: Don't set up near lampposts or the loo. The nice spots are packed and pricey. Bring your own toilet paper. And it's really awkward to shower in a dark midget closet. 

We headed out onto the road, which was somewhat "mountainous", but all coastal. It was also the first time we made it onto the Via Aurelia on our bikes. The same Via Aurelia that we'd seen in southern France in December. Since Pisa, the Via Aurelia had been a major highway. But from here on, we would follow it all the way to Rome. I was excited, as one of my old Latin textbooks was about a family's journey along this road to Rome. It was like my own personal pilgrimage. 

The coastal region of Italy is not easily accessible. First of all, the geography ranges from near idyllic sandy beaches to steep rocky sides. Where the coast is nice, it is privately owned. Some of the small close properties have been turned into cafes, with advertised stabilimento balneare. To the best of my understanding, it means a built-up beachfront. Of course, one has to buy something first. There are national parks, with occasional pathways to the water, but it's rare. Along the Via Aurelia, we passed by cliffed plateaus with sunbathers, pine forested dunes and seaside agricultural fields.  

Having ridden to the Populonia turn off, we didn't see a nearby campsite. There were signs to a few beyond, but none close enough to really consider. We pedalled back about 2 km to one that had been flying a variety of flags - only to find that it was closed until May 1st (first we had to ride along a crappy road for another 2 clicks to gather this information). We then passed by an agritourism (with camping) that looked like a shanty village. Near Populonia, we turned along a road to find the advertised campsites. Except what we found was a reception in a sinking trailer with no sign of human habitation. We decided to camp in a parking lot.

There was a bunch of fuss over spot selection. Do we set up in the shadows? Near the disused building or away? By that road or another? It's worse than selecting a house! Eventually, the annoying biting bugs forced our hand to just plop it down here-ish and park our bikes there-ish. We also came up with the great excuse of "It was late, we couldn't find a campsite, and we're stupid tourists". Sometimes the truth is the best.

After set up, we behaved like squirrels - freezing our movements at any sign of near movement. At one point during dinner, an SUV drove right up to the tent, pulled a u-turn, paused, then left. Really weird. Finally, we gave up caring and just went to sleep - the thrum of vehicles our lullaby.

Our wake up call was the garbage truck dumping glass bottles into its maw. Nice.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Hoboventure: Antignano Aunt

Our intention for the day to was stop somewhere between the Livorno and the Marina di Bibbona. We left Pisa and our campsite at about 2 PM heading straight for the coast along the Arno again. Even with the headwind, riding was pretty easy. The smell of salty ocean and the increasing number of marinas told us we were near. The road then turned southward: teasing glimpses of the sea over farmers fields were all we got. Thankfully, the road meandered closer and closer, until we were riding along a beach front boardwalk in Tirrenia. Stopped in the heat for a fro-yo. Whose health benefits were negated by the strawberry and lichee sauce. Eventually, the quiet biking got much busier. Cars were more prevalent and it became difficult to weave through. There was a bike path, which was glorious for the first while. But we'd hit a major town (Livorno) and the bike path was more of a "children learning to rollerblade" or "stroller pushing exercise" or "let's all walk 6 across" path. It is a sad state of affairs when one's bike path is more dangerous than the road. And it was frustrating. It was not like there wasn't a perfectly usable walking path 2 feet away, or that there was an alternate boardwalk for pedestrians… It was very similar to trying to ride on a Saturday afternoon along the Toronto lakeshore waterfront path… Probably because it was a Saturday afternoon, along the seaside waterfront pathway.  Also at some point we had our first tire puncture.

It might have been Sunday.

In Livorno, there was a public water fountain. Usually in Italy, people buy aqua minerale by the 10 litre case. It's not expensive: 1.5 litres can cost 0.15€. I think they do it because the tap water tastes so bad. The water fountain was a mineral water source. A bunch of old guys were hanging about, filling glass wine jugs and bottles. The italian information sign said the water would taste best not-in-plastic, and I'm in agreement. We filled up every vessel we had: BeverZwerfSport, Indigo's green bottle, our one remaining bladder and our stomachs. They were all empty! Hydration is pretty important, and we'd been loads drinking water all day under the hot sun.   

Escaping from the crazy families, we bumbled along. Soon, we came to a campeggio - it was about half past six, and the road got a lot busier afterwards. Taking a quick conference, we chose to utilise the facilities. The low season pricing was reasonable enough to con Mr. CheapSeats into accepting it. A plot with a waterfront location and possibility for expansion, near shops and amenities, with parking, was chosen. 

Twas glorious.