We hit the border town of Menton before crossing over into Italy. Everyone we met told us how expensive Italy was so we crossed over with some trepidation. They were right. The campsite fees alone broke the budget without food. The camps were not particularly nice either. Not even hot water. We would arrive and it would look deserted but someone always pedalled up for the cash before we could get out in the morning.
“You may have the Universe, if I can have Italy”
It remained a scenic ramble along the coast line but we were taking strain on the back wheel so had to stop at Genoa to get it straightened. We don’t carry a lot but there is enough weight on the back wheel that it remained our Achilles heel and ensured we popped spokes regularly. Having been able to buy spares easily in France we were unprepared for the culture change in Italy where Peugeot seemed a dirty word. Oh dear. Still we cheered ourselves up with the wonderful selection of pastries on offer! As we left the Riviera the price dropped slightly but we worked out our budget would not support us and we had to make another plan.
We decided to try the farmers.
Neither Dudley nor I had any Italian so cycling up to a farmhouse to get a corner in a field or orchard to camp was quite challenging. The first 2 tries were met with depressing rejection. They windmilled their arms in the direction of a formal campsite, 30 km away. It was getting dark and we were cold and tired. We ended up squatting in the orchard anyway, too afraid to light a fire or lamp incase we were caught. Not a good start.
However on the third try we hit gold.
Having carefully learned the Italian phrase for “can we camp here please?”, we cycled into a court yard and tried to look innocent. The farmer looked concerned and kept saying “freddo, freddo “. Dudley turned to me confidently and informed me we had to wait and see what Fredo had to say. I burst into giggles as “freddo” means cold and the kind man was merely showing concern for the chances of overnight frost bite. His wife rushed out of the house with a broom, chased a bunch of rather ruffled chickens out of the chicken coup and helped us roll out our sleeping bags on the floor. We were in and snug for the night.
They invited us to their table for supper, despite the fact they were clearly as poor as church mice. They shared what they had with laughter and generosity, and home made wine, another constant in this land of plenty. Pity about the poor frozen chickens, especially as a freezing drizzle set in.
This set the scene for a large part of our Italy adventure. The further south we went the warmer the welcome. We used campsites only in the cities, but otherwise we headed for the farms and were almost universally welcomed with warmth, generosity, and usually wine. Sometimes this accompanied a meal in the farmhouse, but sometimes it was just pushed under the tent flysheet by giggling children.
This charmed us so much that it has coloured our love of Italy, and Italians, ever since. The less they had, the more they gave.
Some of our stays were iconic. We slept in a hay barn outside Sienna, the most comfortable night ever. It felt like a feather bed. The only exhortation made by the farmer was not to light any fires! He trusted his years crop to 2 cycling vagrants. It does take my breath away even now.
Art and Architecture
Although our memories of our Italian tour was largely coloured by the people we met, it was also remarkable for the incredible scenes and places we saw. We zigzagged down the country and tried to see as many places as we could en route. We stopped in Pisa and Florence for our first sight of Italian architecture and art.
Florence is truely food for the soul with the beautiful Duomo and it’s paradise doors. ( Michaelangelo said they were the doors into paradise) , palazzos, churches and winding streets. Full of romantic tales, we wandered over the Ponta Vecchio where Dante met Beatrice, and browsed the leather workers and jewelry stores.
From Florence we pedaled the beautiful countryside of Tuscany to the picturesque city of Siena. We made tea in the Piazza del Campo, later made famous by the James Bond film Quantum of Solace. We visited the cathedral and trailed down the narrow cobbled streets.
We travelled the next section with 2 American girls we met in Marseille, and again in Florence. Mary Beth and Laurie from New York, cycling together but needing some distraction from each other’s company, and a man about the house. They chose Dudley and who can blame them. We shared our farm camping philosophy with them and they followed us through Rome and down towards Naples.
They worked in the movie industry and Laurie in particular was quite neurotic. She woke each morning and screamed. Some sort of preparation for the day apparently but rather disconcerting at 7.00 am in the middle of nowhere. They were very affected by the generosity we encountered, and regularly moved to tears. Indeed some form of hysteria was never far from the surface! I think this has coloured our life long avoidance of America! A bit unfair but we all got along well. There is a great cameraderie on the road for subsistence travelers.
Rome and Surrounds
The ruins of palatine Hill were impressive but out done in every way by the monuments of Egypt. In Egypt, the paint is still on the walls after 2000 years, and the structures remain in tact. One monument in the Western desert was a complete Greek Temple with a roof although you had to kick the goats out the temple,. Small, forgotten but complete.
We spent time in Rome, trying hard to find the free visiting days for various museums and historic sites.
The Vatican is free for one day a month and we piled in with a few thousand others to wonder at the incredible wealth on display. It made the visit to Rosina and Francesco all the more poignant a few days later.
Rosina and World Peace
Outside Rome we were invited in to a dairy farm, 20 cows on land rented from the Vatican. Francesco was married to Rosina, an Ethiopian girl with a coal black skin and a heart as big as a house. The rental to the Vatican was 50% of the milk, daylight robbery. From one of the richest institutions in the history of the world. Despite this they entertained passers by regularly; the dinner table that night boasted about 15 of us, including long distance lorry drivers and 4 of us cycling tourists. We ate like kings on tomatoes, pasta and hard boiled eggs.
The next day she explained her borderless, passport free philosophy of colourblind brotherly love and world peace over caffe latte. I wondered about the deprivations of her own life journey from Southern Ethiopia to Italy as a breeding ground for her beliefs, but was humbled by her spirit and world vision.