Italy: Friends in unexpected places


As I sit here on my second beer that I literaly ordered by saying “Una Birra per favore” (I have no clue what kind it is) I am reminded of why we are on this trip…  Not just this trip, but why we are living this life.  There are two old Italian gentlemen trying to catch quick stares at me when I’m not looking wondering why the hell this American guy with long hair and a crazy looking bicycle is doing his laundry and drinking beer in their town.  To be honest, I had to look at google to see what the name of the town is.  It’s called Ostiglia, a place that wouldn’t be marked on any map you might find at the tourist bureau or on lonely planet.  These are the places we love the most and we only find them because we are on bicycles.  They are genuine towns with real people who are not dependent on tourists to make a living.  

We’re staying at one of two hotels in town and the short ride I took to find the laundromat led me down gorgeous cobblestone streets and buildings that pre-date anything you might find in North America by several centuries.  I tried google maps to find the laundromat but it failed miserably so I had to do it the old fashioned way.  I stopped in a shop and asked for directions.  The shopkeeper gave me directions in Italian which I tried to follow then said “Via Italia” (Italy street) and I was on my way.  It took me 20 minutes to find it as I rode in circles but I made it eventually.

I’m flying solo today, as Lauren is sick in the hotel room.  I’m out running errands, doing laundry and of course drinking beer.  It’s been close to a month on the road and it is setting in that this is a very different lifestyle from bumming around on a tropical island in Thailand scuba diving and partying all the time.  It is certainly more stressful day to day.  However, the problems we deal with on a daily basis are so basic it is almost primal.  Where are we going to sleep?  Where are we going to find food for the day?  Where are we heading next?  The last question is my favorite to answer.  I’ve stopped planning the route more than a day ahead becuase we are always hearing about a new awesome place that we should check out on the way and there is no reason not to.  The unexpected detours are what lead to the best stories.  

The first day in Italy started off as a standard day of bicycle travel.  The train we took out of Switzerland (We told ourselves we took the train less because of the alps and more because of our budget) was out of service for the last several stops.  We planned to arrive in Domodossola but instead were dropped off in some random town in the Alps across the border.  They were bussing people to the final stop but the Italian Customs agents suggested that we just ride our bikes.  We came to that conclusion on our own a few minutes prior when we saw how packed the busses were.  I can only imagine the reception we would have received loading our giant fully loaded bikes onto a bus full of people who had been on a train all day.  

We began riding towards Domodossola and after a harrowing experince in a high speed tunnel that ended with a U turn we ended up there eventually.  We stayed at a charming little hotel in town and started off the next morning.  Our first Italian meal was of course pizza.  After ordering, I sat in the shop wondering if the cook was actually making my pizza or just ignoring me.  Twenty minutes later he motioned for me to come to the counter, presented two gargantuan pizzas and smiled as he offered me two free beers.  We were off to a good start.

We had a destination of “maybe Venice” along with a planned stop in a random town I’d decided to send myself a package to.  Besides that, we had little in the way of plans.  The first few days were like something out of a storybook.  We passed through tiny hamlets with cobblestone streets and people sitting outdoors in patio furniture in the town square.  More than once we remarked to each other that this is exactly like you see Italy in the movies. We passed gorgeous mountain lakes and mixed in a bit of singletrack on our way as we randomly rode from town to town.  One afternoon we found ourselves leaving a castle and picking up a dirt doubletrack road where I wouldn’t have been surprised to run into Arya Stark and The Hound on horseback.  

There was a little cross on the Open Source map and we decided that a church in the middle of the forest would be a nice place for lunch.  Several wrong turns and a few hours later, we made it and it was worth every pedal stroke.  On the way we took a detour through a vineyard and ended up at San Michele.  It was a ruined church first built in the tenth century, but a site that had been used as highground since the Bronze Age!  It was a shame not to camp there, but our arrival was too early to stop for the day so we ate a picnic lunch and pressed on.  That evening we camped at a campground and watched the latest Star Wars movie at a theatre in Italian with no subtitles I think it was good?

We wild camped and stopped at campgrounds on the way until we hit a crossroads decision point…  To go to Milan or not to go to Milan?  We debated for a while and eventually decided to leave it up to fate.  We sent out a few warmshowers requests and got a reply from a longshot.  We camped in the woods that night and headed into the city the next day to meet our host.  Before this day, all I knew of Milan was that it was usually included with New York and Paris when discussing places that high fashion was important.  (Not exactly Evan and Lauren’s fortè)

We rolled into town and ate an awesome lunch at a restaurant which proved to be exactly what we wanted.  The proprietor was so proud to show off his food and hospitality to a couple foreigners.  We practiced our Italian and learned a new phrase or two as we enjoyed a simple lunch of fresh roast beef, bread, and delicious pasta which we justified because we are technically working out for 8-10 hours a day.  Next we killed some time by searching for a bookstore to trade in our spent supply for a little Keroac and Alice in Wonderland because, why not?  After that was a bike shop/bar where we had a beer that turned into three because of a rain shower.  We sampled local brews and answered questions about our bizarre bikes and our adventures.  It was a lovely afternoon.  

When the rain stopped we headed towards a spot on the map where all the currency exhcanges seemed to be concentrated.  As we rounded a corner we were hit right in the face with the most spectacular Cathedral either of us had ever seen in our lives.  We had hit the city center without realizing it.  In the eye of the storm in Milan we were surrounded by tourists and scammers.  A quiet square with patio furniture this was not…  We grabbed a few photos then got the fuck out of there as soon as we could!

We decided to head to the East side of town towards our host’s place to be a bit closer as we waited for him to get off work.  We waited at… wait for it… a bar!  We sampled some local craft brews which were quite good then rode a few blocks to meet Michele, a stranger who would soon become a friend.

We planned to do a bit of laundry, get a shower, enjoy a nice dinner and then be on the way in the morning.  Instead we stayed for three days!  Michele was a phenomenal host, he took time to get to know us and made us feel at home.  On the second night, he invited us to “Critical Mass”.  Something we had never heard of, but will never miss the opportunity to attend again.  It goes something like this.  Gather as many cyclists, and other crazy folks on weird human powerd vehicles as possible, meet at a predetermined location, then proceed to ride through the city at night blocking traffic, making noise and having as much fun as possible…  All with the ultimate goal of raising awareness for cyclists in the city.  We shared beers and smokes with our host and his friend Angelo as we rode along with a crowd of a few hundred other people on bikes for two hours.  Aside from chasing the clouds in a jet, this was the closest I’ve ever come to heaven!  There was a crazy man on roller skates blocking traffic and shouting at drivers explaining the situation to the upset folks we stopped and thanking the kind ones.  Also we had a fantastic lunatic on a giant adult sizes bigwheel powersliding around roundabouts, and endless bicycle bell ringing everytime someone had the audacity to honk at us.  We even saw a man on a skateboard skating in a crowd of people and rolling a joint at the same time, it was truly impressive.  It lasted for hours and by the end of it my face hurt from smiling so much.  If you live near a major city and have an old bike in the garage, do yourself a favor, check facebook to see if your town has “Critical Mass”, pump up your tires and go.  It was truly one of the greatest nights of my entire life!

Afterwards, we hit up a local craft brew pub where I was ecstatic to find Stone IPA on tap for one last brew before we headed home.  The next day, Michele showed us around a bit more as we looked at cache barns from the middle ages, watched bicycles on TV and generally had a beautiful effortless time.  In the morning Lauren cooked a proper Southern American breakfast including biscuits and gravy which we all loved.  We said our goodbyes and headed off like Willy on the road again.  

The next stop was a random bit of serendipitous chance.  While in Switzerland, I finally got around to ordering a replacement for my phone case which I ruined by swimming in pools and the ocean all day during the Songkran festival for the Thai New Year.  

We left Milan and passed through so many remarkable small towns on the way that you could spend a month in each getting to know the story of the people living there and the history.  Instead, we usually grabbed some food and a beer and were on our way.  I had the package sent to a random reasonably sized town that was along our route and that is what brought us to Cremona.  As we rolled into town, we commented on how the tower was pretty big, not knowing it was the largest brick bell tower in Europe.  We had a bit of a rest in the central square in front of the beautiful cathedral and sipped prosecco and ate paninis at a cafe.  Once our bellys were full and spirits lifted we headed off towards a campground on the south side of town.  We set up shop and then were delighted as cyclist after cyclist came in after us.  At the end of the day, there were 12 bicycle travellers who camped at the spot we chose at random.  We met a few of them and good times ensued.

There was the Swiss couple who gave us tons of suggestions of places to explore and new cycling apps we should try.  Then there was Graeme, the wild Scottsman who we ended up spending a few days with us exploring the city.  He had an interesting story and the most insane touring bike setup I’ve seen.  He must have had 100 lbs. of gear including a full Scottish formal kilt regalia piled up on the back of a carbon framed fatbike with bungee cords and rope everywhere.  It’s always interesting to compare and contrast how people can be doing the same activity and do it so differently.  It is kind of fun that bike touring is still in it’s corporate infancy and has not been standardized in any way.  We see recumbant bikes, panniers, bike packers, jerry rigged thrift shop bikes and everything in between.  We hung with Graeme and chatted over beers, and wine which turned into a wild midnight ride in sandals through a field of 3 ft. tall weeds into the town square where the ominous cathedral reigned supreme.  

We stood there in the square on our bikes and discussed our theories about it’s origins at length.  The grandiose Milan speciman this was not. It was clear that it was built and rebuilt several times and you could actually see the different ages of humanity in the construction.  There were pre-christian influences at the bottom, bricks of all different colors and you could actually see where the renaissance happened in the construciton!  The next day we met David who was Graeme’s waiter the night before and he took us inside where the art and craftsmanship was even more spectacular.  Also while waiting out a rainstorm at a cafe we met Derek from Liverpool who happened to be at the same spot on his tour of Italy.  We made a ragtag group and stuck together for the rest of the evening.  Maybe it’s the fact that everyone is traveling alone and longs for company, but I like to think that this hobby and/or lifestyle attracts a certain kind of person and it is easy to get along with folks who think the same as you…

We planned to leave the next day but my package was late and Lauren needed a dentist so we stayed one more day and meet up with David again and met his lovely girlfriend.  We shared a cup of wine sitting on the ground near our tent and felt like the hosts for once, albeit our furniture was made of good old fashioned terra firma and we had no roof.  

This lifestyle is wonderful, but it weighs heavy on the heart.  In the year since we said goodbye to our former existence, we’ve met some of the most extraordinary people you could ever hope to encounter.  Our circle of friends we had in Tucson was so hard to say goodbye to.  They were the first group of folks since leaving our families and childhood friends that we felt a connection with that can’t really be described.  Then on Koh Tao we formed relationships in a few months that felt like they had been forged a lifetime ago.  Now, on the road we continue to meet these incredibly amazing people who change our lives and have such an impact in such a short amount of time.  It is a catch 22 though.  You can’t expose yourself to enough likeminded people if you don’t travel, but you meet them when traveling so you can’t settle down to have them in your life permanently.  It’s almost like you go through the full friendship in a matter of days and come out the other side wondering how the hell you are going to go on without these amazing new people in your life.  I have a habit of always trying to find solutions to problems, but I don’t think this one is really a problem.  It’s just the way it is.  We’ve got a growing list of friends all over the world.  With a quick message, we’ve got a local contact and if they are not around, they can hook us up with the right kind of people.  If we ever decide to slow down for awhile, (unlikely) they’ve got the same!

 In the meantime, we’re going to continue this adventure and embrace every new place and experience because after all, being happy is the only thing that matters, and if you are not happy, is your own damn fault!

Categories: Bikepacking, Europe, ItalyTags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

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