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  • Jamie Shannon

Reaching Italy. Genoa, the Apennines and onto Bologna. Someone give me a new tyre!

I woke up and thought, 'fuck, I’m in Italy!' My seventh country! I was actually doing this and it seems that it’s not impossible. It just goes to show that if you aim to get to one particular town, say 20km’s away, and having done that, you then aim confidently to get to the next town, over the course of a few weeks or months, you can cross thousands of km’s of land. I think in this day and age which prizes speed above everything else, that’s pretty cool.

After we had packed up all our gear, the two French guys and I hiked down to the bottom of the cliff where we found our own private, albeit rocky beach. The water was calm and blue and, although not quite as warm as we had hoped, It was nice nonetheless.

The first three towns or so were so close that they had all kind of morphed into one large urban area. They weren’t quite as plush, pristine or as pretty as the ones on the French side but were very agreeable nonetheless.

The scooters and indeed motorbikes sped past me again and again and I had to keep my wits about me as I cycled through the various towns. For this reason, my mirror was a god send and is possibly the best fifteen euro’s I have ever spent.

I reached the first big Italian town of San Remo by midday and stopped here for lunch and a quick look around the old city which, although completely given over to the summer tourist trade, had retained a lot of it’s charm. Beautifully narrow, wandering medieval alleyways criss-crossed the town with ever grander buildings and churches of stood around every corner it seemed.

From here, I followed a bicycle path alongside the sheer cliff for about 20km’s until the large town of Imperia. The sun was baking, the many racing cyclists said hello and the path was as smooth as silk but by this point, I was pumping my back tyre up every 2km’s or so just to inject some life into it. When I arrived in Imperia, and having grown thoroughly tired of this, I opted to sort it out once and for all.

Pulling onto the promenade, and having taken out the inner tube and inflated it, I found that it stayed inflated and now realised that there must only be one reason it continually went down. It must be the immense pressure and strain that it’s under as soon as all my gear and myself are propped on top of it. I popped in another old inner tube and cycled onto the next town in the vain hope that it would last. It didn’t.

Just ten minutes later, that one also deflated. I pulled over and began the process of taking everything off again. I inserted another damaged inner tube whilst an inquisitive old man, whom was sat next to my bike, looked on and asked many questions in Italian. This drew continuous blank looks and shrugged shoulders from me. The Italians, it seemed, are very friendly though.

With another tube inserted, I was on my way again but had to re inflate it every 2km’s and was, by this point, so angry with myself at not having bought another tube when I had had the opportunity, that I wanted to just stop, find a hotel and relax.

In the next small town, I looked everywhere for any kind of shop that might, just might sell inner tubes, but all I could find were the usual shops that sold, cigarettes, buckets and spades and postcards. With my tyre now needing to be pumped up every minute or so, I decided to stop and put the original tube back in and hoped, at the very least, that it would only need inflating at least every 5 km’s rather than every half km. What a compromise!

Now the strange thing; having done that, and having pumped the inner tube up real good at a service station down the road, it stayed inflated, completely, for the next five days. I shall never understand the physics of air.

From here until the end of the day, the road was in a constant flux of ascents and descents that were not only steep but which twisted and carved their way around the steep cliffs. It was insanely hard work but the surrounding views made all the effort worth it. The scenery was just jaw achingly beautiful, more so than the French Riviera and I never thought I would say that!

Having made my way down into Albenga and with it now being now almost dark, I thought the only option was to head inland and so began to make my way tentatively up through the small roads north. Here too, every available scratch of land was privately owned, and I do mean every available inch of it. I was honestly thinking by this point that I would just have to roll out my sleeping bag on the floor. In the end, and after a quite frantic and exceedingly thorough search, I found a small road with some grass by it which faced the backs of some houses. Right now I needed to sleep.

The following morning, I made my way through the various towns that dotted the coast and cycled through tunnel after tunnel thus getting some use out of a hi vis vest I had found by the side of the road two days back. One tunnel was actually closed to motor vehicles which was lucky for me as this meant the following 10km’s were completely traffic free. Traffic free apart from of course the vespas which are always present.

I stopped and visited the small and pretty town of Spotorno, bought a beer, and sat by the beach. Two ladies, immaculately preened, wearing lots of jewellery and make up and whom had hair that looked not too dissimilar to Bob Ross complemented me on my travels too. It seems in Italy, unlike in most previous countries, I don’t have to make the first move in saying hello or uttering some other remark. The Italians are indeed super friendly, inquisitive and very open and I like it very much.

As I approached Savona, the road became four lanes and the traffic intensified. It was the first time I had been on a very busy road in Italy and so I wasn’t too sure what to expect but, for all the negative comments I have heard about Italian drivers, they were quite good to me.

I spent the next four hours or so negotiating the stupendously steep hills that lay before Genoa and after I was awash with acidic sweat, gently coasted my way down into the city. I stepped onto the beach in order to take a sea shower and with that done began to make my way through the city, something that I didn’t realise would take so long.

I thought I might see if there was a hotel that would meet my stringent criteria, namely it being cheap. The first one I checked was closed but the second one said they had a room for thirty euros. Thirty euro’s! I snapped it up and in no time at all, I had taken a shower and was lounging on a double bed. I was in heaven. They even allowed me to keep my bicycle inside too.

After reorganising, I headed out to the old city and just walked around its maze of alleyways. I sat out on a large and lively terrace, drank a beer and treated myself to some good food, a rare occasion indeed.

I walked around a little more and just as I was ready to head back to the hotel, walked around a street and happened upon the liveliest of scenes; hundreds of people filled the streets drinking and chatting. I walked a little further, grabbed a beer from a small market and sat down next to some people whom were playing guitar in a small open area filled with grass and other happy people.

I really enjoyed the city, so much so in fact that I decided to stay on another night. The city has this gritty edge to it, for instance the maze of dimly lit alleyways and tiny streets that make up its old centre are covered in graffiti and smell a little of pee too. The shops in these streets are actually working shops also; small markets, hairdressers, studios and bakeries unlike the usual ones selling crap to tourists that you usually find.

I spent the following day seeing the port and cycling around too. I also got a haircut and had a shave as I thought this would further inhibit any staring. Time will tell. The young Tunisian man gave me something that I still feel looks a little like MC Hammer and I’m not all together sure I’m pleased by it.

My original plan was to head east across the northern part of the country towards Venice and then onto Slovenia and eastern Europe. Back in Marseille though, I had sent my friend Mario a message just to see if he was in Italy and to my surprise, he was in Bologna right now thus this was my next destination.

In order to get there, I would need to cross the Apennines. It was a prospect I wasn’t much looking forward too.

Because of the nature of the mountains, the most promising route I thought I had found necessitated following the coast south for about 40 km’s, even though Bologna lay directly east, before finally turning inland and following a small winding road north to Bedonia and onto Parma. I would then finally turn south east in the direction of Bologna, and so in effect, I had chosen a giant Z.

I spent the next six hours and 40km’s following the coast from Genoa to Chiavari. It was so incredibly hilly and not what I expected that I was beginning to think it would take me about five days to reach Mario’s. It was always the same along here; the road would climb steeply into the cliffs and then from the sea descend sharply around them all the way back down to a bay before continuing all over again. What looks like about 10km’s on my map would inevitably turn out to be about 25km’s because of the twisting nature of the road.

Eventually of course I did arrive into Chiavari, and after a little searching, found some signs pointing north in the direction I needed to take. I Psyched myself up ready to tackle some huge climbs and headed on, quite steadily at first up into the mountains. After an hour, I found myself in a valley and began very slowly to cycle ever higher into the Appenines.

I spent the rest of the evening in the lowest gear possible, edging my way further on along the roads narrow, twisting length. It just went on and on until it got so late I had to make dinner before the light vanished completely. By the time I had done this however, the light had vanished and with nowhere to camp, I made my way to a group of small houses just up the road and asked some people there if I could camp on a small patch of grass by the side of the road. They all said yes instantaneously which made me very happy and I was thus able to camp in peace and tranquillity.

Knowing that I had, for once asked permission to camp, I wasn’t in much of a hurry to leave the following morning. The mountains on my map extended for another fifty km’s to the north and so I knew it was going to be punishing to say the very least.

As it happens, it wasn’t nearly as tough as I had thought it would be. I had covered a lot of ground already the previous evening and by noon, after three hours climbing the endless switchbacks, I had at last made it to the top. To my quiet relief, I was informed at a café that that it was all downhill from here on out. It just so happens that the road climbs in an extremely steep fashion from the coast and descends quite delicately all the way to the plains of central Italy from a surprisingly short distance from the coast.

And so I spent the rest of the day, and I mean the rest of the day, descending all the way down through the mountains, hills, valleys and rivers until finally at around six, I arrived in a small town 20km’s south of Parma. It was magical.

Having provisioned myself from a supermarket, I set off in a zig zag fashion not quite south east in the direction of Bologna. Camping opportunities were looking decidedly thin on the ground and I instead cycled up a path leading to a farm and asked a man in his tractor if I could camp somewhere there. He replied no because it wasn’t his farm but that I could camp at the church which wasn’t too far away.

With this, I found the church and monastery a little later. I saw some people sat outside and asked them if it was okay at which they all replied yes. A peculiar thing then happened as I was putting up my tent; a lady came out and asked if I wanted some pasta. As I hadn’t yet eaten, I said yes immediately and a half hour later, found myself sat in their kitchen inside the monastery eating a voluptuous plate of pasta. Not bad at all.

Everything was going smoothly enough during the morning. I listened to some good music, watched the scenery roll by and had the wind on my back. It was very enjoyable cycling. That all ended abruptly when I went over a rather large hole and my back tyre blew out from underneath me. I really could not believe this was happening again. I knew that I had no spare inner tubes that didn’t have holes in, had no spare patches to repair this one now and in any case, had no glue in which to stick the patches that I didn’t have. You could say I was screwed.

I then opted to shout down some of the racing cyclists that were passing by but none of them even raised an eyebrow. Either their skin tight lycra was constricting the blood flow to their brains or they were just too focused on their respective speedometers. Either way none stopped and so I had to walk to the next village.

As I was walking through the centre, an old man stopped and started speaking to me but of course I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. I then pointed to my back wheel and he immediately knew what my problem was. He indicated for me to wait there whilst he went looking for what I presumed to be a shop or possibly someone to help me out but he came back empty handed.

At that moment a Nigerian man asked me where I had come from and upon telling him, said that he didn’t believe me. I asked him why would I lie? Anyway, he said the autobus for the next big town was due in half an hour and offered to show me where it was. He walked me to the stop and when the bus came, helped me get my bike and bags on before telling me there was no need to pay. As we sat down and continued our journey, It became apparent that indeed no one was paying. It was as if it was a free public service or something and so it quickly dawned on me that that no one pays for much in Italy. It’s a kind of innocent till proven guilty philosophy.

When I arrived in Reggio Emilia, I had to of course find a bike shop. I finally found someone at a café who spoke a little English but she said that the bike shop down the road wouldn’t be open until half two. It was now 1pm. I left my bike at the café and went off to check the shop anyway and found an old man whom presumably owned it, putting the bikes out in front of the shop. I tried to indicate to the best of my ability what I needed; trying all sorts of different words, phrases and hand gestures in the process but it was all of no use. I then walked into the shop and pointed at the inner tubes behind the counter and yet he still said that he didn’t understand. I thought that he must understand me as there was nothing else behind the counter apart from rows upon rows of inner tubes. I really didn’t want to wait another hour and a half especially since the thing I needed most was tantalisingly close to my fingers tips. Another metre and it would be in my grasp! He was having none of it though. As he was growing a little irate about me being in his shop when he was clearly closed, I walked outside and watched silently as he put out the rest of the bikes. When that was done, he closed the door and I was left looking through the glass at my prize.

I walked back to the café and sat patiently, counting down the minutes until I could return. I really wanted to go somewhere else to buy it but I this shop was too close and I was quite comfortable with my beer anyhow.

When at last, it was half two or rather 14:45, I walked back and picked up the inner tube I needed and It couldn’t have gone any easier than if I had spoken fluent Italian. I now knew he just didn’t want to serve me.

With a brand spanking new deluxe Italian inner tube fitted, I set off towards Modena and onto Bologna and couldn’t have been happier as I cycled through the rolling green and pleasant countryside of Italy. I couldn’t quite believe I was going to make it to Bologna from Genoa in less than three days with my flat tyre woes and having crossed mountains too. I was feeling now like anything was possible. By the evening I would be saying hello to Mario, my friend from New Zealand and be getting comfortable in the beautiful city that he calls his own.

The Nigerian man's name was Prince apparently.

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