Saturday, 2 July 2011

Final thoughts on the tour

I think this was the most - best? - planned holiday I've ever undertaken. I spent many happy hours beforehand poring over maps, reading motorcycle reviews and learning to ride a bike again. My planning was meticulous. Normally, I wouldn't dream of spending this much time preparing for a holiday. But this one was special - this was my retirement celebration and I loved it all.

The forethought paid off, since apart from one or two small hitches, everything went smoothly. This meant I could concentrate on getting on with the tour and not struggle with too many unforeseen interruptions.

Enjoying Europe
Travelling from town to town across a long distance does give the rider a taste of a whole country, not easily achieved in the usual holiday. The bike was particularly good at gaining access to town centres where often the most interesting buildings or sites were to be found. This was especially the case in Italy which is very tolerant of bikes.

Despite touring on my own, I found I spent a lot of time speaking to people on this holiday; frequently to ask for directions but there were more extended conversations in the hostels where many spoke good English. This makes for a more involved sort of holiday where one gets a chance to engage with the people of the regions one passes through. It's interesting to be an outsider looking in, but it's even better to be a participant in a dialogue.

Frightening oneself
Some people, I know, would be nervous to tour in a foreign country where they don't speak the language. In my case that wasn't a problem - I had been to Europe many times before and I could cope with French and Italian. What frightened me was riding the bike! Learning to ride again after years away from the bike was deeply scary. What one does without thought at 25, is not at all easy at 63 years old. It took a lot of practice for me to become comfortable again on two wheels. Indeed, it wasn't until the last week of the holiday that I got my confidence back. As I get older I find that I tend to avoid risk; if it's done anything, this holiday has shown me that in order to stay active and engaged with life I need frequently to challenge myself and avoid slipping into comfortable, familiar ways.

Biking versus walking
In recent years I've taken to walking, e.g. I backpacked the pilgrim routes from my home in Surrey to Mont St Michel in France. And I'm walking in stages the Camino di Compostella. So how does walking compare with biking? Well, biking certainly gets you further! It allows you to get an overview of a country or region. And for those who like speed, it supplies lots of fun on mountain and country roads. Walking is clearly slower but it gets you deeper into the countryside. It gives you time to soak up the landscape and listen to the sounds of nature. It's a slower and more meditative experience. Both are valid - but quite different - ways to experience travel and I've enjoyed them the two of them!

And as for my future holiday plans . . . Hmm. I wonder what it would be like to tour Europe on a bicycle?

Friday, 1 July 2011

Reading about Italy

This is an older post which ought to have gone up in February.
Italian history
In order to better understand Italy, it seemed logical to read a little about her history. I began with re Christopher Duggan's book about the risorgimento - the period leading up to (and after) Italy's establishment as a republic in the 19th century. This well written text provided some real insights into some of the views still held by people in Italian society. It helped me to understand also the context for a splendid French film I watched a year or two back - The Horseman on the Roof.

I followed Duggan's book by Harry Hearder's short history of Italy. This is written to provide an overview of Italian history from the ice age to the present day! Not surprisingly, it bowls along at a fast pace. For all this, one gets a sense of the real complexity of the peninsula's history - and, of course, its extraordinarily long track record of civilisation. It is hardly surprising that today there exists such a wealth and variety of culture in domains such as dialect, cuisine, regional identity and so on.

Travel books
Inevitably, I have read some travel literature. To date, this has been light stuff - specifically, Peter Moore's adventures in which he recounts his experiences travelling round different parts of Italy on a scooter. Moore writes engagingly and with enthusiasm about the places and people he meets, as well as his beloved Vespa. I found it good stuff. He has also written a second volume - Vroom by the Sea - also enjoyable.
Looking back, it may be that reading these books influenced me in deciding to tour Italy with by motorbike. If I have as much pleasure as he reports on his trips, then I shall have no cause for complaint!

I'm familiar with lots of Italian dishes -  my wife, Marilena, is Sardinian - and loves to cook. However, the thing about Italy is its regional structure and the wide range of external influences which have created one of the great cuisines of the world.

John Dickie's book, somewhat academic in style, deals with the history of Italy's cuisine - and complex it is indeed. I enjoyed it.

How well did the gear perform?

The bike
Only one word for it - impeccable. The Honda dealt with all the roads and conditions I met - from motorway and A-roads to winding mountain passes to city boulevards. The bike handled them all effortlessly. And over the 4,000 miles or so the engine never missed a beat. Economy was fine - I estimate over 65mpg. Perhaps the only down side was that as it is a naked bike, I had to put up with a fair bit of wind bashing at times.

The hostels
Choosing youth hostels proved to be an excellent solution to the accommodation issue. I came across a great variety of hostels - some of them in quite special places. Service was invariably helpful and the inclusion of breakfast in the already low price was a real bonus. And there's company to chat to in the evening at the end of a day's touring - often with folk who come from all over the world. A YHI card is needed to gain entry to the hostels; this was a requirement always in France - a little less so in Italy.

I was able to get around easily enough with maps. However, some of the hostels were tricky to find and I had to ask for a lot of help from bystanders at times. I speak reasonable French and enough Italian to ask for help and understand the responses, so it worked for me. However, for anyone without the necessary language skills, you might want to invest in a GPS.

Bike gear 
My backpacking experience paid off here. I completed the trip successfully with a tiny amount of gear which was stowed easily in a medium size backpack and tied to the rack of the Honda. My approach contrasted very strongly with almost everyone else I met touring on a bike. Most were togged out in specialist bike clothing and their bikes were fitted with panniers - aluminium ones seem to be the most popular material around this year. It's encouraging to know that one can tour without forking out a fortune to do so.

The cycle tops and quick-dry shorts & trousers worked well. I was able to wash them in the evening and have them ready for use the next day. Obviously, this works best in the warmer south than the cooler north. The bike rain-suit got a lot of use, as did the waterproof socks; both performed satisfactorily. The helmet was fine - I loved the drop-down dark visor feature. It was great in the south where the light is very bright. And the finger-less gloves were ideal. If I were to include one more thing, it would be a super thin fleece or pullover to cope with those cooler moments.

Mostly, I bought food in supermarkets or small groceries. This was easy and meant I could make simple but tasty meals. They tended to be salad-based with some cold meat or tinned fish added for protein with fruit for afters. I ate out when I felt the need; but some of the hostels - especially in Italy - prepare a cooked supper, so I got that when I could. One thing I did carry with me at all times was a bottle of mineral water. In the heat it's important to have a drink close by. In Italy - especially Rome - there are lots of (lovely cold) water fountains which means you can fill your bottle up for free.

All hostels offer free WiFi but only very few have computers for use by visitors. This made it a bit difficult to keep my blog up-to-date - or indeed, Skype the folk back home. However, on the other hand, it did effectively cut me off from email for extended periods - and that's not a bad thing when on holiday. It meant also that I couldn't turn to the web for help and information. I had to ask the people around me; this got me more involved with the folk I was cruising by - as well as improving my Italian no end.

From Rouen to home

After an excellent breakfast at the hostel, I headed for Calais and home. The weather was fine and sunny but decidedly cooler this far north. The journey passed without incident and I was soon at the Channel Tunnel entrance queuing up with fellow travellers at the check-in. I was coming back one day early so my ticket needed to be changed. If Ryanair ran the tunnel I would probably of course be charged about £375 for a last minute fare. Here, Eurotunnel charged me a 3 euro admin fee!

There was just time to eat my lunchtime picnic before the Shuttle set off and I was on my way to England. A little over an hour on the English motorways and I was home - remembering of course to ride on the left.

Steeples all the way to Rouen

After an excellent breakfast, I set off wearing clean clothes (thanks to the auberge's tumble drier) in an optimistic mood for Rouen. I hoped to call into Orleans and Chartres on the way to visit their cathedrals. But first I went for a stroll around Montargis. I found this a tidy, prosperous-looking place full of floral displays and canals and rivers (with red water lilies growing in profusion). There is an old part of town in the centre with interesting shops - not that I'm into shopping, however.

Orleans was a much larger town with a quite splendid cathedral. Where does France get all these staggering churches from, I wonder? I spent some time walking around the interior admiring its construction and the detail of the stone carvings.

After this, more prosaically, I went off to the park and had my picnic lunch - pate de campagne, bagette, fresh fennel & endive - all rounded up with a peach. Lovely. The park was full of young children playing together under the watchful eyes of their mums. I'm guessing French schools must now be closed for the summer.

The road to Chartres was a route nationale and it was one of those nearly traffic-free ones, rather straight and cutting through the countryside like an arrow - and in places lined with avenues of trees. This makes for really enjoyable riding.

Chartres is a medieval village but its dominant feature is its gigantic cathedral which sits at the summit of the place. I could see it from five miles away as I approached the town. I was struck by the sheer vastness of the building. Completing it must have been the most enormous enterprise. The interior was dark and lit by stained glass.
Restoration work has begun. Whereas the unrestored walls were dark and gloomy, the restored stone shone with a white brilliance that took my breath away. I'm guessing it will take many years to complete the full restoration of the cathedral but it will certainly be a sight to behold.

The hostel was an interesting combination of new and old architecture. The interior was very modern and comfortable - the exterior on old dyeing works. Another building worth the visit - besides a bed for the night. I met several interesting people here who came from France and elsewhere in the world. This makes for good  conversation.

Slow progress to Montargis

After breakfast I gave the bike a thorough pre-ride inspection and then headed north for Montargis, planning to call into Vichy and Nevers on the way. "The best laid plans," as they say . . . 

At the autoroute toll booth a few miles down the road, I discovered my right shoe was soaked in oil. Further inspection revealed that I had failed to replace the oil filler cap properly after the earlier bike check and now oil was spurting freely from the engine. Help!

Fortunately there was a parking area just after the booth so I rode over there and put the bike up on its stand to contemplate my next move. Things didn't look too rosy. I had (sensibly) arranged breakdown cover before leaving; unfortunately my phone was off, so I couldn't use the UK number to contact them to make arrangements to get the bike to a repairer. This looked like it could be an expensive mistake on my part. I explained the situation to a motorist beside me and he took up my case immediately (what a nice man!). He took me to a nearby office staffed by a woman whose job it was to deal with autoroute issues of these kind. Turned out she was a biker too and she did everything she could to help me avoid the cost of an expensive tow. Another good Samaritan.

She put me in touch using (her) phone with a Honda dealer a few miles away. The mechanic suggested blocking up the hole temporarily and riding slowly to the shop. If the oil warning light had not come on already, there was a good chance of making it to the dealership apparently. I thanked my helpers and considered how I might do a little Dutch Boy trick but without using my finger to block the oil hole. In the end I came up with a workable solution. I stuffed a short sock in the hole and used some more of my (magic) insulation tape to hold the sock in place. It worked and I trickled my way along the motorway for a few km and off to the shop. They didn't have the part in stock but recommended me to a motorbike scrapyard out in the wilds. Fortunately, your man at the scrapyard had the part and he filled up my oil too. All for 12 euros. As I left, I glanced over the dozens of bent and mangled bikes; I couldn't help shuddering at the thought of the human cost of biking mistakes.

Put my head down and cracked on quickly - I was half a day behind schedule with a goodish journey ahead of me. The weather was baking hot - a thermometer outside a chemist's in Vichy displayed 38 degrees. I could believe it. Then I met the most enormous traffic jam just outside Moulins on the road to Nevers. However, with the bike I was able to over- (and under-) take - much of this. Despite good progress, it took me an hour to carve my way through it all. Those I left behind must have had an unbearable wait before the jam cleared.
Arrived tired at the hostel around 9.30 pm. Again, it's a gorgeous building -  the Chateau des Seigneurs des Canals. It's a beautifully balanced house set in about an acre of walled garden. I loved it at first sight.
 I was given a room to myself on the ground floor overlooking the front garden. Again, a very pleasant and happy  arrangement.

From the natural to the built environment

Today was one of the most enjoyable rides of the whole trip. Here in the Rhone alps the scenery is outstanding. I rode down the rather too exciting Col de Cabre (see the video for one person's experience of descending on a motorbike) and into the river valley. For several km I rode along the valley floor following the river. Here the roads were fairly straight with kind, easy bends - my sort of road! It was like travelling in a bowl with very high mountains to front and rear, as well as on the left and right. The valley floor was flat with ripening fields of wheat, orchards and vines. Every few miles I encountered a pretty village. This section of the journey was a delight.

I arrived at the auberge in the early afternoon. It was sited in quite an extraordinary setting - separated from the town up a long and narrow - rather perilous on a motorbike - single track road and located in a corner of the Gorges du Loire. The hostel was a collection of renovated buildings of what had once been an old hamlet. It was superbly appointed and I was given a room overlooking the gorge. Whew - all this (and breakfast) for 20 euros!

I spent three hours sitting out reading by the river bank, observing the occasional pleasure craft sail by and watching the birds of prey wheeling overhead. I could have stayed here happily for a week and not got bored. The people at the hostel were uber-helpful and Marilena contacted me and had the bank ring me there. I fancy she may have put them under some pressure to sort things out. Anyway, a chat with a nice lady on the phone and my Visa card was operational again.

Close by the hostel was the town of Firminy - famous as one of architect Le Corbusier's most developed sites. I took a ride to see his Union d'Habitation - a tower block designed to create an exciting vertical living space. One can see how influential he was on the design of such buildings subsequently. 

Unlike some of our tower blocks, this one was well kept and sited in green surroundings. Judging by the people going in and out and the cars parked outside, the residents didn't appear to be especially well off. But the building and grounds were well kept.

Cardless and phoneless . . . and in France

The trip to Nice was blighted a little when I stopped for petrol; neither my Visa card nor my phone were working any longer. Normally, I'd have little problem about asking someone to use their phone for a few minutes if I needed to. But have you ever tried asking someone if you can use their mobile to make an international call? Quite. And as for public phones . . .  what public phones? They seem to have fallen into disuse over here. And those that can be found either require a credit card (ouch!) or only support emergency calls.

I checked my wallet - 200 euros. This could just about get me back to England if I was very careful. Sadly, I decided to skip the Nice stop and ride on to my next planned stopover at the Col de Cabre further north up in the Rhone-Alpes. Mistakenly, I took the long way round on this trip and ended up with riding 150 km on narrow mountains roads. The scenery was spectacular but the riding called for serious concentration over several hours. I was quite exhausted when at last I arrived at the refuge.

I'd not stayed in a refuge before. It proved to be very basic indeed but to be fair there were shower facilities and everything needed for sanitation. However, the dormitories were crammed with beds only about 18 inches apart. Fortunately, I was the only resident in the whole refuge, so I'd the dormitory to myself! I slept well that night.

The lady of the house let me use her phone to call Marilena and who promised to contact the bank in England about the card. Hopefully, things will be sorted soon.

Goodbye Cagliari, hello Genoa

After a week in Sardinia I rode up to Porto Torres in the north of the island and caught the ferry to Genoa. This is an overnight trip and as it was early in the season the boat was half empty. After sleeping overnight stretched out on a sofa in the bar, I awoke with the Ligurian coast already in view. For me, the highlight of this voyage was the entry into Genoa. This is quite dramatic because of the way the city stretches up into the mountains that rise up tight behind it.

Fifteen minutes after docking I was riding off the ship and heading along the coast road for Nice on a lovely, sunny morning. Cool.

Village life in Sardinia

Arriving in Sardinia is like coming home, so frequently have I been here over the last 35 years. Specifically, home is the little village of Vallermosa where Marilena comes from. Besides her parents, I am related through marriage to an awful lot of people here so it's rare to be able to drop into the shop or chemist without meeting at least one or two people (frequently more) who want to stop for a chat and get an update on how the family is getting on.

Our boys now come to Sardinia on their own or with friends (their grandmother, nonna, houses and cooks for all of them). When Marilena and I are on our own, we live simply as members of the family doing the things they do from day to day. This entails the usual visits to the supermarket, hospital check-ups, trips to the source to fill up with mineral water and - of course - helping out with the pasta making. I watched nonno make the lassagne with his new electric pasta machine and helped lay out the strips.

As usual, one of the cousins arranged a meal where several families got together where we were guests of honour. These are always lively events, full of fun and good humour. I have to say they do test my Italian well beyond its limits.

Unfortunately, the family car ran into a hidden hole in the road one day whilst we were fetching water and two wheels were ruined - so transport was limited for a while. However, I was determined to get in a swim before leaving, so I went off early one morning on the bike to a little beach some 30 minutes from the house. It's a place called Masua and the beach is called Pan di Zucchero (Sugar Loaf). To get there involves driving along a bendy road that hugs the cliff face for several miles and only locals use it. And yes, the water was great but rather cold.

Friends in every port . . .

Next stop was Palermo where I planned to catch the ship to Cagliari to join Marilena and her parents for a week. The journey took me across the centre of Sicily - a mountainous region of barren-looking hills and yellowed fields. This was a far cry from the greenness of the Ardennes experienced only a few days previously.

Friends Enzo and Carlo come from Palermo so I called in to see their mum, Paola and brother, Marco. Paola gave me an enjoyable lunch and I had an interesting chat with them before Marco pointed me in the direction of the port. The Toscana left on time and quietly trickled its way across the Mediteranean reaching Cagliari at 8.00 am.