Saturday, June 3, 2006

Triest, Italy

Friends: I have completed my crossing of Italy. Slovenia is just eleven miles away and then Croatia. Triest is the eastern-most point of Italy, an old port city on the Mediterranean. I have come 450 miles across the wingspan of Italy, from its virtual western-most point over on the Mediterranean. I am looking forward to Eastern Europe and the promise of less traffic. Italy is about half the size of France and has about the same population, 60 million, though judging by the traffic I would have guessed it was three or four times as populous. Italy is what I feared cycling Europe would be like when Cannes and The Tour finally lured me here after years of bicycling in third world countries and regions with vast open spaces like Australia and Scandinavia.

Along with the density of traffic, the countryside is dense with development. Though there are fields of corn and grains and legumes and vineyards, they are mostly small patches with habitations near by, not conducive at all to wild-camping. It hardly seems rural. It is a marked contrast to France and its large plots of land with not a dwelling in sight and lots of little forests and overgrown, undeveloped parcels of land, as if the authorities knew enough to keep a cap on development, mandating a certain percentage of the countryside must remain as is. It's not only pleasing to behold, it's all a wild-camping touring cyclist could ask for. Although I was able to camp wild here each of my five nights, it took a little ingenuity. Several times I had to hop a moat-like ditch to find a place to pitch my tent. Even finding a place to take a leak along the road was a challenge.

Italy is a cycling-crazed country. I saw many many more cyclists on the road than in France, so the non-stop flow of traffic was accustomed to passing cyclists with enough space not to cause alarm. But the din of the virtual bumper-to-bumper traffic did not make cycling here such a pleasant experience. All the traffic did provide a bit of a draft, however, speeding me along, and I was able to latch on to an occasional cyclist upping my speed a few miles per hour.

I provoked more horn toots here than anywhere I've biked except India and Vietnam, but these were all of welcome or affirmation rather than the "get out of my way" or "look out I'm coming" mentality. The Italians have enough of an urge to use their horn to applaud a touring cyclist, that they'd frequently give a delayed toot of acknowledgement on curvy mountain roads when they'd be suddenly surprised to see me and they'd already passed. Once, when I stopped to have a little picnic at an enclosed three-sided bus-stop, my loaded bike poking out provoked occasional toots from passing cars, which reverberated along with the din of the traffic to add to my head's lament. I'd also provoke toots, even when I tried to be discreet off in some bushes, when I'd stop to take a leak.

One night in the mountains, I camped between an embankment and an orchard on a steep slope. The top of my tent was barely visible and could only be seen by motorists who just happened to be glancing that way. A few who did had to acknowledge me with a "gotcha" of a horn toot. Such are the Italians. Just as I was relieved to cross into Nepal after a month-and-a-half of being blasted by horns from every passing vehicle in India, I am looking forward to escaping Italy. I have four weeks of Eastern Europe (maybe as far as Romania) and Germany to explore before the Tour starts, exactly 28 days from today in Strasbourg on the France/German border.

The Italian road signs could be exasperating too. They were woefully inconsistent in giving distances. A sign would give a distance of 40 kilometers to a town and then five kilometers later give a distance of 42 kilometers. This happened time after time after time. But I had my cyclometer and map to let me know such things.

In France it is often exasperating to find one's way out of a city. Signs will list towns, but not all of them. Very very rarely do the French road signs give road numbers. Italy did much better in this regard. Only once did I have trouble finding the right road here in Italy. That was yesterday as I by-passed Venice. Italy had been most considerate in giving directions to the next city via both the autobahn route and the non-autobahn route in blue and green, something that France rarely does, instead directing all traffic to the autobahn.

Around Venice, however, I ended up on the autobahn not once, but twice, and had to struggle to find the correct alternate route. Autobahns paralleled much of my travels here. They ordinarily siphon off the majority of traffic, but not in Italy. There was simply too much traffic to go round. There was simply no escaping it except for my twelve-mile, two-hour climb over the mountain ridge along the Mediterranean, and then the lengthy descent before I reached the flat lands and development. I had considerable climbing my first three days along the Mediterranean and then away from it, but none to speak of, other than over railway tracks and autobahns, the past three days. If I wanted to be reminded of climbing, all I need do was glance to the north and there the snow-covered Dolomites loomed.

Yesterday granted me a reprieve from the traffic for the first half of the day, as it was a holiday. I wasn't forewarned, but fortunately had a day's reserve of food, as all the grocery stores were closed. When I saw closed supermarkets even at mid-morning and not much traffic, I thought it was a sign of a bad economy in the region. I presumed the glut of cyclists I saw were all unemployed. They were all in clusters of from two to twenty, often with matching jerseys, smoothly-pedaling, demonstrating cycling as their birthright and heritage. Few wore helmets. The head gear of choice of the older set was a cycling cap with the bill turned backwards, looking like their childhood heroes Coppi, Gimondi, and Bartoli. It was nice to have a few hours of my time in Italy sharing the road with such compatriots, little distracted by the motorized villains. I finally realized it had to be a holiday when I noticed a team time trial competition, groups of five cyclists all wearing the same uniform spaced a minute or more apart all pedaling furiously in formation.

Later, George

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