Sunday, June 28, 2009

Genoa, Italy

Friends: I continue to get quality training for the Tour de France, less than a week away, as I head up the Mediterranean coast of Italy. Since it is dotted with resorts, I thought it might flatten out. Quite the contrary. The last 100 miles have offered up the steepest and longest climbs of the coastline. I might as well be in the Alps.

It was a seven-mile climb out of the port city of La Spezia, where I camped in the high weeds of a shipyard, serenaded all night by the non-stop loading and unloading of cargo. My first-thing-in-the-morning climb took me to Cinque Terre, a series of five small, isolated seaside villages well below the high cliff side road and terraced fields that the villagers maintain. They are quaint and distinctive enough to have been declared a national park with World Heritage status. A seven-and-a-half mile paved foot path along the sea links them. Otherwise they can only be accessed by a steep road down from the road above or by cable car or by boat. The road climbed to nearly 2,000 feet above them.

A mural alongside the road down to one of them welcomed the 100th edition of the Giro d'Italia. Just a month ago, Italy's national three-week bike race had cycled this route--it was the 38-mile time trial. The road was still full of names painted by fans of their favorite racers. Lance was one of them, though the most prominent by far was Ivan Basso, former winner of the race who was returning after a two-year drug suspension. Pink is the color of the Giro as yellow is the color of the Tour de France. Fans had painted a guard rail pink beside a mini-shrine of a crank set and church steeple at the summit of one of the climbs where a natural spring gushed deliciously cold water out of a spigot, also painted pink.

When I descended from Cinque Terre to Levanto, I figured I had a leisurely 55-mile run along the coast into Genoa. Instead I had an immediate two-hour, ten-mile climb to over 2,000 feet. At least there was hardly any traffic, more cyclists than cars by far. An older couple on a tandem rescued me when I was at one of those all too many intersections without clear directions. My impulse would have been the wrong.

The Italian roads signs can be infuriating. When I met a German couple touring a week ago, the only touring cyclists I've met in a month, they were livid at their inconsistency and their paucity. They had a tent, but they were staying in hotels whenever they could, as they were on just a two-week tour and it was the guy's girl friend's first tour. They were quite perturbed at the lack of signs to tourist offices, a deficiency that has also afflicted me. One can never trust the distance signs give to towns. At one intersection a sign gave a distance of nine kilometers to the next town for traffic coming from one direction, and a second sign opposite it gave a distance of seven kilometers. For several miles along another stretch every sign to the next town read 12 kilometers. I could go on and on. Germans are frequently perturbed by the French road signs too, but they are vastly superior to those of Italy. Though Italy has its charms, I am certainly looking forward to returning to the many amenities of France, road signs among them

It wasn't until I came within eight miles of downtown Genoa, a port of nearly one million people, that the road somewhat leveled out. Its my third large city on a Sunday--Florence last Sunday and Rome the Sunday before. It would have been a nightmare to have arrived in Genoa on any other day with bumper-to-bumper traffic speeding on the four-lane road through the city. As always, my first reaction to a city was, "I can't wait to get out of here," but once I got my bearings and began to appreciate the flavor of the city, I began to regret that I couldn't linger for a day or two.

Genoa is the final of my World Heritage destinations. It was a city of tremendous wealth at one time. The wealthy lived in grand palaces, each trying to outdo the other. Nearly 50 of them have been declared World Heritage sites. Some are now museums, while others house banks and other businesses. They are scattered about the center of the old city, some clustered on old streets so narrow it is impossible to take a head-on photograph.

Thanks to Coppi, I will now escape the coast line and head inland for 30 miles up into the Appenines once again. That will be more climbing, but of a different sort. Hopefully I won't be over trained once The Tour starts next Saturday. If I were following the coast, I would have only 120 miles to Monaco and The Tour start. Going inland will be longer, but I have the time.

Later, George

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