Sunday, June 14, 2009

Roma

Friends: I awoke this morning 25 miles from Rome with a heightened sense of anticipation, more eager than usual to be on my way. In a few hours I would be standing in the presence of the Colosseum. I was wondering what that would feel like.

Whether by fortuitous coincidence, or precision timing by the cycling gods, I was lucky enough to be bicycling into Rome on a Sunday morning, so I'd have little traffic to battle. It is as I would have planned it, if I could have. I had camped in a meadow on the outskirts of Velletri, just as the open fields began giving way to urban sprawl. The last few miles I had nervously passed up potential camp sites, wishing to reach my goal of 90 miles for the day and to get within 25 miles of Rome. I relied on my usual fortune, finding an overgrown meadow amidst a cluster of homes. As it was, I could have pushed on a few more miles, but this worked out just fine.

There was a steady stream of cyclists out as early as I was before seven a.m., but all headed out of the city, mostly older men riding fairly leisurely. The morning before I had that quintessential Italian cyclist experience that I had been craving. As soon as I hit the road a pair or trio of young and fit and eager cyclists flew by me every few minutes. They were riding hard and serious, hands on the drops, backs level, their bronzed limbs glistening with sweat, each wearing a different colorful jersey, but not a one wearing a helmet. They were romping with zest, riding too fast even for a passing "Ciao."

The Italians say they ride their bikes as a means of self-expression. I can certainly identify with that. These guys were prime examples. They weren't simply riding their bikes, they were letting the world know how they rode and who they were.

A cluster of a dozen or so had stopped by a water spigot in the small plaza of a small hilltop village. When I joined them to replenish my water bottle one asked, "New Zealand?"

"No, Chicago."

"Ah, America. I'm training for the Race Across America. Do you know it?"

"Yes, RAAM. The guy who won it the first couple of times, Lon Haldeman, lives near Chicago."

As the town church bell chimed eight a.m., he asked, "Where did you sleep last night?"

"I camped in a peach orchard about 15 kilometers back."

"You just camped along the road!" he exclaimed. "That's beautiful." Then he put his arm around my shoulder and said, "You're beautiful."

"Yes, 'Life Is Beautiful' in Italia."

"A great movie. You liked it too?"

"Of course."

"My cousin knows Benini's brother. He's a very nice man. I see you ride a Trek, just like Lance Armstrong. He's a great cyclist."

"Yes, I'm headed to Monaco to see him ride in the Tour de France."

"That's three weeks from today. Can you make it?"

"I think so, it's less than 2,000 kilometers."

It was clear he was an aficionado of the sport. I asked him if he knew where Pantani, the great climber and Tour and Giro winner, was buried, something I had been meaning to research on the Internet, but kept forgetting. He said he knew his home town and could show me on the map. It was just north of Rimini, Fellini's home town on the Adriatic, that I'm headed to after Assisi. Then I asked if he knew Coppi's home town. He knew that too. It is in northwest Italy. I may or may not have time to visit.

The gathering was getting antsy to continue. My friend said, "Let's go. I got to get ready for Atlantic City (the finish line for the Race Across America)." I set off with them knowing I wouldn't last long if they continued to ride with such frenzy. It was down hill for a mile or so and then a short climb. They weren't pushing it just yet, rather grouping up, not all starting simultaneously, and also wanting to see what I was capable of on the climb. When they saw I wasn't just lazing up it, but riding with vigor, one guy slowly rode past with a hearty thumbs up saying, "Grand." Another chirped, "Way to go."

It wasn't long though before they all started attacking one another, riding all out on a long gradual descent after the climb. I didn't care to dig deep to keep up and deplete my legs, even though several kept glancing over their shoulders, silently urging me, hoping I might still be near, and if so, willing to slow a bit so I could latch onto their wheel. But that was okay. I'd had a dose of what I had come to Italy to experience, not the ruins or the art or the pretty views, but rather some genuine comradeship with fellow devotees of the bike.

Though I go to an occasional tourist site more out of obligation than out of any real interest, the C0losseum hit me with a sense of awe and wonder the moment I first glimpsed a corner of its facade several blocks away. I was hoping I might have it to myself early this Sunday morning, but it was already mobbed by tourists of many nationalities even before nine a.m. The oddest site was all the men dressed up as gladiators with helmets and swords and tunics accepting a euro for their photo. They were also hanging out by the Forum and the massive tomb of the Unknown Soldier a little ways beyond. It brought back memories of guys in kilts with bagpipes in Scotland making a similar such living and bedraggled young boys in Cambodia at the killing field sites willing to look cute for tourists with cameras. Such hokum is a reason to avoid such sites. I wondered if I'd see any Anita Ekberg look-a-likes at the Trevi Fountain at water's edge or even frolicking in the fountain. There were hoards of tourists at the fountain, but no Anitas.

Every few blocks, as I meandered about Rome, I'd see some grand edifice that I'd detour too. There were mobs and mobs of tourists thronging St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. I tried three times to leave my bike and walk beyond the railing into the square, but was told each time by a vigilant cop that I couldn't leave my bike. The same thing happened at the Pantheon. A young Asian guy sitting besides a couple of backpacks said, "I'll look after your bike if you'd like." He asked if I were American. I said, "Yes, how did you guess?" He said he noticed I had an REI tent on the back of my bike. He used to work for REI in San Diego. He and his girlfriend were traveling around the world, wild-camping themselves, even in Rome. They had started in Jerusalem. He said their favorite place to camp was on rooftops.

He was very tempted to trade their backpacks for panniers and bikes. It was just a short ride for me to the Vatican and the other sites, but for them on foot, it was a lengthy journey. He said they were very tired. I told them about an Irish guy I met a few years ago in Nice who was backpacking around Europe who had similar inclinations. We happened to meet up again six weeks later along the Tour de France route by the wildest of coincidences. The guy said he had been wishing he had asked me more about bike touring, as he realized its benefits and was thrilled to meet me again. We have since remained in touch and he has become a bike tourist himself. "It could happen to you guys too," I said. I greatly urged them to include the Tour de France in their travels. Its possible we might meet up in Monaco in three weeks or on Mont Ventoux three weeks later.

I hadn't spoken English for a prolonged period for so long I got carried away trying to convince them that the bike was the way, and going on and on about my travels in Israel and elsewhere. They wondered how safe it was to bike, and what I would have done if they hadn't been there to look after my bike while I went in to take a gaze at the phenomenal dome of the Pantheon. I told them I wouldn't have been concerned to leave my bike for a minute or two and had even left it for a couple of hours while I wondered around Pompeii, though there it had been in front of a guard station. But then I mentioned I wouldn't have dreamed of doing such a thing in South Africa and went off on a tangent of the dangers of South Africa before I caught myself.

They weren't aware of the UNESCO World Heritage sites. I told them I was off to a couple 20 miles to the east of Rome in Tivoli and then a couple more to the west of Rome on the coast. They are always something truly exceptional, often boggling and well worth the effort to go to. Many are all too well-known such as Pompeii and the Colosseum, but many are hardly known at all and fantastic discoveries.

Such was the Palazzo Reale in Caserta 15 miles north of Naples. It was a grand palace built by King Charles VII in 1752 to outdo Versailles. Approaching it from the south it stood so colossal and magnificent it looked as if it were a giant mural. It didn't seem as if it could be real. It had 1,200 rooms and expansive gardens in front and behind. It was astounding, though I had no desire to go inside and look at all the opulence of the aristocracy. George Lucas was impressed enough to use it in his first two "Star Wars" and Tom Cruise filmed some of his "Mission Impossible II" there as well.

They asked what I though of Naples. "I liked it, but it is one of the most bicycle unfriendly cities I have been to," I told them. "Most of its streets are cobbled and horribly jarring to ride. I didn't see a single cyclist there. It took me two hours to ride 15 miles from Pompeii to downtown Naples. But I couldn't bypass it as its city center is a World Heritage site. There were many magnificent buildings and plazas. Its opera house is the biggest in Italy and the oldest in Europe. But it felt like a miracle that my bike didn't fall apart or all the fillings didn't fall out of my teeth from the pounding. It was harder on the bike than the roads of Lesotho."

"Uh oh," I thought, "I don't want to go off on a Lesotho rant telling them about all my travails there a few months ago," so I quickly diverted back to Italy, telling them how spectacular it was to ride the 30 miles of the Amalfi coast 25 miles south of Naples.

When we were on the subject of wild camping, I was tempted to tell them about my fantastic campsite seven miles from Pompeii, as I knew they would appreciate it. It seemed at first a desperation campsite, as I was swallowed up by the Naples urban sprawl before I realized it. I was resigning myself to paying ten euros to camp at one of the several campgrounds around Pompeii. But then I saw a narrow steep road heading up into a forested area. There were villas up there, but it appeared as if there might be some wild forests. There were, but the hillsides were very steep and not very suitable for camping. I was debating whether to hike up carrying my gear and bike in three separate loads to a semi-flat spot I had located, but decided to push up the road a little further. It came to a dead end at a high locked gate, but it was possible to slip past the gate. I had to strip the bike to lift it over a railing, but then I was in a forest with deer droppings all around. I had a view of Vesuvius and the Mediterranean and a castle. When it got dark my tent was surrounded by flashing fireflies. It was one of my best, and most unexpected, campsites ever.

It is on such occasions that I miss not having a traveling companion, someone I can exalt with in the days and the years to come over such a fantastic campsite, such as I can do with Craig and Waydell, my latest two touring partners, over some of our wonderful campsites. Such campsites are often the highlights of a trip, my strongest memories. Its always a thrill to camp like a pioneer, centuries after the pioneer age. All day long I look forward to my next campsite.

Later, George

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