Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Savona, Italy

Friends: There are so many tributes to cycling deity Fausto Coppi in the village he grew up in and the surrounding area, the region could easily be re-named Coppilandia. There are museums and monuments in his honor and streets and plazas bearing his name.

His home town, the tiny mountain village Castellania, built a full-fledged shrine to him on a rise above the town. It includes a chapel and a gallery of mementos from his career. Beside them are the graves of Coppi and his younger brother Serse, also an accomplished racer. Both died before their time, Serse in 1951 at the age of 27 in a racing accident and Fausto in 1960 after contracting malaria in a race in Africa. He was 41.

Coppi was known as the "Champion of Champions." He won the Giro d'Italia five times and the Tour de France twice, as well as the premier Italian one-day classics, Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Lombardy multiple times. Paris-Roubaix and the World Championship and the Hour Record were also among his palmares. He won the first L'Alpe d'Huez stage of the Tour de France in 1952 before the road was paved. His career was interrupted by WWII, otherwise he could have eclipsed the records of Eddie Merckx.

It was a five-mile climb from Villalvernia and the valley floor to Castellania up "Le Strade di Fausto e Serse Coppi." Upon reaching Castellania, one has the option of continuing the climb up to the chapel or to turn in to the village. One of the first houses in the village is the yellow, three-story"Casa Coppi," identified by a plaque and a poster of an adult Coppi kneeling before his stocky mother sprinkling grain to a handful of chickens.

Off on the lone side street a couple houses down is a garage-like porch with a gallery of Coppi posters and framed jerseys. When I returned to the main street, two old men in white sleeveless undershirts sitting on lawn chairs asked where I was from. To my response of Chicago, they asked, "Is that near California?"

Then they asked if I'd like to see the museum. I thought they meant the house, as there was some notice on the door implying it was possible to have a look. When I said yes, one man said he'd go get the key. Then he led me back to a gallery in a garage. There was an adjoining dark little room crammed with Coppi artifacts--bikes, photos, trophies, jerseys and so on.

It was a better collection of Coppi memorabilia than at the first-rate cycling museum in Novi Ligure, the largest town in the area, fourteen miles away. I stumbled upon the museum the night before by accident when I asked a couple of policeman if they could tell me the way to Coppi's grave site. They thought I meant the Novi Ligure museum. It was surprisingly open on a Sunday evening. I arrived at 6:30, an hour-and-a-half before it closed, barely enough time to do it justice. A group of school children there for a week-long cycling camp were being given a tour.

The museum opened five years ago and is dedicated to Coppi and Costante Girardengo, a cycling great from the early days of the sport who was born in Novi Ligure. Though the museum gives special emphasis to these two champions, it is a genuine bicycle museum, tracing the history of the bike and the sport. There is a long promenade through the middle of the museum on the second floor of close to one hundred bicycles from its early days to the present. Off to the side were rooms of jerseys and tributes to cycling champions. There were also two rooms that were galleries of art work, mostly paintings, along with a few sculptures, conveying the beauty and the majesty of the bicycle, its geometry and its motion, in clusters and individually.

Throughout the museum were television sets playing vintage tapes of racers in action and commentary from experts. I plopped down on the floor, resting my legs, and watched as much as I could of each, sipping a bottle of water the caretaker of the museum had given me. When I left she had left another bottle beside my bike. It was thrilling to watch Coppi's majesty on the bike and his fluid, poetic pedal motion. He was in a class of his own. He could have easily been known as "The Pedaler of Charm" if that nickname hadn't already been applied to the Swiss rider Ferdi Kubler, another Tour de France winner from the '50s.
The woman overseeing the museum only knew of one other significant bicycle museum in all of Italy, the recently opened museum by the Madonna de Ghisalla cycling chapel overlooking Lake Como that I visited five years ago. But she also mentioned a couple of lesser museums, one outside of Florence in the town of Ponte a Ema devoted to Gino Bartoli, Coppi's great rival, and another that was part of a museum devoted to motorcycling.

Coppi's home town is so small, that the tourist office in Novi Ligure didn't have a map showing it. The woman there could only tell me it was beyond the town of S. Agata Fossali. It was a mistake though for me to take the road through S. Agata Fossali, as it required an unnecessary steep climb and then descent meandering through tiny unmarked villages before I finally came to a sign to Castellania. If she had known better she would have directed me to Villalvernia. As I approached Castellania I passed a cemetery just beyond Carazano that I thought might contain Coppi's grave, as I didn't realize that he wasn't buried in an actual cemetery, but had his own private resting place.

The town of Serravalle before Novi Ligure had a bust of Coppi in a Coppi Plaza. I asked two old men on a park bench if they could direct me to the cimitero de Coppi. If I had understood them better I wouldn't have gone through Novi Ligure and might not have discovered the museum there. And if I had more time to explore or a translator along I doubtlessly would have discovered many more Coppi shrines in the surrounding area.

Paying homage to Coppi is a great final preparation for the Tour de France. The presentation of the racers is just two days away, with The Race commencing two days later on Saturday. Of all the sights I have seen this past month bicycling the length of Italy, the monuments to Coppi will probably come to mind over the years more frequently than any of the others.

Later, George

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

Friday, June 26, 2009

Carraca, Italy

Friends: The Tower of Pisa is so glistening white it hardly seems possible it is approaching its 900th birthday. And it is so strikingly grand, it seems more an apparition than an instantly recognizable icon.

It is one of a trio of magnificent Renaissance masterpieces, along with a cathedral and a baptistery, set amidst a vast green lawn. It is as lovely a plaza as is to be found anywhere, and one of the rare old city plazas with grass, making it seem like a collegiate quadrangle. It is known as "The Field of Miracles," containing three such miraculously spectacular edifices.

I enjoyed a prolonged picnic soaking up its splendor in one of the slivers of shade along its periphery, entertained by the mobs of tourists trying to frame a photo with someone in their party holding up their hands on the Tower's slant line.

As in Florence, the River Arno splits the city into a northern and southern sector just before it ends its journey to the Mediterranean. The Tower and company are about half a mile north of the river, just inside one of the city's ancient walls. There were no signs to The Tower, just signs for the "Duomo," the cathedral, and not many of them. I had to rely on dead reckoning to find it. That first glimpse from a couple blocks away was as breathtaking as spotting the Colosseum in Rome.

Much of my sixty mile ride from San Gimignano to Pisa was on roads with little traffic, an extreme rarity in Tuscany, adding further luster to my day. It was nearly bumper-to-bumper though out of Pisa on a perilously narrow road to Lucca, a town Margharita highly recommended. Even though the old inner city is surrounded by a rare, nearly intact, two-and-a-half mile wall wide enough to have a foot and cycling path, it was refreshingly spare of tourists and the blight of souvenir shops. I'd had my fill of them hitting all the premier tourists sites these past few days. It was a relief and a pleasure to leisurely cycle its narrow, quiet, centuries-old streets with locals on foot and on all manner of decrepit bikes. If I weren't a wild-camping guy, this is a town I would have been glad to be in search of a hotel.

With so few tourists descending upon the place, the woman in the tourist office wasn't beaten down by answering the same questions all day long from demanding, short-tempered tourists. Rather than regarding me as "not another one" and thinking "what does this guy want?" she was as friendly and helpful as could be. I've been trying to confirm that Cuneo is where Fausto Coppi, the Eddie Merckx of Italian cycling, is buried. Until Lucca all the tourist offices were totally befuddled by such a question and claimed that it wasn't within their jurisdiction. The women in Lucca was thrilled to have such an original request. She went straight to her computer and plugged away. She discovered he is buried in Costellania, and even produced a picture of his grave. That was all good news, almost enough to be the highlight of the day, something in my genre that I can truly look forward to seeing.

On many a day, finding a one-pound jar of peanut butter at a semi-affordable price, two-and-a-half euros, would have been the day's highlight, even though I am in no desperate need since Margharita supplied me with nearly a pound. But I couldn't resist stocking up when I discovered some at a Lidl discount grocery store. Lidl is part of a chain that I regularly patronize. This was the first Lidl though I had come upon with peanut butter on its shelves. It could be there is an ex-pat peanut butter-loving community in Lucca. I knew that the owner of the Hopleaf bar in Chicago has a home here.

That extra pound of peanut butter was weight I would have liked to have been without as I climbed a ten per cent grade to Marble Mountain and its quarries up above Carraca. The quarries date to the first century BC. This is where Michelangelo came to select his hunks of marble, though it turns out he didn't pick the best of quality for David.

The Carraca tourist office was on the outskirts of the town to provide directions to all the tourists coming to see the quarries. There are nearly 100 of them in operation, all privately owned. One gives tours. There were two main routes to the quarries that included passing through tunnels. When I asked if bikes were allowed through the tunnels and up to the quarries the woman replied, "Yes, if you can do it." It is a notoriously steep, six-mile climb.

It did take some extra effort. I was happy to arrive 45 minutes before the next tour so I had a chance to cool down. Then I had to bundle up, as the tour went inside the mountain, where the temperature was 64 degrees. As I sat eating two different men came by and spoke to me in Dutch, thinking I was a fellow countryman.

It was a 600 meter drive into the mountain. It was simultaneously being mined from its top and from its middle. Ten-foot long saw blades cut out hunks of marble weighing up to 60 tons. The men who operate them are known as "Cutters," just as those working the quarries around Bloomington, Indiana. "Cutters" was the name of the team that won the Little 500 in "Breaking Away," the greatest bicycling movie, if not greatest movie, of all time.

More than 40,000 tons of marble had been cut out of the interior of the mountain in the past 50 years. Its huge auditorium spaces, lined with white marble, are a favorite setting for Ferrari and Lamborghini commercials, the guide said. The biggest client for all the marble these days is Dubai. Nowhere else in the world produces such a quality or quantity of white marble. A nearby museum had photos from the era when the marble was hauled by oxen and rails to the sea and then transported to Florence and Pisa up the Arno River.

Now that I'm back along the Mediterranean camping is a super-challenge. I was lucky to find an abandoned house to camp behind last night.

Later, George

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

San Gimignano, Italy

Friends: I had to blink and give my head a shake to make sure I was seeing what I thought I was seeing as I approached the home of my friend David's mother, Margharita, in the village of Vitolini. There was a via Martin Luther King just a couple blocks from her house.

The last time I had seen Margharita was four year's ago when she was moving back to Italy from her long time apartment just off Martin Luther King Drive on Chicago's South side. It would be hard to find another similarity her small Tuscan village shared with Chicago, her home for forty years. Her ancestral house, built by her great-great-grandfather over 120 years ago was a minor villa, quite a contrast to the cramped two-bedroom apartment on the 17th floor of a high-rise apartment building where David and his older brother grew up. There she looked out over McCormick Place and Lake Michigan. Here the views were of olive orchards and rolling countryside.

Margharita had lived with her grandparents in this house for a year when she was nine years old, just before WW II broke out. It is a time she still fondly recalls, playing in the basement wine cellar and the family olive orchard a short walk away on the outskirts of the village and up in the sprawling attic. In the years afterwards, as her family lived in one city after another, she always wished she could be back in Vitolini. Hardly a year has passed since she moved to Chicago with the American husband she met in Paris nearly 50 years ago that she hasn't returned to Vitolini, often for several months at a time when she had a break in her teaching at the University of Illinois. Once on a sabbatical she returned for a full school year. Her two sons spent a year in Italian schools, David in the fourth grade and his older brother as a high school freshman.

For years David has told me of his regular sojourns in Vitolini and the bicycling in the area. It was all even more magnificent and tranquil than he described. I only wished David could have been here to share it and also join me in riding around Italy. He is an ardent and fully-committed cyclist, long overdue for another bicycle tour. His last was 25 years ago as a spring outing to Wisconsin as a high school project at Chicago's Latin School.

But if David had been here, I wouldn't have been able to spend so much time with Margharita. She was in the midst of writing several papers and preparing for a conference and also in the middle of a minor crisis, but she was still able to give me a full tour of all her holdings. The day I arrived the long-time caretaker of her farm, 83-year old Vito, had been rushed to the hospital with severe leg pains. It seemed as if he was gong to be okay, but Margharita has been perplexed for awhile how to handle Vito's declining capabilities. She doesn't want to hurt his feelings and pass on some of his responsibilities to others, but its approaching the time when she must.

We were caught by rain as we strolled about her farm and its house. The house has had two substantial additions since it was first built six or seven centuries ago. Just behind it is a cottage, added to the property less than 50 years ago. Both are presently unoccupied. If she were not such a committed academic, she could devote her energies into turning them into a bed and breakfast operation.

She could also turn her cellar into a museum or a pizza parlor. When she unbolted the vault-like door before we proceeded down into the virtual dungeon she said, "Don't be scared." There were huge wooden barrels for wine that hadn't been used in years and smaller containers for olive oil. There was a wine press and all the apparatus for making wine. It all awaits David and his brother if Italy should call.

After our afternoon tour I had planned on heading out, but a cold rain dictated that I make it a full rest day, my first since Cannes. The only riding I did all day was several runs through town testing my bike after replacing its chain and three broken spokes. The broken spokes were a surprise. I'd heard a tinkling a couple days before in the mountains before Florence. I thought I had a loose strap from my tent or sleeping bag brushing against the spokes. When I couldn't find one, I noticed one broken spoke and then another and another.

I test my wheels for trueness every morning, giving them a spin to brush off any debris that might have stuck to them after pushing my bike through the brush back to the road from my campsite. They have remained true all along and were true even now despite three broken spokes. With 48 spokes, a dozen more than the usual 36, when one or two or even three breaks, it isn't noticeable. I could have broken the spokes back in Naples from the pounding the bike took there for 15 miles or so. That was a brutal stretch. I wasn't even sure if my frame could survive it.

After a full day and two nights sleeping in doors, I was off for some more Tuscany site-seeing the next morning after helping Margharita install a new, longer hose for watering her many geraniums. Margharita sent me off with two half-full jars of Dutch peanut butter and a jar of almond paste that makes a terrific drink. I headed south fifty miles to Siena, another World Heritage site. Its main plaza was jaw-dropping extraordinary, a huge oval on a slant in front of a city hall that was part cathedral and part chateau. It was ringed by outdoor cafes. Siena for centuries was a rival of Florence. Florence had nothing to compare to this.

The Orcia river valley south of Siena has also been granted World Heritage status for its exemplary scenery--rolling hills and small villages that have inspired artists over the centuries. I made a 75-mile loop through it, then swung back up past Siena to San Gimignano, another tourist magnet of a city, not World Heritage status, but close to it with multiple towers that jut up into the sky from the walled city of narrow streets that were clogged with camera-snapping tourists.

Pisa is next, for better or worse.

Later, George

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Florence, Italy

Friends: The weather has been very kind to me, no rain since the third day of Cannes over a month ago, until this weekend. This rain couldn't have come at a more inopportune time, depriving me of the company of all the weekend warriors. I had been looking forward to them all week. And there would have been legions of them, as I was within range of the large cities of Bologna and Modena on Saturday and then Florence today. The rain started early Saturday morning and was forecast for all day, so no one risked going out for their weekend ride.

The rain also greatly diminished my enjoyment of the Apennines mountain range, forcing me to ride hard on the brakes on the long steep descents and depriving me of the views. At least it cooled off dramatically. The day before I had been sweltering in temperatures in the 90s. I never expected to be seeing my breath the next day as I rode past lingering fields of snow. On the descents I had to put on a long sleeve shirt for the first time in a month, as well as a vest and sweater, under by Gore-Tex jacket.

I camped at 2,500 feet elevation 35 miles from Florence last night and needed to zip up my sleeping bag for the first time since arriving in Italy. I had rain on my tent both nights and in the morning, somewhat delaying my departure. Friday night I slept in a recently harvested cherry orchard with a few stray cherries still to be found. I was careful not to leave any pits around my tent, so I couldn't be accused of pilfering.

The rain let up today for my Florence sight-seeing, but the winds were quite severe on my descent to the valley and into Florence buffeting me about and slowing me considerably. I also suffered another bout of autostrada hell. There was no signage for the secondary roads for the final 25 miles into Florence. All signs led to the autostrada. I've risked riding the superhighway several times this past month and gotten away with it, but I didn't care to risk it unnecessarily, especially when I couldn't fly along as I was able to on a 15 mile stretch leading to Assisi and the morning to Pompeii.

I didn't make it to Florence until after noon. I struggled to get my initial bearings, stymied by the many narrow, one-way streets and lack of signs to the town center or the city's grand cathedral. Once I got to the Arno River and could spot the Ponte Vecchio across it, all was well. Florence is considerably smaller than Rome with only 350,000 people, fewer even than Bologna. Rome had tourist kiosks all over. I was too late for the lone tourist office here. The only information I needed was a map showing the way to the small village of Vitolini, about 30 miles to the west. The mother of a friend from Chicago lives there. With luck I'll make it by tonight relying on the directions David emailed.

There were long lines at Florence's prime tourists attractions--the cathedral and the museum that contains David. There were swarms of tourists, too, at the two David replicas, one in a plaza overlooking the city and the other in a downtown plaza.

Later, George

Friday, June 19, 2009

Bologna, Italy

Friends: Despite his tragic and unsavory death, Marco Pantani remains hugely popular in his home town of Cesenatico and in Italian racing circles. When I visited his quite stately tomb yesterday afternoon, eighteen people that day had already signed the registry sitting within the tomb, most leaving lengthy messages. All were in Italian. I couldn't find a single one in a language I could read (English, French or Spanish), as I paged through its many pages. I could be the first American to have paid it a visit.

It was no challenge finding his tomb, even though it sat well back in the cemetery, as there were signs indicating the way, unlike other graves of Tour de France stalwarts I have visited (Bobet, Simpson, Lefebre). I left my bike in the entryway of the cemetery, though I discovered biking through the cemetery is not prohibited, as there was a sign on the tomb next to Pantani's asking cyclists not to lean their bikes against it. The walk-in tomb stood over thirty feet high. It had a slight conical shape, giving it a resemblance to a mountain peak. A slight twirl wound around it, as if it were a road to its summit. Atop the monument was a sculpted bicycle wheel.

Within the monument were many tributes to Pantani, medals hanging on the wall and small works of bicycle art. A bust of a goateed Pantani rested on a mantle. All around it and on the wall behind were photos of him racing his bike and on podiums. One showed him in a suit greeting Pope John Paul. Lance is known for the fierce intensity etched on his face. The majority of the photos of Pantani showed him with an expression of great serenity, even when in battle.

Pantani was one of the greatest climbers ever. He was known as an "Angel of the Mountains," a man who flew, if not floated, up the steepest of slopes in utter defiance of gravity, unlike any other racer in the peloton. It was an electrifying spectacle to behold, and won him legions of fans.
He holds the record for the fastest two climbs up L'Alpe d'Huez. Both came at the end of long stages after several other major climbs. Lance couldn't even break his record, though he very much wanted to, starting the climb fresh in the 2004 time trial up the Alpe. Lance rode like a man possessed in that time trial, pummeling all else, even passing Ivan Basso who started three minutes before him, but he couldn't come within a minute of Pantani's record.

Pantani is not the first Tour winner to go disastrously adrift upon retirement. Another of the great climbers, the first to be anointed "Angel of the Mountains," Charly Gaul of Luxembourg, 1958 winner of The Tour, fled to the woods and lived as a hermit for years. He and Pantani became friends in Gaul's later years when he became a bit more sociable. Its too bad Pantani couldn't have taken refuge in his cabin, rather than in drugs, as he tried to come to terms with his demons.

Cesenatico has also honored him with a statue, this one without a goatee, astride his bike in a plaza along the main coastal road through the town. And there is a Pantani Museum next to the train station.

Pantani's tomb was only slightly smaller than Dante's tomb in the larger city of Ravenna twenty miles to the north. Dante's tomb isn't confined to a cemetery, but is in the center of the city beside an ancient basilica. Dante was exiled to Ravenna in 1302 from Florence, about 100 miles away. He spent the last 19 years of his life in Ravenna. Florence came to regret exiling him and, as penance, pays to keep the eternal flame alight in his tomb.

Despite its size, Ravenna is the most bicycle friendly city I have visited in Italy so far. A bike lane and a newly constructed bike and pedestrian bridge over a river led into the city. Much of its downtown was restricted to bikes and pedestrians. There was a steady flow of young and old, men and women, on bikes. I was glad I had been lured to this city by its World Heritage sites, eight buildings of Byzantine architecture from the fifth and sixth centuries scattered about the city. Each was a remarkable work of art.

My thought has been occupied the past few days with the shortness of life after learning of the recent death of John Olin, owner of Higher Gear bicycle shop in Highland Park, a suburb north of Chicago. He recently died in his sleep at the age of 51. I'm riding a bike I bought from him four years ago. He was a most friendly and affable chap, a man always with a smile. If a training ride took me north, I enjoyed dropping in on his shop 25 miles north of where I live to talk bicycles and bicycle racing. I was always eager to visit with him after riding the Tour de France to hear his insights. He is one of those friends who would often be in my thoughts as I ride The Tour, knowing he would be in heaven if he were along with me. Now he is in a heaven of a different sort. I hope his fine shop can stay in business.

Later, George

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Republic of San Marino

Friends: After my climb up to the tiny republic of San Marino this morning I've completed the unlikely and unplanned trifecta this past month of bicycling through the three smallest independent states in Europe--The Vatican and Monaco the others. Though The Vatican and Monaco may be smaller, San Marino prides itself in being the smallest republic in the world. It is governed by a president, elected every five years, rather than a Pope or Prince. The sticker for San Marino cars to indicate their country is RSM rather than a simple SM to emphasize that it is a republic.

It sits 2,000 feet high atop a huge rock bluff. It has a population of 31,000 with another 10,000 citizens living abroad, though in World War II its population was bloated with over 100,000 refugees. It was a steep seven-mile climb to its labyrinth of narrow streets lined with shops selling trinkets and expensive watches and electronics and ice cream cones. A strong scent of leather wafted out of many of the shops. The tourist office would stamp passports for five euros.

There was an odd assortment of museums--one devoted to torture, another to armaments and one simply to curious facts. A surprising number of cyclists trickled up the steep road getting in some serious training. It is a road that Marco Pantani, the last Italian to win the Tour de France, would have cycled many times, as he grew up in the city of Cesenatico, less than 20 miles away on the coast.

The evening before I cycled past the hotel in Rimini where Pantani committed suicide five years ago binging on cocaine, depressed over all the accusations of drug use piling up against him. He was only 34. The hotel was just a couple blocks south of Parc Federico Fellini along the Adriatic Sea. Fellini is as synonymous with cinema as Eddy Merckx is with bicycle racing. His home town has honored him not only with naming a prominent park after him, but also its International airport.

In the heart of Rimini, a city of 150,000 residents, is a Museo Fellini. Its walls are adorned with frescoes of scenes from his films, though not of Anita Ekberg frolicking in Rome's Trevi Fountain from "La Dolce Vita." Like most cities in Italy, at least one street in Rimini bears the name of one of his films--"Roma." The museum was packed with books about Fellini and some from his personal library. He was an early and prolific reader. His first favorite book and inspiration was "Pinocchio," written by an Italian. There is a Pinocchio Park in Tuscany, west of Florence full of statues and mosaics recounting the puppet's life, first serialized as a newspaper cartoon strip.

Rimini is a most Felliniesque city--a city of great excess. For miles its beach front is wall-to-wall with hotels overlooking the wide beach. The beach side of the road is lined with restaurants and bars, each claiming the beach in front of it with a forest of chaise lounges lined up in military precision, each with its own umbrella and little table, making tanning look like a huge production line. Most of the beaches on the Mediterranean, in contrast, come in bays. The Adriatic side runs straight for miles and miles.

It has been pleasantly flat along the coast after quite a bit of climbing to get there. The World Heritage city of Urbino was similar to Assisi with narrow car-less streets. It wouldn't take much to imagine the city as it was centuries ago--removing post card stands and side walk cafes. It was most tranquil without the rumble of gas-guzzlers. Only when one is fully freed of such beasts does one realize how much they intrude.

I'm headed up the coast 30 miles to Ravenna and its World Heritage sites. Half way there I'll stop by Pantani's grave.

Later, George

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Assisi, Italy

Friends: The hilltop town of Assisi, birth and burial site of St. Francis, is not only a huge pilgrimage site for Catholics world-wide, but also a lure for cyclists in the cities of Foligno and Perugia, both about an hour's ride away, in the valley below. Its three mile climb makes for a good test of the legs.

It was nearly all cyclists early this morning on the steeper of the roads leading to Assisi. I was wondering where all the pilgrims and tour buses were as I pedaled up. Many had spent the night there in the town's multitude of hotels and others were arriving by the gentler of the roads to the town of 22,000, as there were mobs of people already wandering about the town when I arrived shortly after nine.

I was bracing myself for the runaway tackiness of Lourdes, France's premier Catholic pilgrimage site, but Assisi managed to maintain an authentic and tasteful charm. As I overheard an American woman comment, "This is a cute town. I'm glad be came." Not that many Americans come though, as there wasn't a "Herald Tribune" to be seen among the couple of dozen newspapers at the several stores carrying papers.

There are most certainly an abundance of souvenir stores selling gaudy white Assisi t-shirts and all manner of crosses and icons, but the shops are small and inhabit small, centuries old buildings that line the narrow streets. The heart of the city is largely car-free.

There are a handful of significant cathedrals scattered about the town, topped by the grand basilica whose crypt contains the remains of St. Francis. Construction of the church began in 1228, two years after his death at the age of 45. He was a significant enough figure in his time to be granted beatification two years after his death. Pope Gregory IX laid the cornerstone of the church.

One of the other cathedrals, Chesa Nuova, was built in the 1600s by the king of Spain on the spot reputed to be the home of St. Francis' family. St. Francis's father was a wealthy merchant. His wife was French and his affection for her and her country inspired him to name his son Francesco. Early into his adulthood he rebelled against his wealthy upbringing. At church one day he heard the voice of Jesus on the cross urging him to "repair my church." He was happy to have a cause to devote himself to. When he sold some of his father's merchandise to pay for the repairs his father was so fed up with his wayward path he took him to court. His father won the case. Francis stripped off his clothes, walked out naked and fully renounced his father and his former life.

He committed himself to absolute poverty as the path to spirituality. Others were impressed and followed his example. He ranged as far as Egypt preaching his interpretation of the word of Jesus. He was said to be a man of eloquence and good cheer and kindliness. His prime tenants were poverty, chastity and obedience. He relished pain and suffering. He would have made a good cyclist. There are times when climbs go on longer than a cyclist would like or become insufferable in the heat of the day, that make cycling seem like true penance. As a cyclist he would have ample opportunity to question why he was subjecting himself to such painful efforts when he could so easily travel otherwise. As a Christian he could keep himself going by saying it was an opportunity to prove himself worthy of his god.

The huge basilica and the town of Assisi are so distinctive, much of it constructed with a white stone that positively glows, that it qualifies as a World Heritage site. The town of Urbino, less than 50 miles to the north, is another. I'll be there first thing tomorrow morning.

The World Heritage sites have been coming in clusters. I saw three in one day around Naples and another three in one day around Rome. The Naples set was Pompeii, Naples' city center and the Palazzo Real. Rome's were the Colosseum, a Benedictine Monastery at the hilltop village of Tivoli twenty miles outside of Rome and Villa Adriana, the ruins of Emperor Hadrian's summer residence just below Tivovli. I was only able to skirt the perimeter of of Villa Adriana as I arrived after closing time. A street in front of it was named Youncear, for the woman who wrote an exemplary novel on Hadrian. I'm not sure, though, why a street in Agropoli, back down the coast a couple of hundred miles, was named for Frank Zappa.

With it warming up an increasing amount of my calories have been coming from peach and pear nectar. They taste great and seem to be a high-octane and very cost-effective fuel that my body very easily assimilates and has come to crave. I've been downing several one liter bottles a day. One super-market chain carries a peach/mango combination that tastes so good I could guzzle a gallon at a time. The mango additive makes for fewer calories, only 500, compared to 580 for the straight nectar. I don't recall seeing such juices in France. I'll have to look closer.

Later, George

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

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Salerno, Italy

Friends: It was 250 miles up the west coast of Italy from its foot after the free ferry from Sicily before I came upon my first set of world class ruins, the World Heritage site of Paestum, a former Greek city dating to the 6th century B.C. It is highlighted by several magnificent multi-columned temples. All that remains, however, of most of the other buildings are just their foundations. It was a stunning site in the early morning. Even the walls surrounding it of huge blocks of stone were a site to behold.

It is one of 41 World Heritage sites scattered about Italy, more than any other country. Since it is hard to avoid them, I will try to see as many as I can. That means I'll pass through Naples and Rome and Florence. Pompeii and Naples are next up after the Amalfi coast, twenty miles north of this old port city of 135,000, the largest city I have passed through since Sicily.

The semi-mountainous terrain along the coast has been great for my training. I've had two or three or more steep climbs going on for as many as ten miles each of the past three days, sometimes right along the coast and other times swinging inland when the coastline was too rugged for road-building. With no real tourist sites this far south and just mediocre beaches, the roads haven't had much traffic and the camping has been relatively easy. One night I camped beside a small town's water purification plant high above the town. I had a fiery sunset to gaze upon out over the Mediterranean as I ate my dinner of garbanzo beans and olives. The camping and the traffic ought to get more challenging the further north I head.

Even with the minimal traffic, I've had more close calls with traffic than I usually have in a year. These Italian drivers are highly aggressive entering the roadway from a side road or driveway or parking space. Rather than stopping before an intersection, they barge a few feet out into the road, as if to establish position, before coming to a halt, whether or not traffic is flowing past. If they're backing into the road from a garage or a parking place, they will edge out even as traffic is speeding by. I'm never sure if they see me or if they expect me to defer to them. I've had to shout at the top of my lungs several times at drivers who didn't seem to be aware of me.

Its been more harrowing than anywhere I've biked. Maybe I'll get used to it and trust that they are aware of me. Once the cars are on the road, I've had no concerns, other than the excessive horn tooting. The toots are not hostile, rather expressions of approval for seeing me on my bike. If they were gentle taps, I'd much more appreciate them. Often the horn toot is a delayed blast after an oncoming driver has past me. They weren't able to immediately react, but are so excited about seeing a touring cyclist, feel compelled to fleetingly acknowledge me.

I had a second encounter with a teen-aged tough, this one on a scooter, some young punk who felt like showing me how tough he was. As I approached the city of Rosarno, a kid on a scooter turned around after passing me and gestured for me to pull over. There was more of a snarl than a welcome in his expression, so I kept pedaling along, letting him pull up besides me to let me know what he wanted. He waved and twirled his arm a couple of times, before I realized he was indicating he wanted me to button up my shirt. He wanted me to stop and do it right then and there. He didn't look as if he were doing me any favor warning me of a local crackdown or sting operation ahead, but only wishing to throw his weight around. I'd been riding with an open shirt for much of the past two weeks and no one had objected, though I always button up when I get off the bike.

I kept riding while this punk kept glancing over his shoulder glaring at me for not obeying his command. Before matters escalated, I came to a much needed large supermarket. I pulled into the crowded parking lot while he kept on going. It not the first time I've been commanded to button up. It also happened to me in Panama in 1989 during the final days of Noriega. There was anti-Bush graffiti everywhere. A surly soldier at checkpoint along the road, who likewise felt like giving an order, ordered me to button up.

The vast majority of my encounters in Panama, as here, have only been positive. As I sat outside a cemetery a couple days ago eating a sausage sandwich in the shade, knowing that I could go inside and fill my water bottles with cold water whenever I cared to, a woman approached me and held out a few coins and dropped them into my hand. I didn't care to insult her and refuse her offering, allowing her to feel the good will of giving. Not too long later another woman came along and did the same thing. I wasn't sure if I was at a pilgrim site and was being taken for a pilgrim or just what. I haven't had the chance to linger at a cemetery since, but I look forward to the next opportunity. It also makes me eager to visit the town of Assis, a huge pilgrim site for followers of St. Francis. Its north of Rome and on the way to the birthplace of Fellini, also on my itinerary.

The mountainous terrain has limited my mileage to about 80 a day, so it doesn't look as if I will make it to the Dolomites in the northeast corner of the country. I had hoped to make the acquaintance of some of its many storied climbs and also to visit a cluster of five Reinhold Messner museums. The great climber grew up in this German speaking region of Italy. One of his museums is in a castle. Messner was the first to climb Everest alpine style and without oxygen. He has written many books and was the subject of a Werner Herzog documentary. He is a great self-promoter. His museums might have been something concocted by King Ludwig. But those museums, like many other places I would like to visit here in Italy, will have to wait for another time.

Later, George

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Messina, Sicily

Friends: I knew I was in Sicily when a couple of teen-aged toughs, would-be Mafiosos acting as if they could do whatever they pleased, brusquely shoved past me to the front of the line at the supermarket checkout, flipped 50 centimes onto the conveyor belt for a can of soda and strutted on out of the place.

They were clones of the two young punks in last year's Italian mafia movie 'Gomorrrah' that won an award at Cannes. Like those nitwits, these guys aren't long for this world if they continue to act with such affront.

Other than that, Sicily hasn't been much different from Sardian except that it has volcanoes and a lot more people. Mt. Etna dominates the eastern end of the island. At over 10,000 feet, it is Europe's largest volcano and also one of the world's most active. It can start spewing or oozing lava at any time.

There are also a scattering of volcanoes on a series of islands to the north of Sicily, some that comprise the entire island. Vulcano is one of the islands. The Aoelians chain of islands is distinctive enough to have been granted World Heritage status. With the volcanoes sitting out in the Mediterranean to my left as I bicycled along the northern coastline of Sicily my thought was transported to my fine times on Hokkaido in Japan where I had similar such scenery to gaze upon as I pedaled along.

Even though Sicily with five million people has three times the population of Sardinia, traffic was surprisingly light along the 164-mile coastal road from Palermo to Messina across the top of the island. I was prepared to head inland and spend an extra day or two getting across Sicily if the coastal traffic was too thick or treacherous. But a four-lane autostrada, frequently mounted on stilts and tunneling through the mountainous terrain, paralleled the coastal road, drawing off enough traffic that route SS131 was almost all mine. It helped too that my ride happened to coincide with the weekend. On Sunday all the towns I passed through were essentially dead and boarded up.

I wasn't the only cyclist enjoying the road. At last I saw an abundance of Italian men in Lycra indulging in their passion. Many rode side by side, loudly chatting. I heard a few go by above my campsite Sunday morning before I got out on the road at 7:40. As I passed through the frequent towns, the cyclists helped me spot the town water spigot, as there'd often by a cyclist or two stopped at it filling their bottles. And if not cyclists, a local filling a few jugs.

Though the garbage collectors had ended their strike a couple days before I arrived on Sicily, not all the dumpsters had been emptied. Many were still surrounded by plastic bags of refuse and the all-too strong stench of baking refuse. It was especially pungent in Palermo, compounded with the smell of rotten fish. The garbage men must have had several days of genuine misery on their return. Even some of the empty dumpsters still gave off a powerfully wretched aroma.

Though the sun is intense, there is cool in the air along the sea. If I had gone into the mountainous interior I would have had an extra good workout. There was still a fair amount of climbing along the coastal road, but not all that many beaches. Few were right along the road. Most were well below it, requiring a steep climb down. I was able to douse myself often enough at town fountains, that I didn't need a full-fledged salty dunk.

Next up is a short ferry across to the foot of Italy. I have 25 days to make it back to Monaco for the Thursday night gala introduction broadcast live across France of the 180 riders participating in this year's Tour. The big question is will Lance receive more boos or cheers. The presentation is always a spectacle. As much effort and creativity is put into as the Super Bowl half-time show.

I scouted out Monaco the day before I took the ferry from Nice to Corsica. The nearest campsite is ten miles away, but a hard ride, high up the ridge that runs along the coast. I can wild camp nearby. It is a little more distant than I'd like to be, but the coast is extremely built up. I am already looking forward to getting back to France and the cheap and easy eating.

Later, George

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Cagliari, Sardinia

Friends: It hasn't been bad at all to be marooned on Sardinia for an extra two or three days, other than it will cut into the time I'll have to bicycle Italy before I need to be in Monaco for the start of The Tour. The cycling on this largely rural island has been exceptional. I've had the roads almost to my self, other than for a brief foray on the four-lane super-highway that links the island's two largest cities, Cagliari (160,000) at the southern tip, to Sassori (125,000), 135 miles to the north.

The rolling countryside is dotted with small, quiet villages. About their only sign of life is grizzled, elderly men sitting on benches in the shade or on doorsteps with a pal or two looking out upon the world. They don't have much to see. Elsewhere in Italy such men would be out on their vintage racing bikes wearing uniforms of old getting some exercise, emulating their boy-hood heroes and giving me someone to draft. In six days on Sardinia I've only encountered five of the Lycra brotherhood and not many more just getting around in every day attire on ordinary bikes. Once I cross to the mainland, I expect to see that many per hour.

Of the five serious cyclists I've seen, four were in an early Sunday morning paceline. They passed me just as I was returning to the highway from my campsite off on a dirt road in a field filled with large rolls of hay, my favorite and frequent camping spot in France. The camping in Sardinia has almost been as easy as in France, quite a contrast to my previous experiences in Italy. I've camped in olive orchards and patches of woods and alongside brooks. One evening as I was leveling out my patch of ground I felt a rock under the matted vegetation. When I reached to extract it, I discovered the rock was a turtle.

It wasn't even a challenge to find camping not far from a couple of Sardinia's most noteworthy beaches--Arutas and Maria Emi. Rather than ordinary sand, their beaches are granules of shiny white quartz the size of teeny-tiny beads. They don't compact as solidly as sand, so it was a uniquely pleasurable experience to saunter through them, with the perfectly formed ovals squishing through my toes. It has taken thousands of centuries of battering waves to form them from the outlying quartz reefs. They are protected. It is illegal to make off with samples, though not so easily enforced.

Having a quartz beach experience was one of the bonuses of having an extended stay on Sardinia. I spent a day bicycling along a 20-mile stretch of very rough road, some of it single-track only suitable for mountain bikes, linking a series of beaches. I was also able to visit a few more nuraghi, those ancient fortresses, some that surprised me along the road in a farmer's field and some that I sought out.

They are all considered a World Heritage site, but there is one officially sanctioned above all others, Nuraghe Su Nuraxi, just outside the town of Barumini. It recently raised its entry free from four euros to ten, capitalizing on its designation. I had seen enough of them by then, never paying more than three euros, that I was reluctant to pay such an excessive amount. The adjoining gift shop had a 50-page booklet, mostly of photos, on the nuraghe. I paged through it to see if its interior had anything more to offer than than what I had previously seen. It did not, so I was spared that expense. This one distinguished itself from the others with the remnants of some 200 dwellings surrounding it. They could be perfectly seen from outside the fence and didn't need any closer examination. I learned from the booklet that this nuraghe wasn't discovered until 1950. It took five years to fully unearth it. It stands 60 feet high, but was covered with dirt and vegetation making it look as if it were part of the hill it was perched on. This one could get away with charging so much as it was less than 40 miles from Cagliaria, making it more accessible than most of the others for the tour buses. A load of Germans had arrived shortly before me.


My extra time on Sardinia has also allowed me to make a sizable dent in my 900-page Lonely Planet guide to Italy. I am reading it cover to cover searching out bicycle sites and oddities that I will try to include in my itinerary. Lonely Planet publishes a specific bicycling guide to Italy. Evidently it restricts all its bicycling mentions to that book, as this one doesn't even include the cycling chapel to the patron saint of cyclists, the Madonna de Ghisallo, overlooking Lake Como and its nearby bicycle museum. Nor does it mention the Giro, nor any of the monuments to Italy's champion of champions, Coppi, nor any of the legendary climbs in the Dolomites nor that San Remo on the Mediterranean is the conclusion to the first spring classic race, one of the Seven Monuments of cycling's one day races along with Paris-Roubaix and the Tour de Flanders and the Tour de Lombardy. The only bicycle mentions in the book are a bicycle-themed bar in Milan in a former bicycle warehouse and also that bike parts can be found in Rome's flea markets.

The book is full of movie references--the home town of Francis Ford Coppola's grandparents, the village where Mel Gibson filmed "The Passion of the Christ," George Clooney's villa, Fellini's hometown, a palace that George Lucas filmed some of "Stars Wars I" and that was featured in a Tom Cruise "Mission Impossible." There is a history of cinema museum in Turin that sounds very worthwhile.

As I sat reading in the plaza in front of Cagliari's town hall, an African plopped down on my bench. He asked if I was German. He was thrilled to learn I was American. "I have a brother who lives in Minneapolis with his wife and three sons," he said. "He's been trying to get me a permit to come live with them. He won the lottery for a visa eight years ago and loves it in America."

He said he was from Nigeria and had been living in Italy the past six months after gaining political asylum. He made it to Italy on an amazing journey that makes the efforts of Latin Americans to cross into the U.S. seem like a walk in the park. He spent three days walking across the Sahara into Libya with only the water he started out with. He was part of a group of 20. Five didn't make it. Those who couldn't keep up were left behind. One died in the middle of a cold cold night. He paid $1,000 for the final leg of his trip, a boat trip from Libya to a small Italian island west of Malta in the middle of the Mediterranean. He was part of a small group crammed onto a small Zodiac boat. Several fell overboard and died.

He was taken from the small Italian island to a refugee camp on the east coast of Italy, where he went before a judge and was granted asylum. He lived in Rome for a while but he said there were too many Africans there, making it hard to earn a living, so he came to Cagliari where there are few Africans. He said he sold sun glasses and things, but he made quite a few references to prostitution. He complained that there weren't cheap hotels here where one could rent out a room for an hour. One has to have sex in cars. He mentioned one road where at night there might be 50 cars lined up, all rocking to and fro.

As we talked several of his Nigerian friends came by, all speaking English as well. They were hoping to find a flat that could live in. One was a woman, who he said was a prostitute, though she wasn't dressed as one. She had flown into the country with a proper visa and had just stayed. She was living dangerously, as the cops here had started cracking down, rounding up illegal Senegalese. I kept waiting for him to ask for money, but in the end all he wanted was my email address so he could use me as a reference if need be. He was 40-years old with flecks of gray in his goatee, but still very determined to make it to America.

And tonight I'm off to Palermo on Sicily hoping to find a spot to lay down my sleeping pad for the night. The ferry departs at 7 p.m. and arrives at 9 a.m. It will be my last long ferry trip, as the ferry from Sicily to the mainland is just a few minutes. Its a short enough distance there have been proposals to build a bridge. One of the impediments is that it would funnel way too much money into the mafia shaking down all the contractors.

Later, George

Monday, June 1, 2009

Oristano, Sardinia

Friends: Even before I set foot on Sardinia, I knew I was no longer in France, as the Italian-operated ferry that took me across the seven-mile expanse of sea that separates Sardinia from Corsica had a "no dog" sign posted outside the door to the interior section of the ferry. All dogs would have to remain outside on the deck or in people's cars below. There were none to be seen.

It was a marked contrast to the French-dominated ferry from Nice to Corsica. There were so many dogs, on leashes and cradled in passenger's arms on the ferry, if I didn't know how dog-crazy the French are, I would have thought I had stumbled on a special ferry of dog-lovers. Most of the dogs minded their manners, though some couldn't help but dart at a fellow canine for a sniff. Occasionally the dogs would get so excited circling around each other seeking that prime derriere sniffing spot the leashes would get so entangled, the owners would have to pick up their dogs and unclip the leash.

Though there weren't any dogs on the ferry to Sardinia, there were some dog relics aboard, as I have been transporting a small packet of ashes of Joey Schubert at the bequest of Kathy to scatter somewhere in France, as the two of them bicycled in France a while ago. I am happy to honor Joey, as she is one of the greatest bicycling dogs of all time. She accompanied Kathy on the back of her bike on ten RAGBRAIs across Iowa. They were such a celebrity couple that they were honored with their photo on the back cover of the 30th anniversary Ragbrai book. Kathy had no request where she'd like Joey's ashes scattered, so I will save them for the Tour de France, maybe placing them atop Mont Ventoux.

Besides the dog-free ferry, I knew I was no longer among the French by all the jewelry adorning the men and women on the ferry and the more fashionable clothes. The first time I stopped for a snack in Sardinia, I was treated to the Italian exuberance. As I sat leaning against the wall of a supermarket eating sausage on a tortilla, a fifty-year old guy wandered over exalting, "I'd love to be doing what you're doing." I received a similar response later in the day when a couple of guys amongst a bus load of men in matching yellow t-shirts wanted to hear about my travels. The French may have similar sentiments, but they rarely express them, other than a "Bravo" or "Bon Courage" shouted from their car.

I also saw something in Sardinia that I've never seen in France as I sat out outside the supermarket. The parking lot was full of men standing beside their cars, some talking to a friend, some tending to their children and others simply lost in thought, while their wives shopped inside. The shopping wasn't very good for me, as there was no canned ravioli or spaghetti or stews or bargain priced potato or couscous salads as I can count on in France. I had to settle on a three-and-a-half euro one-pound sausage and a pound of tortillas for my dinner, my most expensive meal in a month other than a cafeteria dinner with Yvon. It is no different than my previous two visits to Italy. Even if I'd brought a stove, the pastas are no great bargain either, though the variety is staggering--a whole aisle's worth, both sides.

Sardinia is flatter than Corsica, but there is still a considerable amount of climbing. I've just descended from a 2,500 foot plateau and had quite a few ups and downs to get there. I've had five straight days of excessive climbing and my legs need a respite. I was hoping they'd have it yesterday afternoon if I could find a bar showing the Giro d'Italia. It was the final stage of the three-week race, a nine-mile time trial in Rome. At 1:30 I passed through a town big enough to have a bar open on Sunday, though everything else seemed shut down. The television was turned to a soccer game. No one seemed to be paying attention, so the bar-tender switched to the Giro for me. The racing hadn't started, but that was okay as the broadcast was just starting with a thirty minute recap showing the highlights and victor of the race's first 20 stages. My dream was to chow down on as big a pizza as I could find while resting my legs and watching the race, but the only food the bar offered was ice cream, so an Eskimo pie had to suffice. The bar tender said I could get a pizza at a restaurant down the street, but it didn't open until dinner time.

After an hour of the Giro, including previews my former racer Fondriest and several journalists, a group of men wearing matching soccer jerseys came into the bar and commandeered the TV, as their favorite team was about to commence a match. So it was back on the road for me through rural Sardinia. I was in search of one its premier archaeological sites, Nuraghe Santa Antine, a mini-fortress castle, dating to 1600 B.C. There are some 200 of these nuraghis scattered about the island. They all have World Heritage status, though one in specific is designated above all others. It wasn't Nuraghe Santa Antine, though some say it is its equal.

I was hoping to find another bar along the way to watch the race, though there wasn't much suspense, other than if Lance might pull off the win of this last stage, a possibility as Lance once dominated the time trials and he was just rounding into tip-top shape. The overall victor was a foregone conclusion. The Russian Denis Menchov had a secure hold on the top spot, and second and third place weren't expected to change either on this short nine-mile stage. But I had no luck in finding a bar.

As I approached Nuraghe Sante Antine a little after five, I wasn't much impressed. I was hoping it was closed, so I wouldn't have to pay for a closer look. A photo from the fence surrounding it would have been enough I thought. The small gift shop and restaurant at its entrance was open. That would have been good news if there'd been a television, but there wasn't. At least the entry fee was a modest three euros. It was a hundred meters to the three story conical rock structure. As I approached its lone small entryway, I could begin to marvel at the huge slabs of rocks used to construct it. When I entered it, I could marvel further at the intricate network of passageways and rooms. One perfectly arched hallway looked holy enough to be in the Vatican, eliciting a spontaneous "wow". It put me in such a state of wonderment I marveled at everything else I saw as I climbed to its summit and circumnavigated its two levels below.

There is another nuraghi of comparable splendour 75 miles further that I am now eager to see. I can finally take it easy, as I just learned there are only two ferries a week for the 11-hour trip from Sardinia to Sicily and the next isn't until Friday. That will give me three extra days to explore. There are loads of Roman ruins and striking beaches and mountain forests.

Later, George