The MSF journey; Italy at last

(Originally posted Sunday 24 June, 2007)

The update is really taking shape, be careful that you don’t miss days that have been tacked onto the bottom this old post!

Day 29 to Day 50

Day 29, Sat 19 May – Langnau to Interlaken, 48km

This was a day to remember, easily one of the top 3 cycling days so far. It began with a big breakfast at the guesthouse, followed by a nice bike path to Wiggen. The smell of cut grass filled the air as it was silage time in the mountains. Every square centimetre was utilised. Lunch at Schangnau with Jordy the navigator and Poodge the chef, with a view south to the snowcapped Jungfrau Range. We thought the Grunenberg Pass would be car friendly, it was not even mule-friendly. An amazing mountain trail of pebbles-come-rocks right up to 1560m. We trailed a herd of Swiss cattle for half of it, their clanging bells and traditionally dressed handlers a wonderful sensory experience. A 70kph massive downhill run to Interlaken, began with some equally noteworthy vanilla slice at the town of Habken. Met the McGuirks and checked into some hostel accomodation before tackling a cheese fondue tea.

Day 30, Sun 20 May – Interlaken

Some hostel accomodation – Walter at Hua Villa is a legend! We could not have got a more helpful and friendly host, who appreciated our trip and its purpose. It was perfect weather too: calm, fine and warm. Billy and the cousins opted for a paragliding experience while the aunts, Jordy and I did some waterfalls, rollerbahning/sledding, and mountain walking. All reported back that night over pizzas that their days could not have been better. Countless photos proved it – Interlaken rules!

Day 31, Mon 21 May – Interlaken to Grimsel Pass, 67km

Hired additional bikes from Walter so that Alex, Cal and Jordy could accompany us along the Brienz Lake to Meiringen, famous for being the sight of a Sherlock Holmes story. A delightful flat ride. Cut lunch in the main square and a game of chess with oversized pieces. Then it was the business end of things – we left the others to return to Interlaken while we attacked the Grimsel Pass. I say attacked, but it was more like crawled. For 25km we rode up a 10 percent slope at 8-10kph to 2166m above sea level. Too many winding turns to count; enough heartbeats for a lifetime. But what a reward! With snow everywhere we were able to scrape a snowball from the cuttings as we rode and pelt them at each other. And at Poodge and Jen who were madly cheering us as we sprinted to the saddle of the pass. The toughest climb of our journey – conquered. Another red-letter day. Returned to the hostel where Maggie and Elly were equally jubilant about their sidetrip to Vienna to see the Spanish horses.

Day 32, Tues 22 May – Grimsel Pass to Airolo, 58km

Getting everyone to Switzerland was a logistical train, car and bicycle challenge. Dropped back at the Grimsel in cooler conditions we wasted no time in pushing off. But our expectation of a rapid descent was halted when Billy hair-raisingly blew a tyre as he powered into one corner. There are no guardrails in Switzerland – it was a sheer drop to the valley floor and he was lucky to keep control. Sixty-eight motorcyclists in 2006 were not so fortunate, as periodic warning signs indicated. At least we got to use some of the repair kit I had been lugging from Holland.Getting to the bottom just means going up again, this time to the 2400m Furka Pass. In the snow at the top we proudly wrote “Cycling For MSF”, took lots of photos, and inspected Maggie and Jordy’s snowman and woman. But the day was far from over; the 2300m St Gothards Pass towards Italy remained. We were bouyed by the fact we were not starting at sea level, indeed it was effectively a 700m breeze – just 7km or so of 10 percent gradient! The longer, steeper descent to Airolo was rough as the road was cobbled and perilously winding. But we arrived safely and happily for our rendevous with the car and a short drive to our camping ground at Bellinzona.

Day 33, Wed 23 May – Bellinzona

Declared a day of rest; 30 degrees, an inviting swimming pool, and the Champions League Final between AC Milan and Liverpool to be watched. Being relatively close to Milan, our Liverpool supporters Billy, Cal and Alex decided to tempt their fate by training it to town wearing club colours and barracking for their team in front of the big screen at the Piazza Duomo. The naivety of youth, and they expected Liverpool to win as well! Told to remove their shirts by the police to prevent a calamity, they endured the ballistic AC followers for the entire night and dawn before they could train back to Bellinzona. Ah well; there is always next season, and they trod where no others would dare to. Bravo ragazzi!

Day 34, Thurs 24 May – Airolo to Bellinzona, 80km

While the soccer hooligans slept, the rest drove to the nearby resort towns of Locarno and Ascona. A street market, designer shops, all shades of pastel colored buildings, and our first real taste of how busy the tourism trade would become in the approaching summer. Back to collect the bikes before returning up the Ticino Valley to resume our journey from Airolo. It was not as quaint or enjoyable as expected. The bike path went close to the freeway at times; bypassed most hillside villages, and varied in surface quality. We had head winds and got lost due to some poor signage. Luckily, Bellinzona in the evening was a saving grace. The castles and church bells provided a dignified visual and auditory scene, and I wished we had more time to fully appreciate the town.

Day 35, Fri 25 May – Bellinzona to Luino, 58km

But it was time to move on, along the roads that lead to Rome. The Dutch have a saying that signifies good luck…”to fall with your nose in the butter”. Thanks to Alex hunting on the internet and the generosity of Doctor Luciano towards our cause we were able to experience “the butter” of Lake Maggiore. His spectacular holiday villa/home perched on the shore of the lake provided comfort and scenery we truly deserved!! Billy and I arrived to a laid back support crew who had unpacked and settled in to what was to be our home for 8 whole days without shifting. To paraphrase Monty Python…”Oooh you wos looky…looxury you ‘ad…when I wos lad, family lived in shoebox in middle o’road”.

Day 36, Sat 26 May – Giro d’Italia, Cantu

It had been a goal to see some of the Tour of Italy – Alex and Cal were impressed enough with the idea to rise early to drive about 80km to Cantu for the commencement of the stage to Bergamo. It was drizzling and we had no idea of what was happening, but we parked ourselves close to what seemed the center of the action and waited. Eventually the circus began…sponsors cars with advertising hoardings whizzed past, people with guest passes milled between the barriers outnumbering those of us outside, we grabbed free caps and handouts, blocked our ears from the noise of the hyped up commentators…and there were still no cyclists in sight! But when they rolled past to officially check in we coukld have patted eaxh one on the back, as most people did; They heartily cheered their heroes Bettini, Petacchi and raceleader DiLucca. And somewhere amongst the mess the stage began! We got home in time to see the gruelling mountain stage finish on TV, but unfortunately missed the visit of Luciano and his family who met the rest of the entourage.

Day 37, Sun 27 May – Villa

There can be trying times in Paradise. Our plans for the day were scuttled by a combination of torrential rain and some nasty work from some “bad boys”. It teemed down; the lake and sky had merged it seemed, and during the night some young vandals had pelted fist sized rocks through our driver’s side window and that of a neighbouring parked car. It was not a pretty sight and we got soaked trying to tape some plastic over the window. Kindly the neighbour took Poodge to the police to make statements, but with limited success. Too long of story to go into here!

Day 38, Mon 28 May – Villa

The rain was still slashing down as Pooge and I drove with zero visiblity into town to order a new window for the car. Returned to a housebound crew and it must have got the better of all of us as everyone was in a niggling mood that night…I wished for finer weather and better demeanour tomorrow.

Day 39, Tues 29 May – Islands of Lake Maggiore

My wishes came true. It seemed impossible that such rain could ever stop, but it dawned fine and clear and the rows of peaks around the lake had an icing sugar dusting of snow. Our spirits lifted and we quickly decided to make the most of the conditions by taking a ferry to the much touted islands of Bella and Madre. Both were owned by the rich Borromeo family for centuries and had extensive gardens and villas on them. We all agreed they were worth every euro of the travel and entrance fees we paid. Tiny Isola Bella had a botanic garden with plants from all around the world, complete with parading white and normally plumaged peacocks. The villa on Isola Madre had hosted famous visits by Napoleon, and a meeting between Mussolini and his British and French counterparts in an unsuccessful effort to avoid World War Two.

Day 40, Wed 30 May – Luino Market and Australian Institute of Sport, Varese

The market at Luino provided the morning’s entertainment and lightened our pockets. For some the money went on food delicacies, for others handbags, and the remainder purchased clothes. Can you play ‘match the person with the purchase’? Returned to villa and got a carload with Billy, Cal, Alex and Jordy to accompany me to the AIS sports accomodation facility and bicycle squad training centre at Varese. The visit to meet manager Shayne Bannan and resident road and mountain bike Australian Youth teams was organised by the Australian Embassy in Rome, and I offered to speak to the riders on motivation. The speech follows…

“I am not an elite sportsperson and never have been; nor am I sports physcologist with an expensive motivational video to sell you. I am just a farmer with something to say on what motivates me; maybe there is something in it for you? Because I’m not going to talk about maintaining motivation when everything is going well, anyone can be motivated then. But what do you do when the weather is not fine, you are carrying an injury, you are homesick, and winning seems an impossibilty?

On a farm things are rarely perfect for long; there is always something going wrong and three things motivate me during these times…

1. I dream, and I dream big! Like cyclists, farmers have a lot of time to dream, and I have dreamt of riding the 2000km from Rotterdam to Rome for over 20 years. I imagined all the French bakeries I would visit, how I would relish the challenge of climbing the Swiss Alps, and the elation I would feel riding into St Peter’s Square in Rome. And in that time I always expected my dream to come true. Because I always knew when the timing was right all I needed to do was to develop my plan, do the necessary training and preparations, and put the plan into action… What is your dream?

2. I believe my worst day is behind me! It doesn’t matter what falls my way in the future – my darkest day is gone. And it was not the day my father died, or my wife miscarried, or even when Essendon lost the Grand Final to Brisbane. It was a day when I nearly gave up. When I was 18 I came to Europe as a tourist and decided to cycle around Holland. It went brilliantly, and at the 32km Afsluitdijk/sea wall in the north of the country I felt like a king because I had a very rare gale of a tailwind. I hardly had to pedal and did the trip in just over half an hour! Then it started to rain, it got freezing cold and I had to turn back into the wind to my destination. I could barely move the bike. I started to doubt I could continue. After a while I began to cry. “This is too hard” the voices said, “I don’t have to do this…I can quit and just go home”. Suddenly a farmer appeared cycling out of the gloom towards me. With a hearty chuckle he called out “Hey, you should turn around and come my way – it’s easier, you just won’t get to where you want to go!” I thought about it, smiled, and pushed on. Where do you want to go?

3. I like to help others. Oddly, it is a selfish thing to do when we help others less fortunate than ourselves, because it makes us feel better about ourselves. And when we feel good about ourselves, we are happier and more able to cope with our hard times. It has been a tough period for farming in Australia – for many, too tough. If I had not been planning this ride to help others by raising the awareness of the worldwide work of Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders, then maybe I would not have coped with my own problems on the farm that well. I had a big picture, some perspective about the world. I avoided becoming depresssed or self-obsessed – a pitfall for elite sportspeople when times are lean. Who are you going to help?

Thank you; and once again…dream big and expect them to come true…always believe your worst day is behind you…and help others whenever you can.”

.

Day 41, Thurs 31 May – Agno to Saronno 71km

Got the glass replaced in the car for an excellent price, and fuel from a service station that actually served you – still common in Italy. A hazy day as we were dropped back into Switzerland at Agno near Lugano where we had branched off days prior to head to Luino. Lugano created a favourable impression. On the lake with sheer cliffs rising out of it, attractive promenade, ferries and tourists on the move, and advertisements for all sorts of quality, international events from World Cup athletics to touring opera companies. Busy highway south but a couple of pleasant villages before we returned to Italy at Como. It did not create a favourable impression. Got lost initially, tawdry suburbs, closed tourist office, grey day, and expensive ordinary cakes from the bakery! An uninspiring ride to Saronno in heavy traffic completed a pedestrian day, so it was great when our rendevous with the support car for the return to Luino went well.

Day 42, Fri 1 Jun – Saronno to Milan, 32km

It is not possible to take a bike on the train from Laveno/Luino to Saronno on a Friday – only on a Sunday! Well that’s what I eventually worked out from the unhelpful; fast Italian-speaking, not a a word of English, train ticket lady…unless you speak to the conductor, convince him to turn a blind eye and quickly go back to the ticket lady, hope she is in a better mood, and get the tickets before the train departs! This we managed to accomplish just as rain started to pour down…and we had to resume our ride to Milan in it. But it turned out to be a hoot! Sure there were puddles with more water then Australian reservoirs, and constant traffic, and we were unsure of the route…but we rode at 30kph, watched a funeral procession, passed our first Milanese prostitutes, zoomed past the stationary peak hour vehicles, found our way to our apartment accomodation without a hitch, and the McGuirks had some food shopping ready. Brilliant…Milano here we come!

Day 43, Sat 2 Jun – Milan

Sightseeing! Made more intriguing because it was a Festival of Sport weekend with lots of free activities and demonstrations. First up it was the famous Duomo/Cathedral. A little quirky that confessions were going on in full view of the hundreds of tourists wandering around but the parties involved didn’t seem to mind. Then it was gelatis and a gatecrashing entry to a ceremony to present a handful of famous Italian sportspeople with their membership of the National Sports’ Hall of Fame. Back to the better known Hall of Opera – La Scala. Lovely place of course, excellent museum, but the toilets were nothing special! Through the Victor Emmanuel gates and past the flash designer label shops, then watched the Italian Rugby Union team play a practice match against a Barbarian team. Returned home for tea before returning to the Piazza for La Scala orchestra to play a public concert for the Anniversary of the Italian Republic. Now this was ‘ssspppeeecial’ – topped off with a thumping finish to Ravel’s Bolero. Talk about being in the right place at the right time. Pity Elly missed it; at home with a sore throat and headache.

Day 44, Sun 3 Jun – Finish of the Giro d’Italia, Milan

More magic moments. With Jordy and Maggie in tow I took them in to the Duomo, got gelatis, entered a family olympics competition, and staked our spot at the finish line of the Giro by 2pm. The kids were rapt! Lusciuos ice-creams, some simple fun games; and a multitude of giveaways can make a kid’s heart sing – and mine! The olympics involved 10 activities including bocce, singing in chorus, and shooting a basketball. At the end of the day we noted we had come equal tenth out of over 200 families. And we saw the finish of the famous bike race – bang on the finish line, about 3m from slapping stage-winner Alessandro Petacchi on the back. Loaded with hats and other freebies we returned home to find the others, equally enthralled with their day at the races – and with even more stuff than us. The official packs of pink t-shirt, cap, sunnies etc plus some metres of Giro banner to be divided up like spoils from a sacked Roman Empire. Which it was when you come to think about it!

Day 45, Mon 4 Jun – Milan to Fidenza, 149km

One of our hottest days riding so far – 31 degrees. But we had an 8am start to try to beat the heat and the Milan traffic and did both successfully. It was the 10km on the edge of town that gave directional problems as you cannot necessarily follow the road signs when on a bike or you will end up on the autostrada. With help from an old man, and a couple of fellows cycling to work we ended up on a linking set of small rural roads through the flat agricultural plains of Lombardy. The wheat crops were approaching maturity whereas the maize had a long way to go. Met Poodge, Alex and the kids at Piacenza for lunch after crossing paths with what seemed like a Russian national cycling team – maybe they were Giro riders on a recovery ride, or their European training base was in the city? Rode to the spectacular fortified town of Castell’arquato before encountering another interesting cyclist on a real pilgrimage. A well publicised and travelled route called the Via Francigena [Frankish Route] goes from Canterbury in England to Rome through France and Switzerland, and its use has been documented since the tenth century. Our Path to Rome following Hillaire Belloc’s walk from eastern France in 1902 intersected this ‘Way of the Faith’ many times in Italy. Do a net search…it’s quite interesting.

Day 46, Tues 5 Jun – Fidenza to Busana, 105km

Sometimes when you wake up in the morning to a hearty breakfast you forget about the dramas of the previous day. When we arrived at Fidenza it was 6pm and we had no accomodation; Alex had missed her train back to Milan to see an opera with Cal at La Scala using her last minute cheap 20 euro ticket, and Poodge’s toilet bag seemed to have gone west when we were travelling south. But the sumptuous hotel breakfast bouyed our mood and we were off again. We ticked off the highlighted villages and towns on our marked map, had lunch at Calestano, before we hit the hills of Tuscany. They were tough in the afternoon heat but scenic. Our last climb of the day was a real killer; steep and high. But once we came down the other side there was a huge dinner of takeaway pizzas in a celebratory mood at the agritourismo lodge the support crew had found late in the day. As with most places it worked out at about 20 euros [Aus 30 dollars] per person including breakfast.

Day 47, Wed 6 Jun – Busana to Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, 70km

The weather changed for the worst; a few thundery showers late in the previous day turned to full on rain and a drop of fifteen degrees in temperature. What promised to be one of our more spectacular days cycling over the1580m pass into the Serchio River Valley became a wet slog with visibililty at about 100m. Initially it was enjoyable in a spartan way – we were on a very minor road and in 25km or so only the mail lady passed us. There was little wind so we could ride beside each other and chat to make the slow 8kph climb go a little more quickly. It was only nearing the top of the pass that we got a little frustrated with the conditions; and that was more to do with the ‘Ramisetto Ruse’ being played on us. This is a ploy first noticed yesterday on the climb to the hilltop town of Ramisetto; the Italian road authority plays with your mind on steep ascents by having roadsigns that denote a winding road for say 1.5km. Great you think, only a little way to go. You do the 1.5km and there is another one…then another…then another. We may be masochistic but they are sadistic! It was a testing 14km descent to Sillano – wet slippery road at 50kph, and the cold wind biting through our jackets. Lucky we met Saint Roberta of Sillano! We entered her grocery shop as she was about to close for lunch, shivering and hungry, and left her house an hour later still dripping wet, but warmer, well fed, and hot chocolated. Grazie mille Roberta!

Day 48, Thurs 7 June – Castelnuovo to Lucca, 57km

(Billy’s turn on the blog)

Our wet, cold bike shoes contrasted with the dry white toast we had for breakfast, and the already hot morning sun. The river-valley stretch provided a hoot as we cruised along often at 35km/h. The speed slowed considerably as we climbed upwards to Barga, renowned for its medieval centre. Conversed with our first Aussies since Reims when my chain came off, the South Australia shirt I got from the AIS at Varese sparked the question “Crows or Power?”, of course there is only one answer to this question; “what are you talkin’ about mate, there’s only one team; the mighty Bombers!” Aunty Poodge will probably remember Barga simply as “Bugger…….the bloody town where I got a parking ticket”. At the famous Pont di Magdalene close to Lucca we chatted with some friendly Canadians about our trek, they remarked on the perfect weather; too soon, as 5 minutes down the road the rain came down with a vengeance, complete with a sound and light show! Inside the intact walls of Lucca Dad and I did well to find accomodation at all, let alone one that would take all 10 of us – the Colley clan had caught up. Alfredo and his wife at La Torre B&B took us in with waving, open Italian arms. I took a stroll by myself around the town, and I reckon I went the whole way around too. A hint for walking Lucca, don’t try use a clock tower as your landmark; there are millions of them!

Day 49, Fri 8 June – Lucca, Pisa

The rest day was well deserved, we had not cycled 4 consecutive days this trip, and they were hardly easy days by themselves! But it wasn’t a ‘lie in bed all day’ kind of rest, we took the 11:00 bus to Pisa and were stunned on arrival; the leaning tower is in a huge grassy expanse with the Duomo and Baptistry, both amazing buildings in their own right. We had a lovely picnic in its shadow. Despite the thousands of tourists from around the globe and equal amount of harassing sunglass vendors it still felt very open. Dad and Aunty Poodge took Jordy (he for free) through the Duomo and Baptistry while Mum, Alex, Maggie and I walked through the town a bit, the guide book says Pisa is more than just its tower complex, but I didn’t see how someone came to that conclusion. Jordy lucked out and got to come up the bell-tower with Mum, Maggie and I, Dad was happy to save his money for cakes and wave to us from below. It is one of the modern wonders of the world; easliy justified. The climbing may not have been easy, but the view was worth the effort. Back in Lucca we had a fine restaraunt meal with Aunty Lisa, Uncle Nigel and Grandma, who had rested up during the day. In Lucca it was election time and one candidate had thrown a rock concert to woo voters. If not for one band, the free wine and music would not have won our support.

Day 50, Sat 9 June – Lucca to Tuscan Villa (Montechiaro), 133km

After another grand, home-made breakfast we waved goodbye to the crew at La Torre and hit the road again. Getting out of Lucca was typical of our efforts to leave most Italian cities; circuitous! Dad was struggling badly with a sore back that ‘twinges every time I put my left foot down’ and it turned his mood sour. I rode infront for a very long time. The heat and busy road were no fun, but by Certaldo trees began to line the road and the shade was very welcome; dad’s voice had returned too. Despite his state he still wanted to take the uphill detour to San Gimignano, one of Tuscany’s ‘must visit’ places. Inside the medieval town we bought a gelati from the 2006 national gold-medal gelateria but didn’t hang around too long. Quite a magnificent place, but still a long way away from the Villa. The 40 k’s to the Villa was broken every 20 minutes to let dad play dead fish on the side of the road. It may have have been slow work, but it made the Villa so much more attractive, and by our arrival at eight pm we didn’t have to unpack, shop or cook tea (method in dad’s madness?) Marja – Poodge’s Dutch friend – had arrived from Pisa airport and Ken and Monica had found their way from Geelong to Siena via Rome. The Villa took all 12 of us with ease, and the beautiful table made for a grand occasion at tea. For the adults, the celebratory champagne carried all of one thousand kilometres from Epernay was appropriatley popped.

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Filed under 2007, Rotterdam to Rome

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