As the deep-bass blast of the horn signaled our departure from Barcelona, an overwhelming sense of relief resonated through every fibre of my body. I was on my way at last. The overnight Grand Navi ferry that was to spirit us to Genova just shy of twenty hours was a rusting hull of a ship that had probably enjoyed its last lick of paint sometime back in the 1970s. The fact that it was proudly called the ‘Excellent’ seemed to add to its general aura of faded glory, now overtaken by air travel and the perpetual pursuit for speed. Still, the Excellent was no slouch and resolutely ploughed (and occasionally groaned) its way through the Mediterranean waves at a steady 40 knots per hour.
Waiting to be given the green light to roll off the ferry the following afternoon alongside the truckers seemed to be a fitting metaphor for the style of riding that cycle touring with a heavily loaded bike demands; it’s still cycling in the sense that you are creating forward motion with each turn of the pedals but there’s no getting away from the fact that you’re in control of a heavy goods vehicle. Momentum is all.
This of course does have its many advantages (especially downhill) but negotiating a safe passage out of Genova did pose its challenges. The first was not to get swept up by the fast-moving traffic onto the seemingly suicidal four-lane Autostrada where near death experiences surely awaited; performing U-turns on a two-wheeled HGV can be a tricky business on busy roads. A few pit stops to make the necessary adjustments to the gear, don the waterproofs, get the right bearings on the map and we left the grey concrete and drizzle of the city behind to enter the verdant coastline of the La Riviera Ligure di Levante.
There is no denying that some of hills have been pretty brutal on the uninitiated legs muscles so far but it is easy to forget the pain and become lost in the pleasure of passing through the lush scenery of the Cinque Terre (Five Villages) national park. Cycling along the undulating road that hugs the coastline and meanders through old rustic villages, sleepy harbour towns and pine forests has been nothing short of blissful. Terraced hills that plunge to the sea below offer the perfect climatic conditions for wine production in the region. Each balconied terrace on the hillside is supported by centuries-old dry walls that reflect the April sun’s gentle rays; accelerating the growth of the grapes. The cool air breezing up from the shoreline also provides the optimum weather for cycling and we soon got into the rhythm of grinding up the hills at a snail’s pace only to stop momentarily at the top to enjoy the sweeping views before charging down the other side at swift pace. The ringing of church bells became a tranquil metronome to the melody of birdsong as swallows dived and swooped through the olive orchards beside the road.
The icing on the cake were the free camp opportunities as the wooded hillside offered total seclusion – and peace of mind from the chance of being rumbled by passing walkers or farmers – and we managed to get three in the bag without too much effort. The reward at the end of a hard days cycle was a steaming mug of hot chocolate under the wooded canopy as stars twinkled through the trees on calm, moonless nights.
The succession of free camps did however take its toll and I was distinctly beginning to hum by the time we reached Pisa. So it was a good moment to book into a youth hostel and enter the domestic world again of warm showers, fresh bed linen and a kitchen to cook up some fresh slap-up pasta and pesto washed down with the ubiquitous vino rosso. In country where wine can be cheaper than water, even a one euro carton of the stuff tastes pretty good. Pisa is a quintessentially picturesque Italian, Roman-walled town. Forgive me for stating the obvious here but the freestanding Torre pendente di Pisa sure does lean. Precariously so. It’s like the whole structure has been rotated on a 30 degree angle and somehow seems to defy the law of gravity. Grandiose architecture aside, half of the fun is watching the hordes of tourists spending literally hours trying to line up their hands and bodies to achieve the classic illusion of ‘holding’ up the gleaming cylindrical arched structure from crashing to the ground. It’s an amusing scene as the prevailing vista is a field of people performing human statues, each striking a very similar angular pose.
The charm of Italy is already having its effect on me and for some reason the words of Johnny Nash keep coming into mind as the days begin to unfold in this stunningly beautiful country:
“I can see clearly now the rain has gone
I can can see all the obstacles in my way
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
It’s going to be a bright, bright sunshiny day
I think I can make it now the pain has gone
And all the bad feelings have disappeared
Here is the rainbow I’ve been waiting for
It’s going to be a bright, bright sunshiny day.”