Turin to Florence: hills for days

  

Friday 5th June

Miles: 57

Another blazing hot day, with temperatures as high as 32 degrees! 

We were out of our tent by 7.15AM (basically because it was hot) and were setting off by 8.40 – practically unheard of. 

We made the mistake of going to an enormous and hugely busy supermarket to get our supplies for the day, where I spent an age wandering around trying to find a pot of jam, and then made the further error of chancing it by queuing for the till which prioritised pregnant women and disabled people. How many pregnant women will there really be? I thought. Two as it turns out, both with large trollies. And a person on crutches. I only had myself to blame. 

Our hot and bothered state only increased as we passed through Turin where we encountered traffic, some trams which were a little too close for comfort and a lot of red lights. I’m sure Turin has lots of nice bits, but we didn’t really get to see them.

    
We exited Turin via a large hill. Eric had warned me that it was going to be big, but I had thought ‘No hill intimidates me. I am one half of the drag-your-tandem-over-the-Alps team!’ Well, this hill turned out to be an incline worthy of the Alps, but with the delightful addition of some ferocious Italian sunshine. It was 5 miles long at a 10% incline… buckets of sweat, cries of frustration as we turned corner after corner and saw yet more hill, sunshine beating down in daggers of hot pain. How dare this hill exist?!! Couldn’t we rest on our Alpine laurels for just one more day?

By lunchtime we were very, very hot. We found a bench in the shade and sprinkled copious amounts of salt on our orange. It didn’t taste great. 

After lunch the roads got a whole lot easier. The landscape became mercifully flat as we pedalled our way to Asti. 

One thing we have noticed about Italy is how friendly and chatty Italian people are. Since we’ve crossed the border we’ve had probably about 10 people approach us and ask us where we’re going and what we’re doing, with many more people honking their horns and waving, giving us the thumbs up or saying ‘Ciao’. Very different to England, where we all politely pretend to not notice one another. 

Our day ended in a nice campsite a few miles outside of Asti. After a long day on the bike, it’s amazing how something as simple as taking your shoes off can feel like heaven. 


Saturday 6th June

Miles: 30

The morning began with an Issue. At some point yesterday, unknown to us, the back tyre had finally given up the ghost. There was a big scrape and a hole along the tyre, which had probably occurred along one of the many bumpy roads we had cycled along the day before. And of course, the inner tube had deflated. 

We replaced the inner tube, patched the tyre with our tyre plaster and discussed our options. We would cycle to the next town and see if we could get a train from there to Genova, where we knew there was a Decathlon. 

We set off late because of the time it took to fix the wheel. The weather was scorching. The hills were long. Eric was Not Happy. 

We arrived in a town called Nizza Monferrati and after some searching found the train station. The ticket booths were all closed (of course, it was after all 10.30 on a Saturday!). There was one automatic ticket machine, but it didn’t show which trains had a bicycle carriage. Having been warned that they are now strict about this in Italy, we didn’t want to risk buying tickets we would be unable to use. We decided not to take a train. We would continue and hope that the tyre held. 

We cycled onwards through the rolling Italian countryside, full of chirping crickets and swathes of vineyards. It would have been delightful if it wasn’t for the imminent fear of tyre implosion. 

  
We arrived in the next town, Acqui Terme, without incident. Then we had a stroke of good luck – a bike shop! Eric did an admirable job of communicating with the bike shop owner through gesture and mime (which I’m told is a lost art) and we were soon the owners of a brand new mountain bike tyre – the only one he had which was fat enough for our bike. Interestingly, it has the word “LUST” on it, justified by an extremely forced acronym.

  
Outside the bike shop, waiting for our new tyre:

  
It was midday by this point and I was practically keeling over with hunger. We managed to find a supermacato in Acqui Terme (proving to be a very useful town), and I got in there just in time as it was about to close (of course, it being almost 1 o’clock on a Saturday. Really, Italy, really??). I will tell you something shocking – this reasonably large supermarket had no bread. Not a slice. Crazy. The closest thing I could find was a brioche, which had to do. We had brioche with ham. It’s not going to catch on. 

It was now 1.30, and we still had a very long way to go. We set off once more and resumed climbing the long hills in the hot, dead air. Oh it was tough. The hills were miles long, and according to the signposts were generally at 10%. We looked and felt like boiled lobsters. Halfway through the afternoon there was still a good 30 hilly miles between us and our target campsite in Genova. It was not looking good. 

Then along the road we saw this place.

  
‘Tempted?’ I said to Eric. 

We glimpsed the blue of a swimming pool through the trees and that settled it. I was sent off to investigate. 
I descended a little hill to a well-kept gated garden. I rang the bell and waited. An American woman appeared and I asked her if a room was available. She said they had one left. I asked the price. It was double what we would usually spend. I told her this was the case and she offered to make some calls for us to see if there was anywhere else. I followed her in to a wide, traditional-looking courtyard. I could see that this was a pretty fancy B&B. 

  
She asked me about our trip and was impressed that we had cycled all the way here. ‘Wait here one moment and I’ll make some calls,’ she said, before disappearing into a doorway. 

She appeared again a moment later. ‘As you’ve come so far… I could offer you the room at a discount. But don’t tell anyone! I never do this!’ she said. She named a price. I said thank you, yes, we’ll take it. 

Maybe 15 minutes later we were in the swimming pool!

  
That evening the owner, whose name was Sarah, her husband and some of the other guests gathered together for dinner. We gathered around the clay oven and took it in turns to make pizza.

   

 
There was fresh salad, lamb with rosemary, bread, cheese and wine made from the surrounding vineyard, which Sarah’s husband kept. The other guests were either Italian or American. We managed to chat with the Italians in French (I say “we” as in the royal we. Eric did most of the talking) and the Americans were completely intrigued by what we were doing, and seemed to find the whole idea hilarious! 

We turned in at 10.30, full of pizza and a little bit of wine, ready to enjoy sleeping in a real bed. Ahh. 


Sunday 7th June

Miles: 36

Let me tell you what I had for my B&B breakfast: fruit salad, dried prunes, yoghurt, apricot tart, muesli, pancakes with syrup, toast with jam, toast with honey, toast with Nutella and some orange juice. I could have gone for more but Eric had stopped eating at this point, so I thought it was time to put a lid on the bottomless pit and get going. 

We set off feeling not just physically but mentally refreshed. After a bit of relaxing and a change of pace yesterday our moods had noticeably lifted. We spent the morning going gradually uphill, a month ago it would have been very tough, but now we’re used to hills and can plod away, having a chat as we go. 

  
Around lunch time we once again caught a supermarket just before it was closing, and once again there was no bread, or fresh food at all. In a moment of inspiration I picked up a box of magnums. Voila – lunch. 

After lunch we passed through some pretty little villages/towns.

  
Then we hit a mega hill again. We eventually ended up at about 700 metres above sea level, looking up at 1200 metre peaks. It makes you realise how un-hilly England is, as this is taller than Ben Nevis, but is nothing special for Italy!

Somewhere along this hill we hit an overall distance of 2000 miles (or two oh oh oh my as I hilariously refer to it). As we were halfway up a hill we just kept pedalling, probably a fitting way to mark the occasion. 

We reached the summit and passed through a tunnel, and on the other side… was our first view of the sea in weeks!

  
We then descended for miles and miles until we reached sea level. We cycled along the coastline of Pegli, a town on the outskirts of Genova, before turning slightly inland to find our campsite. 

   
 

We spent the evening washing our clothes by hand, quite an arduous task! Let’s hope they dry by the morning, as apparently some thunderstorms are on the way.


Monday 8th June

Miles: 44

Despite a few booms of thunder in the night we woke to another scorching sunny day. 

After being ripped off by the campsite (26 euros!!) we began the morning by cycling through Genova. It was an interesting place to pass through. We cycled along 3 lane roads, full of scooters and mopeds and cars with engines that sounded like old men clearing their throats. You could smell the pollution, the sea, the heat and the occasional whiff of rubbish. The buildings were all painted yellow, orange and pink, and there seemed to be a fruit shop every 100 metres. We both quite enjoyed it.

    
After a stressful stop at a supermarket, where I must have waited almost 20 minutes for the one person managing the cheese, ham and bread counter to get to me, we began to think that supermarkets in Italy are not the best way to get food. We stopped at a greengrocers instead and the service, quality and price were so much better. 

We may have had our best view yet for our lunch stop today: a bench overlooking the sea: 

 
After lunch we hit the coastal hills. They were steep, long ascents, usually in the full glare of the sun. We saw some really beautiful views, but oh boy did we have to earn them.

      
The worst thing was, every time we reached the summit of a hill we would come all the way back down to the sea again, keeping none of the height we had worked so hard for. Then it was onto the next hill, and up we would go again…

    
I had no idea that the coast of Northern Italy is so beautiful. It’s absolutely glorious. However, unless you like pain, or have thighs like pistons, don’t do it by bike!

    
By mid-afternoon it was 35 degrees! I began to get the boiled lobster feeling again. We drenched ourselves in water and this helped. At 3.30 we descended another handlebar-gripping hill, and at the bottom treated ourselves to a cold drink and an icecream. After that it was just another few miles to our campsite in Sestri Levante and a well-earned shower. 

More hills tomorrow. Oh boy… 


Tuesday 9th June

Miles: 51

The day began with another thorough ripping off from our campsite – 35 euros! That’s 3 and a half times more expensive than some of the campsites in France. Once we were on the bike we complained to each other a lot (having of course smiled nicely and said ‘Grazie’ when the campsite staff handed us the bill). 

We soon needed our breath for other things, however, such as the Goliath of a hill plonked inconveniently in our way. It was a hill that just kept giving… round and round, up and up… we plodded for 2 hours, rising up 650 metres over 10 miles. 

    
Unlike yesterday, where we were getting pretty tired of the inclines, we were feeling fresh and didn’t mind it too much. Instead we felt happy that we’d cycled it. In retrospect. 

  
Then, wheeeeeee! Down we went, thinking ‘Maybe we should check the brake pads one of these days’. 

We appeared to be cycling in the middle of nowhere today, and as a result hadn’t seen a single supermarket all morning. Around midday we did spot a truck selling fruit, so today’s lunch was 2 bananas, half a melon and some leftover biscuits. We still haven’t gotten into the swing of finding food in Italy. 

After the mega hill we cycled along a pretty river, following it downstream. 

  
Then a long, straight road took us back to the sea and a super flat coastal path (blissful after so many days of hills!). 

Waiting for us was an excellent campsite in Massa, at a very reasonable price of 15 euros, with free internet and electricity included, plus a complimentary table and 2 chairs! 


Wednesday 10th June

Miles: 55

In the spirit of embracing the hundreds of fruit stalls in Italy, and also in the spirit of not eating a bag of biscuits every single day, we decided to experiment with a fruitarian breakfast this morning, and each consumed: 2 bananas, half a blood orange, 1 and a half kiwis and a massive pear. We also had an apple each but neither of us could manage it (well I said I couldn’t manage it, Eric said he was ‘saving it for later’)

We were up and off by 8.45, as we were hoping to make an extended lunchtime stop at Pisa (as in: that there wonky tower). 

We cycled along a flat coastal road which eventually turned inland. Easy cycling, but not that interesting. 

A sculpture we passed on the way.

  
The guy who we think was the artist/owner said ‘Give me yours!’ as we cycled past. 

We arrived at Pisa by 11.30 – at which point I got a stomach ache – too much fruit! Eric of the cast iron stomach was fine, and even hankering for a melon (urgh!). I ate some biscuits (back to familiar territory) and this seemed to help. 

Here it is:

  
Everyone, and I mean everyone, was doing the pose… you know the one, like they’re holding up the tower. 
I kind of hated myself for doing this, but at the same time… I should really just lighten up and enjoy it. Here’s the photo:

  
And a couple more:

    
More importantly, I was very insistent that we had pizza for lunch, so that I could say… 

We had pizza in Pisa.

I’m just a sucker for this dim kind of wordplay. And here’s the money shot, folks:

  
Eric eating a pizza… and what’s that in the background? Why, the tower of Pisa!!

I’m picturing a tumbleweed rolling through your mind’s eye right now. I’ll move on. After lunch it was a mere 20 miles to our campsite in Castelfranco di Sotto, which is not too many miles from our next destination of Florence. 

  
We finally had the long-promised thunderstorm today, which left the air much clearer and cooler. Thanks to Eric’s storm-sensing powers (“What is it, Skippy?”) we got the tent up just in time by a matter of seconds! 


Thursday 11th June

Miles: 40

Today we cycled to Florence. Let me diverge from the general narrative for a moment to tell you about the time I didn’t visit Florence…

I was 14. I was on holiday with my family in Tuscany. We were staying in a caravan in August, and you couldn’t fan your face without breaking a sweat. Mum and Dad planned a day trip to Florence. Me and my sister insisted that we didn’t want to go and were going to spend the day by the swimming pool instead. Our parents left us to it and (apparently) spent a wonderful day in one of Italy’s most beautiful cities. We hung around by a swimming pool (probably not one of Italy’s most beautiful swimming pools). Ever since this day, our parents have used this as an “Oh, the folly of youth”/weren’t you silly not to visit Florence anecdote. 

Well Mum and Dad, I’ve given up my job and CYCLED to Florence. Who’s the most committed to seeing Florence now??! 

Back to today’s events. After cycling for so many days in a row, and still a bit hungover from the Alps, we were both longing for a break from the bike. This feeling always gets to us most on the last leg of the journey, when the end is in sight. 

Today’s cycling wasn’t really too difficult, a lot of it was along reasonably flat, quiet winding roads, but in our knackered state we found it quite tough. 

A slightly interesting thing which happened today was that while we were eating lunch we were witnesses to an epic battle.

  
While we munched on a cheese sandwich these two lizards thrashed about, choking one another violently by the throat. Eric wanted to break them up, but I’ve watched enough nature documentaries to know that even if the baby elephant is dying from lack of a banana and you have a banana in your breast pocket, You Must Not Interfere.*

‘No Eric,’ I said sagely. ‘We must let nature take its course.’ 

Plus it was entertaining. 

After the gladiatorial lizard show was over we cycled on, and rolled into our campsite at just after 2 in the afternoon. 

On the way into Florence:

  
The rest of the day was spent doing practical stuff, relaxing a bit and eating our first gelato (three scoops: triple chocolate, yoghurt and blackberry. It was good). 

*Of course in reality I would give the baby elephant at least half of my banana. I’m not a monster! 

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