We decided to cover the 110 mile journey to Pavia (just outside Milan) over three “easy” days so we wouldn’t arrive too early for my epic train journey back home for the weekend from Milan for a friend’s wedding.
The first “easy” day is the reason I keep saying “easy” in double-quotations. It was probably one of the hardest days we’ve had so far. We were aiming for the town of Asti, just 39 miles away. Thinking we had all the time in the world with only a couple of hours of cycling ahead of us, we set off unusually late, after 10. After leaving the campsite on the hill, we were highly unimpressed that the GPS was directing us back up the groaningly steep slope so we made the cocky decision to outsmart the stupid bike computer and take an alternative route up a slightly longer but more gradual incline. This was the one big mistake that we’d both regret for the next 5 hours!
After about 40 minutes of cycling up the hill which got steeper and steeper as we went, the sign that greeted us at the summit made both our stomachs sink: “Bikes not allowed”. In hindsight, we should have listened to the GPS which kept telling us to turn round. We cursed our foolish attempt to avoid the initial hill, turned around and started back down in the direction we’d come. Our second mistake was that after about 10 minutes, trying to avoid going right back to the beginning of our journey, we thought we’d take a little “short cut” along a track. I’m sure you can guess why “short cut” has its own double quotations.
The track was incredibly steep and eventually turned into a stoney, root and mud filled track cutting through woods on either side. It got so steep, rocky and almost vertical that it was impossible to pedal. We ended up pushing our bikes up the track, pigheadedly refusing to turn back as “we’d come too far now”. Pushing our insanely heavy bikes up that track is one of the hardest, sweatiest things I’ve ever done. Noises were coming out of my mouth that I’ve only ever heard in the (men’s) weight section of the gym. Grrrrrrunt. Hurrrmph. Along with a few words that I won’t repeat here.
After a while, the track flattened out slightly so we jumped back on our bikes. At a crossroads, we stopped to look at a hiking map where two Italian mountain bikers, riding full-suspension bikes with big gnarly tyres, were stood catching their breath. We choose our route – up another dirt path. As we started in that direction, one of the bikers tried to warn us against the route we’d picked with the universal vertical hand motion that signifies an extremely steep hill. Thinking it couldn’t possibly be any worse than the hill we’d just heaved our bikes up, we shrugged off his concerns. He looked sceptical but (I think encouragingly) repeated the words “grande, grande”.
Whist we were right that the hill couldn’t get any worse, we were wrong to think that it would get any better. We cycled when we could and pushed when we couldn’t for quite a while. For me, the low point of the day came when Nev had managed to conquer one particularly steep and bumpy section and was waiting for me at the top. With all the weight of my luggage over the back wheel, I was really struggling to get any kind of traction on the front; every time I turned the pedals the front wheel would lift and come off the ground, the back of my bike would skid about and I’d almost lose my balance.
Having seen Nev get to the top on his bike, I was starting to get angry with myself for clearly being such a spoon and the final straw came when the two guys we’d seen earlier sped past us on their mountain bikes, as if it was the easiest thing in the world. This is when I did my first little cry of the trip. It only lasted a minute and was more out of frustration with myself than anything else. I’d been wondering where my limit was and it turned out to be that terrible track. Sob, sob, sob. Did I mention it was over 35 degrees at this point?
Anyway, slightly embarrassing drama over, we eventually managed to get back onto a normal road where I professed my undying love for tarmac and its lovely, lovely smooth skin. As we continued up the hill, a cyclist going the other way shouted to us “grande, grande” – those (encouraging?) words again!
At the top of the giant hill was the site of the impressive looking church Basilica di Superga. Nev being Nev, he obviously took a picture of the old Camaro at the top, rather than the church. At least you can still see the church in the background.
The place was crowded with other cyclists having a rest but none of them had panniers on and I suspect few had come the ridiculous way we had. Amusingly, we’d somehow managed to arrive at the top just before the two mountain bikers we’d seen earlier. They looked impressed and repeated “grande, grande” again as we cycled past.
It may have been an impressive feat that we’d made it to the top but we’d only managed to cover a less-than-impressive 8 miles in over 2 hours of cycling! The rest of the journey was, thankfully, pretty flat and 5 hours after leaving Turin on our “easy” 39 mile day we arrived at the campsite which oddly had a special sink just for washing fish! We had tea on a mushroom picnic bench and all was right with the world once more.
The next day was much more civilised. There were no mountains, no dodgy short cuts and no weeping with frustration. It was a speedy and flat 30 miles to the next campsite at Alessandria.
It can’t be much more than a week since we crossed the border into Italy, but we’ve both already got a serious Italian coffee addiction. At just over 2EUROS for a coffee with a pastry, the coffee culture here is just too good (and far too cheap and tasty) to avoid, so we stopped at a sweet little village along the way to fuel our habit.
About 5 miles from the campsite, a Chinese Italian man noticed we were heading in the direction of the campsite and cheerily told us to follow him there.
When we got there, as was now becoming usual with campsites in Italy, the reception was closed for a hours over lunch. We had a look around and got extremely excited when we saw this sign with a picture of a roller boot on it, thinking there may be a roller disco on site.
Sadly, there was no roller disco, but the campsite did have its own little chapel, which was pretty cute.
The third and final day to Pavia was a fairly similar 40 mile cycle on flat roads passing through rustic towns and farmland. When I say farmland, I mean literally… we somehow ended up cycling along a tractor trail at the edge of a field for a while, the farmer in his tractor looking perplexed as he passed us on the road at the other side of a massive ditch.
As you would imagine, it’s hard to avoid the influence of Catholicism in Italy; we’ve seen quite a few (for want of a better word) “shrines” dotted along the roads, as well as small marble gravestones decorated with rosary beads and flowers.
Along with the symbols of Catholicism, we’ve also been intrigued by the funny looking and overly complex road signs we’ve seen along the way. We saw so many funny ones that we turned it into a game. Here’s a few we deciphered:
Man in tank with digger attachment.
Side verge made of Malteasers.
Designer gone wild with photoshop stamp tool.
Well, we have to keep ourselves amused somehow!
When we arrived at the campsite in Pavia, it was pretty much deserted which meant we had our own private pool to have some fun with the (almost) waterproof camera and got a lovely, super quiet night’s sleep.